A while back I was smugly congratulating myself on a few choice victories in the secular parenting arena. First was my 5-year-old daughter’s emerging and devoted love of science. She is keenly interested in how all things work, what they are made of, what will happen when this or that is added or taken away, if it’s alive, and so on. Being socially fearless, she enjoys nothing more than telling anyone who will listen, including strangers at the supermarket, that the sun is a star, the moon is just a big rock, and that lava in volcanoes is really rock that is so hot it melted. We grow crystals, hatch “living fossil” triops (tadpole shrimp), create underwater volcanoes with cooking oil and baking soda, look at leaves and insects under a microscope, read books about dinosaurs, and collect rocks. I will admit a selfish interest in this, as I enjoy these activities at least as much as she does – the triops in particular, whom she affectionately named Milo, was way cool and, for his brief lifespan, was featured regularly in videos on FaceBook.
Next was the habit my daughter has developed of fact-checking her father and me. We say something that is silly but has a small air of plausibility, as parents are wont to do – something like, “If you don’t wash behind your ears dirt will collect there and you can grow vegetables.” A beat passes, the eyes narrow, and she asks, “Are you kidding?” The development and refinement of an effective BS detector is yet another source of pride, not to mention an asset that will come in handy to her for many years to come.
Then there was the incident with my mother-in-law, a self-described Christian, who mentioned our late family dog who was euthanized following a long battle with cancer. “He died,” my daughter explained helpfully.
“And is he in heaven?” asked my mother-in-law.
In a turn of conversation very likely unexpected by her Nana, my daughter, with a tone and a look of discernable disgust, answered, “No, he died.” She didn’t actually say “Duh,” but it was pretty much implied. Luckily I escaped the room before laughing out loud.
So there I was, happily patting myself on the back for raising a skeptic without ever mentioning my own beliefs or disbeliefs. “This is easy,” I thought. “All that is required to raise an atheist is the absence of religion.”
Enter other humans.
About a month ago, in the car following a play date, she and a little friend were discussing what good inventors they are, when one of them made the astute observation that pretty much everything we use and everything around us was invented at some point, “Except for the grass,” my daughter noted.
“No,” her friend answered, “god invented the grass.” Insert sound of Mommy’s heart sinking.
My daughter took a moment to process this then asked, “How can he invent grass?”
“Because he’s god,” the friend answered, without hesitation or additional explanation.
I know, I know, there are lots and lots of people in the world, and eventually one of them is going to say something about god in front of my kid. And I know she has no context for what that means, so it may not even register with her, just like the “under god” phrase in the Pledge of Allegiance never registered with me when I was a kid. And yes, she is a critical thinker and a smart child. But still, she is also only five, and at least at this age seems less inclined to fact check her friends than she is her parents. We live in a state that is consistently rated one of the least religious in the nation, but in a small community labels and stigmas can stick, and while I will happily embrace any stigma that may arise from being an atheist for myself, I am uncertain whether or how her happy ignorance about church and Jesus will reflect on her or affect her own experience.
In the long term, I see atheism – or at least an upbringing free of religious dogma – as a powerful and meaningful gift that I am giving to my child that will far outweigh any small-minded snarkiness she may encounter from classmates. My concern for her social well-being does not cause me to question my choice to raise her in a godless house, but it does present a potential future challenge to be navigated, for which I will need to have a strategy. And part of that strategy is to continue doing all I can to instill in her a sense of skepticism and, even more so, a sense of self that is strong enough to endure the tests to which individuals and institutions will inevitably put her.
A few days after the aforementioned playdate, my daughter asked me, “Did God invent the grass?”
“Some people think so,” I said.
My daughter persisted. “But did he?”
“Your friend thinks so,” I said. And then, cautiously, I added, “But I don’t think so.”
She considered this. “Then who invented the grass?”
“Well,” I said, “Science tells us that the grass evolved over a long, long time. Things happened in nature to make it grow.”
And then off she went, on to the next curiosity, the next set of questions and things to learn. She hasn’t asked about god’s inventions since then. I think I’ll take the point for myself for this one too.