|Having None of It: Parenting Without Religion|
(Written February 2015)
The book the mother is showing me is Tomie dePaola’s Book of Bible Stories. It’s an illustrated first Bible, ages 4 to 8, which, according to the back cover, the author “lovingly brings to life.” She starts paging and stops, her nearly three-year-old son beside her, pounding Play-Doh. “OK, God creates the world, but then”—flipping pages and quoting text—“‘Adam and Eve disobey God,’ and ‘Cain kills Abel,’ and ‘God unleashes a flood’ and kills everyone but Noah and the family. Huh?” She pauses, huffs, and glances at her apartment’s mess—toy-strewn like Christmas morning. “I’m not going to read this to Justin. He’ll be terrorized.”
Thus begins, in this thirty-two-year-old Mom, as it does in millions of other secular parents, the once unorthodox, rhetorical questions. Why should my child know about a God who sanctions such continual violence? Why expose anyone to a religion I don’t believe in? Such queries are being asked and answered by millions of millennials—Pew Research, as of May 2015, shows 35 percent are Nones—who refuse to indoctrinate their children into any faith.
What’s compelling them beyond the adult desire to disbelieve in God? Remembering how they themselves were brought up because they themselves are raising children today.
San Diegan Dan Arel is 34, with close-cropped hair and sideburns, plus a righteous red-heart tattooed on his left hand. Letting go of God and raising a freethinker, his four-year-old son, have evolved slowly, he tells me over coffee. His parents were “fundamentalist light.” They went to a Pentecostal church where “speaking in tongues, dancing, running up and down the aisles during service” were de rigueur. Broad-minded and protective, they emphasized Assembly of God Bible teachings not as truth but as metaphor.
By age 13, Arel was firmly planted in a Christian academy. A member of the Royal Rangers, an evangelical Boy Scouts, he announced one day he liked the band AC/DC. No, no, no you don’t, they said; they’re satanic. Here’s a video to watch with your parents. He did and his mother said, “Don’t worry. It’s just a show. No different from Marilyn Manson,” an act he was already enamored of. Soon, on his call, his parents let him leave for public school.
Looking back, he wished his parents had discussed phenomena like the afterlife or the virgin birth. Instead, they “made me think during my timeouts about being mean to my sister, which encouraged my critical thinking.” Another good thing, “They never said I was wrong to think what I did.” Eventually, the self-questing bell rang, and Arel left the church altogether, telling Mom and Dad he wanted to plumb his disbelief. He read L. Ron Hubbard, the Book of Mormon, and the Satanic Bible. He viewed these tracts as pure superstition or “just funny.”
When his wife was pregnant with their son, his fundamentalist grandparents urged him to have the child baptized. No, he said. “But what if you’re wrong,” they snapped. Tetchy holiday get-togethers ensued, so Arel, who’d become an atheist blogger, examined why he so opposed their judgments. He asked himself, “If I’m an atheist, how am I going to teach my kid about hell?” Questions and posts and comments coalesced until he saw a through-line for a book, just published, called Parenting Without God.
One core dilemma for nonbelieving parents is how active, how passive parents should be with “religious” questions. Does one present God as dispute, historical, myth, non-existent? Arel says, “I need to be passive enough so my son can come to his own ideas. If you’re overbearing, you’ll force them to believe what you do.”
As an activist parent, he notes, “I want to introduce him to the fact that all these religions exist—before one person, a Catholic, for example, gets his hooks in him.” Arel says he doesn’t want to just reject pantheons of dogma. “I want to read the Bible with him.” Really, I say. “Yes. The best way to create an atheist is to read the Bible.”
Still another challenge, as a None parent, is taking religions and faith ideas seriously. “Christians think the wrong things about atheists,” he says.. “They think we hate God or we’re evil people. I don’t want Christians teaching their kids that. Do I want my kid to think the wrong things about them, too? Anyone can open the Bible and laugh at talking snakes.” Arel warns that such a tactic misrepresents Christians and widens the gap between them and their detractors.
