Your Children Tell You They’re Religious: Your Reaction? June 11, 2008

Your Children Tell You They’re Religious: Your Reaction?

We talk a lot on this site about how children who become atheists should come out to their family and what the reactions are.

Let’s go the other way around.

Reader Warren writes:

We frequently hear about how atheists are treated when they come out as such to their religious parents. I wonder: how would any of your readers/contributors feel about their children coming out as religious? The thought chills my heart, and I know you couldn’t do anything but love them anyway. I think I would have to have a non-reaction. Make it no big deal. Continue to have gentle conversations based in reality all the while hiding the deep deep deep pain caused by their choice.

For me (who will be childless for some time still), it’d depend on which faith we’re talking about… and how their new persona differs from what I’ve raised them to be.

Would I be disappointed? Yeah, probably. But the level of disappointment would vary depending on what they converted to…

Buddhist? Meh. Not a huge deal.

Scientologist? Now, I’m scared.

What say you?

[tags]atheist, atheism, Christian, children[/tags]

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  • Polly

    It really does depend, like Hemant says.
    If it’s a sociological cult, then obviously I would do everything I could to undo the brainwashing.
    If it’s fundamentalist Christianity, then I would do everything I could to undo the brainwashing.
    If it’s fundamentalist Islam, then I would do everything I could to undo the brainwashing.
    If it’s Judaism, I’d push for the really reformed or humanist version, otherwise…I would do everything I could to undo the brainwashing.

    If it’s some benign form of nature worship, Buddhism, Deism, or even Mike C’s brand of xianity, I’d be OK with it, albeit confused.

  • Alycia

    I also think it would depend on the religion. The husband and I have often talked about how disappointed we would be if our daughter turned out to be a follower, and how much we’d probably make fun of her for it.

    Pick on her, but in a nice, loving way, of course.

  • chancelikely

    I don’t have any kids yet, so this is all a ways off in the future, but I’d think the tension comes from the sense that certain religions prefer unreality to reality (the “we believe it because it’s absurd” variety).

    Believing in a God that isn’t counterfactual wouldn’t be a problem for me. But I’d have to imagine that my kid coming to me to tell me that they believe in Biblical literalism is a problem. Not because it’s religion, but because it’s countermanded by so much evidence.

    I’d feel I’d failed my kid if they didn’t grow up taking reality, evidence, facts, and knowledge seriously. But hey, if they could convince me that it’s a sensible course to take, I’d have no problem. (Good luck with that, but you know.)

  • I’m getting married in two months, so this is sort of one of the things I think about a lot for the future.

    One hangup I’ve always had about my religious evolution is I have no way of empirically deciding whether my state of religiosity at any given time is more a function of internal or external influences. So I’ve always sort of planned to raise my children to think critically and decide for themselves. If that takes them to a different place than it took me, hey, the human mind is a strange organ.

    That said, I think my reaction would depend more on what sort of impact a profession of faith has on their day-to-day behavior. If my kid starts making animal sacrifices, or starts shunning family and friends as “outsiders”, or starts coming home from youth group telling me and my wife the universe is 6000 years old and I’m going to hell, or their grades start dropping after a religious epiphany, you bet your ass I’m intervening. Thankfully, that’s still a long way off.

  • stephanie

    My not-daughter (unofficially adopted college student) wound up marrying someone whose goal is to become a Russian Orthodox priest. She knows I think it’s a bit silly. But if I disapproved of her religious freedom, where would that leave my right to freedom from it? I hold out the hope that she will eventually realize that there is some serious cognitive dissonance in having people so close to her who are non-believers and what the church says about us and that will make her question once again. But I would never force my views on her. There’s enough of that going on in the world. IMHO, part of rising above belief means you support those you love even if you disagree with them about it.

  • Tracy

    Fundamentalist Morman?? Scientologist?? They both scare the bejeebus outta me… I think with my oldest daughter, I could talk her out of anything. But not the youngest one. I highly doubt either of them would resort to religion though.

  • Brian E

    I’m atheist, and my mother is christian. My son, who is 5, gets very confused sometimes. In fact, my mother told me one day how my son asked her if she believed in god, and she of course said yes, and my son got angry with her and started yelling that he doesn’t believe and neither does my dad. Needless to say my mom was quite upset with this, as was I, but at the same time I understand why he reacted the way he did. He does not yet possess the coping skills required to handle this disparity of beliefs of those close to him. Oftentimes he tells me ‘I want to believe in god’, and I know he’s saying this because he wants to please everyone (myself, my wife and his grandmother).

