Since I’ve been back at work I’ve been spending my lunchtimes catching up with all of the people I haven’t seen for a year. Inevitably we discuss our families and I gush about Ted, then we lament the state of the education system and go back to our sandwiches.
A couple of weeks ago a colleague – we’ll call her Gill (because that’s her name) – was talking to me about how proud she was to be a godparent when she asked me whether I would be having Ted christened. I explained that Nick and I are atheists and that we had been keen to have a naming ceremony so that we could still celebrate this little life we had created, but that the cost had put us off. Gill looked confused.
“Don’t you think you should put your views aside for Ted’s sake?” she asked without a hint of irony. I told her that although Ted is being raised by atheists that doesn’t mean to say that he won’t choose Christianity for himself one day, and that if he does decide he wants to be christened that is the time when it should happen.
“Don’t you think you should keep his options open?” Gill asked, increasingly shrill. “I am!” I exclaimed. “Surely you can see that having him christened is limiting his options? What right do I have to choose one religion from the hundreds – thousands – out there and tell him that’s what he believes?”
But she couldn’t see.
Gill doesn’t see that she’s a Christian because she happened to be born into a Christian family in a Christian country. She’s from a generation of people who rarely questioned their parents’ belief that Magpies could predict the future, let alone their faith in a god.
As far as Gill is concerned I’m forcing my heathen views on my son and damning him to a life of misery and an afterlife of hell. Believing that Ted has the right to make his own decisions about the god he chooses to devote himself to – or not – is, for Gill, somehow a sign of neglect. I’m half surprised the authorities haven’t been in touch yet.
Gill thinks I’m a hypocrite because I won’t tell Ted he’s a Christian but I’m happy to tell him he’s an atheist. What she fails to understand is that Ted isn’t a Christian – he can’t be a Christian because he has absolutely no concept of what a god is, let alone how to believe in one – but he is also not an atheist. For exactly the same reason that Ted can’t be with a god, he also can’t be without one. In Ted’s world there is no god. He hasn’t even discovered Father Christmas yet, never mind an omnipotent deity.
“But I bet you’re going to bring him up with Christmas, aren’t you?” Gill smirked, as though I was stealing her religion, not realising it was going to sneak up on me. Perhaps she hoped the tree and the tinsel would send subliminal messages to Ted when my back was turned. Or maybe she thought I was secretly Christian underneath this facade of immorality and had just not realised yet.
I asked Gill why I should decide Ted was a Christian and not a Jew, a Hindu, a Sikh or a Mormon. She told me I was being silly. I didn’t even bother to mention the thousands of gods who have gone before; the gods we laugh at now – “they worshiped a god of what?!”
What struck me was that Gill thought she had a right to comment on the way I was bringing Ted up, and – worse than that – that she thought she had a right to be offended by it. If I had answered her initial question of whether we were having Ted christened with “no, BabyDaddy and I are Jehovah’s Witnesses” I doubt very much that she would have continued to press me on the morality of my beliefs. Would she have asked me why I wasn’t “keeping his options open” or felt that I was judging her beliefs by expressing different ones? I don’t think she would.
It seems to me that we live in a society where we are expected to “respect” other people’s beliefs, and that to question them is to show a distinct lack of respect. If, however, you don’t have any beliefs (or rather, you have a rational belief in a lack of god rather than an irrational faith in something) you don’t qualify for that same respect. It’s perfectly okay to question the right of the atheist to bring up her children as she sees fit, but to express equal concern of religious parents is somehow wrong.
If in the future, I explained to Gill, Ted decides he’s found a religion that suits him then that’s fine. By bringing him up without a religion I’m giving him the opportunity to learn about them all objectively – or as objectively as you can in England – and, as far as I can see, that’s the only fair option. I think that people like Gill feel threatened by that because they know, whether consciously or not, that their religions don’t stand up to inspection; that if people aren’t indoctrinated from a young age their numbers will continue to fall.
Will I be disappointed if Ted chooses to be a Christian? Yes, I will. Just as I’ll be disappointed if he chooses to be a Jew, a Muslim, a Hindu, a Buddhist, a Sikh, a Mormon, a Jehovah’s Witness, a Methodist, a Scientologist… When there’s a world of evolution, science and maths out there to discover I would be more than a little disappointed if he stopped asking questions and looking for answers, and just accepted what he was told to believe.
Should Gill be offended by that? No. I’m not disappointed in her for her faith. I have no right to be. Similarly, she has no right to be offended by my insistence that my son is not a Christian.
To quote Richard Dawkins, “there are no Christian children. Only the children of Christian parents.”