How to Grow Up With No Moral Foundation

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.

4 thoughts on “How to Grow Up With No Moral Foundation

  1. Writing without answers but perhaps more questions…
    For me, I thought about what I found good about the church, what was positive about that connection. I was okay with my children experiencing growing up in the church there is that sense of belonging, of family, that there is a village to help raise these children, that there is something in this world that is bigger and more important than us, that giving and helping others should always be a priority in our lives. In an idealistic light, and sometimes practical, religion can be just that. What I abhor is the judgment, and as is often intertwined the attitude that there is the right to judge, that the religious are a step above others. I’ve seen equal parts of both of these.
    As a parent, deciding what is best for your child is an impossible dilemma on so many levels. The only decision I have come to thus far is that as long as there is honest communication between you and your kids, they will be okay. When they come home from church, saying that the only thing they love more than me is God, or that they know Jesus will help them, I cannot fault them for it. Whatever emotions arise in me, they feel safe and secure in a world that has not been that for them. They feel loved without judgment by someone besides me, which they desperately need. When they come home with questions because they were told that they were bad for listening to a secular song, or some other such ridiculousness, then we have an honest conversation about truth and trusting their judgment. The values that we believe in our home are ours without qualification or justification to a religious institution.
    One day, they will decide on their own what they believe and why. I will support that, either way. Yet I hope that whatever they choose, they will not loose that desire to pursue truth, to build friendship and communities with people as can happen in a church, to not judge, to challenge and question when they are told what to think, and to keep talking to me about it.
    Is that right? Wrong? Self-serving? Am I maybe using the church to fill a place in their world that I feel quite incapable some days of filling on my own? I could be possibly all of these so your insight is good and makes me pause and think. There are decisions I still question. Still, if I allow my children to see the world from a myriad of perspectives, it’s also just possible that as they grow they will come to a place of their own understanding that has truth and values both. Do I know how to do that? I guess that it’s just one foot in front of the next. As parents, what can we do but keep asking ourselves if we are doing the best for them. When we stop asking, then we know all the answers or cease to care and neither of these sound good to me.

    • Thanks Christina,
      I definitely wrestled with the same issues, although I haven’t had many opportunities for my son to go to church without me. Family that is accepting of your kids no matter what is a great help as well. The community issue is huge, and one I would like to get more of as well. I try to achieve it in other social spheres, but the religious one is typically where you get to discuss life issues, which is important. I guess I’m not sure where to go with that. Is the answer to create social opportunities for former members of religious groups, or is that just imitation? On the other hand, is the better response to be more vocal about religious issues? I guess I am hoping to experiment with both.

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