Kris and I are atheists. We’re not shy about the fact, yet we don’t advertise it, either. As I’ve mentioned before, my atheism is informed by healthy doses of Mormonism and Mennonitism.
We don’t have any children of our own. We do spend a lot of time with our friends’ children, especially with Harrison and Emma, the Gingerich kids. Most of these children are raised in devoutly Christian families. How, then, do we handle this? Do we see it as our responsibility to sway these kids to the one true path of atheism?
Mostly, we avoid the subject. I believe that children, especially those under six, are not prepared to handle Big Topics like comparative religion and sexual orientation and gender identity and racial prejudice. Perhaps the basics can be shared — “other people believe in different gods” — but it’s not my place to educate these children. It’s my place to support their parents without compromising my own value system.
How do I do this?
I never proselytize. If a child asks me a question, I either answer it honestly or, if appropriate, I’m evasive. For example, when Harrison asks me to read to him from a book of Bible stories, I tell him, “I don’t want to read that book right now.” He’s completely satisfied with that answer. And when he tells me Bible stories, I just listen and nod my head.
It’s fascinating to watch these kids develop. I love to watch the evolution of the childhood egotism. Children are, by nature, complete egotists, purely selfish. It’s only with time and experience that they learn to consider other people. The oldest kid I know is nearly six. At what age will he be ready to learn about comparative religion? About gender identity? About slavery? About the Holocaust? When did I learn about these things? Is the curriculum of our educational institutions already properly constructed so that, in general, kids are exposed to material appropriate for their stage of development?
How do parents cope with friends who have different beliefs? Tammy’s unwilling to read certain weblogs because they’re written by lesbians; how much more strongly must she feel about the people with which her children have contact? Does it make a difference if the unsavory types are family rather than friends?
At what age are kids ready to see gunplay and fisticuffs on television and in films? (When did you first see this stuff — I can remember watching westerns at the age of four or five.) At what age are they ready to the stories of the Greek and Roman gods?
I’ve been re-reading Greek and Roman mythology lately. It’s great stuff. Suddenly, I’m excited to see Troy instead of dreading it.
My favorite so far is the story of Pallas Athene (a.k.a. Athena) and her weaving contest with the young woman, Arachne. Here’s an abbreviated version of the tale (the details of which are slightly different than others I’ve read):
Arachne was renowned throughout the region of Lydia (in ancient Greece), for her skill in spinning and weaving. Her teacher was Athene, the goddess of wisdom. As Arachne spun and weaved the finest tapestries and fabrics, a great rivalry grew between them. Athene became jealous of her pupil. So Athene disguised herself as a withered old woman and visited the country girl at her loom. Expressing admiration, the old woman asked who was her teacher.
When the boastful Arachne denied that it had been Athene, the goddess removed her disguise and revealed her true identity. Flushed with anger, she said, “Those who defy the gods must make good their words. We will have a spinning contest to see who weaves the finer tapestry!”
News of the contest spread quickly, and from all over Lydia people came to watch. Athene wove a tapestry featuring an Olympic scene in which Nemesis, the goddess of vengeance, carried away those who dared challenge the immortals. The tapestry was very fine. But Arachne’s tapestry was even more beautiful and elaborate. She depicted scenes of the misbehavior of the gods and goddesses, of seduction, and of the unworthy tricks they played when they wanted their way. The work was perfect. Even Athene could not find a flaw in it.
Angered by Arachne’s skill and impertinence, Athene became enraged. Her hands tore at the tapestry, and she hit Arachne on the head with her weaving tools. In distress, Arachne turned away from the horrified gaze of the onlookers. She ran to the woods, put a rope around her neck, and tried to end her life.
Then Athene took pity on her mortal rival, and being a powerful goddess, she granted her a new life as a spider, the weaver with the ultimate skill in spinning. “Live on, wicked one,” the angry Athene said, “but always hanging, and let your children share your punishment.” And because of the goddess’s wrath, Athene’s body changed into that of a spider and she was thus doomed to spin and weave forever.My reading is so tangential. I started the Rosenbaum book on Hitler, was sidetracked by Proust, but now I’ve been even further sidetracked by mythology�
Tammy’s trying to send a trackback to this entry, but it’s not working, so I’ll do it in reverse. Here entry is The Lines I Draw, and discusses how she, as a parent, determines what her children should be exposed to.
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Jennifer (Harrison’s Mom) said:
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J.D. Roth said: