What If Your Child Becomes Religious? August 12, 2009

What If Your Child Becomes Religious?

Is this every atheist parent’s worst nightmare? Imagine your child grows up to be an evangelical Christian or Scientologist!

Dale McGowan explains how to handle this situation:

As usual, Dale holds a view that I would hope others do, too.

There’s a difference between fundamentalist faith and an intelligent theist who accepts the world (and evolution and geology) as it is but also thinks a God could have a role in developing and guiding that world.

If you raise your kids to ask good questions and to be skeptical about what they learn, then you also have to accept the path they choose to follow. It may not be the same as your own.

The worst idea, I think, is to force atheism onto your children and tell them they’re not even allowed to even consider a theistic worldview. That’s going to backfire.

Would you be really upset if your child became religious?

Would that sadness be any different from that of your parents when you told them you were an atheist (if that was the case)?

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Kate


    What comes to mind is The Prophet…

    Your children are not your children.
    They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
    They come through you but not from you,
    And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

    You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
    For they have their own thoughts.

    You may house their bodies but not their souls,
    For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
    which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
    You may strive to be like them,
    but seek not to make them like you.
    For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

    You are the bows from which your children
    as living arrows are sent forth.
    The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
    and He bends you with His might
    that His arrows may go swift and far.
    Let our bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
    For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
    so He loves also the bow that is stable.

  • I feel bad for saying this, but if it was anything more than deism, yeah, I’d be upset. I’d feel like I failed to instill skeptical thinking in them because they’re believing in things that obviously aren’t true. I mean, my child being a young earth creationist would upset me more than my kid being a liberal Christian or a Buddhist or something…but I would still feel that twinge. Of course, no matter what I’d still love them.

    I think that’s a natural feeling. We have certain sets of values because we think they’re the best – otherwise why would be hold values we find inferior? So isn’t it normal to be upset that your children, who you care about deeply, aren’t following those values? Honestly I think I’d be more upset to find out my child was a Republican than a Christian.

    Maybe I just shouldn’t reproduce T_T

  • JS

    If they joined a cult I would freak out, but honestly, I would be OK with it otherwise. Then again, I’m not a pure “atheist”: I’m agnostic, agreeing somewhat with Bill Maher’s assertion that “certainty” of such an unknowable, untestable thing, is foolish and that I will, perhaps, find out when I die. I’ve also felt “spiritual moments” before… and I know how ocmforting they can be in a moment of need. There’s a reason or two that religion arose and stuck around for (at minimum) what would appear to be tens of thousands of years and counting; it gives comfort, and it can provide a sense of unity.

    This is why I would worry if it was a fundamentalist cult or something… but it they decided to become say, an Earth-lovin’ neopagan or a gentle “doesn’t take the Bible literally but believes in a loving God and tries to behave as Christ would” Christian? I would not mind. If you do it right, religion is perfectly compatible with a scientific, logical, evidence-based worldview. The one thing that I would feel awful for would be if my child were to grow up with a poor understanding of how science works (its strengths AND its weaknesses AND its uncertainties), because I would feel I had failed to teach them the way the world itself and knowledge itself, both work, which would mean I had failed to teach them how to think and reason and well, function, for themselves in the modern world.

  • stephanie

    eh, my ‘not-daughter’ (no legal custody) ran off and married a guy who is hoping to become a Russian Orthodox priest. For a while, they hauled over 200 miles every Sunday just to make it to church. I suppose I should be mildly disappointed, but they’re happy, they love each other and they have no problem hanging out with their godless not-family. I think it means as much to them that we support their choice to believe as it does to us that they remain close to friends and family who do not.

  • Aj

    I don’t care for Dale McGowan’s perspective. His example of a six year old child having all these positions is implausible to me. The repeated hypocrisy of terminology and advocation of his “non-interference” position. The indifference to skeptical thinking. He presents himself as neutral, that what he does to influence his children is different to what others would.

