When Your Kids Are Confronted with Faith May 16, 2010

When Your Kids Are Confronted with Faith

Raising children when you’re an atheist parent is tricky, especially when your children start asking the “Big Question.” (Dale McGowan has written a couple excellent books on this very subject.)

Kelli Gorski is wondering how she’s going to talk to her daughter about these issues:

… when my daughter, Lulu, comes into contact with someone who tells her that a god is real and if she doesn’t believe she’ll go to hell, or when one of the kids in her class says to her that her kitty may have died but is in heaven, I know I have to say more than just “Oh, we don’t believe that, sweetie. Here, finish your dinner.”

So I ask the rational parents out there — all of you: atheists, theists, nontheists, and anyone in between — how have you handled a situation in which your child was confronted with faith as fact? What do you do? How do you explain it? What advice can you give other parents who really need some guidance on how to confront this problem?

You’re free to comment here, but don’t forget to leave your thoughts on her site, too!

(Thanks to Julie for the link)

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  • I’ve tried telling my kids what others believe & then why I don’t. I always leave it open though for them to decide for themselves. One thing I like to do is have the kids read mythology. That is a good way to get them understand how people believe in god(s) and now they don’t. That is actually what helped me make the connection back when I was in school.

  • Rick

    I successfully brought up 4 wonderful atheists, now all in their 20’s. At the age of 10, my oldest daughter asked about Jesus and the story of Xmas. I explained to her that it was a fairy tale much like Santa Claus. I told her the story so that she would understand what people were talking about. She already understood that she was not to tell other children that there was no Santa and I told her to handle her friends who believed in Jesus in the same way. That seemed to take care of it and we never had any issues afterwards.

  • James

    We don’t have any children yet, but when we do, I think one of the main themes we’ll try to teach them is to always ask for evidence. Where’s the proof? What evidence is there to support that or any other claim?

  • medussa

    I have no children, so I can’t speak as a parent. But I was raised by an atheist (at the time), and I remember the conversation we had on the subject.

    I came home from kindergarten and told my mom we had learned a new fairy tale, about Jesus (must’ve been around Xmas). So she sat me down, and told me that some people, including my beloved Grandma, believed this particular fairy tale was true. And even thought we knew better, we had to respect that choice, and I was not to tell them that it was just a fairy tale. She made it clear i didn’t have to pretend to believe it myself, but they had a right to believe it. The rest of the conversation was about Cinderella, and how could ANYONE believe fairy tales??
    In hindsight, I think she handled it pretty well. I didn’t agonize over religion for another 10 years, and even then, when I was trying it on for size, it never really affected me much…

  • If my kids want to be theists, they can. I am currently harboring an ex-Mormon atheist teen (with her parents’ permission), but if she were a devout Mormon teen who needed a place to stay, she could stay here. People should be who they want to be. I told my kids that people believe different things and they can decide to believe whatever they want. When my daughter was 4, we were caught in a scary lightning storm while tent camping at Arches. She asked me if I believed in God and I said no, but your Grandma and Grandpa do. She said, “I wish there was a god and I wish he were here RIGHT NOW.” She’s currently a 28-year-old atheist, working in the national parks. As a vegetarian, I hate it when people choose to eat meat in my house; as a human, I’m offended when they choose to be racist, sexist, or homophobic. Those beliefs are far more offensive to me than a belief in God.

  • Michelle

    We are teaching our 3 kids to be free thinkers, and have regular dinnertime discussions on religious beliefs, science and what our (my DH and I) beliefs are. We also take the time to talk about what the kids have heard from others. It’s been very interesting hearing how each child has formed their own independent beliefs and how they change as they mature and learn.

    I think my middle son (10 years old) is most likely to embrace being atheist. He has put a lot of thought into how he thinks the universe was created, and the idea of God is “on the edge” of that, with maybe a hand in the big bang…he has no belief that there is a personal God that interacts with people. He is artistically creative (genius ability acatually) with a good mind for math and science, and is intrigued by numbers being infinite.

