By Alex Butler
The subject of religion was not given much consideration in my childhood. Neither of my parents were religious. Even my great grandfather, who’d emigrated here from Italy as an adult, was said to have proclaimed, “I don’t need religion to teach me right from wrong; I can figure that out for myself.”
He was way ahead of his time as an Ellis Island Italian immigrant living in New York. I wonder if he’d felt a certain lack of camaraderie with other Italians because of it.
After college a friend and I produced some documentaries about a variety of subjects including religion. I remember coming to the conclusion that asking religious people about religion was like talking to a looped recording. There was no reason behind it. And although I knew I wasn’t a believer, I had yet to define exactly where I stood on religion but didn’t feel compelled to explore that until many years later, when I became a mom.
After being an agnostic for a while, I became an atheist, and then finally came to the conclusion that I was a freethinking humanist. So when my son eventually asked me if there was a god I remember turning to him and saying, “I don’t believe there is, but nobody really knows if there is or not.” He responded, “But the other kids say there is a god.” So I said, “Only because that’s what they were told.” I explained to him that there are people in the world who want you to believe in a god so you’ll offer them your loyalty and money. And, just for fun, I told him to “watch out for theologians, otherwise you could become the victim of diabolical mind control.”
I said that religion is the most lucrative institution on this planet, and I asked him to imagine what would happen if people took the billions of dollars they put into religious organizations and spent it on education instead. “Then your school would be able to pay for the music program they had to cut.” My son agreed, “That would be a good thing.”
When he asked “How did we get here?” my explanation was: “Most scientists have come to the conclusion that life on this planet began with the Big Bang. A huge explosion. Material from stars, the earth and water mixed together and eventually humans evolved from lower life forms.” And when he asked about heaven and hell? “It just doesn’t make sense,” I told him. “We create our own heaven and hell right here on earth. And remember, you should never do what’s right because someone said you’ll go to hell. You should do what’s right because it’s right.”
When my son was in 3rd grade I befriended the mom of one of his friends who turned out to be religious, and I remember mentioning to her that I didn’t want my child “infected” with any religion. Of course that relationship didn’t last, which is too bad. I liked her. Maybe the term “infected” was kind of harsh.
Recently we met a Christian family in the neighborhood. My son and their boy got along so well I didn’t want to sabotage the relationship in any way, so I told my son to stay away from the subject of religion, but if it came up he should say he was a freethinker, an inoffensive term to most people. After all, this is America. Who could argue with someone who wishes to think for themselves? Though, I don’t like the idea of us nonbelievers keeping our mouths shut. We should be shouting from the most populated mountain top: “Wake up people! We need to take responsibility for our world because there is no god watching out for us!”
So now, whenever my son sees a religious symbol he scoffs at it, saying it’s stupid and I turn to him and say, “Yes, but don’t be too harsh; most people just haven’t questioned it. Look to the scientists, who every day, explore, experiment, observe, ask questions and are the only ones who have given us an outline to that age old question, ‘What is life?’”
Alex Butler grew up in New York and has been living in Los Angeles for eleven years with her husband and 9 year old son. She received her BA in sociology and has made short films, designed clothing, and is now an artist who volunteers for the Center for Inquiry.