Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Lonely Little Atheists

The event that prompted me to start this blog occurred about a week ago.  My daughter attends a private, but not religious, elementary school.  One day last week, when I picked her up from school, her teacher quietly took me aside and said, "Just giving you a heads up: we had a great conversation about evolution and creationism, or religion, so we're just letting parents know in case they want to talk more about it with the kids."

So in the car I asked about it - and was taken aback by my daughter's reaction.  She went from happily telling me about a game at recess to shouting, "I don't know!  I don't want to talk about it!"  I backed off, but later, after she had calmed down a bit, I asked if we could talk about what upset her so much.  She explained that she felt like she was the only one in the class that didn't believe in god and that she was afraid that some of her friends thought she was a bad person because of it.  A bit of background: my daughter is 7 years old, she's very gentle, and she's wanted to be a paleontologist since she was 3.  Knowing about the world is very important to her and it seems to have genuinely thrown her for a loop that someone could think that was a bad thing.

I'll leave for another day a discussion of how my wife and I resolved the issue with our daughter.  Suffice to say that the event got my wife and I thinking about how, as children grow and become more engaged with the world outside of their own family, the ideals and values they learn from their parents will inevitably come into conflict with those of their peers.  For humanists, this problem is magnified by virtue of the malice with which nontheistic people are held in American society.  See articles like this for examples.

I've never fully bought into the New Atheism's disdain for religion.  I tend to see religion more as a tool which, like a hammer, was created by and for humans and can be used to build a house or bash in someone's brains depending upon who wields it.  For example, here in New Hampshire, where I live, the former Episcopalian bishop, Gene Robinson, has been an outspoken advocate for progressive, humanitarian causes.  On the other hand, there's the Spanish Inquisition.  Which, um...Yeah.  Similarly, absence of religious belief doesn't indicate selflessness or selfishness either - there's plenty of stuff written about being good without god.  Being a social worker, I've also found that some people really benefit from religious involvement - even if it's not my cup of tea.

So those are the things that have led me to tread lightly around the subject of religion in spite of the clear evidence that it's factually baseless.  And by "tread lightly" I mean to say that I have tried not to rock the boat.  The experience with my daughter challenged my hesitance to rock the boat because it awakened me to the fact that kids from nontheistic families are really going to need their parents to have respect for their own convictions.  Without that, they may not learn to stand up for their own beliefs - or, worse, they may learn to become ashamed of their beliefs.

I'm still concerned about how to strike the balance between maintaining respect for other people's beliefs and maintaining respect for my own.  The glib answer is that if they don't like it they can fuck off, but we humans are social creatures and the society we live in won't necessarily just change to suit us.  On the other hand, if nontheists and humanists refuse to challenge society, how will it ever change?  Atheists are perceived to be one of the least trustworthy groups in America, yet I hardly imagine that my wife and I are alone as "reputable, professional, family" types who also espouse secular humanist values while remaining quiet about those values in many circles.  And for those of us with children, the last thing we want is to raise lonely little atheists who are too ashamed of being different to carve out a positive set of organizing principles for their own lives.

When it comes down to it, that's what this blog is about.  I'd like to learn from others who have navigated this course and provide a forum for people who'd like to join me.  So, is this an issue you have struggled with?  And how have you resolved it - or have you?

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