Raising Children in Freethinking Families — Panel Discussion
Meeting Minutes and Commentary for August 23, 2006; #214
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The total raised for our Fund Drive is now over $18,000! Our goal is $25,000, but
since we are garnering matching funds which kicked in after our first $5,000 was
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to all who have generously donated! If you have made pledges but have not yet made
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Next Year’s Picnic: This Secretary coordinates the FA Annual Picnics. I have
in mind—and have trotted this before the Board a different idea for our ’07
Picnic. Instead of our usual format of reserving an open shelter at a park within
the greater GR area for a few hours on a Saturday (as is our tradition), I propose
that we pursue a weekend away at the Long Lake Outdoor Center by Hastings, MI. This
is located within the larger Yankee Springs Recreation Area and is privately owned.
I coordinated a family reunion there and it was an awesome time had. The L.Lk. Outdoor
Center near Gun Lake features boats and canoes by an amphitheater with bonfire pit,
an abundance of cabins of various sizes (they have accommodated as many as 100 people
in the past); some would be perfect for a couple or small family, while some—like
the Mansion House, sleeps 20 (with an abundant section for communal gatherings/activities
in these larger cabins). There is a main large dining hall with fireplace and game
area connected to a fully supplied large kitchen, fire pits by many of the cabins,
places for recreation activities, beautiful hiking areas, etc.
It is located very close to basic shopping and just a short drive to larger places
to pick up more things and it is close to everything from antique stores to mini-golf
for those who wish to explore a bit off site. This COULD be in addition to our regular
summer Picnic or in lieu of it. The cost for an entire weekend (three days; two
nights) is $800. But remember that this is divided up among paying parties—the
more who participate, the lower the amount per family/individual. At my family reunion
we had only ten paying units, but at $80 per family unit that was a bargain (no
hotels or restaurants, etc.). I’m sure we could gather many more than that
for the FA. It would be more worth the while for those traveling further, too, since
one wouldn’t have to drive pretty far to get there only to turn around a few
hours later and drive back. The thing is: If there is interest in pursuing this
for ’07, I would like feedback ASAP to get the ball rolling. I would also
like some help in coordinating this, as it is a pretty big job for one person. I
have all the necessary information, contact numbers, what is needed and so on. If
you would like to see this happen or are interested in helping or just have questions,
please contact me:
email@example.com. Thank you!
Our topic for this meeting was Raising Children in Freethinking Families. Jeff S.
moderated this panel discussion featuring eight individuals, including a mother
of a 14 year old and a 12 year old; a father of adult children, one of whom is a
homosexual man; another mother of adult children; a 15 year old girl raised in a
freethinking home; an unmarried, childless man who had been raised by an atheist
father and member of American Atheists; a father of two teenage sons; a 10 year
old boy raised in a freethinking home, and his mother.
Jeff began by quoting the slightly revised FA Mission Statement and noting that
while this presentation was being filmed, it would not be televised. All other meetings
have been/are shown on GRTV on Wednesdays. After Jeff explained the format and talked
a little about the topic, panel members gave brief autobiographical sketches. A
wide variety of ages, life experiences, upbringing and circumstances were presented
within the common theme of raising, being raised, or having been raised as children
in freethinking homes.
After introductions by panelists, questions were posed such as: What was the Best/Worst
thing about being raised in a freethinking family? How do you respond to pressure
from religious family members, friends and those who thrust their beliefs on you?
How do or did you deal with death and questions of the afterlife? What about coming
out of the closet; what consequences have you experienced as a result? What is different
about your approach to raising children as freethinking parents if you were reared
in a religious home? What do you wish you would have done differently or that your
parents had done differently in bringing you up?
There were other questions asked and a great many that we did not get to address
due to time constraints with 8 panelists responding (even one three minute response
to one query per panelist works out to the better part of half an hour). However,
some of these pre-planned format questions were touched on spontaneously in the
responses by panelists, while some others were addressed during the question and
answer period by audience attendees. Among these were questions regarding mixed
marriages (as to religious affiliation/beliefs); how personal relationships have
been/are affected by one’s freethought position; employment issues surrounding
one’s non-religious worldview; teaching morality outside of a religious framework;
how would we accept it if our children broke away from their upbringing to become
thoroughly religious? How much information or exposure to religious worldviews is
good—how much is too much?
