Raising Kids in an Atheist Household

I have been a recovering Hindu for a while now although my parents are still grappling with my atheist avatar and still consider it as a passing phase. I refuse to participate in any religious rites but rarely involve myself in heated religion debates. Although my dad claims to be a nastik [1], he is anything but. Any religious rites that any astrologer will suggest is dutifully carried out without question. When my parents visited us last year, he asked my wife if we celebrate any Indian festivals. She replied, not really. He then proceeded to sneak in one of his judgmental remarks by adding, so there is no occasion for joy? I could simply shake my head in disbelief and bite my tongue to avoid yet another showdown that others have come to expect when we meet. But his remark also made me think – are there any festivals or joyous occasions that atheists can celebrate without invoking any reference of god?

In contemporary India or America, religious festivals are largely community or family events that have little deference to actual religious rites. I’m an avowed atheist and my wife is at best an agnostic. By no measure, we are a religious couple so we hardly expect to raise our kid(s) in any particular religious environment. At the same time, we wouldn’t like them to shy away from our cultural heritage and other community or familial events that would bring much joy to their lives. Consider this post to be more of an open discussion rather than narrating a set of diktats.

Since we are Indians living in America, our kid(s) have the added advantage of celebrating twice the number of festivals. But at the same time, I would like to stay away from the purely religious ones. With the exception of Laxmi Pujan, Diwali is hardly a religious festival and my childhood memories are dominated by sweets and firecrackers. Similarly, Holi is hardly the worship of the bonfire but mostly about the joy of playing with water balloons, pichkaris, and colors. On this side of the pond, Christmas although central to the Christian faith has long departed from remembering the birth of Jesus Christ (Fox News tries to remind us every year in vain) and instead focuses on Santa Claus and the number of gifts he is supposed to bring depending on how good you have been. Easter is more about chocolate eggs and bunnies than about Christ rising again. As you grow older, St. Patricks’ Day is about partying and getting wasted. Thanksgiving doesn’t even have a religion-centric origin and focuses on enjoying a hearty meal with family and friends while watching football.

The only exception would be Ganesh Chaturthi where the entire aim of the festival is to worship a clay idol for 1.5 to 10 days; that is something that I never intend on doing although it is a hundred-year-old tradition in my family. Thankfully my dad has one more son to whom I have gladly passed on the baton of continuing the tradition. I like to think the transition has been smooth and acceptable to all parties concerned.

This thought experiment started out trying to think of festivals and events that we as a family could celebrate without bowing down to an entity that I’m sure doesn’t exist and to my surprise, I found plenty. After my kid(s) grow up, they are free to make up their mind about the existence of god but I, like other religious parents, am going to pass on my beliefs except in my case, they are of atheism. We have images and idols of Hindu gods in our home but none of them are worshipped and merely serve as art pieces. At the same time, I would not like to deprive them of any community or family involvement. I wouldn’t want them to not celebrate any festival that isolates them from their friends or family members. The more I think about it, the festivals that most kids enjoy hardly have any direct religious connotations. In fact, the favorite festival for kids, Halloween is in fact a pagan ritual that many Christian kids enjoy and allowed to do so by their otherwise evangelical parents (kids get free candy so how can they stop them?) We shall have no religious rites or ceremonies that goes against my belief system but merely focus on the joyous times that festivals are supposed to be. There shall be no folding of hands or visiting temples alhough I’m aware that this might hamper our acceptance in the desi community stateside. This is not to say that I’m repulsed by Hindu mythology. On the contrary, I find it quite fascinating and the potential for story-telling is endless and it contains several moral lessons as well. But I draw the line at idolizing any characters and worshipping them.

Do any of you either as parents or future parents have grappled with this dilemma? How do you deal with it? What festivals do you celebrate and how? Or for that matter, have you ever given it a thought or merely shrugged your shoulders and accepted it as it comes?

