06 November 2009


Raising free-thinking kids

(Cross-posted from Buzz Bishop's DadCAMP.)

Back in the mid-1970s when I grew up in Vancouver, almost all the stores were closed on Sundays, because of a piece of legislation called the Lord's Day Act. Every day before class in elementary school, we said the Lord's Prayer. These were vestiges of a general assumption, made since British Columbia was colonized a century earlier: even if everyone in B.C. wasn't Christian, the province would still run as if they were.

But Metro Vancouver has become remarkably secular in the three decades since then. In the 2001 Census, 40% of the population identified itself as having "no religious affiliation," and the proportion is probably even bigger now. (That's two and a half times the average across Canada.) My wife and I fit the trend: we have raised our two daughters, ages 9 and 11, in a non-religious household. Like us, few of our friends attend a mosque, temple, or church.

Buzz asked me to write this post because he saw that I just joined the Facebook group for Parenting Beyond Belief, a website run by Dale McGowan from Atlanta, Georgia. I signed up not because I needed much advice about raising children without religion (something many of us now do, especially in Vancouver), but to note publicly that it's been the approach in my family since our kids were born.

[Read more at dad-camp.com...]

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I have to disagree a little bit, Derek. While I see nothing wrong with being an atheist or agnostic, I think it's important for children to grow up having some understanding of the religious tradition of their family, which is after all, part of their heritage. By not teaching them religion, you are actually teaching them not to have a religion. I think, that in a way this deprives them of a choice.

Do you teach your daughters the Bible as history? People should have some basic knowledge of the major religions of the world.

Think about the ten commandments; or more specifically, the last six of the ten commandments, (and I would define adultery loosely as "sex outside of a committed relationship, whether gay or straight")- if peopled lived by these precepts, the world would, in my opinion, be a much better place.
I should be clear that we don't shield them from religion, or routinely make fun of it. (Okay, we do make fun of particularly ridiculous manifestations, like Purity Balls and Sabbath elevator circuitry, but not generally.)

The Bible is important background in Western civilization, and we all should know something about it, and the stories in it, just as we should know about Shakespeare or Milton or Dante, or Galileo or Averroes or Confucius. In this part of the world, it's also good to know about myths like Raven and the First Men. Everyone is poorer if we can't understand a reference to David and Goliath, or don't know why calling someone a Philistine is intended as an insult.

However, we don't treat the Bible as history, any more than we treat the Qu'ran, the Odyssey, the tales of Gilgamesh, or Beowulf (or The Lord of the Rings, for that matter) as history. They've all had substantial influences on culture, the Bible more than almost anything. But for us, that does not set it apart.

Specifically, I think the Ten Commandments are a poorly composed and awkwardly phrased list. They are commandments, given without background or reasoning, and I think true morals need a better basis than simple demand -- especially if the God said to author them isn't an authority in our house.

Most of them could be replaced with better alternatives. Children are (and always have been) in need of protection more than parents are in need of honour, for instance. Certainly we should not kill, but nor should we rape or abuse or enslave -- nothing about those in the commandments. (And plenty endorsing slavery and more elsewhere in the Gospels.)

Adultery -- well, that's an interesting one. Consenting adults can enter into all sorts of sexual and intimate relationships in all sorts of combinations, and be happy. (I know some of them.) Problems arise not from sex outside a committed relationship, necessarily, but from lying and lack of respect, whether in relationships or in the world more generally. I'd rather teach our kids that respecting people and not deceiving them are the important things.

My children should know the Bible for what it is: a hugely influential compilation of writing from many people created over hundreds of years, translated from Greek and Hebrew into multitudes of other languages, widely interpreted, often beautiful and sublime but also often ugly and violent, not to mention self-contradictory. A human creation, in other words, one of many that have helped build the world and culture we live in.
I think it's possible to have sex outside of a committed relationship and be happy - I think the problem comes in when people think they can make up their own rules, i.e., people have very different ideas about what constitutes "lying and lack of respect." Some people have very poor judgment in these matters, especially if under the influence of some substance or other. And the devastating AIDS epidemic in Africa is caused largely by the promiscuity of African men. Even the African leaders have said this, so I don't think it's in dispute.
No, but the commandment against adultery doesn't help much in any of those circumstances either. (Plenty of the men spreading AIDS probably don't think unprotected sex with prostitutes or "a bit on ths side" really count as adultery anyway.)

Not to mention that the Old Testament has little trouble with polygyny, concubines, and all sorts of things that would probably be considered adulterous by many people today. We don't simply need to tell our kids to be honest and respectful, we have to show them what that means in how we live our own lives.

So we should indeed teach our children to be moral people, but biblical morality isn't the model I'd personally want to use; nor is it, in my opinion, a particularly reputable authority on the subject anyway.