Some questions that we did not get to but would be interesting to explore at a different
time included (but were not limited to) the following: Who are good role models
and heroes for freethinking children? How is discipline differently handled in freethinking
families? Do freethinking families approach sexuality differently than religious
ones? What advice do we give our children about participation in religious customs
in order to fit in with larger society? How do we deal with the major religious
holidays? Is social isolation a problem for you or your offspring? What do we think
about the findings of the Barna Group that indicates that while while one fifth
of American adults are single/never married; nearly one half of those who are unchurched
are unwed and never before married? Another relationship question that might be
interesting to get discussion on is: Is it harder for freethinking young people
to find a mate—whether religious or not?
This Secretary has endeavored to retain some sense of anonymity for those who participated
on the panel. Also, rather than giving a sequential blow-by-blow run down of the
evening, I will provide more general remarks made, thoughts expressed and concerns
addressed and will do so in no particular order—except to tie themes together.
This is a modification from how I began; where I went down the line, person by person
as each responded to a question posed, summarizing each individual response. If
I had retained that process, I predict that this write up would have run some 20
pages or so! All panelists grew up in either Christian homes or ones that would
have been Christian if they had been brought up in a religious home (i.e., no Muslim,
Jewish, Buddhist, etc. upbringing or potential upbringing). In this part of Michigan,
one is likely to have worked one’s way out of a Dutch Christian Reformed background
and this was seen in our panel, but too, Catholicism was well represented for upbringing,
among other faith traditions.
Many who have maintained some church-going activity have attended the local Fountain
Street Church or are part of—or have been part of—Unitarian Universalist
churches. The FSC is a liberally religious church where one is encouraged to ask
questions rather than have absolute answers. Furthermore, one does not need to have
belief in any particular set of religious tenets, which provides a wider experience
of religious and secular thought than experienced in more traditional churches (the
stained glass windows there not only have religious figures but also present Darwin
and other secular thinkers, for one example). Rather than Sunday School, they have
Character Class. Some participants were part of the FS Church and UU churches because
of the communal and social aspects afforded. It was a time for reflection and togetherness
with others who were not directed by dogma and doctrine. Another mentioned a couple
times the protective coloring, as she put it, that church attendance gave for her
children. Many traditionally-religious people can scarcely comprehend the idea of
being totally unchurched. Even those of faith who nonetheless almost never attend
church services, still announce their church membership and identification with
a religious denomination. The FSC Character classes provide lessons on functioning
as a decent and ethical human being without all the religious baggage, and this
was seen by some panelists as positive for bringing up one’s children. For
others any sort of church body affiliation was not interesting, or they fell away
from earlier membership in even the very liberal, tolerant and essentially secular
churches. Overall, the nonreligious are found to be less affiliating and less bound
to gathering at one time and place for a specific purpose, especially where the
flow of the gathering is directed by a single authoritarian presence. Getting atheists
to join en masse for something has been likened to attempting to herd cats.
It was touched on later in the evening how some, as children, were expected to attend
church services while their parent or parents did not have such personal commitment
for themselves for church attendance. Often, if it is a parent who goes, it is the
mom—and she, in order to take her children to church and/or Sunday school.
One might legitimately ponder certain questions regarding this practice. Do those
who stay behind feel they have graduated from church? Do they believe there is nothing
more to be learned or thought about as to their religion? Is it sort of the religious
analogy to the adults who insist on their children wearing helmets or life vests
or putting on sunscreen, while they themselves do not? Can church members who do
not attend religious services themselves sincerely believe that people are communing
with the Creator of the Universe when they are in a house of worship—yet would
rather catch a ball game instead? Can they believe that their eternal salvation
depends upon setting one day out of the week for church, yet still not go?
