The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

Belief, Books & Bringing Up the Boy

I wrote earlier about trying to teach my son empathy, and even earlier about the question — as a parent who’s also a “non-theistic Buddhist” and wishes not to set foot in a church except for weddings and funerals — of how to raise our son with a clear set of values and ethics without having to resort to a return to some form of organized religion with, with it’s unresolved and unresolvable conflicts and baggage. For now, I’m trying to teach Parker to put himself in other people’s shoes and think about how certain actions would make him feel if they were directed at him, just to get across the idea that other people have the same feelings and feel the same pain that he does when he’s hurt. Next comes understanding why he should avoid hurting others, but for now, based on my observations, that much is already starting to filter through.

It’s a conundrum I’ve yet to figure out, but the hubby made a good point when we were discussing it last week (he’s pretty much in the same place I am when it comes to organized religion), that if we don’t bring him up with something in terms of a set of values, he’s more likely to be ripe-for-the-picking if he ever encounters a religious cult or fundamentalism when he’s older. That’s something I definitely don’t want. At the same time, I’m hesitant to “choose” a religion for our son or require him to go through the motions of adhering to a specific one, as I experienced growing up. (Going to church was not an option or a matter of choice in our house. So I went, and sort of pantomimed belief long after I’d give up on the faith I was raised in.)

And in American culture, it’s unavoidable. I can’t tell you how many times in the last four years, we’ve gotten religiously-themed presents for Parker; books about Jesus, Christian-themed toys, etc. I know they’re from well-meaning people who simply made assumptions that our family must be Christian (gay, liberal Christians, but Christians nonetheless, because what else would be be?), but it’s still rather awkward, because we end up making a serious effort not to offend, by not letting it show on our faces that it not “exactly what we wanted” for our son, and quietly setting it aside rather than figuring out a polite way of explaining that we don’t want our son getting those types of gifts. Instead, we quietly give them away.

But I can’t escape the feeling that something is unavoidably encroaching upon our family, it won’t go away if asked politely, and I’m not quite sure what to do about it.

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In my mind I can’t help but think of it as a similar to the phenomenon of “compulsory heterosexuality” from my college days of studying queer theory for a semester.

Compulsory heterosexuality is the assumption that women and men are innately attracted to each other emotionally and sexually and that heterosexuality is normal and universal. This institutionalization of heterosexuality in our society leads to an institutionalized inequality of power not only between heterosexuals and non-heterosexuals, but also between men and women, with far reaching consequences.

Replace the terms dealing with sexual orientation with terms dealing with religious belief, and I think a case could be made for a kind of “compulsory Christianity” or “compulsory theism.” I’ve encountered it before, in the teacher who challenged my refusal to stand for the pledge of allegiance by saying “You can’t deny that there’s a God! Look at how many people believe it!” and years ago in my sister’s incredulity when I told her I considered myself a Buddhist as we were driving to the church she was attending then (she asked and I agreed to accompany her) and she placed her hand on her bible and said “You mean you don’t even read this any more? At all?” I mean, you just have to believe. Don’t you?

How do I say “No, I don’t,” and give my son the same freedom (that I didn’t have growing up), and still give him something to ground him when it comes to values about how he should treat other people and meet the world?

Thanks to a post by Nacho at Woodmoor Village, however, I may have found a helpful resource.

Traditionally, parenting resources for the task of raising humanist children have not been plentiful. Which is why I am glad to have found a wonderful new resource: Dale McGowan’s Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion. Perfect title. The book is a collection of essays from various non-theists including Richard Dawkins, Julia Sweeney, Penn Jillete, Ed Bruckner, Tom Flynn, even Mark Twain, and other folks including a couple of reverends/ministers, and even the lovely mom from Agnostic Mom (check out her blog and column for Humanist News Network). The book site contains some rather nice resources, a forum, and other information. You can buy it from Amazon here (I don’t benefit at all from this so buy from whomever you prefer).

Check out the study guide, and the forums if you are interested in conversing with like-minded parents trying to do their best to, like us, practice parenting beyond religious belief. If you are one of those parents, raise your hand, let us know, and go post in the forum. What’s more, perhaps you can buy a copy of the book for the local library, or the school library, send a letter to the editor of a parenting magazine asking for a review of the book, post online about the book and your parenting, talk it up with friends… there are plenty of ways to contribute to making this perspective be seen through a better lens than the traditionally distorted lenses used for non-theists.

Oh boy am I ever “one of those parents.” I’ll be running to pick up a copy of Parenting Beyond Belief during my lunch break, passing it on to the hubby when I’m done with it, and checking out the website. For parents in our position it sounds, if you’ll pardon the pun, like a godsend.

6 Comments

  1. This issue is why I’m joining the local Unitarian Universalist church. Their literature on the religious education classes made some really good points. The quote that stuck out for me was “Religion is like sex. Do you really want your children learning about it in the street?” Teaching children comparative religion at a young age helps critical thinking. When people come at them later in life with all kinds of promises of bliss or threats of hellfire, they will be much less vulnerable.

    Their religious education classes teach about all kinds of belief but they also say very specifically that there is no such thing as hell. Such a sad concept for a young child to have to think about… I am so glad I was raised not believing that there are people burning in hell.

  2. get him involved in Tae Kwon Do. it will make him strong, nimble, self-confident, and we study a good set of Tenets that involve perserverence, humility, and many other good traits.

  3. My parents raised me without religion, and knowing that they had confidence in my abilities and loved me and supported me no matter what is, I think, what ultimately made me a good and moral person. Oh, and I’m an atheist. That was something I decided for myself when I was about eleven.

    I think a lot of times when people find religion on the street, it’s because there’s some hole in their life they’re trying to fill. If you fill his life with love and if he’s a confident and empathetic young man, I don’t see why he’d be drawn to a destructive religion.

  4. I agree with the above……find a Unitarian congregation you feel comfortable with and accompany Parker there.

  5. With raising children, I will tell you what my parents did. My mother was brought up in a very Catholic family, the beliefs of which she thoroughly enjoyed through her childhood. Since then she has seen too many things she does not agree with, so she is Christian, but not a very devote one. Me and my four siblings were raised in a family where religion(or anything else) is brought up when we ask. We aren’t bombarded with anything, except the fact that we do not exclude people, and we are polite to others. None of us, me being the oldest at 15, the youngest is now 4, have strong religious values. My parents want us to do wat we want with our spiritual life. I don’t think being exposed to Christianity in sometime great quantities instilled any of the beliefs on me at all. I still remain a very well-rounded person.

    I think that if you raise your son to be an open-minded human being who understands many religions, he will choose what he wants, but he will do so fully knowing what he is getting himself into, no matter what it may be. And he will have strong personal values no matter what.

    I wish it were easier to not have to worry and to have people understand that not the whole world is Christian, but I think no matter how you deal with this rather annoying issue, you will be fine. Just through reading your blog, I am sure you will raise your son to think about things, and not follow blindly. You will probably instill values he needs, no matter how you teach them. Good luck.

  6. Great post. Especially about the importance of instilling values so your son is less vulnerable to dogmatic beliefs. I understand your hesitation about organized religion, but I am wondering if you have considered visiting a Buddhist Center or group? You might find like-minded parents and support for your ways of bringing up your son. Any decent Buddhist group will allow you to partake of their activities to the degree that is useful to your family without ‘joining’. You might have to try out a few to find a good ‘fit’ for your family, but I am sure there are many in the DC area to look into.

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