This post has been in my drafts for a long time. I’ve edited it over and over again, sometimes at times when I’ve felt angry, sometimes when I’ve been particularly mellow… At one point it was more than twice as long as it currently is. If it seems slightly jumpy and non sequitur, well, that’s because that’s how my thoughts on the matter are.
I finished reading Parenting Beyond Belief.
The sub-heading reads ‘On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion’, but it’s not so much a how-to as a collection of essays regarding the subject of secular parenting. I’d recommend it to anyone who is non-religious, and in fact anyone who is religious and would like to understand more about atheistic approaches to life.
Being a book largely aimed at US readers, I did find certain aspects less identifiable – I don’t think the divide between religious and non-religious people is as big in Australia, and I don’t think religion (specifically Christianity) is as deeply ingrained in the national identity. So for a start, I don’t particularly feel as if I’m fighting against anything – or if I am, it’s not such a large hurdle as if I was living in America.
The book covers a lot of ground, with a lot of different approaches to issues that arise while raising children in a secular household. The appeal of the book, for me, isn’t so much in those approaches (although they are certainly potentially helpful and thought-provoking), but in the mere fact of it being. That is, I like having in my possession a book, a well-composed book, that was made by atheists for atheists. I don’t agree with it all, of course. I find Richard Dawkins in particular quite harsh and condescending. But the fact that I could open to almost any page and read a sentence or paragraph that so perfectly puts into words the beliefs and thoughts that I often can’t express… it’s just a good feeling.
The one thing I envy religious people is that they have at their disposable an instant community. Enter any church, say, and you immediately have at least one huge thing in common with everyone there – the belief in God.
Secular families have scarcely any of the resources that Christian, Moslem, Jewish and other theistic families in this country have in abundance. Religious communities have attractive places for families to gather every week to be spiritually uplifted and share community, youth groups built around their family’s beliefs and values, and trained personnel to guide them in their spiritual lives and help them work through problems in ways consistent with their beliefs. They have libraries with inspiring reading and songs handed down by a variety of music traditions, with spiritual messages seasoned over many years. Pete Wernick, p.257
Obviously, atheists have none of that, not least of all because the definition of an atheist is, rather broadly, ‘a person who disbelieves the existence of a supreme being or beings’. That’s it. As quoted in Parenting Beyond Belief, “Atheism is a religion like not collecting stamps is a hobby”.
Nonetheless, feeling an active and welcomed member of a community is important and desirable to the majority of people, regardless of what some (like me) might try to insist. (“I prefer to be alone, I don’t need people, I don’t like people, I’m a loner, I’m better alone.”)
Before I had my own family I may have been happy to carry on independently and detached, but I’m finding myself wishing more and more that we had the kind of infrastructure that theists have, that avenue to use as a stepping stone to creating and expanding our circle of peers and friends. Support.
I did say above that I don’t feel as surrounded by religious practise as I might if I lived elsewhere… But there are still opportunities for feeling awkward and isolated. Easter and Christmas are big events, most people celebrate them in some way, but I’m not sure what to do with them. Whole months of the year are dominated by these events that have no real significance to me.
If you’re having a hard time, I’m never “praying for you”. You’re not “in my prayers”. How can I appropriately convey condolences and hope? It might seem a silly thing, but I do struggle to think of ways to express genuine concern without sounding cheesy or trite, to really impress upon someone the meaning behind my words. I don’t, after all, have a known, conventional system of belief as a referee.
When Devin goes to school, even a public school, it’s likely that, at some point, I’ll have to expressly state that, no, I don’t want him to attend the weekly scripture class… I would be much happier if such lessons were general studies and discussions of religions, philosophies, morals, and ethics.
The crux of the matter is that I, as an atheist, often feel lonely. I sigh wistfully at the community resources and tradition that religious families have, and I frequently feel adrift in a sea of mostly complacent Christianity.
(To be honest, I don’t particularly identify with the label ‘atheist’, though I certainly don’t believe in any supreme being/s. I might consider myself a Humanist, I suppose, but it seems silly to call oneself something that should just be a given. I’m just not religious. That’s all.)