I used to wonder about this myself as a young lad perched on the hard wooden pews
as I saw people sleeping or obviously thinking about where they would rather be,
what they would be doing later, getting this regimen over with, and being at last
liberated from the shackles of monotony and dress clothes. I knew that I was drawing
pictures on the papers and mentally transporting myself far from the rituals of
the service, but I also knew that I wasn’t a believer in the ramblings pouring
forth from the pulpit. I wondered: Do these adults, likewise, really not feel anything
special? No adult was forcing THEM to go, so why were they there? Why was Mr. Johnson,
who hadn’t darked the door of a church for years, guaranteed of his soul being
fired off into the ether and the bosom of God and Jesus—the same as Mr. Pierce
who attended church...well... religiously? I knew, even as a lad that I was spiritually
bereft, that I had the same sense for religion that the tone deaf person has for
melody... but how come my fellow congregants seemed to likewise be untouched by
feeling when supposedly encountering their Maker. I noticed that those who said
the little prayer before eating did this in the same perfunctory fashion as they
did when they downed their ritual orange juice, medicinally, robotically, but without
any sense that one activity (saying grace) was supposed to be talking to the Divine
Being, while the other merely contained Vitamin C... even though now (!) without
It was seen that several panelists had been a part of, or exposed to, various religious
denominations. This can help to sew the seeds of personal inquiry into questions
of faith. When one sees a panopoly of different beliefs and ideas—all of which
are putatively presenting The Truth and then notices that many sects hold animosity
toward other ones, this may call into question the idea that religion is a uniting
force and that all are God’s children and equally loved. The child, witnessing
this, will see that different people have different beliefs and it is not about
one being right; just that this particular person subscribes to the faith s/he has
been brought up in. One’s religion is truly an accident of birth. Freethinkers
are noteworthy for having bucked the strong influences of guilt, familiarity, familial
tradition and social approbation as they have extricated themselves from religious
faith. Panelists were exposed to the Quaker tradition, Presbyterian denominations,
etc., in addition to previously mentioned religious faiths. And one young panelist’s
mother (who was not on the panel) had been brought up in a Fundamentalist Christian
home. One noted that his family ancestry was like the UN of religion since the backgrounds
ran the gamut of faith groups. Many in his family had been raised Catholic but none
ended up with that faith; they had converted to everything from Greek Orthodox to
Seventh Day Adventists to Mormonism to Judaism, as well as his father who was an
atheist and another family member who went from being an Evangelical to a Deist.
The convert to Judaism had to change his surname since it was about as Jewish-sounding
as the pop star Madonna’s name is.
Charles Honey, the Religion Editor for the Grand Rapids Press said once to our group
that someone in his position needs to be deeply interested in religion in all its
forms, rather than a spokesman for one particular variety of it. Many in our group
are still fascinated with different religions and what lies behind them, without
holding to any one in particular themselves. As a child, my Methodist church provided
me—and other interested youths—the opportunity to meet with the leaders
of different faith traditions who spoke for their religions; why they believe as
they do, what different rituals and religious items represented and so on. This
is one of the very few positive memories I have regarding church activity. In hindsight,
I find it rather remarkable that we were given this exposure and that there was
absolutely no sense of competition, or that one faith tradition had the best ideas.
We could consider each presentation on a individual level and draw our own conclusions.
It goes without saying, however, that one will naturally feel more close to the
thinking that one has been exposed to for the longest duration, but still it was
a positive exercise. Most people do not choose their faith by comparison with other
ones but simply passively follow the path laid out by their parents and their parents’
parents, and so on.
The children on our panel declared that they were being raised to think for themselves.
Even those from freethinking homes who are not given a lot of direct exposure, growing
up, to different religions are still probably more likely to be open minded about
them, not having been instructed that one religion is the Right one and not having
the carrot and stick of heaven and hell bearing down upon them to constrain their
thinking in a black and white fashion. If they do some day choose a religion, it
will more likely be based on personal investigation and done in a thoughtful manner,
not just reflexively and as automatons. It is probably for this reason that freethinking
parents can countenance the idea that their children may join a church later. They
have given their children the tools to evaluate ideas critically and to be aware
of the great many ideas out there to choose from—so if a choice is made it
will likely be done after reflection and examination. One ultimately sends one’s
children out into the world to make their own decisions. All we can do as parents
is to equip them the best that we can. I am reminded of a humorist who wrote about
the poor, deprived children on the school playground who were forced to play and
chatter together instead of being housed inside praying and reciting from the Bible—as
they would rather be doing, of course, since God had been kicked out of the public
schools. One of the children on the panel spoke of how nice it was not to have to
engage in Sunday rituals and how his peers envied him that liberty.
