‘My Dearest Daughter': Letter from an Atheist Mom

By Wendy Thomas Russell | October 14, 2013 | 8 comments

Letter WritingAtheist scientist Richard Dawkins once wrote a letter to his 10-year-old daughter about the importance of scientific evidence in weighing the legitimacy of religious claims. “To my dearest daughter,” his now-famous letter began. “Now that you are ten, I want to write to you about something that is important to me… Evidence.” His mission: to explain the vast chasm between faith and science, and make clear that science will always hold the trump card.

I’ve written before (rather poorly) about Dawkins’ letter and my own issues with it, but — as a non-believer, a parent and a writer myself — I can’t help but be drawn to the idea of putting my own feelings about religion in letter form. Instead of making a case for science — and, therefore, for atheism — I wanted to make a case for compassion, religious tolerance, and an appreciation of diversity.

The truth is, I’m not worried about science. Science is already a part of my daughter’s life; it comes up almost daily in our house. I don’t need to sell Maxine on biology or geology or meteorology or botany; she’s already a paying customer. I don’t need to sell her on the importance of evidence, either. She understands that evidence is something that is true, and faith is something that is believed. When you strip it down, the concept isn’t all that complex.

A dad once told me that he and his children didn’t often talk about religion directly in their house. “More often than not,” he said, “our conversations revolve around the ideas of evidence and logical reasoning. Religion hangs around the periphery of these conversations in the form of myth and magic.”

There’s nothing at all wrong with having conversations about evidence and logical reasoning. But if all religion does is “hang around the periphery,” there’s not a lot of room to give kids honest explanations for the belief systems of others, and not a lot of opportunity to send kids into the world ready to peacefully, confidently and happily interact with people from different cultures.

This was my thought, anyway — which was why, as a fun exercise, I wrote my own, decidedly non-Dawkinsian (!!) letter. I doubt I’ll ever give it to Maxine. My mission is to talk to her about religion, not write to her about it. Still, though, it could be a great reference point for me if I ever forget the point of all this. And maybe it will inspire others to put their own thoughts in writing.

To my dearest daughter,

I want to write to you about something that is important to a lot of people: Religion. As you know, religion is a a collection of beliefs, as well as views about how people ought to behave. Many beliefs involve a god or gods. Religion has been around for thousands and thousands of years. Many religions have faded with time, and many others have kept going. Some religions were formed quite recently.

Religion is very personal — meaning it varies widely from person to person — and people often feel strongly about it. So strong, in fact, that it often can lead to disagreements and hurt feelings — which is why you probably won’t learn much about it in school and why children aren’t often encouraged to talk about it on the playground.

Because your Daddy and I aren’t religious ourselves, and because nothing seems to be missing from your life, you might wonder why religion exists. Well, religion — all religions — were spread by human beings in response to certain questions and problems. The questions were things like: Why are we here?  What happens after we die? The problems were things like: death, suffering, sadness and abuse.

On a basic level, most religions are meant to make people’s lives better by giving them comfort and purpose and teaching them how to be good people. Most religions teach compassion, forgiveness, kindness and love. And those are all really great qualities, aren’t they? It’s no wonder so many people, including some of your own family members, are religious.

Of course, I know from personal experience that no one needs religion to be a good person, just as they don’t need religion to feel comfort or to have a purpose or to live a full and satisfying life.

Still, though, it’s important to me that you know about different religions and cultures for two reasons. First, I want you to make up your own mind about what you believe. And, second, I want you to be able to understand and appreciate all the different people you are going to meet during your life. Knowledge, awareness and curiosity are traits that tend to invite new and positive experiences — and I want nothing more than to see you fill your life with as many positive experiences as you can. In short, I think teaching you a bit about religion will help make you a happier person.

It’s also important that you know that religion has some downsides. Some people allow their religious beliefs to blind them. They use religious differences to justify war, even murder. They judge people who are different from them. Some people believe, for instance, that men shouldn’t fall in love with other men, or women shouldn’t fall in love with other women. Some people believe that women should not be allowed to have jobs, even if they really want them. Some people believe everyone should be forced to believe one particular thing or be put in jail, or even killed.

These things I mention are wrong because they hurt people who are just trying to live good lives and be true to themselves. And no one deserves to be hurt for that. In some ways, these kinds of actions seem very strange, because they go directly against the things I mentioned earlier: compassion, forgiveness, kindness and love.