  1. Indian term for atheist []

How Religion is hurting the Armed Forces

Sullivan was working as an analyst at the Veterans Benefits Administration in Washington in early 2005 when he was called to a meeting with a top political appointee at the VA, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy Michael McLendon. McLendon, an intensely focused man in a neatly pressed suit, kept a Bible on his desk at the office. Sullivan explained to McLendon and the other attendees that the rise in benefits claims the VA was noticing was caused partly by Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who were suffering from PTSD. “That’s too many,” McLendon said, then hit his hand on the table. “They are too young” to be filing claims, and they are doing it “too soon.” He hit the table again. The claims, he said, are “costing us too much money,” and if the veterans “believed in God and country . . . they would not come home with PTSD.” At that point, he slammed his palm against the table a final time, making a loud smack. Everyone in the room fell silent [emphasis mine].

Think religion is not detrimental to the armed forces? This damning article by Tara McKelvey asks, if religion is an obstacle to treatment of veterans. Mixing god with military objectives is always going to be counter-productive as you play right into the hands of the terrorists who feel vindicated on their use of jihad as a political weapon. But if your use of religion and god is standing in the way of treating injured veterans who put their lives on the line for your political beliefs, then there is a special place in hell for you. And I know you believe in hell.

Pregnancy Rates in Red States

“The CDC says that southern states, where there is often the greatest emphasis on abstinence and religion, tend to have the highest rates of teenage pregnancy and STDs” [via Guardian].But then why should that surprise us?

Nice Clean Liberation of Women

On International Women’s Day today, the Vatican once again showed how out of touch they are with today’s women. Or probably Whirlpool donated a stained glass window or two. But of course, this pales in comparison to the other bone-headed decision by the Vatican.

Blind Faith

Why do I hate religion? Because of cases like these where religious dogma supports the life of an unborn fetus over the physical and mental state/life of an innocent living child.

Opposing Pro-Choice

After the Tom Daschle debacle, Obama named Kansas Governor Kathleen Sibelius as the nominee for the Secretary of Health and Human Services. But of course, being the opposition party that is today, some factions of the conservative party are gearing up to contest her nomination. Their opposition is almost laughable; she is a Catholic and she support abortions. Mind you, she is not in the running for Pope but a bureaucrat position in a country where abortion is legal. Also, she is a Democrat where people supporting abortion is not too uncommon. Does that fact that she is a Catholic change anything? We already have had a President who accidentally confessed that he was doing god’s work by waging an unpopular war. We all know how that went. When religious dogma trumps rational policy making, the results are never good so in fact we should be thankful that Sibelius can separate her personal faith from her duties as the head of the Department of Health and Human Services.

The conservative groups say, she is “the most rabidly pro-abortion governor” in the country [source]. I’ve never understood how anyone can be labeled pro-abortion when in fact, such a position on abortion is clearly seen as pro-choice. We do not actively hunt down pregnant mothers and abort their babies laughing gleefully. We offer a choice to the mother who as conservatives will agree that an individual is best suited to make a decision on their health. If she chooses to have the baby as teen mom Bristol Palin in Alaska did, great! If not, we understand that too.

Anyway, it seems that the opposition to Kathleen Sibelius is already diffused with Kansas Senator and evolution-denier Sam Brownback along with other Kansas Republicans Sen. Pat Roberts and former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole endorsing her. Partly the reasons may be to get her out of the way for the Senate race in 2010. But it is a slap to the religious conservatives nevertheless.

Offensive Elephants

You start pay attention to every little offense these religious nuts throw at you and it just gets more and more ridiculous.

Do only Atheists believe in Evolution?

Evolution and Religion

The world celebrated Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday this past Thursday. Darwin, as many know, is known for his revolutionary theory of evolution. Evolution has been unanimously acknowledged by the scientific community and served as the basis of biology. But compared to other scientific theories (yup! gravity is a theory too), evolution gets the step-brotherly treatment from the general population driven primarily from religious dogma.

