An Atheist’s Tale
Let me set the scene. It’s an impromptu barbecue on our back verandah, with two couples (including my husband and me) and six children ranging from six to seventeen. My 22 year old son, Sebastian, is the only ‘child’ missing from this particular gathering but my other biological child, Audrey, 13, is here. At one time or another, I have been a fill-in Mum for three of the other children dining on sausages and bread on our verandah. The second couple is my ex-husband, Tony, and his German partner, Dana. Tony fathered my daughter, Audrey, and he brings with him his 17 year old son, Mat, from a previous marriage, plus Dana and her two beautiful little girls, Mary, 6, and Isabella, 10, from her previous marriage. My husband, James, also has the two magnificent boys from his first marriage staying over, Monty and Danny, ages 12 and 15. OK, I hope that is all as clear as mud! (All names have been changed to protect the innocent.) Together, we form the happy core of a motley crew which extends its web of broken nuclear families from the Sunshine Coast to Sydney and all the way to Germany.
The night begins with the excited bubble of children who all consider themselves brothers and sisters (we refuse to use words like step-brother, half-sister, blatant mistake or any other insidious tag that divides and separates them). Each of the children, from loudest to considered, hands around the talking stick and divulges a life and death experience. My daughter is the first and whole-heartedly takes up the opportunity to embellish an already horrid story about long matches and leaking boat fuel (thankfully, she came out of it alive and unscarred). Her eyes meet mine and I get ready to catch the fireball of unsubtle retributions regarding my mothering skills about to head my way.
“Mum was there you know, while my friend and I were on death’s door!” (hidden inside the boat).
The fireball is intercepted by Dana with the words, “Audrey, if you were two at the time I feel a grown up would be responsible, but didn’t this happen last week when you were the insightful teenager that I see today, capable of understanding the danger?”
Let me just say that my ex- husband has great taste in women.
The talking stick is propelled from child to child, with stories ranging from body parts turning gangrene whilst stuck in a broken electric window to going back to the wrong car to wait for Mum and being confronted with ‘a man that looks like a paedophile who screams at me’ (in fright, I imagine, at finding a strange child upside down in his back seat). As the focus turns away from the perilous and death-defying acts of first-world children with too much ice-cream in their bellies, one by one they slip out to conquer other brave new worlds. (My guess is, the exodus led to my computer as my screen saver is now The Simpsons as Alice in Wonderland characters.)
Left sitting at the table are the four adults and my ex’s oldest boy Mat, 17. The conversation turns to Rudd’s internet censorship, which gives my ex, Tony, an opportunity to seize the moment to justify his right-wing stance on the world. I ignore it, because he is right and I am left and he knows I am just as mad. Mat, (my step-son once removed), a considered and highly intelligent young man who sadly finds his last year at state school boring and his own internet business thriving, turns to me and says he has spotted me on the internet protesting about chaplains in public schools. With or without knowledge, Mat has unlatched the gate that leads down a path where this atheist has feared to walk. After all, Dana sends her girls to a Catholic school and Tony, (a former Catholic), has always ridiculed my passion for atheism by claiming it is just another religion. Obviously, I have already had that debate with him one-on-one and it just leaves him smirking and me smoking. It has always been a pointless exercise because, although he does not believe in a god, he feels that the option to be religious is a democratic right. I agree for the millionth time, but I make no excuses for being vigilant about the separation of church and state.
I find myself pushed, walking down this treacherous path alone in the dark, as James my husband has left the table to take a work call. He will be gone for the rest of the evening. Anyhow, Dana knows I’m an atheist – it has always been public knowledge and we have always enjoyed each other’s company, and yet there is unspoken rule, we just do not talk religion. Fine with me, I have the Sunshine Coast Atheists gang to agree with me and they are an extremely articulate, passionate, well-informed group of friends who leave me in awe at the confident, rational way they speak to believers. Where the hell are they now when I need them? I try to conjure them up, sitting on my shoulders, dressed in red, pitched forked, horned up and whispering rational and profound responses in my ear.
I take a sip of my red wine and curse the fact that it is half mineral water. The unknown Christian soldier is so much easier to defy than the woman who feeds your daughter and tucks her into bed once a fortnight – let alone one who rids you of a disgruntled ex and turns him into a friend. I look into my glass and hope to see a miracle of science: red wine actually separates from mineral water and a membrane forms between the two, leaving only the purity of undiluted alcohol on top. Devil Luke (real name), positioned near my left ear, explains that what I am really wishing for is the ability to separate my emotions from my rational self. Damn it, he is right! He is always mostly right. In the midst of me shaking off the emotional and dramatic lunatic who always dilutes my reasoning in fanfare and froth, the unholy conversation with Mat has begun again.
