An Atheist Family?

An atheist family? What could that possibly be like? Would they eat babies for breakfast? Would they dance naked around a fire whilst praising Satan on Christmas day? Would children get lumps of coal in their stocking, or even worse… illegal drugs? Do the parents drink and beat their children? Do the children grow up to be convicts who rape and murder without a thought because they lack morality? Well… no. Probably not. 

Yet this is how religious apologists often paint the picture when it comes to not believing in a god. They claim to not be able to fathom a family that doesn’t have a god to worship or a Bible to read. It’s a ridiculous caricature that is so far from the truth it adds yet again to the desperate and dishonest techniques that apologists often use and that we, in turn, as skeptics and atheists, dismiss.

I would like to introduce myself and my family to Atheist Republic with a personal story about how my family, without religion, did just fine. My parents, who are both atheists, still love each other to this day. They live in a monogamous relationship where they value each other not just as lovers but also as human beings who deserve to be treated with the utmost respect and understanding. They raised their children, my younger sister and me, to become educated citizens who have decent jobs and contribute to society in a positive manner. We are what I would call a normal family. Maybe better than normal, actually, as I realize my family had very few problems when I was growing up. From day one we all loved each other, and to this day that has not changed. My atheist family is not a demon-worshipping group of monsters that prejudiced religious apologists might make us out to be. We are a normal, happy family who simply never believed in a god.

My Encounters with Religion

I really never experienced any religion in my upbringing in any prescriptive sort of way. My parents never took me to church simply because they were non-religious. The only times I’ve been in a church was at a couple of weddings and as a tourist in Europe. My parents didn’t really talk much about religion either, yet they never said to me anything like “you must be an atheist” or “you shouldn’t believe in God.”  I remember my dad answered my question of “Does God exist?” with a very honest “I don’t know.” I remember not really liking that answer at first, but looking back now, it was a very good answer. My parents were equally uninterested in religion yet through all of my childhood they urged me to explore any questions I had without censoring anything from me (except inappropriate or violent media, of course).

My grandmother was the same. My Grandma Jean was raised in a family that was sort of uninterested in religion. I don’t really know if she really believed in the existence of a god or not, but I definitely remember her saying “I don’t know” to my question as well; but my grandmother was my first exposure to the Bible. Here comes the funny part about my first encounter with the Bible. Actually, I found the Children’s Bible at school when I was in about grade 4. I had previously gotten my grandma to read me Greek myths. The book covering the Greek myths was extremely action packed and looked very interesting to me! I opened the pages and there was violence, monsters, blood, naked women – all very nicely illustrated – and all kinds of stuff I wasn’t “supposed to” see at that age. The illustrations were definitely questionable for being in a children’s library, but as a kid I thought it looked awesome. So I brought the book home and got my grandmother to read it to me. I remember that with the Greek myths, there would be stories of a guy fighting off a monster with three heads. The Medusa story was definitely in there. This got me interested in ancient literature at a very young age. When it came to the Bible, I mainly asked her to read me the Old Testament as it was a little more exciting. I remember her reading the story of creation to me, as well as Noah’s Ark, the tower of Babel, and the story of Samson.

She would read them to me, I would ask her questions, and she would answer. Quite often the vocabulary was a little advanced for me, and she would explain what it meant. One of the questions I asked was: “are these true stories?” My grandmother gave me a very good answer. She said that the books probably contained some truth to them in some places, but could be totally made up. She described to me what a myth was and how it could be a tale that grew from other true, less interesting tales, to sound more interesting. So when I was a child, my introduction to the Bible was along the same lines as any other book of myths. Angry gods and heroes… it sparked my imagination, and still to this day, I enjoy reading the stories in the Bible. Do I believe any parts of it are true? Not really, though perhaps some stories were based on true events. Really, I don’t claim to know, and I don’t think anyone does. But I can say with 99.9% certainty that I believe the Bible is just as “true” as the book of Greek myths; that is, they are myths, fun works of ancient literature to enjoy but nothing to direct your life with.

As for my life in school, I can’t remember other children really talking much about religion. I do remember that once my school took us students on a field trip to various places of worship. We visited a Sikh temple, a Buddhist temple, a Christian church, an Islamic mosque. We were given tours, sampled food, and the experience was very enlightening and interesting. I look back now and think that I was very lucky to have these experiences. As a young child, I was aware that there were a large number of religions that all had different beliefs and different ways of doing things.

Do atheist families celebrate Christmas?

