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Bringing up agnostic children in a predominantly religious world


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This is a thought piece written primarily for me - to get my head straight about how I will raise agnostic children, given a religious school environment

Published in: Spiritual, News & Politics
  • Good stuff. I do think your beliefs can fall within atheism, depending on the definition, which is not generally/necessarily reductive and mechanistic and lacking faith. Even that hard-ass Dawkins has a sense of awe and humility in the face of nature.
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Bringing up agnostic children in a predominantly religious world

  1. BRINGING UP AGNOSTIC KIDS Selena Sol presents….. in a predominantly religious world
  2. WHY I WROTE THIS Because of the quality and style of education compared to other alternatives in Singapore, my wife and I decided that our kids would both go to Methodist Girls School (MGS) for their K-12 experience. While I have found the religious component of MGS to be reasonable, respectful, and low- key thus far, I have been thinking about how, over time, I will deal with the misalignment of school and family with regards to religion. Because school will be a key influencer in their personalities, I want to make sure that they understand this misalignment and that they have the tools they need to choose their own ways. Part of that means that I need to be ultra clear about my beliefs, since I am sure that the school will have a „very‟ slick and practiced proposition. So here is what I have come up with so far. I‟m an agnostic. Wikipedia, the source of all knowledge, says of the subject, ―Agnosticism is the philosophical view that the truth value of certain claims — particularly metaphysical claims regarding theology, afterlife or the existence of deities, spiritual beings, or even ultimate reality — is unknown or, depending on the form of agnosticism, inherently impossible to prove or disprove and hence unknowable. It is not a religious declaration in itself and the terms are not mutually exclusive.‖ There are two things that I agree with in this definition.
  3. 1. WHY I’M AN AGNOSTIC First, I do not believe that a thing that is ultimately and irrevocably chained to the finite can ever say anything meaningful at all about what is infinite. In fact, I‟m fairly certain that finite things (like people) can‟t even really discuss anything 3 or 4 degrees of separation of perspective out – their sensual perceptions and the language that they use to represent those perceptions (even if it is math) would simply not support such a discussion. In other words, the moment that I try to put shape, color, sound, feel, taste, gender, dimension, intention, direction, or convention to „truth‟, is the moment that I will invariably get it wrong. In the most Zen sense, the question, “is there a God?” is rigged from the moment that I ask it because the question itself is a Schrödinger experiment. That is, the question itself is wrong. It is like two truly enlightened 1-dimensional beings, trying to discuss the meaning of “up” in terms of left & right. “Is it like going left, or is it like going right?” We 3D beings know that the very question that they are asking is meaningless, but they have no other words to work with, so they go on. Ultimately, agnosticism has very profound ramifications on my relationship to religion. Oh wait - we need to refer to Wikipedia again. Wikipedia says, ―A religion is an organized approach to human spirituality which usually encompasses a set of narratives, symbols, beliefs and practices, often with a supernatural or transcendent quality, that give meaning to the practitioner's experiences of life through reference to a higher power, God or gods, or ultimate truth.‖ OK, so if what we are trying to know is absolutely unknowable, then narratives, symbols, beliefs, practices, practitioners, messiahs, oracles, and especially, rule books, are all highly suspect. In fact, if I follow this line of reasoning, which I do, no „truth‟ that is communicated in a human language could ever accurately capture the divine. Further, nothing represented in, or experienced through, any of my very limited senses can accurately capture divinity. In fact, being that I am quite humble about the capabilities of humanity, anything represented in a human language or experienced though my biological senses is not just inaccurate, but probably “really” far off. As you might imagine, that puts me squarely outside the perimeter of every church, whether Abrahamic, Indian, Buddhist, tribal, or whatever. I don't think I have anything against religions for other people, it's just that I can't get beyond this fundamental issue.
  4. 2. HAVING FAITH THROUGH THE TAO Returning to Wikipedia, being agnostic also has nothing to do with whether or not one has „faith‟. In other words, agnosticism is not atheism, and I am not an atheist. I do have faith. I do feel that there is something greater than me. My perspective on divinity is Taoist. I have faith that my life flows through time, that everything is interconnected, and that my life is sensitive to context, as the context is also sensitive to me. I also have faith that as a result of everything being interconnected, my life and body reflect everything around me as a microcosm, and that there is a way for me to experience the divine through intuitive, irrational, illogical, indescribable, non-sensual means. I have faith that if I allow nature, or the Tao, or God, a great Mushroom trip, or whatever name is convenient to use for this note to wash over me, and resist the temptation to control it or fight it, I „can‟ non-sensually and irrationally experience what is „true‟. Can I explain this to you? No. Can I even explain it to myself? Not really. I stopped trying after my mid 20‟s. Now I just try to release myself into the flood and trust in the current. I make decisions of course. And I make ethical choices for sure. It‟s just that my guide in these is something unknowable and indescribable. This is faith. It has nothing to do with knowable or not. I either feel it or I do not. I cannot describe it to another person, or even to myself. And it most certainly cannot be modularized as a religion, or any religious practices or publications. So getting back to my kids, to tell you the truth, I am not so fussed about whether my children adopt Taoism, or if they find themselves exploring other expressions of faith. But I hope that they wind up agnostic. And I hope that they steer clear of religion because I believe that religion, inadvertently perhaps, can often distract people from faith (which I believe is real) and confuse them with „answers‟ (which I am not comfortable with due to my agnosticism). At the same time, I also hope that they do not wind up atheistic, because I personally really gain a sense of joy from faith, and it seems like a waste to have less sense of joy in our fleeting lives. Of course, ultimately, I just want them to choose actively. And that will be enough.