Parents spoke of trying to raise their children to be confident in their own skin
and independent thinkers. They gave them a lot of latitude and tried to guide rather
than coerce. Providing a wealth of materials to investigate and explore was touted
as a good way to raise thinking children. Children naturally gravitate toward the
things they will excel at but must be introduced to the possibilities. If they are
not given the sense that there is only one way to think about things and only one
set of materials to be read and believed unquestioningly in—then they may
be more likely to exercise critical thinking and to talk with their parents about
the things they have absorbed. They know they will not be shut down, punished or
given pat authoritarian answers. Questioning and thoughtful consideration of ideas
is viewed positively, not as sinful.
One panelist noted the negative influence his own father’s strict religious
upbringing wrought. He associated his father’s almost evangelical atheism
with the pain and humiliation he suffered as a youngster at the hands of the religious.
He may have been lashing out at those memories, causing his non-belief to take on
a more strident and zealous form. If children are taught WHAT to think rather than
HOW to think, they are unprepared to critically analyze information and weigh one
idea against another. Instead they simply react to ideas, usually negatively for
those concepts that are oppositional to what they were brought up to believe. The
panelist’s father had seen Madelyn Murray O’Hair (the late founder of
American Atheists, an unstoppable force for unflinching opposition to religion,
and once called the most hated woman in America) on the old Phil Donahue show (this
Secretary was first exposed to her there as well.) He immediately knew that he had
found a kindred spirit (so to say) and he later joined American Atheists. This was
before the Internet, so finding fellow non-believers was a more difficult proposition.
In fact, to give it more historical perspective, MMOH first came to prominence when
her efforts and legal battles helped lead—along with another court case—to
the ending of led prayer recitation and Bible reading in the public schools. This
Secretary is personally grateful for this, since I started my school career a short
time after that decision, so I never faced such activity and when I first said the
Pledge of Allegiance, we were still (at least in my school) considered a nation
indivisible, rather than one that was strangely the sole focus of an ancient Hebrew
deity. By the time the phrase under God was insinuated into the Pledge in my hometown,
we students at my grade level were no longer required to recite it.
One panel participant spoke of growing up in a town with a fairly robust Jewish
population. He was exposed to different approaches to religious belief right away.
He was relieved to see that they were not about converting others and proselytizing,
and that their religion’s rituals and holidays were linked to traditions based
on what they had experienced—over great expanses of time—as a people.
There was no emphasis on a ceaseless torture chamber; there was no sole Way to eternal
life through unquestioning belief in a person being born of a virgin by the impregnation
of a god who lived two millennia ago; it wasn’t about blind faith belief,
etc. So while no religion had any pull for him, it was good to encounter other ways
of practicing faith traditions. He also grew up at a time and place that provided
him with an extraordinary number (relative to the population of the town and its
location in the Midwest) of first or second generation peers from other lands, other
cultures and other belief systems. He found this experience to be satisfying. He
was also introduced to people of no religious faith early on. While he hadn’t
heard about atheists specifically until later, he was told that one very kind man
in the community was an agnostic and was told straightforwardly that these are people
who have no certainty as to the existence of God. Well that made good sense to him!
His mother would tell about an aunt (never giving a label to her) who believed that
when you died you simply rotted in the ground and that was it. Once again, he was
relieved to know there were others—and adults no less!—who didn’t
subscribe to notions of people flitting about with bird wings around a light wearing
choir robes in one unending church service. He saw pets die and was never told they
had to endure such a mind numbing eternity, so it was a relief to suppose that he,
too, might not have to face that fate either—but could simply die! This aunt
and some others seemed to have some very reasonable thoughts and this gave him hope...
