RAISING CHILDREN IN A SECULAR HUMANIST ENVIRONMENT  

 

 

Dear Atheist, Agnostic and Humanist Parents,

I am writing an essay about raising children without the beliefs in God and Religion. Would you be kind enough to share your experiences how you raised your children in a secular humanist environment? How did you answer your children when they asked questions about:

A, Issues of belief in God, Prophets, Scriptures and Life after Death.

B, Issues of rituals….prayers, fasting and pilgrimage.

C, Issue of ethics and concepts of sin and guilt.

Please share some of the stories of your family life especially when you had to deal with those relatives, friends and teachers who believed in God and Religion, performed rituals and promoted concepts of sin and guilt in your children. Your answers will be a lot in writing about that topic.

                             Your secular humanist friend,

                                                Khalid Sohail

March 31st, 2007

Ps…This letter is inspired by Abderrahim’s following letter who wants to raise his 6year old twin daughters in a secular humanist environment.

 

 
 

AAMER RAFI

 
 

AAMER RAFI

 
My father was a closet agnostic. I never realized it when he was alive. He died when I was just 19 years old. He never asked me to read Arabic Quran, offer prayers or any such thing. My mother was a traditional Muslim. I don’t recall seeing either of my parents offering prayer except for special occasions like Eid or funerals. I am not even sure we owned a prayer mat. My dad belonged to an Ahmedi family. The entire family had a consensus about my father that they still maintain; that he was fun to be with, persuasive in his arguments but some felt that there was something wrong about his ideology. He had a rebellious thread in his thinking. When Ahmedies, en masse, were categorically against ZA Bhutto for engineering the move to declare them non-Muslims, my father used to praise Bhutto’s politics unabashedly. I used to watch him argue with his brothers, friends and their children with a lot of interest. At almost every family gathering, those arguments used to be one of the main events. Usually these arguments were about the prophet hood of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, a concept that my father was vociferously against.
 
