Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion

I wasn't really sure if I even wanted to talk about this on my blog because religion is a contentious subject. But I decided that I should because this is my blog and I want to be real and I promised that I would talk about my struggles as well as my happiness. Writing also helps me to organize my own thoughts.

This book was recommended to me by a wonderful lady I met at my writing class last year. I was interested but not quite ready for it at the time because the kids were still so little and I had a long list of books ahead of it.

Recently the subject has been something I've been thinking about more and more. It's come up in conversations with friends as far as how to deal with the subject with their similar aged children and with other parents who are religious and want their kids to grow up with certain traditions and a feeling that there is something greater than them out there. These days Archie has a million questions about life, death and he is reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in school.

About a week ago Archie was hanging out with a friend and his little friend said, "God created everything" and Archie said in response, "I don't believe in God". I was shocked by this. I was also proud of him because he didn't say it in a disrespectful or authoritative way, such as "There is no God", he just said what he believed or rather didn't believe.

Archie has asked me on several occasions more recently about what happens when we die. Do we go to heaven? I always tell him honestly what I  believe. But I make a point not to say definitively, "There is no God" or "Heaven doesn't exist". Instead I say that some people believe in God and Heaven, but I am not one of them. I tell him that I believe that when someone dies they become a part of the Earth. Our bodies turn into dirt that feeds the flowers or the trees, that in turn feeds the birds and in this way we help to give life to something else. The nicer aspect of decomposition. Usually as I'm talking about it, I get cut off with a, "Mom, can I have a Popsicle when we get home!"

That's why I was surprised when he stated that he didn't believe in God. I was pretty sure he never listened to anything I was saying, much less decided that he felt the same. I know that he is only six and things are always changing.

Another big reason I decided to finally read this book is because I have read some studies recently about what makes a happy family and well adjusted, happy children. One of the big points is family traditions. I will say that I do feel like a religious upbringing lends itself to this. A friend of mine who is religious and a wonderful mother has raised a pack of the most respectful, tolerant and well adjusted kids that I know. So I started to wonder if I was somehow depriving my kids of this sense of tradition or community, or more accurately, how other secular parents have overcome this issue and so I decided that it was time to start reading.

All in all I found the book very interesting. There are a few slow parts here and there but it usually picks up again quickly. One of the things that I like most about it is that it is a collaboration of opinions rather than a single authoritative one. It's a series of essays from various people about various aspects of the subject matter. I liked this because you get to see all different approaches people have taken and you can relate to the one that best fits your own personal beliefs and parenting style.

As an example, one such topic was, to Santa or not to Santa. Some contributors took this very seriously and felt that it was tantamount to lying to your kid and that it seriously impaired their budding critical thinking skills. They felt that it also creates some sort of "Big Brother" or "God" type parallel where your kids may feel some omniscient being is watching them and will punish or reward them accordingly which is something that most secular parents would rather do without.

Others felt that the magic of Santa Claus was a part of a happy childhood and that imagination is a helpful tool to cultivate because it helps to develop critical thinking skills while still being fun.  For example, as your kid gets older they naturally start to question things, if your kid asks you directly if Santa is real, you can ask, "What do you think?" This way you are inviting them to use their critical thinking skills and if they are ready to accept it as myth, then they will probably say, "I think it is Mom and Dad" and you can acknowledge their thought process and then they can give proper gratitude to those who deserve it.

Another such topic with varying opinions in the books is the subject of kids being required to recite the Pledge of Allegiance in school.

Some believed that reciting the Pledge of Allegiance was harmful because it is consenting to a gross lack of separation between religion and state. Many examples are cited for kids getting lower grades or even sent to the principal's office for silently refusing to participate or not saying the words, "Under God".

On the other side of the spectrum, others feel that just because you are saying it, doesn't mean you have to agree and beg the question, "Is it nice or socially helpful to not participate?" and also they give the option of saying everything besides the "under God" part as the pledge was originally created before being changed in 1952.

I found this topic and its various perspectives interesting because I personally always took less issue to the God part than I did to my kid pledging allegiance to anything they could not possibly understand. Blind allegiance on the part of children is something that naturally freaks me out. It reminds me of, "The Children's Story" by James Clavell, not to mention my own upbringing. Meanwhile Dallas feels that it is ridiculous that anyone would even take issue with any of it.