and oddly... a sense of comfort—one that religious concepts never bestowed
Our ten year old panel member had some amusing anecdotes to share later on but kept
it short and simple for his introductory remarks. He mentioned that he had been
mocked for his lack of faith but that he found other peers who were supportive and
even shared his lack of religion. I would add here that my own impression—and
what I overheard from others—was that the young people—those both in
the audience and on the panel—were simply remarkable and very inspiring for
their courage and sense of self; their poise and relative ease of expression, and
a sense of wisdom beyond their tender years. It was a hopeful sign to see this crop
of questioning young minds coming up in the world and a testimony to their home
life that has nurtured them. When one is told that there is always a pat answer
to everything and that it comes from a single authority source that is not to be
questioned and is told that one is either a passive believer or is bound for a realm
of eternal torment if one explores and questions... then such youths are less likely
to get into the habit of exercising their minds and learning to think critically.
Youths from freethinking homes, conversely, will be less likely to take things simply
on faith, but instead, quest boldly and think creatively. They will not have had
their innate curiosity and thirst for learning damped down by being told that breaking
from the herd is to be avoided at all costs. This Secretary has controversially
said upon occasion that parents who could never countenance the handicapping of
their children physically, think nothing of handicapping their minds via religious
indoctrination. The two young people on the panel both mentioned experiencing comments
from religious peers about how they were destined to Hell but it sounded to me more
like the reactions by children to another who has said a curse word. Not so much
said with venom and outrage, as adults might do, but more in the child’s manner
of: Oooh, what you said!
At their ages, I myself was not possessed of the maturity and self assurance they
demonstrated but I do have childhood recollections of the dichotomy I witnessed
where a man who drowned his children would be considered a monster but when God
did this it was somehow a cheery tale about the All-good Father. I knew that the
adults I respected the most were those who could calmly and intelligently make their
cogent points; who could instruct wisely and who made me feel important and significant.
The God I was told about was one that slaughtered His children in anger, was a self-declared
jealous being, and seemed to have petty fixations rather than global thoughts. His
children were wretches born in sin. The solution to everything for God seemed to
be to lash out. For those who wanted to think rather than fear and grovel, an eternal
existence of pain awaited them. Such behavior in a mortal man would have evoked
extreme animosity in the same people who associated these actions—when the
perpetrator was God—with love and benevolence.
One mother on the panel spoke of how her son came home from school singing religious
songs when he was very young. She spoke up against this religious intrusion but
also introduced him to Greek mythology. The late Joseph Campbell once said that
mythology is other people’s religion. The ancient Greeks did not think of
their tales of gods as being false anymore than modern Christians think that donkeys,
snakes and bushes that talked, parting seas and literally petrified women are mere
fanciful stories. By introducing him to the ways that different people had developed
differing belief systems to account for the natural phenomena around them, in order
to deal with death, to help codify societal rules and to give self identification
and group allegiance, he was able to see what lies beneath religious faith practices.
She also emphasized scientific understanding of the natural world. Religious explanations—those
dealing with supernatural causation—were what were put forth to explain the
world before better knowledge was gained about the structure and behavior of nature.
The panelist who spoke before her likened the process of introducing his children
to the dominant religious beliefs they would be encountering to probably what those
in any religious minority must engage in. They too must explain that a lot of the
people their children would encounter have these beliefs, holidays and so on, and
what they base them on. The freethinking parent, like the religious minority parent,
does not decry the dominant faith as stupid or abhorrent—just not what he
or she subscribes to, and why. Freethinkers often have a much fuller knowledge of
religion than the religious adherents themselves do and it does not seem that freethinking
parents have any objection to their children learning as much as they can about
the various religions in the world. The more belief systems one is exposed to, especially
as an outside observer rather than one fully committed to a particular brand of
religion, the better one may see the patterns and connections between them as well
as the basis for their differing interpretations of reality.
Since I was apparently immune to religious sentiment growing up, it never really
occurred to me to instruct my own children in it early on. There were experiences,
however, that caused me to realize that I had better at least give them the basics.
One friend of my older son (both were quite young at the time) was just stunned
at how little he knew about Christianity or the rituals involved in its practice.
Another time we were driving by a billboard that for some reason had an image of
Jesus in the clouds and my boy asked what that guy was doing up there in the sky!?