Surprisingly, according to this chart by Pew Research, a higher percentage of Buddhists, Hindus, and Jews abelieve in evolution than atheists (unaffiliated)[via]. Go figure! Does this imply that religiosity does not affect belief in evolution? Probably but it helps to remind oneself that Buddhists, Hindus, and Jews make up for less than one percent individually of the total population and they are more likely to be college-educated and high-income. The religious zealots of these religions are less likely to be in the United States although religious tenets of Buddhism and Hinduism isn’t in conflict with evolution compared to Christianity. High levels of education and income probably explain the Jewish angle. It is still a significant level above the general United States population of which only 48% believe in evolution. The role of religion in social and cultural life in the United States has permeated to the educational system leading to skewed beliefs and results in United States lagging behind in belief for evolution compared to its peers of developed nations.

Sakshi had raised the issue (on Twitter) on whether people really understand how evolution works as opposed to belief. I admit that the Maharashtra school board hardly touched on the topic let alone explain it. If it was taught after 10th standard, I had already opted for a Biology-exempt curriculum of PCM (Physics-Chemistry-Maths) for my 12th boards. Yup, I blame the educational system for not including teaching of evolution earlier but that’s a rant for another day. I would attribute belief in evolution or for that matter, any scientific fact as deferring to the experts whom we implicitly trust. There is much in our technologically advanced society that we do not understand but believe in. Of course, one should make utmost efforts to understand evolution but to merely dismiss it without actually studying it because of its apparent contradiction with your religious beliefs is detrimental to your intellect. On a related note, read Olivia Judson’s Dr Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation delightful, fun, and of course, informative book on mechanisms of evolution.

On the Indian front, if a higher percentage of Indians ‘believe’ in evolution then it is probably due to the fact that there is no competing argument present in the Indian society as intelligent design is in the United States. The level of religiosity in India is similar to that of the U.S. but compared to Christianity, Hinduism perhaps does not impose strict beliefs that believers need to adhere to be considered as Hindus. Science and religion have largely co-existed peacefully in India and although there have been occasional skirmishes, science and education has been left alone. Not surprisingly, belief in evolution in rigid Islamic societies is pretty low too and I’m not sure the United States wants to be in that company.

The GOP’s God Problem

This op-ed column in the Washington Post by Kathleen Parker is one of the most honest assessments of GOP’s troubles written by a conservative. Parker lays the blame on GOP’s religion-centric stances. She was also one of the early conservative who called out the farce that was Palin.

Religious Brainwashing

Couple of days back I shared Atanu’s story on religious crackers on this blog. Since then, Atanu known to call a spade a spade has been calling out on a particular commenter’s inane arguments (see comments for an example of some fine online spanking). While I believe religion to be the bane of modern civilization, I also believe that monotheist religions as a subset of all religions, as Atanu eruditely points out, are particularly harmful. I’m a recovering Hindu and an almost-atheist so any stories pertaining to inanity of religion and references to their implementation in brainwashing the gullible populace are particularly interesting in reinforcing my new found (lack of) faith.

According to this article in Slate, religious indoctrination in Saudi Arabia (where else?) reveals the true nature of monotheist religions that I believe separates them from other religions:

In a multiple-choice question that appears in a recent edition of a Saudi fourth-grade textbook, Monotheism and Jurisprudence, in a section that attempts to teach children to distinguish “true” from “false” belief in god:

Q. Is belief true in the following instances:
a) A man prays but hates those who are virtuous.
b) A man professes that there is no deity other than God but loves the unbelievers.
c) A man worships God alone, loves the believers, and hates the unbelievers.

The correct answer, of course, is c).

The problem with monotheist religions is not that they ask you to believe their god but go further and ask you to hate or damn those who choose not to believe. Simply, my god/religion strongest! I’m sure there are plenty of people from monotheist religions who don’t believe in this extremist view but then in a sense they are not adhering to their religion’s diktats and even might be guilty of blasphemy. You may offer hazaar justifications that most of your religious adherents do not believe in the belief that ‘my way or the highway’ or as Bush put it succinctly, either you are with us or against us but at the end of the day, the extremists who tout this viewpoint find justification from no other place but their holy books.

