ATHEISM AND CHILDREN | By Natalie Angier
Thank you, and it’s an honor to be speaking here at the Ethical Culture Society, in what I understand to be the Ceremonial Hall. According to my beloved American Heritage Dictionary, ceremonial means “formal or ritual,” and though I don’t go in for terribly many rituals, I did start the holiday season with the ritual viewing of the atheist’s favorite Christmas movie, “Coincidence on 34th Street.”
This is also the time of year, of course, when Jesus invariably screws up and commits some sort of felony. How else to explain why so many people seem to find him in jail?
You see? This is what happens when they flush people like me out of our foxholes. And because I’m here to talk about raising healthy, 100 percent guaranteed god free children, I will happily give full credit for the aforementioned remarks, and all that is to follow, to my eight-year-old daughter, Katherine. Yes, this is an atheist’s idea of responsible parenting. Can you see the horns growing out of the top of my head? Actually, last night I was reading in the New England Journal of Medicine about a condition in which people grow these horn-like projections from the top of their head, benign tumors called cylindromas. And just to show you how ecumenical the condition can be, in some cases, the doctors wrote, the cylindromas may “coalesce to form a hat-like growth, giving rise to the term ‘turban tumor.’”
But seriously. I’m here to talk about why my husband and I are raising our daughter as an atheist. The short, snappy answer is, We don’t believe in god. The longer, self-exculpating answer that is the theme du noir is, We believe it is the right thing to do. First, let me talk a little bit about why I use the term atheist rather than a more pastel-inflected phrase like agnostic or secular humanist, or the latest offering, Bright. Now when it comes to any of the mainstream deities proposed to date, I am absolutely atheistic. I can understand the literary and metaphoric value of any number of characters from mythology and religion. During this last election, we all felt like Sisyphus, we pushed that boulder and pushed and pushed, and we were just about at the top of the mountain, well, you know the rest. Or maybe we were Prometheus, with the vulture forever pecking away at our liver, or Job, or the dry run for the Lazarus bit. Yet however legitimate it may be to view any of our religious books as we would the works of Shakespeare or Henry James , I don’t take them seriously as descriptions of how the universe came to be or how any of us will re-be in some posthumous setting, or what god is or wants or whines about. So I am an unalloyed atheist by the standards of the mainstream sects.
Nevertheless, what of the hugeness of the universe, and of the possibility that there are other universes beyond this one, or even that the universe in some sense desires to know itself, and that we are the I and the eyes of the universe? This idea has philosophical appeal, and it certainly offers me some inspiration, a belief that we have a moral imperative, if you will, to understand the universe to the furthest extent our brains can manage. I was moved recently by a letter I read in “Freethought Today,” published by the Freedom from Religion Foundation. It was a response to some questions by a Navy ensign, from none other than Albert Einstein. “I have repeatedly said that in my opinion the idea of a personal God is a childlike one,” Einstein wrote. But rather than be billed as a “professional atheist,” Einstein added, “I prefer an attitude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and of our own being.”
So, yes, of course, humility in the face of cosmic grandeur is always warranted; but let us not forget that Einstein sought to the very end of his long life to honor that grandeur by seeking to understand it, bit by bit, with his weak little intellect. How much better, in my view, is that approach, of humility crossed with an unslakable curiosity to delve the majesties of nature; over the sort of hooey humility that we benighted and defeated “liberals” are supposed to be mastering, that preached by the evangelical superstar John Stott, who, according to David Brooks, does not believe that “truth is something humans are working toward. Instead, Truth has been revealed.” As Stott writes:
Just as Lewis Black said on “The Daily Show” about the proposal that gays should be barred from teaching, “Well, there goes the school play!” so with Stott we can bid the NSF, the NIH, MIT goodbye. Who needs Heisenberg’s uncertainty or Einstein’s relativity when we’ve got two ox, two mules and the nativity?
Oy vey, these are values? These and a subway token won’t get you on the subway.