Latha Poonamallee is an India mother of 12-year-old Viyan. She and he have been in America ten years. I’m sitting with them in their mesa-perched San Diego home, a vast, changeless ocean view out the window and a robust remodel underway inside. After grad school, her first position was teaching organization behavior at a technical college in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. She tells me she grew up in the “collectivist culture” of the Hindu religion, celebrating holidays and festivals at temples.
Pantheistic Hinduism is “more a philosophy of life,” she says, “than a strict religion.” She associates warm memories with the Hindi language, the cultural life of her Brahmin family, and the “emotional release” of religious ceremonies—“not because there is God.” She cannot just abandon her garlanded experiences, though she and her son are no longer Hindu.
In Michigan, she enrolled Viyan in kindergarten where the precocious five-year-old was confused by cosmic questions he felt aimed at him. The boy, now 12 and dressed in an orange tee shirt and magenta jeans, tells me, “I wasn’t sure I was ready to tackle the idea of a magic man in the sky emotionally.” At school, he says education was like “being trained in a factory.” He avoided arguing with sin-spouting Christians, in part, because his family’s Hinduism and his mother’s dinner-table discussions taught him open-mindedness.
But his desire to know things (he loves robotics) pushed him away from classroom conformity and toward atheism. Unhappy, he asked his mother to remove him and begin home-schooling. She joined a local network to share materials and forge community; the movement is strong in many small towns. But she was shocked the participating parents were anti-public school for religious reasons: against evolution, they drilled their kids on creationism and biblical inerrancy.
Such are the parochial choices Americans make, not what many immigrants expect, seasoned on Hollywood films, denuded of religion. Hiring nannies, Latha discovered they, too, were home-schooled on faith. With them came proselytizing. Viyan recalls that when one nanny talked to him (he was eight) about God and the afterlife, he was “extremely surprised. I found it ridiculous.” He says she thought him demon-possessed, not a reasonable critic as he saw himself. He opted, he says, to pity believers like her and not demand they present him proof.
Viyan has published an e-book, A Tiny Piece of My Soul. When we first met I said he and I have something in common. What? “We’re both authors.” That’s quite an accomplishment for a 12-year-old. “Eleven,” he corrected me. “I wrote it when I was eleven.”
His collection of short essays identifies the comfort of heaven as a crutch, “something to make death not as scary. It seems just like a big excuse. So you can feel safe from death.” He says the notion of comfort via salvation was thrown at him constantly by his nannies—in the menacing guise of hell. “I was a really impressionable kid,” worried sick he was going to hell. “For some reason, I didn’t change my belief” in atheism. But it did “lower me into a strange depression.”
His mother, who is a visiting scholar at the University of San Diego, learned that raising a freethinker didn’t take much “instruction.” Viyan figured out, even at eight, that, in his words, “hell was their best weapon for getting people to convert.” He also feels that by understanding Christian superstitions he can share his opinion freely “without fear of being barraged with this talk about hell and God. I can give all my thoughts out and not fear having to retract them.”
Latha says she and her son get plenty of exposure to religions in American without overt study. Viyan says, “I definitely feel I don’t need to learn about them. But if I want to be an all-around good individual, I need to be open to other perspectives of minds.”
I asked Dan Arel where is learning about faith, things like religious literacy or humanist history, in his hierarchy of parental concerns. Top, middle, bottom?
“It’s higher than the average parent—because I’m so engulfed in it. I see it as an imminent threat. A political problem. When it comes to my son’s growing, it’s lower. I know he’ll not be oppressed by [religious] problems in our household. His safety, his health, his education, his happiness—those are much higher than what he knows or thinks about religion.”
When the U.S. Census probes Americans about their religious attitudes, 15 percent of the total specify no religion while another five percent “refuse to reply.” What’s curious is that of that 15 percent 90 percent say they have no religion while the remainder, a small portion, cite a name: atheist, agnostic, or humanist.
What does “having no religion” mean for secular families? No religion is not an ism. A nonbelief is not something you “believe” in. Instead, the None families with whom I spoke feel liberated, emotionally, from religious anxiety. There is no divine agency to account for: neither parent nor child need suffer the ill fortune of a made-up boogeyman. One simply has none of it.