Motherhood, mental illness and beyond

When I was a young child I believed in God. I was christened in the Church of England and until I was 5 or 6 (when my father lost his faith) my family attended church quite regularly. My parents were careful to raise my sister and me in a balanced way though, we were encouraged to explore our beliefs and make up our own minds about religion. As a result my sister is a committed Christian while I am a convinced atheist (well done Mum and Dad!).

I’m not an atheist of the sneering, Dawkins-led kind though; I have no time for that sort. To be honest there are times when I wish that I had faith; I see how comforting it can be in hard times and I wish that I had that extra support. But to me religion simply makes no sense. There are aspects of religion that I love though: the beauty of the buildings, the sense of community, the music, some of the rituals (in fact I recently read a great book by the philosopher Alain de Botton, enthusing about how helpful many aspects of religion could be in secular life – it’s called Religion For Atheists if you want to check it out).

I’ve mentioned before how my atheism can sometimes make parts of motherhood tricky (discussing death with young children for example). I wish that I could tell my children that there is a supernatural being watching over them. I wish that I could tell them that heaven exists, that they will be reunited with lost loved ones after death. But to me and to DH it’s just too big a lie. We can just about manage Santa Claus (although DD already has her suspicions about his authenticity) but not heaven or deities.

However we are being careful to raise the children to be curious and open-minded. When DD asks I explain that Mummy and Daddy believe X, while other relatives and friends believe Y, and some people believe Z. It’s important to me, to us, that the children come to their own decisions about religion as they grow up. It’s equally important that they learn to be respectful of other people’s right to their beliefs, although respecting some of the actual beliefs (those leading to homophobia, misogyny etc) can be nigh on impossible.

As we live in the UK, a culturally Christian country, we celebrate the major festivals of Christmas and Easter. DD knows the nativity story and that that’s why some people have a religious Christmas, but so far we’ve steered clear of the rather more gory Easter story. We don’t do the religious traditions but we do the secular ones (a decorated tree and presents, chocolate at Easter) and celebrate the original purpose of the pagan festivals held at this time (the midwinter feast marking the beginning of the end of winter, and the spring feast marking the signs of new life).

DD will start school in September and as we are in England a daily act of worship is required by law. A lot of non-faith schools get around this by having daily assemblies where stories are told – stories from religions, stories such as Aesop’s fables and so on – and having prayers almost as an afterthought, or instead having a minute for being thoughtful. This will be DD’s first real exposure to organised religion (I’m not sure an annual Christingle service with my mum and sister really counts!) and I expect that she will have lots of questions. I just wish I had all the answers…


Comments on: "Reflections on motherhood and atheism" (12)

  1. How the fuck is a daily act of worship still required by law? I do believe in God, but I thought it was schools’ purpose to educate, not indoctrinate.

    • Very few schools, not directly linked to a denomination of church, have anything like a daily worship. Even assemblies rarely mention any religious stories except at times of major Christian festivals. I know that the requirement exists but it is “got round” easily. One school I have taught in was not “allowed” to celebrate Christmas while a Jehovah’s witness child was a pupil. The nativity show was abandoned and a “Winter play” was put on instead with the theme planets. :-S The sad thing was that the girl at her old school had loved Christmas there as she enjoyed it but it was not celebrated at home.

  2. You might want to look at my post “Finding God: A Guide for Atheists” at I think you may have been looking, if you are looking, for God in a lot of wrong places. I hope this might be helpful to you.

