Old news: why atheists celebrate Christmas

For the next few weeks I’m going to be catching up on some links I’d saved throughout December on account of my broken wrist; that, coupled with general laziness and craving more quality time with the Man, made updating this blog something of a low priority. First up, a December 5th article out of Live Science. It focuses on a study published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. Researchers used results from an earlier survey of elite U.S. universities and their science departments and pulled 275 of the 2,198 respondents to be their sample. In the original survey, about half of the scientists had declared themselves religious but they noticed that some of the ones who declared themselves atheist were still willing to spend time in church and the like.

The atheist parents surveyed had multiple reasons for attending religious services in the absence of religious belief. Some said their spouse or partner was religious, and encouraged them to go to services as well. Others said they enjoyed the community that attending a church, mosque, temple or other religious institution can bring.

Perhaps most interesting, Ecklund said, was that many atheist scientists take their children to religious services so that the kids can make up their own mind about God and spirituality.

“We thought that these individuals might be less inclined to introduce their children to religious traditions, but we found the exact opposite to be true,” Ecklund said. “They want their children to have choices, and it is more consistent with their science identity to expose their children to all sources of knowledge.”

I don’t know if I would have thought that was “most interesting” but whatever. I can see it as making sense, though. To limit kids and never expose them to the other side of the belief coin would make an atheist parent just as out-of-touch and fundamentalist as the worst of the religionists. In order for a person to make a real choice, choices have to be made available. In the article they use an example from the study of a man who’d been Catholic. He later decided religion and science weren’t compatible enough to keep that up but has chosen to let his child experience Catholicism, Islam and Buddhism, too. He’d rather she be equipped to make an informed choice later rather than insist only his way is right.

I’ve wondered how I’d deal with that were I in a parenting position. I think I’d wind up modifying what my dose of religious studies taught me in terms of the sheer variety of belief out there. Some people think this way, some think that way, these ones don’t get along at all because they each claim the same slab of rock as having religious significance and nobody is entirely sure who found it first. Here’s what seems to be the best of what they have to offer and here’s the stuff that made me question why…

I don’t recall asking my parents about this thing called God when I was a kid. I went to Catholic school and mass every week with classmates but there wasn’t much at home to encourage more than the bare minimum in terms of that business. They let me spend many Saturdays with my cousin and her church-going parents but I don’t recall many Sunday school excursions with her so I don’t think I was allowed much in the way of overnights. (Not necessarily for that reason, mind you. My early morning habits started pretty damn young and most of my cousins were weekend layabouts by preference.)

I don’t know if I’d want to set a kid up by saying, “There absolutely is no god and anyone who tells you different is deluded.” I see the overall value of believing in something bigger than we are, but I’d quibble on the need to name that inner need “God” and anthropomorphize it into a vast supernatural creature capable of giving a damn. The universe is already bigger than we are and most of us don’t stand around expecting it to notice us and give out hugs. No treats expected for the best behaved — unless you count those who still buy into karma.

Maybe it’d be worthwhile to transform the god crap into a belief that compassion truly has the power trump greed and villainy. That winds up being a basis for some of the better beliefs already out there anyway. Promote the belief that most people do want to be good and helpful instead of selfish and arrogant S.O.B’s all the time. Maybe they just never learned how and could benefit from a new approach. Maybe they learned the wrong lessons from their past actions or failed to get encouragement when the opportunity arose to make the more humane decision. Plus, some people get a skewed idea of what a reward for effort ought to look like. Sometimes it ought to look like a smile instead of dollar sign, for one thing. More could be done to support that outcome, I think, and in better ways than “You’ll go to hell otherwise.”

To end, to end.. how to end. I guess I end by saying that we need to do whatever is necessary in terms of bettering ourselves and our children. If making room for religious experiences helps with that a little, then make a little room for it. And we can all hope that at some point maybe people won’t need that step anymore.

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2 Responses to Old news: why atheists celebrate Christmas

  1. Laurance says:

    Hello, Minion…I’d like to respond to your statement concerning atheist parents taking their children to church, “I can see it as making sense, though. To limit kids and never expose them to the other side of the belief coin would make an atheist parent just as out-of-touch and fundamentalist as the worst of the religionists. In order for a person to make a real choice, choices have to be made available.”

    I am one of those who made a real effort to limit my daughter’s exposure to church and Sunday School. But whether that makes me out-of-touch or fundamentalist, I don’t know.

