I was raised an evangelical Christian. I went through a time of questioning while in college and I ultimately found myself an atheist. The hardest part of my deconversion was the way my parents treated me as a result. My parents could not say “We disagree with you and think you are wrong, but you are entitled to your own beliefs and we respect that.” Instead, my entire relationship with my parents imploded over their belief that their beliefs and their beliefs alone were acceptable.
In other words, it was my parents’ conviction that my beliefs should not be tolerated that destroyed our relationship, not our difference in beliefs. It was their belief that there was only one acceptable form of belief that drove us apart. It was there inability to respect our differences that left me feeling like I no longer had a mother or a father.
My parents had an unwavering certainty that their beliefs were not only true but also the only acceptable beliefs, and that all those who believed differently were hedonistic and selfish and in thrall to Satan. There was no middle ground, no place for us to agree to disagree. I was either in their club, or I was out in the cold. The thing is, this pattern isn’t limited to the religious—atheists can do it too. As Wendy of Natural Wonders puts it:
For the purposes of my book, Relax, It’s Just God, which comes out in February (yes, you just witnessed shameless self-promotion), I define indoctrination as the halfway mark between simple suggestion and full-on brainwashing. You can be reasonably sure you are indoctrinating your kids if you teach them:
1. Your way is the only right way to believe. In this context, right means good; it does not necessarily mean true. This is because most people assume that what they believe is true — and there’s nothing wrong with that. But truth doesn’t always equate with benevolence or decency. In other words, it’s okay to think other people’s beliefs are wrong; it’s another to assume they’re bad.
2. People who disagree with your beliefs are less moral, less intelligent or less worthy of your respect. This concept moves past personal belief to actively disparaging people who see the world a different way, thus suggesting to children that those who believe differently are “lesser than” in a universal sense.
All of this is to preface a discussion of a recent blog post by Kaveh Mousavi—Why I Will Teach My Children that Religion is Nonsense.
Well, I’m not a parent, yet, although I really wish to be. And when I’m going to teach them about religion, I’m just going to inform them that religion is nonsense. I’ve seen many atheists talking about teaching religion to their children, and it usually involves not teaching them about religion, or some kind of complex way of teaching children about religion without indoctrinating them. Now, I’m here to offer my humble suggestion: just tell them that it’s bogus and move on.
I understand the sentiment behind this. Indoctrination is bad. Some atheists don’t want to think for their children, they want to focus on teaching them tolerance and critical thinking. It’s very respectable. But ultimately, I’m not convinced.
First of all, I am trying to raise children who are critical thinkers able to understand a variety of positions and form their own beliefs. Telling them straight-up that religion is “nonsense” short-circuits this. Instead, when religion comes up in conversation with my five-year-old, Sally, I say something along these lines: “I don’t think there is a god, or a supernatural world. Other people disagree. What do you think?” Or, “Some people believe that after Jesus died he came back alive again, conquering death. I don’t think this happened, because I don’t think people can come back alive again once they are fully dead. What do you think?” This sort of question opens the door to interesting conversations that will not take place if the opening line is: “Religion is nonsense.”
I tell Sally other things, too. For example: “People like to tell stories to try to understand the world. Some of these stories actually happened, and some did not. Sometimes stories that did not actually happen can still tell us things, or mean things.” I talk about why people create religions, and why religions matter to people. There are questions like this: “Why do you think people like the idea of someone ‘conquering death’? Why do you think people tell stories about this? Are there stories about conquering death in other religious traditions, too?” I have read Sally myths from a variety of religious traditions, and I read to her about the histories and rituals of different religions. I make it clear what I believe, what others believe, and why. In other words, I don’t tell her what to believe, but I don’t hide my beliefs either.
This is what Kaveh calls a “complex way of teaching children about religion without indoctrinating them.” It is part of my focus on teaching my children tolerance and critical thinking—a focus Kaveh says he finds unconvincing. In sum, I focus on teaching empathy and critical thinking rather than on teaching any specific religious belief or lack thereof. I find how my children treat others and themselves more important than what they do or do not believe about the supernatural.
Let’s turn again to Kaveh’s blog post:
First of all, I think religion deserves no more respect than all the bogus scams polluting the world. I’m sure I’m not going to give more weight and respect to religion than astrology, homeopathy, anti-vax movement, positive thinking, and all the other superstitions. Just by giving more weight to religion in comparison to the other nonsense, I’m being complicit in the religious hegemony ruling our world.
Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t go around telling people that their beliefs are a “bogus scam polluting the world”—including people who believe in astrology or homeopathy. I haven’t found that saying things like that makes friends, or persuades people to change their beliefs.
