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My Atheism and My Family

I'm an atheist, but I haven't always been one. My "deconversion" was a process that began around 3 1/2 years ago, and took over a year to be more or less complete.

The process began in earnest in an attempt to reconcile the Bible with the actual history of the planet as revealed through geology and biology. I'd just recently learned how many people were creationists (prior to that, I'd naively thought most people accepted evolution and the ancient age of the Earth), and at the time Intelligent Design was making big headlines. It made me wonder if I was being a bad Christian for not taking the Bible at face value. Well, the evidence for evolution and an ancient Earth are so overwhelming that there's really no doubt over them, so I vainly thought I'd be able to write a convincing essay showing how the Bible could be interpreted figuratively and still be accepted as true. However, by the time I'd finished researching the essay, I realized that the Bible couldn't have been divinely inspired. I didn't give up Christianity all at once with that realization, but it was a big first step, and within another year or two, I'd basically become an atheist. Obviously, there was a lot more to the process than just realizing that Genesis wasn't accurate, but that's not the point of this essay, so I won't bore the reader with those details (see here or here for more details, if you're interested).

It was around 6 years ago that I met the woman who was to become my wife. At the time, she was the one having doubts. Since I was still a good Christian then, I did a good job of telling her apologetics and getting her to start going back to church again. I was even the one who insisted that we get married in a church. Consider that it was only a few years later that I so thoroughly reversed my views, and you can imagine that she felt a bit mislead.

This period is also when I took on the responsibility of becoming a father. In fact, once I began having doubts about my religion, this responsibility was one of the main things that drove me to research the issue further - how could I teach my daughter things that I wasn't sure of myself? At first, being a good Christian, there was no question on how to address religion with her - respect everybody's views, but Christianity was the true religion. But once I started having my own doubts, things weren't so easy. I want her to think for herself, and I don't want to indoctrinate her into any particular view like I was into Christianity. So, I'm extremely sensitive to pointing out to her that she's going to have to decide these things for herself. (When I was partway through my deconversion and still considered myself a deist, I wrote about this in a series of e-mails with another non-Christian parent. Some of what I'm writing here I brought up in that essay, but they're still tough issues.)

My daughter goes with one of her friends to her friend's church every Wednesday night - kind of like Sunday school, except, well, on Wednesdays. So in addition to me trying to teach her about various religions, she gets to hear about Christianity from actual believers. The thing is, without that strong pressure from parents to accept Christianity, it's not an easy thing for kids to swallow, especially when they're being raised with a respect for science. I don't mean to say that religion and science are necessarily antithetical - plenty of scientists are religious, and plenty of religious people reconcile their beliefs with what we learn through science - but science teaches you to question everything and look for evidence. In that sense, faith just doesn't cut it.

Perhaps what I worry about with her the most is that she'll say the wrong thing to the wrong person. Kids can be mean (and when it comes down to it, so can adults). With the strong emotions that religion can elicit, I worry how others would react if she were to say that her father was an atheist, or even if she decided that she herself didn't believe in God. To be honest, it was such an incident that got me to write this entry to begin with. At one of her extracurricular activities, she got into an argument with a boy over whether someone had to believe in God to be a good person, and he gave her a hard time until my wife got there at the normal time to pick her up. I don't want my daughter to have to go through things like that. I don't want to live vicariously through her and have her fighting religious battles simply because I'm an atheist. But at the same time, I don't want to lie to her just to make her life easier.

In The God Delusion, one of the points that Richard Dawkins makes is that we shouldn't call children Christian, or Muslim, or atheist, or anything of the sort. Children are still too young to have given these issues enough thought, and we shouldn't classify them based on their parents' beliefs. Oh, if that were only the case! Unfortunately, it seems to me as if freethinkers are about the only ones who think this way, and the religious have no problem applying such classifications. A part of me asks why I have to be so damn sensitive to pointing out everybody else's beliefs, when almost everybody else simply teaches their kids their own beliefs as the truth.

Sometimes, I almost wish that I hadn't started to question religion at all. Things would be so much simpler. I wouldn't have to worry about how people would treat my family if they found out my beliefs. I wouldn't question what worldview to teach my daughter, and fret over whether I was raising her properly (at least on this specific topic - I'm pretty sure parents always fret over their children). I wouldn't have to worry about her being discriminated against for simply repeating something she might overhear me say. I wouldn't feel like I had betrayed my wife.

But now that I have questioned religion, there's no going back. I didn't simply choose to be an atheist. I studied all the evidence I could find, initially in an attempt to become a better Christian, and atheism was the unavoidable conclusion. I could no more choose to go back to being a Christian than I could choose to go back to believing in Santa Claus, or choose to believe that the Earth is flat. I opened Pandora's Box, and it can't be closed again.

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