    At this age, I’ve tried to teach him the basics: what people believe god is, the different religions that exist in the world, and, because we’re a ‘christian nation’, inform him about Jesus. This so far seems to satisfy him enough.

  • my son got angry with her and started yelling that he doesn’t believe and neither does my dad.

    I always figure my kids will be the ones to out me to my family.

  • Cade

    I think the two scenarios are fundamentally different. If an atheist comes out to their religious parent, the parents aren’t just put off that their children disagree with them; they will likely be fearful for their kid’s soul. With a religious person coming out to atheist parents, the parents just have to deal with disagreement in beliefs. That’s much easier to deal with than “my baby’s going to hell!”

  • That would be a tough one. I think that I would continue to treat religion the way I always have, as delusional crap, and I would tell my daughter that I respect her choice to believe in delusional crap but it’s still delusional crap. I’ve always been honest with her, so I don’t see any reason to change that. Mind you, I’d do it in a loving, kind way.

    That said, I wonder how likely this scenario really is? It seems to me that unless the child is raised with some sort of weird beliefs, or unless the child is pushed towards such beliefs by trauma either in her upbringing or her life, it would be unlikely that she would gravitate towards a religious viewpoint. Simply put, I think that the degree of intellectual dishonesty required to have religious beliefs is hard to maintain unless one is brainwashed as a small child.

    Particularly when it comes to fundamentalist beliefs, if the offspring were to come home wearing a burqa or sporting a Jesus fish decal on the bumper of her car, then some sort of psycho-pathology would already have had to have been present. One must also keep in mind that mental illness, like other illness, can develop at any time.

    I guess keeping one’s fingers crossed and hoping for the best is really the only thing that can be done.

  • Jen

    My daughter is still quite young, but if she were to become religious later on in life, I don’t think I would really DO anything. I would be disappointed, and I would openly discuss my feelings and opinions with her. But her choice is her choice. I wouldn’t try to fight her about it. As I raise her, I intend to teach her to think for herself and to explain to her why I see the world as I do. But she has to take it from there.

    I’m happy atheist, but several members of my family are very religious. We simply respect each others’ paths and leave it at that.

  • Chas

    My daughter who is seven has a friend who is Christian and she likes the idea of “god” and “heaven;” and says she believes in them. It doesn’t bother me in the least.

    When we’ve discussed this, I’ve asked her if “god” ever talks to her, and she says no. Then I ask if she thinks “god” talks to her friend, and she doesn’t think so. Then I conclude not to let anyone “boss her around” because they think they know what “god” wants. That resonates with her because she has a big brother and knows all about being bossed around.

    And that’s enough for now. I want her to think about it for herself as much as a 7-year-old can and not let anyone (including me) to tell her what to believe on a say-so. As she gets older, I’m sure my strategies will change.

  • My daughter is 8 and also has some religious family and friends on the ex’s side. She even likes going to church, though I think it’s more the community aspect of it she enjoys than anything else.

    When it comes to discussions about the universe though, I just tell her in the best way I can the science behind things and she seems to be far more fascinated by that than the answer “god did it”.

    It’s a tough position sometimes, because I don’t want to hurt her with a straight out “NO THERE’S NO GOD DEAL WITH IT”. I find it a lot better to spur her imagination with evolution and the big bang and the science behind nature.

    Doctor Who is helping a bit too 😛

  • TheDeadEye

    My children can do whatever they please when they turn 18 (and leave the nest). Before that I won’t be very tolerant of negative behaviours such as cutting school, smoking, doing drugs, having unprotected sex, and other stupidity.

  • Chris Nowak

    I agree in that it would depend a lot on the faith – as far as scientology goes, I think my reaction (you’re batshit crazy) would be the same regardless of whether or not I was atheist.

    As long as they picked a religion with a good philosophy – i.e. buddhism, or (at many times) christianity – and they focused more on the positive aspects of the way of life the relgion preaches than the beliefs, then I have no problem with it.

