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Friday, 18 April 2008

With thanks to my atheist mother

It always interests me when the subject of 'atheist parenting' comes up in the blogosphere. I find it slightly strange the way it is sometimes approached as a new phenomenon. For many deconverts, of course, it is a new idea, one that they have to work out for themselves as they anticipate having children. If I ever have children, however, raising them as atheists will hardly be new territory. I've seen it done. I've been on the receiving end of it!

This post is for some of the things I owe my mother; specifically, for some atheist things I owe her. I say my 'mother' because, well, Dad has always been the one with the full time job. He's around, and very loving when he is around, but it's my mother who had the greatest effect on the crucial things. So, with apologies to Dad, he's only going to appear in this post in the form of various side notes.

Not all of these things are confined to atheists. In fact, now I think of it, nearly all of them could have at least some applicability to a religious upbringing, depending on your level of liberalism. Nonetheless, they relate strongly to values associated with freethought. I have three subheadings.

1. Science

One of my earliest memories is -- well, it's fragmentary these days, tied to a single picture and a dimly remembered feeling of fascination. The story goes like this.

You know how kids go through a stage where they're trying to distinguish between male and female? It takes a while to learn the little clues (Genuine memory that just flashed into my head: "Most of the time, long haired people are women. Some men have long hair, too, though." That's my mother, trying to explain some of the clues that might help. "Only men have beards" would have been a useful one; pity it's of such limited use. And so on.). Anyway, the way my mother tells it, I was about three and had developed an annoying habit of pointing to people in the supermarket saying "Mummy, mummy, that one there! Is that a man or a woman?"

Questions like that, spoken loudly in a public place, can be embarrassing. "Why, Mummy? Why is that a man?" I suspect the main reason my mother came up with this plan was as a way of shutting me up. "Wait until we get home and I'll explain," she told me, and I can't tell you if the impatience I remember is a real memory or a superimposed one; it was twenty years ago, after all. If it is a real memory, though, then I can tell you that it all sounded very mysterious and that I didn't like having to wait.

So we got home, and she went upstairs and got the book she'd used to tell me about where babies come from when she was expecting my little sister. It's a good book, full of actual scientific photographs. I know I have some memory of this book, because when I saw it, more than a decade later, I recognised the page that she had turned to for this explanation.

"These are chromosomes," she told me (I thought of them as 'krome-zomes' for years afterwards). "Boys have an X chromosome and a Y chromosome. Girls have two X chromosomes. The egg always has an X chromosome from the mother, but the sperm can have an X chromosome or a Y chromosome . . . "

What's the moral of this story? Tell your kids stuff. Encourage them to ask questions by giving them answers -- "I'll tell you when we get home" is a much better response than "Just be quiet and don't be rude." If they're listening and not bored, don't be scared of overloading them with information -- it took me a while to realise my mother was only referring to one out of twenty-three pairs of chromosomes, even though I'm sure she explained that at the time, but that was okay. I just filled in the details when I got older.

Oh, and if you're lucky, they'll make cute precocious statements. My father loves to tell the story of the man who came to visit when I was four who said to me "You're a very clever little girl, aren't you?" and received the response "That's because I have two X krome-zomes." My mother used to scoff at that story. "Of course she knew what chromosomes were. I told her."

2. Sexuality

Another one of my earliest memories is being given a small hand mirror by my mother so I could look at my vulva. As memories go, it pairs nicely with the previous one, both because I was about the same age and because I was at least as fascinated if not more so. If you're a girl, you can't necessarily see your genitals easily without a mirror. It's nice to know what's there.

When I mentioned this memory to my mother, she said she spent the whole time feeling terribly uncomfortable. If that's true, all I can say is that I owe her doubly for not communicating that to me at the time. This memory is only one small part of what it takes to build comfort with your own body, of course, but I'm sure it's crucial -- why else would I remember it so clearly?

Think about it. Generations of children were told at that age not to touch that part, and don't look at that part or think too much about it, and those are your secret parts, and whatever. And my mother? She gave me a mirror. I love her so much.

When I get into my teens, my mother also told me how to masturbate. Is that odd? It was a serviceable explanation, spoken in the rather factual but otherwise ordinary tone my mother usually retreats to when one of us brings up sexuality. My own feelings about sex are mixed and murky. (So are my mother's. Her early experiences of sex were rather unpleasant. Do I blame her? Yes and no.) I can't be ashamed of masturbation, though. It has no disadvantages. There's nothing for the shame to stick to.

Then there are the various books she supplied me with -- Our Bodies, Ourselves, and the one by Sheila Kitzinger with 'sex' in the title that I shelved spine-backwards at age sixteen when she gave it to me and then pulled out at age eighteen and read with fascination and occasional arousal. I quite like the idea of non-fiction as erotica, actually. I looked for that book when I was twenty-one and couldn't find it. I think my eldest little sister took it. The enlightenment goes on!

