Should Atheists Parents Stop Their Kids From Mocking Religion? May 7, 2009

Should Atheists Parents Stop Their Kids From Mocking Religion?

Here’s an interesting dilemma: Atheists spend a lot of time poking fun at religion and its many irrational beliefs. If you have kids, you want them to be critical thinkers… so what do you do if they end up making fun of the same things you do? Do you let them do it? Or do you stop them because they’re being little punks?

Atheist parenting guru Dale McGowan raises this very scenario and then proposes one great way of handling it:

In addition to clarifying the two different levels of respect about which I’ve written before — that ideas themselves have to earn respect, while people, as people, are inherently deserving of it — the best way to approach this is (if you’ll excuse the phrase) by inviting him who is without sin to cast the first stone.

I watch the odd bit of televangelism now and then. My son Connor (then 11) caught a few minutes of one program in which some outrageous thing was being foisted on a nodding throng

My boy reacted not to the idea itself, but by sneering at the people: “I just don’t understand how those stupid people can believe stupid things that make no sense!”

“Hmm, yeah.” I thought for a minute, then said, “Hey Con, could you go get me a Coke from the basement?”


“A Coke. From the basement.”

“I… but…” he stammered. “Why?”

“I’m thirsty. Please.”

“But…I can’t go into the basement by myself.”

“Oh? Why not?”

“I… I just can’t!”

“Oh,” I said gently. “And… does that make sense?”

Religious people aren’t the only people with irrational beliefs. Hell, I dislike stray hairs. And all things smaller than me.

Dale adds later on that “reasoned critique” is a wonderful thing but “eye-rolling arrogance” is not. The former is what you want to teach your kids.

Has anyone else had to deal with children who acted in that arrogant manner toward religious people… when you may have been thinking the exact same things?

How did you handle it?

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  • I have a feeling we are going to be dealing with this. My husband is very outspoken about his opinion of the “crazy Christians”. I tend to reserve my comments and respect that we just believe different things. I want the girl to grow up respectful, open-minded and critical, but not to the point of hurting peoples feelings. It’s going to be hard enough with atheist parents; I don’t want her to encourage hostilities.

  • bill

    I’m only 20 so kids are a long way off, but I feel personally that I’m going to try to avoid influencing my children to be that judgmental of other people. I remember the way I thought, as I was raised Roman Catholic, that Baptists were always “those crazy baptists,” something I inherited from hearing my mom repeat that phrase multiple times. And it wasn’t just baptists but just about anybody that didn’t think the way my family thought. In some ways thoughts of that nature and identifying strongly with one’s family’s beliefs are unavoidable, but I think encouraging open-mindedness and acceptance can help deter harsh judgments and stereotyping. I think most of us would agree that closed-minded assumptions of people without aiming greater understanding is something we stand against, and we should try to avoid allowing children to become so harsh and judgmental and encourage them to understand and experience other people as they grow older and wiser.

  • K

    Once again, I do not agree. I do not believe we should all clasp hands and sing kumbaya.
    Religion should be mocked. Openly. People should shake the mysticism off of their brains and listen to the charlatans preaching. Point and laugh at their dramatic spiels. Stand up and say, “IT DOESN’T MAKE ANY SENSE!”

    In your story, it takes a child to point out that the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes and what’s the father do? Turns it back on the kid and shames him for his childish fears that he will grow out of–unlike the fools in church who can never grow out of their ridiculous behavior. Shame on the father and shame on any Atheist too afraid to rock the boat.

  • As I’m not going to have children for a while (uh, hopefully at least), I don’t know if I can comment on how to handle it. Though I must say, if this kid’s basement is anything like my parent’s, fear of going down there alone is completely rational.

  • Aj

    Feelings and beliefs are not the same thing. Well M&Ms melting in hand or not is an empirical statement, so insisting the opposite despite evidence is irrational. A feeling of aversion is not irrational, there’s no set rules in reason of what’s appropriate to like and dislike. Irrational fears, sometimes earn that name, but only when they’re used to justify beliefs.

  • I have to deal with this with my 10 year old son and really don’t know what to do.

