Flailing About – Atheist Parenthood in A Time of God and War

As I am driving my kids to school today my 6yr old asks me the simple question about whether airplanes have guns. Of course, I leave nothing unexplained in my household and it never ceases to get me in trouble. This simple question leads to war planes, which may seem fair, then to Iraq and Afghanistan.  

Then my older daughter gets afraid that war could happen in the US.  She wants to confirm that war can’t happen here because “California is the best place”. Not wanting to promote blind  nationalism (or state-ism), I don’t feel ok letting this go. I get myself in deeper as I explain that “we are such a strong country and people don’t usually mess with us on our own turf”. The topics are  getting very jumbled up here and I am swerving in and out of traffic aware that I am confusing their minds even more and still feeling like I have an important opportunity to make an impression here. Of what, I don’t know.

And as I am giving a Kindergarten explanation of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan I find myself spouting rationale that is way to conservative (think how Bush used to explain things, as if to a two year old…) and my sensibilities won’t allow me to leave them with this either. So I get into the whole Twin Tower disaster and try to explain what happened afterwards which led us into a war that Mama and Daddy didn’t agree with. I mentioned Muslim extremists here and of course their eyes really glazed over.

So, my sweet 7 yr old asks why anyone has to go to war. With my limited capacity to recall  history I think of a few recent examples. l tell them that with so many people believing in god in so many different ways, people often get upset and even go to war. I use the examples of Christians, Muslims and Jews, who all believe in the same god differently.

A lightbulb turns on for me and I seize on the point that I am going to try to salvage out of the past 25 minutes. I point out, “Isn’t it silly to go to war over god, something that isn’t even real?”  Such a good point but apparently a miss. The next thing I know they are saying so and so “doesn’t look Muslim, they are nice” and “I know a boy who believes in god, but no way is he a Christian!” 

Ah geez, now we are running late for the bell, climbing out of the car with our multitude of bags, jackets and lunches, and I have my kid thinking that a girl  in her class is a bad person because she wears a head scarf. So, I kiss them on the cheek and I try to sum it all up:

Just remember that lots of people believe in god – most of them are nice, even if they are wrong.  I point out a few of their favorite people who happen to be Muslim or Christian and watch as their eyes turn into saucers. No Way!! The bell rings and I send them on their way.

 Now, I am reminded that well-intentioned people always make things worse with their big mouths (think Harry Reid).  I have some back pedaling to do over dinner tonight. Next time perhaps I will take a page from my husband’s approach around topics like family dysfunction and pedophiles and just say, you don’t need to know about this yet…But probably not.

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Atheists Don’t Hate Like This

A friend recently made me aware of a potential type of “genocide” brewing in Uganda. I thought, “well it is Uganda and haven’t they been embroiled in all sorts of conflict over the years?” 

 However, this is a new twist involving human rights, and it appears that this death march for gays was instigated by Christians. I am not bashing an entire group here.  Many Christians are good people and have already spoken out against this policy abroad.

Instead of being negative about Christians, I am attempting to point out something positive about non-believers. I am simply saying that such deafening hate and murder rarely comes from us Atheists (at least not as a movement), who are often marred with a reputation for being amoral. While of course, I won’t claim we are the victims here. I offer this as an example that there needs to be  more acknowledgement that Atheists are often the opposite of hate in these types of religiously-based, fear mongering scenarios, as we have no reason to assign morality to personal characteristics. 

Ok, enough rant. I promised an approach to making Atheism positive here.

**If you would like to condemn these outrageous violations contact your legislatures and tell them that we have an obligation to stand up for human rights before the killing continues and people are imprisoned from such hate.  If you need to find your congressperson click here: Contact Your Senators

Contacting your congressperson is not a futile act since congress doesn’t take up any issue until voices become numerous enough. Take Chuck Grassley (R-IA) for instance. He first said he was “to busy” to deal with the issue, but later capitulated after he heard from enough Americans. See this  Think Progress Article for an explanation of why Chuck Grassley is a salient figure here. 