People are often very attached to their beliefs. When you call their beliefs “bogus scams polluting the world” or use similar language, they will feel personally attacked. Of course, when a belief causes active harm, like anti-vaxxing, I will make a passionate case against it and work to change minds. When a belief does not cause active harm, I am less worried. Either way, I have not found mocking or deriding people’s beliefs productive and I do not personally find it ethical.
Do I give religion more “weight and respect” than these other beliefs? I’m honestly not sure. People tend to have more of themselves bound up in their religious beliefs than in other beliefs. Religion and culture are often intertwined, and I believe people have a right to their own culture and cultural heritage. At the same time, I don’t think religions are any more true in a literal and factual sense than astrology and homeopathy, and I will speak against beliefs that are harmful even when they are justified by religion.
Secondly, teaching tolerance goes deeply against treating religion with respect. To me being tolerant is not enough, children should also learn to be disgusted by intolerance.
Tolerance does not come with an exemption from tolerating intolerance. Honestly, I think tolerance is often misunderstood by those on all sides. The Museum of Tolerance defines tolerance as:
1) A fair and objective attitude toward those whose opinions and practices differ from one’s own.
2) The commitment to respect human dignity.
I find this definition helpful. Tolerance does not mean never disagreeing or never speaking against a belief. It does mean maintaining a fair and objective attitude and respecting human dignity.
There are of course tolerant religious people, but also I’d like to teach my children to separate ideologies from people. The two Bibles and the Qur’an are horrifyingly inhuman books, religion has been a force of tyranny throughout its history, and I don’t think respecting them is a message of tolerance at all.
Separating ideologies from people is a good thing, but I have a problem with reducing religion to “a force of tyranny” throughout history, because religion has also been a force against tyranny throughout history. Religion was used to defend slavery—and to oppose it. Religion was used to defend segregation—and to oppose it. In some cases, religion can actually be a very potent force for liberation. Has religion been a force of tyranny? Absolutely, but it has not only been a force of tyranny. Honestly, the oversimplifications I sometimes see atheists use remind me of my parents’ oversimplifications of the world outside evangelical Christianity. Reality is rarely cut and dried, and if you tell your child it is and they grow up to find that it isn’t, they may feel they were lied to.
Thirdly, as I’ve mentioned, we still live in an era of religious hegemony. I wasn’t indoctrinated by my parents but by school. My parents refused to teach me one way or another about god. So atheist households are at a disadvantage already. Children will not be isolated from religion, they way they are isolated from atheism. Why make it worse by silence?
The solution to the world indoctrinating our children into religion is not to indoctrinate them into atheism. That’s like trying to fight fire with fire. The solution is to teach them critical thinking and help them explore a range of beliefs and lack thereof. It is to open the floor for discussion, not to close it with proclamations of what’s what.
Fourth, ultimately if you teach your children to be critical thinkers, the first thing they should learn is to question authority, and you are the authority. So if children are raised to question everyone and everything including their parents, they shouldn’t have a hard time finding religion if they are convinced the other way.
Why set yourself up as an authority in the first place? Yes, I know that on some level children will always see their parents as authorities. But why compound that by telling your children what’s what rather than by presenting what you believe and leaving things more open? Why lay down dictates rather than encouraging discussion? My father always spoke with this kind of authority, and when I questioned his beliefs and found that some of them were thoroughly wrong it was profoundly disillusioning.
In this one blog post, Kaveh has said that religion is a “bogus scam that pollutes the world,” that the Bible and the Koran are horrifyingly inhuman, and that religion can be reduced to a force of tyranny. He has every right to say all of that, but what message will these sorts of statements send his future children? Will they suggest, as Wendy outlined when discussing indoctrination, that there is only one right way to believe and that those who believe differently are intellectually or morally wanting? How will these statements lead Kaveh’s children to treat others?
Let’s imagine for a moment that Kaveh has a child who grows up to become Muslim, or Christian. What impact will these sorts of statements have on their relationship? I’ve experienced this from the other side—many of us have. When I left my parents’ evangelical Christian beliefs, their reaction drove me away. They viewed any beliefs outside of their own with a sort of contempt (mixed with pity) that made it difficult if not impossible for them to reach over religious divides. The result was that I found myself separated from my parents by a chasm they themselves had erected. I would hate to see Kaveh risk doing the same to his children.
A lot of this has to do with how one views religion. If you view religion as a delusion worthy only of mocking, you will have some serious relationship problems should you have a child who embraces a religion. If, on the other hand, you can be tolerant of other beliefs and respect others based on factors other than religion, your relationship with your child may be able to survive unscathed.
I’ve often felt that my parents valued their religion over their children. In fact, if asked they would say that they do. Let’s not repeat that. Our children—and our relationships with our children—matter more than whether or not there is a god.