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Atheist's Easter guilt


Holy BibleI'm middle-aged. I'm standing at the door of a new life, waving goodbye to my children. One is working as an apprentice; the other has just started university.

A friend rings. He has been thinking about Easter. What did I know about the Crucifixion and Resurrection? What did Bible stories mean to me? What had I taught my children?

Here's the bald news I gave him. I was raised an atheist. I had a lot of exposure to the Bible, because I was a huge reader, and because I was sent, involuntarily, to a Methodist boarding school for three years.

I didn't tell him that, during those three years, I went to church every Sunday, in a crocodile line of submissive girls, two by two through the park in white gloves. I had scripture lessons, sat through Sunday night homilies and Bible readings, and was sometimes caught unawares in the dormitory by an earnest, proselytising girl who had the bed next to mine. She had a beautiful heart and a determination to convert me. It never worked.

I told him I hadn't read Bible stories to my children. They had been raised as atheists. Probably what I should have said was that we raised them as sceptics, or non-believers. I have a problem with some of the harder edges of atheism.

Looking back, I think it may be a pity that I didn't leave a Bible lying about the house; that my children didn't hear those stories.

In my defence, I didn't know how to do this. The Bible had been offered to me in such an unsympathetic way that I had no interest in exposing my children to the same thing. I'd experienced it less as an offering of stories and more as a weapon in a campaign to bring me to heel.

That said, I loved Aesop's fables and fairy stories as a child, however transparent the moral. And I pored over literature from the sublime to the rubbishy, fascinated by all the windows onto the world. I was dimly aware then, and am acutely aware now, of the role that stories play in addressing the three big questions: where have we come from? why are we here? what does death mean?

I can see that my exposure to the Bible, however clumsily handled, gave me several treasured things. Firstly, a store of rich and beautiful language and evocative imagery. Think of that first half-page of Genesis: 'and the spirit of God moved upon the face of the water'.

Secondly, a sense of history; I feel the pull of some long line to those ancient desert people.

Thirdly, illustrations of moral principles. I did struggle with, or downright disagree with, some of them (I was horrified by the preparedness of Abraham to kill his son, for example). However, the story of the good Samaritan, and the many instances of Jesus challenging the cruel orthodoxies of the time, were good and powerful stories.

Have I deprived my children of some richness? Some important way of seeing the world? A beautiful catalogue of references that will never reverberate for them in literature and poetry?

I have no answers. Yes, they have missed out on these things, and I am responsible. But will it ultimately matter? Each of us treasures her own cultural and moral inheritance beyond all others, and cannot conceive of a world constructed otherwise.

Does it matter that I know something of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, come Easter, and my children only think of a holiday and family time laced with chocolate? Well, yes, but not for any logical reason I could give. My children did receive, in other ways, a sound moral education.

What I can observe is that both of them are more generous, gentle, socially able, and honest than many Christians I have met. That is not to say I have not met some extraordinary Christians — it's just that there does not seem to be any correlation between religious belief and goodness.

Given another go at parenting, I think I would make more effort to find ways to give my children the Great Stories (including those from the Bible). What my children did get from me and from the public education system seems to have turned out some fairly morally-successful human beings. But I do grieve for the lack of poetry and of a sense of handed-down wisdom in their lives.

Debi HamiltonDebi Hamilton is a Geelong psychologist who has recently taken to writing poems and short stories, some of which have been published over the past 12 months.

Topic tags: Debi Hamilton, atheist, Easter, gospel stories, Crucifixion, Resurrection



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Existing comments

As a practicing Catholic, I found it interesting to read about an atheist's point of view, and refreshing to find no finger pointing in the article.

I find myself agreeing with the author's statement
"it's just that there does not seem to be any correlation between religious belief and goodness".

Sue | 21 April 2011  

i have some sympathy for this, but would it be fair to give one's kids only christian stories? that tends to insinuate the specialness of christianity. many other traditions have equally inspiring stories. the tragedy of religious "education" in schools is that it pretends but rarely really tries to teach about religions rather than indoctrinate one. i liked to read to my kids from 'World Tales' by Idries Shah which gives versions of common stories [like those in Aesop] from many different cultures.

edwin colema | 21 April 2011  

Very interesting, and I agree with Sue's comments.

Don't be too hard on yourself. Your children are still young. They may well pick up a bible to read it, to gain greater insight into other literature and cultural reference. I found myself last year, at middle age, reading The Talmud for the same reason.

MBG | 21 April 2011  

So few people get what Jesus came to say to us. Once those misconceptions got wrapped and delivered to your door as a "religion" it had lost its potency and perhaps had turned sour. Your story sounds like you were delivered sour milk when you might have thrived on fresh cream.

graham patison | 23 April 2011  

As someone who has read the Bible through a lifetime and had it read to me, there are several statements in this article that confound me.

The first is this: why does being an atheist mean you cannot read the Bible? Why does one view logically follow from the other? The multiplicity of writings that make up the Bible are available to everyone and we are all in a position to make what we will of these writings, through a lifetime.

Then there is the business of ‘exposure’ to the Bible, as though one would come down with cancer if you had too much of it. I too have read Aesop at every stage of my life, still do and will, but I don’t dream of saying that I have had “a lot of exposure” to Aesop, as though this were some dangerous activity that has to be handled with the utmost care. Why wasn’t I warned about how dangerous Aesop is when I was a child? Probably because I was treated as a person with a mind of his own who could only benefit from reading Aesop. In my view, this is precisely how I was taught to read the Bible too.

Denying people the incredible mind-blowing meanings in Scripture just because you want to protect these people from the Bible is an inherent conundrum that the article does not want to address, but which is the core issue of the article. I find that the way to read the Bible is with an open mind and to take from it what is good for you now.

Forget all the evangelists and headbangers and naysayers and freethinkers who want you to believe (or not believe) this or that in the Bible. Don’t get fussed about the bits that immediately offend you for some reason or other, as though that were the end of the story and shut that thing down Now! Really? These are words, ancient and beautiful and amazing, saved against the wreckage of time because someone cared. The words were written down for people in order to use their intelligence and gain wisdom in their own lives.

If the author believes that we treasure her own cultural and moral inheritance beyond all others (I wonder) then she has already answered her own deepest reservation: the Bible is to be read by everyone and there has to be an open conversation about its contents. I think that some deeper issue is at stake in this article, which is not being stated by the author. It may have to do with belief in God, or with religious upbringing, or something, but oddly it’s not about the Bible.

Put another way, the Bible contains contradiction as part of its wisdom; one thing no one can say about Scripture is that it’s superficial.

Desiderius Erasmus | 25 April 2011  

Postscript: Christianity has nothing to do with being good. Anyone can be good, just as anyone has the potential to be bad or even evil. Christ is not telling us to be good, he is telling us to be holy. The same goes for love. We all understand love, but Christ is saying love your enemies and those who persecute you, as well as those it's easy to love or whom we we love whatever.

This is not only radically beyond just being nice to other people, it is taking you somewhere you would possibly have never thought of going, if you hadn't had an encounter with the Gospel as expressed in the Bible.

Desiderius Erasmus | 02 May 2011  

Oh, stop beating yourself up about it! It's just a book. There are some good parts but there's a lot of hocus pocus as well. Your kids have learnt lots of good stuff from you because you took the good bits and discarded the rest. Well done!

Stephen Sharpe | 24 July 2011  

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