Friday, February 26, 2010

Raising Atheist Children in a Christian Nation - There are no Sunday Schools for Atheists

One of my biggest worries with my children is how I can raise them to be properly skeptical (and hopefully atheist) in a Christian Nation. [1] It is funny, now that I think about it - typically you see the Christian parents being the ones so worried their children will be corrupted by a non-Christian education in public schools. I'm not worried about secular schools. I am not worried about the culture at large as much either. I do worry about day care, which is a Christian day care. That I feel stuck with given the limited options (and limited funds). As I've discussed before, I have no interest in having a nanny again.

What has concerned me about day care is what my daughter comes home with. I see little coloring book pages with religious themes. I hear her talk about religious things, though rarely. I guess I'm hoping that when she starts school in six months, this will all become a dim memory. I take some small comfort in the fact that I went to a religious day care as well when I was a child and it didn't stick - perhaps because my parents are not at all religious and we never went to church. Still, I wonder how to deal with the whole religion issue with my children.

I don't want to be dogmatic. I want them ultimately to learn to think for themselves. You can't simply teach the "right" things - you need to give a toolkit to kids so they can figure things out for themselves. At the same time, though, kids need to obey and do what they are told, at least when they are very young - for their own safety. Kids also rebel - and go and do the opposite of what their parents want, at least, that's what I've read or heard about. I never really did that, but I understand the concept. So the difficulty is - how do you really go about doing this?

One idea I have is social - if my kids hang out with other kids who are also raised to be skeptical, then there's the good peer pressure -or maybe lack of bad peer pressure. Except I don't know anyone else here who is atheist and has kids. Maybe I should try and find a local community of atheists.

I've heard of atheist summer camps and such - really skepticism summer camps. I really want to send my kids somewhere like that someday, but that is only a short bit of the year.

I worry about what religion could do to my kids. I worry about one or both of them coming home one day and declaring he or she is now a Christian. I'd still love them, but I would feel like I failed somehow. I'd feel like a part of them is dead - or brainwashed. I don't want my kids to grow up to be another of the superstitious idiots that populate our nation and our planet. I want them to question. I want them to be skeptical of what they are told. I want them to be thinkers.

It is funny that Christianists call our schools horrible and godless, but they really aren't - most people in public schools are Chrsitans, and much of that seeps into everything. They aren't taught real skepticism. They will probably never hear the word "atheist" spoken. It is a secular education, but not a godless one. I should be the one who is concerned, not the Christian parents. They really are only upset because the schools are not more fully Christian-dominated than they already are.

If only there were truly "godless" schools - where real skepticism was taught. Where kids were taught that religion - all of it - is superstition. Where kids are taught that "god" is a purely human creation. Where kids learn to think. Regular schools will never do this. Hell, there isn't even a "sunday school for atheists." There ought to be. Hell, that is a good line to add to the title of this post. (And now I have...)

I have resolved to do something about that. I don't have a lot of time, but I'm going to at least get a start on this. I will see if I can find others in my community who feel as I do, and who aren't infected by religion. I'm going to then see if I can get some interest in putting together something like a Sunday School for Atheists. Maybe it is something I can just do for my own kids. They'll probably think I'm nuts. Maybe the better way to do it is more subtle - not any set time or place, but just a planting of the seeds of skepticism wherever I can find it. Maybe the Sunday School for Atheists needs to be more for parents - to teach them to do the same with their own kids. I do this already where I can. With the few times I've heard some talk of Jesus out of my daughter, I've asked her, "how do you know that's true?" I want her to think about that, rather than challenge things directly. Make her defend it with logic and reason - with the idea of showing her that it can't be defended. Thankfully, she really hasn't said much along those lines, and will soon be done with day care, so maybe I should not be so worried.

Maybe a first step can be coming up with a curriculum - and posting it online. In fact, I bet someone has already done something along those lines somewhere. I am going to search for it and build on what I find.

Now if only every parent would do this, maybe we'd have a better world - where politicians can't so easily prey on the ignorance and superstitions of the public. Ok, now I'm dreaming.

