Raising a Child Atheist Isn’t a Middle Finger to Religion
By Quentin Janes
Photo © LenaLav/Twenty20
Mar 24, 2021
I love Canada.
I just love it here.
I'm not sure that there is a single thing I would change about the people that live here and the way we proceed.
Naturally, there will always be problems, but as I see it that is not strange; nothing is perfect, but it can be better.
What I love about this country, especially where I live, is our approach to culture — because I love culture. Not just my culture, but all of it. I love what humanity is capable of creating.
Are you a non-believing parent who wants to talk to your kids about God? Find out about some books to help you here.
Frankly, I am not sure that I have ever met a piece of art that I did not like.
A picture of my daughter dreaming of cookie-rain still hangs on our fridge door. Though her skills have improved dramatically in the years since, I still love it for what it represents.
In it, she has portrayed a beautiful child dreaming happily about things that she loves. I can’t bear to part with it.
Why Atheism Works For Me
I believe that openness and excitement for new ideas is at least partly linked to my atheism. I see it allowing me to appreciate all forms of beauty — as I walk down the streets of our Toronto suburb, it’s an olfactory explosion of smells and tastes, from home-cooked Szechuan to a melange of curries and smoky barbecue.
Even the holidays and festivals are varied, many of which I’ve historically had the pleasure of participating in.
When I think of what’s available where I live, I think: it’s good to not steadfastly align with one universal idea. Because life is a picnic, and I want to try a bit of everything.
And that’s why I have no qualms with raising my daughter in this way.
It is not because I hate god, nor do I wish to rewrite creation with myself in god’s place. No, it’s quite the opposite. I don’t want to draw lines in the sand.
Raising a Child to Be Open
I want my daughter to look at the world as a place full of opportunities and experiences, without feeling bogged down by a sense of unflinching dogma. I want her to celebrate culture by honouring moments in time, whether that’s participating in the rites of Easter or Diwali.
To me, it would seem a terrible mistake to say to my child, “No, we cannot attain enlightenment, because we believe in Jesus.”
This is not to say we reject spirituality — clearly not. In our house, spirituality is a very personal matter. Here, spirituality has to be tailored to the person who is investing in it. It is not to be dictated by an outside power, not even me.
To help her navigate the many pathways to spirituality, I have my daughter ask herself: “What does this universe mean to me?”
Years ago, she came in from playing with her friends next door. She was only four years old and her friend was five — and they were priceless together.
One day she burst through the door with her friend right beside her.
“Daddy, daddy,” she said excitedly. “Jesus is going to come and take us all to heaven.”
"When we die it's going to be great?"
Caught off guard in the extreme, I asked: “What’s a heaven?”
The neighbours' child immediately started looking at the ground sensing trouble. My daughter was undaunted. She was jumping up and down as she answered. “He's um ... a magical guy and heaven is his home and when we die it's going to be great!”
A shiver ran through me.
When we die it's going to be great?
I had always resolved to go where the evidence leads me — to let sleeping dogs lie and cherry pick what I felt like eating. The concept that the best part of existence occurs after you die was very painful to hear. As I see it, life is just so beautiful and so precious. To look past this life in favour of a promise that will probably not even come true, has always seemed like a mistake to me.
So we talked a lot that day and every day since. Due to our lack of fundamentalist reverence, there is no topic which is taboo, there are no subjects that are unapproachable.
We talk about god and Jesus and accuracy and evidence and history.
Mother Helen Racanelli was steadfast in her youth about living without religion. But she doesn't want the same for her son. Read that here.
A Possibility of Nothingness
Eventually I broke it to her that when she dies, there will likely be nothing. Nothing in the truest sense of the word, not even existence — just food for worms. Naturally she liked this idea a whole lot less than the idea of living in Jesus' space mansion.
Yet I had to reassure her of something. So I reached for an idea I had come to understand, which had replaced my need for an eternal afterlife long ago. Something I hoped would make her feel a lot better.
After I had stolen heaven from her, I said: “Abigail, human beings would not be happy to live for eternity. All these things that you love in this world, the only reason you love them is because one day, they will cease to exist. The only reason you find a flower beautiful is because at one point in its life it was nothing, and when it dies it will decay and stink. But for that one week, it's just perfect — it is beautiful.”
"Eventually I broke it to her that when she dies, there will likely be nothing."
I asked: “Abigail, if that flower was always in full bloom would you be able to see how beautiful it really is?”
She did not answer, but she smiled. She saw what I meant, even though she did not have the words to convey it. Since then she has shown that she has taken the lesson to heart.
I am an atheist because we live on the luckiest rock in the loneliest place. All we have is each other on this organic space ship and I will not draw divisions between my beloved brothers and sisters, when I see none.
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