    I tend to get very upset by the FRC and groups like them and I don’t hold back when I talk to my husband about religion as a tool of hatred and manipulation. My language is often, um, colorful during these rant sessions. Now I am noticing a tendency in my son to say religion is stupid and to mock classmates (to me not to them) who believe in god. And I am also unsure of how to deal with it. On one hand I know he is mirroring my beliefs and that I would like my son to grow to question the validity of religion. However, I also don’t want him to be arrogant about his views. This is one of the things that I am often shouting about in my anger towards religion when it comes to policy decisions in this country. I’m not sure how to talk to my son about it. I don’t think it’s a good idea or even possible for me to not react viscerally to certain news. Plus, it’s a good idea for him to see that passion towards politics is good, avoid apathy and all that. He just seems disinterested when I try to talk about my views towards god and religion in a more rational and thought out manner. I mean he is ten and angry ranting mommy is fun and funny, dispassionate conceptual mommy is dull, dull, dull.

  • Mathew Wilder

    I don’t like kids (except to eat – fried, not broiled), but as Mencken said, “One horse-laugh is worth a thousand syllogisms.”

    If the religious people are offended, well, that seems to me to indicate that their skin is too thin, or else perhaps, they’re embarrassed by their beliefs, in which case making them feel uncomfortable about espousing them is a good thing. To paraphrase and exaggerate just a little, this is a revolution people, we’re going to have to make some people mad!

  • Larry Huffman

    I have 4 kids…all raised atheist…though any could freely investigate religion as they chose. Currently ages 15, 16, 18 and 20.

    So…how ‘should’ parents be? Well…that is not what I will address, because that assumes that I know the right way and any other way is wrong.

    I will relate how we taught our kids. We taught them to be respectful…not of the religion…but of the person. just as they would want others to respect them. If you are hearing the golden Rule…you are correct. I have no problem teaching a lesson that the Buddha taught…even if Jesus tried to make it his own.

    Our kids, especially our oldest daughter (who is 18 now) have always been outspoken. They understand their lack of belief and can support it pretty well. They also understand religion enough to know what it is they do not believe. They are also good kids…not meaning that boastful…but my kids are a great example, I think, of how atheist children can be compassionate and ethical and good citizens. They have never been ashamed to call themselves atheist, however, and so they drew the attention, focus and ire of over-zealous christian kids in their schools. we have some pretty ugly stories about some pretty ugly christians…kids and adults.

    I have always used that as the lesson, though. ‘Look at how that made you feel. How bad they made you feel, or tried to make you feel about your beliefs. Do you want to make others feel bad about their beliefs?” Of course, in some respects…if the goal is to deconvert them all..then yes. But frankly that is not my mission nor is it the mission of my kids. They are busy starting their own lives…they do not need to worry about what other people believe to that level.

    Basically I taught them that lampooning and making fun of something as preposterous as religion is easy and can be fun and funny…but they have to understand that to the believer it is something very dear and very personal. I explained that, as with anything, there is a time and a place. I have taught them that on a one on one basis they are to be respectful of others in all cases…not just religion…but religion is part and parcel. (And respect does not mean they cannot ever be critical of religion…it just is guideline for how and when and why)

    Are they perfect…no. But I think when they have over-stepped, they understand why and how and have genuinely felt bad about it.

    For example…my youngest son (who is 15)…at his school there is a group called Kids For Christ. KFC. They put up signs for a pancake breakfast they were hosting, and he vandalized their signs to say ‘Kids For Chicken”. He pasted a picture of a bucket of KFC and put something like “Come Eat this is the Flesh of my Bird”. (I must admit I had to fight back some chuckles myself). My daughter ratted him out to me (as a sister will…hehe…siblings are siblings)…and when I confronted him about it, he was sorry. I asked what he was going to do, and he said he would fess up. So he went to the teacher who sponsored the club and offered to work their pancake breakfast. He did go and work it…had a great time. I do not think he will be doing that anymore…vandalism or overt attempts to make a religious group look bad. He said the christian kids said some mean things but their teacher/sponsor made them stop and by the end of the event he had made some new friends, and had at least earned the respect of the teacher.

    As I said..they are not perfect…but who is. Life is a series of lessons, and the best we can hope for is to learn and move on. When my kids do start making fun of religion I will join in if it is in private or the time is right, but I will point out that it is not the kind of thing to do towards people who take it personal…without understanding the ramifications or without some reason or agenda where the use of such a thing is constructive.