  3. jojojeunemaman said:

    Although I’m Catholic by tradition and I’ve chosen to send Bella to Catholic school I’m aware and all for her to question her faith. Not all the teachings I agree with and I think all faiths are a pick and mix and I believe that alot of teachings are open to interpretation and that’s how I take things on. E.g. Yes sex before marriage was not appropriate in the days where women had no access to contraception no rights therefore no financial support should she have got pregnant. One thing that got me believing in a creator was if we take the camera – an object of incredible design, the abilty to take an image , flip it and interpret into data/picture – similar to what a human eye does. If you look at the the most advanced computer and its systems and compare the the human body what is able to breathe in air and take in oxygen, filter out what it doesnt need and breathe out carbon dioxide, have a reproductive system to reproduce its own kind, in the case of a woman send signals that reproduction has not taken place that month,not only absorb and expel nutrients from its energy source- food but also enjoy the tastes, a central system that controls everything in our body and stores so much data without need for upgrades, a constant pumping device which passes blood through our body through tubes veins/arteries,can feel such strong emotions such as love for another human be it spouses or a love for a child rather than just a sense of duty to offspring and lust for a mate. Just think we have a respiratory system, digestive system, reproductive system, nervous system and each organ all of which have a purpose to our body. If we as humans can design and create systems such as a computer, camera maybe it’s not so unrealistic to think that somebody or something designed us. Science explains how but religion – whatever religion tries to explain why. It doesnt have to be organized religion just the belief that something created us – even if was a geeky alien teenager on some twist sort of sims game who can’t quite control us and the evil that we as humans can create.

  4. I’ve always struggled with how to tell my children I’m an atheist. They are getting old enough now and the time is nearing. Not exactly sure how I will though.

  5. Claire SA said:

    I was politely asked to leave Sunday School after too many ‘why do Adam & Eve have tummy buttons if they were created from dust and a rib?’, ‘where are the dinosaurs in genesis?’ and ‘why is Jesus white if he’s from the middle east?’ questions. I took it as a sign and started to appreciate the world around me as it is, not as someone wrote about it in a book several centuries ago. For a full explanation of my religious views, please see Tim Minchin’s ‘Tony the Fish’ story of evolution! 🙂

  6. Hmm. Yes, this is tough. My daughter’s local school (300 yards from house) is a CofE school. It is also the smallest school in town and is ‘outstanding’ according to Offsted. We are not churchgoers. Have the kids have church places and I know several families who attended church for a year to get their kids in there. Our dd has one of the much fought after community places, just because we are so local.

    She knows an extraordinary amount about Christianity and calls herself a Christian now but knows Mumny doesn’t. She is also troubled by some aspects of the Bible: ‘Mummy, if God created the Earth, who created God?’, ‘Well, people who believe in Him believe he’s omnipresent’, ‘Yeah that makes no sense Mummy, and who made the dinosaurs?’.

    I find it a weekly challenge. But at the moment, I play it very much as you do and make clear we can talk about it whenever she has questions.

    • Dinosaurs loom large in questions about the biblical account of creation. However, I have never heard of anybody raising the question of why there are no dinosaurs in Shakespeare’s plays although the answer in both cases is the same. The writers did not know of dinosaurs. At this point I think Isaac Newton can help us out. He believed that the first chapter of Genesis described the world we lived in and how we perceived it. This removes the need for dinosaurs but gives us a grounding for our existence.

      If you look at Genesis 1:1 to 2:2 in a Bible you will probably see that the passage is formatted as poetry. This tells us two things, one that it is a creation myth, and two, that it should not be used as a basis for natural history. All ethnic groups that I have read about have a creation myth so it is not surprising that the Israelites were given one. One thing you will notice about the beginning of Genesis is that, compared to the others, the biblical myth is the most realistic. Actually there are no mythological creatures in it.

      The apparent realism of the biblical myth led conservative Bible interpreters into the trap of literal interpretation. This led to six-day creationism, apparently endless controversy, and a way for people to reject, on a supposedly scientific basis, the truths of Christianity.

      The secular creation myth of our time, evolution, has many defects. A French philosopher, Etienne Gilson, wrote in 1975 that evolution was bad science and worse philosophy. It has not improved since so I would recommend that you not use it to educate your daughter. If your daughter does have faith in God then she will come to understand creation (Hebrews 11:3) in the right way. I hope you will allow her to grow in her faith.

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