A large portion of the book covers the subject of morality and gives great ideas of how to approach this subject outside of religion. It gives some great ideas for moral values for your kids that while similar to some religious aspects are simply rooted in guidelines that will help you lead a happy and fulfilling life.
  • Courage
  • Honesty
  • Not inflicting things on others that you would not like to have inflicted upon yourself
  • Pride
  • Respect
  • Tolerance 
One of my favorite things about the book was that it talked a lot about having pride in what you believe in and in your own individuality. Pride is something that is considered one of the seven deadly sins in the various forms of Christianity, yet it was actually considered a virtue in Ancient Greece. Pride (which is very different from arrogance) has been vilified and given tempered down names such as self-esteem.

When I tell someone that I'm an Atheist (something I don't say very often) I feel the need to use a "softer" variation such as, "I am not a believer, " or "I'm not religious" both of which are also true.  But I feel the need to explain or apologize, which is crazy! But there it is, I admit that I do sometimes feel that way. Its a bit like, I'm saying that I don't believe what they believe and I feel like I have made a statement that is in opposition to them and I feel it necessary to clear the air. Its just awkward.

I know firsthand that religious beliefs are an understandable reaction to the human condition. But I have had my own set of experiences that have led me to believe what I do now.

What I feel like this book helped me with, was learning to define my own values and also learn that I should be proud of them and that sort of pride is something that I should teach my children.

Followers of Christ proudly proclaim their beliefs at many an opportunity, we get weekly visits from Mormon followers, Jehovas Witness and a nice old lady who makes cookies for us and I feel it is important that my kids don't feel like we should feel anything but proud of our own beliefs, lest they mistake our lack of enthusiasm for shame.

This also broaches another of the values above, Tolerance.

Some of the kindest people who have reached out to me after my story came out, have been religious people.  Their heart felt messages of empathy and love helped me to to heal. Some of the people in my family who have stood by me through the tough time of speaking out about my experiences have been religious people. They have made a huge difference in my life and I have nothing but love and respect for them.

Some contributors in the book, refer to religious people as, "the bad guys" and say things in reference to their kids such as, "I won't let them get you,' which I feel is an immature even bigoted approach to otherness.

While I do agree that there are some seriously dangerous aspects to religion, religion is created and perpetrated by man. And it is a fact that the vast majority of people in this world are good people and want to do good by themselves and those they love and others.

I feel that even though I do not believe what someone else believes, they still deserve respect, are more likely than not, good people trying to get by in life just like the rest of us. Unless they aren't, but that of course goes for anyone regardless of religion.

Along with the vast majority of other contributors to this book, I believe that respecting people, despite your difference in beliefs is the first step towards a peaceful society since we will never all believe the same thing and that individuality should be celebrated! This is something that I now see the importance of teaching to my own kids.

As part of the subject of tolerance, it talks about exposing children to diversity and teaching or more accurately showing the kids to learn to accept themselves and other people for their differences. It made me feel good about the traveling I have done with the kids and it helped me to delineate this as an important goal of mine.

As a bonus the book gives some great ideas on replacement Holidays for religious ones often based on the Holidays origins that often pre-date Christianity so you can celebrate something that is in alignment with your own personal values and take joy in the holiday along with the rest of the world.

It also listed some inspirational freethinkers as role models for you and your kids to learn about and to look up to for their contributions to science. freethinking and human rights movements such as the abolition of slavery, women's rights, etc.

While there were so many other things I could bring up about the book, this one last part which talked about something which people referred to as "spirituality" which may or may not involve spirits at all. In my case it does not. But it is a feeling of wonder and connection to the Earth or to humankind as a whole. Like a sense of gratitude that out of all of the bajillion different variables that could have happened in the crazy process of evolution and genetics and the other bajillion that failed, we are the ones who are able to be here today. Its those moments that take you out of everyday life where you can see the broad expanse of things and concentrate on what is really meaningful to you as an individual. It talks about keeping the wonder alive by learning some of the amazing facts about the scientific secrets of the universe which more often than not are better than fiction.

That is something that I want to take the time to focus on with my family.

I would definitely recommend the book for those secular parents who have had similar questions or struggles to my own!

2 comments:

  1. Excellent article!!! I love the suggestion of alternatives that allow everyone to feel connected during holiday seasons, I think that if people looked at the holidays more like this there would be a whole lot less SADD in the world. Holidays are so hard for so many people, myself included. I'm approaching them a whole different way this year, thanks to this article. I love how you express yourself Jenna.

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    1. Thank you! Yes, I completely agree/understand about the Holidays not being easy for a lot of people. I've been there and sometimes, on certain holidays, I feel the same. It is an interesting subject matter. I'm glad if the post helped in some small way.
      Thanks for always stopping by and for sharing and for always being encouraging and supportive!! xoxo

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