Thursday, February 07, 2008

To Atheist Parents - What Do You Tell Your Children About Religion?

As regular readers of my blog know, I have two children, a son who is six and a half and a daughter who will turn 5 next week.

Thus far, the topic of religion has not come up much between us. The biggest thing I have done is tell them that when they say the Pledge of Allegiance, that they can skip the "under God" part. Whether or not they actually do in school I don't know, nor do I quiz them about it.

Both of my children know what a church is, having attended and/or participated in several weddings in Catholic churches. Not far from where we live there is a big Korean church and a couple of Hebrew schools (Plainview has a large Jewish population), all of which have childrens playgrounds in them. Whenever I would drive past them with my kids in the car, they would call out "Daddy, I want to play in that playground." I would reply to them that they can't, because they are not Korean kids or Jewish kids. A couple of times, my son would say "I want to be a Jewish kid." I got a good laugh out of that.

The most I discussed with them about the idea of god is that I told them that some people believe there is someone up in the sky called God, but that daddy does not believe that such a being exists. Apart from that though, I really have not made any effort to put an atheist stamp on them. I want to wait until they are older to be able to understand the matter better, and I want them to make their own choices.

I would be interested though how any other parents here in the atheist blogosphere handled the subject of religion with their children, and at what age did they discuss it with them.


Anonymous said...

My experience is a bit different because when my kids were little we were totally into church and pushed it quite heavily on them. They couldn't help but notice that something had changed.

My kids are teenagers now and we talk about once in a while. I tell them why I don't believe, but I always stress that they should think about things for themselves and come to their own conclusions. My oldest daughter (16) thinks a lot about such issues and I've told her she should read the bible and find out for herself what it is all about.

I don't care what they choose as long as they have the ability to make rational decisions and think critically about issues.

Andrea said...

My son is the same age...too bad we can't get them together to play.

Yeah, it's very tricky with their questions sometimes. Our situation is even more complicated because our boy remembers all the prayers and things from a couple years ago and he's too little to understand why my beliefs have changed. And like you, I don't want to force any viewpoint on him. At this point, I just tell him that loving our family is what's most important.

Dale McGowan said...

I'm up to my elbows in this question at the moment: on Feb 17 and 19, I'll be giving a webinar about this called "Secular Family, Religious World (link below). Here are my capsule thoughts:

You want your kids to be religiously literate without being indoctrinated. If they are not knowledgeable about religion, they can't make informed judgments about it when their friends suddenly materialize during a teen crisis with the Jesus Solution, and they can't understand 50% of world events.

It's not a matter of dragging out the bible (until they are interested themselves, like Brian's daughter) or dragging them to Sunday school. Simply get into a rhythm of pointing out "what some people believe" about this and that. Choose an occasion video with religious themes for family movie nght, like JC Superstar, Kundun, Prince of Egypt, Little Buddha, etc. Cross-cultural is the key to avoiding indoctrination.

Use trustworthy religious relatives as guides to their beliefs. Invite them to set up a time for cookies and milk with the kids to talk about what they believe. Forbid the invocation of hell and don't let them suggest that doubt or questioning is bad. They will generally be grateful for inclusion.

There's much more, but that's a start. Good luck!

Dale McGowan
Editor/co-author, Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion
Seminar info at

The Geezers said...

My kids are now 23 and 18, and turned into very good young adults, so I guess my method wasn't half bad. They have no diffiuculties with drugs or liquor or bad relationships, even while many of their Christian schoolmates are in rehab or worse.

I taught them that biblical concepts of God were perfecctly entertaining mythological stories, but said that I personally thought of God as the part of myself that sees things as they really are.

Works for me. Seems to work for them, as well.

John Evo said...

Like Mystic Wing I have great kids who are 23 and 18. They were brought up in a mixed(up) household! My wife was a Catholic when I met and married her and became Born Again when my son was 2. Everyone loves everyone here, but we see the world in our own way and we talk about it. My kids were raised going to church, but hearing exactly what dad thinks about religion. Like I said, they are good kids but it wasn't easy on them and not a way I'd recommend to anyone else.

Anonymous said...

I've handled it as follows....

"You remember when you found out that Santa wasn't real?.... and the Tooth Fairy?.... and the Easter Bunny? Well some people are really scared most of the time so they keep believe in a God and they pretend to talk to him - they call it praying. When we get scared?... That's right, we talk to each other."

Joe said...

I more let my son approach me with it. His mom took him to chruch every week and I'm an Atheist. When he would ask me about it I'd tell him straight up. He started asking when he was about 4 or 5. Drove his mom nuts, but oh well. He got mad at the chruch and quit going, but I think he still has some deist style beliefs.

vjack said...

Trackback from Atheist Revolution: Discussion on Atheist Parenting...

Reason's Whore said...

So far my son is 5 so we have not directly discussed it much except that "god is imaginary." More important at this age, I think, is teaching skepticism and evidence-based thinking.

As he gets older we will certainly expose him to mythologies of all cultures and times as part of his education.

The one thing I do worry about is that dad and I are both militant atheists so we have frequent discussions about religion...we try to keep it to a minimum in his hearing. I don't want him to end up rebelling later because mom and dad were such zealots. LOL

Older daughter is somewhat of a theist as I was a single mom for years and religious then. She finds my relatively newfound atheism disturbing.

Tommykey said...

Thanks to all for your contributions thus far.

We each bring a unique perspective to this issue. Some, like Brian and Andrea, were believing Christians when they were parents before turning away from their faith. Others like Joe and John Evo are in situations where they are atheist but their spouses are still religious believers. I am in that category, as my wife is still a Catholic, albeit a rather lapsed one.

