When I decided to become a parent, I didn’t think religious issues would much factor into it. My son turns six soon, and lo, not many religious issues have thusfar come up. I am an atheist, as is my son’s mother. Therefore, religion hasn’t really factored into his upbringing. At school, he will not participate in the otherwise obligatory Religion-classes (theology is kind of a fancy word which I won’t use here..). At day care, they were going to church for easter, and I’m thinking: “Is this really a thing for people between the ages of 2-5?” Apparently. We told the daycare people that no, he wouldn’t be going to church since we are not a religious bunch of people. They looked at us with their heads cocked to one side, like we were making a strange proposition. “I guess he can stay at the day care center with some of the babies that are not going to church….”. And so he did. He was apparently quite the showman, and the babies were all very interested in watching. And of course he enjoyed being the center of attention, with none of the other older kids around.
After that day, he came home and asked me why the other kids went to church and he didn’t. And since it’s not a topic of discussion that we have some kind of… atheist moratorium on, I explained that some families believe in certain things, and that’s why they go to church. Kind of like some people believe in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. Mind you, I wasn’t being sarcastic; I was merely putting it in terms that a five year old can maybe begin to grasp. So he takes my reply and goes with it.
Later, he’s rummaging around his mothers jewlery box, and finds a gold cross. He tells his mother that he really would like the cross, because, “Cross means church, and you need to be in the church when you die!”. So she calls me up and is rather distraught, and so was I. Where did he pull this from? Either he has been talking to another kid, and asking the same question (why did you go to church?), or then it’s been a topic of conversation at day care. Both options are a bit scary, though they were to be expected. We still live in a very christian society here in Finland.
A recent study tells us that 8% of the population believe in angels, and 13% believe that Satan exists. 65% reported that they are a member of a Christian congregation (the real number is much higher). Only 5% said that the most important reason for them being in the church was to ensure a Christian upbringing for their children. The most common answer was that they want church services (such as a church wedding, burial) with 34%, and 26% replied that they are a part of the church because it is customary. The study was conducted by the Think If Laboratories Oy, on behalf of the tabloid newspaper Iltalehti. The margin of error is +/- 3%, and they interviewed 4458 people.
Ok but.. what is a guy to do? A 5 year-old is obviously completely oblivious to stuff like “life after death” or “god” or..whatever. He just acts like a parrot; repeating whatever he hears. Very impressionable, easy to influence. Which is the prime reason in my mind, why religious teaching should be forbidden entirely to children under say.. the age of 12. Even that may be too low. Children just are not sensible enough to make that kind of choices, and the choices their parents make for them (of which atheism is one, too) can be downright dangerous. You come out as a crazed christian fundamentalist, and people start looking at you different. Equally, if you are an atheist, you will get the same looks and questions from the (soon) christian minority. According to the same survey that i referred to above, less than 50% would call themselves religious. So what we have here, is people who are members of the church or congregation because their parents were, and their parents before them. We’re not talking about die-hard, go-to-church-every-sunday types. Those are a vocal minority.
Extrapolating on current church membership decline, the Helsinki ‘metropolitan area’ should have a church membership percentage of less than 50% in 2030.
But back to the topic at hand. How does one, without instilling prejudice in a young persons mind, tell a child that “yeah there’s probably no god, and the people who feel the need to pray or go to church do it to feel better or explain things in their lives that they don’t understand or that are too painful. That it’s really mostly just tradition and/or escape from painful/hard-to-understand stuff?” I don’t want him to grow up thinking all christians are crackpots, because they aren’t. They just have a different belief, that is perhaps not as much based on rational thinking. I don’t want him to grow up to hate these people. I want him to make up his own mind. But at five, you just can’t do that.
If I tell him Christians are stupid, he’ll tell that to every kid he meets, because dad’s word is law when you are five. But apparently there are still religious people around who keep lying to their children about where they are going after they die, and that praying helps and.. other cooky stuff. And these kids, being young and impressionable, go around talking to other impressionable young minds and keep spreading the fud. It’s okay to believe in something, but you don’t have to go around telling everyone about it. Of course, a five year old doesn’t see it that way. He gets input (why did you go to church?), and he gives output (implanted by parents: “because it’s important to believe in god if when you die”).
Complicated stuff. One might argue atheism is a belief among all others, but I would argue it’s less harmful. It doesn’t teach a set of values, because it isn’t a system per se. It’s absence of belief in a deity or deities. The church on the other hand imposes certain guidelines to live by, which leads to hate, misunderstanding and other not-so-nice things. Atheists can decide for themselves whether they don’t like gay people or not, they don’t take their orders from a book. Which leads to the classic “Without bible and its teachings, where does your morality come from?”. Gee, I guess common sense.
Which is exactly what I want to pass on. On the other hand, if, later in life, he decides he wants to believe in Buddha or Allah.. a rock in the park? Fine. Go wild. Knock yourself out. But not before I feel he isn’t ready to formulate proper opinions. Keep your options open. And your mind. And I have a feeling I know where he’ll end up.
I can’t help but to be biased too, of course. I don’t believe in God. Therefore there is bias. So maybe one option is to talk to him about all the beliefs and gods in the world. That’ll be a long discussion, but maybe he’ll understand there is no universal religion or higher power. That it’s very much culture dependant, and based greatly on tradition and what your parents pass on to you. I still think that teaching “nothing” or “everything”, as I’ve suggested, allows for more choices later on. The alternative doesn’t give you other choices, and breaking away from the traditional mold might be very hard.