Respecting Things We Don't Believe

First of all, thank you all for your great comments on Monday’s blog! You made my day. It's clear, of course, that I’ve got some 'splaining to do — if only to clarify my position. But I truly think that, although we may be taking slightly different routes, we’re all headed to the same place — a place of open communication with our kids. And that's all I'm really on about. So the way I read the comments, many of you disagreed with my contention that we, as parents, ought not be adopting the language of atheist scientist Richard Dawkins when he refers to religious stories as "myths." You pointed out that science and faith are different, that faith is often irrational, and that there’s nothing wrong with teaching our kids to disrespect irrational beliefs. You also said there’s no reason to separate religious myths from other types of myths. And, if we aren't meant to call them myths, you asked, what do we call them?

In other words: For God’s sake, Wendy, what is your fucking problem?

Unfortunately, there is no way to condense the array of my fucking problems into one problem. I would if I could, of course. Hell, I'd do just about anything for you guys.

I will say, though, that there are some good reasons I’m proposing that we be respectful of things we don’t believe. And it has nothing to do with ignorance or weakness or a lack of progressive thinking on my part. What I’m proposing is a common language that all of us — no matter what our religious leanings — can adopt. Couples in interfaith marriages. Those who want to avoid indoctrinating their kids. Skeptical parents who aren’t yet sure where they stand. Agnostics who want to raise their children around religious family members without suffering tension or awkwardness. And, yes, staunch nonbelievers, too.

So why do I find "myth" objectionable? Three reasons.

1.  Getting Along is a Good Thing

First off, I don’t think anyone believes that all religious stories are myths. It’s very possible — and historically probable — that some religious stories are true, and that many others have truth in them. The supernatural stuff? Well, that’s a different matter. But I think we should acknowledge that lumping all religious stories into one general category of “myth” is almost certain to confuse and mislead our kids.

But let’s assume we’ve been very clear with our little whippersnappers that “myths” are stories that run counter to what we know scientifically. If it's supernatural, we tell them, it's myth, which is not to be respected. Take it one step further and the message is this: Because most major religions are based on supernatural (mythical) higher powers, most religions as a whole are not worthy of our respect.

I know what some of you are thinking. You're thinking: "Right! I don't respect religion. What's the problem?"

The problem — if you see it as a problem — is that we live in a diverse society.

I suppose if I lived on an island full of clones of myself, all of whom shared my upbringing, my race, my nationality, my financial status, my friends, my opinions and beliefs, every one of my experiences, every piece of my knowledge, all my joyful memories, and all my pain, too — I wouldn't worry at all about calling things just as I see them.

“No need for God, kid,” I'd say. “The here and now is gorgeous, and it’s all you’ll ever need.”

And kid would probably be fine with that. After all, on my island, there wouldn’t be much exposure to organized religion. Or algebra, for that matter. Or derivative romantic comedies, or appletinis, or clothing that makes little girls look like hookers. Or dickies.

For sure, no dickies.

But I don’t live on a deserted island, and there is a lot of stuff (most notably dickies) that I don’t particular need in my life but that the people around me do need or want to be a part of their lives. And those things may help them to be happier people, kinder people, healthier people, better people. And rather than disrespect something that those people hold dear, I’d rather be, you know, nice about it. Gracious about it. Respectful.

2. Discrediting religion shuts a door that your kids might want to keep open — or shut for themselves.

I heard many commenters tell me that they are careful to teach their kids to respect the person, just not the belief. I rather like this idea in concept, but I can't quite wrap my head around the difference. If my dad was a business owner who wouldn't hire homosexuals, and my mom was driving down to Skid Row every night so she could kick homeless people in the balls, my respect for my parents would diminish considerably. Why? Because their beliefs would be driving them to harm people, and I'm not big on lending respect to people who harm other people.

On the other hand, let's say they're great people who believe they're going to see their dead loved ones in heaven someday. Um, yeah. Not harming anyone. Don't care so much.

But assuming you have had experiences in your life that have made it impossible for you to respect religious beliefs, how important is it to you to make sure your child feels the exact same way you do? Because when you openly denigrate faith, you're instructing your kids not to believe anything irrational or mythical. You might suggest that it's okay for OTHERS to do it, but you're making clear it's not okay for HER.

Hmm. Now this is where things get tricky.

I could write an entire blog — and probably will — about how we all, on some level, really want our kids to turn out like us, or mostly like us. There’s no shame in admitting it. And the chances are good, no matter what we do, that will happen to a certain extent. But how certain are you that your child will never, ever feel the need for a high power in his life? How confident are you that he’ll reject all the mystical aspects of the universe? And how much influence are you willing to wield now to ensure that he never does?

I’d urge everyone to think a bit about leaving some room for your kid to develop her own religious/nonreligious identity. How might he or she develop if you don't shut the valves on religion quite so tightly. I’m not suggesting that nonbelievers encourage their kids to join a religion, but each human being has a different way of exploring and understanding the world. What if your son's psyche, for whatever reason, begins to crave some sort of spirituality? What then?

My daughter thinks her old, tattered Payless shoes are her best look. She adores them. Wears them everywhere. Gets distressed when they go missing. I’m telling you right now: Those shoes are downright crappy. They literally stink up my car. They need to be thrown away. This is fact.

So what do I do? As a parent, what do I do? Throw them away? Make her wear other shoes? Tell her she has bad taste? No. I buy some shoe deodorizer, and let her wear the damn shoes. Because if we want our kids to have a modicum of self-esteem, sometimes we need to just shut the hell up.

Bottom line: If I bring my kid up to disrespect religion, it sets her up for some pretty serious self-doubting if she ever decides to explore religion for herself one day. And I never want my kid to worry that, by being a good person and true to herself, she risks losing my respect and admiration.

3. Your "myth" message, while well-reasoned, may hurt your kid

If we want to promote tolerance, we must adopt tolerant language. Not to put too fine a point on this argument, but I really do believe that using judgmental terms in relation to religion, no matter how accurate we think they may be, has the potential to bring emotional pain to your child.

  • My son wants to go to Vacation Bible School but assumes I'll be disappointed in him; so he doesn't ask, and loses out on a chance to make new friends.
  • My daughter falls in love with a devout believer but loses sleep over the thought of bringing him home to meet me.
  • My children offend people they admire because they find themselves falling back on words I taught them.

Those are some of the ways the "myth" message could hurt my child. But I can't think of one way it would really help.

I want to be clear: I’m not suggesting that parents be dishonest about their religious beliefs. By all means, if you think these stories are myths, tell your kids that you think they're myths. Explain that you just can’t believe in things that aren’t supported by evidence. But why not park your judgements at the door? Why not leave it up to your kids to figure out the rest for themselves? Why not tell them that, as long as they're not hurting anyone, you'll support them 100 percent.

As for what to call religious stories — how about stories? At our house, we call them all God Stories. Doesn’t matter the religion — could be the story of Ganesh or the story of Noah’s Ark, or any other story where God is a featured character. (Except for Greek myths, which we call Greek myths because, well, there's no reason not to.)

I really am confident that, under our guidance (and with a little help from Richard Dawkins!), Maxine will figure out the difference between faith and science. She'll come to understand that they are opposing forces — but that they are also important forces in a great many lives.

And I'm excited — really excited — to find out what my little independent thinker makes of these forces. Or whether she'll end up caring at all.