    When I was seven, my little school friend invited me to go to Vacation Bible School, and then the Presbyterian Sunday School. My atheist mother pernitted me to go, and I think that was one of the worse mistakes she made with me. I was seriously traumatized by two years of exposure to mainstream Christianity.

    I’m puzzled, actually. This was not some horrible cult. This was that nice grey stone church on the corner, highly respectable, standard 20th century Christianity.

    But somehow I absorbed the intense fear that lies deep below the surface. I never came to believe in God, never believed in Jesus. I heard the Bible stories, sang the Bible songs, did all the things little girls do in Sunday School, normal things. Yet somehow I became infected with a dread that was not always conscious, but was there.

    Actually the dread surfaced when I left. I was nine, and one fine morning the Sunday School teacher told us that soon we’d be confirmed. “The minister will ask you if you believe Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and you’ll say ‘Yes.’ ”

    I felt kind of queasy, and the next Sunday I said to my Daddy, “I don’t want to go to Sunday School any more.” And he said, “You don’t have to.”

    That was the end of Sunday School, and the beginning of the terrors becoming conscious. It wasn’t until just a few years ago that I learned that what I went through was similar to what people who escape from cults go through.

    I was terrified that I would be kidnapped. I feared that while I was walking down the street, a car would pull up alongside me, and a Sunday School teacher would jump out, grab me, pull me into the car and take me back to Sunday School.

    I was terrified that something really horrible was going to happen to me because I’d left, that I was doomed to something indescribably awful.

    I had this overwhelming sensation that I was doing The Wrong Things, seriously Wrong Things. I’d broken the rules by not being in Sunday School on Sunday, and I had the disorientation, confusion and intense anxiety I’ve heard cult escapees talk about.

    I had the corresponding sensation that as someone who does the Wrong Things, I’m a Wrong Person, a Non-Person.

    I felt a sensation of sickening dread, a general overall negative pall cast over my life.

    Again, I don’t know why. The Presbyterian Church is a mainstream religion, not a crazy wackadoodle cult. But I was traumatized to such extent that I have never entirely gotten over it. Now that I’m 70 I don’t suffer the way I did when I was young. But still there are little wisps and stabs, tiny shudders, miniscule frissons.

    I was determined that my daughter should not be frightened in this way. Yes, she did go to Mass once with her little Catholic friends, and once to a protestant church. But I did not want her to go on any regular basis, or be exposed to indoctrination.

    I don’t know that it’s fair to call people like me out-of-touch fundamentalists, because I was not saying she should never learn about Christianity or make an informed choice.

    Rather, I think Christianity is NOT suitable for children, nor is the Bible something that children should read. The Bible is seriously Adult literature. I think people should not try to read it until they are in their late teens at least, and have the ability to think clearly about what they are reading.

    While I know it’s important for children to learn right and wrong, I think “sin” is another matter. I don’t believe in “sin” – I see “sin” as an offense against God, rather than human right and wrong.

    I don’t think it’s healthy to inculcate a sense of “sin” in young children.

    Teaching young children that they are sinners in need of a supernatural savior to keep them from eternal hell is pretty awful, I think.

    There’s a real fear lurking behind all the pretty Bible stories. The loving God who smiles at his children is also a hideous bully.

    And emotion can overcome reason sometimes, I think. As I said, I never came to believe in God or Jesus, but I absorbed that underlying fear like a sponge. I am so glad to be living at this time when there are atheist books and blogs and forums where we can talk about these things and work on bringing the old boogeymen out into the light of day.

  2. 1minionsopinion says:

    In terms of my likening to fundamentalism, the intent wasn’t to suggest exposure is better than no exposure. I’m starting to think that giving kids religion is a bit like those parents who want other parents to mail them diseases so they can infect their children.

    My folks sent me to catholic school primarily because I had other relatives going already so they knew what sort of education quality was available there. My folks never baptized me, though, so the bulk of the religious course work was for naught. Requests to attend bible camp in summers were denied and I didn’t really do much in the way of begging to spend weekends in church or youth groups. It wasn’t where my interest was, nor my parents’ since they did nothing to encourage it. When I did beg to go along on a youth trip, it was to go skiing and for once I think my dad was more worried I’d get the snow bug over the god bug. Skiing equipment costs a fortune.

    I’m sorry you had that experience. Nasty. I agree with what you say about sin, of course. The whole notion that we’re wrong in some way simply because we’ve been born is a traumatic idea and one that shouldn’t be encouraged.

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