With No Atheist Group,
Kids Went To Church
[name withheld]

From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: [name withheld]
Subject: Re: PA-via_Positive_Atheism_Index
Date: August 03, 2001 1:51 AM

We are in the process of questioning the entire group scene altogether. This does not mean we are questioning the notion of people forming groups; rather, we are asking if atheism is a valid reason for people to associate.

You seem to have taken this concept around in a complete circle: You felt a need to be part of a group, but in lieu of an acceptable atheist group you associated with a religious group, doing this for the sake of your kids.

I'll agree that going to church like this can be healthy as long as you are careful to choose a group that is not ultra-fundamentalistic, and as long as you are confident that you can show the kids that you don't really believe the mythology but are there for the social activity. I likewise suspect that many atheists probably go to church with this very thinking in mind. We don't hear from them, of course, but I know they're out there because I have spoken with many people over the years who went to church as kids only to grow up and realize that the parents didn't really believe in any of that stuff. The jury is still out on whether the kids appreciated this: you're sure to see more than a few De-Conversion Stories describing this pattern.

I am thrilled to hear you talk about this in such a candid manner: I'm sure you realize that on some atheist forums you would have caused quite a stir by saying this. You are welcome to contribute to our Forum, "Atheist Groups: To Belong Or Not To Belong?" I might even snip the portion of this letter having to do with you going to church and put it up there because I think your story would greatly contribute to what we wanted by posing that question in the first place. I am also putting the finishing touches on a piece about groups that is slated to be published in the August issue of the print edition.

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I don't have all the answers or even a basic outline toward the solution, but I am confident that we have at least seen and addressed the problem. But we do know that affiliation in an organized activity is healthy (be it church or whatever). So we are currently suggesting the pursuit of organized activities that do not have anything to do with atheism or religion.

We suggest deliberately looking elsewhere than atheist groups because atheism is the absence of religion, not a substitute for religion or a substitute religion. It's not like religion was taken away or is missing, either: it's the religion that has been added to people's lives. Atheism is the default human state, but religionists have added religious belief and participation to this default.

Make pursuing what to do an activity in itself: Actively seek out things to do. Check out some of the things that catch your eye. Ask one another what each individual wants, what your needs, are and what is best for all. Also keep a list of things that you've rejected: people do change. While some activities can be pursued by a lone individual, other activities revolve around the family.

"Organized" does not need to mean "institutionalized" but can be as informal as a group of co-workers or neighbors who throw a weekly or monthly Sunday brunch, rotating each week or month at each other's homes. "Organized" should at least mean "structured," though. What I think we're probably looking for is something that has had more planning put into it than go-with-the-flow, play-it-by-ear, stream-of-consciousness spontaneity. After several tries, you'll have a good idea what you want and what you can get away with and even what things you especially want the kids to learn or experience.

You can even organize your own activities around informal alliances of friends who happen to have a common interest (such as atheism). When I first started singing karaoke, I quickly noticed that over half of the regulars at this one bar were either flat-out atheists or were Satanists (Satanists are atheists who have a dark, artistic outlook and aesthetic; nobody believes in a literal Satan except the Christians). We all had a common bond besides the karaoke -- our atheism -- and this kept us interacting and even looking forward to seeing each other. I'd pass out my latest magazine each month, we'd discuss some of the questions that had been raised -- several have even helped me fold the magazine! This is just one example and our options are almost endless.

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Here is where I wish my parents would talk, and perhaps one of my other relatives would be willing to help me piece together my childhood, because we never went to church but did as well or better than the neighbors who did. In fact, many of our neighbors (after I was about ten or so) didn't go and seemed to do as well or better than, for example, the families that everybody knew were religious.

Basically, my parents taught us morality on their own, working with us each day and guiding us in each situation and aspect until we had mastered another moral concept and learned how to make decisions about situations we had not yet encountered. (In me, this process still goes on: I still study decisions I've made to see how I might have known better to do a better job in applying what I've learned to sticky situations.) Much of our moral training involved asking us what would happen if we made this choice and what would happen if we made that choice. Other elements involved making us explain why we did something -- what were we thinking and what did other kids say. I might have added making us explain why we did something when it turned out that what we did was good -- I was always uncomfortable being praised. I think my folks did a bang-up job considering that I probably had what they today call a learning disability.

Also, my parents were into hobbies of their own, but these were hobbies that could include the kids. Sailing was the big thing from about kindergarten until I left home, and I remained very interested until about the third grade, and showed moderate interest until the sixth grade, and seldom went out with them after that. When we weren't sailing with the folks, we kids stayed at the beach with one of the parents until we were old enough to be simply watched by the Yacht Club custodian. I always brought one or two of the neighborhood kids along.

By the fifth grade, we had a swimming pool, so our place became a neighborhood hang-out. By then, we stayed home while the parents sailed, and this might be where I started to have trouble, because when I was a teen, there was nothing that either of us had in common. It would have been good if my father had insisted that we do something together that we both like, and if he had explained to me up front that the reason was because my life would get busier as I grew up and we'd grow apart and would need something in common. Mmm. Perhaps if we had played more chess, or gone to a few music shows together (we once went to see Roger Miller), or studied how the family finances were put together, or even studied our heritage as sons and daughters of the American Revolution (I did this on my own because Dad wasn't interested, but I was big on the Revolution), or studied science together (another of my hobbies). Anything! Yeah, things could have been different, but they could have been a lot worse. Over all, I think we did pretty good as a family.

Another thing is that when we went on vacation, it was to the same place every year, and we became friends with the other families who vacationed there to the point where we'd all plan our vacations around when everybody was going to be there.

Finally, we had our own version of ritual: Every Sunday morning for as long as I can remember, we went to this restaurant called the Chuck Wagon (Midway and Rosecrans in San Diego -- where the Hypnotist performed). When we got tired of going there or had problems or closed down (I don't remember), we found another place. We made the most of it, but they were never the same as the Chuck Wagon. We also went out to dinner three or four times a month, and had several restaurants we liked -- Chinese, Mexican -- nothing too spendy but definitely a few steps up from Denny's. Always places that allowed kids but did not necessarily focus on kids. We did have good restaurant manners.

This is merely my brainstorm of what it was like growing up as a kid, considering that we didn't go to church but seem to have done okay for ourselves, at least as far as morals are concerned. One of the things I'm suggesting, though, is that our group involvement does not need to be atheistic, but I think we all do well to be involved in some organized activity -- even if it's as informal as scheduling your vacation so that everybody is there during the same two weeks.

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine
Five years of service to
     people with no reason to believe

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