Atheist 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