As I said, I never realized in his life that he was an agnostic. He never told me that he was skeptical about the existence of a God. He used to have long discussions with me on various topics, including religion, but never did we talk about the existence of a deity.  Some years after his death, I realized that he had been dropping clues all over the place and silently but methodically guiding me towards skepticism. One of the things that led me to realize that was the fact that he had never given me any gift other than books on my birthdays and when I tried to recall every book that he had given me, it was almost impossible to mistake the message he was sending me. The first ever book that I can recall that he bought me was a small 50 pages book called “kya, kaisay, kyun” (“What, how and why”) printed by Ferozsons in
Lahore. The book described why rain falls, how earthquakes happen etc. The other books that I can recall getting as birthday gifts were “Origin of Species” and  “Descent of Man” by Darwin, “Out of my later days” by Einstein, “Ten days that shook the world” by John Reed, “Why I’m not a Christian” and “Science and Religion” by Russell and some more books on the same line.  
Within his lifetime, I had shown my disinterest in Ahmadiyyat. I joined Tolu-e-Islam, the organization mentored by late Ghulam Ahmad Parvez and at a very young age, I was writing articles on Quran for Tolu-e-Islam. My father always showed my articles to his friends proudly but never discussed their contents with me. I took it as his agreement. He had never read the books by GA Parvez (at least he never told me that he had. One of my cousins recently informed me that my father used to quote Parvez quite frequently in his discussions). I made him read some of the books because I desperately wanted him to go to Tolu-e-Islam gatherings with me. He never cared for that. One day while discussing something with him I referred to the book “Insaan ne kya socha” (“What have humans thought”) by Parvez as the best work Parvez had done. In this book, Parvez had attempted to deconstruct materialism, democracy, Marxism etc. and dismissing them as futile attempts by human intellect to solve human problems driving at his belief that only God can provide the ultimate solutions. My father listened to me and said that when he read the book in question, he thought that it was the weakest work by Parvez. I remember him saying, “Parvez knows Quran and he should stick to it. In this book, he is exploring territories that he doesn’t know anything about”. At age 16 or 17, it was inconceivable and unacceptable to me that GA Parvez could be wrong about anything. To me, at that time, he was the ultimate thinker of his time. My father’s assertion ignited the only argument that I ever had with him (well, only in the sense of ideological arguments. We had numerous when it came to cricket). During the argument, he told me patiently that no scholar, however great he/she might be, was worth following blindly. He asked me to take any one thing in the book in question and study it independently. His claim was that I would soon see that things were not as simple as Pervez made them out to be. When I refused to budge, he asked how convinced I was on the thoughts of Parvez on Ahadees. I told him that Parvez had made a slam-dunk case and I was convinced that most of the collections of Ahadees were fabrications. He said, “but I have never seen you reading Sahih Bukhari. How do you know what Parvez is saying is really in Sahih Bukhari or he is not quoting it out of context?” I couldn’t answer that. He then bought me Maududi’s “Tafheemaat” and I began to see that the arguments presented by Parvez were not as rock solid as I always thought they were. That was an important lesson in skepticism and later in my life I started reading every book with a fair amount of skepticism.
Anyway, fast-forward to my own married life. I am much more out of closet than my father as an agnostic. Many people among my family and friends know that I am a skeptic to the core and those who don’t know for sure, suspect it. My wife is a believer. Unlike my mother, she occasionally offers prayers. We own two prayer-mats.  I voice my opinions about religion openly and my wife knows full well that I have doubts about the existence of God but, strangely, she has never pushed me to state it in black and white terms. My own assessment is that she wants me to be a believer. I think she suspects what the answer would be if she pops the question and I think she wants to live in a comfortable state of uncertainty. Respecting her wishes, I have never been “in her face” with my views. I have a 10 years old son and a 7 years old daughter.  I do not tell them what to believe and what not to believe. I encourage skepticism in them. I have always answered their questions with rational reasons without resorting to God. When my son asked me why was it bad to steal, I didn’t tell him, “Because God doesn’t like it”. My wife does teach them as much religion as she knows like reciting “Bismillah” before eating something. I have never objected to that. As for myself, I tell my kids all the time to approach everything with an open mind. Because of this approach, we have no friction at home regarding children’s upbringing. My wife once asked me if we should teach them how to read Quran and I told her that nobody had done that to me and I know Quran much more than an average Muslim. She has seen me reading and quoting Quran frequently so she was convinced and dropped the issue.
The most interesting episode in this regard occurred in 2004. We have an Islamic organization here in NJ that runs a summer Islamic school. All my friends enrolled their kids in the year 2004. My wife wanted our kids to join too. I thought about it for a long time and then agreed with my wife. One day my son came home from the Islamic school and he had a visibly confused expression. When I asked him what was the matter, he said, “our teacher in the Islamic school said that the humanity began with one man named Adam and one woman named Hava. Is that really true?” I kept talking to him about this for a couple of days, encouraging him to ask the teacher whatever questions he had in mind. His conclusion few days later was that he was not convinced that there was enough proof to believe that account. He kept up having similar discussions through out that summer. My wife wanted me to give him traditional answers to his questions. I refused and asked her to do it herself. Eventually, she saw that my son was getting more and more confused just because he has a tendency to doubt and I was not clamping down on his doubts with iron boots. In fact, I was encouraging him to think about things on his own. There were other such episodes as well. I guess my wife decided that this wasn’t going anywhere and that is why she didn’t ask me to send our kids to the Islamic school next year.
So, when it comes to mixed unions, I don’t see much of a problem there if the partners in the union learn to respect each other’s spheres. Of course, there are reasons for a friction in such a union but there are always reasons for a friction when two people are married to each other. If it’s not ideological, it can be something else. I haven’t seen any friction-less union in my life. That doesn’t mean that the possibility of co-existence should be ruled out. As for the children of mixed unions, I consider them luckier than the other kids since they have options and can see both perspectives and make up their minds about their ideology.

Rafi Aamer

 

 
 

MALIK KHAN’S RESPONSE

 
 

Dear Dr. Khalid Sohail, 

The subject is very sensitive and touchy, especially for me.  As I am going to share my own experience of dealing these issues while I was raising my children.  I don’t have exactly correct knowledge how much generally parents love their children but as far as I was concerned in those days I was deeply in love with my children.  I was sincere and honest with them, being an atheist I was reluctant to imposed my thoughts on my children in spite of the fact, I had no doubt in mind about my own belief.  I never ever talked against the norms of society of that time and general Muslims beliefs but I never tolerated any wrongful, fundamental or any thought against general commonsense.  

Out of my three children, my daughter Farah was the youngest.  When she was six, one day she said to me that Sheas are very bad people, during muharram when they cook "Pullaoo" they kill children and add their meat in the rice. I got stunned, I never heard that kind of statement before. I picked up my daughter, put her in my lap and asked her who told you this.  I don’t remember who told her this stuff, but very softly I explained to her that in my opinion this is absolutely wrong, I added that my mother was Shea and I used to go to Majlis and many times I had eaten that Niaz.  The Sheas are normal people they don’t do this kind of evil acts.  

