Ask Richard: Atheists’ Freethinking Children Are Considering Religion March 9, 2010

Ask Richard: Atheists’ Freethinking Children Are Considering Religion

Dear Richard

We are an atheist couple with three children aged 10, 8 and 5. The youngest starts school this year.

We have explained to our children that different people believe in different gods, but neither of us believe in god, and that when they are older they can decide for themselves what they want to believe in. I think it is wrong for parents to impose religious views on children, and so I do not feel I can impose atheist views on them either.

We have told them we believe that science can now explain most of what religion was constructed to explain, that morals/ethics are not tied to religion, and that people who do not believe in god are ‘good’ too.

Their grandmother is hoping to instill her Catholic beliefs into them by discussing religion with them at every opportunity. We told them in age appropriate ways that they are to listen politely, not argue, and to largely ignore what she says about religion. We teach them to show tolerance and respect for others’ beliefs, but we are clear that we do not believe in religion as a truth. We have explained the agnostic view that the idea of god(s) cannot be proved one way or another, however the probability of a higher power is extremely low, to the point where we cannot imagine how it could be possible.

We aren’t perfect and do our fair share of eye-rolling at what we consider religious stupidity, we dismiss religious belief out of hand and discuss the idiocy of fundamentalism etc. in front of them (and with them) too.

In Australia where we live, most schools provide Christian religious education, which children can opt out of with parental permission. It is an ecumenical Christian course, 30 minutes per week. We gave our two older boys the choice to attend or not. The oldest wants to continue attending. He is not particularly interested in religion, but he doesn’t want to stand out from the crowd. The middle boy has opted out of religious education, but he is more questioning.

My concern is this: Our middle child is now questioning this agnostic point of view. If we cannot prove god does not exist, how do we know he doesn’t? We have had no problems discussing issues such as evolution, but he has been asking about the big bang theory and what (who?) caused that. I am pleased he is asking questions instead of just accepting what he is told, but it makes me nervous too. While I can field most of these questions (so far) and I will be searching for some age appropriate literature for him, I am wondering if our liberal, tolerant, ‘you decide for yourself’ attitude will backfire and the children will become religious. Should we be more hardline? And if so…

My other concern is: what if they become fundamentalist (Christians, presumably) as a means of rebelling against us? I think children sometimes rebel against their parents by taking the opposite stance – what should we do if it plays out like this? Is there any way we can avoid it? I guess this the same concern religious parents have if their children decide they don’t believe in god. Of course I think I am correct (just like everyone else) and I will be doing the children a disservice by not telling them what I believe to be correct – but does raising a free-thinker mean allowing them to think the ‘wrong’ thing?

Thank you,

Dear P,

This is what freedom means. When a person is truly free to make a choice, they’re not necessarily going to choose what others would prefer. When a person is truly free to have their own ideas, they’re not necessarily going to agree even with those who gave them that freedom. This is why freedom, real freedom is not as popular a concept around the world as people in free countries might assume. Living in a free society requires a great deal of courage to accept that others will make choices that we don’t prefer, and have ideas with which we disagree.

Many people are just not capable of that level of courage. They want to see their preferences followed by others, even at the expense of their own freedom. Here is where you get to see if you have the courage of your convictions. Do you really mean it when you say that parents should not impose either religious or atheist views on their children? Do you really mean it when you tell your children they can decide their beliefs for themselves? Or will their being accepted by you require that their beliefs agree with yours, as so many religious families require?

You have taught your children well to think for themselves and make their own choices, so they are doing just that. Good!

Your 10 year-old is choosing to go through the motions of religious practice, not because he’s actually interested in it, but for the social benefits of “fitting in.” That’s his choice, and all choices have their pluses and minuses. He’ll have plenty of time to sort out what’s in his own best interests, and to make adjustments to his mix of conformity and individuality.

Your 8 year-old is choosing to question what people present as truth, just as you have encouraged him to do. Right now, he’s questioning what the two of you have been presenting as truth, both in your words and your reactions. Later, he will probably be questioning other things he heard presented as truth from other people. Questioning things may be part of his innate nature, and you have wisely cultivated that. Like his older brother, he’ll have plenty of time to question his conclusions again and again, and to make adjustments to his mix of skepticism and belief.