  5. LIVING A GOOD LIFE WITHOUT A DOCTRINE OR A CHURCH That said, there are two things that religions do well. Fist, religions provide clarity around morality and ethics – which can drive one cuckoo without clarity, especially as teenagers and young adults. Second, religions generate a powerful social network, which can be leveraged for fun, family, fame and fortune. I figure that other than explaining to my kids what I believe, I also owe it to them to provide equivalent solutions to these two problems: values and friends. can you have values if you do not have religion? If the “truth” is unknowable, then how can you look your kid in the face and say, “don‟t lie” Can‟t she just say, “well...why not? It is easy if you can reply, “because God said so.” But lacking that, things get a bit more challenging. Well my answer is self-interest. Specifically, I believe that the reason to develop strong values is that values provide a behavioral framework and decision matrix that helps individuals make behavioral choices that lead to maximum personal and community happiness when applied thoughtfully and over time. I appreciate that there is a degree of moral relativism built in to that statement, of course. If values are a means to an end, then the means will always be subject to context and a change in context could result in different values leading to the end goal of happiness. For example, the value to not kill other people may not apply if you are being attacked in a fight to the death – and there will always be much finer lines to wrestle with. But I‟d like to use a bit of aikido on that issue. I think this problem will be true for religious and non- religious folks alike. And, being a Taoist, and without adding the complexifier of a “formal legal system”, I think that contextual „fine line‟ morality will be apparent through intuition. So the problem of moral relativism, though fun for late night discussions at university, is a bit overkill for this discussion.
  6. Linda and Richard Eyre have another qualifier that I think is worthwhile. They argue that, ―a value is a quality distinguished by (a) its ability to multiply and increase in our possession even as it is given away and (b) the fact that the more it is given to others, the more it will be returned by others and received by ourselves. For our purposes then, personality traits such as ambition, mathematical genius, physical beauty, wealth, and goal-setting ability, while they may be positive characteristics, useful skills, fortunate circumstances, or pleasing traits, are not universal values. Ambition and goals benefit only the individual – they do not always benefit those they are perpetrated on. Wealth, does not increase as it is given away. Physical beauty and mathematical genius, even if they could be given, would not necessarily be given back. Values, then, are other-and-self benefiting qualities that are given as they are gained and gained as they are given.‖ I like this definition. It should work for atheist and zealot alike. And it certainly can work for my kids. Linda and Richard continue to define a set of 12 values (I reduced it) that make sense in that context. I kinda like their basic list so I thought I would summarize it here: 1. HONESTY with other individuals, with institutions, with society and with self. The inner strength that is bred by exacting truthfulness, trustworthiness, and integrity 2. COURAGE to attempt difficult things that are good. Strength not to follow the crowd, to say no and mean it, and influence others by it. Being true to convictions even when they are unpopular or inconvenient. Boldness to be outgoing. 3. PEACEABILITY. Calmness. Peacefulness. Serenity. The ability to accommodate rather than argue, the creativity to find win-win solutions, empathy, and control over one’s temper 4. SELF-RELIANCE AND POTENTIAL. Individuality. Awareness and development of gifts and uniqueness, taking responsibility for one’s actions, commitment to personal excellence 5. SELF-DISCIPLINE AND MODERATION physical, mental, financial self-discipline, balanced with spontaneity 6. LOYALTY AND DEPENDABILITY to family, employers, country, institutions. Do what you say you will do. 7. RESPECT for life, property, family, friends, elders, nature and beliefs and rights of others. Understanding of customs 8. LOVE and caring. Tendency to understand rather than confront, gentleness, especially towards those weaker, the ability to make and keep friends, helpfulness and cheerfulness. Patience and support. Empathy, tolerance, & brotherhood 9. JUSTICE AND MERCY fairness in work and play, understanding of consequences of law, grasp for mercy and forgiveness and understanding of futility of carrying a grudge Interestingly enough, I think that with a strong value system, a set of skills and strengths that I and the school will drive, and their fortune at being born into a fortunate family living in an industrialized nation with a high standard of living, neither of them will have a problem at all building a friend network. I think the key will be to put a value on friends and activities. I don‟t think a church is the only mechanism.
  7. DEALING WITH RELIGIOUS BIGOTS AND PEER-PRESSURE PROSELYTIZERS Finally, there is the issue about how a 13 year old girl deals with the dark side of religion. I think that both of them are definitely going to face “us and them” problems because they will be different from a majority of their school friends and will have a lot of pressure to conform. I guess that again, strong values, good friends, and a supportive family is what they need to get through it.