When she was in grade 7th, at that time I was in the US but I was in contact with her via email.  Once she wrote me that these western people are very biased and against Islam because when Armstrong landed at the Moon he heard the voice of Azaan at Moon but he did not told the world about it,  I asked her that who told you this.  She said one of teacher told me.  The school she was studying was a famous English Medium School.  I asked my daughter to tell me the name of teacher so I talk to the Principal of the School because the teacher is preaching baseless and wrong things to the students.  my daughter never told the name of the teacher.  However I insisted again & again and later I felt that my daughter does not have courage to stand in front of that teacher.  

I never had such situation with my both sons.  I never preached any thing against religion to them but as I was a roll model for them, I tried to demonstrate, honesty, truth, humanity and other human values (although I was not perfect),  Their questions, were never controversial like my daughter, and I always gave my truthful opinion to them.  

Thanks, 

Malik Khan. 

 
 

MALIK JAHNAJEB’S FEEDBACK

 
 

Dear Dr. Sb,
 
I have not yet been a parent who has raised children but I am just about to be one. Since this is so imminent for me in the near future, I feel like a stakeholder in the discussion too. My situation is going to be a bit different from my father's situation because in my case, my wife is also secular, we live in a secular society (Toronto) and we don't have too many relatives around to simulate the social pressure religion thrives in. But first I will comment on the situation which my father was a subject to, that is, if you are a lone rationalist (or atheist if you like) and rest of the society including your wife are normal Muslims. 
 
This looks to be a very dismal situation to me because no matter how reasonable you may sound to your kids, you can never have complete control over your children's acquisition of ideas. Probably the best thing in such as situation would be something very close to what my father did. In such a situation, one should try hard to make sure that his/her children do not get thoroughly and completely indoctrinated with ideas religion is try to instill. This does not have to be and should not be done with confrontation. One should try hard to make children develop critical thinking in various aspects of life while cleverly avoiding any direct confrontation with religion which can cause psychological damage to a child's mind who is not ready to decide for himself at that stage. In other words, when a child asks if Prophet Mohammad was the most pious man in the world, your answer should be 'Yes'. The emphasis at this time should be to help the child develop mental tendencies and capabilities which can help him to critically analyze any belief he/she may encounter through out his life. The important thing is that a child's brain has to be conditioned in right way for him to understand what is good for him and what is bad. There should be no imposition of ideas on him, whether religious or otherwise, for every person has his own truth which he has to discover for himself.
 
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Now I will come to my situation and will try to speculate what will happen to my child who is one year old in terms of accepting ideas about 'bigger questions' of existence, morality and beliefs.
 
I strongly believe that if a child's mind is positively conditioned in a certain way, he can never fall prey to any institution of religious bigotary. This conditioning would include the assurance that he develops the following traits:
 
- develops a personality without complexes of identity and purpose
- scientifically approaches problems through education and experience
- puts himself in other people's shoes in order not to be carried away by his own subjective experiences and opinions
- has knowledge of human history in an un-biased way and various theories trying to explain human behaviour such as modern psychology and evolution
 
I feel that my responsibility towards my children will be to ensure that they get the above mentioned traits in their early life. After that, they will have a right a choose any ideology which appeals to them and I am sure they will never choose any idea that stinks.
 
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Now coming to the direct questions you answered in your email:
 
A, Issues of belief in God, Prophets, Scriptures and Life after Death.
B, Issues of rituals….prayers, fasting and pilgrimage.
C, Issue of ethics and concepts of sin and guilt.

A:
 
I think that parent should take an impartial stand on the questions of God, Prophets, Scriptures. They should be told that many people believe that there is a god who is like an elder brother and he sends Prophets to show people the right way. They should be told that they have a right to believe or disbelieve in this information. At the same time, they should be told that all these messengers were good human beings who were good role models for being a good person. About the questions of paradise and hell, I think they should be mildly told that in their parents' opinions, these places do not exist as I feel that such unreal concepts would not be healthy for children psychologically. In contrast to this, concepts like existence of Santa Clause can be okay for children to believe.
 
B:
 
Rituals, Prayers, Fasting and Pilgrimages should be something we can do without. These are unnecessary responsibilities which can cause tension and guilt in a child's mind.
 
C:
 
Children should be conditioned to come up with a version of morality of their own which is based on their innate feelings of good and bad, transparent and positive education and liberal teachings from their parents. They should be taught to take the responsibility of their actions, not believing in useless concepts such as fate. They should be told that there are no lines drawn anywhere which define a moral act from an immoral one. They should be taught the evolutionary process by which human morality has been shaped. They should be taught that their way of life should include defending their right to pursue happiness in a way which does not come in anybody else's right to the same.
 
