One of the most pressing issues for me to deal with in the wake of my deconversion was how to raise my son. Obviously this is an enormous issue for any parent, but under Christianity the main answers had already been provided. If he was scared at night, we could pray for comfort, if he said he hated something, we could tell him how Jesus loved his enemies…you get the idea. For a time after I deconverted I thought, like so many who remain nominally Christian, “It’s not for me, but it’s a good moral environment to raise my son in.” I gradually realized that not only was that idea a product of my reluctance to leave the social and moral foundation that had guided me, but it was a tacit assent to the assertion of many religious folks that it is not possible to have a moral foundation without religion.
My son went to a Christian Orthodox school for kindergarten through the second grade, which made the transition somewhat easier. I lost interest in overtly perpetuating Christianity at home, but he got it at school, so I wasn’t overly concerned. The only problem I had to deal with was the irking of my formerly Protestant sensibilities when my son came home to tell stories about kissing icons in the chapel services. All in all, he had a good experience at the school, which was based on a classical model. However, we struggled to decide whether he should attend for third grade or not. The school was on shaky financial ground, and while we believed in the goals of the school, we weren’t confident it would make it through another year. We decided shortly before school began to send him to the public school that was literally a five minute walk from our house.
I was nervous. Both Christians and private school parents tell stories of public school to justify their choices, and when you combine Christian and private school parents, you’d think sending your children to public school was a direct ticket to hell. I wondered if he would get picked on, if he would adjust, etc. It took him a week to get his bearings, and he was good to go. I did a lot of worrying for nothing.
Now in fifth grade and in another town, he is gradually forgetting the Bible stories he learned in his early years in Sunday School. He goes to church on occasion with cousins, tolerating the story time for the promise of a fun activity or some time to play outside. He set up a miniature manger scene on the mantle at Christmas. (Why? I don’t know. Because we decorated for Christmas for the first time in six years and Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus. Might as well embrace it, and I think there is a lot of good that could come from studying the life of Jesus.) We had to remind him what the scene was about, although he remembered with a little prompting. Interestingly, I also recently found out that they unexplicably sing “Joshua fought the battle of Jericho” in music at school, reminding children of the time where God decided to make the walls of a city crumble and crush the entire population so that the Israelites could take over. It’s kind of like having your football team win. Jericho didn’t pray hard enough.
Anyway, the question is how to raise your kids morally and teach them morality outside of a religious context. The question is not whether it is possible; millions of people do it every day, and billions do it every day in another tradition besides Christianity, so whether it’s possible at all is an irrelevant question. Once you shake the Western Christian mentality that people are naturally evil because we took the fruit and turned away from God (thanks, Augustine), you can start from a different premise. People aren’t naturally good or bad. They just are. Saying they are naturally bad, or naturally good, is an acceptance of the religious premise that we were created a certain way, by God or by nature. A neutral starting point is a better one, but as I mentioned in my last post, without a religious system to rely on, the individual is forced to take a more active and discerning role.
The claim that we cannot be moral without Christianity, a claim that is commonly made by church leaders and politicians alike, is an unfounded, insider claim. From the outside it reads as fear of the unknown. We think we need the parental equivalent of God saying, “Because I said so.” I’m grateful for the moral foundation I’ve received, but I’m confident I would largely have been raised the same way even without explicit Christian moral values. As I’ve noted, one of my great realizations was that I didn’t need Christianity to be the person I already was being or wanted to be in the world. The majority of the world manages to survive, and in many cases thrive, without explicitly Christian morality.
Nevertheless, this is a live issue for nonreligious parents, particularly those who grew up in a semi-religious environment, because of the fact that America’s culture and politics has a consistent Christian undercurrent. Nonreligious parents who don’t teach their children about religion do them a disservice, then, because religious language is a language our country and the world will speak for some time. Our family still “prays” at the end of most days before my son goes to sleep, and although my language has drifted toward a general gratefulness and hopes for the future, my son still addresses his words to Jesus. I think the time is soon coming when he will be old enough to have a talk about my religious experiences, but it hasn’t happened yet, and it won’t happen without much thought for his growth and maturity as a person.