Now I won’t lecture you on changing your religion or the way it attempts to brainwash your innocent children. Heck, if you don’t try to convince me of the so-called superiority of your religion and let me live my atheist life in peace, its fine by me. I won’t hold your religion against you if you don’t hold my lack of faith in it against me. Change for a religion must come from within and will only work when the moderates update their views with the changing times. If moderates remain silent they let the extremists dictate the agenda and in effect the way their religion is perceived. I will not ask you to criticize your religious extremists each time they decide to act crazy but remember, they are maligning your religion that is, the one thing you portend molding your value and hold so dear. I could couldn’t care less.

Much Ado Over Crackers

Cracker Pots! And you thought only Islam holds the torch for religious fundamentalism and intimidation of those who refuse to believe in their bullshit.

Hindus are offended by the Love Guru?

Rajan Zed, the Hindu priest whose claim to fame was getting his prayers in the U.S.Senate interrupted by crazy Christians somehow has my email ID in his mailing list (DesiPundit is not exactly what it sounds like). I received the following email today morning:

Hindus are asking Paramount Pictures, presenter of Hollywood movie “The Love Guru”, and its parent Viacom, to include a video and a booklet about Hinduism and its tenets with its DVD version when it is launched in the market in the future.

Advancing the campaign launched by acclaimed Hindu leader Rajan Zed; Bhavna Shinde, representing Hindu Janjagruti Samiti and Sanatan Sanstha, in a communiqué to Viacom Founder Sumner M. Redstone, Paramount Chairman Brad Grey, and others, said, “‘The Love Guru’ ridicules Hinduism and has hurt the feelings of the Hindu community worldwide”.

She further stressed, “; to undo some of the damage done to the community by Paramount Pictures and Viacom through this movie, Paramount Pictures should (in consultation with acclaimed Hindu leader Rajan Zed) — produce a brief video about Hinduism and its tenets, and enclose it with ‘The Love Guru’ DVD, publish a small booklet about Hinduism and its tenets, enclose it with ‘The Love Guru’ DVD, attach a disclaimer at the beginning of ‘The Love Guru’ DVD”.

Meanwhile, to counter “the gross misrepresentation of the Guru-disciple relationship” in “The Love Guru”, Spiritual Science Research Foundation has announced holding interactive workshops across the world on “Who is a Guru” and to educate public about true Guru-disciple relationship around the occasion of coming Gurupurnima celebrations.

On the other hand, congratulating Rajan Zed for his successful campaign against this movie, Nevada Clergy Association has urged Paramount and Viacom to issue a general public apology over the “The Love Guru” issue, which, it says, “will help heal the wounds of seemingly perturbed one-billion-strong Hindu community”.

Zed, who is president of the Universal Society of Hinduism, and who launched campaign against this movie starting in March, has given a worldwide boycott call against it by Hindus and other religious people because it lampoons Hinduism and Hindu concepts and uses Hindu terms frivolously, saying, “Today it is Hinduism, tomorrow Hollywood might attempt to denigrate another religion/denomination.” A prominent Jewish Rabbi, Elizabeth W. Beyer of Nevada, has already called for boycott of “The Love Guru” because it “; lampoons Hinduism, mocks Ashram life and Hindu philosophy; ”

“The Love Guru” (88 minutes), a comedy starring Mike Myers (of Austin Powers fame), opened June 20 in USA and Canada and will be released in different parts of the world in the near future. Leading global entertainment content company Viacom’s family of brands includes MTV, Paramount, DreamWorks, etc. Paramount Pictures Corporation is a global producer and distributor of filmed entertainment.

First, I do not agree with the first line that starts off with Hindus as asking…simply because Rajan Zed and his ilk seek to represent so-called Hindu interests in the U.S. Second, I don’t believe Hinduism stands for any form of proselytizing or an awareness campaign inside the cover of an obviously badly made movie. Although judging by the trailers, I had initially thought the movie was funny but the trusted Tomatometer was highly offended by the movie but no one is advocating including a copy of Moviemaking for Dummies.