[1] Of course, I would dispute the title of "Christian Nation" for the United States. We have a secular Constitution that explicitly separates church and state. So I vehemently contest any attempt to call this nation an officially Chrsitian one. But culturally, there are a lot of Christians to deal with, and they tend to control every elective office at every level. This is the community that my children will be growing up in. So this is what I have to deal with.


Lynn said...

Have you heard about Sunday School The Humanist Way?

C Woods said...

I don't have children, so this has never been a problem for me. However, I have some suggestions.

I think if I had a child who came home with religious drawings or papers, I might treat them as other "make believe" stories, but maybe try not to make too big of a deal about them. You probably know Mr. Rogers was a minister. I liked that when his trolley came out he would specify that they were going to "make believe" before going to see King Friday XIII ---and other fictional characters.

If you want to meet other atheists in your area, you might check out meetup.cpm. You can enter your zip code and type atheist or freethinker, humanist, or whatever in the topic category and see if there are others in your area.

Is there a Unitarian church in your area? The Unitarians have no particular doctrine or dogma, but believe everyone should believe as they wish. The Unitarian church I am familiar with has Christians, Jews, atheists, and others as members. The minister is a secular humanist. Sunday school consists of teaching about different world religions. Someone there might be able to direct you to a curriculum ---or you might want to take your children to their Sunday school after checking it out.

My husband and I were married by a Unitarian minister. We are both atheists, but my husband came from a highly-religious Catholic family and I from a highly-religious Protestant family. He helped us create a secular ceremony we could live with but that wouldn't offend (too much) either family. We aren't members of the church, nor do we attend services, but occasionally they have intellectual programs or discussions that interest us.

In a book titled "Atheists, A Groundbreaking Study of America's Nonbelievers" (by Bruce Hunsberger and Bob Altemeyer, 2006) the study of atheists in America confirms that most atheists, like most religious people, form their beliefs from their upbringing.

Almost everyone ---believers and nonbelievers ---admitted to having doubts about their own beliefs at some point in their lives.

The authors of the study found that many atheists from non-religious homes admit to having gone through a religious period in their lives, usually starting around age 7 or 8, and this period may have lasted several years. In most cases, non-religious parents don’t preach against religion, but rather expect their children to decide for themselves. Some children, of course, decide to stay in the religion, but many eventually see the same flaws their parents saw and leave.

You can find more about this study on my blog post Why Are There Atheists?.

I'd love to see a curriculum for nonbelievers. I was a teacher in a public school, and of course, our curriculum was secular. But individual teachers did have their little quirks. One teacher told her students that anyone that showed up on Oct. 31 in a Halloween costume would fail her class because Halloween was devil worshipping. I pulled her aside and told her she couldn't fail students for what they wear, even if it goes against her personal beliefs. One can hardly avoid religion in some subjects, like history, for example. I would think most people would not be able to teach without some bias toward their own beliefs, even atheists.

DBB said...

Thanks for the link, Lynn... I had not heard of it, but was hoping there was something like that out there.

Cwoods - I do recall now trying meetup when I lived in the Grand Rapids area - what struck me then was that there was hardly anyone there. Western Michigan, and GR in particular, is known as the "bible belt" of Michigan. There are supposedly more churches there per square mile than anywhere else in the state. My current city may not be that much better, but it is worth a look.

I would expect that most people's beliefs start (and probably end) with upbringing. My concern with that is partially that I don't want my kids just to be atheists because that's what they are told. I want them to get there by thinking - but maybe that is unrealistic - and maybe it is better to have them start with that as the default so they don't have to overcome some handicapping superstitions later.

I like treating religion as make-believe. I've told my daughter that Jesus is the imaginary friend of people at day care.

I don't mind having a bias toward atheism in teaching. Heh. I like what your blog post indicates about how religious people came to atheism - they were taught to value the truth and so when it came time to evaluate religion, the value for truth won out over the religion. So that's probably where I should start. That's where the skepticism comes in - truth matters. I want to get my kids to understand that above all else.

C Woods said...

DBB, I have a feeling your kids will be fine. As you said in your post, there is always the possibility of rebellion, especially in teens, if one is too heavy handed. So the best one can do is teach them the importance of truth ---or what is reasonably likely ---and to think for themselves, and then let them go their own way with belief.

