Today, some closing thoughts on a topic I began three weeks ago. I have to admit, I’m surprised myself to still be writing about this. I guess it was on my mind.
So, how did this experiment in parental atheism turn out? Did Dad’s atheism take root? Mom’s Christianity? Who won the battle for The Knucklehead’s soul?
The honest answer: I have no idea.
Wait… WHAT?! How can you possibly have “no idea”? How do you not know whether your kid believes in God? How is that even possible? Especially coming from the Preacher’s Kid Turned Small-Town Atheist? What kind of parent are you?
It’s true. I have no idea. I’m not sure The Knucklehead even knows himself.
My Knucklehead has always kept his own counsel when it comes to spiritual matters. It’s not a question I’ve ever directly asked him, and he’s never offered up a judgment of his own. I’ve never asked, because I don’t want to pressure him, or to make him feel as if I’m asking him to choose sides between his parents. As my approach to the cosmos was mine to discover on my own, so is Knuck’s. My part is to guide, to teach, to explain myself. To show my own road. To explain why it was important to me.
So, I’ve talked to The Knucklehead, but mostly, he’s just listened. Always respectfully, at times attentively. There have been times when I spoke of my own issues with a Bible story or a point of theology, and I could tell I was touching on some of his own doubts. Other times, I could see a look on his face that said, I hear what you’re saying, Dad, but….
And in the meantime, I’ve watched a wonderful young man unfold before my eyes. One who is strong, kind, and moral. A young man who is respectful of the people in his life. A man who makes mistakes, falls, fails, as do we all. A man who studies his failings with humility, but without fear. And makes amends.
Here’s what I set out to accomplish almost 20 years ago:
- To raise a moral human being. To give that human being a framework for making ethical decisions that would be useful and practical in his daily life. I set out to do that through example and discussion of my own moral thinking.
- To give my Knucklehead the freedom to choose for himself. To release him from the burden of feeling he has to betray his family’s religious heritage to be true to himself. Or to more fully embrace that heritage if it makes sense to him.
- To teach him that his father’s atheism is never to be confused with amorality. That no religion, or religion in general, holds a monopoly on morality. To dismiss atheists as immoral, unfeeling, spiritually lazy, or antagonistic is to fundamentally misunderstand and discredit billions of his fellow human beings.
- To teach him that making sense of the world, and his place in it, is something worth sweating over.
To those ends, I believe I’ve given my Knucklehead the start I wanted to give him. It will be my duty, my honor, and my pleasure to be of further counsel to him, as he needs it, in the years to come.
Now, before I run the risk of waxing too “coexist-ey” on you, I must confess that as an atheist, I do believe my outlook on the universe is correct.* I do believe that those who think there is an active god out there somewhere are mistaken. I wouldn’t be much of an atheist if I didn’t think so. I believe that continued belief in a deity has hampered human progress. I believe that the organized worship of said imaginary deity through religion has caused more suffering in the world than solace. You may suspect that in the past few weeks I have been on my best behavior trying not to go all “angry atheist” on you. You would be correct.
In America these days we’re taught to respect all faiths, all religions. I do not. I do not respect your beliefs. I do not respect many political views. Where I see bad ideas, I feel morally bound to fight them. I do not respect Creationism, Original Sin, or Transubstantiation. I do not respect ideologies.
I respect people. I respect human beings. I respect you. My reader.
The reason I never worried about the possibility that my Knucklehead would adopt Christianity is not because I respect Christianity. I don’t. I respect my Knucklehead.
It all gets back to what I said last week about bringing our own ethical judgments into our reading of religions scripture, whether we realize it or not. I trust my Knucklehead’s moral compass, partly because I helped him develop it. As did his mother, My Bride, his Tae Kwon Do instructor, and other adults in his life. I don’t worry about him adopting Christianity (or Islam, or Jainism, or whatever) because I trust him not to get lost in it. I trust him to discard that which is harmful, and root out that which helps him to make sense of his life.
Because all religions are metaphors. Metaphors help us put difficult concepts into stories or pictures that we can understand. All metaphors have their limits. To accept them as literal truth is to push them past the limits for which they were designed.