The specifics of his questions about ultimate causes and beginnings, and about the burden of proof have logical responses that you can offer for him to consider. He’s simply asking you to give him more challenging ideas to apply to his questions.

So whether he eventually becomes a theist, an atheist, an agnostic, or a combination, he will have reached that position through careful consideration and deliberation. He’s a very thoughtful kid. I like him.

Remember that they are still children. They will go through several more incarnations as pre teens, adolescents and young adults. It will be a tumultuous time of experimentation, differentiation, challenge, and yes, rebellion. But young people’s most destructive rebellion is usually against oppressive and authoritarian parenting. You have given your children freedom to be who they are as they change and grow. Whatever their expressions of independence from you they may try, they won’t have to go to extremes in order to make their statements and plant their flags.

It sounds like you have also taught them that there must be a balance between freedom and responsibility. They are responsible for their social interactions and the effect they have on others. They are responsible for their personal choices and the consequences. And it sounds like you have also instilled the responsibility to support and defend their own ideas. So if they choose to believe something, they know that they will be expected to back it up with a strong and thoughtful argument. Just keep promoting and practicing that expectation, and let it run its course as they try on different ideas.

You have promised your children freedom of thought. They know what you would prefer them to think, but they are free to adopt your preferences wholly, partially, or to disregard them. Now you must honor your promise by not penalizing them if they choose something other than your preference.

Regardless how much or little they agree with your ideas as they grow up, I think they will love you dearly and gratefully for the courage you had to give them the skills and freedom to find their own paths, even if their paths might diverge from yours. They are very lucky kids.

Be glad that they are using your courageous gift to them. Celebrate as equally wondrous both how they are similar to you and different from you.


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  • cypressgreen

    I have to deal with similar issues due to my ex and his family. My 9 yr old attends Catholic PSR because his dad wants him to. Jim has as much right as I do to provide a religious/non-religious upbringing. But he doesn’t get too much there, because Jim is a mostly non-practicing Catholic who goes thru the motions for his family. Jim’s far right politics and worship of Bill, Rush et all is a bigger problem, actually.

    My son and I have discussed issues like this many times, and it *is* hard when I hear him considering ideas that I don’t agree with. I just have to remind myself that, at 42, I have gone thru countless stages of belief and non-belief to end up where I am. I hope he doesn’t have as many years of struggle as I do before he’s happy. I’m trying to cut as much of the ‘guilt’ and ‘fear’ stuff out as I can, which was a huge setback for me.

    I am fortunate that his most recent musings are that he likes PSR because they have fun activities and the kids and Sunday school teacher are nice. I have told him that if there comes a time when he wants to stop PSR or doesn’t want to do confirmation, that I will stand up to his dad with him.

    Last weekend he told my husband and I that he’s tried to talk to Jim about what he really thinks about god, but that Jim evades the discussion. Very interesting.

  • Dan

    What I hate to think about, is if these children grow up and turn fundamentalist. Thinking their parents will go to hell and burn for eternity.

  • Having been through these stages with my own no longer-children, I can attest that your gift of freedom is the greatest gift of all. Their choice will be right for them, no matter what it is. I know that concerns for their well being are primary at the young ages you have mentioned, but it is amazing the ability children have to experiment with and experience life while we’re going crazy with worry. Relax is all I can tell you. They will work it out for themselves with or without your permission. There comes a point much sooner than I would ever have believed, when their personalities emerge and begin to assert themselves. I am amazed at some of the choices made, but I can find no fault, since I did much the same in refusing to conform to my parent’s expectations. They were very good about picking the lines to draw, but no matter how carefully we try to present our experience to spare our children the anguish we endured, their experience is what really matters for them. We cannot live life for them, as much as we would like to in terms of love and protection. The freedom you have given is fantastic. The less guilt they carry, the clearer their vision will be as they face life’s challenges. After all, as a non-theist myself, even I don’t consider it a “mortal sin” to believe in a god:)

  • Revyloution

    Heh, im just starting to go through this myself.