I won’t bog you down with details of the conversation, but suffice to say, this time, I am calm. I do not shake my head in disgust, nor raise my voice in contempt or call anyone a bronze age bimbo; hence, I do not destroy a friendship or the core of my motley crew. In short, I use my critical thinking skills and just question Mat. This is what I uncover about why Mat defends the chaplain program:
Mat says he thinks chaplains are harmless.
He claims that if a social worker or the like was employed in their position he would not be able to get away with the small crimes he commits (like wagging school to keep business appointments).
“They might actually go looking for stuff on me and the punishment might be more then looking into my soul for answers.”
He goes on to rationalise that a few minutes ‘talking the talk’ with the chaplain saw his behaviour score on his report card skyrocket.
I suspect Mat may have been sneaking beers from the laundry fridge, yielding him more open than usual. I watch his father’s smile regarding harmless (a euphemism for useless) chaplains being slowly erased by the time this little conversation ended. Confusing as it sounds, I think Tony is mildly proud of the ingenious way his son manipulated a weak link in the school system to get a desired result. Go figure! Maybe Tony could see the character traits of a great CEO emerging! Meanwhile, Devil Chrys (real name) gives me that familiar and uplifting laugh and whispers, “That ended well!”
She is right. By remaining detached I let Mat prove my point. Chaplains are antiquated and ineffective and a smart kid bumming out on their last year at school desperately needs qualified intervention.
Dana operates her own business and is enviably capable of juggling new ventures and two wonderful little girls. She is accommodating and wants this to be a ‘nice’ conversation. She begins to tell me that an atheist has been to speak at her girl’s Catholic school.
“Wow!” I think – and for just a second I can hear Devil Wozza (real name) chuckle knowingly in my right ear. Dana had no knowledge that an atheist was to speak at the school but, being a busy full-time, working Mum, may have missed the notice. She only discovered it after her 10 year old Isabella started talking to her about ‘really weird things’ such as the ‘big bang’ that made all the planets and, with wide eyed curiosity (I imagine), exclaimed that, “People may have not always been people but grew up that way after zillions of years!”.
Dana was astounded that this thought didn’t frighten her daughter (her own deep-seated fear, I suspect). She was worried such concepts might confuse her. Luckily, (as my pulse was racing), at that very moment, we notice Isabella, along with her little sister, Mary, have fallen asleep on a bed on the verandah and that our big dog, Basil (real name), is asleep on top of both of them. After chasing Basil away and checking the girls’ vital signs, Mat says, “Well even the old chaplain says evolution is undisputed and the only thing he’s confused is how to operate his new laptop.”
I envisage Mat would have swindled more brownie points for computer lessons.
Dana mentions that she has never seen her daughter more animated than after the atheist’s talk and she has made her look up information about evolution. I give her the Growing up in the Universe DVD by Richard Dawkins.
“No atheist overtones,” I say, reading her discomfort, “just good old-fashioned secular education for children”.
She is relieved.
Tony and Dana leave with kisses, cuddles, DVD, two sleepy dog-smelling girls and, of course, Mat – trying to look innocent, sober and grown-up all at the same time.
I don’t care if Dana believes in God or winged leprechauns but I do care that children like her spectacular daughters are given another worldview with no religious boundaries. Let them be free to discover the universe. It is surely a basic right for children to know what we know, so far, about our ecology. Science will call on their generation for tomorrow’s solutions and they had better know more than Bible stories from bronze age, misogynistic men. See, now I am getting emotional!
The night is over. Our guests are gone and I begin the business of cleaning up. Mysteriously, I uncover three empty beer bottles stashed under the verandah bed and hear a distant cackle as the last of the devils shuffles away into the universe.
I smile. The night has gone well. I stand on the shoulders of the atheists who went before me and I am becoming braver in my small contributions towards secular education and a worldview based on reason, not superstition. I suppose I can thank the devils for that.
Some further reading from Embiggen Books:
Parenting Beyond Belief by Dale McGowan
Evolution: How we and all living things came to be by Daniel Loxton
Growing Up in the Universe (DVD) with Richard Dawkins
The Atheist Debater’s Handbook by B C Johnson