    When it comes down to it, really how important is it whether or not you believe in a supernatural supreme being? I mean, i’d want my kids to be happy and as long as they arent hurting anyone else and have found a good, stable, healthy way of life then i’d be all for it. I’d be angry if they became a fundamentalist or tolerated religious fundamentalism.

  • BowserTheCat

    My oldest stepdaughter ended up going to a Baptist college (long story) for her undergraduate degree. For the first year she started to buy into the Baptist Christian thing (my wife and I just sort of ignored it, she is and was an adult). Her initial reaction was that Christians were “good” and honest etc. etc. etc.

    But of course it didn’t take long for that to dull and she started to see the hypocrisy of it all.Hopefully her upbringing in a freethinking environment helped but perhaps that’s just my ego talking.

    In any case the Christian thing didn’t last long and she seems much happier back as an atheist.

    I think it was a phase for her. Perhaps part of the teen/young adult typical rebellion (do the opposite of whatever the parents do) but I do believe that she’s a better rounded and more mature person for the experience.

    Now if she’d stayed with it that might well be another story…

  • Sean

    as a new dad (i have a 10 month old boy), this is a question that has perplexed me a bit. obviously i would love him and accept him for who he is and becomes throughout his life. that’s not so tough, really (at least at this point i think).

    the trick for me comes in how to respond to his questions as he grows up and as he makes friends who go to church and believe in god. how do i handle those situations? i hope that i can deal with it in a developmentally appropriate way for him, so that at age 4 i can give an answer to questions about christmas that would be different than at, say, age 15. so, it depends, but not so much on the faith that my child might adopt, but on how i handle situations as they arise throughout his growing up.

    of course, i want to raise him with a love of science and reason and a curiosity about the world that will, hopefully, have him question many things, including the idea of god and religions. we’ll see how it all goes. re-do this post in about 20 years and i’ll let you know! great question, though.

  • Allytude

    I do not think I would react much. I grew up in a very no-God house, And I remained that way. Talk about religion was open- informed, with myths, stories etc being told- we had a couple of Bibles, a copy of the Koran and the Hindu myths. All very conveniently translated into English. And living in India, we did celebrate all the festivals, minus the religion( I still do not know how to celebrate a religious Deepawali or Holi). And somehow, despite a cvery Catholic school- and no discouragement to say the Hail Mary, I never let religion take me over much. Religion was always a. boring b. to be refreshed before exams and important dates…( I am serious) and by the time I was in my late teens, it just slipped out. I am incline dot think that is how it is in atheist/open households. Bits of lunacy with regard to religion are not treated as the “wash your mouth out with soap” deal. I seriously doubt a kid growing up in an open household will be sucked into some weird cult.

  • I have a atheist friend who had a child convert to Christianity. He supported her and attended the baptism. The daughter is now going to be in an upcoming small budget Christian film.

  • Amber

    I’m only a teenager myself, but I often think of how I’m going to raise a child without religious influence, when I’m surrounded by it on a daily basis. It’s really conflicting. I know I wasn’t aware of anything other than Christianity existed until I had to have been at least 8 or 9, and while it’s nearly common to see families in my community who don’t discuss religion or attend church, the children are always raised to recognize the existence of God. If even only not to embarass their parents.
    I’d have to move away from my home town (in eastern North Carolina) in order to raise an atheist in an accepting enviroment.
    My worst fear is trying to raise a child to be freethinking, but in early schooling have them become ashamed or confused when their classmates talk about church or religion. But I don’t want to homeschool or shelter my children, because I want them to have a more than adequate education that I know I could never provide.
    If my young kids were to question the (non)existence of god, I’d do my best to support them in living without the influences their religious peers have.
    But as a teen or an adult, if my children really wanted to leave atheism, I’d have no choice t quietly accept it regardless of the religion they chose (As long as it’s not harmful or ridiculously occult). I don’t want to repeat my own upbringing and coming out with my children. That wouldn’t be fair. Though, I would be addmittedly upset, and hope it isn’t a lifelong conversion.

  • mikespeir

    My children (youngest of three is 26) are all religious because their mother and I raised them that way. (I was all of 48 before giving up the Christian faith myself.) I’m convinced they’re smart enough to eventually come around on their own, perhaps with the nudging of a well placed word from time to time. In the meantime, they don’t seem bent on inaugurating any Inquisitions or leading any Crusades. I think they’ll be all right.

