This one’s for everybody. But it’s especially for (a) godless parents, and (b) people who were brought up by godless parents.
It has to do with how to teach children about godlessness.
My parents were both agnostics. (A fact for which I am more grateful every week… whenever I read the sad and awful stories in the atheosphere about fights and rifts between atheists and their religious families. Both my blood relatives and my in-laws are non-religious, and while of course we have our conflicts, the fact that I’m a loud, outspoken atheist blogger isn’t one of them — in fact, it’s a source of family pride.)
But back to my parents. My dad actually became an atheist years before I did, my mom’s been dead for a long time so I don’t know what she’d be now — but when I was growing up, they were agnostics. And when it came to bringing us up, they were very much of the “let the kids make up their own minds about religion” camp. They were pretty clear about their own lack of belief — but they didn’t teach their non-belief to us in a dogmatic way; they exposed us to a certain amount of religion (occasional church with grandparents, mostly); and they made it clear that religion was something that was up to us to decide for ourselves.
All of which I’m grateful for.
But they also did something that I now think was a mistake. I’m sure it was well-intentioned, I can understand why they probably did it; but I do think it was a mistake.
They never explained to us why they didn’t believe in God.
We barely discussed religion at all when I was growing up. (It’s not like it was a taboo topic or anything; it just rarely came up.) So I never really found out why my parents didn’t believe in God; what they had been taught as children, and why they left it behind. I knew they didn’t believe in God (they called themselves agnostic, but it was clearly the “you can’t be 100% sure of anything” version of agnosticism) — but I didn’t know why they didn’t. They never taught us that.
And I think that left me vulnerable to woo.
I’d picked up a natural resistance to conventional religion from my parents. But I didn’t have any natural resistance to Tarot cards, to reincarnation, to synchronicity, to trickster spirits, to the idea that the Universe arranged itself to teach me lessons about life.
Because while I wasn’t taught religious or spiritual beliefs, I also wasn’t taught critical thinking about religious or spiritual beliefs. I wasn’t taught about confirmation bias; about assuming the thing you’re trying to prove; about contorted apologetics and the human ability to rationalize just about any belief; about our tendency to see what we want/ hope/ expect to see; about our tendency to see patterns and intentions regardless of whether they’re there; about the problem with ideas that not only haven’t been tested but can’t be.
And so while I didn’t grow up believing in God, I also didn’t grow up understanding why belief in God — or Tarot, or astrology, or free will in subatomic particles, or whatever — was problematic. It took me years — many, many years — to figure out that, “God/ the soul/ etc. can’t be definitively disproven” didn’t mean, “It’s okay to believe anything I want.”
Years wasted believing an embarrassing assortment of stupid woo bullshit.
Alas, I can’t ask my parents now what they were thinking back then, or why they did things the way they did. My mom has been dead for many years, and my dad’s stroke has left him pretty much incommunicado. But my guess would be that they didn’t want their godlessness to be dogmatic. They didn’t want us to be godless just because it was what they taught us. They wanted us to decide for ourselves.
All of which is admirable. All of which I get. I don’t think atheism should be taught to kids as if it were a fact they shouldn’t question, another true thing that your parents know and that you just have to trust. I think my parents were totally right about that.
But I also think that if you want kids to decide for themselves, you need to do more than just throw them in the deep end of the religion pool. I think that if you want kids to decide for themselves, you need to give them tools for critical thinking. I think it’s not enough to let kids make up their own minds about religion.
I think you have to teach them how to do that.
But maybe there’s a fine line here. Maybe there’s no way to teach kids to think critically about religion without teaching them to be non-religious. Maybe there’s no way to teach kids, “It’s not okay to believe an idea that can never be tested” without teaching them, “It’s not okay to believe in religion.” And if you believe in letting kids make up their own minds about religion, I could see not wanting to do that.
So I’m curious. If you’re a godless parent, how do you handle it? If you were brought up by godless parents, how did they handle it — and how do you feel about it now? This is on my mind; I donât have kids and don’t plan to, but I have kids in my life now, and I’m starting to think about it.