I’ve been struggling for the best way to present this message to my family. I love them sincerely and don’t want to hurt them. At the same time, I don’t want to continue to strain our relationship by not recognizing the need for some healthy boundaries now that there’s a new little person I am accountable for. So, here it is – a letter to my lovely, well-meaning religious family members ahead of the holiday season. If there are other Atheist or nonreligious families dealing with the same struggle, feel free to share this with your religious family members too.
I’ve received your gifts in the mail and I want to say – thank you. It is so thoughtful of you to have taken time out of your busy day to pick out some things that made you think of my daughter. It makes me feel so happy and loved that you are excited about her and I am so glad that she will have you in her life.
I noticed a certain theme to the gifts you have sent our way – christening gowns, prayer books, rosary beads, biblical stories, and even some biblical nighttime attire. While I do appreciate the gesture, we may need to have a talk. You see, I’m an Atheist. I’m sure you were hoping it was just a phase, but at this point, I think we can rule that something I’ve been for nearly two decades is probably not a phase anymore.
Wait – wait! Don’t leave yet! I’ve spent every Thanksgiving listening to your beliefs (not to mention your opinions about Obama). All I want in return is ten minutes of your time.
Now, you know that I have heard every verse, every gospel at least six hundred times. I was in Bible study. I attended church twice a week. I’ve heard every argument and angel story you’ve had to offer. I’ve heard how you feel that Jesus moved you and touched your heart. You are willing to accept those personal feelings and stories about angels as evidence of the god you believe in, but I’m not. I know that scares you. Maybe, you’re worried about what could happen. Maybe, it makes you question your own ideas. Either way, I’m not trying to take your religion from you and I certainly don’t want you to push yours on me.
I’ve had to stop myself so many times from correcting you when you’ve shared some rather cringe-worthy misinterpretations of science or when you’ve suggested that Atheism and science go hand-in-hand (they don’t). Honestly, I’d much rather you not go into those subjects since you know I am not going to suddenly agree with the same arguments you’ve made year after year. But this year, it’s different. The stakes are higher. You have a new little soul to save. I want to explain to you though where I’m coming from and to, perhaps, put your mind at ease.
What I want for my daughter is to grow up being taught a lot of ideas and philosophies that other people have and I will teach her how to examine ideas, how to think critically. There isn’t room for that if she is pushed into religion before she’s old enough to understand that the guy in the mouse suit isn’t actually Mickey Mouse. If she grows up and ultimately decides that she wants to be a Christian, then I will support her in that decision, knowing that she has weighed all available evidence before coming to it. Heck, if you would do me the honor, I would love for you to come over one day for dinner and sit with us to explain your own ideas about religion and spirituality for her to hear. Once she is old enough to understand it, I think it would be a valuable lesson.
I know that doesn’t stem your fears about her upbringing. I can almost hear you now – how will she know right from wrong?
How will she learn things like respect and humility? And I’ll tell you – she will learn those things by learning empathy and reasoning. She will learn those things by watching me. I’m sure you know the golden rule – do unto others as you would have them do unto you. I want to take it one step further – do unto others as they would have you do unto them. This isn’t just my idea though. A lot of nonreligious families do the same thing. In fact, they’re pretty darn good
at teaching their children high ethical standards
and how to empathize with people not like you
. You know me. You know that I’m ready to help in a pinch. I don’t judge people. I’m also pretty doggone good at picking out gifts for people. Part of teaching charity to children is doing it yourself and you know I’ll do that.
I can hear you now – but what will she believe in?
Well, in the early days, I’m sure she’ll believe in unicorns, fairies, superheroes, and Mickey Mouse. In seriousness though, I’d like for her to learn how to think and how to process information rather than dictating to her what things she ought to think or believe. We humans are highly adept at seeing patterns
to the point of seeing ones that aren’t there
. What can be challenging though is learning how to doubt your own senses. We’ve all seen faces that weren’t there
or felt things that weren’t real. Heck, tricking our senses
is one of the ways that we entertain ourselves
. This is why I want my daughter to learn how to think and how to explore her surroundings.
My personal belief is that learning to ask the right question is one of the most important skills a person can learn. I want her to keep asking questions and keep pursuing answers, even if they seem far out of reach and I never want to shut down any question by injecting an assertion into the process. If the answer is “I don’t know”, there’s opportunity – we can investigate the question further until we discover something new.
And, I know, before you say it – so, what are you going to teach her about death? That she’s gone forever? Death is a scary thing and I don’t plan on tackling that one before she’s able to understand my answer. I don’t want to kick the can down the road by promising her an afterlife that I can’t prove is real. It’s sort of like telling kids that their deceased dog is at a farm upstate – they miss their dog, but they don’t necessarily have the chance to learn how to cope with loss. It could delay the grieving process, not eliminate it, and might even undermine their trust in you when they learn it was a lie.
Facing your own mortality is one of the hardest things we will each have to do as highly evolved beings. It’s perhaps one of the dark sides to our ability to think in the abstract. But, I think there is opportunity here too. If we only have one life, that means this one is very precious. It means that we should do our best to be kind to each other and to remember loved ones who have passed. Our memories of them keep them close to us.
Let’s wrap this up, I know what’s next – well, what if you’re wrong? Don’t you want to go along with religion to be on the safe side?
To me, the question sounds like you’re suggesting I put a bowl of spaghetti near my closet door in case monsters are real and are hungry for my toes. I have no evidence to suggest that three dunks in water separates me from what some people think is a place of eternal torture in an afterlife that could possibly be real, but who really knows? Why not two dunks or four dunks?
Rather than pretending to adhere to a set of rules written by people I have no connection to nearly two thousand years ago, I think it’s more important to strive to be a good person now. If the god you believe in is real, it either cares more about your actions than your beliefs or is an angry, vengeful god that we’re all defying right now with the way our society is organized anyway. Think about it – a lot of people all have their own ideas of what their god wants from them and they can’t all be right, which means the vast majority of us are already breaking one of those sets of rules. If we’re all already breaking the majority of whatever rules turn out to be the “right” ones, we might as well focus our efforts on being kind and empathetic to each other right now. Make the most out of life while we have it. We do have to answer to each other and we are responsible for our actions right now. We should act like it.
We all want basically the same things out of life – love, happiness, and a feeling of fulfillment. You get some of that from your religious beliefs, and I get them from being a godless heathen. Joking aside, I get a lot of my happiness and fulfillment from having family that loves and appreciates me, just like you do. I have a strong sense of purpose, as you know, and I wake up each day eager to pursue the opportunities ahead – just like you do.
I hope that you will understand where I’m coming from and can respect the way I am raising my daughter. You’re very important to me and I want to continue to have the bond that keeps us coming to Thanksgiving together to pretend that we like fruit cake.
Love you always,