So I was reading Arts & Letters (like you do) and came across this piece by Natalie Angier talking about raising her daughter to be an atheist. And it seems that in a very Takoma Park way they're having a lovely time in their atheist household, and I have no plans to walk the 15 minutes it would take me to get to their doorstep and try to convert them. Freedom of religion includes freedom for the lack of religion and I think atheists should raise their children whatever way they want. In fact, I'd probably side with a passionate atheism over lukewarm "I guess we should go to church now that we have kids; here have an Easter bunny" religiosity, but the piece got on my nerves and I may have finally figured out why.
Now, to her credit, poor old Natalie is on the defensive. Raising your kid to be an atheist in this day and age has got to be difficult at times, even in Takoma Park. But in order to bolster her point that you can raise a great, atheist kid, she quotes her own 8-yr-old daughter on subjects like death and God. Here's a sample:
First I asked her if she believed in god. She crinkled up her nose at me like I had mentioned something distasteful, like spinach and liver, or kissing a boy, and said, No! I asked her if she was sorry she’d been raised as an atheist, and she said no, she liked it. I asked why. First, she said, you don’t have to waste Sundays going to pray. Also I’d rather do things myself than have somebody else do them for me. If somebody gets sick, I wouldn’t just pray to god he or she gets better, I would try to buy some medicine for them, to help them get better.
Cool. Great. Totally logical. Have we mentioned that the girl is eight years old? Eight year olds believe in the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus (if they're raised to) and the totemic power of Hillary Duff (even if they're raised not to.) The fact that your 8-yr-old thinks God is like spinach proves exactly NOTHING about the benefits of raising an atheist child as compared to a religious one. Certainly not, as Angier argues, that "raising a child as an atheist, or a committed secularist, is the right thing to do." Not "a right thing to do," mind you, but "the right thing to do." Slow down a minute on your tolerance wagon, there, Natalie.
Now, to give her credit, those of us who believe would probably say God is sometimes a lot like spinach, and sometimes a lot like kissing a boy. And sometimes like none of the above.
I don't fault Natalie Angier's daughter for thinking this way about God, but I'm annoyed (or maybe by now just bemused) at the credence Angier assigns these words. I shouldn't be surprised anymore by things like this, but the whole piece reminds me of nothing so much as ministers who quote their children on Sunday. "Little Johnny once asked me if the money we take up in the collection plate goes to God so He can buy things," the preacher says and the congregation all goes "Awwwww." The mystery of belief becomes easier through a child's eyes, and so, apparently does the project of atheism. Angier says:
When I tell my daughter why I’m an atheist, I explain it is because I see no evidence for a god, a divinity, a big bearded mega-king in the sky. And you know something – she gets that. She got it way back when, and I think once you get it, it’s pretty hard to lose it.
I don't know how hard it is to lose atheism. All I know is how hard it is to keep faith. Oh yeah, and that eight-year-olds are, um, children, and will keep wrestling to find answers to the big questions no matter what their parents tell them. My prediction, for the record, is that the kid turns out Ba'hai.