And so, to me, atheism means what it says – without god or gods, living your life without recourse to a large chiaroscuro of a supreme being to credit or to explain or to excuse. Now I’ll be the proud mother and say that my daughter understands this. A couple of days ago, in preparation for this talk, I was interviewing her, asking her a few questions about how she viewed her heathen heritage. First I asked her if she believed in god. She crinkled up her nose at me like I had mentioned something distasteful, like spinach and liver, or kissing a boy, and said, No! I asked her if she was sorry she’d been raised as an atheist, and she said no, she liked it. I asked why. First, she said, you don’t have to waste Sundays going to pray. Also I’d rather do things myself than have somebody else do them for me. If somebody gets sick, I wouldn’t just pray to god he or she gets better, I would try to buy some medicine for them, to help them get better.
Oh, I liked that answer. I couldn’t help it. This sounded to me like, what do you call it, a value system. She also said that she likes to see things for herself before believing in them. If a friend told me, guess what, I’ve got a flying dog, I’d say, can I see it. Katherine said she has friends who claim they’ve seen god. One of her close friends told her she’s seen bright lights in the middle of the night that she knows were signs from Jesus. So Katherine asked her if she could do a sleepover, to check out the light for herself. Oh, you’d never see it, her friend replied. Only people who believe in god can see it.
As Richard Dawkins has said, “With religion, there’s always an escape clause.”
Admittedly, Katherine is lucky. She lives in a very liberal community, Takoma Park, Maryland, which went 91.8% for Kerry; and a lot of other kids, she told me, share her views about god. A couple of times she’s been told she’s going to go to hell – or, as she phrased it, the opposite of heaven; she’s remarkably curse-averse – but she says she doesn’t care because she doesn’t believe in either destination anyway. But in some places in the United States, it’s extremely tough to be an atheist, even fatal. Last October, in Taylor, Michigan, a former Eagle Scout shot another man to death because, he said, the man was “evil; he was not a believer.” We all know the sort of tolerance they teach in the Boy Scouts and Eagle Scouts of America, of course. No gays allowed – guess you don’t expect them to be very good at pitching tents and tying knots, right? – and no atheists. They kicked out Darrell Lambert, a model scout if there ever was one, because he refused to say he believed in God, remember? At which point, I’m proud to say, my husband, who was a boy scout and an eagle scout and learned many skills as a scout and had earned many patches and badges, decided to send back his eagle scout medal to the Boy Scouts of America; and he wrote a beautiful essay about his decision for the Washington Post. The director of public affairs at the organization sent him an answer, saying, We accept your decision, but we hope that someday, you will come to be more open-minded in your views.
So, what advice do I have for nonbelievers trying to raise their children in a rigidly religious, small town environment? Move.
I kid you not. I went to high school in a small Michigan town, very religious, lots of baptists, also lots of drunk drivers, and believe me, they were the worst four years of my life. Move to a big city in just about any state, or move to a medium-sized city in a blue state, move to Takoma Park, or move to Canada if you can stay awake. Move to a university town. Because there are plenty of secularists out there, oh yes. Sure, we’ve been told repeatedly, we’ve been beaten practically comatose, with the notion that we live in an extremely religious country.
We’ve all read the statistics on how people would elect as president a member of any other oppressed group – a woman, a Jew, a Muslim, even that very same gay person they’d rather not see in their schools and certainly not at the wedding altar – before they’d vote for an atheist. Anywhere from 90 to 95 percent of Americans say they believe in god. But how meaningful are these statistics? Are they any more reliable than the poll result I saw recently, apocryphal I hope, which showed that 55% of American Christians believed Noah to be a relative of Joan of Arc? As John Horgan pointed out in Sunday’s New York Times, a Harvard University study has found that the number of Americans with no religious affiliation has grown sharply over the past 10 years, to as many as 39 million, twice the number of Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus and Episcopalians combined. Yes, the secularists are out there, but they tend to prefer large cities and other places with an active cultural and intellectual life. Which brings me to why I think raising a child as an atheist, or a committed secularist, is the right thing to do, and should be done without apology, indeed with pride.
