Atheism Central for Secondary Schools
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for Young Readers
Your child constantly sees relgious texts in book form. It can be a great help for her to see that your ideas have been expressed in this way specifically for children.
You can add to the content of these books by reading them with your child and contributing from your own knowledge and experience.
Maybe Yes, Maybe No: A Guide for Young Skeptics In this introduction to skeptical curiosity, young readers learn that they are capable of figuring out what to believe and of knowing when there isn't enough information to decide.
Bringing UFOs Down to Earth:
by Philip J. Klass
What About Gods?: A skeptical treatment of religion in a book designed to be read by, or to, children.
How Do You Know It's True?: Demonstrates the folly and potential danger of superstition and magical thinking. Shows how astonishing events can be analyzed and explained by using scientific methods and critical thinking.
The Snark Puzzle Book:
by Martin Gardener
Wonder-Workers! How They Perform the Impossible:
Gullible's Travels (audiocassette)
by Steve Allen
Science In a Nanosecond: uses a question and answer format, with illustrations, to explain why the sky is blue, what a rainbow is, what atoms are, how gravity works, and many other scientific facts and events.
James A. Haught
If You Had to Choose, What Would You Do?: Presents a number of thought-provoking scenarios involving ethical dilemmas and asks the reader to decide what to do. The scenarios are fun to read and are followed by questions to facilitate discussion. Helps you talk to your child about social and moral issues in a natural and nonthreatening way.
by Sandra McLeod Humphrey
"If two things don't fit, but you believe both of them, thinking that somewhere, hidden, there must be a third thing that connects them, that's credulity."
"Faith is believing
something you know aint true."
"If the biblical
account of creation in Genesis isn't true, how can we trust the rest
of the Bible?"
This is an e-mail from South Africa. It reflects a common problem faced by atheist parents.
Hello Atheism Central,
After much deliberation I recently decided to send my 7 year old step daughter to a convent. Now five or ten years ago - after my conversion to Atheism you wouldn't have found me within a mile of a church or catholic school. I felt so betrayed and cheated....All these pious intelligent brothers and teachers feeding my brain with bullshit about guilt and sin and hell.
So I had mixed feelings when recently, I entered the convent grounds. ( It happens to be the nearest school to our home and has a good academic reputation) As I walked past those beautiful beckoning statues of Jesus and Mother Mary it struck me....I had been deceived not only by a religion but by a FAMILY........What, with God the FATHER and SON, and of course MOTHER Mary....The feeling of rejection was magnified because I had been betrayed by my spiritual PARENTS!
So the next day I took Bena ( my step daughter ) aside and told her about this wonderful school where all the teachers were friendly and happy and where the classrooms were clean and where the pupils smiled and said goodmorning. And then I explained that they would teach her about a man called Jesus.....And that she should listen carefully because he had been a good and clever man but, that over the years they had added things to the story that weren't true. I gave her a few examples and she seemed quite happy with that. We often discuss the biblical stories she is taught and she seems to be able to separate the dogma from the morality.
However the other day she said "OK ...So maybe Jesus wasn't God ........but that doesn't mean that God didn't make the Universe? I wasn't sure how to respond. After a while I said that it was a very good question and that a lot of very clever people had, over thousands of years, been discussing (and fighting) over this very problem. I told her that although a lot of people would try to give her their answer, she should not try and make up her mind until she was at least 16 years old, as she didn't know enough about the world to make such a big decision. So the reason why I made contact with you was that you might tell me how you would have responded to Bena's Question..... And whether you would have sent your daughter to a Catholic school in the first place. Sorry that I have rambled on a bit but I would really appreciate your input.
PS Last night she was singing JESUS LOVES ME in the bath!?
Quick guide to contents
Please read the following as IMHO - In My Humble Opinion.
I shall try to answer your enquiry as best I can. It is a problem faced by very many atheist parents the world over - I was talking to a resident of Hong Kong the other day who says the same situation can arise there (even under communist rule). I started by asking my own 7 year-old daughter what she thought. She goes to what is theoretically a religious school - but a private one which is more worried about the cheque. 'Yes', she said, 'those religious songs are catchy'. She sings them all the time. Not to worry! I think they can act act a kind of vaccination against her being influenced by 'happy-clappy Christians' at some future date.