3. Rules and Morality

I like this one best of all. My mother is determinedly, thoughtfully moral. Indeed, her approach to teaching us morality was rather like her approach to teaching us science. Just as we were always allowed to ask questions of fact, so also we were always allowed to ask questions about the rules. "Because I said so" was a banned phrase; "argument from authority," she'd have called it. Maybe if she was really tired and exasperated she'd resort to "Oh, please, just behave, I don't have time to argue this right now." Most of the time she'd have the discussion and give us the explanation, though, because she believed in the principle of open debate, and she believed in not claiming to be infallible. If she was wrong, we should argue with her, and she'd change if we could make her see it. Basic principles like fairness and not hurting people were taken for granted, I admit; we never thought to question those. Perhaps they were partially built into us; more likely, I think, we learned what sorts of arguments were acceptable by example.

Interesting, isn't it? She taught us morality and critical thinking at the same time. If you're logical to begin with, having morality presented to you in the form of reasoned argument is a great way to embed it as deeply as it will go. I respect reasons.

There's more I could say on this subject. I'm particularly lucky in that I had educated parents -- my mother left school at sixteen, actually, but she still knew enough biology to tell me about chromosomes. I guess the most important thing was that she knew how to share her knowledge with a small child! Later, she went to university, studied philosophy, and ended up introducing me to all manner of theories of ethics. There's nothing like having a list of counterexamples to make the notion that you can't have a theory of morality without God seem particularly silly. As for my Dad, he's a forest scientist with a crazy love for astronomy -- when they taught me in school to say "my very elegant mother just sat upon nine porcupines" I couldn't help thinking that "Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto" would be a more obvious way of listing those letters in that order. It took me a moment to realise that wasn't the point.

So, yeah, I'm lucky. I won't say there were no disadvantages to my parents' way of bringing me up. I have a long list of things I'd do differently. Atheism isn't one of them, though. In bringing me up as an atheist, my parents gave me an incredible head start.


John Evo said...

you can't necessarily see your genitals easily without a mirror.

The Exterminator knows exactly what you are talking about!

Seriously, Lynet, it sounds like you have great parents. As one who has been an atheist much longer than you've been alive, I still am first generation, and had to learn a lot of those hard lessons by trial and error.

Since I believe (emphasis on that last word) that we have more parents who are openly atheists than back in my day, they would naturally have some interest in how to raise their children. Hopefully your post will have some value to them. It's too late for me, but maybe if I have grandchildren...

Anonymous said...

Beautiful tribute to a great mother.

C. L. Hanson said...

Wow, that is fantastic and inspiring!!! I hope to do as well with my kids!!! :D

When I was a teenager, the idea of atheist parenting seemed weird and mysterious (as I explained here), but it started to seem ordinary after I'd met a certain number of people raised atheist. I even have one friend who's a third-generation atheist (from France, as you might guess...).

Anonymous said...

Thank you Lynet. As someone beginning to give serious consideration to starting my own family (with all the educational responsibilities that accompany such a decision) this post was inspirational. If I can be as good a parent as your mother, I'm sure I will raise children to be proud of.

Anonymous said...

Way to go, Lynet's mom. :)

Question for you, Lynet: What, if anything, did your mother teach you specifically about religion? Did she leave the topic for you to come across on your own? Did she tell you about different religious beliefs? This is something that's been on my mind, and I'm wondering what the best way is for a parent to handle it.

Lynet said...

Ebonmuse, I honestly don't remember. (And this is a long reply. I've tried to edit it, but it all seems relevant, in a way).

I think my parents might have been nominally Christian for a while there, actually; both I and my eldest sister were baptised, I know that. Dad never really believed, but Mum is the ideological centre of the family, and I think she didn't precisely bother to decide she didn't believe until she started going to university and studying philosophy -- which would have been when I was four. I don't know, though. I've never asked her. Actually, I strongly suspect she still harbours guilt for it, deep down, even though she probably wouldn't admit it.

I can't remember a time when I believed in God -- or can I? I had a brief stint in Sunday School when I was four, in between my parents coming back to Christchurch (where my mother's mother lives) and Mum deciding -- or admitting? -- that actually, no, she didn't believe in any of it. I can only remember this one thing, though. We were learning about the parable of the maidens and I thought it was odd that the supposedly 'good' maidens refused to share, and just plain mean that the other maidens had to miss out. I can remember knowing that this was supposed to demonstrate something about how to be good; I can also remember thinking that it seemed like nothing of the kind. I don't know if I believed the religion behind it or even if I was old enough to understand that there was such a thing.

After that, I can't remember anything about religion prior to the age of approximately eight years old -- by which time I know I was pure atheist, but none of my memories about that relate to my parents. My atheism was built from love of truth (which I will swear I was born with) and critical thinking (which I learned at my mother's knee). Oh, and perhaps also from the fact that I knew my parents wanted me to be that way. I did know that, but I don't know how I knew it.

