My son and I live a secular life. He attends public school, we don’t go to church, and our few religious friends are not preachy types. We live in suburban Colorado, not the Bible Belt I grew up in, and we can go weeks or months without encountering religiosity in our daily lives. It’s about as different from immersion in a highly religious cult (my childhood) as possible.
Our neighbors have religious diversity. We live in an immigrant neighborhood so we have Buddhist and Hindu and Muslim families, who generally practice among themselves and do not seek to convert. The religious children don’t hand my son Chick tracts, as I did to other kids when I was young. Their faiths and my atheism are both quietly tolerated, and not evangelized.
A few weeks ago my son and I attended a holiday parade. This being Denver, the parade was inclusive andf multicultural. African, Mestizo, and Indian dance teams were interspersed between winter and Christmas themed floats and several marching bands. The penultimate float was the only decidedly Christian one, a nativity scene sponsored by a local church. Jesus opened for the star of the show, Santa.
But my son was confused. The dancers, the bands, the toy themed float with Dreidel had all made sense to him, but the nativity scene didn’t. “That has nothing to do with Christmas!” I laughed, hard and loud on the cold sidewalk along the parade route. It’s possible I may have done too good a job bringing him up in seculart ways. With a little prompting he recalled the story of the first Christmas.
Kids generally want to believe as their parents do and for now my son is an atheist because I am. He didn’t get here by intimate knowledge of scripture and the lived experiences of religion’s flaws. He copies me. Although I’m an atheist and mostly consider the question of an intervening god fully settled in the negative, I take a more agnostic tact in my words to him.
I tell him that no one knows for sure, and that smart and kind and lovely people can have very different beliefs. I say that, because no one can be certain if gods even exist, anyone claiming to have a clear picture of who they are and what they want is operating on faith, not evidence. And above all, I teach him that what does matter is how we treat people. Maybe we’ll have to answer to a god for our lives someday, probably not, but regardless. We treat people well because they are real and they matter.