  • Deiloh

    In one of Carl Sagon’s books is a made up creature that our family has adopted. It is the invisible floating dragon that lives in the garage. My eldest son, seven years old, named her Cathleena. When he mentions religious figures or places I ask him if he thinks these are real or like the dragon. Whatever he answers I ask him why. Mostly, I try to keep my end as questions and let him work through it -he knows that I don’t believe in god. Right now he has decided to believe in a god and so I’ve been reading to him about different deities. When I asked him which god he believes in and why, he said he’d have to think about it. For now, this is good enough for me. This approach has worked very well but it did backfire on poor Tooth Fairy and Santa who bit the dust two years ago.

  • Claudia

    No kids yet, but I vaguely remember how my atheist parents handled the matter. I remember my mother telling me she and my father were atheists and possibly that god was imaginary, though I was so young that the concepts flew pretty well over my head. Later, at about 10 I remember asking if I could have a First Communion (a neighbor girl was Catholic and told me that you had an awesome party and such). My parents said that if I had a sincere belief they’d let me get communioned, and that pretty much ended that because of course I didn’t actually believe.

    My parents were of the passive school of thought. They didn’t really sit me in front of comparative mythology books (at the time, there were no “new atheists”). Of course, results may vary, no one in my family is religious and I went to public schools, so I never had to encounter much god-talk for my parents to wrangle. I suppose in other contexts a more pro-active approach would be better.

  • Moriah

    I never pushed my atheist ways on my son, I always gave him the choice. I always explained to him why I didn’t believe. He was strongly influenced by his father’s side of the family to believe in god. When he was 13 he started studying Greek mythology in school, this was when he realized that my decision to be atheist made the most since. He has proudly told his dad’s side of the family what he believes, I don’t think they are too happy, but it is his choice.

  • By the time my kids came around, I had abandoned Islam and Catholicism and was a fundamentalist Christian (Churches of Christ, no less).
    I told both of my children that they didn’t have to believe what I believed and that it was important to question things before accepting them. Too bad I didn’t follow my own advice back then.
    In regards to other people’s beliefs, I told them (as a Christian), that it seemed quite strange to me that God would make so many people and only give a small number of them “the truth”, because that meant that everyone else would go to hell.
    I told them to simply be nice to people and not to ridicule them or their faith.

  • littlejohn

    Honest to god, it should be illegal to try to convert other people’s children. It’s not much different from giving them narcotics. Probably unenforceable, but what a moral outrage.

  • Gaian

    I’ve told my son that most religions were created to provide answers to people who didn’t know too much given the time they were living.

    I also told him him not to believe what anyone, including his parents, tell him about religion. That he is smart enough to make up his own mind when he is ready. He’s since become Jewish, but he’s only 15 and manages to take it in stride.

  • Tina

    When the subject comes up, my first response usually is, “What do you think?”

    I feel it’s more important to guide the kids through the steps of critical thinking, rather than outright answer their questions. It’s an ongoing process that becomes more in-depth as the child ages.

    I also recommend reading mythologies and discussing the relevance of each during their time periods. Other good books are, “In the Beginning: Creation Stories from Around the World” by Virginia Hamilton and “One World, Many Religions” by Mary Pope Osborne.

    I have also given my kids a Children’s Bible. I remember one evening when my 10yo daughter finished it, she approached me and said in a stunned voice, “They actually believe the guy died and then came back to life??” I just nodded and she said, “Oookay,” and walked off shaking her head.

    I have discussed ways to behave if they are approached or pressed with anything religious. That way they aren’t caught off guard and have a rehearsed, polite response they can call upon if necessary.

    A few months back, out-of-the-blue, my 5yo son informed me, “I’ve decided to believe in god because if you don’t believe in god you can’t believe in Santa Claus and I like Santa Claus.” I replied, “Okie dokies,” while standing there wondering where in the world that came from. LOL

  • Fritz

    I’m new at this atheism racket, but I have trouble understanding the notion that I should let my son “choose” to believe in a deity or not. Even when I was a theist, I believed that as children grew to a certain age they needed to be told that Santa, the tooth fairy, etc. were not real. Psychologists seem unconcerned about children having imaginary friends, while adults with such beliefs are considered to be mentally ill.

