What Child Milestones Can an Atheist Contribute? May 8, 2009

What Child Milestones Can an Atheist Contribute?

Reader Claudia‘s friends are married and they just had their first child. The mom is a “mild Catholic” — the kind who does weddings, First Communions, funerals, and not much else — and the dad is an atheist.

They made an agreement I don’t think a lot of atheists would agree to: No church wedding, but the child gets raised nominally religious.

The baptism is coming up. It’s surely the first in a line of many religious events in this child’s life.

Claudia writes:

It occurs to me that the end result is that the mother is left in charge of symbolic moments without the fathers own values being reflected.

I think it would be nice if, in addition to the agreed upon Catholic ceremonies, the father could have something personal to contribute to these moments in his son’s life.

In this sort of atheist/theist relationship, what sorts of milestones can an atheist bring to the table?

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  • Milestones only have significance because we choose to grant them significance. With my own children we’ve got a bunch of amusing and interesting stories about their quirks and childhood errors. These are much better for us as a family than splashing them with some cold water or getting some strange guy to shake a voodoo stick at them.

    Isn’t “first day at school”, “first time they helped bake cookies” or “first song played on piano or guitar” a more significant milestone than “first time you played cannibal”?

  • I think other events in a child’s life stick with them more than ceremonies. Learning to swim, ride a bike, first trip to a zoo or aquarium, seeing their first lunar eclipse, first pet, birthdays of course, so many milestones that both parents can be a part of.

  • Chal

    Well, the atheist can bring all the milestones that don’t involve religion…

    Pretty sure there are plenty of those.

  • Ian

    Milestones like baptism are useful because the wider family is involved. It is true that first-cookie-baking is special, but normally grandparents, aunts, cousins, and so on don’t get to share it.

    Humanists in the UK are having an increasingly large number of naming ceremonies. Birthday parties are secular, etc…

  • Larry Huffman

    I agree with Hoverfrog…Milestones are there as we make them…and since religion is so full of ritual and ceremony, those are the easy ones to see.

    But the milestones that count…really count…are not marked down or remembered in the same way.

    How about the first time a child learns what getting burned is? Good lesson. How about that bees sting? Or that disobeying mom and dad on a big one…like do not cross the street without permission? First time they helped bake cookies…good one Hover…that is a big one. All of the above will not be remembered, but will have so much more practical significance than the more celebrated ones.

    The list can go on and on. The first time a child is approached by a religious person. The first time they fall in love. The first time they are dumped. The first time they dump someone. The first kiss (awww). The first ‘A’. The first ‘F’. The first detention. The first award in school (ok, that one gets marked down). The first wedding they attend. The first funeral they attend. the first time they ponder death and mortality. The first pet. The first time they have to put a pet down. Oh…tie a shoe.

    You will notice…none of these have to do with atheism. Atheists do not commemorate our non-belief…so there will not really be atheist milestones. But again…you can toss out the religious milestoens and the kid still grows up normal. Toss out the practical ones and the kid could have a rough life.

  • First visit to the Smithsonium Museum of Natural History? 😉

  • My kids have gone through the following:

    1. being able to crawl.

    2. hearing the “thud” when child figures out how to climb out of crib.

    3. giving up the pacifier

    4. giving up the bottle

    5. not needing dipers anymore

    6. first sleep-over at someone else’s house

    7. riding a bike

    8. saying that Santa is make believe

    9. saying that God is make-believe.

  • I like to make a big thing about the solar events because they have been with us for ever — the Solstices and the Equinoxes. Four of these events occur every year. They must have been pretty significant since religions have “commercialized” them for more than 2,000 years. March Equinox, for example, is responsible for more “religious” holidays than any other event. Most significant of these, of course, is Easter.

    We also celebrate “Conception Day” — not the Russian day — but the day when we got started. For example, I am a Valentines Baby because I was born in mid-November.
    It’s obvious how my parents celebrated Valentines Day — they created me! Just add three months to your birth date and you have an approximate day when you got started. I have found that practically everyone introduced to this “special” day has warm thoughts for their “start”.

    If you add Anniversaries and personal milestones one has more than enough “unique” celebrations.

    They are particularly “pure” in that none of them are contaminated with religious dogma.

    We take particular delight in creating our own Greeting Cards for our “Atheist” events. They are particularly special since you won’t find them in a card shop.

    I must also point out that these “events” will last a lifetime as they never lose their significance.

  • Allytude

    I kind of find this interesting because in a way I kind of grew up like this, in India. So “special” days for me were religious holidays- one did get a holiday for them- but it was always about the food and the presents and there were birthdays and other things- vacation from school days, little milestone days, post report card days- if I did well in school and so on.And we saw eclipses together, ( also the stars- my folks were astrophysicists) I think it is a matter of what parents what to emphasize. In fact I do most of these things at home in terms of good food, presents – and my husband finds it interesting how to be as non-secular yet joyful as we are. no kids yet though.

  • AMT

    How about baby’s first Richard Dawkins lecture? You could invite the extended family and even have a special dinner afterward. 🙂

  • bonafidebob

    Not long ago we celebrated my daughter’s 1000th day birthday. (There are websites that make this easy to figure out.) It’s a good excuse to make a fuss over someone, and not routine like an annual birthday.