Judging by the disastrous box office collections of the movie ($29 million in 3 weeks), I doubt even one-hundedth of one percent of the ‘Hindu community worldwide’ has seen the movie much less be offended by it. The “wounds of seemingly perturbed one-billion-strong Hindu community” may have been inflicted by lack of humor more offense to their religious sentiments. I don’t understand why Rajan Zed if he genuinely cares for Hinduism would bother about raising a ruckus around a movie that everyone has already forgotten. Heck, Temple of Doom had much more ridiculousness to be offended about. I wish people would stop making a fuss about movies insulting their religion. If your religion is really that great then one asinine movie cannot even come close to doing “damage to the community”.

As far as I’m concerned, Mr.Zed I don’t approve of this insertion of Hinduism 101 inside the DVD cover. If you really respect your religion, you wouldn’t associate it with a badly made movie. Go get offended by Wall·E; then perhaps more people might read your little booklet.

Barack Obama – a Hindu?

Now that Obama has left the Trinity Church and is ‘in the market’ for a new worshiping place, Stephen Colbert recommends not a new church but a new religion – Hinduism.

Offshore Excursion – Tulum Ruins in Mexico

This is the concluding part of the narrative of our honeymoon cruise. I had written earlier on the dining options and the activities & entertainment aboard Carnival Conquest and later shared our experiences at the ports-of-call, Montego Bay (Jamaica) and Cayman Islands. Our final port of call was at Cozumel which is a small island just off the coast of mainland Mexico. Although Cozumel is considered one of the best destination for snorkeling (by the guy on whom the movie, The Life Aquatic is based), we chose to tour the Tulum ruins on the mainland. We had our share of snorkeling and water activities at Cayman and I’m not really a strong swimmer to really enjoy snorkeling or scuba diving. I’ve a strange swimming habit. I can’t float and when I enter deep water, I have to swim to somewhere. Anyway, forget my swimming abilities or lack thereof.

We reached the port of Cozumel early in the morning, like we had at other ports. We woke up to see that our ship was nearly cheek-to-cheek with another cruise ship from the Norwegian Cruise Lines (NCL) and we could literally see into their cabins. After a hearty breakfast, we stepped off the ship onto the pier and were greeted by a ferry guide who would transport us to the mainland. So effectively, we never even stepped ashore the island of Cozumel. The ferry ride although the interiors of the ferry seemed more like an airline with heavily cushioned seats, retractable overhead luggage compartments, and televisions on the dashboard. But the ride to the mainland was very rough and reminded us of our horrific experience on a much smaller ferry to Moneghan Island in Maine. The ride was totally worth it as soon as we stepped off the boat at Playa Del Carmen to bright sunshine, clear blue seas, and white sandy beaches abutting resorts. We met our guide, Caesar Augustus (yeah, I know) on the pier who escorted us to our bus that would take us to the Tulum ruins.

Dusk at Cozumel

Cozumel coast as seen from the ship

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Protecting Women by Excluding Men

In a country that is culturally and ethnically diverse, it is always difficult strike a balance between protecting the interests of its minorities and appeasing them for political purposes. Immigrants to America have often found their interests respected even in face of overwhelming cultural and societal pushback. These decisions are often based in the Constitution and the laws enshrined dictate that all individuals shall be protected against discrimination irrespective of their gender, race, religion, or national origin. These protections however are always rooted in common belief of liberty, inclusion, and individual rights. Thus I find it difficult to believe that Harvard would implement a policy that has effectively banned men from one of its gyms for a few hours a week to enable Muslim women to use the facilities. “No men are allowed in the gym between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. on Mondays, and between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Even the staff during those times is all women.”

Mind you, I’m all for respecting and providing for special needs of minorities but not of policies that are based on exclusion rather than inclusion. Assimilation of minorities into the mainstream are based in inclusionary policies (affirmative action, school integration) and minority leaders have always fought against granting of special privileges and instead have sought to eliminate exclusionary policies like redlining or discrimination in employment, service sector, and political processes.

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