From the Oxymoron Department: Sunday School for Atheists

| Tue Dec. 4, 2007 12:10 PM EST

Religion is even more inescapable than usual this time of year as are the fights that ensue over it. Some of us are just spoiling for fights. Others have fights thrust upon them. Given it's muted tone, I wish I'd seen this piece before I wrote these about The Golden Compass and Mitt Romney's Mormonism. Not that it won't piss off 'the faithful'. But at least it sheds some light on the moral, let alone organizational, struggles of the unchurched. Atheists and anarchists: where, and why, are those conventions held?

Refusing even to entertain the ignorant notion that atheists and agnostics are ipso facto amoral - hmmm. Maybe I'll murder the moron who took my parking space since I don't believe in Jesus - the question remains: what do we teach our kids, and how?

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Like me, lots of free-thinking (see: Ralph Waldo Emerson, not Hugh Hefner) parents have had to face kids who come home proselytized by pamphlet-wielding zealots, their heads filled with that which we find anathema but which, to them, is oh so seductive. Especially when all the other kids identify themselves by their religions and their attendant cultures. Well, atheists are fighting back with sunday schools, sleep-away camps, and even the nation's first humanist charter school.

Without religion, there's no need for church, right? Maybe. But some nonbelievers are beginning to think they might need something for their children. "When you have kids," says Julie Willey, a design engineer, "you start to notice that your co-workers or friends have church groups to help teach their kids values and to be able to lean on." So every week, Willey, who was raised Buddhist and says she has never believed in God, and her husband pack their four kids into their blue minivan and head to the Humanist Community Center in Palo Alto, Calif., for atheist Sunday school.

One mother realized her son:

needed to learn about secularism after a neighbor showed him the Bible. "Damian was quite certain this guy was right and was telling him this amazing truth that I had never shared," says Kneisley. In most ways a traditional sleep-away camp--her son loved canoeing--Camp Quest also taught Damian critical thinking, world religions and tales of famous freethinkers (an umbrella term for atheists, agnostics and other rationalists) like the black abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

The Palo Alto Sunday family program uses music, art and discussion to encourage personal expression, intellectual curiosity and collaboration. One Sunday this fall found a dozen children up to age 6 and several parents playing percussion instruments and singing empowering anthems like I'm Unique and Unrepeatable, set to the tune of Ten Little Indians, instead of traditional Sunday-school songs like Jesus Loves Me. Rather than listen to a Bible story, the class read Stone Soup, a secular parable of a traveler who feeds a village by making a stew using one ingredient from each home.

Sounds like 'love your neighbor to me.' (And a lot better than this little bit of Christian love and tolerance.) In particular, the empowering anthems angle appeals. Something early that put me off about growing up a hard-core Southern Baptist was the emphasis placed on how unworthy we mere mortals were. I can't count all the songs, and sermons, that discussed how wretched and unworthy we are of God's grace and love. Way to go, original sin. I was 10 and already damned. Innately damned. Even the requirement to 'kneel' in prayer offends me. Why must I be humbled, why must I fear a god who loves me, why does he need so much praise and worship? Needy and manipulative much? I took only one tae kwon do class while serving in South Korea because we were required to bow to their flag on entering the room. I won't bow to ours either. I'll salute it, but bowing is out. (I keep hoping I'll be invited to visit Queen Elizabeth some day just so I can turn it down. Curtsey? I think not.)

I suppose the point of all this is that atheists need rituals, too, so that our children understand that secular humanism is just as powerful as any organized religion and far less likely to result in war or oppression in some god's name. That apathy in a world as fubar'd as ours is as unacceptable as causing actual harm. Good music wouldn't hurt either; my gospel cd collection is all that remains of the religion I was so steeped in. I wonder what atheist rock would sound like...

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