Living as a Humanist: The Family Way Part 2

This piece first appeared in Humanitie Magazine, Autumn 2013 edition 

We got nine families around a virtual round table for a three-part article on various aspects of humanist family life. Here we continue to explore their very interesting answers!

The participants are: Louise Young, Stella Potter, Brenda Reld, Marilyn Jacks, Tasca Shadix, Caroline Lambie, Eleanor Adair, Michael Davidson, Anonymous family (ages of children in this family are given)

 4. Do you believe it’s important to ‘declare’ yourselves openly as a humanist family? Why or why not?

SP: Absolutely no ‘declaring’ of myself! Actions speak louder than words! … I would never “shove it down others’ throats” as some religious folk do. My children are finding their own paths. I would never describe them as humanist children.

MD: I’m perhaps reluctant to label myself as humanist, or anything else suggestive of moral or ethical background. Though this is perhaps more a reluctance to label myself than any aversion to the values of a humanist.

TS: It’s very important to me to be openly humanist for several reasons. To be silent is to be invisible. Non- believers’ numbers are consistently underestimated, which means lawmakers and others in power can feel justified in dismissing our views. Also, their are parts of the world where to be openly atheist is still a very dangerous thing. It may sound dramatic, but I want to honour the courage of non-believers around the world and stand in solidarity with them. But most simply of all. I want to make it clear to my children and myself who I am and what I do believe in.

BR: No, a religious family would not openly declare themselves to be religious, so why should we if we are asked about our beliefs we answer.

CL: I think it is important that I am open about being a humanist. I am a humanist celebrant and editor of Humanitie the HSS magazine. I can’t really hide what I do as being a humanist is my life! My husband is open about it and I will leave it up to my youngest son to say what he likes about it. But I am known in our local community as the humanist celebrant who does local weddings, namings and funerals, so my son’s friends and their parents will be aware that we are humanists.

Anon: People only need to know if they ask really.

EA: I don’t think of it as a declaration, not following a religion is a very matter of fact part of our lives, this could be because our social environment has non belief almost as a default setting, as most of our friends are non-religious.

LY: It often comes up when people ask about what we do for a living, as I am a celebrant with HSS. I’m proud to be a member and happy to discuss it with other people. I don’t think people have to declare themselves as something. People often feel uncomfortable joining groups and societies but are happy to be background supporters. I think people should do what they feel comfortable with.

MJ: Everyone knows I am a humanist and a member of HSS. My husband isn’t a ‘joiner’ but was happy to have a humanist wedding (in the days before they were legal, so after our civil one) and occasionally comes to meetings if the topic is of interest. I am also a member of the BHA and NSS. Why? To support the work they do and to ‘be counted.’

  1. Have you ever had any awkward, difficult, or funny moments answering the ‘Big Questions’ about faith, religion, life, death, sex, drug use, and current events with your children? (If your children are
    still too young, how do you think you might go about discussing those issues?)

SP:The discomfort is usually on the children’s side! Much eye-rolling if I launch into the masturbation chat! We always eat an evening meal together at a table and discuss the day’s events, personally and community/world news wise. It’s good for them to learn to tell their own stories without being interrupted, to ask questions of others, to listen and to learn how to debate… There has never been any subject out of bounds, and they know that. They ask wonderful questions, even now!

MD: Not yet… but I don’t feel particularly apprehensive about such discussions, partly perhaps because I guess I’ll come at such things from a reasonably comfortable position, my value system having a fairly rational base.

TS: Well, being open about the big questions means you have to be ready to field them at some surprising times. It’s hard not to choke on your breakfast cereal when, early on a weekday morning, your child pauses, spoon in the air. and asks out of the blue. “So, how does a sperm get into an egg?” It’s a little bit more difficult discussing death. I try to frame it as positively as I can but the idea that there is nothing beyond this life can be hard even for adults to accept. However, if they’re ready to ask me I’m committed to telling them the truth as I perceive it.

