Some time ago, the mother of one of my daughter’s classmates in elementary school approached me and asked — politely but firmly — if I wouldn’t mind telling my daughter to keep quiet about the fact that Santa Claus does not exist. Her daughter, she told me, still believed in Santa, and was getting very upset about the debates concerning his existence that were occurring around the lunch table — debates that were, apparently, being instigated by my daughter. Although I didn’t — and don’t — see any problem with kids having a healthy discussion about what’s real and what’s not real in the world, I promised this mother that my wife and I would talk to our daughter and figure out what was going on.
It turns out, according to our daughter, that she wasn’t trying to pop any kid’s Santa-belief bubble at all. The kids were simply at a stage where they enjoyed polling each other on various topics: who likes pepperoni on their pizza, who hates the Jonas Brothers, who thinks such-and-such a teacher is mean, and so on. The question was bound to come up eventually: “Who believes in Santa Claus?” All the other kids around the table raised their hands; our daughter, honest girl, did not. (She’d started doubting the Santa story at an early age; and once she began to ask us probing questions, we decided to respect her intelligence and answer truthfully.)
The lunch-table follow-up question, naturally, was also inevitable: “Why not?” Our daughter was prepared; when she discovered the truth about Santa, we’d talked about how she should answer such a question from her friends, who needed to come to their own realization about Santa in their own way. She gave that answer now: I have my reasons for not believing, she said, but you should talk about your reasons for believing with your own family. Apparently, that’s what sent this classmate running home to her mother, crying that our daughter was an a-SantaClaus-ist trying to infect her with unbelief.
The classmate’s unfair accusation, and her mother’s bullying (as it seemed to me) request, got me pretty steamed. How dare these people accuse our daughter of trying to discredit others’ beliefs and impose her own, when we’ve raised her to value tolerance and respect! And how dare this mother ask our daughter to keep quiet about what she thinks, simply because it might disagree with the majority’s opinion!
After my wonderfully sensible wife calmed me down, I decided to compose a careful, measured response and sent it to this mother as an email. (In hindsight, perhaps I should have tried pleasantly talking to her, face to face, but at the time I was more concerned with building a cohesive argument and not missing any of the points I wanted to make.)
I explained to her that what our daughter had said wasn’t quite what her classmate had described — that she was asked her opinion and simply gave it, and that rather than discredit anyone else’s opinion, she had suggested they go home and ask their families the reasons for their views on the matter. I suggested that perhaps her daughter had misheard or misremembered what our daughter said. I explained that we encourage our daughter to respect her classmates’ values but also to speak up fearlessly in defense of her own, and that this was why we couldn’t ask her to simply keep quiet when asked about Santa; we want her to feel that she doesn’t have to hide what she thinks, and to know that her values and views deserve as much attention and consideration as anyone else’s. I also said that I consider such conversations about Santa a good experience for kids growing up in a diverse community, who need to learn how to interact with people who hold different views. And I said that it’s good practice (and perhaps this was saying a bit too much) for future conversations about religious values and God.
That didn’t turn out so well.
The mother shot back with a raging email, accusing me of insinuating that her daughter was a liar and that her family had no values. My attempts at nuance, I fear, were wasted on her. Although I sent her another conciliatory email saying I didn’t intend any such insults — of course her daughter wasn’t deliberately lying, but misunderstandings do happen; of course her family had good values, which doesn’t mean I can’t talk about our own — and although we’ve had a couple of polite face-to-face talks to dial down the feelings on both sides, we’ve never really regained our old, friendly relationship, and I’m afraid our daughter’s friendship with her classmate has been lost as well.
This incident has helped me to start thinking seriously about the challenges of being an atheist/humanist/freethinking family (I haven’t quite decided on labels yet) in a nation where most people still believe in someone who sees you when you’re sleeping and knows when you’re awake — be it Santa or God. How do we speak up firmly for our own values and convictions without antagonizing people of good will who believe differently? And how do we raise our daughter to value reason, science, and skepticism — but also to appreciate different cultures and traditions and whatever beauty and wisdom they may offer, and to cultivate rich friendships with people who hold a wide variety of beliefs? One of my dearest hopes is that our daughter grows up to be a freethinker — but not a lonely one.