    Hemant, oh yes, it was forced atheism that turned William Murray into a Christian, and forcing atheism is the only alternative to Dale McGowen’s position. I don’t have to like or do nothing whatever my hypothetical children do or believe. I don’t subscribe to any theory of “paths”, or the concept of “world views” as a category that secular humanism and religions would inhabit. We don’t live in a vacuum, it’s not wrong in and of itself to influence someone, it’s unavoidable.

    Fundamentalists can be intelligent. I don’t think there’s anything different in the faith of a god of the gaps “God directs evolution” type fuzzy Christian and a fundamentalist Christian. It’s a scale as McGowan suggests, but that doesn’t mean that less harmful Christians aren’t worth persuading, or superstition shouldn’t be argued against. Critical thinking should be advocated, especially to those you love.

    I would be upset, it would be a grand failure on my part if my hypothetical children became religious. I would have failed them.

  • Andrew Morgan

    If my children become religious, it won’t be that per se that makes me upset. Religious beliefs are a symptom of a larger problem: the lack of a clear, rational, skeptical mentality. That’s what would make me more upset.

    I would be equally upset if my children became atheists for the wrong reasons. I would be just as unsatisfied with my children becoming atheists simply because I am, as I would if they became religious; perhaps more so.

    It is important that we not hold false beliefs. And religion is surely harmful. But it is far better for the individual to have the mindset that leads to atheism, rather than atheism per se.

  • zoo

    Well, I would be rather distressed to discover I had a child, but saying I did, I might be a bit disappointed if s/he became religious, but I think I’d only have a real problem with him/her adopting values along with their new religion that went against what I though I had taught them (e.g. hating people for things out of their control).
    There would be some difference between this and what my parents would think of my atheism. At the least I wouldn’t believe my kid’s going to hell, even if s/he now thinks I am. Kid wouldn’t have to be afraid to tell me either.

  • Dan W

    I suppose, in the event of my having kids, I would be disappointed if one of them became a religious fanatic, and somewhat less disappointed if a future kid of mine became just a “moderate” theist. I’d try to teach them to be skeptical of everything, and that there are many different views out there, regarding religion, politics, and other things. I’d also try to instill in them the values of knowledge and a good education. Hopefully with these values I’d give them, they’d, after considering different views, come to hold views similar to my own. But I wouldn’t disown them if they didn’t come to have similar views.

  • Matt

    As long as my kid is happy and they hold a “live and let live” philosophy towards other people’s beliefs (or disbelief), then I have no problem with them finding religion.

  • 5ive

    I am there with Andrew. It would not the religious beliefs so much as the fact that my kid has stopped thinking critically. And the reason this bothers me is that it would leave him/her (I have one of each) open for all the other sorts of magical thinking, which provide possible harm at the worst and mock happiness at the least.

    I ask my kids every now and then why they think they way they do, why don’t they eat meat, why don’t they want to go to church. I don’t want them blindly following me. I want them to question what I say/do. If they provide a good argument, they win (providing there is no harm), but they have to have a sound argument.
    But with this philosophy, I have to accept that it may come back and bite me on the butt. Maybe they will grow up to be religious. It is not like I would stop loving them. They are my very world. But I may feel a bit disappointed for awhile…

  • medussa

    I have never been, and never will be a parent, so I can’t speak of how I would react to my kids becoming religious.
    But I was raised by a parent who followed every trendy religious idea, from auras to goddess worship to ouija boards. And when I was 14, I had serious, big questions about religion, life, the universe, etc., with a trusted and loved mormon cousin doing her best to recruit me.
    It took me a while to sort it all out, and becoming a mormon was a real possibility there for a while. My mom’s religious stuff was so nonsensical and self serving that I had little hope for answers there, but had she tried to force me into any of them, I can guarantee I would have run the other way, fast.

    I cannot imagine a child being “forced” to come to the “right” conclusion wouldn’t rebel against that and run the other way, at least initially, especially a child who is really seeking the truth.
    If you’ve raised the child to use reason and rational thought, then trust them to work it out and come to a conclusion that works for them, even if it doesn’t sit right with you.

  • Nelson

    With my kids, I’m raising them without any religion, but once they reach 18, sure they’re welcome to adopt any religion they please. But after being raised to use reason and be rational thinkers, I seriously doubt they’ll be able to take imaginary friends for adults very seriously. I mean, what adults do you know who believe in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny?

