Growing up godless
“Should you tell your four-year-old you believe we are all alone in a godless universe? My Dad did, and I turned out OK. Discounting the fact I am a comedian..." Catie Wilkins on her atheist upbringing
We’re often told that the family that prays together stays together. But what about the family that thinks that’s an outdated form of social control (fulfilling a psychological need we should have grown out of) but still quite likes staying together anyway, and reads books about science and is interested in the pursuit of truth? We never hear about those families. (Admittedly their sound bite is less catchy).
But despite their lack of a strap line that scans and rhymes, those families are out there. I know because I’m from one. My parents have been married for over 30 years, and they haven’t prayed once. (Though they do sometimes shout “come on!” at sport on TV, which is in some ways similar).
There still seems to be a certain prejudice or assumption that religion and morality are inextricably linked, and a childhood with out the former will result in a deficit of the latter. But I’ve seen first hand that you don’t have to hit your kids with a 2000-year-old book to ensure they eat their greens, help old ladies, and say no to money laundering, insurance fraud or faking deaths with canoes.
So how do the atheist and secular families deal with the "big questions"? Sex and death and being good. What can they tell their children about these topics? And is it better, worse or the same as the praying families?
Sex. According to the Hindu religion, a divine act. According to Western Judeo-Christianity, a sin. According to my atheist parents, “reproduction.” They stuck very much to the scientific angle when giving me "the talk" when I was ten. (Almost like they were embarrassed or something). They were open and informative, and also corrected my mistaken notion that a condom was a smaller version of a Concorde.
Their emphatically scientific honesty contrasted quite sharply with the version I got from a Catholic biology teacher when I was fifteen, at school. As we sat in a semi circle and she passed around the various types of contraception, she couldn’t help but give us her slight ‘spin’ on what we were seeing. “OK girls, that is the coil. That is what the coil looks like. Some people find the coil to be an acceptable method of contraception. I, myself, however, am a Catholic, and consider it murder.”
Death. A lot of people might have shied away from telling their four-year-old they believe nothing happens when you die, on the grounds that it’s a bit bleak. But what I think is notable about that, is that my Dad didn’t tell me anything until I started asking questions. There was no enforced religious or philosophical instruction, prior to my interest.
And what he did tell me was honest. He said, “no one really knows, and we only have theories. Personally, I believe that nothing happens. But you’ve got to make up your own mind.”
I was free to ask, and privy to all the information available when I did. And my Dad’s answers were not loaded with an expectation to pick the same view as him. I think for me, part of the appeal of atheism has been the fact that there was freedom to choose it.
As for “being good”, my favourite way this has ever been dealt with, was in the sitcom Roseanne. A young DJ comes home with questions about religion and which one his family belongs to. His father Dan explains that they are the kind of family who just believe in being good people, doing good deeds. Then Rosanne adds, “But we’re not practicing right now.”
Catie’s show ‘Inheritance Tax’ is on The Camden Fringe at the Sheephaven Bay on Mornington Street, 7:30pm, 20-23rd August.Tickets are available on 08444 771000.