This is why I accept that many people do find value in the stories and teachings of their religions, even where I do not. As Joseph Campbell pointed out, we do not create myths to further lies. We create myths to express truths. You just need to keep the limits of those myths in mind.
American Indians are often dismissed as being “animists.” We think of their religions as primitive, because we assume they literally believe all these stories about talking bears and crows and snakes, and because their ridiculous creation stories are different from our ridiculous creation stories. But I think they are a lot more sophisticated than that. Many native peoples have several creation myths, each of which contradict the other. One can’t believe in them all, it’s impossible. I believe they know this. I believe that they believe the world is so complex that one story, one poem can’t possibly explain it all. Because of the limits of metaphors. So they created different stories, each to illustrate a different aspect of the nature of the world. These stories are told at different times, for different purposes. Which “one” is true? All of them. None of them. These people know this, that they are “just” stories, but that they are powerful stories that hold great Truth.
Do you know what a Hopi Indian would do if he encountered a talking coyote? The same thing you or I would.
He’d shit himself.
But because we often insist on the literal truth of our stories, well past the limits of the metaphors, we assumed they do, too. And we thought they were primitive. Instead, in all probability, it was the other way around.
You have to be aware of the limits of the metaphors of your religion. Atheism, though not a religion, is the way I best make sense of the world and my place in it. It is also a metaphor, but one that most comfortably and directly helps me clarify my world. The limits of my metaphor are that I may be blinded to the mystical in the universe. Atheism does not help me to understand or speculate on what comes after this life. If I understand that, if I understand that there are things my worldview cannot help me with, I can avoid the blind spots. Otherwise, I become trapped by my worldview, unable to communicate with those outside it.
Because, ultimately, your religion, philosophy, or theology must help you make sense of your life. It is there to serve you. You do not exist to serve your religion. If your religion is preventing you from making sense of your moral choices in life, you need to think about adapting or discarding it. If you spend thirty yeas in a religion, as I did, and never have your questions answered, maybe the fault isn’t with you.
This bears repeating: Religion exists to serve us. Not the other way around.
I didn’t want my Knucklehead to spend his life straightjacketed by a belief system that did not support his moral framework. To waste his energy trying to pound round pegs into square holes is also a waste of spirit and mind. Life’s too short to spend beholden to community beliefs that don’t fit. Or family beliefs. Or even Papa’s.
Knucks has a long road ahead of him. I think I gave him the best start I knew how. I can’t wait to see where he takes himself.
*It’s about time we made a distinction between “atheism” and “agnosticism.” People understand “atheism” well enough; it’s the belief that no divine being exists. “Agnosticism” is a little trickier, and as such is much misunderstood. In popular terminology, “agnostics” are people who just aren’t sure. They’re either too lazy or too indecisive to commit one way or another. It’s Atheism Lite. That’s wrong, and to misunderstand that is to misunderstand agnosticism in your own faith, whatever it may be.
Agnostics maintain that if there is a god, a divine being of some kind, he or she is operating on a plane so far above us as to be unfathomable by the human mind. The idea that humans would be able to correctly interpret that being’s thoughts, plans, or intentions is as far-fetched as believing an insect could study calculus. “The information’s unavailable to the mortal man,” as Paul Simon so eloquently put it. Agnostics believe that to try to work this stuff out here in this life is pointless. Agnostics believe that we shouldn’t waste our energy on debating the meaning of eternity, and instead focus on what’s right in front of us, the stuff that we are equipped to make sense of. Like how to get through this life, right here on earth, as best we can.
To be an agnostic is not to deny the existence of the divine. Many agnostics believe in a divine being. It’s to say that instead of trying to understand God’s nature, which is inscrutable, we should study our own natures. You can be a Christian and be agnostic; many of the early Christians embraced agnosticism. Judaism has a rich agnostic history, as does Buddhism. Fundamentalist Christians, not so much.
Technically, I should call myself an agnostic. I can’t say “I know” there’s no god; that would be ridiculous, how could I possibly know such a thing? I understand and accept that it’s entirely possible that I’m mistaken. But I call myself “atheist” because it is what I believe, what makes the most sense to me to base my outlook on. I “feel” more like an atheist than an agnostic. And agnosticism is so misunderstood in America that you end up throwing up your hands in exasperation trying to correct misconceptions all the time.