I am a mom. I am an atheist. These identities are neither mutually exclusive nor contradictory in my life. In fact, becoming a mom is what prompted me to be more honest about my lack of belief in god. I am supposed to be the ethical compass for my children, but how could I be that compass if I was too busy lying to myself for the readings to be true? I had spent years in my former professional life dodging the question of my “belief”, but the weight of my baby in my arms, the tug of that little mouth on my breast, made me realize I could no longer hide. Children are little lie detectors–and mine would eventually ferret out my dishonesty and that dishonesty would undermine my relationship with them. I couldn’t have that.
So I began the process of “coming out*” to my family and friends. Those who saw me and listened to me were not surprised. Those who had not truly seen me or listened to me were not only surprised, they were aghast that I would “open my arms to hell”, “reject the one true God”, “throw my baby into Satan’s eager grasp”, and “refuse the most important relationship in your life”. These comments are the “highlights” of many of my theist (mostly Christian, though some Muslim and Jewish) friends’ reactions. These reactions stopped my “coming out” process in its tracks–I could see that “coming out” was going to be trickier than I thought it would be. I had been naive enough to believe that geography (in regards to where I live) was on my side in terms of tolerance, but this assumption was incorrect.
These reactions also pushed me to ask important questions: How could I raise ethical and moral children without religion? How could I publicly and safely identify as atheist? Were there resources, in the form of groups or texts, which could support my own education and that of my children? Was I really an agnostic? How do I interact with other parents when issues related to theism and belief crop up? And how do I make “peace” with my theist friends who now believe that I am their number one evangelical calling?
I realized quickly that parenting resources specifically for the atheist parent are few and far between. While many wonderful child rearing and parenting books exist which are not specifically theist, inevitably I would reach a point in these books which made it clear to me that the writers were theists or, at the very least, had no problem encouraging the magical-thought-as-reality approach to child-rearing. And the children’s books themselves presented an entirely more disturbing class of theist and/or magical-thought-as-reality assumptions which I could not abide. I began inhaling books and texts written by atheists, humanists, agnostics, and freethinkers in an effort to understand how to raise ethical and moral children within this framework. While these books were edifying, parenting was not a topic they addressed directly.
Into this void came Parenting Beyond Belief, edited by Dale McGowan: http://parentingbeyondbelief.com/. Finally, a book which spoke directly to me, answered (or provided a clear jumping off point for) many of my questions, and assured me that I could raise moral and ethical children without religion. This book, and its many referenced resources, gave me the courage to continue “coming out” and being honest about who I was as I moved within my community. Eureka!
And then my dog died. And the theists in my life arrived “en masse”.
I posted my dog’s passing to several different groups, as many people in my life knew my dog had been sick and I didn’t want to spend the next several weeks having to “relive” the announcement. Further, several friends and family members had been calling, texting, emailing, and Facebooking comments for weeks, so announcing my dog’s death in several venues seemed appropriate. In the span of a week, I received:
- several public comments stating my dog was “in heaven” or “with God” and so I should be happy,
- several public comments stating that I now had the perfect opportunity to introduce my children to God’s love,
- several private messages and emails encouraging me to see the purpose of life and embrace God now so that I can give my children the gift of knowing their dog is in heaven waiting for them in the afterlife,
- two children’s books, sent to my home, which used very religious terms to explain the death of a pet, from people to whom I had initially “come out” when I began publicly identifying as an atheist,
- several “fire and brimstone” type messages saying that I needed to accept God or I would never see my dog again and her death would be meaningless, and
- one message which told me that my dog’s death was God’s way of telling me I’d better start believing in him again or my children and I would burn in hell.
I did the only thing a grieving pet owner and parent should do in a situation like this one–I got mad. And then I decided I should get even. And then I realized that getting even would only serve to perpetuate, in these theists’ minds anyway, that I was a Godless sinner with no moral compass. In essence, I realized that getting even would mean sinking to their level.
The best revenge, my mom always told me, was a life well lived. What better way for an atheist parent to have a life well lived than to create a resource and space for other atheist parents? And so, the idea for Freethinking Parent was born.
I hope this blog will serve two purposes:
1. As a space for me to document my journey as a Freethinking Parent. I use the term “freethinking” deliberately. I am an atheist, yes, but my parenting partner is an agnostic. My mother is an atheist, but my father is a theist. And my in-laws are liberal theists. My children are, therefore, going to be exposed to a variety of beliefs and thoughts regarding the existence of god(s) within this extended family structure. My purpose is to imbue them with enough respect for free thought and critical thinking that they do not blindly accept what any of us have to say without a lot of “whys?” and “can you prove that?”
2. As a space for other freethinkers, atheists, agnostics, humanists, non-theists who are parents or who work with children or who are grandparents/aunts/uncles/etc to come, read, learn, be educated, ask questions, experience a supportive community of like-minded thinkers. I think such a space is important because much of what we experience within society is not nearly as secular (or accepting) as it should be.
These two purposes create a tall order, but I am very much looking forward to this adventure.
*I put coming out in quotes because I feel I am borrowing a label from a group of people who are far more persecuted in our society than atheists/agnostics are. I am open to suggestions of other descriptive terms to use for atheists who begin to identify themselves to family/friends, but I cannot now think of a term which more accurately reflects the process.