If you would like to know more about the evolution of this check out this video:

Top 10 Ways to Be Visible

I am starting a list of the top ways that everyday Atheists can become visible and promote positive inclusion for non-believers. Ways that each of us can help to de-stigmatize Atheism and non-belief, promote inclusion in politics, public policy and general dialogue. I welcome your ideas, stories and anecdotes. Do we shout from the rooftops, wear quiet signs, make news, become activists???

I’ll get us started and add more as I hear from others:

Top Ten Ways to Promote Visibility and Inclusion of Atheists and Non-Believers

1) Teach your children about non-belief and provide them with language to understand the family values and how they are different or similar from the major religions around us

2) Write your congressmen/women as an Atheist. Find ways to relate your topic of concern (i.e healthcare, education, Darfur, etc) to the values that you hold and how it reflects on your personal Atheism 

3) Wear a sign. I jest, but not really. As an Atheist I am encouraged by signs of community – Darwin Fish, Atheist Unicorn, bumper stickers, etc. and am more inclined to be visible myself when these signs of “safety” abound. Others have suggested small jewelry that sparks conversation (One person commented that they wear a small ‘A’ on a chain.

4) Have Parties on Sunday Mornings.  Maybe subversive, but I love when others have birthday parties or gatherings on Sunday mornings. You are sending a message that part of the weekend is not off limits due to religious services.

5) Say the word “Atheist” a LOT. “Atheist, Atheist Atheist!”It is not a dirty word and the more others are used to hearing it enter the space between two people, the more they will understand, if not embrace the term. We all know those non-believers who defensively step-in with “well, I don’t believe in god, but I’m not an Atheist”. What an opportunity!

Beautiful and logical.

Atheist Babies

I have no intention of blogging about my kids as if the whole world appreciates their antics. Like the time my two year locked herself in the bathroom and proceeded to…oops, almost got carried away in the world of baby blogging.

However, I would like to discuss the idea of raising children in the absence of religion, and even more specifically as Atheists. Why wouldn’t Atheists raise Atheists? Just like Christians certainly wouldn’t go out of their way to raise Muslim children or Jews to raise Christian children. I reiterate to my kids often that when they are old enough to make their own decisions, I will respect whatever they choose in terms of belief systems. Just so we’re clear, I respect thoughtfully made decisions, even if I think they are wrong. And by respect, I mean I will refrain from personal attacks or derision to your face or behind your back.

I am met with great shock or quiet amazement when I tell others that all children are Atheists. Yes, by definition ALL children ARE Atheists. Age parameters may vary here depending on your child’s critical thinking skills. The definition of Atheism is cited in many places as a strict denial of god, but really it is just an absence of belief in a god. Some Atheists may be staunch in their denial and some may simply not believe. The commitment to Atheism runs a vast spectrum. 

What young child really has the ability to BELIEVE in a god? I mean believe in a way they don’t believe in fairies and Cinderella. They may pray on their knees at bed time, but children are great imitators and prone to do what gets them praise. You can baptize an infant at birth but they still won’t believe in anything other than their milk, and will be in the club with Atheists, at least for a while.

As an Atheist parent, I am often faced with explaining religion and belief. As I have experiences through my children’s eyes, eyes without filters, religion encroaches on my life more frequently. I have created personal filters for when god is mentioned on television, when a friend innocently says “Thank God for that!” or “What a blessing” or even “God Bless You” when I sneeze. When the news speaks of religious wars I can analyze these things. When adult friends speak of going to church I certainly don’t feel left out, like my children may when their friends spend Sunday mornings in this elusive place called church.

How do we explain to children what we really think, without telling them what to think?  Just as being a Visible Atheist is important for society and all of us non-believers, it is important for us to be visible to our children. To help them learn to think about the world as confusing messages assault them left and right. 