Reading the Bible and finding it preposterous is what triggered my doubts about religion, but I'm sure there was a bit of rebellion, too, in my highly-religious home.

By the way, I found that study about atheism at my library. If your local library doesn't have it, most libraries will search statewide, and sometimes beyond. I found it very interesting.

Andy said...

I've done several posts on raising Atheists, in a funny kinda way.

C Woods said...

I was reading an different blog and someone made the following comment. I immediately thought of you, because this kind of curriculum might be what you are looking for:

"In the early 1970s Sid Bentley, a school teacher in Surrey, British Columbia, developed a course, Religions of our Neighbours, which he went on to teach for about 25 years, and which was widely adopted in the BC school system.
About fifteen years later he gave a talk at the Unitarian church that I attended. He told us that during the period that the course covered a particular religion, he took the part of a proponent of that religion, and delivered the material and answered questions accordingly. At the end of the segment he would invite a representative of that faith to come and meet with the students.
"Often, he said, at the end of the course students would ask him which was his religion, but he wouldn’t tell. He took the fact that they had to ask as a tribute to his neutrality.
"He’s retired now, but I’m happy to see he’s still active, both academically and socially."

I googled "Sid Bentley" and Religions of the World ---and came up with several links for him. With a little research, you may be able to get in touch with him or find his curriculum.

tina FCD said...

Good luck, I mean that.

Kimberly said...

"I worry about what religion could do to my kids. I worry about one or both of them coming home one day and declaring he or she is now a Christian. I'd still love them, but I would feel like I failed somehow. I'd feel like a part of them is dead - or brainwashed. I don't want my kids to grow up to be another of the superstitious idiots that populate our nation and our planet. I want them to question. I want them to be skeptical of what they are told. I want them to be thinkers."

If you really want to be a good parent, then don't teach them to hate and feel disgust for anybody who doesn't agree with you.

Christians and other religious people are not the only people who can be bigoted and closed-minded. Any atheist who calls somebody who thinks differently a "superstitious idiot" is exhibiting bigotry.

There is nothing wrong with being an atheist or feeling frustrated by people who think that their way is the only way. But don't call out the bad behavior by some people and then act the exact same way. If you truly want to "teach the "right" things" and "give a toolkit to kids so they can figure things out for themselves" then teach them how to think for themselves and stand up for their beliefs while still treating other people with respect. Also (and here I'm not accusing you of anything in this sentence because I don't know you) being nice to someone's face and then laughing at them behind their back is not respect.

If you want to teach your kids to think for themselves, then don't avoid any subject they want to talk about, no matter how uncomfortable for you. You are their primary teacher, not the people at the schools.

It's a difficult balance to reach. It can be hard to teach why you disagree with something other people believe without also teaching that there is something inherently wrong with the person who holds those beliefs.

BTW, not every christian wants schools to be more christian. Some do believe in the separation of church and state. I believe, however, that a religious studies class (not mandatory)in high school that teaches what various religions believe without saying any particular one is right or wrong is acceptable. That would just be part of 'social studies'.

I do hope I got my point across without being too offensive. I know that there are some people who are going to be offended by anything what is not consistent with their own beliefs (again, not accusing you), so sometimes it is hard to express your beliefs in a manner that will be heard in the manner intended.

DBB said...

I have no desire to indoctrinate my kids - but I do want to innoculate them against the kind of thinking that leads to religion - the sort of magical, supernatural, wishful thinking that people engage in, turning off rational thought.

I want them protected against the religious snake oil that is out there - and ALL religion is snake oil. It teaches people to believe in things that are not so and innoculates them against the truth. That is ultimately dangerous.

Kristi said...

I wish you luck in teaching your child about science and rational thinking. Children so readily believe in magic; religion is the same but more dangerous. My daughter is soaking up her grandmother's stories of a christian god. I'm not to worried about the tales because my other children came to an age where magic didn't explain the world properly. I can explain why I don't want her to hear nonsense until I'm blue in the face. My mil believes there is a god 100%. I don't deny her a relationship with my children just because she is wrong. I was raised in a deeply religious family. I went along with the fairy tales until I was about 10 years old. I'm in love with all things science and real explanations of the world around me. I still read theology books. The different religions are interesting from a human behavior standpoint. Well I'm getting a little off topic, but you shouldn't have to worry to much. In the end she will make up her own mind what to believe. My turning point was Constantine.

tracystouch said...