The most unfortunate aspect of the whole process is the need to conceal the atheism of the parents/child in order to gain entry to the privileged school. Many Catholics turned atheist feel they have paid their dues by attending these schools themselves, putting up with all the religious mumbo-jumbo, and have a right to whatever benefits are available. This is a very understandable point of view. In the UK religious state schools are paid for by the general taxpayer (except for a small initial contribution when the school is first set up) and the atheist should feel no qualms in sending his child to a school he has helped pay for. Even nondenominational schools may claim to have a 'Christian ethos'. Private schools in the UK are invariably religious to some degree and parents may feel that a claim to atheism would disadvantage their child. Nobody wants to be 'different'. They go along with the school while privately expressing skepticism, which their child can pick up on. Many parents are not religious but do not give the matter any real thought - and whatever happens, happens - their children can more easily fall victim to a charismatic teacher or to peer pressure.
If you sow the seeds of doubt in the mind of your child she will probably be able to maintain a healthy scepticism regarding religion. At the same time you need to provide her with a moral framework on which to base her life and draw contrasts (and parallels) with that taught by the church.
Teaching her that Father Christmas ('Santa Claus' for those in the USA) does not exist is a good starting-point - there are close parallels to belief in religion. She will see that many children believe in something that is not true and that there is a 'conspiracy' of adults who perpetuate this belief. Your child will see that you are telling the truth. Teaching a child to believe in Father Christmas is for the benefit of adults who want to live a fantasy but does not benefit the child - who can enjoy celebrations and family life equally with or without Father Christmas.
The lesson that lesson many are ready to tell children things which are untrue applies equally to religion. Those who have studied in religious seminaries, for example, know that Mathew, Mark, Luke and John did not write the Gospels - they were commissioned by Paul and almost certainly represent a variety of rewrites of a single original text - whose author can only be guessed at - but he certainly never met anybody called Jesus. Other religions are constantly 'borrowed' from - 'The Last Supper' is not of Christian origin, for example, and wholly a fabrication. The Pope must know this because the Vatican is built on the site of a 'pagan' temple where a 'last supper' was celebrated. Such people continue to decieve the children in their charge by teaching them falsehoods.They may do this with the best intentions but are nevertheless starting the child on the ladder of deception.
By progressively providing the child with a knowledge of the kind of deception used you may be able to minimise adverse religious influence. There are now plenty of books available to help you do this e.g., The Jesus Mysteries, Timothy Freke & Peter Gandy, ISBN 0 7225 3676 3. There is also a paperback version. In other words, arm yourself, and your child, with knowledge.
Human beings often find it very difficult to accept the random nature of events. Since we are at the centre of our own experience it can be difficult to understand that the universe carries on around us without paying too much head to our existence. Also as human beings we are evolutionarily adapted to relate to other people. Babies, for example, are pre-programmed to recognise the features of the human face in order to establish a relationship with their mothers. We seek to interpret the behaviour of the natural world as if we were dealing with a human being.
These two factors are behind magical thinking. If a tree falls across the road in front of us while we are driving we think 'This tree has fallen across the road to stop us arriving at our destination on time'. We then look for some justification of this viewpoint - an advantage gained by the delay in our journey e.g., we missed flying in bad weather. Our capacity to relate everythng to ouselves makes it possible to find one. We think of the forces around us in personal terms and imagine they are trying to communicate with us. This in turn leads to the error of the 'personal god'. The personal god is at the heart of the relgions of the 'people of the book' - Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In these religions we are constantly in communication with god, who is concerned about our personal problems, however small. We pray to a god in order, through it, to gain control of the environment around us. This is pure foolishness, of course, and available to all sorts of conundrums. Those in purgatory who happen to have a lot of relatives praying for their salvation have the advantage over those unlucky enough not to have any relatives. If god heads the prayers of the fortunate then it is clearly acting immorally.
Note: Deism, where there is a god that created the universe but does not intervene in our lives, is not a major problem. It is only one step away from atheism, since a non-personal god is of no significance whatsoever and might be descibed as another way of referring to the laws of physics.
Watch 'Rugrats' on TV with your daughter. It is wonderfully analogous to the religious perspective on the world described above. The smaller children live in a world they understand only very imperfectly. Anything that happens around them is interpreted as being directed at them. Anything adults say is misinterpreted and given special significance. Events occurring around them are interpreted as messages of approval or disapproval - or instructions to do things. These children are 'the believers' - confused by the world around them. Within their confused logic they behave rationally to a degree, but they lack the intellectual tools to realise how limited their understanding is. Only a little less confused, but with an awareness of how the children react, and a desire to power over others is 'Angelica'. She consciously manipulates the other children to her own advantage by shaping their perceptions of the world, generally misleading them and bossing them about. Angelica is the priest or shaman - and uses her skills to obtain political power in the time-honoured fashion of religions everywhere. When Angelica has dealings with the younger children we see them as hopelessly gullible. However, Angelica too is seen as gullible and helpless in her dealings with the forces 'above' her.