I’m a science writer. I’m fond of evidence, and I’m a serious devotee of the scientific method, and the entire scientific enterprise. Let me tell you, scientists as individuals can be as petty, insecure, vain, arrogant and opinionated as the rest of us. The myth of the noble, self-sacrificing scientist should never have been allowed to grow beyond the embryonic stem cell stage, and most scientists will tell you as much. But science as a discipline weeds out most of the bluster and blarmy, because it asks for proof. “One of the first things you learn in science,” one Caltech biologist told me, “is that how you want it to be doesn’t make any difference.” This is a powerful principle, and a very good thing, even a beautiful thing. This is something we should embrace as the best part of ourselves, our willingness to see the world as it is, not as we’re told it is, nor as our confectionary fantasies might wish it to be. Science is also extraordinarily unifying. You go to a great lab or to a scientific meeting, and you will see scientists from around the world, talking to each other and forming international collaborations. This is something we should be proud of, even if we ourselves are not scientists – that our species, our collective minds, our heads knocked together, are capable of making sense of the universe. So to me, this, more than anything, is what being an atheist means, an ongoing devotion to exploration, a giving of pride of place to evidence. And much to my dismay, religion often is at odds with the evidence-based portrait of reality that science has begun, yes, only just begun, fleshing out. The biggest example of this is in the ongoing debate over evolution. This is like Rasputin, or the character from the horror movie Halloween – it refuses to die. The statistics are appalling. This year, according to the Washington Post, some 40 states are dealing with new or ongoing challenges to the teaching of evolution in the schools. Four-fifths of our states. According to a recent CBS poll, 55 percent of Americans believe that god created humans in their present form – and that includes, I’m sorry to say, 47 percent of Kerry voters. Only 13 percent of Americans say that humans evolved from ancestral species, no god involved. Only 13 percent. The evidence that humans evolved from prehominid primates, and they from earlier mammals, and so on back to the first cell on earth some 3.8 billion years ago is incontrovertible, is based on a Himalayan chain’s worth of data. The evidence for divine intervention is, to date, non-existent. Yet here we have people talking about it as though they were discussing whether they prefer chocolate praline ice cream or rocky road, as though it were a matter of taste.
To me, this borders on being, well, unethical. And to me, instilling in my daughter an appreciation for the difference between evidence and opinion is a critical part of childrearing. So when I tell my daughter why I’m an atheist, I explain it is because I see no evidence for a god, a divinity, a big bearded mega-king in the sky. And you know something – she gets that. She got it way back when, and I think once you get it, it’s pretty hard to lose it. People sometimes say to me, jokingly or otherwise, just you wait. She’s going to grow up and join a cult, be a moonie or a jew for jesus. But in fact the data argue against it. The overwhelming majority of people who join cults, more than three-quarters, were raised as one or another type of Christian, including Methodists, Episcopalians, Baptists, the works; and no greater percentage of atheists than in the general population. I’m sure Katherine will figure out a way to drive me nuts some day, but I don’t think the Rahjneeshi route is it.
Ah, but what of values, of learning the difference between right and wrong, good and bad? What about tradition, what about ritual, what about the holidays that children love so much? How will a child learn to be good without religious training? Well, damn. Do you really need formal religion to teach a child to be good, to be honest, to try not to hurt other people’s feelings, to care about something other than yourself? These are all variants on the golden rule, and there is nothing more powerful, in my experience, than sitting down with your kid and saying, how would you feel if somebody did that to you? There is a growing body of scientific research that demonstrates we are by nature inclined to cooperate, to trust others, even strangers, to an extraordinary degree. Even strangers we can’t see, over the internet, and even strangers that we’ll never meet again. None of this owes anything to the ten commandments. Which of those commandments tell you to help a stranger who looks lost, or jump into a river to help saving a drowning kid, or donate blood, maybe even a kidney or a slice of liver? Sure, people also do terrible things, scam you, betray you, steal from you, on and on. But sheesh, Rush Limbaugh was and for all I know still is a junkie, and priests abuse choir boys, and on and on.
