Since I’m a counselor, I’ve heard a lot of life stories. And people tend to fall into two several camps. Some people had wonderful families but where treated horribly from society. Others had horrible families but were treated well by society. Some had horrible families and were badly treated by society. And some lucky ones had wonderful families and were treated well by society.
As for me, I fall into the wonderful family camp treated horribly by society. People often find this surprising. My parents are atheists, and they were loving, caring, and I couldn’t have asked for a better family. And unlike some parents who were atheists, they didn’t attempt to raise my sister and I with religion. They figured that Secular Humanism offered a good moral system, and the thing is, studies have born out that raising kids without religion may be better. Pretty much, the findings echo what I’ve found with my family.
What did my life growing up without religion look like?
I’d wake in the morning and my mom would have breakfast ready. My dad would drive my sister and I to school and make up stories based on the antics of our cats and dogs that would have my sister and I rolling with laughter. After school they would help us with homework and have a family dinner. We never prayed before meals. Prayer was never part of our lives and not something we ever felt we were missing out on. In the evening, we might read together or watch Star Trek: The Next Generation, and later Deep Space Nine and Voyager. Star Trek offered lots of moral dilemmas for us to discuss. In essence, my parents didn’t want to preach morality to us, they wanted us to think about what was right and wrong, and Star Trek was the vehicle we did that with. And, it often heartened me to hear, that Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, was an atheist. At bedtime my mom would read to us and our parents would sing to us. Then we could read quietly until 9:20 (later as we got older) and go to sleep.
Reading was also very important in my family. My mom read to us before bed time until I was a pre-teen. In addition to the typical children’s classics, we read The Diary of Anne Frank, and my mom never shied away from difficult questions children ask as they try to figure out how people can do something so horrible as committing genocide against a group of people. Once we got too old to be read to, we would all read silently together in the living room, often passing books between each other and having discussions over them.
Music was a joy for our family. All of us are musical. My dad plays the piano and my sister and I would often stand by the piano and ask him to play The Pink Panther and The Entertainer. My sister followed his led and learned the piano, and eventually the viola and the flute. My mom played the trombone. As for me, I studied the violin and am a good vocalist. Part of our Christmas Eve routine was playing and singing Christmas carols together.
But music also joins with another love, Broadway. We all love musicals. Going to see a stage production is often the highlight of our month. I love the catharsis of seeing a musical performed on a stage, the emotional high that two hours of people singing brings. Our favorites include Les Miserables, Wicked, Miss Saigon, The Music Man, The Phantom of the Opera, A Fiddler on the Roof, and yes, even Jesus Christ, Superstar. We’ve seen multiple productions of our favorite musicals and usually leave the theater in animatedly discussion on the acting, the quality of the singing, what we liked and disliked about the staging, etc.
We also love animals. Our house was always populated with much adored cats and dogs, all of whom were rescues. We strongly believe in getting pets from animal shelters and are against animal breeding. There are millions of loving pets in need of a good home. We’re only sorry we’re able to shelter so few of them.
The other thing that marked my family was a drive to improve the world. Secular Humanists do not believe a god will come and save us, so we humans have to do what we can to better the world. My parents donated blood regularly until they were unable to for health reasons. My dad would write letters to the editor and representatives. My mom worked as social worker for a time, working on a mission to stop and prevent child abuse and help teach positive parenting skills. When Hurricane Katrina hit, we opened our home for a displaced family. When my parents learned that one of my sister’s classmates in band was too poor to afford her own instrument, my mom worked with the school to pay for one for her. Early on my mom picked up on my need to help others and helped me find opportunities to volunteer with different agencies that I was interested in.
My parents respected my sister and I enough to trust that if they weren’t dictators, we would do the right thing. And we never wanted to betray their trust, so we were better behaved than children from families that are very strict. My sister and I never rebelled. My parents made it hard to rebel because they were so reasonable. They never got onto us about what we wore or what music we listened to. They never stopped us from reading books that were too adult, they just made sure they talked to us about the themes we found. I often believe parents make a big mistake when they tell their children they can’t wear certain clothes, or listen to certain music, because if you clamp down on the little, harmless things, you set up a battle situation, and kids progress to rebelling on larger issues to say, “you don’t own me.”
Since my parents never told us we couldn’t do harmless stuff such as wearing shirts that showed our navel (it was the 90s) or listen to Alanis Morisette (again, 90s, so we worshiped Alanis), we never saw the need to progress to more extreme forms of rebellion. My parents accepted that my sister and I were our own people, so there was no need to rebel.
I know all of this freedom seems unthinkable to people from strict families. The thing is, with all this freedom, my sister and I ended up being the ultimate goody two shoes and we derided as Hermione Grangers by our more rebellious friends. We were never home past 10PM (unless we were staying the night with friends, which my parents knew about. We also never had a curfew, we just never stayed out past 10). We did our homework without having to be asked. We never drank until we were the legal age, and neither of us has done drugs, not even marijuana (just not interested). And both of us were so busy with honors classes that we didn’t even date until we were in college. I was 19 when I had my first kiss.
My parents actually would have liked for us to have dated in high school and were often baffled by our lack of love life. My mom would tell me over and over again, “there’s nothing wrong with being interested in a guy.” But my sister and I were focused on getting good grades and getting into college. There just wasn’t time to waste with boys (who, especially in high school, were much more immature than us anyway).
High school was filled with fun trips to Big Bend and seeing the latest science fiction flick in theaters and trips to the music hall for our favorite musical performance. My mom would often say “no one has as much fun as our family” and she was right. Our outings were often filled with laughter filled camaraderie. My sister and I could talk to our parents about anything. They encouraged us in our pursuits and accepted that we were our own people. My friends would often say that if they could have their choice of any parents, they would choose my parents, especially my dad (a lot of my friends did not have a good father figure in their life, and so they latched on to my silly, involved and nurturing dad who rarely raised his voice and is in a vein similar to Otto Frank).
There was such a dichotomy, growing up in the south and hearing that atheist families are immoral and unhappy, and turning around and seeing my very happy, loving, and moral atheist family. After awhile it became filed under “myths Christians tell themselves to feel superior” folder.
Christians often say the family that prays together stays together. I beg to differ. The family that plays together stays together. Mine and the thousands (and growing) happy secular families are proving this.