Raising Alexander – Theists, Theists Everywhere
This is my baby son, Alexander.
Here he is in a Spider-Man top, meeting Loken, the family cat:
Here he is, unbearably happy at 6 in the fucking morning, which is when we he wakes for the early feed:
Here he is in an unacceptably light-hearted version of his father’s normal attire:
Here he is in a sleeping bag that looks kinda like a dress:
Alexander is, fortunately, surrounded by grandparents, uncles, aunts, great-aunts, great-uncles, various cousins that come in at oblique bloodline-based angles, and (until very recently) a great-grandmother. And this is just on Katie’s side of the family. My side lives back in England, Poland, Canada, and wherever else the Dembski and Bowden clans exodussed themselves over time for kicks.
So on a day to day basis, there’s a lot of familial backup. The flip side of that coin means that everyone has an opinion. Katie and I are discovering that threshold discovered by every parent ever since the dawn of time, where your bumbling, stumbling efforts as a first-time parent are at least marginally watched by the very generation that raised you two or three decades before. For some people, that won’t go smoothly, but we’re pretty lucky on that score. Katie’s vast family network (Irish, remember, so we’re talking billions of the fuckers…) are supportive but not stifling. They’re eager, helpful, involved – but not, to use the parlance of the times, all up in our shit.
They are, however, all theists. Christian to the core. At least, all of them older than 30 are, which is to be expected in the Western World. You’d especially expect it in countries like Ireland and America were Christianity isn’t just “Something your grandma does on Sundays”, which is what it’s mostly become in England.
This isn’t an attack on religion, or religious beliefs, or the members of mine and Katie’s family that think Jesus is rad, and God is awesome. I give theists the same regard I give atheists, which is to say I devote exactly 0.0001% of my attention span to them and their views, and have no interest in taking either side in the spurious war over who fucks whom, what bits they do it with, and when they’re allowed to do it. I don’t care. I have my own thoughts on religious mythology, and that’s mostly based on how cool I find it. Whether I’m actually faithful or not is irrelevant, because this isn’t about me. This is about Alex.
No matter what I believe, or what his family believes, I’m pretty much of the mind that a baby / toddler / little kid is no more a member of Faith X than they are a stuntman, an astronaut, or a progressive grindcore post-industrial lead guitarist. Doug Stanhope makes the obvious point that if you “beat that shit into them while their heads are still soft”, then they’ll grow up believing it as the truth. Obviously, anyone can rethink things later in life, but the point is a good one.
I get that a lot of theists consider their religious views to be The Right One. That it benefits their lives, and is objectively the truth, so therefore why wait until someone’s 16 or 18 to start teaching it to them? The thing is – and here’s the kicker – that’s absolutely anathema to me. Not because people believe. I’m fine with people believing. But I get easily disgusted at the thought of anyone believing with such fervour that they tell a child their way is The One True Way. It reeks of some ardent, invincible arrogance that has always terrified me, and I’ll never understand why it doesn’t terrify everyone.
Of course, you get a bajillion theists who’ll say their path of faith is just one way of connecting with the same higher power every religious person connects with. Like I said, this isn’t some vast assault on anyone who believes in a god, or gods, or magic. I’m not anti-religion. I’m not even anti-organised-religion. I could be the most religious person in the world, and it’s no one’s business as far as I’m concerned. For those of you reading this now and assuming that, from my tone, I’m an abject atheist or a closet Christian, you’re wrong. My thoughts don’t mean shit, and that’s the whole point. The most you’ll see me weigh in on is the absolute necessity of the separation between church and state, which actually ties in quite neatly to my whole fears for raising my son. When you see the American far-right (who scarcely resemble the Republicans of a mere few decades ago) mentioning the Bible in politics, or dragging their beliefs into the policies for running a nation, you’ve got a sickness seeping into the system. Freedom of religion has to mean other people can believe other things, and not fall under the aegis of your faith’s laws. Society has laws based on humanistic morality. Religious laws had their chance, but we’re past that now. To suggest anything else is more than arrogant, it’s a disgusting breach of civil rights.