My parents tend to be of the opinion that religion is pretty harmless -- by which they mean liberal religion, naturally. Dad thinks The God Delusion is great fun (and one look at the bookshelf in what used to be his study will tell you he's something of a Sagan devotee) but he's not sure it's good PR for evolution to have Dawkins writing books like that. So their perspective may not be the same as yours, in any case.

I do know, however, that, for all their tolerance towards religion generally, my parents would hate it if I or any of my sisters joined a religion. I think my mother just about cried when she thought I might be about to start regularly attending the exceedingly liberal Presbyterian church down the street that didn't mind me being an atheist and had hymns that referred to God as 'mother' sometimes rather than just 'father' and whose (mostly elderly) members said with complete calm that religion was probably going to die out. Oh, and their previous preacher was a lesbian, did I mention that? Anyway, it was around the time that I was under a lot of pressure from my erstwhile darling love to convert, and my mother was deathly afraid I was going to do it. Her fear was palpable and I couldn't do that to her; I stayed away from the church.

That's why I always mumble under my breath at atheists who say so blithely that they're going to 'let their children decide'. If you care about the issue, you can't help influencing your children. Believing that they have a right to decide for themselves isn't enough. You have to acknowledge that it's not that simple. You have to acknowledge that you will have an emotional reaction to it (even if you believe you shouldn't). And if you're brave, you'll do everything in your power to mitigate the effect of that reaction on your children -- and you'll still be putting your children under emotional pressure for all that.

But most people aren't that brave. My mother isn't.


Leaving the memories behind, I can tell you the sort of thing my mother would have done. It would be consistent with my mother's principles to answer any and all questions factually and honestly. This is what people believe, this is what I believe, this is what your grandmother believes, etc. Perhaps she'd advise treating it like any other subject -- plenty of time for a discussion of 'what people believe' in between everything else! Just talk about it when it comes up naturally.

I would also have been consistent with my mother's personality to be just a little glad of the subtle normativity in 'No, your father and I don't believe in God.' But she'd never admit that to herself.

If she taught me reasons not to believe in God I don't remember it. I think she would have been more likely to wait for the question, actually. ("Why don't you believe in God, Mum?" Children who have been well brought up always ask why. ;-) ) That way she would be explaining what she thought rather than instructing us in what to think.

L.L. Barkat said...

What we give our children. It's something to ponder. I try to give mine eyes to see, minds to question, hearts to love, hands to share. That's about it. But that's enough for a lifetime.

Anonymous said...

Hi Lynet,

I found you at the Humanist Symposium and I love what you wrote here. I especially like your commentary on the ability to have a theory of morality while being an atheist.

I see a lot of myself in your mom. I struggled with religion all of my life, wanting to believe in something but not able to really buy much of it. When I had kids I tried again, for my kids sake. I had them baptized, pushed them into Sunday school. My son, a natural when it comes to critical thinking, couldn't buy most of what he was being taught either (he was six at the time!).

That was a wake up call for me. How could I force ideas that I found illogical onto my kids? We stopped going to that church. We regularly attend a Unitarian Universalist church because we love the poeple, the religious education program deals more with issues of morality, ethics and spirituality and trying to understand a little bit about all religions without imposing any beliefs. It's a great way for us to be part of a community of loving poeple while believing, or not believing, whatever we want. Ahteists are welcome. I still bristle at the idea of it being a "church" or a "religion." I'd prefer to call it a fellowship or something, but call it what you will, it's working for us at least for now.

Like your mom, I try to help my kids to think for themselves, to question things, to develop their own theories. I try to answer their questions in a matter-of-fact way and give them accurate information. I'm doing what I can to help them become intelligent, thoughtful, compassionate people. Oftentimes I wonder if I'm doing the right thing. Your post gave me hope that, even though I may be going against the mainstream, I might actually be on the right track. Thank you.

C. L. Hanson said...

Re: That's why I always mumble under my breath at atheists who say so blithely that they're going to 'let their children decide'.

I know I've talked about this in a couple of places (like here and here), and -- while I'm completely serious that I don't want them to disbelieve just because I told them to and that I'd still love them even if they took up religion -- I don't want to suggest that I think I'd be completely indifferent about such a decision. Ideally I'd like to avoid emotionally charging such decisions, yet if one of my kids grew up to be a devout religious believer, I don't even know how I'd react...

Anonymous said...

Your story about the 5 "good" virgins who didn't share reminds me of when I was a child. I heard a story about how a certain city saw Isreal coming to destroy them, so they had a few citizens pose as travelors from far away, and ask Israel for refuge for themselves and their whole bunch.

Israel, not knowing that they were in fact from the next city on their "hit list" granted them amnesty. Because of their clever acts, their city survived, and was a thorn in Israel's side.

My teacher's moral of the story? "Obey God when he tells you to wipe out a whole city, or else! Mercy is folly." Some god.