Fugitives from Fundamentalism

The Musings of Adult Missionary Kids (MKs) & Former Born-Again Believers

Parenting Without the Supernatural

Posted by Clamence/The Chaplain on September 26, 2008

Today, driving in my car, I found myself singing a song that was a regular staple during the chapel services I attended at my Conservative Baptist missionary boarding school, “It only takes a spark to get a fire going…” It took me a second to realize what I was singing. Turning to my wife in the passenger seat, I asked, “Do you ever find yourself singing Christian songs you used to sing as a kid?”
“Yeah, I do!” she replied.

“It’s called brainwashing!” I chirped and grinned. I don’t honestly think that learning and singing Christian songs as a child is a form of brainwashing—no more than learning the Alphabet song is—but it is interesting how often I unconsciously find myself singing the lyrics to Christian songs I haven’t heard in close to two decades. I also find myself singing the lyrics to Doublemint gum ads I heard in the 80’s, so it is more a testament to the catchiness of a song than anything else.

Still, the fact that these songs continue to exist in my mental archives after all these years points to the continuing existence of other Christian material. It reminds me of the oft-repeated phrase attributed to the Jesuits, “Give me the child and I’ll give you the man.” For instance, this conversation with my wife led to a discussion of the difficult questions we’d recently been fielding from our five-year-old son. My wife told me about a time when our son asked her who had made something in nature. She automatically replied, “God made it.” She immediately thought to herself, “What did I just say!” and provided the appropriate and full explanation.

I had earlier struggled with the urge to blurt out a default Christian answer to the difficult questions about life, the universe and everything. My son’s long chain of “why” questions inevitably led to complex scientific explanations about things like how the universe, stars and planets were formed, what clouds are, what rainbows are, where trees come from, where kids come from, why dinosaurs no longer exist, etc. It is much easier to say, “God made it,” or “because God made it that way,” rather than going through a ten-minute explanation of the Big Bang, evaporation, water vapor, the increasing density of clouds that lead eventually to rain, and so on. However, when you are a freethinker, you do not have the option to fall back on the short and simple God explanation. You have to take the time to explain things thoroughly and (unfortunately) really rack your brain to think of simple ways of conveying complex ideas. One example of this is providing your child with a full explanation of how and why rainbows form, instead of blurting out the myth of “God’s promise to never flood the earth again.” Even more difficult is explaining the Big Bang and expansion of the universe; the appeal of a simple-to-grasp creation story, such as the Creation myth found in Genesis, suddenly became apparent to me.

When my son was younger, I remember a time period when he went through the process of figuring out what was real and what was fiction. One day in the car, he went through a whole list of things and asked whether they were real. “Daddy,” he asked, “are dragons real?”

“No, but dinosaurs are real,” I replied.

The idea of running into a dinosaur caused a moment of panic, “I don’t want a T. Rex to eat me!”

I tried to reassure him by explaining, “Dinosaurs aren’t around anymore. Only their bones are left.”

We had already had a lot of discussion about dinosaur bones, so my son excitedly said, “Yeah, and the scientists dig up the bones, and put them back together, and put them in a museum so people can see them!” This conversation was followed by a long discussion of why dinosaurs no longer exist which then lead to a discussion of the asteroid and ice age theories, and so on… Having conversations like this, multiple times a day, can be exhausting, as all of you parents reading this can attest to. However, a discussion of dinosaurs is relatively non-controversial and leads to no worries of anything negative happening if he were to repeat the discussion in front of other children or adults.

My parental anxiety begins when I discuss topics related to religion and anything that might lead to him being treated poorly by people who believe in religious mythology. When my son was in a Lutheran preschool at the age of four, he was told many things that have since had to be corrected. When my wife and I first enrolled him in the school, I rationalized placing him in a school affiliated with a church named after Martin Luther, a raging anti-Semite who caused the expulsion of Jews from German towns by telling myself that there wasn’t much they could do to indoctrinate a four-year-old. Boy, was I wrong. It is not uncommon for my son to preface his questions about the existence of objects (in civilization and nature) by asking, “Who made…” My replies about objects in nature, such as trees, are typically prefaced by saying, “Well, no one made it. It originated as a seed that came from another tree older than it.” The answers become much more difficult when they touch on the animal kingdom: “Well, a bird comes from an egg from a mommy bird, and that mommy bird came from an egg. Before that, the birds evolved, or changed from earlier animals a very long time ago.”