    And ultimately…the largest reason why our kids would be better off not making fun of religion too much is…well, there are more of them then us, and they get offended way easier than others. No point in having your relgious teachers and principles and others who are in authority over you get a negative view of you. Doing so could work out very negatively for you.

    So…should? That is up to each parent and kid…but for us, having a level of respect for the person (again, not the religion…subtle difference, but it is big)was first and foremost.

    Note here…I say this…but during the “No On Prop 8” protests here in Cali, my kids all took to the street corners on weekends and evenings…holding signs and showing oppostion. During that, they were treated to some of the most hateful nasty ugly despicable treatment by religious people. To which my daughter observed that atheist are better at acting christian than christians. Maybe a bit off the mark…but I knew what she emant…and I agree.

  • anonymouse

    I really think teaching children to treat other people with dignity is more important than feeling smug. Also, you have to remember that children just regurgitate what their parents say. A small kid is not capable of the same deep thinking about existence, god, life philosophy, etc that an adult is capable of. They can’t be held to the same standard. They still are human being and deserve respect.

    That being said, definitely prepare them to be equipped if they are proselytized to.

    I don’t have kids, for the record…

  • K: “Once again, I do not agree. I do not believe we should all clasp hands and sing kumbaya.
    Religion should be mocked.”

    It’s one thing to mock religion. It’s another thing to write off believers as stupid, as if only the stupid have irrational beliefs. The latter should be discouraged simply because it is irrational.

  • DaveS

    To all of you that excuse a kid mocking religious people, the issue is not whether religion deserves to be mocked, it’s learning the social grace not to mock when it will hurt you, or needlessly hurt others. I don’t think any of you would think it a good idea to mock a cop that’s pulled you over, if you spy a cross somewhere on his uniform, right? And nobody would think it’s very nice to mock another parent’s kid for being a theist.

    A reasonably way to format the idea that some widely held ideas are worthless, but no person is worthless, is to adopt the model Mr. McGowan suggests.

    I’m an atheist, a humanist, but also a religionist, in the form of Unitarian-Universalism. Many people consider UU for their kids, for exactly the reasons being discussed, here–respect for other people, if not their beliefs.

  • grazatt

    Hey, all atheists know dark basements are where Cthulhu likes to hide!

  • I think Larry’s post was excellent.

    I have a five year old and am dealing with these issues right now. Last night she asked me “Who is God?”

    I gave her an explanation I thought she could understand. I also told her why I don’t believe in God. I didn’t tell her what she had to believe in.

    She started asking questions about God’s powers and then her imagination got away with her and she scared herself and couldn’t get to sleep. “Is God going to come through my window?” she asked at one point.

    God doesn’t always make for good bedtime stories.

    I’ve talked with her about church and religion before. I’ve always urged her not to make fun of religious people. I’m doing this because I think it’s wrong to mock people. (Criticism of ideas is perfectly acceptable.) I am also doing this to protect her. She is not old enough to intellectually of physically defend herself against attack.

    Luckily we live in a diverse, socially liberal area where an atheist will be (mostly) free from religious extremism. There are some young atheists who live in extremely evangelical areas of the country who are tormented on a daily basis.

  • There’s a difference between mocking religion, which is always fair game, and mocking individual followers of said religion, which I think needs more of a case by case treatment. If the religious follower is not arrogant or mocking, I suggest a reasoned approach to their strange beliefs. If they are themselves mocking, use a parody of science in their arguments then a mocking approach seems very reasonable.

  • Gabriel

    Yes, we should. I am an atheist and my sons both claim that they are also. When I hear them doing something similar to the boy in the story I tell them they should stop. That our intolerance is not going to help them see us as a good people.

  • mvanstav

    Maybe the fact that children parroting your words makes you uncomfortable means you should re-evaluate what you’re saying.
    Of course a child shouldn’t be taught that it’s okay to point and laugh at someone. Adults ought to live by this rule also. I don’t care how much you disagree with religion, the cheap shots lobbied at the religious from the non religious are rude. Please no one say the phrase “kid gloves”. It’s not using kid gloves to treat someone with respect as a human being even as you disagree with what they are saying. Convince them with logic, not with insults.
    If you are ashamed at your child saying it, you’d better have a good reason for why you’re allowed to say it.

