Letters to My Daughters #8: “The Silver Lining in Your Situation”

Letters to My Daughters #8: “The Silver Lining in Your Situation” April 28, 2014

halfemptyAs you girls wrestle with the realization that I no longer agree with or accept so many things which I was taught to believe, and which you yourselves are being taught to believe, at some point you may feel a bit like you’ve been cheated out of a more harmonious family situation.  It would be so much simpler if, like many of your friends you’re growing up with, your parents both saw eye-to-eye on most things.  I agree, it would be simpler.  But I’m not convinced that means it’s necessarily better.  I’ll grant that it’s usually better when everyone can live under the same roof; but whether or not that’s an option, I see a potentially great benefit in having two parents who think very differently about things, provided that they can express their differences in a mutually respectful and caring way.  The reason why this is a good thing is that nobody’s got everything figured out, which means that our job as parents isn’t to teach you what to think; our job is to teach you to think…period.  Our task isn’t about programming you with all the right answers to everything (despite what your school’s testing obsession seems to suggest).  Our job is to show you what’s out there, and to teach you how to navigate it for yourselves.

On such a lifelong journey it can be a great asset that in your own family you find more than one way of looking at the world.  That’s something a lot of children don’t get.  I see this as an advantage you’ve been given rather than a disadvantage.  I realize not everyone would see it this way, because I know some people who think they’ve got it all figured out.  They’ll never put it that way, of course, but the more I talk with them the more I discover that they are closed off to learning anything new.  They have closed their minds because they believe any change in perspective would require letting go of something they’ve been taught is perfect…unimprovable.  But this has never been my view, and I don’t think it’s your mother’s either.

Even when I was still a “believer,” I was always mindful of the fact that people get things wrong.  Even if someone or something were to perfectly explain some truth to us, we still could misunderstand what we’ve been told.  So none of us has it all figured out.  No matter what the subject, there will always be a margin of error.  There will always be room to learn more, or revise what we think in light of new information.  Never forget that at one point in history, the faithful were convinced that the earth is stationary, that the sun and stars revolve around us, and that no less than God himself told them this.  For what it’s worth, there was also a time when men of science and medicine were convinced that “night air” was bad for you and that some personality flaws could be traced back to having too much phlegm (i.e. spit) in your body.  What this should remind us is that we are always learning, and that even the things we think we know today we might be looking at the wrong way.  Someday we will likely look back on a great many things we think today and think, “How ridiculous was that?  I can’t believe people ever thought that!”

So please don’t despair or be ashamed that your parents have grown to look at the world in two very different ways.  We’re both intelligent people, and passionate about seeking truth.  The fact that we didn’t wind up seeing things the same way should alert you girls to the very real possibility that you, too, could revise what you think about many things as time goes on.  I for one am contented with the knowledge that the two people you look up to the most in life aren’t identical in their views.  I see a valuable lesson in that.  I hope that as you get older, you won’t ever look down on other people the way some people do simply because they think they know better than everyone else.  I hope you embrace the very real possibility that there might be something to learn from people who are very different from you.  Or at least, if nothing else, you might think twice before belittling or disrespecting someone else just because they see the world differently from how you personally see it.


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  • ctcss

    Nicely stated Neil. And as long as parents don’t ask for the loyalty of the children (at the expense of the other partner), and encourage their children to learn and decide for themselves (pointing out that it is quite expected for people to pursue divergent paths as they try to figure things out in life), things should work out quite nicely.

    My family was far from perfect, but my dad (who occasionally drank socially, smoked, and was not very religious) and my mom (who didn’t drink or smoke, and who was very religious) supported one another. She was grateful for his support, and he respected what she was doing. So we kids were raised religiously and my dad stayed at home, only on extremely rare occasions going to church. But much later on in life, he decided that he agreed with the religious outlook the rest of us were following. And that came about simply because he had the opportunity to make up his own mind. And we, as children, also made up our own minds as to what we wanted to pursue. There were no threats of hellfire or punishment. Our religion was presented as something to find out about and explore. And through exploring it and examining it, we made our decision as to whether or not to continue in it.

    Mutual love and respect go a long way toward making families and friends into solid relationships. The point should not be to want to control other people’s lives, but to honestly and lovingly be there for them when they need a helping hand.

  • Yet another great letter. I especially like this quote: “…our job as parents isn’t to teach you what to think; our job is to teach you to think…period.” I just became a father a little over a year ago, and I can tell you right now that I will always love and accept my son no matter what his beliefs are. I just hope he arrives at those beliefs on his own and not by following a certain group of people.