  • There are plenty of traditional milestones from different cultures that have nothing to do with religion. For example, in Bulgaria we have this tradition called proshtapulnik. Basically, when the child learns to walk, the parents hold a celebration, invite the family and friends, have food. Then, they set up a low table with different objects (colouring pencils, jewelery, items representative of different professions, etc.) and let the child walk to the table and pick up a couple of things. The items the child picks are supposed to be representative of her or his future interests. You can find youtube videos of it if you google proshtapulnik.

    Incidentally, my objects were a calculator and a necklace. 🙂

  • stephanie

    Actually, since my parents weren’t religious our milestones were simply birthdays.

    I don’t see why people can’t find becoming one (a whole year!) or ten (first double digits!) or thirteen (officially a teeenager!) every bit as important as getting your head washed or being able to recite some catechism. We found these milestones important enough.

  • It may be worth checking out a nearby Unitarian Universalist congregation — many UU folks are atheist, agnostic, or humanist so it could be a welcoming community for the atheist parent.

    And they offer several lifespan rites of passage:

    ** dedication or naming ceremonies for infants and small children

    ** coming of age programs where youth and adult mentors spend time thinking about important questions of life

    ** “bridging” ceremonies for youth who are moving into adulthood

  • Chakolate

    I find this sort of thing very disturbing. My father was irreligious and my mother a devout Catholic, and my father had to agree that the children would be raised Catholic. When I was in my teens, and realized that it was all a lie, I felt betrayed and made a fool of. It was then that my dad admitted that he didn’t believe any of it.

    When I asked him why he let them lie to me, he said it was because he’d agreed to it before I was born. I told him that once I was born, he had a greater obligation to me than to keeping his promise.

    It still makes me angry. I suppose I’m especially angry because I really bought into the whole god thing. The more you buy into it, the more you feel like a chump when you find out the truth.

    I guess my point is that the dad should be honest with the child. My dad never said he didn’t believe until I’d already found the truth myself. I think it’s important for the dad to make it clear that he doesn’t believe in any gods.

  • Tom

    Milestones in life are not the days some priest declares should be important to the magical sky bully. Milestones in life are the days something important happened, and they’re usually not planned, although a few of them are.

    In my life, the milestones have been:
    * Birth
    * A stay in the hospital at age 3
    * My grandmother’s death
    * The death of my first dog
    * Getting my first puppy
    * My parents divorce
    * Graduating junior high
    * Learning to fly
    * Starting my first job
    * Graduating high school / going to college / the death of my dog
    * Getting my first apartment
    * Getting laid
    * Dropping out of college
    * The day my uncle was murdered
    * Landing my first good job
    * Falling in love for the first time
    * Becoming homeless
    * My grandparents’ funeral
    * The day I realized I will never be a father
    * Seeing Grand Canyon

    I’m working on adding a few more, hopefully happier ones. But, you can see that a lot of these things weren’t ceremonial in nature, and some of them weren’t even desirable. But they were pivotal to me. On the other hand, one of my most treasured memories wasn’t a big ceremony with a lot of people gathered around, it was a quiet saturday morning on a dew-soaked lawn when my grandfather quietly and gently showed me all the parts of an airplane and taught me to fly it – not just because it was a big taste of freedom for a kid, but because my grandfather was passing on to me his life’s work. I have right here his World War II pilot’s wings. Every time I see them I remember that morning, and the realization that I was no longer just a child, I could do real things in my life. So, ceremony does not equal quality or importance.

    Life is a little messy. Celebrate and take joy in great moments when they happen, and accept and survive bad ones, and you’ll have done as well as you can at dealing with milestones.

  • Tory Phoenix

    Well, I have a 2 year old. I the Atheist, and my wife a marginal Christian. We got married in a church because it was free and because it made her happy. My daughter was baptized again because it made her happy, and she was less then a year old, so I say no harm in it.

    However, now that she is getting older, I see a great deal of fighting in my future over how she will be educated. My wife doesn’t believe in evolution, and though I try to explain, she won’t listen.

    I guess I’m seeking advice here. How to deal with a religious spouse who was raised religious and isn’t willing to listen to or use reason in some parts of her life, our daughter being one of those.

  • I told my kids that when they turn 12, they can ride the tramway by themselves. It’s a big deal for a car-free family! 😀

  • How about not having the kid circumcised?

    Quite a big deal.

    Why do US Christians have their children subject to genital mutilation anyway?

    And why aren’t people put in jail for it?

  • I was hoping to be there when my daughter got her first tattoo.

  • K

    We have plenty of milestones without voodoo.
    Birthdays, first time in an airplane, first dive trip, first car, first date…I mean, sheesh, we’ve got years of memories.

  • gwen

    The milestones remembered by my sons 30 years later are the fact that I was at every ball game, even after working all night. The hikes we took into the parks that they now recreate with their latest girlfriends, having the only mom to take them puddle-jumping in the rain and learning the proper way to climb a tree. When we sit around and talk, those are the things that get mentioned–the times I spent WITH them. My own family, who were nominally religious for a while, my fondest memories are the summer we spent camping through Europe as a small girl, and greeting my dad every day with a shout and a hug as he came through the door, and having him read to us each night when we took turns having the privilege of turning the pages, something I also did with my sons, and is one of their fondest childhood memories. Religion is such a small part of life unless you are a nut about it, then you spend so much time missing all of the beauty if living! Atheist live life as if it is their last day on earth! I’m glad to be an atheist!

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