 
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MARK ROBINSON’S RESPONSE

 
 

 

 

Children and a humanistic view of life

 

   With My wife and I being parents of four children and having both humanistic views of life some may wonder how we have taken on the challenge to explain to our children they may have different views other than the large percentage of their fellow classmates and even extended members of our family. I have always thought that every child should have the gift of being able to think for them selves when it comes to understanding life in our universe. I feel everyone should have a clear mind when one starts to wonder of our existence on earth and within the universe. I have always told my children from a very young age to question a thought or idea before agreeing on it to be true. I have told my children that they will be faced with situations that can not be explained at our present time but that does not give us reason to come to some conclusion to define it for the sake of having an answer like calling it an act of god. They have had many questions addressing religion and science and I have always let them give their best explanation first. I have always been truthful to them in saying that we have no evidence to prove a universe created by a god but many facts through science that explain how life has evolved in our universe to the best of our knowledge. This maybe revised in time as science and man advances but at this point in time we do have answers to back up our most defining theories. What I have just explained took a few different twists and turns to get them to comprehend and make it enjoyable for such short attention spans considering their age.

    It is true that not every child or person takes the same interest in knowing about our existence and I have observed this with our children. Some have different interests such as an attraction to space or animals or even dinosaurs. The great thing about this is that each of these topics has proof to explain a world created without a creator or designer labeled as a god as we know of one in religious scripture. I have observed their confidence towards life compared to other children who have an understanding of a god created world and shows me the advantages that are benefited with a humanistic view. They see the world as one, a place shared by everyone else that has evolved here through the same process for the same purpose. They see the problems in the world which are caused from racism, greed and religion and view them from the outside instead of being consumed from within by the man made evils that infect our cultures world wide. They know their beliefs of earth are based on facts not mythological ideas. Now that all said I am sure it’s not as clear in their minds as we read the above and consume it but that have planted their own seed and all we have done is added a little sun and water to help its growth were as religion plants a seed and waters it as well.  

We have spent many nights at the dinner table discussing the widest range of topics from space to plants, religion and even disease. This year 3 of the 4 children had speeches to do for school. The oldest at 14 did hers on Global warming, The 12 year old did his on Charles Darwin’s Evolution and the youngest at 11 did his on Cancer. I was very proud that the each took on the task of actually having to learn about a topic rather than choose something they were more familiar with like a sport or social activity. I feel the result of their decisions is from the talks and explanations of how our world has proven to be. 

   I remember attending a family Baptism with them all and once we were home I was surprised at their logic in explaining and taking apart what was said and what we saw. They have been taught to respect others beliefs and understand that most people have never had the chance to decide for themselves as what to believe. They all know how they became victim to believing in a Man in a red suit who brings gifts each year with the same hand writing and gift wrapping skills as Mommy and Daddy. 

  I have found some wonderful tools to help in my explanations which I will share with you. Here is one which is quoted from Author and biologist Richard Dawkins which he read and used to explain to his Daughter the size of the universe. This gives a child an easy way to visualize the size of our universe. They can then feel their place in our world and realize there is a lot more out there than our planet and our home and most of all us. 

“To show how real astronomical wonder can be presented to children, I'll borrow from a book called Earthsearch by John Cassidy, which I brought back from America to show my daughter Juliet. Find a large open space and take a soccer ball to represent the sun. Put the ball down and walk ten paces in a straight line. Stick a pin in the ground. The head of the pin stands for the planet Mercury. Take another 9 paces beyond Mercury and put down a peppercorn to represent Venus. Seven paces on, drop another peppercorn for Earth. One inch away from earth, another pinhead represents the Moon, the furthest place, remember, that we've so far reached. 14 more paces to little Mars, then 95 paces to giant Jupiter, a ping-pong ball. 112 paces further, Saturn is a marble. No time to deal with the outer planets except to say that the distances are much larger. But, how far would you have to walk to reach the nearest star, Proxima Centauri? Pick up another soccer ball to represent it, and set off for a walk of 4200 miles. As for the nearest other galaxy, Andromeda, don't even think about it!” 

  I will end with some other wonderful educational tools for children and for that matter parents because I have learnt so much from them as well are some fascinating shows now available on DVD. 

Here is a short list of DVDs which are all available 

Carl Sagan’s – cosmos 13 series set 

David Attenborough’s - Planet earth and many other before that as well 

Richard Dawkins Growing up in the Universe – Just released on DVD from the  

Christmas Lectures on BBC In 1991 

The illustration below is a wonderful look at our 14 Billion year old universe scaled into a one year calendar with the month of December in full. This is the wonderful work of Carl Sagan who has a great passion for life and I can’t think of anyone better to explain it than him. This calendar is also in the Series Cosmos mentioned above.

 

 

 Send send your comments to Dr. Khalid Sohail