I’m feeling a bit insulted.
As you will know if you are a regular reader of this blog, I’m a parent.
I have an adorable toddler. He’s very clever, resourceful, ingenious. I love him more than anything else in the world.
Both my husband and I have admitted to each other that if it came to it, we’d save him over each other in a life or death situation. Ultimately, love to the point of self-sacrifice is part of being a parent.
And that’s a theme we’ll come back to.
But what he’s not is either:
a) a toy to be manipulated by his parents; or
b) capable of abstract reasoning in the absence of evidence.
Children learn through the example of others, through practice, through observation.
So I’ve just seen this report in the Belfast Telegraph about the new atheist poster from the Bristish Humanist Association for Christmas. If you want to see an intellectual atheist’s view of it, I’m sure you’ll be able to access that via my friend Jon Worth’s blog soon.
(picture is by Kate Foster, age 11, kidstalkaboutgod.org – I’ll put one of my son’s on as soon as he can draw something that isn’t a train!)
But here’s my view as a parent, and Christian.
1) As a parent, it is my responsibility to raise my child to be the best that he can be.
Most parents want the best for their child.
They will differ in their views on what “the best” means – in educational terms for example it could mean the most expensive fee-paying school, a multi-cultural, multi-ability school that everyone from the local area attends, or one that specialises in developing a specialist skill that their child may have (or indeed their intellectual ability overall). Elsewhere it could mean a daughter getting the chance to go to a school at all, a son getting to stay on rather than leave to work to keep the family fed… the point is that most parents are driven to get the best that they can for their children.
While there are bad parents who care nothing for the offspring they bring into this world, If you are a devout Darwinist I guess you’ll say that the genes that want the best chance of survival condition me to believe and act in ways that should enable him to do so.
Being the best you can be means instilling values, right from the very beginning - for example small children are naturally selfish (“mine!”) as their sense of self develops, and they need to be taught to share. How do you start to decide what values you will be teaching your child?
Asking people what’s important in terms of values is inevitably subjective, and the values of some won’t fit all – but are there some clear, inherent values: fairness, tolerance, liberty, justice, the pursuit of happiness that are self-evidently “a good thing”?
Um, no. Self-evident is a problem because things that become self-evident are the result of generations of conditionment: our values in the Western world are likely to have been derived from principles followed in ancient Greece, the Roman empire, revolutionary France, empirial Britain as well as from great thinkers and philosophers and, like it or not, from the dominance of the Christian religion over the majority of the public and the decision-makers for the last nearly 2000 years.
Nietzsche believed that christian “values” had corrupted the natural state of humanity and did not believe that society should address the needs of the poor and weak but that the strong had a right to be dominant – a position recognised in the mediaeval world (outside the frontline parts of the church) and increasingly in the deprived inner cities (where the voluntary sector – primarily still from religious motivation – steps in). I don’t believe that looking out for those in need can be evolutionarily advantageous (unless someone cares to explain to me how?) and in a Nietzschian world could only really be seen to be of use in bringing about a sense of weakness and dependency rather than a wish to take up arms, become strong and assert their rights to more. So why do it? Because, somewhere inside we have a feeling that it’s the “right” thing to do.
But it’s a judgement call, right? It’s a question of relativity – you can choose one path or another, but there’s no ulitmate right and wrong, just what you can do to satisfy yourself and your view of making the world a better place.
But of course religions take a different view. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, values are derived from what God wants us to be like to be the best we can be – i.e. like him, the ultimate source of goodness. God the father, who sees us as his children loves us and wants us to love him back – a feeling every parent knows. But equally, being a parent means correcting and chastising, with love. So there is right, and there is wrong, it’s not relative and God is the judge.
I don’t think I can raise my child properly without instilling values in him one way or another – an if I am a Christian, act as a Christian, attend church, pray etc. then he will learn through observation and wanting to join in, i.e. practice. Should I be caveating my actions with there’s no obligation on you to join in, son of mine, and what I’m doing and saying may be incorrect, irrelevant and is something for you to think about only when you are older? What nonsense.