In the next few years you will learn a lot about different religions and religious people. You may find you like the ideas in religion, connect to the beliefs, and want to try one out. You may also find you aren’t interested in religion, or that you don’t care for it at all. Whatever the case, I want you to know that what you believe and how you feel about religion doesn’t matter to me. Just like it doesn’t matter to me what other people in the world believe or think about religion. What does matter to me — and what I hope matters to you, too — is what’s in a person’s heart. What people do in life is what counts, not what they believe.

A lot of incredibly good people are religious, and a lot of incredibly good people are not religious. You can be either one, and, as long as you try to practice compassion, forgiveness, kindness and love, I’ll support you 100 percent. 

Thanks for listening,
Mom


8 comments

  1. Valerie says:

    Hi Wendy,
    I have only started reading your blog in the past few months. Usually I enjoy it, but not this entry so much. I mulled on this for a day and came back to find that many of my irritants were addressed by Attie.

    I couldn’t be copacetic with my children choosing to believe whatever they want and offering them 100% support as long as they try to meet the kindness, compassion, love, and forgiveness criteria. I say this as I’m fairly confident I could make a case that many people would say that Pope Benedict and Bin Laden (among others) fit that criteria.

    Anytime I hear someone say, “My kids can choose for themselves” I suspect they have little understanding of the topic. Your children WILL make their own choices in life. Would you support them in their belief of racial supremacy or denial of the holocaust? Certainly you wouldn’t support them as they are sending their bank account information to a Nigerian prince! I will not support my children if they choose to act on unsubstantiated beliefs just because they happen to be my children. I WILL look at them through a filter. And, I will consider it a personal failure of my parenting.

    Although I personally wouldn’t use the world “hateful” to describe the god of the Bible (violent, murderous, vengeful seem to fit better). It IS absolutely acceptable that Attie or anyone can make claims to the nature of the character as the character is portrayed. I have no problem speaking of the nature of Batman, Rumpelstiltskin or Darth Vader – yet I don’t believe them to exist.

    I want to raise critical thinkers, people that make knowledge based decisions. I was a bit disappointed in some of the response to Attie’s valid points. Maybe you share a background with which this newbie reader (me) is unfamiliar, but it seemed the response included a lot of assumptions that the original letter never touched upon.

    I guess the main point I want to make is that I think it is a myth to tell a child you will support them 100% no matter what they choose (religiously or otherwise). And if we can be fine with having them believe that myth- then why not the others? I would much prefer to be honest with my children.

    • Hi Valerie! Thanks so much for writing. I’m sure Attie is glad to have an ally. :)

      So you make a couple of really good points.

      1. You are right that there’s nothing wrong with judging the Biblical character of God. I do think that’s where Attie was coming from, although I didn’t see it that way initially. I don’t know see any point in characterizing the benevolence of a god you don’t believe in, but I absolutely do see the point in judging the acts of the Bible’s version of God. The God of the Bible is all over the place! He’s mysterious, amazing, magical, vengeful, spiteful, nasty and murderous, not to mention flat-out f’ing crazy.

      2. I totally agree with you and Attie that we need to offer our children the facts as we know them. But I think it’s important we offer them THE truth as opposed to OUR truth. For example, saying “religion is scary and awful” is not a fact. It may be true in my eyes, but that doesn’t make it true. I think it’s really hard to come around and see things from a different angle when we’re so solidly set in our own perspective. And few of us have any reason to do so. But parenting is a reason. Being a parent makes me want to be more kind, more compassionate, more forgiving, more loving — so I can teach by example. I don’t always succeed, but my effort is genuine.

      Which brings me to…

      3. I think the kindness/compassionate/love/forgiveness criteria is absolutely enough! Enough for most parents anyway. To be clear, Bin Laden meets none of those criteria. (I doubt even Bin Laden would have called himself forgiving.) Neither do white supremacists or Holocaust deniers. It seems like you would like to see smart or intelligent on the list. And I totally get that. You want your kid to be smart enough not to send money to a Nigerian prince who contacted her via email. I want my kid to be smart, too, meaning I want her to be a critical thinker. I want her to think for herself and question what people tell her (including me) and come to her own conclusions. That’s the point of all this, isn’t it? To encourage our kids to think for themselves and reach their own conclusions and know that those conclusions are the right ones for them? That’s what will drive up their self-esteem. That’s what will help them ward off peer pressure. That’s what will allow them to reach their full potential and believe in themselves. I’m not saying I have to support my kid in EVERYTHING, but it’s not a failure in parenting to tell her that I’ll support her as long as she thinks for herself and lives a life based on the four criteria I mentioned. In fact, if I am capable of living up to that promise, I’d consider that my greatest success in parenting.

