It’s an awesome responsibility, and one that I don’t undertake lightly. In fact, it’s probably the most important task I will ever embark on. I often feel as if every step I’ve taken along my own path has led me to these two girls’ heads. I find myself considering those heads with a kind of awe—their shape, their heft as I lay them gently asleep to the pillow, their warmth of life, that subtle hot pulse of expanding brainpower held in place by thick bone and a million years of evolution. Or merely gazing into the windows of their eyes, trying with futility to gauge the effectiveness of their upbringing.
Shortly after my first daughter was born, I started reading Homer’s The Odyssey to her. Every end-of-day feeding, I’d intone some of the world’s most ancient poetry into her ears as she gazed up at me with her blank-slate eyes, probably trying to make sense of me in her days-old philosophy. But every day came Homer, every day came rhymes charged with poetic language, and I imagined those young synapses firing with extra fervor to the sound of my voice.
People would laugh at me. “You’re reading her what?”
“It’s one of the greats!” I’d remind them.
“Yeah, but to her, it might as well be like the grownups in the old Peanuts cartoons,” they’d say. “Mwah mwaaah mwuh mwah mwuhh mwaaaah … “
“No, no, no,” I’d insist. “To her, it’s the greatest thing she’s ever heard.”
Since those first months, I’ve tried to continue opening her mind to life, in all the myriad ways I can think of. I don’t think I’m doing anything extraordinary—just doing all the necessary work of a father. But every time I introduce her to something new, I feel the touch of the spiritual, observing her look of wonder as she soaks in the new experience or sight or sound. I’m sure this feeling is as ancient as parenthood itself, but to me, it’s one of those “meaning of life” kinds of things.
Yeah, if there’s a god keeping this huge place churning, his or her DNA is surely embedded in my relationships with my daughters. There’s no church in the world that could enthrall me the way these girls do when they engage in creativity or curiosity.
Both my daughters were 5 years old when they first asked me about god.
I’d been waiting for it. I knew the day would come, in their increasing interactions with other kids on the playground, when they’d hear religious vocabulary on the lips of their classmates. It was only natural, as my daughters’ curiosity bloomed, that they’d wonder what “god” and “Jesus” meant.
Now, before I go on, we have to come to the understanding that children are born atheists.
Don’t click away.
Children are born with an absence of belief. Which is the meaning of atheism. During their first years of life, kids don’t believe in anything, really. They don’t even know about Santa Claus yet, let alone god. We haven’t fed them the myths yet. They aren’t even close to considering the big questions in life. They’re still curious about colors and flavors and bowel movements (one of the other joys of fatherhood).
So, children are born atheists. I know this from experience—from simple observation—and yet a lot of people would react to such a statement with bewilderment, pity, condescension, or even hate. They would instantly deem me unreliable and disturbed. They would curse me, dismiss me, or pray for me.
But no, children aren’t born believers. They have to be trained to have faith. And that’s what most parents do to their children—train them to believe in god. They endlessly murmur religious babble into their ears, they dress them up and take them solemnly to church, they train them to kneel at their bedsides and pray, they make religion an integral part of every day and every night. They infuse their young minds with god from Day One.
And the repercussions echo for a lifetime.
You might consider this article a condemnation of that kind of vicious parenting cycle, but suffice it to say, when my daughters debuted on Earth, I knew it would be my mission to raise them differently. It’s not a decision to be made lightly. As a parent, you’re surrounded by friends and family and neighbors taking the traditional path. Even if you’re agnostic or atheist, you might have like-minded friends who—upon becoming parents—think to themselves, I want little Jimmy to have a religious upbringing, and thus abandon principles they’ve held dear for decades. Or a fellow heathen might marry a more religiously tuned individual and bow to the spouse’s wishes regarding “spiritual education.” I’ve experienced these phenomena, and more than once I’ve experienced shock.
“You’re enrolling her in Catholic school? You!?”
“Why on Earth would you do that?”
“Well, that’s where my parents put me …”
It’s an odd shifting of gears, as if parenthood has jerked them onto a different path, a path that forces them to think about patterns that came before them. They look to their own upbringing, or they look toward societal norms to inform their parenting decisions. The vast majority of people throughout time raise their children under the influence of some kind of church—including their own parents, and their parents, and their parents (you get the idea)—so it must be the right way to raise a kid! Right? It’s just what people do.
To which, I say Balderdash!
But in raising my daughters, I’ve stuck to my worldview and have raised them accordingly. I have not introduced ritual, and I have not suggested blind allegiance to any being. My wife and I have left that part of their intellectual development free of predisposition. And, inevitably, we have faced those moments when our children hear certain words and phrases—thrown around on the school grounds, invariably—and are naturally curious.
