GROWING UP GODLESS:
HOW I SURVIVED AMATEUR
SECULAR PARENTING

EMILY ROSA

In 1987, I was born a seven-pound godless heathen, content with enjoying and exploring the world around me. My mother was delighted with my natural state.

Mom determined that, as much as possible, I would grow up without the intrusion of religion—or atheism. She, and later my stepfather, believed that when I reached a certain level of maturity and experience, I could decide such matters for myself.

Mom set out early to teach me the things she values: honesty, fairness, freedom, the fun of exploration and looking for evidence, and the notion that hard work pays off.

Things progressed well through my wee toddler years when Mom had control over things. She allowed me the time and the opportunity for exhaustive study of my environment. So when I became determined to break into neighbors’ cars with an old key, she followed after me down the street as I tried the locks to my heart’s content. Once she stood by as I asked every shopper in the grocery store whether they had a penis or vagina.

The first intrusions of religion came in preschool. My mother won’t lie, so when the Santa Claus myth came up, she told me right off that he was make-believe, and that she could be his helper (wink, wink) if I wanted. One year I really wanted to enjoy the fantasy, so I ordered my mom, “Don’t tell me about Santa being make-believe.” I still knew the score and didn’t have the letdown that my friends did later.

The truly hardest time was learning about death. I had seen the animated movie Land Before Time, in which the beloved mother dinosaur dies, though her spirit occasionally appears to give advice to her son. The thought of losing my own mom was devastating, and I even started to contemplate my own death. Teachers at preschool noticed my depression. They kindly advised my mom to comfort me with hope of an afterlife. She couldn’t honestly do that, yet felt at a loss for how to comfort me except to be with me as much as possible during that difficult time. Since then, death has probably been more on my mind than it has with most kids, and it may account for my abiding interest in forensic sciences and my appreciation for how precious life is.

When my first science fair loomed in the fourth grade, I chose to do a boring color separation experiment with M&M’s but lost interest when I realized I couldn’t eat the candy. My attention wandered to a videotape showing nurses claiming to heal people by waving their hands over them. These nurses were practicing “Therapeutic Touch” (TT), which they explained was an ancient religious practice called “laying on of hands,” but with a lot of extra Eastern mystical ideas. Among these was the idea that a “human energy field,” or HEF, exists around every person, and that TT practitioners touch and manipulate it with their hands. The HEF felt spongy, they said, like warm Jell-O, and even “tactile as taffy.”

Given these religious aspects, some adults might not have questioned TT any further. But with my upbringing, I was itching for the truth. Could those nurses really feel something invisible with their hands?

I asked Mom if I could test TT for the science fair, and she replied, “Sure, if you can figure out a way to test it.” With a little thought, I had my testable hypothesis: If these nurses can feel a real HEF, then they should be able to feel it when they aren’t looking.

The cardboard display boards used at the fair gave me the idea of how I could shield the nurses’ vision. The nurses would put their hands through holes in the cardboard; I randomly put my hand near one of theirs and asked them which of their hands felt my HEF.

I tested some very nice TT practitioners who couldn’t detect the presence of an HEF any better than guessing (with 48 percent correct answers). Everyone who entered the science fair got a blue ribbon, but I also got my answer.

My experiment was repeated for the TV program Scientific American Frontiers, and the combined results (only 44 percent right) were statistically significant and published in JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association). It became a sort of Emperor’s-New-Clothes event that the media jumped on. James Randi gave me his Skeptic of the Year Award, and Skeptic magazine, recognizing the potential of kid experimenters, launched Jr. Skeptic. I also had a great time at the Ig Nobel Awards* as a presenter that year.

TT practitioners came up with silly explanations for why they didn’t pass my test—the air-conditioning blew away my HEF, for example—and continue the practice religiously. But to date, none has ever refuted my experiment with another one.

My hometown didn’t take much note of my experiment, so I could go back to being a regular kid. Kids mostly just want to play with their friends, and religion isn’t that big a deal—though it is, unfortunately, to parents. I could ask a friend, “Do you think God really exists?” and only get a shrug in return. But I soon learned that if I asked that within a parent’s earshot, I could be banished from their home, and even be labeled a weirdo. I can remember some neighborhood boys throwing rocks at me and calling me “satanic.” (I asked Mom why they called me “Titanic.”)

Circumstances made me learn ways to appear an acceptable playmate. If asked what church I attended, I would answer truthfully, “Well, my mom and stepdad don’t go to church, and my dad and stepmom are Catholic. I haven’t decided yet.” This put me in the damned-yet-savable category. While that made me a target for conversion, I thought it an acceptable trade-off for having someone to play with.

Having parents who take on creationism or the Pledge of Allegiance also put a strain on my social life. Though my folks would ask my approval before intervening, I couldn’t always predict what I was in for. Some kids reflected their parents’ attitudes and shunned me. Fortunately for me, I had a few really good friends who would still sit with me at lunchtime.

imageKids mostly just want to play with their friends, and religion isn’t that big a deal—though it is, unfortunately, to parents. I could ask a friend, ‘Do you think God really exists?’ and only get a shrug in return. But I soon learned that if I asked that within a parent’s earshot, I could be banished from their home, and even be labeled a weirdo.image

My parents put their foot down when it came to “youth group.” I’d been invited by friends to attend this gathering of teens for Christian rock, food, and Bible lessons. My parents relented when they learned it was also a place for me to meet atheist teenagers who had been sent there by their parents to be brought back into the fold.