Perhaps you can see what I mean when I say that explanations from a freethinking parent are much more complicated than the Christian response, “God made it.” One question my son asked, the question all parents dread, is the one related to where he came from. I was surprisingly pleased at how easy it was to answer. Instead of saying, “God made you and gave you to mommy and daddy as a special gift,” I said, “Mommy and Daddy made you, and you grew and came out of Mommy.” When he asked how we made him, my brain raced for an answer that didn’t involve the sperm and egg (I’ll save that explanation for a few more years). I came up with, “We made you using people-making chemicals and materials.” Not very specific, I know, but it did the trick.

I have had a few Christian friends from high school show concern for my children’s souls by asking questions about how I will shape their worldviews. I remember one friend asking whether I would be equitable by exposing them to Christianity, allowing them the freedom to choose between belief or disbelief. However, that is a loaded question. If I really wanted to be equitable, I would teach my children about every single religion in existence, as well as what every philosopher, psychologist, scientist and theorist throughout history has said about life, the universe and everything. Obviously, this is something that only a higher education and a lifetime of study can accomplish. It is unrealistic to think that all of this could be taught to a child and even more unrealistic to think that a child’s brain is capable of processing all of this to make a choice of worldviews. What my friend was really asking, whether she knew it or not, was whether I was going to indoctrinate my children into the Christian faith. The answer to that is a resounding “No!” If my children, at an age when they can make informed decisions, choose to go to church, a mosque, a temple, etc., I will be happy to drive them to one. That is their choice—which is more than I can say for the choices that Christians allow their children. I was never given the choice to not attend church; it was mandatory until I left the house.

Although my choice as a parent is to keep my children form indoctrination into a religious faith, my choice to be cheap and place them in a Christian preschool for a year has already led to some significant indoctrination. Those Christians move fast. Six months after leaving the Christian preschool, my son still shocks me by dropping religious references that I have never before heard him say. I remember him once telling me about how Jesus was hit by a rope by some bad men, who then killed him and put him on a cross. I was actually angered by this—by the fact that adults would expose young children to such gore and violence at so young of an age. It shows how religious faith can blind an adult to the inappropriateness of certain content for children. They seem to have the attitude that since the Bible and God are perfect, then everything in it is good and perfect and appropriate to share with children. Of course, like the American film and TV industries, they were desensitized to the violence of their religious myths. I guess I should be thankful that they didn’t make the children memorize any verses about men who have the genitalia of donkeys (or whatever that verse in the OT says); Americans are such Puritans—plenty of violence, but sex is a no, no!

Christian preschool indoctrination reared its head again during recent conversations about death with my son. When my son was three, our two, 12-year-old dogs died. Recently, my son asked about them and where they were. The first time I was asked this question, I was lazy and told him that they were in doggy heaven. This response immediately bothered me, but the question didn’t come up again. I let it go. Last week, my son asked my wife the same question, and she did something that I should have. We had the dogs cremated when they died, and the animal hospital placed their remains in small urns. (If you don’t like dogs, that will probably seem very bizarre to you!) The urns have been sitting on the top shelf of my closet for a few years, so my wife got them down and showed them to my son. She told him that the dogs had died and showed him the urns. The urns have the dogs’ pictures on the top, and my son looked at the ashes and chips of bone inside the urn. He is very into dinosaurs and their bones, so he found the urns fascinating. He said, “I miss the dogs,” to which my wife replied, “I do too.”

A few days later, my son told me that he missed the dogs and asked if they would come back to life. I explained that animals do not come back to life. He then said, “Daddy, I don’t want to die. I don’t want a T. Rex to eat me and I die.”

