September 29, 1995 was the deathday of atheist, Madalyn O’Hair. O’Hair became famous – some would say infamous – in 1960 when, after declaring that it was unconstitutional for her son, William, to be required to participate in religious activities at school, she filed a lawsuit against the Baltimore school system. That suit eventually led to the Supreme Court decision that banned prayer in all public schools.
Twice married, O’Hair had two sons, Jon and William Murray. Prior to becoming estranged from William, Madalyn adopted his daughter, her granddaughter, Robin. William incurred the wrath of his mother in 1980, when he was baptized and accepted Christianity. She never forgave him.
In 1995, Madalyn, Jon, and Robin were kidnapped and murdered. David Waters, another atheist and an acquaintance of the trio, was convicted of the crime in 2001, and he eventually led police to a Texas ranch where the mutilated and dismembered bodies of the three were buried. Identification of the remains were made through dental records and DNA testing.
I was inspired to write this post after reading Stand Up Tragedy, a somewhat facetious article written by another atheist, Gene Weingarten.
Weingarten’s story got me to wondering about adults who resolutely follow the religious – or non-religious – practices of their parents. (To eliminate excessive verbiage, my reference to “parents” includes anyone who raises a child during their formative years, whether it is a grandparent, aunt, Catholic nuns or some other caregiver.)
In football the kickoff is determined by a toss of a coin, not so in the game of life. Our parents are the people who direct our actions and mold our thoughts from the day we are born until we become mobile and old enough to begin thinking for ourselves. As toddlers, as soon as we are able to crawl or wobble around, one of the first words we learn is “No!” Thereafter, we often internalize no to mean that if our parents didn’t grant us permission to do something, don’t — because it isn’t right.
The dos and don’ts in the world according to parents, becomes a child’s first education in navigating through life. From birth until we become autonomous, unless some unusual event disrupts the process, we yield to the instructions and guidance of our parents. Without question, we adapt their practices and philosophical views. If our parents are vegetarians, chances are that we too will grow up to be herbivores. Their political and religious ideology become our own. If they are Democrat or Republican, we support the same political party. If they are Protestants, Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses or Polygamists we conform, because follow the leader is the first game we learn to play until we become independent thinkers.
Whether or not children grow up in a home under a religious doctrine, they can – and sometimes do – change or determine their ideology when they become adults and decide that what was for their parents is not necessarily for them. Unless they are mentally impaired, most adults define their own individuality. Some will always remember the lessons learned from their parents and may adhere to the childhood training because they were taught that it was right. Other capable and free thinking adults will choose their own path, and when facing the 11th hour they will know that their decision to believe or not to believe was their own.