    My 7 year old daughter has decided to join the Daisys, the feeder group for the girl scouts. In her Daisy Promise, she has to promise to honor God (with a cute little asterisk saying that ‘God’ can mean anything to you, and that no specific denomination will be followed). I sat her down, gave her the ‘I’m never going to tell you what to believe’ speech, then kissed her on the head.

    Now I’m looking at the itinerary, and the first big event is an ‘overnight camp IN!’ at our local presberarian church.

    Sigh. At least my wife is accompanying the group, with a wary eye for proselytizing.

  • Thanks for this response, Richard. I have found it difficult observe our children question what we believe (or rather don’t believe)- we have reached that point in parenting where the kids have discovered I don’t know ‘everything’.

    BTW: at the start of this school year our eldest has decided to opt out of religion education. His comment: ‘5 years of Noah’s Ark and the Baby Jesus are enough’.

  • HankTheCowdog

    Another piece of the puzzle is that none of these kids have the cognitive development (at this point) to really *understand* what they’re being told. They may know the words, and even be able to string them together pretty well, but the cognitive capacity for abstract thought doesn’t develop until the late teens. Right now they’re bouncing back and forth, trying to figure out the “right answer.” I think if P & spouse continue on, they’re on the right track, though.

  • Heidi

    P, I think maybe you should discuss this with the Catholic grandmother. It is not her place to bombard your children with her belief system. She is clearly crossing the line between what she believes, and what she is trying to con your kids into believing. Now if the kids themselves bring it up, it’s one thing. But I don’t get the feeling that’s what’s going on here.

    I love that your eight year old is asking questions, and that you plan to provide age-appropriate materials for him. I don’t think you need to worry about this kid buying into the religion bs story. Kids who ask questions about religion never get satisfactory answers.

  • I think I would be worried about my children (River and Ianto) hearing the idea that there is a hell without being ready.

    My plan is to teach them to understand why some people do think that hell does exist, and to have empathy for those people’s fears.

    “Remember when you were scared of the Daleks? Imagine if your mother and I kept telling you that the Daleks are real, and the only way to be safe was to worship The Doctor. You’d be terrified all the time, and you’d want to save all your friends from the Daleks too.”

    Anyone with real children want to comment on my parenting? Right now, my children are just hypothetical.

    (Do obsessive Doctor Who fans have children?)

  • Miko

    Let’s take a Harry Frankfurt-esque look at it. Suppose that an agent (male for the sake of pronouns), while believing that he has free will has, in fact, a remote-control activated switch whereby he can be forced to obey another person’s will (call her the “controller”). The controller wants the agent to perform a certain action, but would prefer that her desire remain undisclosed. So, the controller watches carefully to see if the agent is going to perform the action, keeping her finger next to the button on the remote just in case. As it turns out, the agent does choose to perform the action and so the controller does not interfere his free will. But: since the controller would have interfered if the agent had decided against the action, the agent in fact had no way of avoiding the action, despite the fact that he is unaware of this.

    Instead of looking at why Frankfurt was interested in this scenario, I’d rather ask why it is that the controller wants the agent to believe that he controls his own actions. Apparently, the controller believes that freethinking/free-action of the agent is a hypothetically good thing, but in fact is more interested in the conclusion than the process. This is an inconsistent state of affairs and cannot last, since eventually the controller will attempt to influence the agent, and at that point the illusion of free will on the part of the agent is destroyed.

    Taking “freethought” as means and “atheism” as ends, we need to ask ourselves: do the support the means for their own sake, or only because we think that they’ll lead to the ends we want. Speaking for myself, the means are everything.

    This is why freedom, real freedom is not as popular a concept around the world as people in free countries might assume.

    On the contrary, I’d say that real freedom is more popular in unfree countries than in semi-free ones like the U.S. When the Americans broke free from the British, there was strong support for free speech, etc., because they had experienced first-hand what a society without such rights looked like. Today, well, I’m just glad that the First Amendment isn’t up for a vote. This has always been the unfortunate paradox of libertarianism: the closer we get to it, the less the majority of people will value it. Which, as I said above, is why I support means instead of ends. Naturally, as a rational agent I have ends that I would prefer, but I would be willing to sacrifice all of them if it would guarantee that the results are achieved through the means of freedom.

    It sounds like you have also taught them that there must be a balance between freedom and responsibility.