  • A theistard?! Disown! Disown! Disown!!


  • Larry Huffman

    Well…I do not see how the sect or religion they choose can really make much difference. Logically, the problem will still be the same…with respect to being religious. And besides, supporting our kids should not be gradient upon our like or dislike for something. I should not ‘kind of’ support them on one church and not on another…how illogical.

    Also…the age of the child has particular bearing here. If my adult child told me this my reaction would be different from my 11 year old telling me. I have 4 kids, youngest 15.

    To answer the question: My kids already know how I feel about religion…so there is no need for me to express my opinions to them in this case. If my child is telling me this, then there is a level of committment or belief already on their part. They are not telling me they are thinking about it, they are telling me they ARE religious. Who am I to tell them they are not…who am I to tell them what they do or don’t / should or shouldn’t believe. Isn’t that the root problem anyway?

    I wish the best for my children (and on some scale, everyone). If my child is already religious, then I am sure they have the specific sect picked out as well. I would want them to be happy doing what they are doing, and that may mean them being pulled into many areas that I would completely disagree with for myself. For example, they will pay offerings or tithes (I do not have to tell anyone here how I feel about money raising for god), they may hold church offices or get pulled into church jobs…they may even serve in the mission field. I have to support that, if I want them to be happy, and they find happiness with religion.

    My child’s life is not mine to live, it is theirs. At a philisophical level I may have some very pointed things to say, but that is not what this context is…it is my kid coming to me and revealing something that they know i disagree with. That deserves my respect and support, which I would give them. It is their life. IF…they asked for my frank and unfiltered views, I may have them sit down and discuss those points. I may even ask if they are intereested in me talking them out of it. But, I would not feel good about raining on my kids good news…even if I find it bad news.

    I think when a child makes a decision…as parents, we must support those decisions in some way. My job as a parent is not to make their decisions…I am to give my kids the tools and education to make decisions. The decision part needs to be theirs…good or bad. And besides…joining a religion is one of the best ways to become atheist. I have some very deeply rooted negative views of religion that i would not have without experiencing religion. Some people can take one person’s word for something and live with it…but some people can only learn by trying something, good or bad.

    In my case, my kids know how I feel. They know that I am not going to agree with them that a religion is correct. However, my kids also know I am fair and usually support whatever they do…so they also know that, while I may not agree, I will not attack them or their beliefs. Besides…since I do not believe in an afterlife, I do not believe there are repurcussions other than the immediate. So, if church mkakes them happy, so be it. Just do not try to convert me…then they will get an earful.

  • Ron in Houston

    It’s interesting in a way. Children as part of becoming adults tend to reject parts of what their parents represent. So, it’s common to see atheist children of ultra religious parents. In a similar vein, I think one of Madelyn Murray O’Hare’s kids turned to the born again persuasion.

    So, to an extent, the more strident someone is in their atheism, the more likely that one of their children may turn to some form of religion.

    I like to believe that I would respect my children’s decisions, but on certain aspects of Christianity, I feel that it can be quite damaging to one psyche. The whole belief in things like original sin and in the belief that you have to somehow be some different “born again” person are really not healthy psychological constructs. I’ve had a discussion with my friends that there is nothing wrong with them that they need to be “born again.” I imagine I’d have the same discussion with my children.

  • Josha

    If I have kids someday I want to raise them to think logically, to use the scientific method and to be ethical. After that, if they convert to a religion I will support them because it will be their personal choice.

    But I do think it matters what sect or religion they choose. Some are destructive and if they cut me out of their life or stopped using modern medicine then I would disapprove and try to have a rational conversation with them. But I think most people, religious and non religious, would not like to see these changes in their children.

  • D

    I plan on teaching my kids a lot of critical thinking skills and not even mentioning religion until the are forced to come into contact with it (school, etc)

    If they tell me they’re religious, I’ll tell them they’re not thinking hard enough.

  • JohnB

    Nothing would bother me more. My son is 19 now and was never “imprinted” with the idea of god, so I think he’s immune. But kids tend to rebel against whatever norm they were raised with, so I wonder, although not to the point of worrying about it.

    On the other hand, he’s his own person and I’ve tried to instill in him the principle that his life is his own to live. That people who are successful at living invent their own life and don’t look to daddy or mommy or society or authority for the right answers.