  • Shannon

    Dale McGowan always makes so much sense to me. I would much rather raise my kids to think for themselves than to raise them to be atheists. If I believe my child is only thinking for herself if she thinks exactly as I do, then she’s not really thinking for herself in my opinion.

    The example of his 5/6 year old is completely believable to me. It sounds very much like my (now) 10 year old when she was younger. In my experience with my daughter and her friends, that’s what a lot of kids are like. Not all though. My son is different.

  • False Prophet

    Looking back, I can pin the foundation of my atheism back to when I was 6 or 7–it came from reading a lot of myths, legends and folklore alongside Bible stories, and not understanding why Scripture was to be held as more true than Greek or Japanese or Hindu myths; especially being raised Catholic, where the New Testament is largely (but not wholly) taken literally, while the Old Testament is seen mostly as “metaphor”, except when it isn’t.

    So I accept his daughter’s shifting perspectives. I shifted all over the place for 20 years until I was able to both intellectually defend and admit to myself what I’d grasped intuitively at age 7.

    Now, I hope to raise my future children to be good, moral, hard-working people, and skeptical, critical thinkers. Beyond that, I don’t think it’s fair to demand more from them. That would be using them as a vehicle for my own hopes and dreams.

    Would I be disappointed if my children became “Mr. Rogers” theists? Maybe a little bit, but I know (and am related to) too many good theists to just reject those motivations out of hand, and so long as they are happy, thoughtful, caring and productive members of society, that should satisfy me as a parent.

  • Aj, I wonder if you know any children. As Kate pointed out via Kahlil Gibran, parents do not absolutely determine how their children turn out. While my childhood was some time ago, I remember thinking about religious and spiritual matters from quite an early age, and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one. Kids often understand more than we give them credit for.

    Tell me, what is this excluded middle you imply between forcing atheism and not forcing atheism? Yes, if you do have children, you have every right and to some extent a responsibility to influence them, but if you expect them to be carbon copies of you, just prepare to be disappointed now.

    Are you really willing to constantly criticize your children’s beliefs in the name of critical thinking and skepticism? Personally, I’d prefer to sit down to a peaceful holiday dinner.

  • Erik

    I have personally dealt with this situation. My parents are ministers, but I’m a rather staunch atheist. My son, now 16, spent some time exploring religion, including attending a church nearby and being involved in activities, such as a weekly Christian youth group. This was partly the influence of his grandparents, partly his own curiosity, and partly a desire for the world to ‘make sense’ (like when a loved one dies).

    He was well aware of my perspective, but, ultimately, needed to discover some truths for himself. He is now an atheist; he started to question things (as I did when I was younger) and found that Christianity’s answers are pretty bad. Things such as giving God credit when things go well, and not assigning any blame (or writing it off to ‘God’s will’) started driving him nuts. If I had taken a harder line with my son, I’m sure he would have resisted. I did try to give him the skeptical tools, and let him know that it is o.k. to question things (including me!) I’m obviously pleased with the result, but, as others have noted, one does not simply ‘will’ children to turn out a certain way.

  • Danielle, I had the same questions for Aj.

    Dale McGowen is spot on here. You have to remember that part of what makes children wildly imaginative and original is that, in part, they are starting from scratch. They need a lot of guidance to be able to make it in this world, but you can’t just hand them everything you know, and have them run off with the baton. It doesn’t work like that. Smart, skeptical, curious children will have to go through some of the toils that early philosophers did. I was a solipsist for quite a while as a child. My atheist father had not “failed” me, but instead saw things much as McGowen expresses here, and as a consequence I was free to explore my own metaphysical ideas. That’s how you raise a thinker. You cannot raise a “skeptic” by demanding list A are facts and list B are lies and that’s incontrovertible. Duh.

  • Aj

    Danielle Gaither,

    Aj, I wonder if you know any children.

    It’s like Children of Men here, all children are dead from a mysterious illness. I can only rely on my faulty memory, reflecting on my own childhood. Unlike your perfect memory that you have called upon that completely delegitimizes what I was saying.

