The Ethical Dilemma: Can I Be Scientific, Humanistic, and Christian?

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How Honest Should I Be? I raised my children in a secular manner but didn’t correct outside influences regarding God and religion. I regret this. My sons, while not zealots or even churchgoers, seem to be hedging their bets, and the son with children encourages them to go to church. In my passion for honesty and openness (something that comes easily with age), I told my grandchildren that I don’t believe in all that. The oldest is sad because I’m going to hell, and the youngest still believes in Santa. How honest should I be? I feel like if I always had been honest, we’d be good to go now. (But back then, I had a mother I didn’t want to hurt.)

—Partially Openly Secular

Dear Partially,

Isn’t it ironic that you held back because you didn’t want to upset your mother, and now you think maybe you should hold back so you don’t upset your grandchildren? When do you think might be a good time to be open about your views with those nearest and dearest?

But don’t beat yourself up. Even the most secular parents often have a child or two who becomes a believer. And you can’t get a do-over with your mother or with raising your sons—all you’ve got is the present and future. So you have to decide whether you want to spend the rest of your life downplaying your beliefs—and minimizing their influence on your loved ones—or give them a clear view of your views.

There’s no time like the present to start being fully you. The only possible reason to hold back is if certain family members (such as the mother of your grandchildren) would object to you sharing your views and causing the little ones to question what they are being taught. And if they would object, it’s your decision whether and to what degree to oblige, depending on whether the parents would restrict your access to the youngsters or otherwise impede your relationship with them. What you say and do must take into account any potential backlash from the parents.

I hope our readers will share what they tell people, especially beloved young children, who fear they are going to hell for their absence of belief. You need to come up with a good response for that one, as well as for any questions about why you don’t go to church but they do. The response that comes to my mind is, “I don’t believe in heaven and hell, so I don’t believe I will go to either one. I don’t go to church because I don’t believe in gods or in following religious teachings. What I do believe in is being as good as possible and loving my grandchildren.”

You also need to consider the parents’ wishes when it comes to spilling the beans about Santa. Better to plead the Fifth on that and let someone else do the deed. I don’t know any adults who still haven’t learned the truth. But if you never say anything that suggests there is a Santa, the kids will know you never fibbed to them (but their parents did, so what else might they be fibbing about?). They should know that any gifts you give them, on December 25 or any other day, are directly from you to them, with no magical delivery service.

You could bide your time and reveal more about your ideas as the children become more receptive, mature, and ready to understand (hopefully they will). You could even put your thoughts in letters to be delivered to them after you’re gone—but I hope you won’t feel you need to resort to that. Just as indoctrinating children into religion is most effective when begun very young, so is the opposite. And you’ve already begun. So now you just need to determine the best way to proceed.

What you don’t want to do is put the grandchildren in the middle of a tug-of-war over their beliefs and put yourself at odds with their parents. What I think you do want is for them to recognize they have a grandparent who is good without god and is someone they can talk to honestly about anything—especially if they start to see things the way you do.

Better to Be Darwinian Selfish or Selfless? I just watched a movie entitled Do You Believe? that referenced the American Humanist Association. Within my typically Christian definition of “good,” the phrase “good without God” would be an oxymoron, but the idea of “…equality for humanists, atheists, and freethinkers” remains consistent with biblical revelation. Am I conflicted in attempting to define my thought process as scientific, humanist, freethinking, and Christian?

The website I found in my research of the American Humanist Association mentioned a phrase that I used in a song I wrote eighteen years ago: common ground. Certainly, as human beings, we all the stand on common ground of physical reality and yet have been fighting and killing each other for millennia in the name of metaphysics, spiritual ideals, and, for lack of a precisely causative definition, “religion,” which, in my usage, includes atheism, and any other “-ism” I’ve encountered, including those who claim to be solely concerned with earthbound politics and even the fulfillment of purely personal desires.

