These conversations always happen in the car. I think it helps because she knows I won’t be making eye contact and I can be easily distracted if she’s done talking about whatever dread subject she’s raised.
“Hey Mom, do you believe in God?”
“No, I don’t believe in any gods. I’ve never seen enough evidence to convince me there’s anything supernatural.”
“I think most of the kids at school are Christians or something, and they said if you’re an atheist you live a terrible life.”
At this point I was half rolling my eyes, half mad. I don’t remember the next bit very well, but I think Chloe opined that this didn’t make sense to her, using me as her sample. So that was flattering as well as reassuring. She also wanted to confirm, “We’re atheists, right?”
Dawkins would be proud of me – I told her Dad and I don’t believe in any gods, but that doesn’t dictate what she believes. She said, “Well, I want to be an atheist.” Just goes to show no matter how you try to inculcate skepticism and freethought, while letting your children have freedom of conscience, they have very strong labeling and tribalist inclinations!
Turns out she doesn’t believe in any particular god, but she really likes reading myths and legends about gods, so she wasn’t sure if that would put her in the theist category. I assured her that in fact, many atheists started as believers, but when they got into myths and legends, it eroded their faith. It’s perfectly consistent not to believe in gods but to like stories about them.
I asked, “When they said ‘lead a terrible life,’ did they mean you’ll be unhappy and miserable, or you’ll do terrible things?”
She replied she wasn’t sure, so I noted that our family was pretty happy and healthy, and that we also tend to do good things for each other, our friends, and our community, so it certainly didn’t seem to be true. I also mentioned that if they mean atheists do bad things, she could tell them that in prison populations, there are hardly any atheists, but there are lots of Christians.
At this she seemed very interested. In fact, a bit too close to gleeful. I think I’ll have to have a discussion about diplomacy on this subject matter post haste. But at least it gave her a concrete example, beyond the bounds of our little family, that atheism doesn’t make you evil.
And so it begins. It’s going to be interesting as the kids all get older. I’m hopeful they can be educated into more acceptance. I’m pretty sure these children were unaware that they actually know atheists. And if anyone can be a good ambassador for atheism, it’s my sweet, generous, funny, intelligent, friendly daughter.
I’ve been discussing theology with some cyberfriends, and someone brought up an idea I’ve seen before – because there’s uncertainty about these questions that can never be definitively resolved, both Christians and atheists have faith. I think that misses the mark. I would say this instead. Faced with uncertainty, Christians have faith, while atheists have tolerance for the answer “We don’t know (yet).”
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As I read further in Babywise, I’m attempting to run down some of his “citations” (I use the term loosely.) In my Googling, I’ve come upon the excellent blog Unbecoming Baby Lies, which maybe has already done my job for me, but what the hell. Read her, and read me – there’s plenty of Ezzo debunking to go around! An excellent place to start is her hilarious conversion of Babywise infant management to a system of husband management: Growing Husbands God’s Way.
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A public service announcement: if you have little girls, think twice before giving them bubble baths. Poor Claire suffered terribly over the past 4 days after taking a bubble bath, and grabbing the bottle and dumping the entire contents into the tub. Withholding pee because it hurt led to withholding everything, which led to a delightful initiation into manual disimpaction for me on Thursday night. Claire’s evocative metaphor as she looked back on the experience with painful pee was, “It was dark black and it had fire in it, that was the problem.”
Tom Flynn is infamous for being anti-Christmas. It’s not just that he doesn’t believe in the supernatural bits. It’s not just that he has decided not to celebrate any flavor of winter festival himself. He doesn’t want me to, either. And he’s kind of insulting about it. In his recent interview on Point of Inquiry, he literally said, “if you’re a serious atheist and you know, you no longer worship the babe, sooner or later you let go of the bathwater, and that’s what I did.”
He argues that we’re propping up Christianity because grade school kids from Hindu and Buddhist backgrounds identify even secular Xmas stuff like Frosty the Snowman as Christian. I see what he’s saying in a way, but Christianity is very intertwined with Western culture, and I can’t see how I would expunge every characteristic about me that says “Christian” to people from other cultures. Most of these features peg me as Christian all year long, not just in December. My name for instance – that “C-H-R-I-S-T” right at the beginning is a dead giveaway. Also my complexion and eye color, my language, and my place of residence. I’d be willing to bet that an awful lot of the population of Earth would call me Christian, without inquiring into my actual religious beliefs. So what? I’m reminded of the joke about Northern Ireland: “Are you a Protestant or a Catholic atheist?” When you come from a part of the world that was known for quite a while as “Christendom,” people will often assume you’re Christian whether you celebrate Christmas or not.