BR: We all feel that as a family we are able to ask and answer any questions that crop up. My son said that I was termed as a cool mum because he and his friends always felt they could ask me anything and I didn’t judge! Funnily enough when my children were still attending Sunday school and was told that God was watching them, they did ask if God saw their parents having sex or did he close his eyes!

CL: I don’t think it will be awkward as we will be very open about most things. My oldest son has such severe learning difficulties that he doesn’t understand these concepts and my younger son is one at the moment. So time will tell!

Anon: Haven’t most parents?! Seriously though, some are funny (not meaning to be). I’ve never found anything awkward.

LY: As she’s too young right now. it’s just speculation. However, she is a naturally curious child and I think will ask lots of questions. I look forward to those discussions and I’m sure she will have very simple, obvious but hard to answer questions. I remember as a child asking my local minister. “If God made all of us. who made God” and while I don’t remember his exact answer. I do remember it was pretty woolly and left me completely unsatisfied with the answer. The first step to my doubtfulness about God!

MJ: When we attended my niece’s confirmation in a RC church, my son was about six and piped up in a clear voice before the service started: “Is this where we pretend to believe in God mummy?” I told him this was where we were nice and quiet! Never been afraid to discuss any issue at all with my son but when he was doing the sex education at school age about eight, he did come home to ask: “Do you and John (my husband, not his father) have sex mummy?” My reply was “Yes that’s what people who love each other do.” Thought I got away with that, but he came back with “how often do you do it?” to which I said: “Well, it depends.”

  1. How do you approach holidays, for example Christmas, that have religious roots? It you celebrate
    them, do you think you do so in a way that Is uniquely humanist, or do you largely follow the well-known traditions?

SP: I either volunteer or work on December 25, but we always have a feast and pressie fest sometime in that week. I wouldn’t deprive my children of that. I never did the Santa bit though, as I didn’t want to lie to them. Guess once they realised Santa wasn’t real, and I cut out the middle woman with the tooth fairy (they gave me the tooth and I gave them the money) so God really wasn’t much of an issue! I just said that some folk believe and some folk don’t and that both are fine provided you don’t claim ‘truth’ or indoctrinate.

MD: We try to celebrate Christmas by focusing on the warmth and love of family and don’t dwell at all on the religious traditions of the occasion. We hope ‘rules’ concerning present buying (maximum £10 and has to be from a charity shop) goes some way to mitigate the commercialism which pervades Christmas.

TS: I’d say we’re evolving! We enjoy those holidays and don’t want the girls to feel left out. In the past, we have tended to celebrate largely the same as most people do whilst leaving out mention of the religious aspect whenever possible. However, we do feel an increasing desire to modify what we’re doing even more, by changing our terminology and focusing less on gifts. I’d like to see our holidays be more about charity and about celebrating the seasons.

BR: Christmas is the only holiday that we celebrate and not in the traditional way.W e do have a meal but not the standard turkey dinner, instead we are more inclined to make it a day for family, when we all get together and enjoy each other’s company.

CL: We do celebrate Christmas with our family. I think it would be unfair on our mothers and our children if we didn’t celebrate it. We aren’t over the top about it and we do think it over indulgently commercialised (and try and get away on holiday abroad when possible!)

Anon: We follow well known traditions, and use it as a chance to talk about what other people believe. We always admired how our Sikh neighbours in our old house embraced, as a chance to celebrate, so we try to do the same.

LY: We tend to follow the well known traditions. I don’t see Christmas as a religious celebration, for me it is a time to celebrate family and friends, and perhaps to indulge ourselves a little and treat those we love. Equally Easter traditions of egg decorating and rolling are all good fun family activities and I enjoyed them as a child, and now do so with my daughter. One day she may well come home to tell me she has a place in the school nativity play and I’ll be delighted for her. As far as I’m concerned it’s a story and it’s up to people to decide themselves what they regard as fact and fiction. I treat it the same as dressing up as a ghost at Halloween!

MJ: Christmas is a lovely time for families and for giving presents: we have the traditional tree, decorations and turkey dinner… After all the festival was originally a pagan one!

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