Growing Up Atheist
Growing Up Atheist
First and foremost, I am apologizing for the length of my post. I have a lot to say.
I’ve lurked for awhile on this forum with the best intentions of posting, but, until now, not doing so. My girlfriend is considerably more active here, frequently reading out the posts to me as I sprawl on the sofa reading, watching television, or tinkering with a writing project. She has been after me for sometime to get off of my apathetic butt and post. She can be pretty convincing.
There has been some discussion concerning raising children as atheists. I have a fair amount to say on this subject since, not only am I an atheist, but I was raised an atheist. I am a third generation atheist on my mother’s side. My great grandmother was Irish (admittedly a guess, since she was an orphan, and family legend has it that she was found in a lifeboat adrift in the Irish Sea). She was an atheist. Her son, my grandfather, born in Wales, raised in Canada, now living in New Zealand, is an atheist. My grandmother, raised in the Christian environment of central Alberta, is an agnostic. And my mom is, of course, an atheist. Though I don’t remember much about my great great grandmother, (I’m 35 and she died when I was 13), her atheism was not a knee-jerk reaction, but the reasoned decision of a highly intelligent and strong willed woman. My grandfather and mother are very pragmatic about their atheism. Oh yes, I have two uncles, both of whom are atheists, Canadian born, currently living in New Zealand. My father’s story is a little different. While my mother is Canadian, my father is American (he naturalized only two years ago). My grandmother has belonged to numerous Christian cults, cults with what I like to call ‘prayer police’ who routinely go from one parishioners home to the next, ensuring that all is well and that they are practicing their faith properly. Her and my grandfather were brought together in an arranged marriage. My grandfather was a Baptist who abused his wife and two sons. He beat them with boards. Fortunately, he died from a heart attack before I was born, so I never had a chance to meet the bastard. His father, also Baptist, also cruel, committed suicide. Now, my uncle, a good Christian boy, beat my father (who is ten years younger) and enjoyed torturing and killing my fathers pets (of which he had many). My wonderful uncle abused his wife, murdered POWs in the Viet Nam war (he was stationed on American soil) and embezzled a considerable amount of money from the bank he worked at, and is currently wanted by the FBI. I have never met my uncle. Never want to. Now, my mother is an atheist brought up in a relatively stable environment where choice and freedom of thought was encouraged. My father is more of a reactionary atheist, experiencing first hand the hypocrisy, intolerance, and cruelty of true believers.
I have two sisters and a brother. Both atheists. I have eight nieces and nephews, all being raised atheists. No criminal issues have ever arisen with me, my siblings, or my nieces and nephews. We have had our troubles, yes, and been in trouble, as everyone has at one time or another, and we have overcome them. Overcome them, I might add, without displacing responsibility to a mythologized historical figure or figures or a deified external (moral) enforcement agent. My parents and my siblings are socially responsible, ethically and moral conscious, and reasonably well adjusted. My nieces and nephews are showing strong moral sensibilities that surpass their parents. They are living proof that atheist children can be raised well, and do develop moral values themselves.
Freedom of thought has always been cherished by my parents. They encouraged me to read the bible and research religion, since it has considerable cultural relevance and remains a powerful force of global influence. And I did so. Extensively. My educational background is in philosophy, literature, and anthropology students (I was one of those students who kept shuffling their majors around). I spent a lot of time studying comparative religions. Slogging my way through the turgid passages New Testament, the Qu’ran, scouring books for information on Gnosticism and other so-called heresies, enjoying my dad’s old, beaten up copy of Lau Tzu’s Tao De Ching, finding a lot of worth in Buddhist philosophy, and reading almost everything written by Idries Shah, Rumi, and Hafiz.
During this time I started calling myself an agnostic, mostly because I’d grown tired of the religious debate, pursuing the same lines of reason and always losing the argument because I came up against the indomitable wall of faith. I also conceded the point that we could not know anything absolutely. I still hold to that, though I have resumed the mantle of atheist, with far more certainty then before. The agnostic label did not sit well with me. Not terribly rational of me to say that it simply didn’t feel right. In answer to the theists that would posit the question, how do you ‘know’ god doesn’t exist? Simple. Knowledge, in any form, is a conclusion drawn from empirical evidence, rational thought (which means not just idling an afternoon away contemplating in a coffee shop, but also debating ideas with others), and experience (I know this last criteria is vague and arguable, but I think experience counts for a lot). And most importantly, knowledge is adaptable, changeable. It is a dynamic phenomenon. Unlike belief. Belief is static. Belief is either there or it is not. Belief isn’t adaptable, or changeable. Belief can only be lost. And the formula for belief based arguments is purely refutation. You will never, ever find a believer go, “hmmm, you know, you might be right”. We only claim to know anything when the evidence supports the knowledge. We have reached a point in time when the evidence does, in fact, support atheism. Metaphysical debates continue to rage, wild hypothesis and established theories argued via logical formulas as arcane as the mathematics behind String Theory and the Inflationary Scenario. Theists have faith. Atheists have evidence. And great tragedy is that faith is unassailable and evidence is debatable. A theist will not argue faith, just doctrine, and assume the veracity of it is self-evident. Atheists and other free thinkers will argue anything in pursuit of knowledge, and admit unapologetically that knowledge is not absolute (I dread a world where knowledge is absolute, where there is nothing left for anyone to learn … sounds suspiciously like a theocratic world). This all leads into the Cartesian circle that since an atheist can not know god doesn’t exist absolutely (according to both theists and any rational atheist), but theists know god exists absolutely (according to theists , and any rational atheist will sit there, blinking, going WTF?!). Its an inarguable argument, belief verses reason.