One night, at the dinner table, we were all enjoying our meal when 5-year-old Sophie—our youngest daughter—stopped eating, carefully set her utensils on the edge of her plate, and looked over at me. The expression on her face was a little bit solemn, a little bit curious, a little bit playful. She’s the most openly, overtly curious of our two daughters, always ready with a question and a follow-up question.
“Did god make me?”
I stopped with my fork in midair, wedge of meatloaf floating before my face, half-chewed beef cud in my cheek. The clinking of silverware and the chatter of conversation had abruptly ceased.
“Say again?” I asked.
She stared at me.
“I said, ‘Did god make me?’”
“Did god make you?”
I took the bite, pondering. “Do you think god made you?” (Patented parenting technique: Turning the question back at the questioner.)
A shrug. “I don’t know.” She poked at her food.
“Did someone say something today?”
“Uh huh.” She looked at me again. “Katie.”
“What did she say?”
“That god made her. She said god made me, too.”
“Who’s god?” I asked her.
Another shrug. “I don’t know.”
“Did Katie say anything else?”
“She said god puts babies in mommies’ tummies.”
“Huh!” I said.
“Is that true?”
I gave her a thoughtful look. “I don’t know, sweetie. I’ve never met god.”
“I haven’t either.”
“But I guess he would have to be some virile fella.”
Playful, scrunched-up face in reply. “What?”
“He would have to know an awful lot of moms!”
Dinner continued, forks and knives clinking. Potatoes and peas were passed around. I watched Sophie, smiling, imagining the gears turning in her cranium.
“Where does god live?” she asked. Her tone was nonchalant, and she glanced casually at me while she chewed a new bite.
I considered that one. “Well, some people think there’s a god that lives in the sky, and some people think he lives even farther away than that. Some people think he lives in the middle of the world. Some people believe he lives everywhere. Some people think he lives in your heart.” I used my free hand to reach over and poke her little chest. “Some people don’t even believe in him. What do you think?”
She was staring at me, goggle-eyed, processing.
“I don’t know.”
Another period of thoughtful silence.
Finally, she asked, “So … if god made me, who made god?”
I stared at her. It was another one of those moments of awe that I mentioned at the start. She just continued chewing her food, and I glanced around the table with an expression of almost profound understanding. Shared a significant look with my wife—a “wow” look, a look of pride.
Unwittingly, Sophie had just validated my core concepts about the effect of religious indoctrination on kids.
At five years old, my daughter had gradually become a thinking human. She was starting to comprehend fairly sophisticated concepts—say, the concept of “creation.” Making things. Thanks to 60 months of experience, her brain’s electricity was surging along all kinds of young neural pathways. A million words read and spoken to her, a billion enticing sounds and sights bombarding her, a thousand hugs and kisses and other repeated physical sensations—they all added up to Sophie’s understanding of the world. And one thing Sophie lacked that the vast majority of her peers had endured was the constant repetition of the language of religion.
No god, no bible, no prayer memorized at the end of every day.
The sum total of her knowledge of the Bible is occasional biblical fables heard once or twice—as literature. In our home, the Bible is treated as any other work of fiction or collection of fairy tales. It is decidedly not used as a framework for world view.
For that reason, she had a healthy, curious, open mind about god when the notion was introduced to her. It’s my contention that those kids brought up under the spell of religious indoctrination never truly gain the ability to consider the idea of god with an open mind, a mind unspoiled by rigid neural pathways formed throughout childhood.
Organized religion understands this phenomenon very well. That’s how they thrive. Once parents willingly establish a routine of delivering their kids regularly to church, they’ve already started along the road to indoctrination.
Rewind five years.
I had my first real moment of clarity when my oldest daughter Harper was five years old. This was half her life ago, but the memory is still quite fresh.
On the north side of her elementary school, the wind fluttered the United States and Colorado flags to a frenzy above us, whip-cracking the canvas fabric. The students, lined up against the brick wall, waited for their kindergarten teacher—the always-smiling Mrs. Parker—to open the door so they could run inside to the warmth of the classroom. They hugged themselves, shivering, and buried their faces in their little jackets, protecting themselves from the bitterly cold wind. They weren’t in the mood for silly five-year-old giggles this morning.
Among a loose group of bundled-up parents, I waited for the teacher too. We watched our respective kids, exchanged frozen smiles, prepared to hustle back to our heated cars. The weather had turned this otherwise pleasant drop-off ritual a bit sour, and we just wanted it done.
A few more cars pulled up to the curb, and more parents hurried more kids to the line.
