Where This Atheist Parent Is This Christmas

Where This Atheist Parent Is This Christmas December 13, 2014

Last year my in-laws gave us a really nice toy nativity set, for the kids. This year I got it out again, and it has been getting a lot of use.

When I first had children after leaving my parents’ conservative evangelical beliefs behind, I was afraid. Mainly, I was afraid that my children would be hurt by religion in the way I had. And so I tried to shield them from it, to keep it away from them. When relatives gave us a book about Noah’s Ark, I changed the words and the story when reading it to Sally.

Over time, my perspective and ideas began to shift. I met progressive Christians with a completely different approach to the Bible and faith, and ceased to see religion—rather than specific beliefs—as the enemy. I realized that if I tried to determine my children’s future beliefs, I would be repeating my parents’ mistake. I realized that stories only have the power we give them, and I began to see beauty in a diversity of myths and stories—Christian and Hindu, science fiction and fantasy. I let go of my fear.

And so when Sally asked me, yesterday, to tell her the story that went along with the nativity set, I did, without fear. Sally still lives in a world of stories, a world where meaning is often more important than truth. Sometimes reading mythology and other stories leads to interesting discussions on what is “true” and what isn’t and what we mean when we use the word “true.” Besides, Sally is still young. I take her with me to our local Unitarian Universalist church so that she can learn about a variety of ideas and traditions. She will form her own beliefs as she grows, and that process is hers.

There’s something else too, I’ve realized. Sally’s parents were raised Christian and her grandparents are Christian, but so were her great-grandparents, and her great-great-grandparents, going back for centuries. There is a sort of heritage there. When I tell Sally the nativity story, we are in some sense connected those with past generations. Of course, I wouldn’t want to take this too far—it is entirely possible that some of our ancestors were skeptics, and if you go back far enough our ancestors were pagans, like the rest of Europe. But in the near and medium past, those traditions are very much there.

Religion has often been cultural rather than just supernatural. The traditions, the ceremonies, the stories—these things play a cultural role too. Of course, one role they play is to bind a group together, and by openly not believing in the supernatural and not identifying as Christian, I place myself outside of that. But that doesn’t mean I can’t find the traditions, with their cultural aspect and long history, interesting and (at times) appealing and (sometimes) meaningful.

Of course, I am also working to introduce Sally to a variety of religious traditions and cultures, both through the UU church and through books we check out from the library. I find a variety of traditions, both religious and cultural, fascinating. So it is not as though I’m raising Sally Christian, with the exception of not actually believing Christianity’s supernatural claims. I’m not. It’s more that I’ve stopped fearing it and seeing all of it as wholly negative and something only to be avoided.

It’s a perspective change more than anything else. And it’s a perspective change I like.

How about you? How are you approaching the holidays with the children in your life?

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