2) Do parents or others have the responsibility for my child?
A small but valid digression.
A friend used to worked in children’s policy. She has no children of her own, but because I do, was telling me about something she was working on, a scheme to extend the Red Book (in the UK this is a book that the NHS gives parents to record a child’s development and vaccinations in their early years) through to age 7. My husband and I reacted with horror.
As recorded in my old blog www.thoughts.com/rose22/blog, I’ve had more contact with organs of the state in the first two years of my son’s life than practically ever before, and as a loving, responsible parent I’ve not always welcomed the tone of some of the encounters. Here’s a couple of short extracts:
My son had a tough start in life: he was tiny, arrived earlier than expected if not actually premature, although he could latch on I produced no colostrum, and he got an infection in hospital that weakened him to the extent that he then couldn’t feed and ended up tubefed in special care.
Before special care, we fought and fought to be “allowed” to give him a formula top up. A midwife told us that giving him formula was “the equivalent of giving him a MacDonalds” but he was genuinely starving and starting to get dangerously underweight so the paediatricians asked if we’d mind doing so.
The first formula, SMA gold, made him vomit – we’ve since found out that it’s the one most commonly used in postnatal wards despite the fact that the babies that need formula most also tend to be most sensitive to it. When a baby is already underweight and thr vomiting also brings up any breastmilk they’ve managed to take in, then it’s downright dangerous.
I was already feeling policed (the Red Book of early childhood issues and vaccination records, the sheer volume of paperwork involved in his life at nursery etc.) but now I know that just having given birth to him does not make him mine.
The idea of closer scrutiny of my son by “experts” from outside the family, ever tightening frameworks that attempt to track and measure his physical, mental, social, and many other types of development against some identified standards, the idea of that progress being recorded and potentially required to be provided for oversight by someone representing the state in some capacity from birth to seven is frankly a bit scary. And I say that as someone with a large number of family members engaged in those sort of state roles.
Others have written, and rather better than I would about the changed relationship between adult and child in recent years - the recent case where adoption was ruled to be more valid that the right of the birth family to live together when an allegation was found to be untrue, the apparent assumption that adults have malign intent when spending time with children that must be disproved that has resulted in the need for all adults spending time with children (including authors visiting schools) to be subject to a criminal record check.
To bring us back to the theme of the Humanist/ Atheist poster, the demand to bring up children in a secular way feels like an intrusion into my private sphere in much the same way.
Breastfeeding or bottlefeeding my child was about sustaining him in his early physical life and people tried to tell me how to do that (even manhandling my breasts – shudder…). Hugging and kissing him, talking to him, playing with him was part of his social and emotional development - and I can get government guidance on good ways of doing these things. I’m told he needs a certain number of portions of vegetables (5 a day), an amount of physical exercise (change 4 life) and so on. There’s not one area of his life where there isn’t someone trying to advise me, tell me how to do what I’m doing even better, and even how not to worry about it (“good enough” parenting).
It’s all feeling a bit like “there’s an app for that!”
Well, child development, learning of values, culture, tradition, citizenship etc. are not apps that can be plugged into a child when the basic unit has been assembled and the intial software installed.
Children are more than just organic computers and the stories, the fairies and wizards, the magic potions and tales of bravery and terrible decisions are part of the way in which they learn how to cope with the real world.
I realise it is dangerous to juxtapose a sentence on fairies and wizards with one on religion (I know about the unicorn hunting task in the atheist children’s camp) but I don’t believe you are being fair to a child to not raise them with religion. Not only with they not understand the culture and tradition of their family and society and their motivations and values, nor will they learn about and respect the cultures, traditions and beliefs of others and their motivations and values, nor have exposure to the stories, histories and themes that help shape them in their values and outlook on life and in deciding what is important. I think it’s my choice to make.
Besides, English literature teachers are already reporting that students are increasingly unable to understand the literary classics because they don’t understand the religious references within them and the consequent character motivations…
3) Raising a child deliberately to believe in nothing is not a neutral position
I mentioned above how children learn. Children observe the world and ask questions.