That’s when something caught my eye. Something pinned to the lapel of one of the little girls’ coats. Some kind of message. From behind my sunglasses, I watched her. She was a perfectly adorable little blond girl, and behind the mittens squashed against her face, I saw glimpses of wind-chapped cheeks and scrunched-tight eyes. The message appeared to be some kind of hand-scrawled note, a piece of ruled 8-by-10 paper, folded in half. I couldn’t quite make it out as it too fluttered beneath the wind.
The teacher still hadn’t emerged, so I took the opportunity to get closer. Under the guise of a final kiss-on-the-head for Harper, I approached the other little girl to read the symbol or message emblazoned on her little chest.
It was a child’s drawing—a heart bordered with red and pink, with a scrawled note in its center: “Jesus Loves Mrs. Parker.”
I think I might have sputtered a little. I’m sure I was shaken, enough to fail to notice Mrs. Parker’s entrance onto the scene. It was almost as if I couldn’t stop looking at that tiny, innocent, somehow horrifying pronouncement, proudly stabbed to this little girl’s heart. I felt honestly flustered. A chaos of thoughts was playing hell with my concentration.
It took me a few seconds to refocus and acknowledge that the kids were rushing indoors in their diminutive, bustling line, and I could hear their relieved laughter beyond the threshold.
“Bye, Daddy!” my daughter called.
“Uh huh,” I think I said.
As the other parents about-faced and began power-walking back to their cars, I could only stand there, shivering in the grip of the chilly weather. The button pinned to that poor kid’s chest spoke loudly, directly into my face, and its message was Big and Cold.
My brain kept clunking back to it, not letting me proceed with my day. The image just stayed there, not letting me move, not letting me get out of the cold. It was like a smudged DVD, stuck on one repulsive image, ratcheting forward jerkily—you can tell the image wants to unfreeze, but it won’t go, it won’t resume play, and you’re stabbing at the remote, wanting any button to work, just to move on, just to get past that stubborn freeze-frame. But no, it’s just stuck there on the image of the “Jesus Loves Mrs. Parker” button.
And then it finally ratchets forward again, and the image freezes on the girl—this adorable five-year-old innocent—under the grip of something out of her control.
It was early in the school year, and I couldn’t yet place kids with their parents, so I wasn’t sure which of the grownups had pinned the note to their daughter. But the question was surging inside me: What compels a parent to pin such a note to his or her child’s chest and then send that kid to school? I strive to think of the motivation—I still do. I try to put myself in that mindset.
I tried to imagine a home environment in which the parents have so thoroughly and passionately indoctrinated their child that the child eventually feels compelled to take the religious message beyond the confines of her home and into the world. I found myself suddenly fascinated—and, I’ll admit, a bit sickened—by that sociological urge. It struck me as systemic of the religious lifecycle: a microcosm of the way we perpetuate ancient belief systems, regardless of how silly and antiquated they are.
I broke free of my daze and looked around. The area in front of the school was deserted. There was only the bluster of the wind as it swept through the playground, rustling swings and tetherballs, and buffeting the flags above me.
In that moment, it wasn’t just the image that was staying with me, it was my sudden aloneness on that schoolyard.
Why do I feel so alone in my contention that children are atheists and become religious only thanks to rote memorization and rehearsal and repetition? It’s common sense, at least from the admittedly rare perspective of a non-indoctrinated worldview. It’s obvious—a knowledge gained from my lifetime of experience and learning. There are people like me all over the world who know it to be true. But in my small-town Colorado neighborhood, I feel single-minded and solitary in my quest to raise children this way.
Why do even my like-minded friends, in the event of impending parenthood, abandon the principles that they’ve spent a lifetime accumulating? It’s happened to me more than once.
These are questions very much worth exploring, and yet there’s a tendency to avoid them.
Why do I feel so alone in asking them?
I think the answer lies in the concept of morality.
People want like hell to raise moral children, of course, and morality is all mashed up with religion. They balk at the notion of “children as atheists” because it seems somehow to suggest moral degeneracy. The very first instinct among new parents is often to infuse that child with the spiritual, which too often is equated with organized church rather than the ingrained sense of the soul that we’re already hard-wired with.
Obviously, I want to raise kids who have a strong moral foundation. And with no help from ancient religious texts, I’m doing just that. I know that my children, as human beings, already have the genetic moral code they need to live a good life. They don’t require Golden Age babble to shape it; they need only a strong example and love and a guiding hand.
So that has been my goal—to raise children free from the church. To keep their minds open, and free from the clutches of mindless “spiritual” tradition. My children were born without any knowledge of any kind of theistic belief, and I see no reason to forcibly alter that mindset. Doing so, to me, would equate to psychological abuse. My desire is for my children to become thinking, questioning adults in all realms of thought—to be free to seek out belief systems and philosophies and study them not through neurological tunnel vision but rather from the standpoint of wide-open understanding and perspective.
I will give them no greater gift.