Maybe I should just get this out of the way so we don’t waste each other’s time: I’m an atheist. I do not believe that any kind of deity created this world in which we live. I don’t believe that I am going to a place called heaven (or hell, for that matter) after I die. I’m perfectly fine if you think these things, but I'm not looking to be saved or swayed. If these salient facts are troubling, this is probably not what you want to read over your morning coffee.
I just want to offer tolerant believers a glimpse, to the extent that I can in just one essay, of how my nonbelief—a view that is shared by a growing swath of American people, but still a clear minority—has cropped up in my daughter’s public school experience.
By the way, she’s only in Kindergarten. This happened much sooner than I expected.
And I’m not even talking about having to explain why the word “God” is in the Pledge of Allegiance, or why we have Good Friday off but not Rosh Hashanah, though there are those kinds of things too. I’m talking about the social side of school life, and integrating with children and families who hold fundamentally different views certainly from mine, and, it seems, possibly hers too.
A recent survey showed that a majority of citizens mistrust atheists and are least likely to choose a candidate who doesn’t believe in God. We also now know that our highest federal court is comfortable with a certain amount of prayer in the sphere of local government. As a result, it remains hard not to feel a strong sense of exclusion, marginalization, and unease sometimes, particularly in government-backed institutions. It’s also tough to convince your daughter that she could be president one day even though there is no female precedent for that (yet). Try doing that when there are no atheists too.
My daughter is almost seven years old and she is already quite aware of my atheism. Personally, I think her own opinions are still forming, as they should be for someone her age. This is why we, her parents, tell her time and again that she is free to, and should, explore all possibilities, come to her own conclusions, and even change her mind over time as she gathers new information. We also teach her that there are a multitude of worldviews about all of this—including within our own extended family—and that we have to respect those that might be different from ours. We have been crystal clear on these two points since she was old enough to ask and talk about religion, gods, and different belief systems. In fact, this topic has already come up with some frequency because she attended a religiously-backed preschool the year before Kindergarten.
You see, even among religious folks who might differ on specific ideologies or principles, most do share at least one thing in common: that there is something. And, for most of those same people, that something addresses life and death (among other things) in a way that perhaps has more pretty bows than my cosmological common sense and pine-box-in-the-ground pragmatism. This is an area where I’m finding I cannot comfortably compete, at least not without a lot of awkward pauses on my part.
Here’s a recent example that left me flustered and unsure of what to say without offending anyone or stifling my viewpoint just to be polite. Once a month, I visit my daughter’s class to teach them about art. It’s really quite fun to see these twenty young, squirmy children expand their minds through art. But truth be told, the information that Kindergartners really seem to want boils down to this: 1) can they use the bathroom? and 2) is the artist is already dead? Incidentally, anecdotes from some acquaintances in the art museum world report that these two questions are not limited to Kindergartners.
During one of these sessions, after I indicated that the artist in question was, in fact, dead, one of her classmates then asked me, “Is he in heaven with the Holy Father?”
Thankfully, that pin drop moment only lasted a half-second before another child chimed in and I didn’t have to answer her. But I’ll be honest: I was unsteady and uncomfortable. My gut was telling me to hide what I really think. Then again, why would it not be OK for me to say I didn’t think this artist was in a place called heaven? Doesn’t my opinion count as equally as the assumptions that a lot of other people hold?
I think my hesitation ultimately comes from a place of trying to maintain a level of tolerance and respect for others (especially given the classmate’s young age in this case). Indeed, this is something I want for myself too. It’s also very much about picking my battles in order to preserve the peace, primarily for my daughter. On the other hand, I honestly thought my religion-in-public-school woes would be coming from some of the more standard fare like God in the Pledge of Allegiance, not this kind of conversational interaction that ultimately illuminates who we all are as individuals.
I wonder whether or how much religious folks talk about atheist or humanist viewpoints in their homes. When they talk about respecting religions other than what might be practiced in their own home, do they include people like me too? I hope so. Because if they did, then maybe it wouldn’t seem so outlandish or awkward when I present my perspective. That is, when I have more courage to do so.
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