    I have made a decision to not teach my son (currently 2 years old) about a deity or Santa. When he is older, I will explain mythology to him and that some mythologies are held in higher esteem by our culture than others, but they are no more “real” than the belief systems that are treated as not “real”. He will learn about being respectful of himself and others and how their beliefs are what they need to survive and not to be mocked.
    Why burden him with these concepts and deny him the usefulness of rational and critical thought? I don’t see this as a closed mind, but rather as a shedding of unnecessary baggage. “Belief” by its nature is inflexible and his development would be compromised by introducing him to such concepts.

  • Joyfulbaby

    My daughter (9) and I were at a display of very Christian art. Her best friend is heavily Christian. As we walked around the display, she told me wryly that her friend would just love this stuff. Obviously, she didn’t. That was great. I’ve always been honest about my beliefs (or lack thereof) but have been careful to say that they were MINE, and that she didn’t have to have them too. But, I also said that she didn’t have to believe what her friends did either.

  • Fiona

    Just hit ’em with the problem of evil:

    1. God is omniscient (all-knowing);
    2. God is good;
    3. God is omnipotent (all-powerful).

    4. By (1), god knows about the existence of misery and suffering in the world.
    5. By (2), he should want to end it.
    6. BY (3), he is able to end it.

    Yet 7., he doesn’t.

    Ergo: the existence of god is incompatible with the existence of evil (and don’t give me that “mysterious ways” crap without explaining how dying of thirst in Port-au-Prince after 7 days of being trapped in a collapsed building is all for the good in the end) —

    Worked for my kids, and us in the center of godliness (USA).

    Either that, or just shoot the messenger. Or both.

    (Interestingly, this argt does not work against Allah, who is not known his benevolence. Thank god these are christians we are talking about.)

    P.S. Santa is OK. Ditto easter bunny.

  • Fiona

    P.S. Fritz:

    Santa is OK. Ditto Easter Bunny. Ditto Elijah.

    Fiction is fine. Taking fiction for fact is not so good. Lighten up already!

  • Trace

    My son found out about the tooth fairy when he discovered one of his teeth in my wallet (I kept it there when I traded it for a Euro and then forgot).

    He then extrapolated that discovery to Santa, the Easter bunny and angels. One night, a few weeks later just before he went to bed he started to tell us about his “fake” list.

    Even now, every so often he brings up the concept of heaven and asks me if it is true that people go there when they die or mentions reencarnation I tell him some people believe so, but I do not.

    Also, when people pray around us he wants to know why I don’t join in, I tell him I do not pray and prefer to remain silent instead. He is starting to accept it more but when he was younger he used to get quite upset with me 🙂

  • Neon Genesis

    I’m not a parent, but the Reasonable Doubts podcast had an episode awhile back on godless parenting that you might be interested in: http://www.doubtcast.org/podcast/rd59_parenting.mp3

  • Stephen

    We find it best to tell them that, “Yes, some people believe that. It is nice to think/imagine that [insert superstitious belief here] will happen. Other people think [this, this or this] will happen. I believe this. What do you you? Why?

    Julia Sweeney has a good segment about this when speaking to her daughter following Julia’s father’s death. It is on “Letting Go of god” and you should download it from amazon.com through Hemant’s amazon link now if you have not heard it yet. Great listen.

  • billybobbibb

    I have 3 kids, ages 14, 12 and 10, and my ex-wife is still a fundamentalist Christian (AG) and one of the main reasons for our divorce was religious differences. While the children were small, we made it known to them that Santa Claus was a hoax but it was fun to play the part anyway, for tradition’s sake. We thought this would keep them from disbelieving in Jesus if we were up front about modern myths.

    So now my ex-wife and I alternate Sundays with the kids. On her weekends, she takes them to church and youth group, which they like primarily for the social interaction. But at this age, they realize they have to pretend a lot to stay in line with church teachings. On my Sundays, we typically watch Discovery channel or anti-theistic YouTube videos instead of going to church. Is this indoctrination on my part? Probably, but I leave it open to them whether they want to believe or not. For the most part, they reject the doctrine of heaven and hell, and the story of young earth creationism. When they are with me, I welcome them “back home to the land of reason” which is an inside joke pointing out how crazy their mother acts and the bizarre things she chooses to believe in.

