If you haven’t heard yet, there was a little dust up regarding religious materials being distributed in the Delta County School District. I won’t go into great detail about the debate that occurred. Nor am I going to dive into the constitutional arguments regarding church-state separation.
I’m more interested in the subject of children and religion. Since becoming a dad, I’ve spent way too much time pondering how I am going to broach religion with my kiddo in the future.
Before going any further, I need to provide context. In fact, I need to make a confession: Bless me father for I am an atheist.
This label tends to confuse people, so please allow me to clarify. Simply put, I lack a belief in a cosmological supreme being, and I don’t think one can empirically prove the existence of such a being. I don’t believe one can empirically prove the non-existence of said higher power either, because doing so is logically impossible. This is what is known as “agnostic atheism,” which involves two terms that many people erroneously consider to be mutually exclusive.
But I digress: This column isn’t about me or how I self-identify religiously; it’s about how I plan to teach religion to my son.
When it comes to religion, my family is definitely in the minority in our local community. We live in a town that is chalk full of churches. In fact, our house is directly across the street from a very sizable one. At some point, my wife and I will have to answer the question from our son, “Why don’t we go to church like everybody else?”
Much to many people’s surprise, I am not raising my son to be an atheist. I am raising him to be an adult who can think critically, weigh the evidence presented, and make his own decisions. If he is curious about the church across the street or he is invited to attend with a friend, I am not going to say no. My job is not to indoctrinate my child, but provide him with the opportunities to achieve his own worldview like I was able to.
Far too often, we view our children as some miniature carbon copy of ourselves, and we project our insecurities onto them as a way to mask them. Also, we abuse our position of authority to push our worldview onto our kids without even giving them to chance to figure it out on their own. It’s no mystery why your religion of choice is also your parents’ religion of choice, which also conveniently places you within a community of others who share the same religion of choice. I would argue that “of choice” is often an incorrect modifier for many people.
I hear devout parents talk about “raising their children to be good Christians.” Also, during my days in youth development, I encountered many young children who self-identified with a particular religion.
I scratch my head when I hear these self-ascribed labels because they seem premature. If you encountered an eight year old boy who called himself a Marxist or a free market capitalist, you would laugh and patronizingly say, “How cute… you are far too young to think this way.” If a child is too young to fully grasp the complexities of economic theories, how can anybody expect them to fully grasp the creation of our universe?
On the reverse side of that, we also shouldn’t hide our kids from conversations with those who hold a different worldview from ours. Several local parents suggested the best response to a local atheist group, who spent a day providing literature to high school students, was to pull their kids from school that day. Nothing demonstrates the tepidness of one’s own personal philosophy better than the outright refusal to challenge it.
But this isn’t about some silly epistemological fight to prove who is right. Life is about gaining the most knowledge—whether through academic or experiential means—and absorbing it all from the most possible resources.
Even as an atheist, I intend to encourage my child to read and learn from the Bible. (I won’t tell him that the book was mostly inspired my disbelief.) I will also encourage him to learn from the Quran, the Torah, the Sutras, and other religious texts as well. But he will also learn the scientific method, the Socratic method, and the other necessary tools for rational thought. The world is currently experiencing a devastating deficit of religious literacy and critical thinking skills, and I hope not to worsen it.
But, most importantly, I’m going to let him live a worry-free childhood first. These conversations will come in due time, so no need to get the cart before the horse. I didn’t arrive at my current worldview overnight, and certainly don’t expect my son to do the same.
I strongly encourage other parents to discern and analyze their own philosophies—more specifically, how they were formulated and how they trickle down to their children. Furthermore, I challenge them to expose their children to differing viewpoints. And not just a cursory glance at their literature; try to engage in a series of deep, respectful, and civil conversations over a period of time.
Even if you still circle back to the same conclusions you made before, so be it. At least, you and your child are better informed now.