Although Rugrats functions very well as a social satire it is difficult to imagine that the scriptwriters could have written it without intending a parody of religious belief. Several layers of interpretation are accesible to the thoughtful viewer.
A close relative of magical thinking is our tendency to look for conspiracies - or to hold 'conspiracy theories'. We find it hard to believe that xyz events have occurred spontaneously and constantly look for the direct involvement of a human agency. While I was at university it was common for people to talk about 'the capitalist conspiracy' which was taken by some to mean that there was literally a group of men who sat together periodically in secret to orgainise the affairs of the world in their favour. Such a viewpoint grossly overestimates the efficiency of the human capacity for organisation. The ultimate conspiracy theory is belief in Satan (or Shaytan for Moslems). It is Satan who is the evil mastermind behind all the things that go wrong - anywhere! Not surprisingly, the church doesn't mention Satan too much any more (to adults anyway) - it's a good idea to monitor what your child is taught about Satan - the idea can be very appealing.
Teach your child tolerance. The nuns in her convent are not bad people - just misguided. Often those attracted to religious life do so because they seek security or have confused ideas about sex. This was recognised by the Vatican in the 1970's and is seen as a problem. They are not an enemy and we should wish them well. Explain to your child that many people find it difficult to live without being dependent on guidance from outside themselves. Many find it very difficult to tolerate any level of uncertainty and are attracted to religions which involve a lot of rules. Priests and nuns may be attracted by the power of being in possession of a 'special secret' affecting life and death that taking 'holy orders' gives them. Lay people can feel a similar power in being possessed of such a 'special secret'. This is the appeal of claiming that those who do not believe in god face everlasting death. Those who believe can then regard themselves as a special groups with special privileges - they can fell quite smug! Others find it difficult to accept that they will die and turn to religion because of fear. A large number of believers are simply good children who have grown up believing what their parents told them in good faith and have never found any reason to question their beliefs too deeply - or just prefer to think about other things and get on with life. As your child grows you can gradually give her an insight into the motivations of those who believe. Don't forget the parrallels with 'Rugrats'. She can only choose atheism in a climate of tolerance - just as religion can only thrive in a climate of intolerance. The other alternative is for your child to have atheism thrust upon her as is evidently your case. I expect you'd rather avoid that.
Tolerance is even more vital in another respect. Your child may one day become a religious believer. It is not uncommon - and may result from the influence of a charismatic teacher or a future spouse or partner. Indirectly, also, because you have discussed matters of religion with your child - even if you have opposed religion you have sensitised your child to it. You would not want intolerance to rebound upon you.
Fear of death is at the very centre of religious belief. Death should be dealt with in the same way that adoption should be dealt with by adoptive parents. It is unwise to wait until the child is an adult to tell her that she has been adopted. If this information is always readily given then the child will grow with and adapt to the idea without emotional strain. The same applies to death. The child needs to have this explained to her as suggested by the situation in hand. The idea that there is a heaven to go to is a cruel illusion that distorts a person's view of life. Part of the cruelty comes from not believing it. The distortion comes from not seeing life as valuable in itself but as merely a stepping stone to somewhere else. Religious Christians say things like: 'If this is all there is then life is not worth living' - 'Life has value because of the existence of god'. If this is what religion has taught them then it is very sad.
The atheist seeks value in the living of life itself and finds reasons for moral action that do not rely on the threat of punishment in hell or purgatory - there is nothing commendable in that. There is no morality in behaving 'well' because some 'god' says so. This is amoral. It is moral to behave in a moral way because you understand why this should be so. A great deal of the energy that goes into religious belief involves the reinforcement of the belief because it flies in the face of all the evidence. Every priest will talk about the need to reaffirm faith in the face of doubts - and will admit to having had those doubts too (this cannot be done by Moslems - the Moslem is not allowed even to admit to doubt - such is the tyranny of his religion - the Qu'ran demands death for those who lose their faith). A priest who did not admit to doubt would probably not be believed. The Christian is in a state of constantly having to reassert something he does not believe in at some level. This is the pain of religion - and the reason for much of the damage it does to the person. To quote from Steve Locks "It struck me suddenly that to be such a deeply conscious aware human being in life and then to "not exist" is a far more powerful thing than an afterlife or anything God could do..." Genuine acknowledgment of death is part of the experience of what it is to be human.
