Thursday, July 5, 2012

Teaching Kids about Pluralism and Atheism

On the last day of our recent trip to San Francisco, we stayed in a humble cookie-cutter Holiday Inn Express near to the airport.  It was utterly nondescript, and completely functional, as it was shoutin' distance from where we'd need to be the next morning.

As we were packing up that morning, I checked...as I often do in hotel rooms...the drawer of the nightstand between the two queen beds.  In the drawer was a Yellow Pages and the inescapable Gideon's Bible, but there was also something else.  This being San Francisco, there was also a copy of the Bhagavad Gita, distributed by the followers of a Hindu holy man whose slightly scowling visage appeared on the back.

It was kind of cool, thought I, and so I pointed the books out to the family.  The boys asked me why the books were there, and I told them about the Gideons.  I've always felt that just leaving a Bible out doesn't really open up the kinds of conversations that really get to the heart of faith, but then again, it doesn't hurt, either.  So long as the hotel gives permission, it's fine.

I talked about how in the same way that the Gideons had the right to share the holy books of our faith, the Hindus who put their book in the drawer were equally empowered to present their belief system.  I talked about the importance of respecting others, and noted that it was all part of what made our country great.

I read through the Bhagavad Gita for a bit...it had been a while...and then absent-mindedly began to leaf through the Gideon's Bible.  It was then that I noticed that the Bible had been defaced with a large sticker, applied by an atheist to the interior front cover.  It was a leaving of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, that group of anti-theists who make it their business to be as unproductively aggressive as possible in their attack on faith.

The sticker itself was the usual diatribe, this one focused on attacking Gideon as a biblical character.  It was oddly irrational...the Gideons don't do what Gideon did, not being impromptu military leaders in a loose tribal federation and all...but this is typical of anti-theist rhetoric.  "Did you know that [insert name of figure from religious tradition here] was the most horrible person who ever lived?"  It would have been offensive, and it did cheese me off a little bit, but there was no point in growling umbrage.   Instead, as with all things, it served a very helpful teaching purpose.

I showed my Jewish/agnostic kids the sticker, and asked the boys what they would have thought about a Christian who had come into the room and defaced the Bhagavad Gita.   They thought that would be obnoxious.  I asked, then, if that would be any different from what this group had done.   Both boys concurred that there was this kind of activity was done by individuals who were best described as...well...both used a word that I think perhaps George Takei puts best.

I asked them, then, if atheists were all that way.  One of my boys said, no, and talked about a friend who didn't believe in God and who wasn't religious in any way.   I asked him if his friend was mean and disrespectful to those who were different.  No, of course not, said my son.  He would never do this.  You see, said I, not all atheists are like this.  I reminded them of family members who are atheists, and asked if they were obnoxious, angry people.   No, of course not, they said.  They just don't believe in God.

That lead to a short conversation about how faith...real faith, not reflexive literalism...is a challenging thing.  It isn't easy, or simplistic.   I also reminded them that an output of any authentic faith...and, frankly, the genuine application of reason...is a deep compassion for other sentient beings.

Which is something that fundamentalism and atheism often struggle with, in equal measure.


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