Children are often described as "a blessing." I confess that as a new father positively giddy with excitement and awe over my daughter's birth and development, I've felt the occasional need to express gratitude to something. This is a new feeling - but becoming a parent is renewing, after all. The conventional preface to becoming a parent comes as a veritable warning: "Having children changes you," our more experienced peers advise.
I'd prepared myself for the 'changes' of the logistical variety: I told my family and friends to expect to see less of me, I came to grips with the fact that sleep would shortly become a luxury, and I said a fond farewell to my collectible Doctor Who action figures, pristine in their factory packaging. Nothing, however, can prepare you for the metamorphosis of perspective and priorities that comes with parenthood. It is, to employ a modest poetic metaphor, a complete renovation of the heart. When I pick up my baby girl, to melodious peals of laughter, I find a happiness that exceeds all of my previous estimations as to its limits.
However, it seems that to some my personal growth has not been dramatic enough. "Doesn't having a child finally make you understand or desire god?" they ask. The query comes in varying forms, of course. But the assumption is the same - the 'miracle' of life demands acknowledgement of a miracle-maker. The absence of an instant conversion seems almost an affront to the faithful, as if I have not understood the importance of my child because I don't see a Maker behind the Miracle.
As an atheist (I prefer a-supernaturalist; I don't believe in gods but I don't believe in fairies or goblins either) I'm not much for miracles. Not of the divine sort, anyway. If one assumes the definition of 'miracle,' however, to mean the occurrence of something so improbable as to be nearly impossible, then we're all very much miracles. By all biological rights, we shouldn't be here. Richard Dawkins expressed it most eloquently when he said: "The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here."
When Dawkins speaks of the "set of possible people" he's referring to the number of possible combinations of base-pairs in the human genome - the DNA code that gives each of us our unique characteristics. That number, by the way, exceeds the total number of atoms in the universe. To say, then, that your particular combination of genes was improbable given the set of possible combinations is an understatement without parallel.
In that sense, my daughter is a 'miracle.' The child that smiles when I say her name, or giggles when I croon "Droolin' Dalton," a parody of a song by The Eagles for which I must credit her mother, is a gift of chance. I believe Penn Jillette was tapping this feeling when he wrote that "It seems just rude to beg the invisible for more. Just the love of my family that raised me and the family I'm raising now is enough that I don't need heaven. I won the huge genetic lottery and I get joy every day."
To live at all and to have the privilege to love and be loved, and if we're lucky leave with a slighter greater understanding of our world than we had when we entered it, is sufficient for profound gratitude. Knowing this, I would be doing a grave disservice to my daughter to tell her that she must be grateful to something else for her existence. Like each of us, she was born with the capacity to reason and inquire - why would I, one of the two people she trusts most in the world, instruct her to suppress or ignore those innate capacities? More to the point, what justification would I have for teaching her as fact the dubious propositions of faith? For the sake of her comfort and security, some might argue. But under what circumstance is "I lied to make you feel better" an acceptable and ethical explanation for dissemblance? It wouldn't hold up in court, you can be sure. (And just try it on your spouse - good luck.) Honesty and integrity demand that I teach my child the truth that there's no evidence for any sort of god. True, I will also teach her that some people choose to believe nevertheless. And I will have to explain why so many believe in that which they cannot see or hear and which science vastly supercedes in explanatory power. (Not just believe in, but are willing to kill and die for, too.)
Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg alleges that religion is "an insult to human dignity." Put aside all of the ontological or "rational" arguments for the existence or non-existence of god and ask yourself this: what does religion essentially tell us about ourselves and our place in the cosmos? I began this article by stating my hunch that all of us are searching for meaning - hope in times of adversity and someone to thank when fortune turns our way. In sum, we crave to frame our lives with a sense that the universe is in some way invested in us and that we are not merely particles in motion. Is the religious message superior to realism in delivering happiness and meaning?
I think the primary issue in answering that question is that of truth. Does it matter? Even if religion does provide comfort, happiness, and joy, how moral is a happiness built on fictions? Can it be called authentic happiness at all? As for what religion teaches us about ourselves and our place in the universe, let's consider the Christian faith, since this is the animal my daughter is most likely to encounter in the American culture into which she was born. Most of the Christian faiths begin with the repugnant assumption that we're all born laden with sin and evil. From this departure point, they proceed to claim that only the blood of a 'savior,' grotesquely tortured and murdered under the command of his own father, washes us 'clean' of our decadence. In all things, we're told not to trust our own instincts or follow the guidance of reason, but to be blindly obedient to this god, who is sometimes racist, genocidal, and merciless and at others loving and forgiving. Despite the progress of our species over the past centuries in almost every category of endeavor, we're also assured that the ultimate and exclusive treatise on how to live our lives was written (and copied, and translated, and rewritten again) over 2,000 years ago by scientifically illiterate men in a backwater clime of the Middle East. Moreover, in many Christian faiths women are told that their gender relegates them to second-class citizenship; they are unsuitable to hold a leadership position in the church and admonished to remain "submissive" to men.
In my view, to look into my daughter's eyes, brimming with trust, and tell her that through no action of her own but owing only to the caprice of an angry deity, she's imperfect - even evil - isn't just irresponsible, it's child abuse. When she stretches her little hands out to touch the world for the first time and begins to ask the essential questions of life, the universe, and everything, I will not restrain her with defeatist dogmas of murderous redemption. I will not insult her with fictions meant to soothe, when demonstrable truths equally salvific exist. I will not tell her that she is a second class citizen, nor dash her confidence by saying she's worthless without the blessing of a god or the blood of a savior.
I will teach her these things, instead: that she's beautiful, and strong, and capable of pursuing an abundant and extravagant life with the exceptional tools bestowed by evolution - intelligence, imagination, compassion, creativity. I will tell that when she feels broken and in need of hope, there's mystery and wonder without end to be found in the universe - superstition and shortcuts not required. Perhaps I'll point to the sky and echo Carl Sagan's observation that we are "starstuff," with a simple explanation of how stars create heavy elements that go on to become the building blocks of life. Maybe we'll gaze at an amoeba holding forth on pseudopods under a microscope. Under the canopy of a New England forest, we might investigate the strata in rocks, dazzle at the prodigious expanse of lichens and mosses, or catch crayfish just for fun. And at the end of the day, I hope we'll both lose our breath with awe over the simple fact that all of this marvelous universe is here and within our understanding - the greatest miracle.