    The above being a comment on the title of this post. As for the story told in the post, I like the way the parent handled it. Have a discussion about why those people might believe what they believe, and what you feel about it, and remind your child that they are still people and still deserving of respect as such, even if you find their beliefs silly.

  • TXatheist

    2 weeks ago at a dinner out with the extended family of 16 my 5 year nephew(catholic) yells across the table at my son that he is wrong and that when you die that’s not it, you go to heaven with jesus. My son just ignored him. The discussion was from an earlier conversation the two had a week prior cause they are trying to figure out the death thing.

  • I think this is a false dilemma. It’s still asking whether or not some group (religion) should receive special treatment.

    All ideas and the people who hold them are constantly being evaluated by others. Because beliefs translate into desires and intentions, which translate into action.

    Looking at someone’s beliefs about the world is largely how we decide who to be friends with, who to hire, who to marry, etc. Espousing a set of principles is just about the strongest statement you can make to the world. People who have mistaken principles or no principles at all are a danger to themselves and others.

    Everyone should therefore expect to be evaluated, judged, and treated accordingly. I think kids should be taught to understand that there are times and places that require varying degrees of honesty in this regard.

    If someone’s wife is repulsive, you don’t go telling them. But you are certainly going to think it, along with the hope that she is subjectively beautiful to her husband. In the end that’s all that matters that the people are happy. Not what anyone thinks about their desirability. Because relationships are only of concern to the people involved.

    Religion would have the same respect if its adherents didn’t go around trying to change laws and claiming a privileged position from which to control morality. It is these consequences of unfounded beliefs that actually *require* disrespect to maintain a just society.

    It’s not just that religious people are asking us to accept their decision to marry an ugly wife, they want us to sleep with her, too.

  • I think that this is an important ethic to instill in one’s child. Open dialogs have a much better chance if people steer clear from using ad-hominem attacks(ie calling someone stupid for their beliefs) in their interactions with one another.
    Although at a certain point, the ridiculous deserves to be ridiculed, but one should focus upon the idea not it’s author.

  • Aj

    People are not their beliefs. If people have ridiculous beliefs then those beliefs should get ridiculed. Dale McGowan rightly points out that it’s not the “stupid things” comment that was a problem, but the “stupid people” comment was wrong.

  • Robyn

    Even though I know intelligently that ghosts and other stuff don’t exist, ghost stories and being in the dark have always creeped me out. I always look up into my skylight befor going to the bathroom at night because I keep thinking a Voudun Loa or the ghosts from the movie Skeleton Key will be looking down on me (I can’t explain that, either). So I know I’ve got very little room to talk. I like how McGowan handled that in the exerpt.

    Yeah, pretty much. Just mock beliefs, not people (unless it’s a real douchebag, like Pat Robertson or sometime. He deserves mockery).

  • It depends on whether you want your kids to have more of the same or if you want them to have a better society than this one.

    If you want more of the same, then by all means mock, ridicule and lead your children by example. If you want them to have a better society, show compassion and mercy and understanding and teach your children to do the same.

    I’m a Christian and it works both ways. When one of our kids said, “?? doesn’t believe in God,” my wife and I went over the line one more time – “It doesn’t matter what they believe or don’t believe, we treat people with respect.” I think this is especially important to instill in children as they are so easily led to pick on someone who’s different – He wears glasses, She’s fat, He wears old shoes etc. etc. etc. I’m sure we’ve all been there, either as victim, perp, or observer.

  • Zered

    Larry, you hit the nail right on the head. I am not a parent yet either, but I do agree with you. Religion itself is open for mockery, but no the people that are shackled by it. The idea of a guy in the sky judging all your actions can be a very hard thing to shake off if you were raised with it from a very young age. Seeing all these people posting about teaching their children to be accepting of PEOPLE, if not religion, gives me great hope that my future children may have friends that are as open and accepting as I hope to raise my own.

  • Les

    I hope that, if I said anything like that to them, they would say “/why/ do they believe that”? instead of that kid’s response.

    Condescension or mockery of other people’s idea is never a good or intelligent way of handling things.

  • Yes and no. Children shouldn’t “cast the first stone” necessarily. For example they shouldn’t run out and confront people about beliefs every time they encounter them because that’s downright rude.