Perhaps he is too young at present, but I would fully expect a child like mine to ask some day “why do we go to church?”
After all, his father and I have both asked that ourselves in the past, stopped going (valuing sleep over singing on Sunday mornings) and then, after our individual feelings of being drawn back, challenged, a love beyond ourselves, started going again, praying more regularly and more.
I have no fear of this – just as I have no fear of him learning about other religions, and indeed what it means to believe that there’s nothing more to it all than this. Ultimately I hope he’ll believe in Jesus as his saviour, but personal belief can’t be forced when its about a relationship with God, only nurtured. In the end, for all believers, it’s a personal choice and decision as well as truth they know in their hearts.
But please, let’s stop this rubbish that raising a child within a faith is tantamount to child abuse. I realise that shock value and, yes, insult are probably the intention of such statements.
Such statements are offensive to the billions of people across the world trying to raise their children in what they believe to be a way of truth that will help their children both make this world a better place, and to be in the best situation possible in the next life, wherever and whatever that may be.
It’s also deeply insulting to those who have suffered real abuse, physical or psychological, for some of whom hope and salvation have come from religious faith.
The contention seems to be that children should be free to learn about good, solid science (would this include selfish genes and memes? What about multiple world theories? Was the big bag ex nihilo or was there something before that exploded, and if so what was it and how did that come to be?) while they are growing up, but not be introduced religious thought until they’re old enough to make up their own minds.
However, atheism, the belief that we can live without God and that he doesn’t exist, and to explain the world in terms that do not include him is a faith position.
So telling parents to raise their children without God is actually imposition of a faith position, the position that there is no God and that a life can be lived fully without mention of one.
4) Filling the vaccuum
The trouble is, every time idealistic atheists start on about how the world would be a better place without religion, I start hearing ringing cash tills in the background.
John Lennon’s “Imagine” is both depressing and unrealistic. Depressing because he is singing the old atheist line that the world would be a better place withough religion because everyone would instead focus on making this world a bettter place and would live in peace, and hopelessly unrealistic because the evidence we have from secular states (not just the communist USSR or China but also those with enforced secular constitutions like France or the USA) is that they are no more peaceful, just, equal and genuinely happy than those where religion is practiced (or part of the constitutional settlement).
The funny thing is, it seems to me that it is not the presence of religion in whatever form that poses the biggest threat to happy, fulfilled humanity in the western world. It’s the lie that to be happy, fulfilled people we need more and better of whatever is available.
A few months ago I think it seemed that we’d got a lid on it – the avarice, the spend-to-feel-good, the fake-tan-bleached-hair-nails-done-designer-clothes school of self-esteem could be replaced by a quieter, greener life, with organic veg boxes and community allotment schemes. This was at the height of the credit crunch where we seemed to think that the role of the bankers in economic meltdown and the corruption of politicians and those that serve them in the Fees office at Westminster might mean that everything was really about to change. But it rarely ever does.
The lack of organised religion does not automatically bring about a happy, caring-sharing community, it reasserts the pursuit of self-interest, the Nietzschian values that I mentioned above. It also seems to mean that more people believe in luck, fate, cosmic ordering, clairvoyancy and other bits of assorted quackery or the words of snake oil salesman… exactly the sorts of things that rational atheists such as Ben Goldacre fight the good fight against. These things fill the vaccuum. And I think that’s worse.
5) Self-sacrificial love
I mentioned that the role of a parent is essentially one of unconditional love, but that love means not just allowing a child to do whatever they want but helping them to learn, grow and be the best that they can be. And that can mean giving them the chance to grown up knowing the love of God, the comfort, the security, but also the challenge and responsbility that that love engenders.
At the risk of incurring more wrath, I’d also point out that my faith is not about earning points and following rules to get into heaven.
It’s about belief that God is my father who knows me and loves me (I’m lucky enough to be able to say as much as my Dad here on earth does) but who also expects the best of me and has the highest standards ever. God set the rules that determine what all this is about and will decide on what happens next when all this ends and has been clear that this will include holding everyone to account. Jesus has already paid the price for me for the bad things that I’ve done that I would inevitably have to answer for when meeting God at the end of time, somethig that could happen at any time.
