Saturday, July 7, 2012

Atheism for Kids

There are two* things wrong with religion:

  1. The unsubstantiated beliefs, themselves, and
  2. The fervour with which belief systems are defended by their adherents.
For the first reason, I want to prevent my daughter from being exposed to crazy ideas at an age predating her critical-thinking abilities.

For the second reason, I don't want to push my atheism on her either; it's not enough to ensure that she grows up as an "Atheist". I don't want my daughter to be a capital-A Atheist in order to obtain membership of a community; she's already part of a community without it relying on group-think. I want her to reach the conclusions which most atheists also reach, through thought and understanding of the universe. 

If I can facilitate that process when she's old enough to understand, then I'll be happy to help, but I expect the process to reach a conclusion more like:
Some people say that there is a god who created the universe and came to Earth and did a whole lot of stuff. But it occurred to me that the only evidence substantiating these claims either comes from records of people without any training in science, thousands of years ago, or from more modern people who seem to be either lying or crazy. Even if I were to accept that there is a god, for which there is no reliable, direct evidence, I see no reason to believe that any of the hundreds of precise, mutually exclusive ways to attain an unexplained post-life reward are any more credible, when put to the test, than the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
We're Atheists in our family.

 *There may be plenty more things wrong with religion, but these are the two core issues on which I am focussing.

Unlike my normal blog posts, I kept this one quite short. I thought the language wasn't too ambiguous, or unjustified, though apparently others took exception to it. Here is the storm of comments it caused on Facebook, with some parts redacted to hide others' names. It is included for anyone else going through a similar process who wants to see what to expect, or to see some more fleshed out thought processes:

[My mum]:
So in allowing your daughter to create her own beliefs and experiences, will you allow her to partake of bi products of religous and pagan activities, such as santa, easter bunny and tooth fairy?
I don't want her to partake in religious holidays in any form that would work to pull her in or influence her. I want her to wait until she's able to decide on the merits of the belief system, rather than the amount of fun.
[My mum]:
Bah humbug
How will you know when [your daughter]'s ready to make such decisions for herself? And how can she possibly wake up one day and suddenly know everything she needs to know to make such decisions? And does this mean she can't change her mind once "the" decision is made? I can imagine that she'll spend a lot of energy explaining and defending herself to her peer group that won't have the maturity to understand this view point. Each to their own, but I sincerely hope she get's a balanced opportunity to learn about her options. I'd hate to see you arguing with her should she choose to have have her photo taken with Santa, share Easter eggs with her friends or light diyas with her Aunty [Friend] for Diwali. Why can't she just have fun without analyzing everything? 
I don't expect there to be a single moment of realisation or a single decision to be made. I expect lots of questions; lots of "why? But why?" and I don't want her to accept "because that's the way god made it" as an answer. Our society has developed the tools to be enlightened beyond that.
She can light candles with you, as long as it is clear that your belief's existence isn't proof of your belief's claims.
I *might* accept more mainstream-Australian religious holiday practices, as long as it is clear to her that it is possible for there to be mass delusions; that just because millions of people believe in somethingdoesn't make it real.
That will be hard to judge, so I'd rather just steer clear of all the mumbo jumbo and hope to avoid her mind being polluted.
I want her to be able to decide for herself, but I'm not trying to be politically correct and "tell her about all beliefs" as if they are equally valid.
I don't want to offend anyone, but I also won't let social pressure cause me or my family to accept nonsense at face value.
It's not a matter if being politically correct, rather accepting that what may be nonsense for you may not be for someone else. 
I don't agree with anyone who imposes their beliefs on others. However lessons of love and respect are often manifested in traditions and culture.
Traditions and culture is not the same as religion, and in most cases, the intention is pure and without malice.
Having beliefs of any nature is a very personal thing. You shouldn't have to justify your position nor have your motives constantly questioned...on both sides. That could be considered offensive.
You seem to be talking about culture and morality in a broad sense. I am talking about religion. So a perceived disagreement between us is possibly due to talking about different things.
I am happy to accept that killing people is bad, which is a moral position, but I'm not willing to say that killing is bad because god would be angry.
With regard to the unfounded claims of religions: What I consider to be nonsense is not valid just because others don't consider it to be nonsense. That would be like saying that because I think that 2+2=4, it doesn't make it wrong for others to believe that 2+2=5. 
Anyone who wants to make claims about the supernatural around my daughter has to bear the burden of proof. However, anyone who wants to believe any old crazy thing and keep it to themselves is welcome to do so.
Okie dokie.
[Friend's husband's sister]:
You don't know me but this came up on my wall and well why not comment if you are going to announce it to the world. Little background, I am very much a science minded person, have been studying it for 5 years and will continue to do so for the rest of my life. However, in saying this I can see obvious flaws in your logic. In stating so publicly and outright that you want to keep your child away from religion 'hogwash' is achieving exactly what you are aiming to avoid. You are not allowing her to ever experience any other way and allow her to 'make her own decisions'. Yes there is no scientific proof of some religious beliefs, but we also never claim in scientific papers that something is 100% fact, it always comes down to the probability that it happened by chance. Theories can and often are deemed wrong in light of ones information. 
I do not associate with any religion. I believe in science, but many of the teachings of religions hold true. One needs to experience life to be able to make her own decisions.
All I'm stating is that I want to keep her away from religion until she is old enough to think critically... Not forever. The post at the top of this thread is about me wanting her to be able to decide for herself, but based on the merits, rather than on social pressure or impassioned prose.
And evidence cannot be understated. Whatever teachings of religions "hold true" are around perceived universal morality, rather than around the central dogma regarding the creation and structure of the universe and the rules by which it operates. 
[Friend's husband's sister]:
Remember your daughter is a child... She deserves a childhood where fun holds true... To keep her away from religion would require you to shut off from society. I'm all for individual choice, but you are not giving the chance for that to occur in pushing your own personal beliefs. But the point is she has to experience it to form her own beliefs.. I experienced Xmas and Easter and even did religious education for awhile... I made my decision after I'd experienced it and knew it didn't fit my beliefs... 
I'm not religious but Xmas means family to me, i don't celebrate Jesus I celebrate the fact that I have people who I love around me - Xmas gives us the holiday to have that opportunity.
It would be nice if we could all grow in a world without social pressures and expectations, unfortunately we don't. Out of curiosity are you married?? If you are that could be an interesting conversation after you down right declared religion is wrong...
Hiding away from different cultures and religions doesn't foster an individual's autonomy. Knowledge allows that to occur, allow your kid to learn and experience so she can make her own informed decisions. 
I know I've rambled on a fair bit in my posts here, so it's understandable that you've missed the nuance in the position that I intended to espouse, whether or not I've done a good job in doing so.
Written words are a terrible form of communication, so to clear up any doubt, the above passage is not intended to be having a go at you.
I'll try to address your points and focus on clarity, rather than assuming you know how I think.
Childhood and fun are not inextricably tied to religion. My wife has no problem with doing some of the practices associated with Christmas, where they are not overtly religious, but we've agreed, for now, to limit things to New Year presents, figuring that Christmas and New Year are both on the same school holiday break, so as to not cause tension with school friends, when she is of that age; they can all go back to school and talk about their presents. New Year's Day seems like as good a time as any other arbitrarily chosen time to celebrate the year's achievements and set goals for the next.
But what Christmas means to you is irrelevant to what it means in my family, which is something that people of Christian heritage, whether practising or not, often fail to understand.
I am usually pressured into doing some kind of family event on December 25th, though I was not brought up with that day being in any way significant, therefore I don't feel bound to that day. Christmas Day hasonly gained any firm of significance in my extended family due to the few, non-practising Christians who have married in. So even I am not immune to social pressure.
