The toughest thing about being a parent is dealing with other people. Doesn't matter if they have children or not, almost everyone seems to have an opinion on what all parents are supposed to do if they are to be a good parent. Throw in something about yourself that doesn't fit in with the All-American nuclear family idea from the 50's, and you've got a whole new set of things you’re doing wrong coming your way. You could be a parent that is LGBTQ, a different race from the person you had you child(ren) with, different religion from the norm you were raised around, political views that are not in line with any social norms, or even someone that is just a lover of tattoos and other body modifications. There are so many things that will drive people to telling you just how wrong you are for having that thing you have that they do not also have.
I have a few of them. Politically I am a Centrist, which basically means I hate politics and choosing a side, which often ends in all sides accusing me of being whatever opposing side they are upset with at that moment. I am a lover of tattoos, and am always working toward expanding my collection (or updating my canvas, if you will). My son’s mother is not the same race that I am, from the same country (though technically U.S. territories are “part” of the US, it is another country), nor do we share the same native language (and yet her mastery of the English language goes far beyond my own, and I don’t speak any other languages). I’m also an atheist, which I’m sure comes as no surprise to anyone reading this blog.
It is very rare that anyone brings up politics as a reason to tell me I’m wrong. This is likely because I do not talk about politics very often. My hatred/annoyance of them keeps me from discussing them, not because I do not care about the state of my country, but because it is almost always people arguing over who has the better oranges and what it takes to grow a great orange and the best methods of juicing oranges, then they go and vote on apples and kiwis. Same with my son being of mixed races, which is more than likely because his mother is fair skinned and does not speak with the accent one would expect of someone from Puerto Rico (though every last one of her friends and family members I have met from there have an accent). I have a lot of tattoos, but no longer wear any body jewelry, so I do not get the stares I used to get, and the quality of my ink is amazing, which is something even the most hateful of tattoo haters cannot deny. So I rarely get anything negative from those people other than how ugly my skin will look when I’m 80. No, the main thing people love to attack me for, is being an atheist. Maybe it is atheism that keeps them from attacking me on other fronts, or maybe our culture is truly progressing in how we accept the differences in other people. I’d like to believe that to be true.
I am going to focus on raising a child as an atheist, because that is the one thing about me that causes the most headaches from other people. Plus it is the only one that I think I can write more than a paragraph or two on before I feel like I've said all that needs to be said (I could probably write for days on LGBTQ parenting and how amazing it is for a child, but I have no firsthand experience in that, so I’ll save it for another day).
As a parent, I am one of the two most influential people in my son’s life. Because of this, I am constantly working to be the very best example I can be for him. I do this in every facet of my life. What I believe in regards to religion is very important in who I am* and what kind of example I am setting for him. If I keep that from him, what kind of example am I setting? Especially when almost no other person he meets each day will keep their beliefs from him? How is my letting him grow up not knowing that I do not believe in god, while allowing the rest of his family to encourage a belief, right? It isn't. It isn't right at all.
I will not hide any part of who I am from my son, regardless of what my peers feel. I want to encourage him to always be true to himself, and open about who he is. Hiding a part of me from him will not teach him to come to conclusions on his own, it will teach him that there are parts of who we are that we have to sometimes hide when they are not in line with the ruling majority. That is the opposite of standing up for who you are, and it is not equal to the kind of “pride” one talks about when they refuse to walk away from a bad situation. It would be hypocritical of me to tell him to be proud of who he is, while appearing ashamed of who I am.
I want to raise my son to be someone that is not afraid to be open and honest with himself, and about himself. No shame in liking what he likes, loving who he loves, believing what he believes, and being whomever he turns out to be. I cannot do that if I am not setting the example by being that. How can I tell him to be open and honest about whom he is if I am hiding a major part of me from him? How can I ask him to stand up for what he believes if I am constantly censoring myself simply to keep from upsetting people that do not like anyone different from themselves? I can’t ask him to be these things if I am not also these things, or at least trying my very best to be them.
So I will tell my son my beliefs. I will not shove them down his throat, but I will present them to him exactly as they are -- my beliefs and nothing more. I will not tell him he has to believe what I believe, nor will I push him toward it. I will simply share what and why I believe what I do, and encourage him to research and ask questions to find out what he thinks is true or not. Believe it or not, it is possible to share an opinion with someone without needing them to agree with you.
I will let him come to his own place, in his own time, and in his own way. However, I will NOT send him off to church on Sundays, Vacation Bible School during the summer, or anything else that I do not agree with or would not want to attend myself. That is not opening him up to new ideas and experiences, that is sending him off to be indoctrinated. I will not do that to him. In fact, I will not allow him to attend these things until he is old enough to ask to go because he wants to and not because a family member or friend told him to ask after making it sound like going to the park for free candy. Their intentions be damned.
So, no, I do not have any intentions of pointing my son down a path I believe to be false and harmful simply because I walked that path to get to where I am. That’s stupid, and in my not so humble opinion, bad parenting. I am his father, and it is my job to teach him the lessons that I have learned, not sit back in silence waiting for him to make the same mistakes. I am to clear the paths that I walk in order to make the road he is to start out on. That way he is not repeating my lessons (though many will be repeated) and can focus on finding his own paths to clear for his children and future generations.