I don’t believe in Jesus, but Christmas is part of my family tradition, and it’s a great excuse to party, give and get gifts, eat and drink with abandon, and lounge around not doing work. What’s not to like? Also, I don’t have to be scared that The Great Dragon is consuming the sun to give a little cheer for longer days, returning warmth, and the sun moving upward in the sky, so it doesn’t stab me in the retinas when I drive to the Y in the morning. (Though perhaps I shouldn’t go the YMCA, since it might be perceived as supporting the Christian social hegemony.)
I don’t really understand Flynn’s particular hate for Christmas either. I also celebrate Thanksgiving, though its origins are decidedly Christian. I love Halloween, which wouldn’t exist without All Saints’ Day. Like most people, any celebrating I do during Mardi Gras is totally unrelated to getting in some last partying before Lent. If I lived in Thailand, I’d probably participate in Loi Krathong celebrations; in India, Diwali, and so on. Parties are fun. No further justification required.
Flynn also objects that celebrating the winter solstice is somehow incompatible with a global society. I’m totally puzzled by this argument. He says non-believers shouldn’t try to build any alternate celebrations around the winter solstice, because it’s only relevant in the northern hemisphere (the southern then experiencing the summer solstice, while areas around the equator experience no significant differences in weather or daylight hours in any case). This seems like a non-sequitur. Why does any particular celebration have to apply to every person on the planet? Should we also hesitate to call Memorial Day the beginning of summer, and refrain from hitting the beach because it’s winter in Australia? Is it OK to celebrate the 4th of July, given it only applies to the United States?
I would understand most of his argument if it was an answer to someone saying he should celebrate Christmas. It doesn’t speak to him, he has no particular reason to give it special meaning, and he chooses not to partake. No problem. But the implication that somehow I’m not a Real True Atheist because I do celebrate it definitely rubs me the wrong way. I’d like to read his book, The Trouble with Christmas, but I’m not coughing up $80 for it, so for now I’ll just give him the benefit of the doubt and assume the best. He was speaking extemporaneously, and describing his inner thought process, so maybe he just meant, “I thought to myself, ‘Hey, if you’re an atheist, why are you celebrating the birth of Christ?'” and meant only to refer to his internal debate, not to comment on the sincerity or thoughtfulness of other non-believers.
If so, it’s cool. More fruitcake for me.
Sadly this sentiment comes up pretty often in atheist circles. Some non-believers can be downright vituperative about religious people. Sometimes I think it’s just extreme frustration with silly arguments or hateful attitudes associated with certain religious groups. But a lot of the time, it seems to be meant very literally.
The mistake people are making is in confusing a selective, compartmentalized suspension of rationality with stupidity. It is abundantly clear that manymany intelligent, otherwise reasonable people turn off their critical thinking when it comes to religion. Believing something without evidence and reason is pretty much the definition of “faith,” after all. In my experience, people who believe in something supernatural didn’t come to that belief through rational review, but more due to tradition, personal revelation, or plain old gut feeling.
Intelligence and rationality are often treated as synonyms in our culture, so it’s understandable that people conflate them. But you can be really smart, and you can systematically review most claims with evidence and reason in mind, and still cordon off an area for beliefs that don’t get that treatment. I think for people who try to subject every single claim to rigorous critical thinking, this approach is very puzzling and frustrating. Sometimes it’s hard to get beyond that gut reaction of bafflement to the empirical truth that lots of intelligent people are religious.
As a thought experiment, imagine some belief you consider total, obvious codswallop – whose roots and causes are clear to you as mistakes of observation or well-known foibles of human perception. Perhaps alien abduction stories, the healing power of crystals, astrology, or bigfoot sightings. Now, don’t you just have a visceral reaction along the lines of, “How could anyone believe THAT? How could someone be so blind as to what is actually going on?” If you know a believer in this stuff who is otherwise bright and sane, don’t you boggle at how they can carry both of these personality aspects in the same brain? That mystified disbelief is just how non-believers tend to feel about smart believers. Hell, I don’t understand how I could have believed the things I did when I was Catholic – there’s not a lot of hope of me really grokking the religious beliefs of other people!