    I try not to be too heavy handed, but one time I did give them the sermon of reason and all the problems with the Christian faith. Truth matters to me, that is, the “real” truth, not what some robed shyster labels as “truth”, and I think all the kids have caught onto my skepticism, even if they haven’t completely embraced it themselves.

  • Fiona

    I’m not used to posting things

    (Fritz, sorry for the duplication (unclear what got saved or not) didn’t mean to harp.)

    But (and this is my last word):

    Many say that they are letting kids decide what to believe. Not clear at all to me why one should do that. You wouldn’t let them decide whether to believe that 2+2=4 or that grass is green or that the mood is not made of cheese … Why the toleration of falsehood in this domain?

    Yeah, other people believe in all that stuff — shouldn’t we be tolerant?

    But people believe in all sorts of nonsense: that the earth is flat, that it really matters whether you are a Capricorn, that there are 72 (whatever) virgins waiting for martyrs in heaven, that there really were WMDs, that Oswald acted alone — do we let our little kids decide what to believe in these cases? No. So give god the boot, and tell it like it is.

  • Fiona

    I’m not used to posting things

    (Fritz, sorry for the duplication (unclear what got saved or not) didn’t mean to harp.)

    But (and this is my last word):

    Many say that they are letting kids decide what to believe. Not clear at all to me why one should do that. You wouldn’t let them decide whether to believe that 2+2=5 or that grass is green or that blood is red… Why the toleration of falsehood in this domain?

    Yeah, other people believe in all that stuff — shouldn’t we be tolerant?

    But people believe in all sorts of nonsense: that the earth is flat, that it really matters whether you are a Capricorn, that there are 72 (whatever) virgins waiting for martyrs in heaven, that there really were WMDs, that Oswald acted alone — do we let our little kids decide what to believe in these cases? No. So give god the boot, and tell it like it is.

  • brent

    I just got out of this very same conversation with my kids 5 minutes ago.

    I went with “Well did Gran tell you what what she thinks is the truth? Or did she tell you to work it out for yourself? I’m telling you to work it out for yourself, and I bet you won’t hear Gran say that.”

  • brent

    @neon genisis

    I haven’t looked at your link – but I don’t think that many readers here entertain that many doubts.

  • Claudia

    For some reason I woke up this morning realizing that, despite my best efforts, I’m still held down by the double standard that makes us treat religion with more respect than it deserves.

    I’ve always automatically agreed when it is said that we shouldn’t label our children or force them to believe as we believe, but it’s suddenly come to me that translating that into avoiding telling children that gods don’t exist is a double standard. Do we hesitate with Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy or dragons when asked if they exist? Do we ask them to “make up their own minds”? No, we tell them that no, they are imaginary. God is no more credible than any other imaginary creation.

    So its great that we don’t call our kids atheists because, even if they technically are if they don’t have a god belief, we allow the label only when there is a self-awareness about religion and what it means. But lets not pretend like god belief is any more in doubt than any other fairy tale. Explain that some people still hold on to those fairy tales because it makes them feel good, and by all means teach them about religion, but don’t pretend it’s a 50/50 question.

  • Sandra

    I do what a lot of others in here mention – I teach them about various mythologies, and how they all seem to have the same theme about afterlife, and then I show them how religions do the same theme. My son was confronted a few years ago by a classmate who had found religion (they were 8 at the time) and he came home saying “J says I’m going to hell for not believing.” So I reminded him what I had taught him.

  • Julie Marie

    My 7 year old came home with one of those nefarious Chick Tracts the other week. I wish I had been more polished in my response to it, but I think he understood my point, which was, nobody knows about God. People believe many different things. Its okay to believe what you want, but its not okay to tell other people they are wrong for believing what they want to believe. Which is why mommy is so upset about this “comic book”–it starts out nice (a boy trying to save his ant farm) but halfway through twists into something not nice.

    I wonder though, if I’d have been blase, what would have happened. The comic was so bad he may well have given up before he got to the not nice part.