I let him go to Vacation Bible School with a family friend’s children and
he had been frightened because he thought that they said that were about to go to
the War Ship (his misunderstanding of the word worship). Having long since been
taught the basics about the predominant religion they would encounter, I could still
see how my sons not having being told what to believe and not assuming that religious
stories were automatically morally positive—were able to evaluate the Bible
tales from a more sound perspective. When one of them first heard the story of Moses
leading his people out of captivity, he found it objectionable that instead of winning
the hearts and minds of the captors, God hardened their hearts and caused them to
drown and rained down death and disease. His personal sense of ethics did not accept
the idea that an all-wise god would resort to such methods in order to right a wrong.
Two wrongs do not make a right, he had said at the time.
As to the coming out of the closet as a non-believer question, there were various
responses. The parent of a gay son said that his son’s coming out was a far
greater accomplishment than being out of the closet as an atheist. It seemed that
the general consensus, however, was that—especially regarding family—religion
became something that was no longer spoken of in their midst, after making their
declaration of non-belief. Instead of being a shared faith, it was a contentious
issue. But for most, so long as this was not broached, all other aspects of the
family dynamics abided. One person noted that if a person was loved and respected
and appreciated before the news of his/her apostasy, then why should this one issue
be the one that annuls all else? He said that he regarded it as the other person’s
loss and that being denounced solely on the basis of religious belief said a great
deal about the foundation of the relationship itself. Some parents of panelists
still held out hope for their children coming back into the fold. It is interesting
to note that most believers have not ever bothered to really study the underpinnings
of their own religion. They do not necessarily want their children to be well versed
in the faith—and do not base their own faith on cogent arguments or personal
research—but rather, it is all about belief. After a lengthy dissertation
one time on the inconsistencies in the Bible, the horrors and the absurd fantasies
I found, and how these in no way guided, nor edified, nor comforted me, my mother’s
response was: Well, at least I know that you still believe in God! Huh? An audience
member voiced a similar experience that he had with his father.
Society conditions people to regard non-believers as evil, untrustworthy, immoral,
etc., all without presenting any logical connection between believing in invisible
beings or in a leavened virgin-born man and having a better sense of morality. Perhaps
this thoughtless, passively imbibed belief about non-believers—when juxtaposed
against the knowledge one has for one’s son or daughter; brother or sister,
etc., creates a strange sort of dynamic; one where the believer can no longer assign
the knee jerk reaction he has for those damned atheists out there somewhere—to
the flesh of his flesh. He knows his child is a good and decent person—yet
he doesn’t believe in God. This just does not compute for the believer. The
only way to restore the world to something he can make sense of is to think that
his loved one will one day embrace belief again. Maybe it is just a phase! Since
faith is not based on cogent argument or logical reasoning, no matter how much or
well the faith-free relative argues his/her position, the words are all lost on
the uncomprehending believer. It’s all about belief in God. That’s all
One panelist will not allow herself to be treated as if her non-belief is a shameful
thing. For her, how she presents herself, depends on who she is talking to. She
corrects those who just assume that she is a churchgoing woman. Because of her relationship
to a very much out freethinker, coming out for her was something she had little
choice in. A common theme among the panelists was that none of them sought out friction
or unnecessary arguments. They didn’t wear their atheism as a chip on their
shoulder, but merely as a part of who they are; just as one does not make an object
of contention other aspects of one’s life to people encountered—such
as if he is a vegetarian or a pet owner, or she is a wife or whatever. I personally
feel that it is harder to be treated as abnormal if you present your non-belief
(when the issue arises) in a natural and uncontroversial manner. Simply and easily
stating your lack of faith helps to diffuse the situation. For me, arguing for this
aspect of my life and focusing undo attention on it is like making a large deal
about my preference for rugged landscapes over pastoral scenes. When presented matter-of-factly,
it causes anyone who gets bent out of shape about it to look rather petty and foolish.
But because atheists are so often automatically negatively prejudged, there is an
incentive to represent one’s self as a positive example, as one panelist mentioned.