I like your boldness, I think I understand your concerns.

I have 2 daughters. My husband and I are not religious. I do not consider ourselves to be Atheist. And I hesitate to say why because to some people that will make us sound just as crazy as some fanatical christians. But so you dont think the worst or maybe it is, we do believe in paranormal experiences.

We both have had our own personal experiences. So I do have a belief that there is something going on that we cant always see or always hear or always feel. What it is, I'm not sure.

We do not force our girls to go to church or to read the Bible or believe in ghosts. But I wouldnt be upset if they wanted to. Mostly because we have had discussions with them as to what some of the teachings are and why their parents are not religious.

My grandfather was a Jehovah's witness. My mom forced to go to meetings etc. and her dad didnt spare the rod when it came to punnishment. My grandmother was not an active JW but she supported her husband. However, she also helped my mother pretend to be sick at times to keep her from going to a meeting.

So when my mom married my dad, they did not go to church of any kind but when my grandparents divorced, my grandfather would take me to meetings, give me books and teach me alot about the Bible. I do feel I got a good education. I did believe in a God but I always questioned him. I did my own studying and I compared other Bibles and went to other churhces growing up with friends.
Through ALOT of studying and research, I have found that my doubts about the Bible actually being the words of God now out weigh my belief that it does.

I am open to alot of possibilities that there could be something but I dont know if its this actual God being or maybe its just a force of nature. For example: Space is endless. Why couldnt there be life somewhere else, perhaps with people and species just like on our planet? Have they visited? I dont know. People talk about Guardian Angels. Maybe they are the same thing as spirit guides or Aliens. lol

Whatever it is, my girls are free to study and decide for themselves. I am more concerned that they are logical and take time to think about important decisions concerning what they belileve. I am also most concerned with them growing up to be good people with compassion, respect and understanding.

I really feel that we are born with a certain knowledge of right and wrong but sometimes what the right decisions are, can become foggy and its our jobs as parents to set an example and And do it over a period of time as they grow whenever there's an occasion to talk about whatever it is you think is important. Ok so I've rambled, its been a weird day. I hope something I've said has been helpful. Good luck.

HughMBehavior said...

No Dawkinsing. No Tellering. Sam Harrising, well, you can consider that. Christopher Hitchens is right-the-fuck-out.

The simple fact is: your children should be encouraged to go to church. Any non-evangelist denomination they (i.e. their friends) prefer. Sunday School especially. Not only that, but you must do your utmost to show no contempt towards that choice.

If that makes no sense to you, I cannot help you.

Suffice it to say I was kicked out of Sunday School at 9 (politely.) Do you assume your children lack some logic I had at 9?

If so, indoctrinate them just like a theist would.

Or be a man and don't. Your kids ending up Christians is hardly the worst outcome in the U.S. of A.

It's bullshit, sure, but sometimes a man can choose to backburner the bullshit and rock some blissful ignorance. I don't roll downhill-blindered, but I'm not iconoclastic or rigid enough to ignore the appeal.

TL;DR: If your kids end up non-evangelical Christians, it's simply not that big a deal. Either they'll come around or they'll end up "normal" (i.e. advantaged in current society.)

R. Craigen said...

Hi DBB I came across this blog post by some sort of google serendipity. I saw C. Woods' comment about Sid Bentley's "Religions of our Neighbours" resource and knew I had to comment because of my connection to it. Bear with me, and sorry to come to it 3 years after the fact.

First, I'm a Christian. An evangelical Christian. And I understand very much your feeling, as an atheist, that someone else is shoving their own religious dogma down my kids' throats in an environment in which I have very little influence. I identify with your experience in this regard, and sympathize with it, because it is the experience of EVERY evangelical christian in almost any public school in North America that you might care to name.