My dilemma: From a perspective of “the good of humanity,” do we offer our lives for our fellow human beings, unselfishly? Or do we fight for our own, allowing the principle of “survival of the fittest” to apply the outcome of our struggle to the betterment of human kind? Or is there some intrinsic value to qualities like kindness and compassion that transcends the distinction of our respective belief systems?

—Sophist’s Choice

Dear Choice,

I have to admit I’m having a hard time following your query. Perhaps the question in your first paragraph is, “Can I be a Christian as well as a scientist, humanist and freethinker?” Maybe you are suggesting your Christian definition of good cannot stand without God. I have no idea what you mean by “consistent with Christian revelation,” but suspect that’s something I am not equipped to address because I’m so far from buying into it.

You seem to be saying good requires god and perhaps also that one must be Christian to be good. There are many entire books on this topic (including one actually entitled Good Without God by Harvard Humanist Chaplain Greg Epstein) that may be more helpful than this short answer. Just the part about whether you can believe in god and be a scientist is the subject of debate (and books). While some argue that you can, most—including most scientists—say the two positions are incompatible, and I suspect it only succeeds through mental compartmentalizing—keeping your scientific discipline mind in one cubby and your supernatural notions in another, and never trying to reconcile them. Because if you subject your religious beliefs to scientific analysis (which takes nothing on faith), faith fails.

In your second paragraph, it seems you are asserting that atheism and humanism are religions. If you extend that to all “isms” you would also include veganism, feminism, absenteeism, consumerism, solipsism, etc. To totally belabor the point, I’m linking a more complete list of isms. Although consumerism might be a religion for some, most other “isms” wouldn’t.

Calling atheism a religion, is, to quote Bill Maher, like saying abstinence is a sexual position (and Republican strategist Mary Matalin says yes to both). Right now it may seem as though atheism and humanism are religions because they are intrinsic components of debates over religious freedom and church/state separation, but if things were ever to evolve to the point where there were no more people who adhered to religions, there would be no more reason to try to stick the label “religion” on atheism, even though it would become the default life view. There also wouldn’t be much reason to talk about or identify with atheism—or religion—other than historically. We’d all just be humans, trying to understand how people in the olden days could possibly have been so mired in arguing about superstitions.

I’m not sure where you’re going with the part about common ground and killing over ideas, but there’s no denying that even within families, let alone among nations, that happens all the time. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep working on it, any more than we should give up doing laundry because things don’t stay clean after we wash them. Life is complicated and messy and often doesn’t conform to the pat answers proffered by religions.

The only question that is clear to me is the dilemma in your last paragraph: Should we take care of ourselves or sacrifice for some greater good? This question sets up a false dichotomy. Other people, and ideologies, are intrinsic parts of ourselves. On airplanes, you put on your own oxygen mask first so that you are capable of assisting your child—but if your child’s mask doesn’t work, should you give him yours? What if you have more than one child who will be left without a parent if you were to do that? This is not a simple question with a simple answer, but this is the stuff all people everywhere must grapple with, and there is no blanket right or wrong answer. Even “survival of the fittest” is a trick concept: What constitutes fitness? Is it strength, intelligence, compassion, selfishness, selflessness, obedience, disobedience?

I haven’t seen Do You Believe? but have read enough about it to know it’s not high on my list of ways to spend a couple precious hours (a Variety reviewer called it “spiritual dreck”). It seems you may be noticing things you admire about atheism, freethought, and science that you are having difficulty reconciling with your faith. I applaud your desire to address your questions—particularly bringing them to a humanist forum.

Before I invite our readers to comment (and perhaps they’ll understand what you’re asking better than I do), let me note that this is a humble weekly advice column that is not up to settling questions on the level of “What is the meaning of life?” It’s a perfectly fine place to begin, but not to end. I expect our readers will have some excellent insights into what you’re grappling with and great recommendations for how you might explore further. Be sure to keep an eye on the comments section below for the next week or two as people weigh in with their suggestions.