On December 25th of every year, my family celebrates Christmas. We do the usual thing: put up the tree, decorate the house, wait for Santa, etc. My family’s Christmas was very secular. No mention of any religion or of Jesus was ever really made, though my father often put on a CD that mentioned the story of Jesus, or angels, God, etc. But it was just music. But up until I was in grade 4, I had never realized it was called “Christmas” because of Jesus Christ. I didn’t know that “Christ” and “Mass” were two words put together to form Christmas. The word “Christ” has a “T” sound when the common pronunciation of “Christmas” sounds more like “Chris” and “miss.” As for the meaning of the word “Christmas” I didn’t really think much about it, although I do remember wondering if maybe it was called “Christmas” because of Santa Claus’s alternate name: Kris Kringle. I didn’t really know or care why it was called “Christmas” because to me, Christmas just a fun day to celebrate family.

Christmas was a time where my family would get together with my grandparents and other family members. Usually we’d eat dinner at my Grandma’s house on Christmas Eve and open one present each after dinner. And of course on the 25th, Santa Claus would deliver presents and the children would eagerly open up the presents on Christmas Day in the morning. We would open our stockings first, before the parents got up… and once the parents got up, we would excitedly ask them to open their stockings up too. We’d all sit down together, my parents enjoying coffee, opening our presents, thanking each other, and yes, thanking Santa. 

I remember back at a young age, probably around grade 2 or 3, the subject of whether Santa Claus existed or not coming up. My parents talked about him as if he were a real person… but other children contended that he couldn’t exist. As young children, we were young philosophers discussing whether the existence of Santa was real or not. This is what I love about the Santa mythos. It gets children questioning. It makes them think. It’s something that when we were really young, we would automatically assume, but as we learned more about the world and the reality around us, the likelihood of a magic man delivering presents to ALL of the children in the world in one night became less and less. I still wanted to get presents and pretended to believe in Santa out of fear that my parents would stop giving me presents “from” Santa, but there were moments where I wondered if maybe Santa actually did exist! Maybe I was wrong? I would go back and forth on this sometimes, letting the magic of believing in Santa take over at times. I would imagine the reindeer on our rooftop. I would imagine Santa coming down the chimney and eating the cookies and milk we left for him. I would wonder why there was no chimney dust or tracks where he had walked. But over time, I realized that Santa probably didn’t exist. Santa did not fit into the world that I learned to know. Instead, Santa became more of a symbol. As a child he became a symbol of giving gifts without asking for thanks: give just to give. As an adult, I see Santa as a valuable exercise in skepticism for young children. If I ever have children, I’ll give them gifts from Santa, tell them about Santa, and if they ever ask me if Santa exists, I won’t lie. I’ll just say “what do you think?” Getting children to think is very important. It helps them form the part of the mind which can separate what is real from what is fantasy. I think it is a valuable lesson for young skeptics and young philosophers!

But back to our main subject: what was Christmas about for us? It was first and foremost about family. We got to spend time with our family that modern society takes away from us. In this little week-long period, we are given time to get closer with our family, to give them presents, and to thank them for everything. It’s a time to get cozy and actually enjoy the snowy, cold winter weather and the lack of sunlight that should bring depression but doesn’t, because we have a fun way of celebrating the season. The smell of the pine tree in our house, the fire in the fireplace, drinking a cup of hot chocolate, having quiet family nights where we’d play a board game or two, and simply being glad we have shelter from the elements enhanced the coziness. Yes, it was a time to be thankful for everything we had.

So why should we call it Christmas, you might ask? How dare you take Christ’s name if you are not a Christian! — well, wait a moment here. Christmas is now a largely secular holiday. Many Christians don’t celebrate Christmas. Santa, elves, reindeer, Christmas trees, gift giving — these things don’t really have much to do with the actual Christian religion anyways. I’ve even heard that if Jesus really existed as a man, he probably wasn’t even born on December 25th anyways. In fact, the celebration around the winter solstice was practiced by many different cultures, by many different religions, and many traditions found within the western Christmas come long before Christianity. 

I call it “Christmas” simply because that is what I’ve always called it (and it’s kind of cute how I thought maybe it had something to do with Kris Kringle). I have never viewed it as a religious holiday. I’ve always viewed it as a day for the family to be together and express our love for each other as well as eat that special dinner together (turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy — my favorite!). When I have children I’ll celebrate Christmas exactly the same as my parents did. And yes, I will call it Christmas.

The Move to WASPville

Back when I was about 12 years old my family moved from Vancouver to Kelowna. I noticed something different about this city right away. It was a lot smaller, and there were a lot of white people. In Vancouver, the city was a modern metropolis, very ethnically diverse and I was one white kid in a classroom where the majority were of Asian descent: Koreans, Chinese, Japanese, Indians, Pakistanis, Iranians, etc. In Kelowna I also noticed many old people with white hair, many more churches, and slowly it sunk in that I was different from many of the children in my school. Most children went to church. Many of them were Christian. This is where I became familiar with the term WASP: White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. Even though I was a white child, I felt a bit odd in this environment simply because it was different and lacked diversity. I remember in high school that other children would go to church and they could label themselves “Christian” or “Catholic.” Even in high school I didn’t really know what I was. I didn’t know the meaning of the word “atheist.” I never consciously thought that my family was atheist. I guess the term “non-religious” would have been fine to describe us. But I never really had a name or label for my lack of belief in a deity.