Atheist philosophy was easier to sort out than the value of being an atheist. I found many atheists, well, unpleasant. While I have met some remarkable atheists who are actively involved in making the world more civilized, I am frequently disappointed by atheists who gather only to indulge in rude jokes and angry religion bashing. Give me the company of happy-go-lucky religionists any day.

imageAlong with the usual secular values (such as appropriate tolerance/intolerance, morality, critical thinking, appreciation for reason and science), don’t forget to impart social graces, playfulness, and humor. Those go far in our short existences.image

My best advice to secular parents is to try not to raise grim, cynical, god-obsessed atheist children. Along with the usual secular values (such as appropriate tolerance/intolerance, morality, critical thinking, appreciation for reason and science), don’t forget to impart social graces, playfulness, and humor. Those go far in our short existences.

And as for my parents’ naïve plan to keep me from religion until I became an adult—frankly, it didn’t work. I suggest instead that children be given lots of information about all sorts of religious concepts. Satisfy their natural curiosity. Trust them to sort out the real from the unreal.

EMILY ROSA grew up in Colorado. In 1998, the appearance of her study on Therapeutic Touch in the Journal of the American Medical Association created a media sensation and put her in the Guinness Book of World Records as the youngest person to publish serious medical research, conducted two years earlier at age nine. She later experimented with “healing magnets” and in eighth grade won first place in her division at the Colorado State Science Fair for measuring the circumference of the world with homemade instruments and unique units of measurement. She studied forensic psychology at the University of Colorado Boulder.

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EXCERPT FROM AUTOBIOGRAPHY

BERTRAND RUSSELL

My father was a Freethinker, but died when I was only three years old. Wishing me to be brought up without superstition, he appointed two Freethinkers as my guardians. The Courts, however, set aside his will, and had me educated in the Christian faith. . . . If he had directed that I should be educated as a Christadelphian or a Muggletonian, or a Seventh Day Adventist, the Courts would not have dreamed of objecting. A parent has a right to ordain that any imaginable superstition shall be instilled into his children after his death, but has not the right to say that they shall be kept free from superstition if possible. . . .

I was taken on alternate Sundays to the (Episcopalian) Parish Church at Petersham and to the Presbyterian Church at Richmond, while at home I was taught the doctrines of Unitarianism. . . . At [age 15] I began a systematic investigation of the supposed rational arguments in favor of fundamental Christian beliefs. I spent endless hours in meditation upon this subject. I thought that if I ceased to believe in God, freedom and immortality, I should be very unhappy. I found, however, that the reasons given in favor of these dogmas were very unconvincing. . . .

Throughout the long period of religious doubt I had been rendered very unhappy by the gradual loss of belief, but when the process was completed I found to my surprise that I was quite glad to be done with the whole subject.1

RAISED WITHOUT RELIGION

OTHER VOICES OF KIDS AND ADULTS RAISED IN NONRELIGIOUS FAMILIES1

I don’t know what growing up in a religious home is like, so it’s hard to describe growing up in a nonreligious home. I am happy not being religious. I think I get to learn more accurate science and history. If you grow up with just one belief, you don’t really get to understand all the other beliefs. My parents make sure I know about lots of different belief systems, and they say I can choose one if I like. This makes me happy, because they are letting me make my own decisions and I know they will love me and support me, no matter what.

WILLA (11)

My parents were nominally Christian—presently, my father is a Freemason and my mother appears to have no faith—but this nominal belief was a label I later ascribed. Back then, religion just didn’t feature. This was the key. I had no religion pressed upon me; I was not forced to go to church and follow rituals. I went to Sunday school and left stomping one day. It wasn’t for me.

Going to boarding school from age seven also had an effect, allowing me to distance myself from my parents to become who I wanted to be. The result of this freedom was that religion wasn’t hard-coded. I adopted the Christianity of my school, which I later worked out was theologically utterly inaccurate—I just didn’t understand it.

Traveling and the Problem of Evil put paid to this belief early on. This freedom allowed me to grow and flourish and follow evidence to a much greater degree. I didn’t have to overcome a psychologically embedded worldview in order to work out the “truth” of the world, as it were. I was born neutral, I was brought up neutral, and I forged my own path with an intellectual freedom that was itself embedded. I was given the tools, not the conclusion.

JONATHAN PEARCE (39), philosopher and author, Fareham, Hampshire, United Kingdom

Being raised without religion is cool. After school my friends all have to go to CCD [Catholic religious education classes] or communion classes and I don’t, so I can just do my homework and then have fun and do other things. Also, I don’t have to worry about some guy up in the sky watching me all the time, which I kind of think is really creepy. It makes me feel nervous. Is he dead? Why is he watching me? It makes no sense that he’s just up there staring at us. I think there’s just sky, sky, and more sky up there.

