As a secularist and an atheist, my biggest issue with our daughter attending school – where she is really thriving – has been how religious teaching, specifically Christianity, has become part of her education. This is despite it being a non-faith state school.
They focused on the birth of Jesus at Christmas, and about his crucifixion & resurrection in the lead up to Easter. The way this has been presented – or at least interpreted by our daughter – has been as history, and she now even self identifies as a Christian.
Rather than rage against this development, I have decided to engage with her spark of interest in the story of Jesus. Despite my atheism, I embrace the importance of Christianity to the development of our culture.
I also appreciate that the religion has inspired some of the greatest art and architecture for many centuries. Churches and cathedrals remain some of my favourite buildings. Encouraging an appreciation of all of these fruits of religious inspiration is something I am keen to do.
But what of the story of Jesus? How do I – as an atheist – embrace that? Well it is a great story, full of rich characters and drama. I have no doubt that there are elements of truth in it, especially the political aspects of the story.
I also think there is a great deal to discuss in terms of how history is recorded and written. I believe the Romans have been depicted far more favourably than they deserve, in order to help with the spread of Christianity in the centuries that followed.
It also seems clear that the role of the Jewish church leaders has been unfairly depicted in comparison – that has led to centuries of anti-Semitism being justified.
Additionally, I think the only thing of note I picked up from Dan Brown’s lamentable thriller The Da Vinci Code, is the role of Mary Magdalene, and how she has been rewritten from her importance as an apostle – and perhaps even his wife – to become a prostitute that Jesus ‘saves’.
But I found a really rich seam of discussion with our daughter around the clear influence on the superhero tales we love to share. Superman especially has many echoes with the story of Jesus (along with Moses and the Jewish myth of the Golem) – he is sent to earth by a wise man from the stars, and then raised by humans, to fight for humanity with incredible powers inherited from his heavenly home. In the 1978 movie these parallels are more overt, with Jor-el depicted in a god-like fashion, the missing part of the story between being a child and manhood, and Superman even raises someone from the dead, Lazarus style.
To me, I just treat Jesus’ miracles as examples of him using his superpowers to help those in need – just like a superhero.
This has been useful in hopefully sowing the seeds of our daughter appreciating the story of Jesus as just that – a story. And the fact remains that while she currently believes in Jesus, miracles and all, she also believes in Father Christmas and dragons.
I should also take heart in the fact that as a child, I was presented with a far more religious upbringing, involving Sunday School, daily religious instruction at school, and no contrary opinions being shared – and look at the heathen I turned out to be!