There is an excellent film-and-TV review website, FlickFilosopher.com, where the lively discussions in the comments section are often uncommonly intelligent, sometimes veer off into non-movie territory, and occasionally blossom into full-fledged intellectual debates. I happened to get sucked into this one: a 200-post monster of a discussion, surprisingly civil for the most part, about whether or not it’s valid to believe in the existence of God. (My username is Bluejay on that and other forums, and I think it’s as good a name as any to use here.)
I won’t bother to summarize that entire meandering argument here, but what did surprise me was how much I found I had to say about religion and atheism, and how passionately I felt about my views. I felt that I acquitted myself well; but looking back on the debate, what strikes me most is how much energy I spent trying to disprove the idea of God, and how inadequate my attempts were to affirm the positive values that I do believe in. I’d done very well in explaining what atheists are against, but not as well, I think, in explaining what they’re for.
Greg Epstein, the Humanist chaplain at Harvard University and author of Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe, puts it this way:
Life in general, and religion in particular, is not as simple as deciding, “I believe” or “I’m an atheist.” Especially now that God can mean anything you want it to mean, believer and atheist have become such broad categories, such blunt and imprecise linguistic instruments, that sometimes the only thing they really communicate is the kind of polarizing, talking-point divisiveness of which bad partisan political debates are made. Your relationship with religion, whether you’re religious or not, is about more than which God you profess to worship or deny when asked in some census or on some cable TV talk show. It’s about how you live life every day, how you respond to a thousand situations that are impossible to fully predict or prepare for.
In short: we’ve successfully responded to the head of religion, but not to the heart of religion. And not coincidentally, we’ve often produced a very heady atheism. But I believe in the heart of Humanism.
Humanists, atheists, and secularists have learned to do two things extremely well over the past century — to speak and to debate. We have articulated positions on a number of crucial issues, and defended those positions against all manner of often unfair attacks. But now we need to sing and to build. We need to acknowledge that as nonreligious people, we may not need God or miracles, but we are human and we do need the experiential things — the heart — that religion provides: some form of ritual, culture, and community.
All people, not just Christians, want to belong to something. As much as we’ve been taught the sometimes very real downside of institutional affiliation, we have not changed human nature. No matter how much we value our inventiveness and our ability to think for ourselves — and we should value them greatly — we have not yet invented the man who is an island. And indeed, even we nonconformists should shudder at the possibility of such an invention as much as Dr. Frankenstein learned to shudder at his own monster.
The good news is that there are good alternatives, without God, to religious ritual, cultural identity, and community. We need only discover and develop them.
And so, this blog. There are so many questions around atheism that I feel are worth exploring, in my own life as well as in the world, beyond the question of whether God exists (as interesting an intellectual exercise as that is). For instance: Without God, how do we define what’s good and evil? And without the moral force of religion, how do we make those definitions stick? What compelling arguments do we have for a valid atheist morality, beyond “I said so”? What fascinating new developments have occurred in the search for the biological or anthropological roots of morality? What’s the history of doubt, atheism, and humanism, and how can atheist values be harnessed and used as a force for social good?
I’m no expert on any of these issues, but I plan to explore them nonetheless. Epstein has many fascinating insights into these questions, and plenty of others have written books or articles on these matters that I’ve read or intend to read; I hope to discuss some of those perspectives as well. And as I do, I hope to always be fair-minded towards those on the “other side,” as I tried to explain in the debate:
To the extent that any way of thinking — religious or secular — impedes scientific discovery; suppresses intellect, curiosity, and other aspects of human potential; inflames prejudices and divisions; and contributes to human suffering, I’m committed to firmly speaking out against it.
But I’ll also do my best to recognize and appreciate any way of thinking — religious or secular — when it provides the benefits of community; breaks down old hatreds; affirms the dignity and worth of every person; inspires creativity; encourages the full realization of human potential; instills a sense of responsibility for the planet; and gives people the motivation and courage to do good things.
While I’m personally convinced that a non-dogmatic, humanist world view is the most conducive to accomplishing the good things listed above (without the downside of the bad), intelligent believers of good will can disagree. What matters is how we live, not our reasons for doing so.
At this point I should note that I don’t intend this blog only as a place to discuss atheism; that’s simply one of the subjects I’m passionate about, and the one that motivated me to get this thing started. It will most likely be a recurring theme, but I also reserve the right to talk about anything and everything else that interests me. Whether or not my musings will be of interest to anyone else who may be reading this is another question, one beyond my control.
If you are reading this, whoever you are: thanks for your time.