The Summer Camp

In Kelowna, one day a friend of mine asked me to go to Summer Camp with him during the summer break from school. It sounded like a lot of fun. I mentioned this to my parents, and they seemed happy to send me off with my friend.

So Adam’s mom picked me up from my house and took us to the camp. As we drove in, I saw a bus with the name “Morning Star Bible Camp.” Bible camp? Hmm, I didn’t know it was a Bible camp! And neither did my parents. All they knew is that I was off to summer camp. Interesting, I thought, with a smile.

Anyways, I can remember exactly how I felt when we drove up into the camp and I discovered it was a Christian Bible Camp. First, I felt a bit uncomfortable. Second, I actually thought “this could be interesting!” Third, I smiled and thought “let’s have fun with this!”

The camp was indeed a lot of fun. It was run by very nice people, and the children there were really cool. I made some good friends. I enjoyed playing sports, the food was good, and being around other kids all day was just great. And just as soon as we got tired, we’d go in and listen to a lecture from the camp leader. This was the closest I ever got to “going to church.” He would read passages from the Bible and talk to us about them and how they apply to our lives. Although I enjoyed all of this, I was definitely vocal with other children about my disbelief in their religion. I made it quite well known that I wasn’t a Christian and that I didn’t believe in their god. I challenged them quite often.

Back in my cabin, where we’d go to sleep every night, our cabin leader (I think his name was Paul) would have a heart-to-heart chat with us for about 20 minutes or 30 minutes. He’d talk to us about life, and of course, about God. I can’t remember how this all came up, but I mentioned to him that if the Bible were true, why didn’t it mention dinosaurs? He explained to me (and even drew on the whiteboard) that Satan had actually buried dinosaur bones in the ground to trick us into losing faith in god. Even as a young child I thought this was absolutely insane. I couldn’t believe that he believed this. I challenged him, and challenged him, but let it go. I decided for now to simply pretend to accept what he said, mostly out of politeness. I mean, the people at the camp were very nice! Every time I challenged them, they wouldn’t fight back with hostility. They’d simply explain themselves and ask that I open up my mind. So after a while, I felt a little hesitant to question their beliefs out of fear I would make them feel bad. I didn’t want to hurt these nice people, did I?

On about the third or fourth day of camp, the camp leader changed the direction of the speeches he would make to us children. He said that he would like to start from the basics. I felt that he was doing this because of me. Maybe because they actually had a child in their camp who was not Christian, they decided I needed to be converted. He started with the basics: God and Satan. Who is Jesus? Very basic stuff. I remember when the speech ended, he came up to me and gave me a Bible. I opened it up and it was addressed to me personally. I thought this was very kind of him, and thanked him. He said if I had any questions to just ask him. I agreed. I looked forward to reading it mainly because I enjoyed reading about myths just like I did with my Grandma. And this Bible was much better than any Bible I had ever read before… it was written in very easy to read English.

Finally, after the week or so of Bible Camp, I suppose I was converted. I felt that even though I could never accept the whole “dinosaurs didn’t exist thing” that maybe there was some truth to the Bible and I’d try to open my mind up to it. Besides, all of these people believed in it, right? They couldn’t all be wrong, could they? So, since everyone around me was a believer, I decided… why not try it out? Besides, we were all bonding so well, and why not take a final step to bond further? So on the very last night of Bible Camp, the camp leader asked us all to lie down on the floor and close our eyes and think about our week at camp. He wanted us to think about everything we learned, the friends we made, and the experiences we had. He asked if anyone wanted to stand up, and tell about their experience, they may do so now. I decided to stand up and say something. I basically told them that I enjoyed the Bible Camp a whole lot, and that the people I met were very kind, and so welcoming to a non-Christian. And next, I said, that they changed my mind about Jesus. I said, “this is real”… and thanked them for my conversion to Christianity. I promised to read more of the Bible and learn more about my newfound religion. I took my place again, feeling glad to now be truly incorporated into the group. I felt now that our bonding was complete.

It had been a great week. When I arrived back home, I told my parents all about the camp. I told them all about the sports we played, the new friends I had made, and the beautiful Christian cross necklace I had constructed out of nails. I also showed them the Bible. That night, during dinner, I explained to my parents and my sister that I was now a Christian and that they should really look into Christianity and consider becoming Christians. At that moment, my parents smiled, and said “that’s nice, dear” and basically I felt they were dismissing it. So I pressed on further. Eventually I realized they didn’t care that much. And I wondered: why do they not care? It bugged me. They didn’t seem to believe, and that bugged me too. Maybe I would convert them, I thought.