    I did ask him who gave it to him – interestingly enough, it was the grandparent of the most out of control, disrespectful, prematurely sexualized child on the street. Go figure.

  • Alex

    There are plenty of good, cheap books about mythology for children. I read mine everything – Norse, Celtic, Chinese, and present the Bible no differently. It’s easy to read a Native American folktale and say, “This is what was originally thought about the Pleiades.” Then compare it to a similar Greek story about Taurus and Europa. And so on. Present it next to science so your children understand “a chariot drawing a ball of fire across the sky was used to explain the rising and setting of the sun before science figured out about the earth spinning on its axis, which is…”

    Children get that – making up stories to explain something they don’t understand yet. They learn to trust science and they know no difference between religion and mythology. I think it’s also made them more respectful of others’ beliefs because they’ve been exposed to so much.

  • Steven

    I’ve found that even though my wife and I never mention it around the house, both my kids have found out about God through their friends and, unfortunately, my mother. They have a lot of questions, especially my 5-year old who is frightened by the idea that someone with an unknown agenda is “watching” her. Her 8-year old sister is pretty skeptical about the whole business, partially because she doesn’t like anything that bothers her little sister. I’ve explained that some people have various beliefs, that I don’t share them, and that God is nothing to be afraid of (I wish I could say the same about some of his followers).
    I suspect that once they figure out the deal with Santa, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy then God won’t have much of a leg to stand on. In the meantime, I answer their questions with reason and science which is a little more work than “God did it” but a lot more fun as well.

  • You know, I agree with Claudia and Fiona on principle–I don’t think we should have this double standard between Santa Claus and religious myths–but from a practical standpoint, I don’t see how we can address the issues as though they were both equal. Our kids aren’t going to grow up exposed to adults believing in Santa Claus, or politicians making laws based around the Tooth Fairy.

    I have to confess, I’ve always said that I want my children to choose their own beliefs and that I will respect whatever they choose… but I’m actually terrified of them becomming a fundamentalist like I was. I mean, just like every parent worries about their kid becoming a drug addict or chasing after some loser boy/girlfriend that makes them sacrifice the potential we see in them, I firmly believe that if they chase after religion the way my extended family wants them to, it would negatively affect their future… as it did mine.
    So, one of the things I’m afraid of is that by pushing against religion, I’d actually be pushing them towards it.
    However, I do push critical thinking, and I have been working very hard to innoculate them against my family’s narrow religion by exposing them to as much myth and world religions as I can. (fr ex, “Look at those clouds, aren’t they beautiful? Don’t they just look like you could run and jump on them? Y’know, people ~used~ to think that gods lived up there… back before science figured out what clouds actually were.”)

  • Fritz

    There are such great responses here, but something that JohnFrost said really stirred me:

    Our kids aren’t going to grow up exposed to adults believing in Santa Claus, or politicians making laws based around the Tooth Fairy.

    Yes, indeed. But as skeptics, don’t we bear a responsibility to point out exactly that: just because our culture says their mythology is real, end everyone else’s is false, just because its the “in” thing to do, not only doesn’t make it real, but suggests to me that it must be challenged even more.

    If someone came up to you and told you about their friend Harvey the giant rabbit, you’d probably give them a wide berth. If they tried to talk about it to your child, wouldn’t you ask them to step away, and later have a long, age-appropriate talk with Junior about mental illness? I wouldn’t be disrespectful towards this hypothetical person, but I would treat the things they said as of little meaning beyond what could be useful diagnostically to a mental health professional. Perhaps it’s an indicator of the mixed messages of reason vs. belief (or our lack of real compassion for the mentally ill) in our society that, if his imaginary friend is called “Jesus” instead of “Harvey”, this madman gets non-profit status for his business, positive regard form his community, and donations to help him spread his “message”!
    The christian zealots will suffer no guilt over indoctrinating our children if we aren’t vigilant. Their arguments in favor of their belief system are carefully structured to overcome objections, and turn the heads of young people who have been left to decide what to “believe”, and discourage questioning (critical thinking). Why should we coddle them? Why should this behavior be treated differently than cult indoctrination? Why should I play into a delusional person’s fantasy by actually discussing their imaginary friend as though he might be real? Why should I have to try to prove the negative?