Even I was so well programmed in religion as a child that I often feel guilty and blasphemous when I explain the concept of religion to my children – equating fairy tales and diverse cultural beliefs to that of the trinity. I can’t help but feel a slight sting when my 6yr old says “but people in church are wrong, god is not real” and “when I grow up I will choose no god”.  I think the sting comes from the idea of tacitly holding a view that is programmed, like I once did with Christianity. While I smile at my words in her cute little voice, I will feel truly proud when she comes to these thoughts because her mind is ready to understand. 

I once was trying to explain my position on raising Atheist children to my dear sister, who is a devout Christian. My then 4yr old daughter told her that she didn’t believe in god. My sister cried. This was the very worst thing she could imagine. For these small children to already have written off a life she thought led to salvation seemed to her a tragedy. I understood the passion and sadness in her heart, since I had once believed and feared for the soul of my mother (who did happen to be Christian, just not very good at it).  At the time my sister told me that she thought I should raise them with an access to a belief in god. I don’t think she was able to see how impossible this would be for me. I would no more be able to do that than raise my children as shoplifters or reality TV personalities. I just think its wrong.

This past Christmas my oldest child started putting logical thoughts together. I often use stories from the bible to illustrate how similar fairy tales and christianity really are. Like Noah and the Ark or Jonah and the Whale, Adam and Eve, etc. They just adore these stories, by the way. She asked me how it could be that Santa and the Tooth Fairy are real but god is not. It threw me for a loop because I adore the magic that Christmas and fairies are for my children, but I was also very proud of her and will have to tell her how she has unlocked the magic box with her clever mind.

I know all parents are probably a little saddened by this passage in childhood – when magic is slightly less sparkly and common sense starts to prevail – but I have to admit I blame religion a little bit for taking one more thing from me while children of Christians can equate seasonal fantasy with the rational behind fairy dust for a bit longer.
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Making Atheism Visible

The dialogue around Atheism hasn’t quite tapped into what goes on in my life experience. I am an Atheist. A deconverted Atheist, meaning I once lived a very religious life, with beliefs and convictions that matched.  I am a fan of living the “examined life” and like many Atheists I am pretty convinced that I have managed to navigate a minefield of institutionalized superstition that has most people completely duped.  However, now that I am living the life of an Everyday Atheist I find that I want to make my Atheism something positive. I want to raise my children as happy Atheists who’s thoughtful approach to life brings them true happiness and success.

Much of the discourse on Atheism seems to take a couple different tones: 1) Self-righteous and vindicated in the fact that we know the facts and that others are trapped in fairyland or 2) Quiet and capitulating to the more powerful majority. I don’t think either of these approaches is helpful to the Atheist cause (if there is one).

The self-righteous, often caustic approach is great when your preaching to the choir. I enjoy a good humorous jab at religion and pointing out the ludicrousy of it all. I enjoy being in company where the Atheist dialogue makes me roll with the laughter that only those in the “club” could appreciate. And I am the first to admit that I love living in the San Francisco Bay Area because I love the thinking, liberal bubble I can operate within.  

However, if I am looking for new thoughts or hope to make a decent argument to believers, this approach loses its utility. I am looking for a new dialogue about the experience of being Atheist, not just about the validity of Atheism.  I am looking for visibility, recognition, public office (not for me but for the like-minded), a place of inclusion for my children, and to encourage others to think before they follow like cattle.  

And I looking to help change the second tone of the Atheist dialogue, because the quiet, change -the-conversation, pretend-its-not-important approach to NOT talking about Atheism has got to go down into the distant past, fast. 

So, I begin this blog with the minimum goal of articulating my experience as an Atheist, through all the many complexities as it relates to society, the world, politics, economy, family, etc. But really I write with the not-so-humble goal of destimigtizing thoughtful nonbelievers and making us more visible in politics, family, society, community and the world.