Personally, I like to think that you can spend time with family at times of year that are less officially sanctioned.
I don't intend to "push" beliefs on my daughter. My entire goal is to allow her to reach her own conclusions by making her own investigations. My original blog even stated that I don't want her to call herself an atheist just because her family is atheist. I do want her to be one, but through following an inquisitorial process that logically leads there.
The problem, as I see it, is the strength of the beliefs of others that can be pushed, whether in the school system (think National School Chaplaincy Program), or on TV or at the movies (think everything in December), or the well-meaning, ill-informed intentions of friends.
If I can keep her away from those beliefs until she has proper faculties of critical thinking, which I believe will take a few more years, though I'm no expert, then that is great. But it's not feasible in practice.
Instead, what I think will happen is, she'll be exposed to some crazy notions, and I'll have to explain to her why they are crazy.
I don't want to do that, because it seems to be letting my partiality get in the way of her making up her own mind, but I don't intend to let religious influences have an advantage either, so I'll be forced into abattle to establish what I see to be the most rational prejudices I can, before other influences take root.
And yes, I acknowledge that I'm probably overthinking things. I tend to do that.
This is a good piece that comes close to my own views in the areas on which it touches:
[My wife]:
Hi [Friend's husband's sister], yes he does have a wife ;) Thank you all for your comments on what we "Should" be doing with our daughter, because obviously the only way to raise a child is based on what everyone else thinks we should be doing! While I don't feel we have to justify our stance on this to anybody, let me tell you that [our daughter] will eat easter eggs in her lifetime, yes, she will see/partake in Xmas trees and presents at some point and in some form, and just as she will experience Turkish cultural experiences borne from religion, she will also experience Jewish experiences and Hindu experiences with her Aunty [Friend] :) But for you to imply that she won't be happy or will be locked in a dungeon sheltered from society being told how horrible fun is, well that's just ridiculous. Do you all honestly believe that a child raised with[out] Christmas is a child that is raised without fun??? I was raised without Christmas and I had a great childhood! Just as she will be taught the Christians celebrate Christmas, she will be taught that we don't. She will understand the diff beliefs and understand that they are just beliefs and not factual claims, and she can make up her mind just like I did. My parents taught me about all religions and explained they did not believe, and then I came to the decision that I also did not believe. If she eventually decides she does want to believe in one of them then that's her choice.
[Friend's husband]:
I think a main point is being missed here...choice doesn't exist without options. Anyway every1 is entitled 2 raise their children the way they choose providing it is within the law. Having said that posting on Facebook invites other peoples opinions so if u don't want them don't post. 
[Friend's husband's sister]:
You leave your profiles open for the public to view you are going to get comments you don't like - I am not telling you how to raise your child, you've clearly stated how you are going to do that. I'm suggesting another alternative view - that experience and knowledge (I.e. letting her learn about religion) should be the key to her decisions. By the way I'm not wasting anymore time on this you clearly cannot have a mAture discussion without getting petty - ps marriage is a religious tradition.
I posted this stuff publicly in order to start a dialogue, so I've got no problem with anyone posting. It's almost a natural law however that people will get defensive if they feel like their parenting choices are under attack. I started this public dialogue, so I've put that to the side.[My wife]'s been blindsided by it, however.
I agree to some extent that choice doesn't exist without options from which to choose, but that's only in a discrete sense where there must only be certain static options, which cannot be discovered by yourself.
E.g. "which book would you like to read?" is *hard* to answer without knowing which books exist. But the books of which you don't know are still there, so you can *ask* which options exist, and it's always possible to write your own book if you don't like any of the options about which you know. As an aside, writing a new book is how most religions start.
But back to the point: not all options are as credible as each other, and I don't want them presented as if they are, and as if everyone agrees they are.
Scientology is ridiculous. Pastafarianism's creation myth is literally a joke. Mormonism was created by an obvious conman. But the main thing that Christianity, Judaism, various pagan religions, etc. have over these newer religions is the pseudo-credibility that tenacious ideas receive after surviving for thousands of years. That's it. There's nothing else to the ideas.
Culture and tradition, while usually having religious origins, are a different thing, generally, and I, once again generally, have no problem with [my daughter] taking part in learning about and experiencing that part of life.
[My wife]:
[Friend's husband's sister] Our profiles aren't public, you only caught wind of this because you have [Friend] on your friends list and she commented on this post. Commenting on a post is fine and you're entitled to your opinion but you don't really know us so you can't tell us how to be bring religion into our childrens' lives. just like I'm not about start telling your older sister how she should with her son. David's blog post was merely an article about how one person plans to explain his atheism to his daughter when she is old enough to understand. That is all. She will be given all the information she asks for and then will be free to make up her mind, and we fully appreciate that she may change her opinion many times in her life and that is fine too. The End. 
[Friend's husband]:
Maybe u shld consider more carefully what u post if u r going 2 get so defensive about other peoples opinions. Secondly if your friends of friends can see your posts your facebook is very public. Facebook has security settings that can manage this more privately.
[Friend's husband]:
I posted publicly. I did this intentionally. I intended to start a discussion. I have no problem with a discussion taking place.
[My wife] did not start this discussion, so if you're directing your comments to her, they're going to the wrong person.
I'm not sure what it is that has caused anyone to call my responses immature. I'd like to know, preferably by message rather than post, so I can learn.
Otherwise, I'd like an end to this discussion, because once the ad hominem attacks come out, the discussion has passed its useful lifetime. 
[Friend's husband's sister]:
nothing was directed at [My wife]. as david states he intentionally posted this publicly, so deal with the consequences. 

If you've made it this far, how do other people who want to steer clear of religion deal with this kind of response? It seems to me that the pressure to understand and partake of other religions is a new-fangled way for Christians (practising or otherwise) to make atheists stay in touch with their religion of choice.

Nobody is telling Christians that they should light a menorah, celebrate ramadan, or take a quick personality test, so why do non-religious people have to take part?

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