Then there are parents who were atheists during the entire lives of their children.

tina FCD said... kids were atheists before!

Anonymous said...

I don't have kids yet, so my ideas are untested, but this is what I plan for my own kids...

Arm them with both:

A) critical thinking skills (rationality)

B) knowledge (I'm thinking of Daniel Dennet's ideal of a comprehensive education in comparative religions)

This is an ideal, and practical factors will determine to what extent you're actually able to do this (e.g., public school educations currently do not generally offer B, and it's questionable whether they provide A either!). But it's an ideal worth striving for, I think.

Simply raising your children without religion leaves them open to being swayed by deceptive evangelism and mis-information, so I think it's best to provide them with the tools they'll need to think for themselves.

bullet said...

My wife and I don't have children,yet, but if/when we do she (lapsed mix of christianity) wants to raise them with religion. I said, sure, as long as it's Catholic, thinking that would be a sure deal-breaker. When she asked me why, I had to really consider it. The Catholics taught me to think for myself and gave me (or helped me find and develop)the tools that ultimately discredited their dogma. I graduated from high school 15 years ago and a lot has changed since then, but I still feel lucky that I was brought up Catholic and not as a crazy protestant and I wouldn't mind my child growing in up in that environment. Besides, Catholic school is really the only option here. The public schools are awful.

Tommykey said...

Hi Bullet.

I was raised Catholic. My dad was one of those old school Irish Catholics. He made me and my brothers go to church and he went himself every Sunday. But I got the sense that it was something that was drilled into him by my grandparents as a child, that it was something to be done out of a sense of duty. I don't remember ever seeing much in the way of genuine devotion in him. I never saw him reading a Bible or having discussions with me about faith, even during my genuinely religious phase.

He wasn't thrilled with my atheism in his later years, but he didn't have much choice as I was the only one of this three sons who was responsible.

If there is one religion I am glad I was not raised in is Orthodox Judaism. All those damned rules to follow, I would go nuts!

Anonymous said...

I am a lifelong atheist, the son of lapsed Catholics. I learned about religion by studying history and anthropology.

My kids are 7 and 3, and they pick up the words other kids toss around. The older one sometimes asks about or says something clearly picked up from a classmate or teacher, and I tell him my honest opinion - I also tell him it's just my opinion, and why I think the way I do.

I also tone down my evaluation of religious bs - for instance, by not calling it bs in front of him.

If I'm wrong, I'd hate to have led him into error. If I'm right, what good will it do to force him to agree with me?

bullet said...


The more exposed I've become to Catholics in other places, I've come to realize that "French Catholic" is a lot more open and less burdened by the spectre of sin. Growing up in New Orleans, I just thought all Catholics were like us. Paraphrasing George Carlin, we just didn't take the whole sin thing personally, you know? Unless it involved homosexuals or abortion, of course. In NYC, I was exposed to Irosh, Italian, Puerto Rican, Korean and Creole Catholics, as well as some Eastern Orthodox. They were just so SERIOUS. The Creoles were the most easy going, which started my "French Catholic" hypothesis. Living in Paris for a little while pretty much cinched that one for me. No one's more laid back about church than Parisians.

I was taught by monks (brothers) at an all-boys school and my religion class my first semester of high school was "The History of the Catholic Church," and they didn't sugarcoat or rationalize it at all. In Biology, we were taught evolution as fact. We learned about birth control and STDs. The only admonition was, "Yes, birth control is a sin (it still was then) but don't ruin your life (and possibly a girl's and a baby's, etc.) by turning a natural impulse into an enormous mistake." "Just don't be an idiot," Brother Harry would tell us. :) We were encouraged to ask questions, even about faith, and told, "I don't know," instead of rationalized religious bullshit.

Only one teacher was all hellfire, etc. but he was so old he had taught my dad AND my grandfather.

I don't know, if they were priests or nuns instead of monks maybe it would have been different. But I don't think so. I got drunk with the Bishop at our graduation party (LA drinking age - 18), which was hosted at a bar and attended by all of our lay teachers and all the brothers who weren't to old to stay up that late.

I know things have changed with this new pope and Protestants flourishing and holding more influence in the once all-Catholic Southeast LA, but I hope the monks, at least, still have the attitude, "Whatever. Don't be an idiot."

That was longer than I intended. Sorry about the hijack.

Anonymous said...

My husband and I are both atheists, and we're trying to conceive right now. We've had this discussion all too often.

I'd probably wait and say that while some people believe things when there's no evidence, mom and dad don't until there is evidence. And then try to explain logic and facts and reasoning to them. Modeling it would probably help. Like if the child is getting a time-out, explain why. I have no idea if that works, though, since I'm not a parent yet.

I really recommend the book "Parenting Beyond Belief."

Anonymous said...

I two kids, 8 and 6. I am divorced from their mother, and shortly after the divorce, she threw herself into church for the first time in her life. We have a 50/50 week-on/week-off parenting arrangement. So not only must I struggle with what to tell them in general, I must also be aware that if I am even perceived as "trying to turn the kids into atheists," it will bring about renewed conflict with my ex.
Whenever they talk about God or what mommy believes, I remind them that not everyone believes those things, that many people believe different things, and that I don't believe in any God. I try to answer their questions about my non-belief honestly. But, mostly, I just don't bring up religion, and try to teach them to be well-reasoned kids (as much as kids can be).

It's a tough road.