An Atheist, a CNN iReport, and a Scary Proposition

The course I’m teaching the semester, Faith and Leadership, includes what I’ve unimaginatively called “F.L. Moments” to begin most classes. We set aside a few minutes each day to discuss a current event having to do with faith and leadership. My hope is that most of the topics come from students’ suggestions, and (as has happened thus far) these FL Moments become informal reference points for our readings and other classwork.

For a recent F.L. moment a student suggested we discuss the CNN iReport by TXBlue08: “Why I Raise My Children Without God.” The post has certainly hit a nerve as it has over half a million views and upwards of 35,000 recommends. In class, we participated in what I took to be a short but helpful discussion on the challenges of parenting in a culture with persons of many faiths and those of no faith.

Cultural commentators say today that we are in a period of new faith-related (and interfaith) dialogue and discovery. I see the signposts at the college.

Chris Stedman visited campus recently to speak on his new book, Faitheist, in which he argues for an atheism that plays well with others, especially people of faith. Concordia students have submitted the paperwork to launch a secular student organization on campus. The movement in support of robust interfaith dialogue on campus is growing. Our new course, Faith in Dialogue: Interfaith Leadership has a waiting list a mile long.

It is not without some serious whiplash, then, that I read TXBlue08’s secular parenting blog post on CNN. While I respect the writer’s struggle, and do thank her for the post, I have to say it strikes me as pretty shallow work.

Now I need to be careful here, as I am very aware of the danger of atheist-bashing in our culture and I want to encourage open, healthy conversation about the dangers of religion. It saddens me that the post has been flagged by many users as “inappropriate” via CNN’s site mechanisms, labels ordinarily reserved for truly offensive or illegal posts. And, of course, blog posts are not the ideal medium for such challenging topics. All that said, I cannot but want to ask TXBlue08 more.

Does TXBlue08 realize the working understanding of God she seems to be refuting is also lacking from most mainline churches?

Does she realize her straw man, sort-of-Christian religion referenced in the post leaves unacknowledged the faith of millions of non-Christian believers?

Does she really think the workable solution is for religion not to go away, but somehow just be confined to home and church?

Too often church leaders invoke the line when speaking to or about atheism, “Tell me about the god you don’t believe in; chances are I don’t believe in that god either.” The line is sometimes (usually?) used as a crutch to avoid real, difficult conversation. It can also come across — and be delivered — as condescending.

In the case of this iReport, however, the phrase may, in fact, be spot-on  Which leads me back to the importance of teaching religion in the first place: to increase religious understanding, model healthy debate, and broaden perspectives of what religion and faith is and how it functions in society.

For this religion professor, my fear is not that parents will raise their children without God, but that they will raise them without the skills to address faith, religion, and diverse culture. That’s the truly scary proposition.

image by Milan Jurek

Comments

  1. andrew lindner says:

    1) taking the worst atheist as exemplary of atheists is no better a methodology than taking the worst christian to represent all christians.

    2) i think she goes astray contemplating the nature of the Christian God as described by his followers. she’s off-base as soon as she asks a question other than, “what’s the evidence?”

    3) i was sincerely hoping that “FL Moments” stood for “Florida Moments,” a time set aside for you to tell sordid tales from your upbringing in the nation’s most sordid state.

    • Thanks, Andrew. Good points. If one had more time, it’d be interesting to go through the comments and analyze them for levels of reflection or something like that. I don’t mean to imply this atheist is exemplary, but only that she hit a nerve — which is the fun of blogging, really…responding to nerves hit.

      “Florida Moments” would be too depressing, unless they focused on the weather (outside of hurricane season, of course).

  2. Mary Vance says:

    Good blog Adam. In my opinion you are quite gracious in your characterization of TXBlue08’s. Without getting into the many criticisms I could raise about it, I will point out that contrary to her (his?) assumption, there is nothing new or avant garde about raising your children without God. Many of my generation (including me) raised our children without God, in the manner described by TXBlue08 and I do not think we did them any favors. There are exceptions of course but for the most part, your fear is borne out–they do not have the skills to address faith, religion and diverse cultural in anything but a superficial level based on stereotypes. Also, your suggestion that the “describe the god you don’t believe in” comment is trite struck me because just recently, one of my atheistic/agnostic siblings told me about reading that somewhere and being very impressed by it–they thought it was a brilliant new insight. You never know.

  3. The author’s point of view can be summed up with the following: ” God is not real. God is not good. In fact, god is bad. Therefore, I will not teach my child about god.” You said that her conception of god is a straw-man. Where is the straw-man? The author simply comes to a different conclusion about the ontological and moral status of god.

    You also said that her conception of deviates from mainline churchgoers. Well, duh. How many churchgoers believe that god doesn’t exist and is bad? Since monotheists believe god exists and is all-good, I suspect none.

