When Parents Become Atheists, What Should They Tell the Kids? March 22, 2009

When Parents Become Atheists, What Should They Tell the Kids?

I tend to think of only younger people becoming atheists — sometimes between the ages of 13 and 16 — and it jolts me a bit every time someone tells me they lost their faith when they were 30 or 40. I don’t know how they deal with it. It’s such a major change.

Similarly, when people ask me how I can be a vegetarian, I tell them it’s not that big of a deal. I was raised with it and it was never hard to do. But I’m in awe of anyone who becomes a vegetarian — and has to change their whole diet — after they’ve eaten meat for decades.

So when you’re a parent and you become an atheist, what do you tell your children? You raised them with religious beliefs. How do you tell them you don’t believe all that superstition that you yourself taught them?

Valerie Tarico offers three pieces of advice to newly-atheist parents who have to deal with children:

1. Help them to understand your changes as a matter of spiritual growth rather than spiritual abandonment.

2. If your children are still at home, don’t forget that they may need a new community.

3. Trust yourself, even when you are feeling your way in the dark, to be a spiritual guide for your children.

She goes into more depth on each of those points in her article.

Are there any other points these non-religious parents need to keep in mind?

(via Tacoma Atheists)

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • I think parents experiencing a change in belief systems would want to be aware of family traditions, holidays & celebrations, and how these things change. For an extended family that’s especially close and generally practicing the same belief system, it can be a bit jarring for kids to be suddenly different from their cousins. My experience with this is more of watching a parent move into religion rather than out, but I suspect it’s still applicable.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Atheism rarely happens overnight. I suspect most people who reach a point of declaring open atheism have probably been having doubts for years. Although I know some people hide those doubts in order not to upset spouse and family.

    I would follow Dawkins’ lead here: children are children. they are not atheist children, or christian/muslim/hindu children, they are children of an atheist or a christian or etc. Some day they will grow up and have to form their own views anyway, so there is no sense in imposing the parent’s belief system on them. I would explain to them what I believe and why I believe it, but it should be clear that their own choice is necessarily their own.

  • sinistr

    Going back to 1971 when I was raising my 2 and 5 year old as a single male atheist parent I simply didn’t tell them much as I felt they would sort it out for themselves at the appropriate time. When they were a little older, at their own request, I did send them to local Christian churches so that they could get a Christian background. They were annoyed when the churches gave them Sunday envelopes to fill with money to return to the church. They learned a most important lesson… churches want your money. For any of their theistic questions, I answered giving different points of view. As adults my son became a born again Christian but not connected to any organized religion and my daughter followed no particular religion at all. Strange as it may sound but my son and I still have friendly long religious discussions fairly often. My daughter on the other hand also calls home just as often and we talk about everything except religion. What I did seemed to work for us. If I had to do it over I would probably have shared more of my atheism when they were younger.

  • mark

    Hey, Hemant!!

    I just stumbled across a youtube video with you in it. You might have mentioned this video on your blog in the past but some of your new readers might enjoy seeing it for the first time

    Its on youtube under the title:

    The Creationist Museum – Part 1 – The Protesters

    and you are there at 2 minutes and 45 seconds into the 8 minute video.

    Here is the link


  • Miko

    If you were taking them to church/synagogue/mosque/etc. before, offer to continue. Just because you’ve become an atheist doesn’t mean that they have too.

  • Polly

    Do they talk about how children might lose trust in the parents’ judgment? After all, if they were wrong about something so fundamental, there’s a sense where the kids might ask, “why should I listen to anything else you say?”

    Here’s a jolt for ya’: I deconverted after 30.

    But I’m in awe of anyone who becomes a vegetarian — and has to change their whole diet — after they’ve eaten meat for decades.

    I became a pescatarian in my mid-20s but only for 2 years. Inever intended to do it forever. I can’t believe how easy it was to give up bacon, ribs and chicken nuggets!

  • I don’t raise my children as atheists, I prefer to raise them as skeptics – and to be skeptical of religious claims.

  • I would imagine that the children would have had some influence on their parent’s beliefs. We’re social animals and rarely act in isolation. My unwife became a vegetarian as a teen which influenced her mother to give up meat. A child’s wonder and curiosity could certainly influence a parent to reject the easy stock answers that religion often provides.

  • I would follow Dawkins’ lead here: children are children. they are not atheist children, or christian/muslim/hindu children, they are children of an atheist or a christian or etc

    Actually, they technically are atheist children until taught otherwise.

  • Sorry to jolt you again, Hemant: I was raised vaguely Jewish, became an evangelical Christian at 15, then spent the subsequent 30 years getting progressively more liberal until I (and my spouse) ended up as an atheist, about 5 years ago. Even when Christians, both my spouse and I had a relatively skeptical approach to religion, and encouraged critical thinking for our kids. Since the (de-)conversion was so gradual, the kids (who were in their late teens at the time) appeared to take it in stride (perhaps even appreciated the fact that we had finally come to our senses :).

  • Newly atheist parents – indeed, any parents – need to be understanding that their childrens beliefs will not perfectly match their own; and this goes doubly so when your beliefs are changing.

    You need to be honest, but not necessarily greatly detailed. Don’t pretend your beliefs are something other than what they are, but it’s not necessary to give more detailed information than they’re ready for. Answer any questions in a straightforward manner, and give opportunity to ask questions.

    Don’t present new beliefs as fact, and you need to be clear that different people believe different things from you, and that’s it’s fine for people to think you’re wrong.

    Of course, most nonbelievers already pretty much do this all anyway.

  • ChameleonDave

    Millions of parents tell their kids that Father Christmas exists, and then after a few years make a U-turn and admit it’s not true. I don’t see why this should be so very much harder.

    Being caught out in an untruth is always embarrassing and undermining, but continuing it would be worse.

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