PBS News Hour hosted an intriguing interview earlier this week between author Wendy Thomas Russell and Jeffrey Brown. It is roughly six minutes long, and you can listen or read the transcript here. The subject of the interview concerns Mrs. Russell’s recently, published book titled, Relax, It’s Just God: How and Why to Talk to Your Kids About Religion When You’re Not Religious. According to the author, her book came to life after a conversation with her young daughter while driving, who professed God as her creator and the creator of all people.
Mrs. Russell is refreshingly honest in her response to Mr. Brown by saying that her daughter’s declaration about God “…struck me. I was really caught off guard by it.” She goes on to explain to the interviewer that she stumbles through the rest of the conversation with her daughter at a loss with what to say. Both Mrs. Russell and her husband do not espouse a belief in God or in any religion. They are non-religious parents who have committed themselves to raising their daughter in a secular home. Despite the secular, home environment, Mrs. Russell’s daughter expresses a viewpoint completely contrary to her upbringing.
According Mrs. Russell, her conversation with her daughter is commonplace for many parents endeavoring to raise their children in secular homes based on secular ethics. She even goes so far as to say that the discussion about God between secular moms and dads and their kids is turning into the new, taboo subject. By comparison, talking about sex is a cake walk. This is a fascinating interview for all those concerned about the impact specific worldviews have upon culture and society. For someone like myself, who professes Christ as his Lord and Savior, this raises several issues and questions. I will focus only on Mrs. Russell’s very last words at the close of the interview. She says and I quote:
“I see a difference between guiding your child to be a moral person, an ethical person, a self-respecting person, a critical thinker. Those are all really important things.
“Guiding them to believe in a certain way, in a certain God or a certain prophet, that is not so important. I really want to focus on what people do in life and not what they believe, because if we can judge people on their actions, and not what we think the reasons behind their actions are, it makes for a more tolerant world and a better world.”
I heartily affirm Mrs. Russell’s desire and goal to see all parents raise their children as moral, ethical, self-respecting, and critical thinking human beings. In fact, I view the role of fathers and mothers as essential in developing the child’s moral and ethical foundation. When the family breaks down, or the relationship between one of the parents and child ruptures, the brokenness that flows out of that dysfunction is quite destructive and widespread. In some cases, the family dysfunction reverberates down through the generations like a dirge. It is also true that specific beliefs and values have a way of forming a child into who they become. This is where I take issue with Mrs. Russell’s last words and her overall perspective.
There is something downright naive, or even dangerous, about Mrs. Russell saying to the interviewer that “I really want to focus on what people do in life and not what they believe.” In her own words, she has separated belief from action, or created a false dichotomy between the two. This perspective of hers has proven to be ridiculous throughout all of human history. For example, the Nazis acted the way that they did according to specific beliefs about themselves and the human condition. The same is true for the slave merchants and slave owners who devised the slave trade based on beliefs that denigrated the dignity and worth of their fellow human beings.
For the sake of argument, suppose for a moment that I held to the same view as Mrs. Russell that what a person does is more important than what he or she believes. If I were to apply this principle toward assessing the Nazis, then I could not hold them accountable for their beliefs only for their actions. This is like saying treat the symptoms of the disease rather than the disease itself. No one in the medical profession worth his or her salt would advocate such treatment. Medical doctors go after the root cause or causes of any illness whether or not they succeed in eradicating it. I think it goes without saying that Mrs. Russell’s view is ethically, morally, and socially unacceptable.
Before I wrap this up, I want to touch upon one final point. It is my conviction that Mrs. Russell’s secular view downplays the depravity of the human heart including her own. By making a false distinction between a person’s beliefs and actions, she oversimplifies the complexity of human nature. When Mrs. Russell points out the different ways of parenting between indoctrination and guidance, her underlying thrust is that human beings are complex as are the issues pertaining to morality, ethics, and culture. Things are not painted in black and white. Moms and dads should guide their children rather than spoon feed them.
Again, I have no problem agreeing with Mrs. Russell up to a point. Unfortunately, she paints with very broad, brush strokes, which blurs over the real influence that one’s beliefs exert upon our choices and actions. The KKK do what they do based on clearly, defined beliefs. I would even argue that there are faulty desires at work, too. In the gospels of Matthew and Mark, Jesus taught that murder occurs in a person’s heart before he or she commits the act (Matt. 15:18-19; Mark 7:20-23, ESV). This means that the condition of my heart (the inward life) matters a great deal with respect to how I live (the outward life). The secularist, like Mrs. Russell, has no way to account for the evil that lurks within the human heart. Her view turns a blind eye toward it, which endangers everyone including her kids.