...which does not mean that it also isn't happening to atheists, agnostics and others. But I want to say -- and I hope you agree with me on this point, it is wrong, morally wrong, ethically wrong, and barely legal for schools to be used as tools of indoctrination to undermine, ridicule or otherwise subvert parents' ability to raise their children to have common values (including beliefs, non-beliefs or neutrality on the matter of beliefs). Further, it ought to be illegal for this to be done in a systematic, institutionalized way in a public school that students must, by law, attend. If you disagree with me on these things (except perhaps the bit about it should be illegal) then we live in different moral universes and perhaps we are incapable of communicating about this subject.

But let me assure you that I am also disgusted beyond belief, and when I think about this subject I am hopping mad. And I think you and I are seeing roughly the same thing, though through very different eyes. (I also sympathize with your self-confessed libertarianism; I consider myself a libertarian lite).

R. Craigen said...
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R. Craigen said...

The Sid Bentley thing caught my eye because I am a key player in that story. It came to my attention during a year of unemployment. I had recently married a woman who taught science in a Junior High at which those materials were being used (in Social Studies for a unit on religions). She happened to pick up a copy of the teaching resources (10 softcover manuals) in the teacher's lounge. Curious, she brought them home and said, "take a look what they're teaching at XXX school."

We could not believe our eyes. Regardless of which religion was being taught (each volume dealt with a different religion) hardly a page went by without a vicious swipe at christianity, and particularly evangelical christians. The teacher resources contained suggestions for how to "contain" christian kids who speak up and object (you assert that Christianity is all about arguing and demonizing "other people", and that the student they see speaking out is providing a good example of this aspect of christianity. You heard right -- teachers are coached on how to single out christians who take offence to assaults on their faith, and re-characterize their anger and awkward attempts to defend their beliefs against attack by an authority figure by characterizing THEM as intolerant and narrow-minded).

There was far more about Christianity than the other faiths, largely because every volume was interrupted at every turn where there was an opportunity to either show Christianity in a negative light through some comparison to an admirable trait in another religion.

The volume on Christianity was laughably inaccurate, ignored key elements of Christian faith, poorly presented others, and discussed issues that were almost unrecognizably christian.

I lived in a tiny town in the boondocks of B.C. What could I do? Unemployed at the time, I spend some weeks doing three things: I wrote a 50-page essay on the worst aspects of the curriculum. This was very easy: about 75% of what I wrote was simply direct quotation from it. I simply pointed out what was there, and let the materials speak for themselves.

R. Craigen said...

It was (interesting coincidence but yes, literally) the year 1984.

Then I took my essay, and a copy of the Religions of our Neighbours instructional materials, to our local Ministerial Association, which consisted of clergy or staff from 14 different Christian churches in our town -- basically everybody, from the Seventh Day Adventists, to the Pentecostals, the Catholic Priest, the Captain of the Salvation Army, and the United Church minister. They read my essay. They confirmed that my quotations from the materials were in-context and accurately characterized the work. They wrote a strongly worded letter, signed by all of them, that while they approve of the idea of offering optional courses in comparative religions public schools should not allow the use materials that are clearly discriminatory and agenda-driven, and that in their view that is what Religions of our Neighbours was; they called for its removal.

Finally, I mailed my essay, and the Ministerial Association's letter, to the Curriculum Branch in Victoria.

A few days later, out of the blue, I received a long distance phone call in the middle of the day from Sid Bentley himself. He was angry. "Who the H#$% are you, and what's your game!!!???" he wanted to know. He told me stories exactly like C. Woods: that he teaches this everywhere and runs workshops for teachers all over the province, and everyone loves the materials and he is continually told how balanced they are and that nobody can even tell what religion he is, and that proves how unbiased the materials are. If you're thinking he doth protest too much, well ... that's the first thing that occurred to me. He wanted to know who was "paying" me. Obviously I was part of some terrible cabal. No, I'm just myself, I'm angry at someone else using the schools as a bludgeon against my faith, and a captive environment in which to poison children against parents. He ended by assuring me that the Ministry of Education does not listen to nutcases like me and that I shouldn't be wasting my time.

I should mention, by the way, that the volumes in his series were published by the B.C. Ministry of Education's in-house press, with the government seal on the first page of each. These were official government documents issued by the Ministry to the Schools.

