God-damned?


Sometimes there are no easy ways to cross a swamp and many of us have chosen to live in areas so removed we cannot even see the marsh; do not understand that it may be difficult for others to reach us; do not care that they may not want to.

I have seldom privileged beliefs not grounded in established fact -the justified true belief of the philosophers- but there is a difference between an absolute truth, where something like a lightbulb, for example, is either on, or off, and a relative truth which is more forgiving, more diffuse: that something has, say, a rough surface; there are gradations of roughness and it’s more of a spectrum between almost smooth and, well, really rough.

Still, most things in real life possess very few absolute features. If you examine something enough detail, for example, nothing is absolutely flat; whereas it is easy enough to distinguish something on a roughness spectrum. You’re more likely to be correct with an approximation without needing to pinpoint just how rough it is. Some things are simply not well described in binaries like on-off light switches.

For me, religion is like that: no absolute certainties (otherwise there would not be so many religions), and so it seems to me that their ‘truths’ are also only relative truths. Of course I can ask whether there really are any absolute truths somewhere, but a more important question would be to ask if we, in fact, have access to them… And, if so, how would we know?

That isn’t to say that I’m a fence-sitter; I am merely acknowledging that we all see the world through our own eyes and justify what we see in light of our own experiences, our own expectations -the prevailing zeitgeist. Why, then, should I have the right to choose a religion for my children? Impose a religion?

Questions were never a rare commodity for my kids, but my daughter once surprised me with one she was asked at school. She was perhaps five or six years old at the time, and had been asked by her classmate Marjorie if it would be okay if they both went to the same church Sunday school. Neither I nor my wife were members of any church, and I explained this to Catherine. She didn’t seem at all disappointed and confessed that she didn’t really like Marjorie anyway, and now she had an excuse.

I thought that would be the end of it until she returned the next day wondering if I believed in God. Marjorie had told her that if I didn’t go to church it meant I didn’t believe in God; Marjorie seemed to think that was bad. In childhood there are many mysteries, and my daughter was beginning to unearth them.

“What’s a God, daddy? Miss Sumas was surprised I didn’t know. She says everybody believes in one.” Catherine had asked her teacher.

How do you explain religious beliefs to a child? In today’s multiethnic society, there are a lot to choose from. But, to tell the truth, I felt guilty that my daughter didn’t even seem know what a god was -although maybe she knew more than she was letting on. I’m agnostic about religions, if I think about them at all, but I worried that I should at least have armed her with more than innocent unfamiliarity.

Years later, in the doldrums that seemed to accompany retirement in the Age of Covid, I began to search for essays on the ethics of teaching religion to children. I already knew the opinion of people like Richard Dawkins, of course: that we should let our sons and daughters discover what to believe on their own, otherwise we risk imposing dogma on an impressionable, trusting child who really has no choice in the matter.

I suppose I lean towards the Dawkins’ camp, to tell the truth, but still… I feel guilty about it. Or am I just embarrassed by my parenting? Was I a parent who had deprived his child of what others had come to accept: that most families, most parents, have religions of one sort or another, and that all children want to emulate their parents -want to fit in…?

Among the literature I read, was a helpful, but rather meandering essay by Michael Ruse, a professor of philosophy at Florida State University that helped exonerate me from my guilt. https://aeon.co/essays/is-it-wrong-to-teach-your-children-to-believe-in-god

Dawkins caused Ruse some lingering concerns, however: ‘Atheism, or its opposite, is not just about epistemology, that is, a question of whether or not it is true that there is no god or (Christian) God. It is also a matter of morality, of ethics: should one believe in a god or specifically in God, or should one shun such a belief? And if I believe in a god, am I abusing my children if I bring them up to believe in this same god?’

And yet, isn’t wondering whether or not a belief in god is a moral issue much like asking ‘Is there an Eiffel Tower or not? [It] seems clear that the answer is not really a matter of morality, but of epistemology, a question of knowledge.’ Is the question of God different? Well, Ruse suggests that ‘While we can have a consensus about whether or not the Eiffel Tower exists… there is a dimension of freedom around the God business that does demand judgment and commitment.’ In other words, there is no possibility of a habeas corpus, I suppose. After all, presumably you ought to believe only that for which you have good grounds. And notwithstanding the platitude that ‘absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’, unsubstantiated belief reminds me of the philosopher Bertrand Russell’s teapot analogy. As Wikipedia states it: ‘He wrote that if he were to assert, without offering proof, that a teapot, too small to be seen by telescopes, orbits the Sun somewhere in space between the Earth and Mars, he could not expect anyone to believe him solely because his assertion could not be proven wrong.’

Perhaps the most appropriate response to the differing religious beliefs and to those who might wish to persuade you of their own is merely to listen with respect. Religions and opinions are very much like colours -each of us have our favourites. And wouldn’t the world be monotonous place if there weren’t a choice? If everybody wore the same drab clothes?

In fact, if I remember correctly, that’s pretty much what I told Catherine, that day so long ago.

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