'My Dearest Daughter': Letter from an Atheist Mom

Letter WritingAtheist scientist Richard Dawkins once wrote a letter to his 10-year-old daughter about the importance of scientific evidence in weighing the legitimacy of religious claims. "To my dearest daughter," his now-famous letter began. "Now that you are ten, I want to write to you about something that is important to me... Evidence." His mission: to explain the vast chasm between faith and science, and make clear that science will always hold the trump card. I've written before (rather poorly) about Dawkins' letter and my own issues with it, but — as a non-believer, a parent and a writer myself — I can't help but be drawn to the idea of putting my own feelings about religion in letter form. Instead of making a case for science — and, therefore, for atheism — I wanted to make a case for compassion, religious tolerance, and an appreciation of diversity.

The truth is, I'm not worried about science. Science is already a part of my daughter's life; it comes up almost daily in our house. I don't need to sell Maxine on biology or geology or meteorology or botany; she's already a paying customer. I don't need to sell her on the importance of evidence, either. She understands that evidence is something that is true, and faith is something that is believed. When you strip it down, the concept isn't all that complex.

A dad once told me that he and his children didn't often talk about religion directly in their house. "More often than not," he said, "our conversations revolve around the ideas of evidence and logical reasoning. Religion hangs around the periphery of these conversations in the form of myth and magic."

There's nothing at all wrong with having conversations about evidence and logical reasoning. But if all religion does is "hang around the periphery," there's not a lot of room to give kids honest explanations for the belief systems of others, and not a lot of opportunity to send kids into the world ready to peacefully, confidently and happily interact with people from different cultures.

This was my thought, anyway — which was why, as a fun exercise, I wrote my own, decidedly non-Dawkinsian (!!) letter. I doubt I'll ever give it to Maxine. My mission is to talk to her about religion, not write to her about it. Still, though, it could be a great reference point for me if I ever forget the point of all this. And maybe it will inspire others to put their own thoughts in writing.

To my dearest daughter,

I want to write to you about something that is important to a lot of people: Religion. As you know, religion is a a collection of beliefs, as well as views about how people ought to behave. Many beliefs involve a god or gods. Religion has been around for thousands and thousands of years. Many religions have faded with time, and many others have kept going. Some religions were formed quite recently.

Religion is very personal — meaning it varies widely from person to person — and people often feel strongly about it. So strong, in fact, that it often can lead to disagreements and hurt feelings — which is why you probably won't learn much about it in school and why children aren't often encouraged to talk about it on the playground.

Because your Daddy and I aren't religious ourselves, and because nothing seems to be missing from your life, you might wonder why religion exists. Well, religion — all religions — were spread by human beings in response to certain questions and problems. The questions were things like: Why are we here?  What happens after we die? The problems were things like: death, suffering, sadness and abuse.

On a basic level, most religions are meant to make people's lives better by giving them comfort and purpose and teaching them how to be good people. Most religions teach compassion, forgiveness, kindness and love. And those are all really great qualities, aren't they? It's no wonder so many people, including some of your own family members, are religious.

Of course, I know from personal experience that no one needs religion to be a good person, just as they don't need religion to feel comfort or to have a purpose or to live a full and satisfying life.

Still, though, it's important to me that you know about different religions and cultures for two reasons. First, I want you to make up your own mind about what you believe. And, second, I want you to be able to understand and appreciate all the different people you are going to meet during your life. Knowledge, awareness and curiosity are traits that tend to invite new and positive experiences — and I want nothing more than to see you fill your life with as many positive experiences as you can. In short, I think teaching you a bit about religion will help make you a happier person.

It's also important that you know that religion has some downsides. Some people allow their religious beliefs to blind them. They use religious differences to justify war, even murder. They judge people who are different from them. Some people believe, for instance, that men shouldn't fall in love with other men, or women shouldn't fall in love with other women. Some people believe that women should not be allowed to have jobs, even if they really want them. Some people believe everyone should be forced to believe one particular thing or be put in jail, or even killed.

These things I mention are wrong because they hurt people who are just trying to live good lives and be true to themselves. And no one deserves to be hurt for that. In some ways, these kinds of actions seem very strange, because they go directly against the things I mentioned earlier: compassion, forgiveness, kindness and love.

In the next few years you will learn a lot about different religions and religious people. You may find you like the ideas in religion, connect to the beliefs, and want to try one out. You may also find you aren't interested in religion, or that you don't care for it at all. Whatever the case, I want you to know that what you believe and how you feel about religion doesn't matter to me. Just like it doesn't matter to me what other people in the world believe or think about religion. What does matter to me — and what I hope matters to you, too — is what's in a person's heart. What people do in life is what counts, not what they believe.

A lot of incredibly good people are religious, and a lot of incredibly good people are not religious. You can be either one, and, as long as you try to practice compassion, forgiveness, kindness and love, I'll support you 100 percent. 

Thanks for listening, Mom

Changing Minds Is More Fun When It's Your Own

Yesterday I was helping a friend put together a digital photo book for her daughter. She had arranged all the pictures herself, and I was going through the book adding text and repositioning things. In looking through the photos she had discarded, I found some great shots. I mean, really great shots. Some of them were the sort of unstaged, unscripted family shots that tell a real story. Others were just adorable pictures of her daughter that I couldn’t believe she’d overlooked. I really wanted to make the book as good as it could be, so I made the executive decision to swap out a few of the pictures for others. In a montage from her daughter’s birthday party for instance, I took out a picture of the backs of children's heads and replaced it with one of her daughter’s smiling face.

The result of my well-intentioned inerference was… not so good.

Within hours, my friend had seen the changes I’d made and written an e-mail, slapping me on the wrist as nicely as she could. When I revisited the book, all the beautiful shots were gone.

And you know what? I didn't blame her.

Although I failed to see it at the time, there was a lot of arrogance and presumptuousness in what I did. Now, let me say this: I'm confident, based on my photography experience, that the pictures I chose were of a higher quality than the ones already placed in the book. I know a dozen professional photographers who would back me up on that.

But some things are not about facts, and photography is one of them.

I talk in this blog a lot about backing out of the mindset that keeps us from viewing religious people compassionately. Often, non-theists will tell themselves they can’t respect religion — or, by proxy, religious people — because religion is a fallacy. In this era of science, belief in ghosts and heavens and higher powers is a rejection of reason, they say. How can we support faith in any way, when faith is so obviously false?

But let’s say my friend’s opinion is her faith. She believes her pictures are the best of the bunch — but I know different. Can’t I just try to talk to her about it? Can’t I show her manuals on photography, and discuss what makes one picture better than another? Won’t she listen if I explain to her about lighting and pixels and the rule of thirds? The book will be better, will it not? The end result will justify the means, yeah?

The thing is, my friend doesn’t give a shit what the manuals say. She couldn’t care less about the shadows, resolution or positioning. In her mind, each of those photos is infused with memories. She was there when the picture was taken; she knows what was happening the second the shutter clicked, and what happened after. She knows the people in the photos, and their relationships to her and to her daughter. She remembers what was important about that day. She is keenly aware of every minor shift in her family members’ faces, and what those shifts meant at the time. A smile is not just a smile when you’re looking at someone you love.

My pictures are the better shots — that's the unbiased truth. But the value of that particular truth to my friend? It hovers somewhere around zero. So, in terms of religion, you know what I'm trying to say, right? About how faith is not about facts, but about feelings? And changing minds is not the same things as changing hearts?

I hope so. Frankly, I just don't have time to spell it all out today. I’ve got a photo book to finish.

And it's going to be great.