Katie and I half-joked about making The List, so Alexander’s tribal elders would know our views on just how we wanted him raised. That implies a rigidity and definitiveness that doesn’t actually exist; it’d really just be a Post-It saying:
- “Don’t feed him solids when he’s too young.”
- “Don’t tell him your god is the real one.”
- “Don’t tell him he’ll go to Hell if he doesn’t believe what you believe.”
I was briefly tempted to just use this:
It makes a logical point (about your god just being one of thousands, all ridiculous to someone, etc.) but it’s not really a reflection of what I think. It is, however, sort of funny.
We agreed that we’ll explain a bit about the nature of belief, and tell him about all of the world’s major religions – as well as any of the smaller ones I can Google or Wikipedia when the time comes. I know quite a chunk about most of the Big Faiths’ histories and mythologies, as it happens, as I researched them loads for various RPG projects and novels. I’m a fan of all religious backstories, and I’m always on the hunt for more info.
Where Alex is concerned, it mostly comes down to showing him that people across the world believe different things, and yes, a lot of it comes down to having it hammered into their heads while their heads are still soft. The people around him are uniformly Christian because of their location, their upbringing, and their close-knit culture. That doesn’t mean it’s true, it’s just the way the coins have come up in this particular place. Buddhists tend to believe X, and their faith came from Y. Muslims tend to believe A, and their faith started at Point B. Christians branch out along E, F and G, and the local branch is largely H.
And so on.
But it goes both ways. I’m not licking my lips and rocking back and forth with predatory delight, clutching my copy of God is a Cunt, by Richard Dawkins. I’m not salivating my way through heathen un-prayers, until the blessed, blessed night I can finally read anti-Christian memes to him as bedtime stories. That’s not how this works. If it was, do you honestly think I’d have spent so long discussing all this, and fifty times as long thinking about it?
Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter, does it? Atheist parents raise atheist kids who eventually become theists, and theist parents raise theist kids who eventually become atheists. I guess it’s irrelevant, when push comes to shove.
I think the key is to present people’s views respectfully, but equally, and in enough detail to give them context. Admittedly, the atheist view will come with a certain degree of logical counterargument and evidence against the theist view. Critical thinking and reason supports one side, let’s not deceive ourselves otherwise. But while the theist view lacks evidence, it thrives on community and people’s natural desire to belong, to be involved, and to flock together. People believe for reasons, and those reasons themselves are interesting. I also know from personal experience that as practically the only guy in this tiny village that doesn’t go to church, it feels a little weird and isolated. No one wants to feel that way, especially when you’re a kid. You want to fit in. You work hard to make sure you do. You tow the party line. I’m only fine with it because I’m an antisocial nightmare of a human being, that often hopes his own closest friends will be in last-minute (non-fatal) car accidents, preventing them from coming over. I like being alone, which – incidentally – is not a great trait in a dad, and something I’m working on.
I think the Elder’s Guide to Alexander will look a little like this:
- We don’t care if he’s a theist or an atheist. We have no emotional investment in his final decision, either way. If he’s religious, we’ll gladly support him. If he’s not, we’ll support him there, too.
- Respect the fact that it’s a final decision, not something he needs to worry about while growing up, unless he chooses to.
- In terms of education, we’ll explain both theism and atheism to him, as best we can. Trust us to teach every religion (and the absence of religion) equally. If you’re worried we’ll make Christianity look bad, you’re doing us a disservice. If you’re worried we have an agenda to make our son atheist, you’re doing us a disservice.
- We’ll never be angry if you take him to church. It’s a big part of the community here (and they have a cool band). If he wants to go to church, feel free to take him. If he doesn’t want to go, we know you’d never force him.
- Don’t tell him your god is the right god, or that a theist view is objectively true. On the same note, don’t ever tell him he’s going to Hell if he does/doesn’t do X, or he’ll get to Heaven if he does / doesn’t do Y.
So those are my scattered, half-clutched thoughts on the whole thorny, stormy deal.
I’m a dad now. I have analysis paralysis. I worry.
I just want to do a good job. I’d settle for him being marginally less useless and fucked-up than me, and I’m aiming towards that goal however I can.
May Lono have mercy on us all.