      It’s not easy to support kids when they believe and do things we don’t agree with — just ask all those religious grandparents whose kids have left the faith — but I think that’s the crux of the matter. If only all those grandparents could say, “Well, this is my truth but maybe it’s not your truth. That’s okay. Let’s move on.” Cue music for “What a Wonderful World.”

      Plus, I DO want to support my kid wherever I can, because there will be a point when I will not be able to support something she does, and I want that to be mean something to her.

      Okay, I can see I’m starting to meander. But you see how all this is related. My entire philosophy is a web of interconnected goals; sometimes it’s hard to see where one strand ends and the other begins. I know I’m leaving things out, though, and I’d love to continue this conversation with you, though, so please feel free to write back again with your thoughts!

      Thanks, Valerie. Really appreciate this opportunity.

  2. Attie says:

    Hi Wendy. I appreciate your article and understand your angle. I however will always disregard the lie being sold as a truth. Religion/s are not only loaded with myth, but is loaded with lies for which we have proof that they are lies. All people in the bible were not by default truthful and honest in their seeking of the Good and God. If some christian for example claims that their god is love and I can proof from their own blue-prints that he is hateful, then I will highlight it. A bit of straight forward honesty goes a long way. Less strategy and politics – more honesty. What you failed to tell your kid is that dis-believe, non-believe and atheism is also very very old and has always be with us through the ages – for as long as religion exists. It looks like this is some newbie thing that followed the age-old religions. Mention clearly that the reason why disbelieve and atheism sound so “new”, is because those very religions you invite your kid to investigate oppressed them. Not only religion has been with us through the ages, but also witchcraft and hundreds other forms of superstition. It looks like you’ve secured a special place and case for religions. This is a sign of weakness and will easily be spotted by kids. Your letter shows that you fear conflict with religion, because so many are religious and therefore they should be feared. Unfortunately many non-religious and atheist have suffered and even died in a pursuit to make the world the way it is now and made it possible for you to write and publish this letter publicly and freely. Steer away from conflict and you could be devoured by all kinds of bull-sh*t. Telling your child that religion is personal is nothing but a lie. The bible and therefor any religious document is the product and work of a group – it carries within it already a non-personal, political and social character. It cannot be detached.

    Thanks for your letter and please read my notes as positive critisism from my personal perspective as a parent in South Africa and a former church minister in the Dutch Reformed Church. We only left the theocracy in 1994 – and religion is still and was much less of a free and personal choice.

    • Hi Attie,

      I like your name. That’s first off. And, second, thank you for writing. I appreciate having the chance to talk this through a bit. You had a lot to say, and I’m not sure I’ll get to all of it, but let me address a few things.

      1. “All people in the bible were not by default truthful and honest in their seeking of the Good and God.”

      Everyone has an agenda, including those who wrote the Bible. Attributing negative or positive intentions to them doesn’t get us anywhere; we’ll never know what was in their heads.

      2. “If some christian for example claims that their god is love and I can proof from their own blue-prints that he is hateful, then I will highlight it. A bit of straight forward honesty goes a long way.”

      There is nothing at all offensive about claiming God is love. Anyone can claim God is anything they want. And it may mean very different things to different people, which is why I felt it necessary to point out in my letter that religion is “personal.” The point is not to give my daughter a sense that all religious people believe in one particular blueprint, as you say. They don’t. You may live in a place where a large group of people seems to share the same basic beliefs, but that’s only one place and one group.

      If you want to claim God is hateful, that is your prerogative, but I don’t think that’s really what you mean. If you don’t believe in God, you can’t claim that God is hateful. And if it’s true that God is a part of the human imagination, then trying to impose a “truth” on someone else’s God is misguided. It’s like trying to change the dream I had last night. 1. You can’t. 2. What would be the point? I agree that honesty goes a long way, but there is nothing honest in saying that you can “prove the Christian God is hateful.”

      3. “What you failed to tell your kid is that dis-believe, non-believe and atheism is also very very old and has always be with us through the ages – for as long as religion exists. It looks like this is some newbie thing that followed the age-old religions. Mention clearly that the reason why disbelieve and atheism sound so “new”, is because those very religions you invite your kid to investigate oppressed them. Not only religion has been with us through the ages, but also witchcraft and hundreds other forms of superstition”

      You make a good point here. I do talk a lot about religion, not only in this post, but in my blog in general. But it’s equally important to highlight the work of non-believers throughout the ages. And you are right to point out that these people were oppressed, and, frankly, still are. Yes, I feel free to write this blog, but it doesn’t mean I’m not aware of the negative responses I’m going to get to my book. Non-belief is still a major stigma. But the reason I wrote this letter was to talk to my kid about religion. I assumed, when I started out this project, that being nonreligious and emphasizing reason and science in my household, my daughter wasn’t going to have trouble identifying with atheists as an adult; my concern, though, was that she wouldn’t be able to connect with religious people. (I would think in a community such as yours, where you are seeing the scary/hateful side of Christianity, it’s more important than ever to ensure that your kids know these people are but one group of one sect of one religion.)