We do not need to give others fuel to throw on the kindling of the stake they envision
One person talked about the school setting, where she would comment to those teachers
who inquired about their student’s church affiliation, that this was not a
proper topic for school and further reminding the teacher that it was not his/her
place to endorse one religion over another. In a school I helped out in, there was
a teacher I got to know well. I often found myself in the position of correcting
misunderstandings she had in her role as a public school teacher. She once declared
bitterly to me how constrained she felt in not being able to mention her church
or tell of an experience she had there. I explained that of COURSE she could share
her experiences as a church member (just as could her experiences as a mom, as a
wife, as a friend, and so on.) What she was not to do was to proselytize, to encourage
students to adopt her faith, attend her church, or feel coerced into entertaining
her personal beliefs. So often Christians in particular adopt a stance where they
feel they must push their own faith on others and to be denied this is unthinkable
for them. They feel persecuted. Schools that do not address their God are considered
anti-God. This is sort of like saying one is anti-ferret if the school year has
come and gone and no mention of this streamlined mammal has occurred. It is not
enough to derive personal satisfaction and happiness from their religious beliefs;
they must foist them on others, sometimes, in extreme cases, to the extent of weaponizing
It is the sort of false connection people mindlessly construct that makes a book
filled with incest, rape, exhibitionism, bestiality, castration, mutilation, infanticide,
scatology, adultery and a whole host of other pathologies and criminal behavior—into
one that is a resource guide for morality. One, further, that children should be
steeped in! Panelists spoke of how they encountered people who wondered how they
could be decent without the Bible as their instruction manual but it is difficult
for those who have actually read it to make that connection. The good ideas about
how to exist in a civil society predate any extant religious texts, which is why
they are constants in all societies no matter what holy books were available or
even in the absence of the written word. One might also question a morality based
on aspiring to heaven or avoiding hellfire anyway. Those who look only at the New
Testament for Jesus’ words would find, if they investigated further, that
the words put in his mouth were not always exemplary and those that were, were from
older rabbinical sources. Are those who observe what is called the Golden Rule any
less moral when they learn that it predates Christianity, in an earlier formulation,
by 5 centuries?
One panelist, referring to the positives of being raised in—or raising children
in—a freethinking household, noted that his own strict upbringing did not
allow for movies or dances or even playing cards. His own children enjoyed experiences
that he was not allowed to participate in. Assigning everything that is enjoyable
to sinful behavior is not something that children in freethinking homes have to
deal with. As alluded to earlier, there is more potential for openness between parent
and child when children are allowed to question and know they are cherished for
themselves, not just something born wicked to be molded into a form acceptable by
a sky-dwelling being. A young panelist said she enjoyed her freedom to discover
her own beliefs and not have to subscribe to a narrow set that are laid out for
her. Another person talked about how nothing is off limits to investigate. Another
talked about healing, as a family, after their loss. Different families and different
individuals heal in different ways. Religion ritualizes all facets of life and death
to where everyone must deal life’s ups and downs in a more uniform way. It
is often more depersonalizing, too. A freethought funeral, for instance, focuses
solely on the person, instead of a typical Christian service that focuses on Jesus
and God and the church.
Regarding death specifically, it seemed that most panelists had a more matter-of-fact
approach to it. No one wants to die too soon or to have loved ones die—this
is the same for the devout religionist as it is for the committed atheist. While
a skepticism about the hereafter doesn’t provide one with a delusional sense
of immortality, it can help one appreciate the only life we know we have more. Never
having known a spiritual moment personally, I was never able to formulate a positive
association for an eternal union with a being that seemed so horrific, or in never
again being able to experience running and playing and touch and drawing pictures
and the sights, sounds, smells and wonders of the natural world because of an eternal
sentence in some ethereal non-corporeal existence. One mother on the panel said
that we should live our lives in a way that we could be proud to be remembered by
others. Another talked about how one cannot learn from reality or learn how to see
reality correctly if one is steeped in fanciful notions and without comprehension
of the facts of nature. One panelist said that when she was a young girl she saw
her grandpa throw a dead gopher over the fence. She wondered if that was her fate
when she died. Children have funny notions of death to be sure, but they are hardly
any less rational than the religious constructs of pearly gates, streets of gold,
flying on avian wings, playing harps, etc. The unanimous response by all participants
in the panel was to appreciate life and make the best of our short time we have.