  • MIchael E

    The problem is that Christians sincerely believe that they are teaching children the right way. They do not value open-mindedness the way skeptics do. Their DNA is to convince children and others around them to convert to their way of thinking. Anything else is just not right.

  • Patrick

    I think you’ve taken the “long view” on this issue, and that is clearly the right choice. Let them figure it out for themselves, teach them how to think, etc. It plays to the strength of your argument: logic and reason. In fact, it’s all about framing the question. Or even asking the question…

    I would say having one atheist parent is more or less the death knell for religion within the family over time. Or, rather, it greatly increases the chances the children will grow up agnostic on religion. Someone within the family has said the Emperor has no clothes, and that is enough for everyone to take a second look. At that point, Pandora’s box is wide open, all bets are off.

    It’s never a certainty, and you are living in the heart of the Christian cult. Cults have their own warped logic, and they fight fiercely against the introduction of critical thinking. I think the leaders of cults know to go down that path leads to destruction. Hence, be prepared for a lot of irrational pushback against “reason”.

  • Patrick

    On a related note, I recall a professor telling my class that the greatest words ever written on a map were “Terra Incognita.”

    During the late Middle Ages, when map making was just coming into its own, the tendency was to draw maps based more on fantasy than reality. Educated Europeans knew the world was round, but so much had yet to be discovered by them. So they gave these unknown lands names and drew wild creatures on them, invented stories of who lived there and how, and people believed.

    But then some rogue map maker had the balls to admit he had no clue what was out there, it was a huge blank, and hence he labeled it as such: Terra Incognita. And then the race was on to, in Shakespeare’s words, “give to airy nothing a local habitation and a name.”

    But the first step was being honest to ourselves that we just don’t really know.

  • ctcss

    I would say having one atheist parent is more or less the death knell for religion within the family over time. Or, rather, it greatly increases the chances the children will grow up agnostic on religion.

    I would think it matters more as to how each parent sets an example of their respective beliefs and pathway. A person who is principled, intelligent, supportive, patient, loving, compassionate, and wise is very likely to command respect and admiration, whether they are a believer or a non-believer. So the child who is blessed with two parents of such natures is likely to want to learn why each approaches life the way they do. At which point, the child may choose a pathway for themselves that seems to offer the most benefits.

    As to whether that pathway would be believing or non-believing all depends on what the child finds in their own journey.

  • Beautifully expressed I like the way you praise their mother as an intelligent seeker of truth. It shows respect for her views. Your daughters are fortunate to have you as a father.

  • Well, she is both of those things. That’s what drew us together in the first place. Unfortunately, sometimes sharing a mutual goal doesn’t ensure that you will end up the same place.

  • Great letter. If I may give you some reaffirmation that everything will work out fine. Coming from a home that had two very strong and different personalities living under the same roof I think it sometimes is easier when the views are not all together. The fights we had to witness as kids was not fun, needles to say the parents have now gone seperate ways. They stayed together for the kids, and it did cause some trauma for my siblings.

  • Patrick

    Actually, it seems the most important factor in determining whether your kids will be religious later in life is………. their genes… It’s mainly genetic. How you raise your kids has a much smaller impact on their later religiosity.

    That is fairly shocking. See here for more: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-science-imagination/201308/how-you-raise-your-kids-doesnt-affect-religion-much

  • ctcss

    I read the article and the addendum, but I still wonder just what they meant by raising a child religiously. It’s one thing to take a child to church. It’s another thing altogether to teach the subject in a helpful way. I am not very impressed with the general understanding of many people (both teachers and students) when it comes to religion. A good teacher (one who both understands the subject and can help a student grasp what it is all about) is a rarity in my experience. Ask yourself how many truly outstanding teachers you remember from any part of your secular education. Ineptly taught religion isn’t likely to make much of an impression on a person IMO. Any sufficiently complex area of knowledge requires good teaching, otherwise it will just pass by and largely be forgotten IMO.

    Also, this quote from the addendum

    This was religiosity as measured by “religious leisure time interests,” as opposed to “religious occupational interests.”

    makes me wonder about the study as well. Obviously there is a difference between someone who is employed as a minister and someone who is not. But the idea that religion is merely a leisure time interest suggests that the person doing the study didn’t really have a grasp on what religion is all about, at least IMO. If religion is viewed as being merely an optional, surface level affectation, that’s not religion as I know it. It’s supposed to be something life-altering (for the good), and I don’t see how it can be approached in simply a leisure time kind of way. (If that phrase meant something else, that’s another thing, but it just strikes me as being an all too common concept regarding what religion is supposed to be all about.)