But really I think we should examine this meme in our community and dispose of it. Of course some individuals or some particular arguments may be stupid, and there’s no need to obscure that fact. But if we could forge ahead with the idea that we all have more in common than religious labels would imply, I think we would do more for acceptance of atheists and for bettering our society in general. We also need to remind ourselves that we’re not 100% rational either, because emotions are necessary for reasoning. I guess it all boils down to a simple idea. While I do think any equal rights movement needs a few firebrands, for the vast majority of us, Phil Plait’s famous advice is the best way to make cultural and interpersonal headway: “Don’t be a dick.“
So for my part, I don’t think believers are stupid. I have lots of friends of different beliefs, and generally it doesn’t even come up. We all have a lot more to talk about, like work, kids, budgets, good books, favorite movies, relationships, health issues, family issues, jokes, housekeeping, procrastinating housekeeping, and on and on and on. As long as you’re not spewing hatred or trying to use government force to indoctrinate my kids, your beliefs are no skin off my nose. I wish more believers and more non-believers would get on board with that.
Kerrie comments on my Robert M. Price post that she’s taking a look at her beliefs and has added Price to her reading list. It made me think about atheist writers and that there is quite a bit out there that isn’t nearly as confrontational as Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens.
First up, Daniel Dennett. He’s lumped in with Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens to make the “Four Horsemen of New Atheism,” but I think his style is radically different. Breaking the Spell is musing, philosophical look at religious belief that is very sympathetic toward the human impulses and needs that give rise to religion. True, its premise is that religion does come from purely human sources, and it could be an uncomfortable read for a believer in some ways, but I’d hardly classify it as “in your face.”
Carl Sagan is known in atheist circles for soft-pedaling his disbelief so much that some got the impression he was a believer. He eloquently uses both scientific and spiritual language to express wonder at the universe. Still, The Demon Haunted World is clearly about skepticism of religious belief as much as scientific thinking. What is a god but the invisible dragon in Carl’s garage?
Bart Ehrman is actually an agnostic. His books take apart the Bible and analyze it in its historical context. Misquoting Jesus discusses how the Bibles we know today came to us through the ages, and how error, philosophical editing, and outright interpolation may have altered it from its ancient origins. Jesus, Interrupted describes how the different gospel writers viewed Jesus’s identity and purpose differently, and thus tailored their narratives to support their perspectives.
I also need to put in a plug for the podcast Reasonable Doubts. While the guys aren’t what I would call gentle, they approach religious philosophy and history with both humor and great research, and have a great conversational style that I find really listen-able.
I’ve also got some freethinking authors in my reading list, who I haven’t gotten to yet. John Loftus and Dan Barker both used to be preachers, like Price. I know Barker doesn’t pull many punches, but he always comes across very personable when I hear him speak. I’ve also got Like Rolling Uphill: Realizing the Honesty of Atheism, by Dianna Narciso in my Amazon list, and Victor Stenger seems like an interesting and intelligent guy. Oh, and don’t forget Hemant Mehta – he is The Friendly Atheist after all! Bottom line: there’s a LOT of reading out there that doesn’t necessarily include the Big Names you usually hear.
Oh, and if you want some classic literary disbelief, it’s hard to go wrong with Twain and Vonnegut.
I won’t have much time to do a lengthy post today, because I’ll be too busy being a wonderful human being. I’m taking care of a toddler whose mom is pregnant and on bed rest, and babysitting the children of a friend who has to deal with some serious family business. This is a great example of why being out about your non-theism is helpful. People know I’m not a theist of any stripe, and they see me doing good. It normalizes nonbelief and helps people see that we all have more in common than one might think.
Now, I’m not going out of my way to do nice things for others just so I can say, “Look, look, over here, an atheist doing good! SEE?” Like most people of any belief, I like to help out my friends. And that’s the point: people like to help out others in their monkeysphere, and nonbelievers are just people. The more of us who are open about our beliefs, the more believers will see we’re pretty much just like them. And eventually maybe we’ll be accepted as just another ingredient in the melting pot.