    Tell me, what is this excluded middle you imply between forcing atheism and not forcing atheism?

    You know, talking to them, perhaps persuasion. Education in logic, reason, science, and general skepticism. Coercion if the beliefs are harmful.

    Are you really willing to constantly criticize your children’s beliefs in the name of critical thinking and skepticism?

    Hell yes.

    Andrew Marshall,

    You cannot raise a “skeptic” by demanding list A are facts and list B are lies and that’s incontrovertible. Duh.

    It’s interesting that this is the only alternative being presented. Be happy with everything and do not “intefere” or be an authoritarian indoctrinator, dictating facts.

    I think skeptics can come from both approaches, but I don’t think either are going to be effective strategies. Also, children are going to be influenced outside, religionists will attempt to indoctrinate them, Dale McGowen doesn’t seem to mind that.

  • Shannon

    AJ, have you seen McGowan’s other videos or read his blog? He talks about the difference between influencing our kids vs indoctrinating them. Yes, parents certainly influence our kids. We can’t help that, and we shouldn’t try to stop it (how would we anyway? Pretend we don’t have an opinion on anything, ever?). But there’s a difference between influence and indoctrination. Indoctrination I definitely don’t believe in.

    He also talks about his reasons for why he thinks it’s a good idea to not shield your kids from the influences of the outside world. It doesn’t mean you need to agree with him of course, but I think he makes a lot of sense.

  • I would be interested to know what percentage of children raised in loving, dynamic atheist households get hooked into one particular religion later in life. Without worrying about the definitions of loving, etc, I guess the answer is very few.

    I have two children and they get a lot of attention and love from their parents and others around them. They also hold ridiculous ideas, from time to time. As a parent, it is clear that it is more important that they learn to work through their ideas and even sometimes just to enjoy their ideas and less important that they always think the correct ideas.

    When you approach parenting this way, as I think is McGowen’s point, the question becomes moot. Well,

    what if your child came home with self-inflicted pentagram lacerations, would that concern you?

    Of course it would, but it doesn’t concern me day to day. Nor does the fear that my child will come home an orthodox Jew. It’s not a rational fear.

  • Aj


    But there’s a difference between influence and indoctrination. Indoctrination I definitely don’t believe in.

    I think that somethings have to be indoctrinated, even if it’s not consciously done. Language for instance. I think language and other tools like logic, reason, and demand for evidence should be indoctrinated. Actually they are being indoctrinated, even if unconsciously.

    He also talks about his reasons for why he thinks it’s a good idea to not shield your kids from the influences of the outside world.

    I think Richard Dawkin’s point about young children being biologically susceptible to arguments from authority is a good one. Regardless of that I don’t think young children are equipped to withstand something, lets face it, is a very good meme at reproducing itself, especially from generation to generation. I don’t see what would be so wrong with children not getting subjected to religious indoctrination.

  • Shannon

    Maybe we’re not using the term the same way? As I’ve always understood it, indoctrination implies the person is not allowed to question what they are being told. They are taught that this is the truth and that’s that. I’ve never thought of skills being indoctrinated, but even if you can make that argument, my kids question language quite a lot. Logic, reason – those can be questioned too. Questioning things is part of how kids learn. Even questioning things that adults think shouldn’t be questioned.

    I would certainly try to protect my kids from being indoctrinated. But that doesn’t mean I will shelter them from the world. I want them to know that others have different viewpoints and that many people disagree with each other, but we still are able to disagree politely and not be dicks about it. At the very least, they are learning that if they grow up and adopt a different world view from Mom’s, they won’t have to worry about me freaking out and disowning them or something.

  • habba dabba

    thx for the insights. My 24 yr old son recently “got religion”, I believe from his wife’s family. Right now he thinks that the good deal he got on the shoes he just bought is because “Jesus put them there”. So, I guess I’ll just have to roll my eyes a bit, and engage lightly in some discourse….

    I will look here to your site occasionally for insight and guidance,, thx again..

    ps i think the format is quite zippy and engaging.. good job!

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