An Atheist’s Moral Lessons for Children

An Atheist’s Moral Lessons for Children August 13, 2018

I hear Richard Dawkins is writing two new books on atheism, one for kids and one for teenagers. Although I’m no longer the fan of his I once was, I do think this is something atheists should be doing: making a full-court press for the goodness and value of atheism for everyone, not just in academic or philosophical tracts. I might check these books out from the library myself, so long as he doesn’t insert some of his greatest hits – say, an excerpt from “Dear Muslima”.

However, some Christian apologists are hopping mad about the idea. As far as they’re concerned, they’re the only ones who should be allowed to teach their beliefs and values to young people. Such is this post by Laura Perrins on The Conservative Woman, a British site which proves that anti-gay, anti-feminist, creationist, theocratic Christianity unfortunately isn’t limited to America. Here’s how it begins:

Quite what will be in these books, God only knows. Atheism is that odd faith that says there is no God, so perhaps the pages will be blank to reflect the emptiness of it all, the sheer nothingness of this belief that maintains life came from non-life, organisation came out of chaos, consciousness came out of non-consciousness and reason came out of irrationality.

This response starts out on an odd tack: the author guffaws, “ho ho ho, what could possibly be in this book, atheists don’t believe in anything”… without asking what’s in the book. If you read it yourself, you’ll see that she feels it acceptable, and trusts her readership will also find it acceptable, to snigger at books whose contents she doesn’t know and apparently doesn’t want to know.

Although this post is meant to be satirical, it reveals a true moral failing of its author. How would apologists like this treat an atheist who sneered that he didn’t need to know anything about the Bible to know it was all rubbish? Why should they expect good faith from their critics if they’re not willing to extend the same courtesy in return?

Indeed, they will make spiffing Christmas gifts, not that any of the young recipients should be celebrating Christmas and all its traditions that mark the birth of Christ.

Looks like we’ve found another Christian who doesn’t know that Christians didn’t invent Christmas.

The winter solstice has been a day of celebration, feasting and merrymaking across many cultures and thousands of years. It makes sense that ancient people would choose it, since it’s an inflection point in the rhythm of our natural world. But the medieval church adopted it as their own, put their own gloss on its traditions and then tried to claim the whole thing was their idea all along – and even today, many Christians are happy to go along with the deception.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised to find this kind of ignorance in a writer who takes an eyes-shut, fingers-in-ears approach toward beliefs that differ from her own. But it’s something else altogether to demonstrate that you don’t even know your own religious history.

One can only guess at what kind of values these two delightful books will attempt to impart to the next generation. It certainly will not be the cardinal values of prudence, temperance, justice and fortitude, for we know these are all hogwash. Of course, many atheists display these virtues in abundance, often to a greater extent than some Christians, but this is because these people continue to live off the last remnants of a Christian society.

…Overall NHS data obtained by the Times reveals that one in six adults in England used antidepressants last year, an increase of almost half a million since 2015. So, yes, you can lecture me on the difference between causation and correlation, but overall we can see the move to a post-Christian society is going well.

Like Peter Hitchens before her, this writer thinks that atheists are hypocritically using Christian morality while rejecting the theology that justifies it.

To answer this, let’s leave aside the massive arrogance of pretending that virtues like “justice” are something Christians invented, which is an even more ludicrous claim than the idea that Christians invented Christmas. (Code of Hammurabi, anyone?)

Let’s also set aside the bizarre idea that you can gauge the health of a society over time by counting how many people are on antidepressants. This isn’t confusing causation with correlation, it’s a more basic error: confusing the existence of a treatment with the existence of the problem it’s meant to treat. This is like saying people didn’t get cancer until we invented chemotherapy, or that marital rape didn’t happen until we passed laws against it. How many people in ye olde days of glorious Christian theocracy were depressed but had to suffer in silence?

I want to give a more substantive answer. I want to address Perrins’ bewilderment about what kind of values an atheist can teach the next generation, both to illustrate that we have values of our own and that they differ in meaningful ways from the generations of religious believers who preceded us. So, here’s what I believe, and here’s what I want to teach my son:

I’m going to teach him the value of tolerance and equality for everyone under the law. I want him to understand that everyone should be treated fairly, and that no one should be discriminated against because they look different, speak different languages, come from different places, love differently or have different family arrangements.

Clearly, this is not a virtue that Christianity can claim for itself. Under Christian cultures, racism, xenophobia, and bigotry toward the outsider flourished for centuries, and both men and women lived under the shadow of strict gender roles that decreed how they should relate to each other, how they should express their emotions, and what they should aspire to do with their lives. Almost all the progress we’ve made in this area was made by defeating Christian opposition, and in many cases, after the moral victory was complete, the church tried to take credit for the outcome it fought to prevent.

I’m going to teach my son about freedom of thought and freedom of speech. As opposed to Christians and other theists who say that you’re a bad person and should be punished just for having certain thoughts or for asking uncomfortable questions, I intend to teach my son that you’re free to think whatever you want, to ask whatever questions you have, and to say what’s on your mind. It’s people who’ve dared to question injustice, and to follow their curiosity wherever it leads, who are responsible for all the progress humanity has made over the ages.

I’m going to teach my son that morality can only be measured by its effects in this world. Too many religious rules claim there’s another, invisible world, and even though we can’t see or touch this world, we’re supposed to take it on faith that it vastly outweighs this one in importance. I say that apologetics like this one are incredibly dangerous, because they can be used to justify literally any act, good or evil. Trying to build a consistent morality on this illusionary basis is like trying to erect a house on a foundation of shifting sand. I want my son to understand that making people happy here and now, not in some unknown afterlife, is the only moral principle that matters.

I happen to think these principles add up to a more beneficial and desirable ethical worldview than the one taught by traditional forms of religion, and that still makes fundamentalists upset. My Patheos colleague Luciano Gonzalez wrote about an atheist’s positive message for children, which attracted an angry response from no less than Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis:

“Of course, the ‘positive’ message this atheist didn’t tell kids is that it’s positively true that you will all die. From an atheist’s perspective, you die, then know nothing, and will not even know you existed, so the article is meaningless — like atheism,” Ham said.

Although ideologues like Ken Ham will never admit this, meaning is no less real because it’s temporary. If anything, life is more meaningful, valuable and precious because it ends. It’s precisely because there’s no other world, where all evils can be recompensed at our leisure, that it’s so important to get things right in this one.

If anything, theologies like Ham’s are far worse. They’d have us teach kids that, if they don’t believe and behave exactly as instructed, they’ll be sent to eternal torture. What’s more, they teach that kids can expect many of their friends and loved ones to suffer this nightmarish fate. This is a message more violent, scary and traumatizing than the atheist message that death is a peaceful dissolution into nonexistence, which we have no more reason to fear than the unconsciousness of sleep we experience every night. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a profoundly comforting and moral message to give to the next generation.

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