  • Grimalkin

    My sister-in-law converted to Islam a few years ago. This isn’t “yeah, okay, I believe in god, whatever” Islam. This is “Wallah! God is perfect and creates all things perfectly! If women claim that they can’t produce enough milk to breastfeed their babies, they are lying because they are just lazy or don’t really love their children because god would never create them with a flaw. Wallah!”

    It’s just nuts. And her parents, both atheists, are heartbroken. She and I were fairly good friends up until a little while ago when her Islam veered from “I’m curious about this religion” to full on nutterball fundamentalism. Now I can’t stand to even be in the same room with her because all she talks about is god and religion and if you say ANYTHING that isn’t complete agreement, she just blows up (not literally, unfortunately). It’s gotten to the point that I can’t deal with her anymore.

    I’m scared to death that something like this will happen with my future kids. I know that I would love my children no matter what, but how would I manage if I can’t even stand to be in the same room as them? I really REALLY hope it never comes up.

  • Julie Marie

    I’d have to remind myself firmly that my child will find what he needs at each stage of maturity and remember, when I needed the safe structure of conservative Christianity, it fit me well, but as I worked out some of my fears, I was able to find a way to work my way out of what had become a constraining and dissonant belief system.

    But still, I hope he thinks for himself. I haven’t really talked about faith yet – he remembers when church was a huge part of our lives, and understands we don’t attend regularly anymore, only when my Goddaughter has something big going on. He prefers to sit in the pew box with me and color rather than go to children’s church, and that is fine with me.

    But yeah, it would be hard to swallow my son embracing a hardline fundy faith of any description. I’d feel like I failed to give him what he needed to face the world on his own.

  • Siamang

    My four-year old daughter informs me that she believes in God, and Buddha and science.

    That is the sum total of her theological grasp.

  • Ryot

    Although I’m not even near the age where I’d be prepared for raising a child, I have to admit that I’d be a little disappointed if they joined some kind of fundamentalist, fire-and-brimstone church. I don’t mind the so-called “spirituality,” but the insanity that comes along with it would be hard for me to accept.

    I assumed I would be open to it, but now I’m not sure. My friend told me he believes in intelligent design, and it took some serious willpower not to get up in his face about how irreducible complexity is bullcrap. I hate proselytizers, and I’m not going to be one.

  • Ada

    Alex said,

    That said, I wonder how likely this scenario really is? It seems to me that unless the child is raised with some sort of weird beliefs, or unless the child is pushed towards such beliefs by trauma either in her upbringing or her life, it would be unlikely that she would gravitate towards a religious viewpoint.

    I gotta disagree with you here. Just because someone isn’t raised with “weird beliefs” doesn’t mean they know how to be skeptical and rational. Religions tend to promise big, grand things. You don’t need a traumatic experience to think that maybe those big, grand things are better than your totally normal life right now. If you never learned to question things properly, you can buy the religious crap hook, line, and sinker… and the fact that it’s all new and fresh to you (having been brought up non-religious) might even make this easier to do.

    That’s why some atheist parents take a more active role in encouraging their kids to think critically. About everything. Religion, homeopathy, evolution, should I use paper or plastic bags, etc. Then hopefully when they hear the religious babble, they’ll think, “but this makes no sense” instead of “ooooo neat.” Hence books like Parenting Beyond Belief, programs like Camp Quest, etc.

    I’m due with our first in 2.5 months, and this is what we want for her. We want her to think critically. I don’t see how she could be a critical thinker and convert to scientology, but if she did, yup, we would be disappointed, and yup, we’d still love her. I think if she announced she was religious, my first reaction would be to ask her to explain how she came to the conclusion she did. If she has put a fair amount of real thought into it, it might be easier to take.

  • I’d think, “oh boy! Another deconversion project!”

    Maybe I should have gotten the “four horseman” atheist infant mobile. “Watch your baby coo and giggle as the beloved faces of Harris, Hitchens, Dennett, and Dawkins dance over her crib.”

  • I would be more concerned about my child having critical thinking skills than any religion chosen. I believe in religious freedom and although I wouldn’t choose for my child to be religious, I want my child to make his or her own choices.

    I think I would do all I could to understand and accept the decision, but I wouldn’t compromise my own beliefs as a result. Perhaps though through understanding I would grow as a person.

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