I’ve received quite a few lovely emails from secular parents thanking me for Parenting Beyond Belief. I LOVE these messages. They give me a ridiculously inflated sense of my own contribution to things. I always feel smart and handsome afterwards.
But a message today was particularly nice. It was from a secular kid, now all grown up. “My parents raised me without indoctrinating me into any faith,” she began. And they did so even though they themselves had been raised in orthodox religious homes.
My dad was willing to talk about his skepticism of religion with me in a very matter-of-fact way. I have memories of sitting at the kitchen table and having a conversation about how unlikely it was for Jesus to be the son of God and how much more likely it was that he was just a normal guy that people wanted to believe he was something more.
She went on to describe her earliest exposures to religion:
[My parents] gently encouraged me to explore different beliefs. Our family only went to church on Christmas and Easter (and that was really about keeping in touch with their cultural traditions), but it’s not so easy to ignore Christianity in the South. So, when I got a little older, they let me go to Sunday school when my friends invited me. I attended the Sunday schools of various Christian faiths like a mini-anthropologist: eager to learn, observant, and a bit detached from the whole thing.
This reminded me of a scene, not too long ago, in our own family. We were sitting in my mother-in-law’s Episcopal Easter service — high-church Episcopal, all gold iconography and slow processions with the Bible (of all things) held aloft.
I enjoy this immensely as theatre, as sociology, as a glimpse into a different expression of our shared human longings. But Connor was slouched low in the pew in clip-on tie and plastered hair, the perfect archetype of the miserable child in church.
I leaned over and whispered, “What if you had a chance to travel back to ancient Greece and watch a ritual in the temple of Zeus? What would you think about that?”
He smiled amazedly at the thought. “That would be so cool!”
“Well, just imagine you’re an anthropologist now, visiting from the future, where rituals have changed. There’s nothing quite like this anymore where you come from.”
He sat up wide-eyed and engaged the rest of the time.
Her message went on:
I knew I didn’t believe in God in elementary school (though, it didn’t stop me from exploring various belief systems when I got older, because, why not? I was willing to check them out). The majority of my friends that are non-believers were teenagers or young adults before they felt comfortable admitting their atheism and agnosticism. In addition, childhood beliefs are so hard to shake, that some of them still feel residual guilt over abandoning their faith and a fear of God’s retribution. I am forever grateful to my parents for–well, it’s kind of negative way of putting it, but I feel like, “Thanks mom and dad, for sparing me from religion.” I am able to go to an Orthodox church today, enjoy and respect it–the cultural traditions, the icons, the hypnotic nature of the rituals and the chanting–without being resentful of it or buying into all of the mythology.
I hope your book and website makes parents feel more comfortable with their decision to raise their kids without religion. Their kids will thank them later!
And that’s what this message felt like to me, like a note from my future kids as I hope and expect they will be: happy, bright, well-adjusted, free of resentments.
That lack of resentment in the second generation is a common pattern in many struggles for social transformation. Feminists have described the same thing with a mixture of amusement and pique. They resented the patriarchy and fought like hell so their daughters didn’t have to grow up butting their own heads against it. In return, they were accused by men and women alike of being too harsh, of being “obsessed with gender,” of pushing too hard and too fast. As a result of their efforts and sacrifices, their daughters now grow up never having known a time when women couldn’t fly planes, or vote, or wear jeans, or expect (if not always achieve) equal pay for equal work and an environment free of demeaning harassment.
Today, those daughters of the revolution — and believe me, I spent fifteen years teaching them — often roll their eyes at their mothers’ generation for making “such a big deal” out of gender issues. They can afford to roll those eyes, of course, because of the dragonslaying their mothers and grandmothers did.
My correspondent isn’t rolling her eyes, of course — but if thirty years down the road my kids are living in a country where a completely secular worldview is no big deal, then hey…I’ll gladly watch them roll their eyes as Dad sits in his recliner, ranting at the ottoman about this or that battle long since won for them.