I explained, “A T. Rex won’t eat you, because they are extinct. Only their bones are left, remember? And you won’t die for a very long time. You will live for a very long time. Look at your grandmas and granddads, they are mommy and daddy’s parents but they are still alive. People live a long time, so don’t worry.”

He cheered up and gave me a big grin after that, saying, “People live a long time!” Perhaps some Christians reading this will find this way of explaining death to a five-year-old a bit too blunt, a bit too early for his age. However, stop for a second and compare this to the glossed-over doggy heaven explanation. Or, compare this to the violence of a person being whipped, bloodied, nailed to a cross, stabbed, and killed. I think it is pretty clear which world view is healthier for a child to learn. More importantly, the less violent worldview is a reflection of reality instead of being based on a collection of ancient myths. The legend of Jesus returning from the dead confuses a child about the nature of life. This myth led my son to believe that it is natural for living creatures to return from death. The explanation my wife provided, accompanied by the visual of the urns, teaches my son about the reality of the circle of life: birth, life, death.

To be fair, his comprehension of the nature of life is still a bit muddled. Just this evening, as I was putting my son to bed, he asked me, “Daddy why do dogs die?”

I replied, “Well, they get old. Their bodies get old. Like old cars and trains—they stop working.” We live near an old real-life train station with a functioning turntable and some non-functioning, decrepit steam engines, so he got the comparison. For some reason, I went on to say, “But trains aren’t alive like animals are. Like Thomas the tank engine—he’s just on TV, he’s not real.” This is where I ran into trouble.

“No,” my son protested, “Thomas is real. I saw him.” Too late, I remembered the fully-functioning steam engine, made to look exactly like Thomas, we go to see and ride on every year.

I tried to salvage my explanation, “Well, yeah, he’s real, but he’s not alive.”

My son replied by saying, “Yeah, inside is just a firebox.”

“Whew!” I thought. “That almost turned into another 10-minute conversation.”

But my son wasn’t finished, “Daddy, who made Thomas?”

I sighed.

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5 Responses to “Parenting Without the Supernatural”

  1. Katy said

    I would hope that all parents–whether atheist, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, etc.–would explain to their children how rainbows form, how a sapling grows from a seed into a tree, and how babies form! 😉

  2. Lisa said

    I don’t understand why your explanations have to be one or the other…why can’t rainbows be both a remembrance of God’s promise AND a natural occurance of sunshine through water droplets? Since God made the sun and the water, it IS both.

  3. Katy said

    You said it much better than I, Lisa! God and science go hand in hand, don’t they?

  4. The Chaplain said

    The rainbow cannot be both, since the one explanation (from the Bible) is an ancient myth to explain what was then unexplainable. The scientific explanation (that examines facts) supplants the explanation of the primitive mind that does not look to evidence. This is the fundamental difference between the lens of science and the lens of religion: one looks to observable facts and holds assertions tentatively, while the other looks to stories found in a holy religious text that provides no observable evidence and holds to absolute certainty.

    Bertrand Russell summarizes these differences:
    Can religion and science be reconciled?

    The answer turns upon what is meant by “religion.”
    If it means merely a system of ethics, it can be reconciled with science.
    If it means a system of dogma, regarded as unquestionably true, it is incompatible with the scientific spirit, which refuses to accept matters of fact without evidence, and also holds that complete certainty is hardly ever attainable.

    In order to more clearly see the disconnect between science and religion, ask the following question of any assertion: “How do we know this?” in the case of the rainbow we know that the scientific explanation is true because we can measure and observe the series of phenomena that cause a rainbow to form. Now look to the explanation provided by the Bible: “How do we know this explanation is true?” We have no observable evidence: there is no observable hand of God that we can see or measure. So what evidence do we have? We have the claim that a deity made the rainbow–and that claim originates in a book. To summarize, science looks to evidence, religion looks to belief without evidence. That is a significant void that cannot be bridged.

  5. Ann said

    I don’t remember saying “God made it”. But nice post!

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