    Responsibility without freedom is impossible. Take the Frankfurt example above: suppose the agent commits some crime, but at trial exposes the existence of the controller. Suppose further that a jury is unable to determine conclusively whether or not the controller actually used her mind control device. In this scenario, is it morally appropriate for the jury to hold the agent responsible for his actions? I would argue “no.”

    There cannot logically be a balance between freedom and responsibility, because responsibility is the strongest expression of freedom and irresponsibility the strongest expression of its absence.

  • Miko

    Paula: we have reached that point in parenting where the kids have discovered I don’t know ‘everything’.

    If I were a parent, this would probably be the proudest moment of my life.

    Bill P. Godfrey: (Do obsessive Doctor Who fans have children?)

    Even if as a group we don’t, I’m sure we’d all consider it a worthwhile trade-off.

  • Heidi I have! My mum and I had quite a heated discussion about this, where I eventually told her she would have a hard time converting them if she never spent any time with them alone. She capitulated and any references are fairly low key now (she doesn’t talk about us going to hell or anything horrible, she just talks about god like he exists)

    Bill I wouldn’t call myself an obessive fan, but we like Dr Who. I’m still scared of the daleks. Good analogy – I think your hypothetical children will be fine.

  • Aj

    This seems to me to be giving religious opinions a special status. I don’t believe those who advocate “freedom” actually practice it when it comes to things that go against their politics, like sexism and racism. Many atheists are either neutral to religion, or support it, so they give it a special status they wouldn’t give things they are against. I think people should be against irrationality, wish-thinking, superstition. As I’d like to think that liberal families would actively encourage and advocate kindness, equality for people and sexes, I would hope they would do the same for reason and scepticism.

    Our middle child is now questioning this agnostic point of view. If we cannot prove god does not exist, how do we know he doesn’t?

    “Agnostics” like you, and most atheists, don’t know gods don’t exist. This would be a great time to explain the ideas of reason from the enlightenment like empiricism, and scepticism. Two facts should be persuasive: a) there are many mutually exclusive gods people believe in, if you believe that Yahweh exists because you can’t prove he doesn’t, why not Thor? b) as we don’t know God doesn’t exist, we don’t know the Invisible Pink Unicorn, Celestial Teapot, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster don’t exist.

    There’s an inconsistency in letting other people indoctrinate your children when you would not yourself. This seems to happen too often, and puts doubt at a disadvantage. Free-thought isn’t opening your skull and letting your brains fall out. Freethinking includes reason and scepticism, allowing your brain to doubt. On a level playing field I sincerely doubt any child of non-theists would become religious, if equipped with intelligence, education, and reasoning ability.

    Punishment and coercion are counter-productive and immoral, I don’t think parents should turn into some kind of thought police. That doesn’t mean they can’t be very much responsible for how their children think, and it’s not something they just develop individually, they need encouragement and instruction.

    Any secular parents fear is that their child will be emotionally seduced into believing in nonsense, even some adults are susceptible to this. You just have to try your best, hopefully by the time they’re forced to interact independently you’ve built up their defences to bullshit. If they join a cult or become a fundamentalist Christian, you can’t do much apart from attempt to persuade them.

  • AJ for me it is less about giving religion a special status and more about the children not disrespecting others (in particular their grandmothers) beliefs.

    In the same way if she (or another adult) made a racist or sexist comment I would not expect the children to call them on it – they are told to ignore it, and we take it up. They are too young, IMO, to be dealing with adults about these issues.

    We are not really allowing them to be indoctrinated, as we counter anything my mother says with our own point of view. I just don’t think it is helpful to the family dynamic when a 3 year old (who is now 8)rolls his eyes and says ‘jesus, squeezus’ to his nanna at Christmas dinner. 🙂

    we are also taking it slow with the kids regarding superstition and wish-thinking- we still have one who (sort of) believes in santa, as they work out santa and the easter bunny don’t exist they tend to ask more about god – who then gets lumped in the same category by them.

    Actwe did discuss the FSM – they are quite keen on being pastafarians now ;). Actually we are working our way, in a very informal way, through a book on Philosophy and they are currently interested in why people thought the earth was flat…

  • Ron in Houston

    Well Richard, as usual I agree with your fundamental thoughts.

