By Asavari Singh
I really thought raising godless children would be easy.
Around the time I got pregnant, I was deeply impressed by a CNN iReport, “Why I Raise My Children Without God” written by a Texan mother who outlined under succinct subheads all the reasons why god is a pretty useless concept to teach kids: “God is a bad parent and role model… God is not logical… God is not fair… God does not protect the innocent… God is not present… God Does Not Teach Children to Be Good… God Teaches Narcissism…”
It all made tremendous sense then and it makes tremendous sense now.
However, I’m finding it hard to dodge the gods. They may not exist, but they sure as hell are omnipresent (as advertised), especially in India where the Hindu pantheon alone is estimated by some to contain 33 million deities.
I firmly believe that god is fiction and faith is delusion, but damn, it’s all too powerful–and socially awkward–to fight.
My failures in grooming my child into a good little atheist may be due in part to my own half-assed, people-pleasing strain of non-belief (rolling my eyes at Pujas and sometimes cursing under my breath but still sitting through them, for example). I firmly believe that god is fiction and faith is delusion, but damn, it’s all too powerful–and socially awkward–to fight.
My child is turning into a believer, and more shamefully, I’m feeding her some completely fantastical formulations myself just because it’s so damn convenient. My own conduct pretty much proves, in fact, that religion is a great fallback for the intellectually lazy and emotionally faint of heart. As the struggling parent of a toddler, religious constructs are right up there with Doraemon and Peppa Pig in my I’m-giving-up-for-today toolkit.
Before I make confessions about my own dodgy parenting, though, let me start with school.
My daughter goes to a delightful little Montessori preschool near our house. There, the children play with wooden educational toys, sing rhymes, water plants, learn how to mash potatoes and stick colourful sequins on butterfly cut-outs. They are taught to say please and excuse me. They are also taught to say thank you to god for the food we eat. When I first saw this prayer of gratitude, along with a few others, in my child’s handbook, I baulked.
Had I been like that lion-hearted Texan mother, I would have gone to the school and asked them to excuse my child from rituals of expressing gratitude to a figment of the imagination. Or I could have asked the school to consider substituting “thank you god” with “thank you earth” or “thank you farmer” or “thank you cook” or “thank you parent who shells out for everything”. But, of course, I did none of that. They would have thought I’m nuts. People think you’re nuts anyway when you say, “nope, I don’t think there’s a giant being in the sky who watches my every move and gets mighty pissed when I don’t buy Laddoos for Brahmins.” Besides, there’s something pretty cute about a child saying grace. She says it at home too, complete with the amen. I can’t very well tell her that this little prayer is yet another example of the normalized lunacy that we call religion. I just say awwww.
Then, one day, our beloved cat Chhotan died. My husband and I were devastated, crying openly as we buried her in his parents’ garden. We did not include our daughter in this ceremony. Should we have? It might have been a chance for her to say goodbye properly to this wonderful cat whom she loved so much. We could have told her that the cat was going to sleep forever in a bed deep within the ground. But we were scared that seeing the cat’s lifeless body would scar her little mind. We could not avoid the questions, though. “Where is Chhotan? Is Chhotan in the cupboard? Is Chhotan coming back at night?” That’s when I said the words that probably make me one of the worst atheist parents of all time: “Chhotan is in heaven.” It was just so easy, and it stuck.
Whenever my daughter tries to do something life-threatening, I ask her, “Do you want to go to heaven too?” And she gets it. She drops the knife, she leaves the electric socket alone, she moves away from the edge of the pool. Heaven is such a useful concept when it comes to introducing the concept of finality to very young children–the ceasing-to-be and nothingness of death is so much harder to explain than a place where you go and don’t come back. It seems kinder. It seems more possible. It works better as a warning.
Religion has seeped into my child’s life in a multitude of ways. She enjoys festivals, she loves going to Poojas, and she knows the names of several deities and gods (of multiple religions) and can identify them correctly. She’s been taught by relatives and friends to fold her hands and bow to idols in deference and she’s been instructed to add the respectful “ji” whenever she mentions the name of a god or goddess. She’s particularly transfixed by a giant statue of Shiva that we often pass when we go into Delhi from our suburban residence. “Look, there’s Shiva!” I said the other say, and she corrected me, echoing the pious tones of a devout relative, “Shiv-JI, Shiv-JI.” Sometimes, she speaks of growing as tall as Shiv-JI. Sometimes I tell her it’s raining because he’s sneezing. Sometimes, when she’s throwing the worst kind of tantrum, I tell her Shiv-JI will take her away. (Spare me the lectures; I know that’s shoddy parenting, but desperate times…)
So there you have it. My child knows god the benefactor, god the bogeyman, god the bringer of festivals.
Somehow, it doesn’t seem so bad now and the sense of community she gets out of it is undeniable. Life would be pretty boring without all the festivals and celebrations, and she should have the freedom to make up her own mind. Faith does have its uses. Nonetheless, I do hope she never becomes truly religious–fact is, atheists just tend to be nicer and smarter, even if I’m one of the many exceptions to that rule!