  • Claudia

    @JohnFrost your point about Santa Claus vs. gods is well taken of course. I’m not suggesting that children be taught that belief in Santa and in god are the same thing, I’m suggesting that they need to understand that they are equally credible.

    Of course you also have to teach them, progressively and in an age-appropriate manner, that many, even most, people really believe that stuff and go into (again, age appropriate, with examples) why people do it; they wanted things to explain lightning, they didn’t want to feel alone, they wanted a daddy that would look out for them etc. Asking lots of questions is great, being a Socratic parent is fine, but pretending an absolute neutrality is too much.

    My general point is that it should be possible (or it should at least be an aspiration) to not label your children, and not let them label themsleves prematurely, while still bringing them up with a clear idea of reality. Not by saying “God doesn’t exist because I say so, we’re all atheists” but by explaining religion and enforcing critical thought in such a way that, when they’re old enough, they will make the mature choice we secretly hope they will.

  • Sebastian

    The books by Dale McGowan “Parenting Beyond Belief” and “Raising Freethinkers” that were mentioned in the blog post have also a companion website with more resources: http://www.parentingbeyondbelief.com/.

    The site has also a Youtube channel, and judging by the videos there the contents of the books seem excellent:

    The, uh… “Genesis” of Parenting Beyond Belief

    Why religious literacy is important (Parenting Beyond Belief #2)

    Religious literacy done right…and wrong (Parenting Beyond Belief #3)

    Influence without indoctrination (Parenting Beyond Belief #4)

    “What if your child becomes religious?” (Parenting Beyond Belief #5)

    (Hopefully all five video links come through in this post, there seems to be a problem with the post preview regarding the link to the second video.)

  • Michelle

    @ Fiona-

    you said:

    “But (and this is my last word):

    Many say that they are letting kids decide what to believe. Not clear at all to me why one should do that.


    So give god the boot, and tell it like it is.”

    We want to teach our kids to think for themselves. I hope that they chose reason over faith, and will teach them to the best of our abilities. That said, I really think that timing and age appropriateness needs to be considered as well.

    When each of my three kids were around 4 years old, they worried about death. Don’t know what it was about that age, but it was a genuine worry about losing family members or dying themselves. We took the opportunity to talk to them about how different people cope with death and what comforts them. We didn’t tell our kids there is no god, and we didn’t discourage them from believing in heaven. My middle son found that believing in reincarnation was comforting to him.

    This freedom to feel and believe was good for them at the time. Especially when they watched their Grandfather move quickly through the final stages of brain cancer (6 months from diagnosis to death.) My youngest was 4 at the time. We didn’t hide what was happening, were honest and open about cancer and the process of dying, and gave them the opportunity to be with their Grandfather as much as they needed. They went to the funeral as well. It comforted them to believe that their grandfather would go to heaven. That is what extended family members talked about too.

    It’s been 3.5 years since, and we still have discussions about science and religion and what my children believe continues to change as they grow, learn and understand. The belief in heaven is shifting as they are able to think more critically. We talk about the finality of death, and we talk more about how DH and I don’t believe that there is a heaven or god.

    Just as my kids are different ages, they are at different points in what they believe. And we will continue to have open dialogue. I am confident that they, in adulthood, will chose a path that suits them best.

  • Thanks for all the great comments here and on our site.

  • Frankie

    It was listed somewhere above but I agreed with it – right now I am too young to have any children but my very atheist family introduced me to Greek mythology before there was a chance for the Christian brand. My mother was very passive which did backfire in my teens when I decided to become a believer, but that lasted little over a year and was due to peer pressure (my teen rebellion was Jesus….)

    A conversation I do remember having with a six-year-old I babysat came at dinner time when he asked for clarifications on the different sects of monotheism. I explained what each believed and said none were the “right “way” but what people choose to make the most sense for them. (keep in mind I did not know his parents’ religion) He shared that he was very content with knowledge on what beliefs were and that he was not bound to them.

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