I’ve talked to Katherine about the struggles we all go through, a desire to hurt others, to get revenge. She wrote a book report recently in which she talked about wanting to get revenge on people who do bad things to her, but that, alas, it’s not always easy. And when I saw that, whoa, we had a mother of a conversation. About how the two most powerful human impulses are love and revenge, and how one is a great strength that we should nurture, and the other one is a natural feeling, and we all have it, but we must fight against it with everything we can muster. Because when we don’t, we get wars, wars that can go on for years, for centuries, and we reviewed the story of Romeo and Juliet, which she loves, and that got to her, I think, that made it come alive.
And as one who believes strongly in peace, I’ve taken her on march after march, before the Iraq war, during the republican convention. I had her miss her first day of third grade this year, so she could participate in a ceremony downtown, the reading of the names of people who have died in the Iraq war. She read the names of the children. I know I’m sounding pious here, and I’m sorry about that, but these are just some of the examples of things I’ve tried to do to make her a good person, to give her a sense of meaning larger than herself. And yes, we celebrate the holidays. We buy and decorate a Christmas tree, light the menorah, our house is encrusted with lights, including a big peace sign. I’ve told Katherine about how Christmas predates jesus, and how people have long felt the need, in the darkest, coldest time of the year, to battle the blackness with lights, music, family, the evergreen tree to symbolize life, and, oh, yes, presents. None of this seems like hypocrisy to me. It’s common sense. It is magic, it is ours, and godness has nothing to do with it.
I’d like to make one final point, an admission of the biggest challenge we faced when we decided to go the godfree route: what to talk about when you talk about death. For a while, Katherine was terrified about death. We’d be driving along in the car, and all of a sudden she’d start screaming in the back seat. What’s wrong, what’s wrong? We’d ask, thinking we had to pull over for a medical emergency. I’ve just been thinking about death! She’d cry. I don’t want to just disappear! To die forever and that’s all, that’s the end. This happened a few times, each time, out of nowhere, she’d start to wail. We’d tell her whatever we could to comfort her, that she will live a long, long time, and that they’re inventing new drugs that will, by the time she grows up, help her live even longer, a couple of hundred years, who knows; she’d live until she was pig-sick of it. And we’d tell her that nothing really disappears, it just changes form, and that she could become part of a dolphin, or an eagle, or a cheetah, a praying mantis. She’d have none of it. She knew she wouldn’t be aware of her new incarnation. She knew she probably wouldn’t remember her life as Katherine, and that loss of self she found impossibly sad. As do I, the loss of her, the loss of myself. As do all of us. Learning how to die is one of the greatest tasks of life, and it’s one that most us never quite get the hang of, until we realize, whoops, not much of a trick here, is there. Not much of a choice, either.
Still, I didn’t go with the stories, of the angels, of the harps, the eternal reciting of that old Monty Python routine, o lord you are so big, so absolutely huge. We’re all really impressed her, Lord, I can tell you that.” And lately Katherine seems to have gotten past those terror jags. She hasn’t had an outburst for the past year or two.
I don’t know the answer to fear of death, surprise surprise. But I find it interesting that religious people, who talk ceaselessly of finding in their religion a larger sense of purpose, a meaning greater than themselves, at the same time are the ones who insist their personal, copyrighted souls, presumably with their 70-odd years of memory intact, will survive in perpetuity. Maybe that’s the real ethic of atheism. By confronting the inevitability of your personal expiration date, you know there is a meaning much grander than yourself. The river of life will go on, as it has for nearly 4 billion years on our planet, and who knows for how long and how abundantly on others. Matter is neither created nor destroyed, and we, as matter, will always matter, and the universe will forever be our home.