To deny my child the information about this love, and to withold the chance to embrace it, would be perverse given that I love him.
As a parent I put my son’s live above my own – I brought him into the world and he deserves that. Parents do this in small ways all the time (accepting that their careers get held back becuase they cannot work all hours any longer, doing endless taxi driving for after school activities and play dates) and as I set out at the top of this article, they would (usually without hesitateion) place their child’s life above their own in a life-or-death situation and usually above their partner’s too.
This self-sacrificial love may certainly be the result of selfish genes looking to ensure the latest version survives.
But it also reflects the love of God for us, the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus as God paying the price to set us free from the cost of the justice that we deserve. Some might argue that a God of love would just forgive us all whatever we’ve done. But if he did not uphold the principle of justice, we’d not have the concept and he would not be worth worshipping as no one would bother. That would be the actions of a neglectful and simultaneously indulgent parent, and certainly not one I’d want to be like.
I’m sure this all sounds bizarre and it’s easier just to think that the bad go unpunished and there will be no judgement or if there is that we can answer for ourselves, thanks.
But I’ve never wanted to disappoint my Dad. If Jesus did what I think he did and rose from the dead, then what he said matters and is an amazing thing to offer to someone, anyone, and indeed everyone throughout all time.
So Jesus’s offer is a payment that I choose to accept, open to all and from which I’m equally free to walk away.
True freedom isn’t doing whatever we like, but doing what we know to be right, for the good of all and in love.
As a conclusion, I’m going to borrow the words Iused in my previous blog:
I know that in the long term a parent-child relationship is something that has to be developed, worked at, and ultimately it is a process of loss and separation for the parent and growth and self-discovery for the child.
The child ultimately belongs to his or herself. But I had always thought that, unless a crime was being committed, the pace of that process was a journey that my child and I were free to take at our own pace.
So, thanks for the cute poster. But I intend to offer my child the chance to grown up as a Christian, in a loving relationship with God, and to exercise my judgement as his parent to make the decisions that enable him to be the best he can be until he has enough information and independent thought to make up his own mind.
Because you can present the science, you can hand over a copy of the bible or any religious text of your choosing but if you don’t talk about it, don’t explain it, don’t live it then how can you expect understanding.
As the Etheopian Eunuch said to Philip when he was asked (in Acts Chapter 8 ) whether he understood the Jewish bible he was reading “How can I, unless someone explains it to me?” A chance at that understanding, early in life, is probably the best gift a parent can give their child.
Update: not the only blogger to have noticed this poster, and the debate continues on www.joelitobarski.eu and www.sarabedford.com/blog where I posted the following:
I blogged on this too – I like your analysis.
Of course atheists have the right to prosthelytize – amazing though that they feel the need to unless atheism is becoming a belief system more than just a worldview.
For me, this campaign was about trying to force an unreasonable contention onto the private sphere of the family.
I understood the purpose of this campaign to be to normalise the message that raising a child outside the religion that their parents practice should be the social norm, because God doesn’t need to feature in children’s lives and religion is a lifestyle option to add on later if it’s wanted.
After all, when Dawkins has contended that raising a child within their parents’ religion is tantamount to child abuse, and talks about society stepping in, what other way is there to take a poster such as this?
However I’m glad to hear that the BHA acknowledge that in practice this is not practicable. But then what are they asking for? Just that parents don’t ostracize children that make an informed decision not to practice a religion? That’s not what the poster says!
I also concluded that no one can force someone to believe, that is not how belief works. That’s just culture, not faith.
But it would be unnatural for parents that practice a faith not to encourage their children to follow it too if they genuinely believe that it is true and leads to salvation.
So I’ll do so with my son – and if he decides its not for him, I’ll just have to accept it.
NB I rebelled and returned after much questioning and reading once I realised that the resurrection had actually happened. Why wouldn’t I want to share that with people I love?