I think it is important to give a child a sense that issues of right and wrong can be handled very adequately without needing religion. There can be many approaches to this. Two common approaches are to say that we can decide what is moral by seeing what makes us happy, or that we can do anything we like unless it harms others. My personal approach is to teach my children that what is moral is that which promotes life. What is antagonistic to life is immoral. Under this scheme of things training young men and women to become celibate priests and nuns is profoundly immoral. Such viewpoints are based on the principle that life is intrinsically valuable. In the end this depends on faith - my life is valuable because I choose for it to be that way - a point of view that carries with it a certain dignity. Folk wisdom has it that we cannot respect others unless we respect ourselves. In other words our moral attitudes towards others depend ultimately on our moral worth to ourselves.
Parents may worry that their child will feel different from the other children - will feel alienated. As I have responded to many of those who have written in to Atheism Central - an atheist often needs to be able to walk alone. This is often demanded of us in other aspects of our lives. We may feel alienated if our parents cannot afford to buy the right brand of sneakers, school bag, sweater, etc. We may be too thin, too fat, too bad at sports, too flat-chested (or the reverse) or unable to find a boyfriend/girlfriend. It is always the case that children need to be taught of the need to see beyond the immediate circumstances and to see that conformity with the group they are currently a part of is not the be-all and end-all of existence. The same applies to French - having an unpleasant French teacher should not be cause to dislike French - the child should learn to see beyond immediate circumstances and assess what is happening in a mature way. Just following the crowd is not a route to personal happiness or a satsfactory guide to moral behaviour. A stable and satisfactory family life is the greatest antidote to feelings of alienation since it can counterbalance the stresses of school life. In the same way - religious can step in as an important influence when the usual patterns of familial support break down.
At the same time it is best not to promote the idea that being an atheist is in some way superior to others. We should not scorn others for their beliefs - and there is no need to convince others of ours. I don't walk along the street telling people what I earn - I don't have to tell them what I believe either. Walk alone if necessary and walk quietly - "As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and ignorant; they too have their story." Desiderata.
Some atheist parents worry that by sending their children to a religious school then they are guilty of hypocrisy and they are bringing their children up as hypocrites - pretending to believe something they do not. Religion still has a powerful grip on the affairs of man - restricting educational opportunities to atheist children merely promotes its continuance. So don't worry about sending your child to a religious school - you are certainly not alone. Many atheists feel forced to do this. Religious schools are often the best available and what parent does not want his child to go to the best school? For the benefit of their children some atheist parents start going to mass at the local church years before it is time for their children to enter school. They can then get a certificate from the priest saying that they are practising Catholics or whatever. Their children then attend the religious school and receive its attendant religious indoctrination. The parents tell the children that 'all this god stuff is untrue' but to keep it a secret. The parents feel guilty for obliging their children to be hypocrites, besides being uncomfortable that they are betraying their own beliefs. They feel additional discomfort when their child comes home enthusiastically spouting religious dogma or singing catchy religious songs. Try not to feel too bad about it. Your child will learn from the way you treat her personally, not from the way you handle the nuns. You were taught religious 'stuff' yourself but recovered from it.
It is not a bad idea to suggest that the whole matter is a very complicated one and that the child should wait until later (e.g., 16 or 18) to make up her mind. This sidesteps the problem of hypocrisy to some degree but might well lead to disappointment if Bena (see letter above) decides to become a nun! I can understand the reasonableness of this approach but I don't think equal weight is being given to the opposing viewpoints. We are at our most vulnerable when we are young and atheist parents cannot afford to give over this period in our children's development to the religionists. For an atheist it is just as important not to believe in a god as it is for a theist to believe in one. The reason for many religious conversions is the appearance of complete conviction, earnestness, and often joyfulness that is conveyed. (The most 'joyful' Christian I know suffers from frequent bouts of depression!) The atheist parent needs to ensure that there is a corresponding level of conviction without, of course, ramming it down the poor kid's throat - it should be seen more as a resource the child can call on to help interpret the world. It is also desireable to demonstrate a corresponding satisfaction with life or the message might be that it is better to believe nonsense and be happy than know the truth and be miserable!.
As atheists we have the conviction that there is no god. We have a duty of care towards our children and can only do our best to improve their chances of living fulfilling lives. We cannot do this by ignoring our deepest convictions about the nature of the reality around us. But besides telling our children of our convictions we should teach them that they themselves are ultimately responsible for what they believe and need to seek out knowledge for themselves and make up their own minds as they go through life. This must include accepting the possibility that they will decide to become priests or nuns.
I hope I have been of help. Please write in if you have any comments or queries.
Title: 'Atheism Central for Secondary
Schoolsl' Copyright © 1998, Alan Urdaibay
Michelle's letter was passed on to me by Rajan Patel - I'm afraid I don't know who Michelle is but I know her words.