    He did promise them the ability to think for themselves.

    It’s a tough question though. They aren’t really thinking clearly. They’re letting things like a need to conform and peer pressure cloud their thinking.

    I’d probably use gentle rhetorical questions to hopefully draw their awareness to these issues. Hopefully I could do that without specifically telling them one way or another.

    However, whatever they decided I’d love them anyway.

  • Erp

    To Revyloution, a Daisy sleepover in the church probably isn’t too problematic. Churches are a convenient large space for inside events and often cheap. The troop I was in growing up sometimes met in a local church building, but, no religion was ever pushed.

  • what if they become fundamentalist (Christians, presumably) as a means of rebelling against us?

    If you truly give them the freedom to choose whether or not to believe in the supernatural, then that takes belief (or non belief) off the table as something to rebel against. If they are so inclined to rebel, they will find some other way.

  • Blotz

    Dale McGowan has a great post about this on the Youtubes

  • Alz

    “Our middle child is now questioning this agnostic point of view. If we cannot prove god does not exist, how do we know he doesn’t”

    A spiritual, non-religious version of gods may be difficult to prove false, but most religious claims can be reasonably shown as false.

  • Michael E

    I do not think that you have a lot to be concerned about in the long run. While your children may rebel against you while they are adolescents, this is a short term effect.

    I have been raised in a strong evangelical church and have lost my faith over the last few years. To remain a religious person requires a strong ability to disregard totally incompatible pieces of data. You should pray for good outcomes to happen. You should trust that prayer will result in good outcomes. But don’t trust in having things turn out well for you because we do not understand the “mind of God.” Thinking in this fashion requires years of training that goes back to the childhood years.

    Because of my family tradition and commitment of my wife, I too have allowed my children to decide for themselves. I will report back in 10 years to let you know what happens.

  • Slickninja

    I know as a non-religious I should try and avoid the very idea of indoctrination but I personally, I wasn’t ready to conquer religion at age 10 and certainly not 8. I was about 12 when I started to seriously question religion and I came to the conclusion when I die, I’m going to be dead. There’ll be nothing. It was quite a load to really process and took me quite sometime to digest. My parents at the time were quasi-Christian (later in life they followed me) so I didn’t have a helping hand to guide me in Atheism, although they were understanding people.

    I can’t say at age 8 I’d of done much more than parrot what my parents/teachers/media told me. I’d say they have the right to free-thought but at the younger ages, they also need a guiding hand.

  • What strikes me about this discussion is the content. Its usually only atheist parents concerned about allowing their children a freedom of choice point of view. I have rarely come across such balanced discussion from religious parents about potentially atheist children. I find this openness and concern for the ideas of the child so refreshing- its like the parents do not want to impose their beliefs- all too often I see/ hear the opposite. Just leaves a nice warm glow in my heart!

  • prospera

    If you give your kids the freedom to make their own decisions, along with the assurance that you will love and accept them no matter what, they will be just fine.

    I think it’s safe to assume they will likely make some wrong decisions along the way before they settle into what fits them best. You just have to trust that they will know how to see others, as well as themselves, without judgment, because they learned it from you. Ultimately, I think that’s the most important thing, regardless of people’s religious preferences.

    Thank you for another wonderful post, Richard! 🙂

  • NCP

    As someone who was raised on by non-religious parents (more agnostic than atheist though)I feel like I can relate to this from the other end of it. I was my parents’ worst fear- in high school I definately rebelled by joining a fundamentalist christian church. It didn’t really start out as a rebelious action though- my friends happened to all be christian, and they peer pressured me into going to their “youth group”. My father’s reaction to it was not very understanding- he accused me of being brainwashed and not being able to think for myself. I know he was only worried about my mental well being, but it definately made me keep going to that particular church- I was a good teenager who didn’t party at all and had good grades so I guess I sort of enjoyed getting my parents riled up a bit :). I rejected christianity a few years later- my parents and critical thinking skills (taught by my parents to me) had more sway than my fundie high school friends. I was never able to resolve my cognitive dissonance with what my friends believed… the whole experience gave me a taste of the other side and I glad that I can at least relate to some christians as a result…

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