So I read the Bible a lot for a week. But the echo in my mind of my cabin leader telling me how Satan had buried the dinosaurs bugged me too. I also realized that my book on astronomy wasn’t really in line with the Bible’s interpretation of the universe. In fact, nothing except for the Bible, proved the Bible. Everything I knew and everything I had learned about the nature of reality totally went against the faith. And slowly, over a week, I realized that this Bible I had been given was more a book of myths than it was a book of truths. Yes, there may be some good points in it (yeah, don’t kill people, that’s a good commandment). But did a god really communicate to anyone? Did Jesus really rise from the dead? After about a week, I declared to my parents that indeed, I was not really converted to Christianity. I felt I knew too much to be a Christian. And with that, my week as a Christian was finished. I was back to being a non-believer.

Religious Apologists vs. Reality

An argument I hear from religious apologists is that people who do not have religion do not have morals. They contend that if you do not believe in a god that you will turn out a certain way. I think that this argument is baseless and only displays the apologist’s own ignorance on the subject. My family turned out just fine. I turned out just fine. But why? How did we overcome a lack of god and become good people?

My parents are still happily married in a monogamous relationship. My sister has finished a Master’s at university. Both of us are unmarried but my sister is in a long-term monogamous relationship with someone she seems to care about and love. I am currently single at the time of writing, but I’ve always tried my best to treat women with respect. I have never cheated on a woman nor have I physically abused one. I have never been to a jail, convicted of any crime. I have never murdered anyone or eaten a baby. I would like to get married, be a good man to my woman, and have children who I hope to raise in a loving home.

But I am not perfect. I have stolen things from stores when I was a teenager, I smoked cigarettes and lied about it to my parents as a teen, stole money from my mother (not much, a $20 here and there), and lied to friends about random things. Yet don’t we all do these sorts of things when we are younger? I, obviously, learned from these mistakes. On one hand, the results of my actions would lead to something I wasn’t often happy with. In the end, I felt bad about what I had done. Also, sometimes, my parents would punish me and talk to me about what I had done in a family meeting. 

Probably the worst thing I had ever done as a child was when a friend and I vandalized a car when I was in grade 4. My father punished me by taking away my privilege of watching TV or playing video games. He got me doing community service, raking leaves for the old people on the block, picking up trash along the streets… it was tough work. I would be soaking wet, in the cold rain, and I thought about what I had done. My father paid the couple whose car I had vandalized. I felt bad for the couple. I felt bad for my dad. I felt bad for myself. Nothing good came of this. I knew what I had done was wrong. I knew that it affected that young couple in a negative way. I realized that I wouldn’t want to be hurt by anyone either. I learned, through my parents, that being a good person was productive and that hurting others was wrong. Yes, there was punishment, but really, it was me feeling bad about what I had done that helped form my morality. 

Now I live my life with mainly one commandment: do my very best to not hurt anyone in any way. I do unto others as I would have them do to me. I donate to causes that I believe in. I try to spread positive vibes and thoughts in my little universe of friends and family. I try to bring people together, rather than apart. I will try to help any friend in need. I phone my one surviving grandma every week and call my parents just as much. I care about my family, my friends, and the world I live in. I do try to do good and be good.

The argument that you cannot be a good person without religion is demonstrably wrong. I learned right from wrong in my own way, as pretty much everyone does. I don’t really think that anyone reads the Bible and says “Oh, this book says not to kill people. OK, better not kill anyone!” I really think that someone who actually gets their morality from the Bible is somewhat scary for two reasons: firstly, because they are not acting on their own thoughts and actions, but are prescribed it from somewhere else; and secondly, the Bible is full of very harsh punishments that I would call immoral, such as stoning people to death. The commandments leave out a bunch of things that I would have included, such as telling people it is wrong to own humans as property.

The idea that a family needs religion to be a good family is demonstrably wrong. My parents raised me with love, never forced any religion (or lack thereof) down my throat, and encouraged me to ask questions and seek out answers. Secular countries are doing just fine. Sure, families without religion may not be perfect, but I am here to tell you that they can be pretty great! 

Our atheist family is one very happy, loving family. I am very thankful to my parents for raising me a freethinking atheist. I like my relationship with them, and I like how I have turned out as a person (and so do they — as they often mention!). I miss my Grandma Jean, who has since passed away, but her legacy lives on in me. She always encouraged me to ask questions, she was always honest when I asked her questions, and she helped fuel my interest in all things intellectual, scientific, and historical. She got me thinking, and I thank her for that.

Thank you for reading. I will be contributing more stories, and my thoughts, to Atheist Republic. I really hope we can one day live in a world where everyone is treated fairly, where atheists are not judged and persecuted for their non-belief, and where people are educated enough to know that atheists, and atheist families, are not monsters, but normal human beings like anyone.

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