    You also said her work was shallow. What’s shallow about it? She states her beliefs about god and gives justification for why she doesn’t want to teach her kid about god. That is not shallow. Being shallow is saying someone’s work is shallow without actually saying why it is shallow.

    By the way, what are the skills needed to address faith, religion and diverse culture? Does one have to be a special club or college course to acquire them? Also, what is so scary about not having these skills?

    • Thanks for the comments, MrSkeptic. The straw man I see in the author’s argument is a notion of God not actually held by many Christians (e.g. that a primary understanding of God is as father, that God is all-knowing, all-powerful, etc.). Overall, my suspicion is that the author is arguing against a certain conception of God that’s not actually held by many believers — we might clarify separate arguments about 1) the existence of God and, 2) the attributes of God. By mixing the two I see the straw man.

      Certainly, the skills of living well in a diverse society are not ensconced on college campuses. In fact, I wish our students came to us with more experiences of developing them before college. The skills are vast, but they include all the elements of citizenship: knowledge of neighbors, ability to empathize, critical thinking, openness to self-examination, ability to disagree without being disagreeable, etc. Of course, none of these is relegated only to the religious realm, or to faith and culture along, but, I maintain, they are necessary for living in community. Society suffers when such skills are not developed.

      Thanks again.

      • andrew lindner says:

        Adam, you hit the nail on the head! atheists are wasting their time discussing the attributes of god, when those are so widely contested among believers.

      • MrSkeptic says:

        The straw man fallacy (Nizko Project, 2012):

        “Person A has position X. Person B presents position Y (which is a distorted version of X).
        Person B attacks position Y. Therefore X is false/incorrect/flawed.”

        I think you have a misunderstood the nature of the straw man. A straw man argument requires an specific opponent and an original position. The author of the article makes no mention of a specific opponent or position and nothing in particular is being misrepresented. Therefore, there is no strawman in the article.

        The purpose of the article is explain why she has chosen to raise her children without god. She has baiscally said she does not teach her children about god because god does not exist and if god were to exist he would be immoral/bad. Nothing is taken away from the argument if Christians or other religious persons hold different conceptions of god (i.e., god exists and is good in this or that way).Their beliefs are irrelevant to the argument being made.

        Likewise, a straw man has nothing too do with talking about the non-existence of god in one moment and then talking about the nature of god in another. The purpose of talking about the non-existence of god and the immorality of god is, again, to justify a personal decision.

        A word about skills, living in a community, and suffering. Originally you said religion was necessary for such skills. Now you are saying it is not? If so, I think we agree. Religion is not necessary for the development of such skills.

        http://www.nizkor.org/features/fallacies/straw-man.html

  4. My guess would be she emphasizes the attributes of a would-be Christian God since her children–growing up in Texas–would more likely than not be exposed to a Christian-flavored God outside the home. It makes sense to me–given the prevailing theological representations her children are likely to encounter in their daily lives–that she utilizes those representations for the purposes of conveying her beliefs to her children. When used carefully, stereotypes can be helpful sometimes if only for the ways they help children (or adults) to deconstruct the very same stereotypes later in life.

    Though I probably wouldn’t write a blog post like her’s, I think we shouldn’t hastily draw an unconditional causative link between how theological belief (or non-belief) is engendered early in life and the ability of believers (or non-believers) to engage with the religious world later in life (Mary kind of proves this point when she alludes to anecdotal evidence both for and against this link). It seems to me that interfaith dialogue or cooperation is at times a consequence of a given participant’s convictions (Israelis and Palestinians seeking reconciliation based on what their respective faith traditions teach them) but can just as often be a pragmatic means to an end (Southern Baptists, conservative Roman Catholics, and Mormons all collaborating to outlaw abortion even as they tacitly condemn one another to separate and distinct versions of hellfire). The same, I feel, is likely true of atheists: some, as you say, “play well” with people of faith, some find them intellectually unserious, some bury the hatchet for the greater good. But how one reaches these decisions, I would argue, is much more likely the end result of sophisticated self-reflection, not a regurgitation of rote learning acquired before the age of 5.

  5. Also, how does this website so accurately distill the tone of a comment in the color and expression of a smiley face? Stereotypes at work, I fear.

    • Mary Vance says:

      LOL Ian, i never would have even noticed the little smiley faces if you hadn’t mentioned them. I’m so used to just blocking out all the advertisements and such on facebook.

  6. Bob Piccard says:

    Respectfully, Adam, I don’t think it’s an interesting question. I don’t believe in the tooth fairy, either. Would you ask me to describe the tooth fairy in which I don’t believe?

    How about this? I don’t believe there is a single, eternal, force that is responsible for the existence of the universe. And if I had kids, I wouldn’t try to convince them there is such a force.

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