One thing that is often brought up in parental conversations is: “You were raised with religion, and you were able to come to your own conclusions and leave it. Don’t you think your son should do the same? Shouldn't you allow him to come to that conclusion the same way you did? Isn't it more rewarding that way?” The short answer to that is “no.” The long answer to that is, “Fuck no, you goddamned dolt.” You see, for [most] atheists that deconverted from the religion they were raised in, it is fucking horrible giving that up. We’re often accused of only being able to be atheists because of a traumatic experience, when the truth is leaving behind the religious faith we’d always known is extremely traumatic. Not just because of the fall out that often happens with friends and family, but because that is giving up a core part of your being. Mix that with being from a country in which odds are pretty high that you will instantly become the black sheep (if you weren't already) by no longer believing what everyone around you believes, and you've got one hell of an internal battle going on inside your mind that should not even be going on.
My response to this question is often countered by being told it should be something that is difficult to go through and decide like that. They say, “Whether or not you believe in a god is the most important ideological decision anyone will ever make.” To which my palm magically transforms into a placeholder for my face. Belief is not a choice, it is the conclusion drawn from the data processed by your mind. But more than that, the battle going on inside the mind is not whether or not to believe in a higher power, but whether or not we should accept it. The fight is in trying to deny the conclusion you've already come to, because it isn't the conclusion you expected or that the people you love came to. It is in trying to hide it, and in trying to make it go away so that you can just be normal [again] like everyone else. I imagine it is quite similar to someone fighting the realization that they are gay. At least that is what I have been told by LGBTQ atheists and how it sounds when talking to LGBTQ friends about their experiences coming to grips with finally admitting who they were to themselves.
I know many believe that in an ideal world, one would keep their personal beliefs personal and let each other person in the world decide what it is that they want to believe for themselves. Luckily, this is not that ideal world, and very few people my son meets are going to keep their personal beliefs personal. If they did, we would not have the literature that we have, the music, movies, TV shows, etc etc. We would not have the art that we have. We cannot grow without some kind of challenge, and we get that through sharing personal parts of ourselves with one another. Granted, this is not always done in the best of ways, but most of the time it is.
What is frustrating about this, is the knowledge that when it comes to people who do and do not share their personal beliefs with him, it is the atheists that are the least likely to share. Even those that know I am an atheist are going to bite their tongue more often than not if the subject arises around him. If they do share, it will not have any detail, because most will not know what I believe other than what I do not believe, and have no clue how social stigmas impact my parenting style. Plus it can feel pretty damn uncomfortable sharing that with a child. Because you never know what parent is going to get upset with you, you try to avoid speaking about them at all costs. Hell, I don’t even talk about it with my brothers without feeling like I am going to upset their mother. I will answer their questions, but I have never told them to stop believing in a god because Christianity is all bullshit anyway. No matter how much doubt they had at the time of coming to me, I never gave them any kind of a push. Just encouragement to keep asking questions and learning as much as they can in order to come to the most accurate conclusion they can. Mostly, though, I let them know that no matter what, they were loved, not alone, and would be okay. Their mother and my father and most everyone else in our family are Christians, and not a single one of them would have spoken with them in the same manner. Had they been approached by someone showing the kind of doubts they have shown me, they would respond by telling them they are being tested by Satan, telling them that they don’t really have doubts because they “know” god is real, and whatever else they could think of to keep them from walking away from Christianity. All with good intentions, and no realization at just how cult-like it is to do that to someone.
I can’t blame them for that kind of thinking, though. If you honestly believe people that do not have faith or belief in your god are going to burn in Hell for all of eternity, and you do not try and warn them, you’re not a very good person. I’m not talking about pushing something onto them long after they have told you to stop, but just reminding them why they once believed or offering them something you think might be super insightful in hopes of saving them. Yes, I will get frustrated with this, and I will even make fun of you if your “insight” is ridiculous enough. I won’t, however, lose respect for you so long as you are being respectful in your presentation (which I cannot make fun of you if you accomplish this). I understand that with this mentality, hearing that an atheist is sharing their beliefs to someone at an influential age is probably equal to someone trying to sentence your child to death, which I imagine is scary as fuck. I can’t accept it as absolute, though. I cannot look at the reasons, understand why they are this way, and then refuse to try and change them. If I am to believe that someone with those beliefs should share them with me, then I also have to believe that my opinions and beliefs should be shared with them. Neither are any less important than the other. We need to hear each other in order to accept each other and especially if we are to love one another.
As I am writing this, I am realizing so many ways in which I still censor myself for others. I can no longer do this. I’m not going to start running around telling every kid I see that there is probably no god, but I am no longer going to avoid the question when a child asks (or anyone else for that matter), regardless of whom the child is or who their parents are. I’m not hiding it anymore.
So long as he keeps smiling, I don't care what he does or does not believe in.
*Atheism is not important to me as in it defines me, but in that it is a major reason why I am as open and accepting as I am (or am not, depending on who you ask). However, I do not believe it would be very important at all if I were raised in a country that is predominately atheist. I've posted previously about this here and here.