    But if somebody comes proselytizing or is using religion as a weapon in some way then there’s no reason to hold back. After all, if the religious person is using their beliefs as a weapon or a tool they’re fair game.

  • Aj

    Mockery is a powerful weapon, it would be terrible if we didn’t employ it against faith.

  • Mathew Wilder

    Condescension and mockery is never a good thing? Guess we should say good bye to most of the good comedians, then? Especially Carlin? C’mon. Part of the reason why religious beliefs (and sometimes people!) deserve mocking is because they take their beliefs too seriously. People who can’t laugh need to be taught how, sometimes through example.

  • It all depends. If the kid mocks the tv, why not let him? Where’s the harm in that? It doesn’t mean he’ll mock the believers to their faces. (That’s probably not the right thing to do – unless, of course, they start it. Mockery is better than violence.)

  • gmcfly

    Would you mock religion to a man facing terminal cancer who is relying on his faith to get through the day? Or to a woman who became a believer after being supported by church members while she and her family were homeless?

    While I personally don’t believe in God, for some people, it *is* reasonable to think God exists.

    Let’s face it, life can throw some extremely awful things at people. I’ve just been fortunate, like Siddhartha before he left his palace. But maybe one day I’ll go through more experiences and come to rely on faith in God just like these people.

    For now, though, my best information points toward atheism.

  • On a tangentially related note, my kids loved the “submissive Jesus” commercials! You think he’s joking when he says it’s a good birthday present for a kid, but Nico (7) and Leo (5) were on and on about how they want it (with no encouragement except for letting them watch the first video commercial). And my husband wondered aloud how this would go over with my parents if they decided to talk about it there… 😉

  • Brooks

    I agree with others that the Golden Rule is the best advice to follow, to treat others as how you would want to be treated. At the same time, I agree with others that there is a time and a place for ridicule. I think there’s a difference between bullying kids at school and George Carlin mocking religion, though. With George Carlin, the kids of Christian families can always change the channel and ignore it if they don’t like what Carlin says. Carlin is not forcing the kids to listen to anything he says. ON the other hand, when you’re at school, you sort of are being forced to stay together for a whole day for the purpose of learning and sometimes you have to set aside these things to get along, unless you don’t want to drive each other and the teachers crazy all year. I was actually surprised though at just how respectful Bill Maher was to the believers in Religulous. He didn’t mock the believers themselves but just openly and honestly asked questions and let the ridiculousness of the beliefs speak for themselves. At one point, he even thanked these fundies for their prayers and thanked them for being Christlike and not just Christian.

  • Ellie

    You actually have to consider whether you should teach your children to not mock and ridicule others? Somehow, that just sounds really wrong. The arrogance is a little overwhelming.

  • ursulamajor

    My 14 year old asked his new substitute teacher, “So what’s with the lower case “t” on that necklace?” He is now dealing with a woman that can’t stand him. I have to admit, I chuckled over the cleverness of it, but he and I had a long talk about proper place, etc.

    He has learned to hold his tongue a bit since he goes to a young people’s get together at a local EXXXXTREEEEMMME church on Wednesday nights. He goes because his friends go. I don’t mind because it gives him a relatively safe place to hang out. I told him in no uncertain terms that if he shows up on their turf, he keeps his trap shut. But elsewhere, he pretty much waits until someone else starts in. Then they become fair game.

    Like the kid that found out he was atheist and told him he was going to hell for worshipping the devil. Hunter explained calmly “We don’t worship any gods or devils.”
    But as the kid walked away, Hunter said under his breath, loud enough for him to hear, “But we do eat babies.” The kid froze in his tracks….heehee.

  • marigo

    no NO and NO.
    kids are so clean and chaste and kindhearted, don’t make them the same monsters as you are, i wish i could be a kid again, and be religious from the first, this bad company taunting religion adn God can be influent to them and is a big punishment for people who do it. i see them in my class, those who mock religion, always avoid being alone, are sensible, distressed etc, dislike them. if one falls in this dangerous thing such as insulting God, dont make young spirits do the same.
    remember wheni was a kid, i praised so much God and Religion ceremonies, and when you do it everything changes. Really don’t.
    of course God is, hopefully i die as a muslim.

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