I recently came across a video clip of Julia Sweeney talking about her encounter with Mormon missionaries for a TED talk. I appreciated the clip for two reasons: 1) I grew up with Mormons and her description of their fervent belief in their religion was spot on and 2) I, too, have had Mormons (as well as Jehovah’s Witnesses) come to my door to evangelize. The clip reminded me of an incident about a year ago when two Mormons (and it’s almost always young men, but that might be the topic of another post) “knocked” on my door. I say “knocked” because they approached my house just as the last of the children from my oldest daughter’s play group were leaving–so they didn’t really knock. If they had, I would not have answered because I don’t answer the door for people I don’t know.
They watched from a somewhat respectful distance at the edge of my yard as my daughter and I said goodbye to the last of her friends. Their short-sleeve white shirts with the little name tags practically screamed Mormon at me. I had half a mind to dash back into the house like I hadn’t seen them, but that would have been rude. I do try to be a respectful person. Certainly, the fact that my daughter was with me worked in their favor. As we finished our last “goodbyes” and kiss blowing, they approached. The exchange went something like this:
MM1: We have a message for you from God.
Me: (Gathering my daughter on my hip) I don’t believe in God.
MM2: He believes in you. He’s sent us with a message.
Me: (Trying to back slowly into my house) Is this something I can read later? We’re about to eat lunch. Do you have a letter from him? Or an email? Fax?
MM1 and MM2: (Confused looks)
MM1: Ma’am, God wants you to be saved. Your little girl needs God. The baby you’re about to have needs God. We want to help save all of your souls. We have a book you can read called the Book of Mormon. It will help you find God.
Me: The Book of Mormon is your message from God? Oh, I already read that. I don’t need another one. But thanks anyway. We have to eat lunch now.
MM1: Oh, you read it! Then we can help you understand the finer points and find your path back to us.
Me: Um, no, there’s no “back”. I told you–I don’t believe in God.
MM2: But you’ve read the Book of Mormon.
Me: Only because I grew up with Mormons. I wanted to know what it was my friends were all proselytizing and why it was all the girls acted like 1950s house wives and why they couldn’t have caffeine but guzzled down chocolate by the bucket-full. I wasn’t Mormon myself. Nor do I want to be.
MM2: But God wants you to be. How can you raise moral children without God? You can’t. You need Heavenly Father’s guidance to keep your children from becoming wanton and immoral.
Me: (Patently aware that young ears were listening): Then could you please explain to me why the Mormon boys always thought they were going to go all the way to home base with me when they asked me out on a date? Why two of my non-Mormon girl friends were assaulted in a violent, biblical manner, by Mormon boys? Can you explain why the biggest cheating ring busted in my high school’s history was masterminded by two Mormons? Or the steroid use on the football team was also masterminded by a group of Mormons? I mean, if Mormonism is all it takes to be moral in the world, then why all the immoral behavior?
MM1 and MM2: (Blank stares)
Me: Look, I appreciate you’ve got a hard job trying to convince people to buy into your religion. And, by the way, your origin story certainly doesn’t help your cause. I get that, I do. But to come to my house and flat out tell me that I cannot raise moral children because I don’t believe in Mormonism is presumptuous and rude. Doesn’t Jesus tell us not to judge lest we too be judged? Yet here you are, judging me for not being Mormon. Frankly, that’s one of the primary reasons I never really liked the Mormon religion. You all seem fine and well when you’re individuals, but put you in a group and everyone else is fair game. So, I’m going to take my immoral self back into my house and sit down to a meal with my daughter. I hope you have a nice day. Goodbye!
I turned and walked quickly back into my house. As I locked the door, I heard them slip their literature into the door frame. The small part of me wanted to fling open the door, rip it into a million pieces, and fling it at them. But, you know, small eyes were watching and it wouldn’t have been the moral thing (or the nice thing!) to do anyway. Oh, but the temptation made me smile.
I grow weary of this charge that atheists cannot be moral because they do not believe in a higher power/God(s) figure(s), much less raise moral children. More often than not, when someone first learns I am an atheist, they too insist that I cannot be truly moral because I do not believe in God or accept His will as an higher authority. In Behaving Yourself: Moral Development in the Secular Family, Jean Mercer considers this misconception of morality and ethics, challenging the idea that morals and ethics are only in the purview of religion. She suggests that the parenting practices a child experiences are much more indicative of the resulting levels of morality and ethics the child achieves as an adult. I agree with her assessment. The list of individuals who have, throughout history, questioned the existence of a higher power and who are even so considered to be “moral” or “ethical” is a long one. (A good place to start is Annie Laurie Gaylor’s essay entitled What Your Kids Won’t Learn in School.)
And frankly, the list of individuals who have wrought, and continue to inflict, intense pain and horror on their fellow humans in the name of religion is much longer than the majority of religious people are willing to admit. Simply focusing on the “big” events–the Inquisition, the Crusades, Imperialism, Slavery, 9/11—is enough to make one’s head spin. Somehow, these immoral acts are excused as “not indicative” or “just a part of that time period” or “not our doctrine” or “outliers” or some other excuse for why said religion/religious people cannot take responsibility for the immoral acts. (And lest anyone jump on the “but atheists do immoral things too!” bandwagon: I fully acknowledge this to be the case, but that is irrelevant to the point at hand. I think all people, regardless of their religious or spiritual leanings/beliefs, have the capacity to be immoral.)
So, yes, I can, in fact, raise moral children because I am, in large part, a moral being. Sure, I mess up sometimes. I am not always the person I strive to be. But, overall, I’d say I do a very good job of living a moral, ethical life. I strive to embody empathy and compassion. I strive to help my community. I strive to live by the “golden rule” (and really, if we all followed that rule, we’d have a lot less conflict in this world). And I strive to raise moral children.
But am I? Am I raising moral, ethical, empathetic, respectful children?
My oldest is still in preschool. If one of her peers is hurt, if one cries, if one needs help, she is the first (and often the only) child to attend to that person. To me, given her age, this exemplifies a wonderful start and a good foundation for a moral and ethical life. My favorite story, relayed to me by another mom, involves my daughter tending a crying baby. The baby’s mom had to step away from the baby to take her older son to the bathroom. The baby started crying and, as another mom relayed to me, my daughter, “who was in the other room, heard the baby and came running in. She rocked the baby in her car seat and said ‘Sh, sh, baby. I will get you a toy.’ She got a toy, came back, showed the baby the toy. When that didn’t’ work, she rocked the baby and sang her songs until the baby’s mom returned to her.” My daughter, the child of the only atheist/agnostic parents in her class, was the only child who even acknowledged the crying baby, much less stopped to tend to it as best she could. I’m not sure what the “you can’t raise moral children” Mormon missionaries would think about that. Perhaps they would see it as an aberration.
So, yes. Yes, Mormons. Yes theists. I, an atheist mother, can indeed raise a moral child. You can, too, but you don’t have a “lock” on morality just because you believe some higher power is running your life.