I’ve gone off on a bit of a tangent, here. The consequence of frustration, I suppose. Old arguments suppurating in the dusty back corners of my brain. I fear that ignorance and irrationality will always supplant knowledge and reason. Let’s see if I can steer this back on track here. There are stirrings here about re-introducing prayer into elementary schools. Christians complaining, vociferously, about how uncomfortable the lack of prayer makes their children. I grew up in a number of small towns, in both Alberta and British Columbia, during the late seventies and early eighties. I remember prayer in schools. My parents used to write me notes, excusing me from prayer. I would sit in silence while the class stood and recited the Lord’s Prayer. I was left feeling terribly conspicuous and uncomfortable. I was the only one sitting. But I didn’t want to take part. I thought it was stupid. Even said so once and got a fist to the face as a result.
I was a hippy kid. Yup, my folks were hippies. My dad, a conscientious objector to the Viet Nam war (okay, draft dodger), bailed out of his home town, Los Angeles, and followed the Lewis and Clarke route with a copy of Steppenwolf and the Tao De Ching in his backpack, met my mother up here north of the 49th, and our happy little family began. Anyway, I was a long haired, vegetarian, atheist kid in a town of white, blue collar Christians. My ass had a big ol’kicking target painted on it. Used to have kids hold me down and shove sandwich meat up my nose. But what instigated the most abusive treatment was my refusal to say prayer. I was held down and beaten bloody while being told that this was happening because I didn’t believe in God, and that it would stop if only I would admit that I believed in God. I never did. I was almost killed one winter while a good Christian boy held my face in the snow because I would not admit that Christ was my Lord and Savior. I guess it was supposed to be some sort of misguided baptism. I passed out. There were no repercussions for that boy. No punishments whatsoever. About the only good that came out of all that was that, to avoid getting the crap kicked out of me, I’d spend my lunch and recess in the library reading. Previous to the beatings, my reading skills were mediocre. Fear of persecution by Christians drove me to reading. So, no hard feelings (a subtle sarcastic infusion, here). My appreciation for literature and my writing career are a direct result of religious intolerance.
The reopening of the prayer issue in schools has caused me more sleepless nights than all the other religiously instigated social and political issues going on today. Sounds silly and irresponsible, I know. It is. But, as you can now understand, it hit a very raw nerve. Canada has made so much progress over the past twenty years. I live in a place where atheism is on the rise, where there are more non-religious people than religious, where Christianity is actually the lower percentage of the religious population, falling behind Sikhs, Buddhists, Muslims, and Hindus. We have the largest Buddhist and Sikh temples in Canada. We have a strong gay community. Gay rights are respected and marriage legal. Yet, the Christians are vocal and shameless. Their children feel uncomfortable in school? I can almost guarantee that their kids don’t care. Atheists aside, what about the other religious groups? Why not recite verses from the Qu’ran or Buddhist sutras? No, those other groups don’t push for religious rights in public schools. There are private schools for Sikhs, for Muslims, and yes, we have our fare share of Catholic schools. Public schools are public, secular, and should remain so. So, what is going to happen? We now have a religious conservative running our country. Christians are throwing their weight around without regard for the rights of others. Christian parents groups are threatening the public schools and petitioning the provincial governments to have certain books removed from the libraries and to get prayer back into schools. What is happening when such a varied population is being brow beaten by a single vocal minority? A minority that is not being persecuted, not being oppressed, whose rights have always been respected as much as anyone else’s, if not more so. A group, who has, in fact, actively striven to remove the rights of others (thinking specifically of the missionary schools that stripped the rights from First Nations children).
I’m going to wrap this up with a heartwarming story guaranteed to put a smile on even the most cynical and disillusioned atheist’s face:
My youngest nephew, who just turned three, was over at his grandparents for thanksgiving dinner (the Canadian thanksgiving, which falls on a different date than the American holiday). My sister in law’s parents are from the former Yugoslav and very Christian (as in Orthodox). My sister in law wasn’t there. Her parents don’t approve of my brother’s “corrosive atheist ways”. Though I got the story from my sister in law, she got it from her sister who took my nephew to the dinner. Anyway, they said grace, then took turns saying what they were thankful for (all the while, my nephew played with his Batman action figure). When it was my nephew’s turn, he was initially confused. He looked up from his Batman, blinked, and asked what he was supposed to be saying. His grandmother said, “What you are thankful to the Lord for.” My nephew says, “I’m thankful for zombies.”
No, wait, it gets better …
They were all offended (except for his aunt, who was trying unsuccessfully not to laugh). Then my nephew asks, “Who’s the Lord?” After he gets the explanation, he chews his lip, mulls this new information over, then says in his serious voice, “That’s stupid”, and goes back to playing with his Batman.
My nephew is awesome. When I get bummed out by the state of irrationality, ignorance, bigotry, and revisionism that tearing the world apart, I think about a little three year old boy looking into the face of an adult after being told about Jesus Christ and God, and responding, ‘That’s stupid’. I smile and feel hopeful.
Oh, and I’m thankful for zombies too. Blessed be, George R. Romero (PBUH).
The first principle is that you must not fool yourself - and you are the easiest person to fool." --Richard Feynman.