Things all become more precious when less abundant. If one will live eternally and
this mortal life is just a dress rehearsal, then life on Earth has reduced value.
Even if there is a heaven, why put so much thought into something that no one alive
ever saw while being distracted from the beauty and wonders of the natural real
world all around you!?
An audience member said that one positive thing about atheism for him was that he
couldn’t play the God card, as he put it. He had to explore things at a deeper
level to draw conclusions. He could not just say God did it; it’s all about
His mysterious ways; we aren’t to know yet the reasons for things that happen.
One question prompted a panelist to say that her grown daughter had been a Muslim
for a period of time. While immersed in the religion, she could not cook with her
left hand as it was considered dirty, was supposed to wear certain garb (she was
a dancer, so this was especially constricting) and so on. When she left Islam, she
slid into the UU church. The mother was proud of her daughter for making her own
choices and having learned from them. The faith community is typically quite wary
of allowing their children to explore other belief systems and religions but this
may not be so much the case with freethinking families. There is no forbidden fruit
aspect, wondering about that which you are disallowed to investigate; there are
not such grave concerns over conversions, since freethinking children are not as
susceptible to the sales pitches of different religions and, as the mother noted,
if they do become a part of some religion, they probably will have thought it out
and it will be their decision; not what a church dictates or a community expects
or parents impose.
One audience member mentioned the tyranny of religion and how many of his friend’s
lives he saw messed up by it. He was glad not to have been brought up in a religious
home. A panelist said that a parent may be disappointed by some choices made by
one’s children but love abides. One’s regard for one’s children
should not be based on doctrinal beliefs. A young girl in the audience said that
she really had no problems being an atheist among her peers but adults gave her
trouble. This Secretary did a report on how young people regard homosexuality. The
youngest had no problems with it. They felt if people loved each other they should
be together. They thought it was crazy that some people objected to it. But as the
documentary went up grade by grade the intolerance set in more and more and became
ossified with the eldest, no doubt reflecting what they had absorbed from their
parents. It just isn’t that big a deal when you are quite young it seems.
Some peers have imaginary friends and they see that some adults pray to their imaginary
Others in the audience spoke of the approach of religious parents being to shield
the children from everything they deem bad. As alluded to above, this sets up a
more keen interest in what is forbidden while not equipping the child to figure
things out. She will not as likely ask questions of her parents if she feels she
is being bad by doing so. She will learn that some things are just evil or bad without
any need to explain why or how. The world will be black and white. Authority figures
who act impulsively and wrathfully—without reasoning or discussion—will
be her guides. One of those who spoke said that when he was young his dad tore out
a picture of skater Peggy Flemming from a magazine so as not to corrupt the child
(with her bare legs or athletic figure perhaps?). He was probably too young to even
think of the skater as sexually alluring but had been set up to regard the body
A panelist spoke about the exclusivity and intolerance fostered by the more extreme
end of the religious spectrum. You are either with us or against us. You are part
of the tribe or an outsider. He saw the distrust and anger and hatred toward those
who were different in some way, as perpetrated by the faithful. While many Christians
base their so-called pro-family stance on the Bible, one will search in vain to
find any real support for this position. One could go on for pages with examples
of how family members were to be divided against each other, or the approved corrective
measure to be used against a disobedient son was to stone him to death, or how a
daughter may be sold as a sex slave, or how it is a fine notion for a man to have
many wives and concubines, or how it is a lovely measure of one’s faith when
your God asks you to murder your son, etc., etc. The freethinking family is freed
from the dictates of Bronze Age morality and needs not resort to apologetics to
explain why they do not really act on what they are commanded or encouraged to do
from the Bible. The child of a freethinkng family is conceived in love and is a
marvel as s/he develops; not born in sin, only existing to attain salvation from
his/her innate wretched state.
We thank all who participated on the panel and for the thoughtful questions and
comments from the audience.
Secretary: Charles LaRue.
The Freethought Association of West
Michigan provides a community for freethinkers to explore ideas from a rational,
critical and non-theistic perspective.