I received a polite reply from a ministry bureaucrat thanking me for my concerns and saying that the appropriate functionaries would consider my submission. Over some months I corresponded a few times with them, and it came out that nobody in the ministry had any idea what was in the materials -- they published them largely on the basis of Sid Bentley's own glowing claims, and that there was a backburner policy to develop a course in comparative religions -- and here it was, ready to print.

A year later I was told that they would quietly simply stop approving the materials and that Mr. Bentley would have to find a separate publisher. Further, it would not appear on their approved materials list, but schools that wished to purchase or use the materials were free to continue to do so.

R. Craigen said...

That was the best I got. I considered it a victory, though I kept hearing years later of schools still using the materials, and workshops given by Mr. Bentley. And new editions (which I never saw).

I am today involved in school advocacy (this time nothing to do with religion; it's about math -- I am a professor of Mathematics at a large university). And I can see the writing on the wall, and know the tone of discussions in the halls of educational power. And I can tell you with 100% assurance that, if I wrote and submitted such an essay today, with a letter signed by the Pope, Billy Graham, Mother Theresa and the Dalai Lama, complaining about Christian students being harrassed for their beliefs by authority figures in class, I would be laughed at, diminished by labels like "narrow", "traditionalist", "xenophobe", "bible thumper" and "conspiracy theorist". I might even be charged with a hate crime (as happened to a Pastor in Red Deer who complained about in-class indoctrination in public schools on gender issues a few years back. That cost him his ministry, over a hundred thousand dollars in Human Rights court costs and fines, a forced apology, and a lifetime enforced ban on speaking publicly on the issue again).

So ... I understand your experience. I don't disbelieve in it, but I want you to understand that Christians experience this every day. It is not uniform, not yet, in our society, but it is quickly becoming anathema to be overtly christian in any environment. I have been lectured about the consequences of being "too open" about my faith in at least 2 government jobs in education, at the time of hiring, and the consequences if that happens. Have you ever been lectured about the possibility that you could lose your job if you are found discussing your atheism with clients or students? I know this doesn't happen in high schools or universities, because I teach at a university where students continually report about atheist professors spending entire lectures on indoctrination. And from personal experience I know this has happened since the 1970s, when I attended university. And it happened in the early 1970s when I was in high school -- several of our teachers did this with impunity. But teachers who were "too open" about their christian faith were subject to discipline. It happened to me one day when I was a substitute teacher. After class while I was packing up, two grade 10 girls came into the class, and one shyly said, "A friend of mine tells me that you are a christian. Is that true?" I said, yes it is. She said, blushing, "So am I!" and they walked out chatting animatedly. I only overheard her turn to the other girl, "See?" and they walked out.

The next day I was in the principal's office. The parents of the OTHER girl had complained. They were not, apparently, Christians. And not pleased that I acknowledged my faith after class when directly asked about it. I don't know if there was other context -- I am not aware of it.

R. Craigen said...

Sorry this is so long. Like you, I'm upset. But I'll say this about the day care. As you describe it you CHOSE a "christian day care". You say you have limited funds and options. I don't dispute that. But surely you don't blame a CHRISTIAN day care for teaching CHRISTIAN values. Do you expect them to teach atheism? Or to avoid christian themes? Why do you think Christian day cares exist? I assure you that, if some pressure group forces them out of doing that, they will almost certainly close shop, and 95% of the parents will go shopping for the geographically closest remaining christian day care. And you will be left, apparently, with ZERO options, even that one. What is going on there is categorically different from indoctrination in public schools, because (a) it is not the public tax dollars paying for what goes on there (there may be subsidies; that's a separate issue); and (b) nobody is forced (yet) to enrol their child. There is nobody with a gun to your head and a hand in your pocketbook making you send your kids to that school. Sorry, I may sympathize with your plight but I give no credence to your apparent view that you are somehow being victimized by this terrible christian day care. If you don't like what's happening pull your kids out, for heavens' (sorry) sake. Worse things could happen than that you have charge of your own kids until they reach the public school age. Since your post is 3 years old, perhaps this is now a moot point, and your child is now being indoctrinated under the U.N.'s Agenda 21, which is being aggressively promoted in North American schools. Have you gotten angry about that yet? I am.