May 3, 2016
It’s hard to say how many people globally do not believe in any sort of deity, but the recent Pew numbers on China claiming over 60% of its population to be atheists seems like substantial support toward more ‘non-believers’ than believers. Also, the lack of practicing devout subjects in this country alone is staggering. When I took my Life in the UK test a few years ago, Brits who actually go to church each week was at an alarmingly low 17%, and at the same time, the BBC reported that atheism or UK citizens who declared themselves ‘of no religion’ was teetering at a high of over 14 million, a number that had more than doubled in the previous ten years.
I do not begrudge any religion or religious person. I am a huge fan of the Dali Lama ( = no choice, born into the role). And yet I can’t say I understand it, because I just don’t understand faith. But some of the people I love and respect the most are seriously devout. More than anything, I love to question them and also, to argue and debate. It’s the stuff of life that is engaging, exploratory and educational.
However, I’ve noted a few disturbing episodes of discrimination against my child lately (‘Mini Me’ is currently self-proclaimed). Both occurred at what is meant to be a non-denom school. Firstly, in a recent classroom lesson, the teacher asked the kids to raise hands if they were Muslim, Catholic, Jewish, etc. When two of the kids didn’t raise hands (one being my daughter), the teacher inquired and they reported they were atheists. My daughter said her teacher looked at her strangely, and then looked ‘disappointed’. For my 6 year old to clock disappointment means the teacher didn’t do much to veil it.
The second instance was during the recent Passover where they served only matzo sandwiches to ALL of the children during the week. When I inquired as to why there was no choice, the reply from the school was it was easier to accommodate the children observing Passover. Fine, but please provide an alternative. Do not literally shove an organised religion’s practices down my kid’s throat. It’s a violation of her civil rights, and probably against several Department for Education codes. But I said nothing. It was one of those “choose your battles” moments and this one seemed, well, unwinnable. God (!) forbid I even go anywhere near it (we have enough problems fitting in being half-American).
Minor as it might seem, the point is a larger one: there was no choice. I don’t want my daughter practicing your traditions – however harmless they may be, unless she chooses to. We are trying to start our own traditions as atheists, whatever that even really means, which is admittedly hard considering I was reared Catholic and my whole family celebrates Easter, Christmas, First Communions, etc. And yes, I want her to be open to new things and explore different foods, cultures, and theories, but…give her the choice however small it may seem.
There are many parts of organized religion I admire. I respect the intent of good deeds and good will, and I admire the structure it can provide to children, families and communities, especially in times of crisis and even more so in the digital age with the intense loneliness it is creating. But there’s also a lot of hypocrisy around religion and the current problem with people actually confusing the second largest religion in the world for something broken (by Western believers?) and sinister. Also, religious holidays seem to cause people more stress than happiness with all the relatives, food and money wasted on things nobody really seems to need (can you imagine how quickly we could end global poverty if we all diverted our Christmas/Hanukkah/Diwali budgets to end hunger?).
These are some of the reasons why starting our own traditions has been difficult. What does Christmas mean if you don’t believe in Christ, is it hypocritical to celebrate it? Easter just becomes a completely pagan, chocolate guzzling holiday. I’m not one of those atheists who does not support religion, even after 12 years of Catholic school. My Dad self-baptized my daughter when she was born and I have no problem with that if it makes him happy. So with our child, my husband (agnostic) and I decided we would take her to church when she was around 2 years old. She loved it, but mostly we think it was for the biscuits at the end. We had a really good pastor at our local C of E and he did a special family mass that was truly inspirational. But then he left and we lost interest. I’ve also made my step-kids go to this same mass because I think teenagers these days need good lessons in managing boredom, and mass is very boring for a teenager. But it also provides a great opportunity to unplug and organise one’s thoughts as well as meet people from the community (not easy to do in London). And in most cases, it also provides the chance to embrace positivity, of which I am a true believer. The power of positive thinking and the whole #PMA movement are right up my alley.
Whilst I do want my daughter to embrace all religions, I want whatever route she chooses to be her choice, not mine, nor anyone else’s and certainly not her school’s.
May the peace be with you.