I get a little nervous when I think about dying and not being together with my family anymore. I wish that we could always be together, and it scares me that we might not be since nobody knows what happens. But I’m glad we don’t believe in god because that part just doesn’t make sense. Plus my friends all say church is boring and on Sundays we always do family stuff, which is definitely not boring.

REESE (8), New Jersey

I was born in the late ’70s in Green Bay, Wisconsin, so when I was growing up it seemed like everyone else went to church on Sundays. I was told that I was going to hell a few times, but my family always made being secular seem so normal. My two sisters and I grew up to be very ethical adults without any sort of formal religious upbringing. One of my sisters is an atheist, but my other sister and I are more agnostic. My parents always encouraged a lot of reading, and I feel that a good background in mythology, Shakespeare, and classics teaches just as much about morality as going to church. I actually ended up going to a Jesuit university and found the religion courses to be very interesting since it wasn’t something that I was forced to learn as a child.

Being raised secularly was wonderful because I wasn’t taught that I was better than others because of some belief. We are all the same and we respect others’ beliefs. My husband was also raised secularly and our marriage has benefited. We just don’t have the same hang-ups that we might have had otherwise. There’s no fear of God. We just want to be good people, and that’s exactly how we are raising our children.

CARRIE (36), Milwaukee, Wisconsin

I think one of the benefits is being more open to possibilities. Let your children choose which religion they want because if you don’t, the child might rebel more.

TARYN (10), North Carolina

At 66 years old, raised in the Philadelphia Ethical Society since age 14, my fondest memory is the whole family, Mom, Dad, and my six siblings riding the bus to Rittenhouse Square every Sunday morning or piling into the family car (didn’t acquire that until I was 16) and driving down. There was a vibrant congregation and Sunday school with a different level for each of us from me on down. As far as Ethical education, I learned so much about other religious traditions because each of us in my grade level had assignments to research and present about Eastern and Western belief systems.

Now I am a member of the Washington Ethical Society. Developing my spiritual fitness at WES is a great way for me to start the week. It is a congregation that adheres very well to the Ethical Movement tradition of service to humanity and the environment.

SHEILA WALTERS (66), Washington, DC

I was brought up nonreligious in northern Virginia. My parents had spent their lives abandoning culture: when they’d moved north to leave the race issues and politics of the South, they had also left their Christianity behind. Their parental tactic for addressing all of these things was largely not to talk about them.

This was fine until I was 11 and a friend tried to convert me. She was genuinely worried about my lack of religion. All of the science and critical thinking I had been brought up with did nothing to protect or inform me in that situation. Her concern made me feel as if there was something wrong with me. It was an awful year. I quietly considered myself a Christian for a short while, then finally found a word to describe myself that made me feel proud of my nonreligious state: I was an atheist. When I told my parents, they were disgusted at the word, even though they were nonbelievers themselves.

MICHELLE CLAY (37)

I loved attending Sunday school at the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture. We had discussions, played cooperative games, learned about different traditions, created things, explored ethics, and were encouraged to share what was important to us (be it an item, a joke, or an idea). It was never a chore, although waking up early was often challenging. My favorite part of Ethical Culture is our seasonal festivals because they are unique multigenerational celebrations full of music, stories, and laughter.

My parents chose Ethical Culture because they came from different religions (one was Catholic and one was Jewish) and did not want to be solely responsible for their children’s moral upbringing. It was important to them that my brother and I had a religious community of caring people who would nurture our ideas and inspire us to look at life from different views. As a family, we still have difficult discussions on our beliefs, but always find common ground on our values. I greatly appreciate that my parents taught us to share both with them and others.

EMILY NEWMAN (30), communications director, American Ethical Union, Brooklyn, New York

My mom always encouraged me to challenge arbitrary authority and explore, even when it came to religion. For the latter, I went to different churches, watched different denominations worship (without participating myself), and even tried temple with my Jewish friends. These religions claimed to know ultimate truths about the universe—claims based on faith, not evidence. I could find no reason to elevate one religion’s claims over the others as more likely to be true. When I later read Edward Gibbon’s piece about philosophers regarding all religions as equally false, it was less a revelation than a confirmation of something I’d realized in my early spiritual wanderings. Thanks Mom!

An early exposure to laughing at the sacrosanct or mocking sacred cows might be critical to raising freethinkers. My family had two Easter traditions: egg hunt with the kids and watching Monty Python’s Life of Brian together. That early experience of laughing at the ridiculous, even if some people find it sacred, was instrumental in being able to challenge other religious ideas. If we treat an institution as sacred or infallible, its ideas become unassailable—no matter how absurd. Learning early on that ideas should stand or fall on their merits, and not on how deeply or faithfully someone believes in those ideas, contributed significantly to my atheism.

ANDREW SEIDEL, constitutional attorney, Freedom From Religion Foundation, Madison, Wisconsin

* The Ig Nobel Awards are a parody of the Nobel Prize. Sponsored by the Annals of Improbable Research, a humorous parody of a scientific journal, the Ig Nobels recognize weird, funny, or otherwise odd scientific (or pseudoscientific) “achievements.”

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