      4. “It looks like you’ve secured a special place and case for religions. This is a sign of weakness and will easily be spotted by kids. Your letter shows that you fear conflict with religion, because so many are religious and therefore they should be feared.”

      If it looks like I fear religion, so be it. I’m sure I’m going to get cut down by a lot of convinced atheists on this point, so I might as well get used to it. But I haven’t secured a special place for religion; society has. I’m just acknowledging it and not trying to set up bullshit battles. In my view, battles against belief are bullshit battles. Now, I’m certainly not saying that fighting discrimination, abuse, hate or even loud-mouth ignorance is bullshit. I have very little tolerance for idiotic religious rants. But not everyone does that. Why would I set my kid up to hate religious people on the grounds that they belong to a certain mosque, temple or church?

      I understand that you are anti-religious and don’t see the point in finding a middle road here. And I’m not trying to change your mind about your beliefs — or anyone’s. But you must see what I’m trying to do here, right? Tolerance breeds tolerance. If we are nice to nice people; nice people will be nice to us. Then the only people being dicks are the dicks — which is just they way God intended them to be. (Joke.)

      I’m not scared of religious people. If I were scared of religious people, I wouldn’t have spent the last three years outing myself as a nonbeliever and making clear to my daughter that being a non-believer is perfectly normal and great. No, I’m not scared of religious people, but I don’t hate them either. In fact, some of them I really admire and love.

      Is that really something to oppose?

      • Attie says:

        Hi Wendy. Thanks for the reply. With regards to the “blue print”. I understand that believers hold different “blue prints” as the basis for their believes… but they don’t. I’m yet to meet a devoted christian who denounces and rejects certain parts/books of their bibles as being bad/wrong. I want to teach my kids (8 and 6) to be clear about what they believe and what they DON’t believe and not to breed and feed skeletons in their cupboards. It’s a bad trait of believers worldwide to not only stand up for what they believe in, but to turn a blind eye for what is wrong within their religion. But that is just religion… And I will tell my child that therefor religion it is wrong and bad, because it has no system and room for self-criticism and verification. Because if it did, it will dethrone the god.

        Your last comment that “tolerance breeds tolerance”, is not completely true. Slaves were not released because slaves were tolerant to their owners. Women’s rights weren’t recognized because women stayed obedient and tolerant to their husbands and fathers. Quite the opposite. But yes, tolerance is a very important characteristic of most atheists I know. Atheist are very aware of their one chance at life. I’m not prepared to die for what I don’t believe in and I am not going to invoke the religious to kill ;)

        Wendy, you inspired me to write a letter to my kids myself. I am also inspired by the best such letter/s written by Dr. Stephen Frederick Uhl to his grandchildren. I read the book some 5 years ago. Please get the book which consists out of such sequential letters. The books name is >No Gods, No Guilt<. Maybe you've read it. Wow – what a wise man is this ex-Roman Catholic lecturer in philosophy!

        Thanks, I enjoy the blog.
        Greetings,
        Attie

  3. Paul Niland says:

    I really enjoyed reading that, thanks. A very balanced and fair approach to this issue. Helpful to see how other parents are handling this kind of situation.

  4. S. Jaouani says:

    I have felt alot of anger towards religious people when I was growing up. When you mentioned religious tolerance, I was a little bewildered. But I see hate doesn’t bring any good into this world. So I agree compassion is the way to go.

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Due out in March 2015, Relax, It's Just God: How and Why to Talk to Your Kids About Religion When You're Not Religious offers a well-researched look at a timely subject: secular parenting. With chapters on avoiding indoctrination, talking about death, vaccinating kids against intolerance, dealing with religious baggage, and getting along with religious relatives, the book offers a refreshingly compassionate approach to raising religiously literate, highly tolerant and critically thinking children capable of making up their own minds about what to believe. The book may be pre-ordered by visiting Brown Paper Press.
 

      Natural Wonderers is a new blog hosted by Wendy Thomas Russell and published by the Patheos faith network. An extension of Russell's previous blog — Relax, It's Just God — Natural Wonderers offers stories and advice on raising curious, compassionate children in secular families.
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