Ask Richard: What Should I Teach My Children about Other People’s Beliefs? September 6, 2010

Ask Richard: What Should I Teach My Children about Other People’s Beliefs?

Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.

Hi Richard,

I have two children, 3 and 7 years old. I recently had an acquaintance tell me “if you don’t give them something, they will look for anything” as it related to my lack of religion. I am confused and concerned by this statement and need help processing the truth.

I was raised very loosely Methodist by a father who was raised a staunch Methodist (that was atheist by the time I was 10). I have questioned beliefs for as long as I can remember. So much so that I don’t think I ever truly believed. With that came a lack of religious education. I have no deep understanding of the Bible. I know a little about Wicca, Buddhism, and a few others but not enough to really explain them.

My children haven’t asked about God or what we believe, specifically. I am not teaching them Christian beliefs but both went/are attending a Presbyterian preschool. I love the people and the director and have no ties to the church there. Both children have been taught there about God and Jesus. My 7 year old has already forgotten much of that though.

Must I teach them what other people believe? And at what age is it appropriate to bring this up? They both seem so young now and truthfully, they don’t care. If either one says something about God or religious holidays that isn’t a question, we just let it go unless it requires attention. What I do not want is for someone else to come along and dictate to them what they must or must not believe. At what point is this necessary?

Thank you,

Dear Lindsay,

Your acquaintance’s statement regarding religion, “If you don’t give them something, they will look for anything” is intended to sound scary because of its vagueness. The “anything” is left undescribed, and you’re supposed to fill in that blank with some vision that is “worse” than whatever religion she’s hoping you’ll adopt. I would counter with, “If I give them good thinking skills and permission to question everything, I’m confident they will come to the conclusions that are best for them. If I teach them about respect, compassion, equality, tolerance, and honesty, I’m confident that those conclusions will benefit others as well. ”

I don’t think you need to become an expert on everybody else’s religion in order to help your kids find their way through the forest of beliefs. They need skills of clear thinking rather than specific refutations of theology. There is no set standard age when you should begin to educate them on this. Generally, they’ll give you the cues. They will be exposed socially to other kids’ religious opinions, and they will come and ask you about it. Say that some people believe this and that, etc. Don’t say most people believe such and such. Young children are very susceptible to argumentum ad populum. Then they’ll likely ask what do you believe. Give them your honest opinion and your reasons why you think so. Just like questions about where do babies come from, have your answer well thought out before they ask.

But you don’t have to wait only to react to whatever they bring home. You can also take an active role in teaching them basic “street smarts” as they walk through the marketplace of ideas. For instance, careful inquiry and general skepticism. Play a couple of thought games with your older child: One is about a race between two kids, which I’ve described in a recent post. The second is about claims and evidence. Ask this series of questions. They are deliberately rhetorical, leading questions with cues for the desired answer, because this is a game to teach a principle. Present it in a light, casual, fun way:

“If I told you that I have a dollar in my pocket, you’d probably just believe me, right?” (nod) Your 7 year-old will probably say yes.
“What if I said I have 100 dollars in my pocket? Would you have a little more trouble just believing me?” (rock your hand back and forth in the “maybe” gesture) He/She might say yes or no. If there is no trouble believing, keep raising the amount until you reach his/her threshold of skepticism. Smile approvingly when you reach it.
“Okay, so you wouldn’t just believe me if I said I have a million dollars in my pocket. You’d want to actually see the money before you believe it, right? (nod) If your kid is catching on, the answer will be yes.
“Well, alright then. Now, what if I pulled one dollar out of my pocket to show you, and I said that the rest of the million is still in my pocket? Would that be enough for you to believe that I had all of it?” Probably the answer will be no. Keep increasing the amount that you’d show as evidence in small increments.

Ideally, your little skeptical thinker will require one million dollars worth of evidence to substantiate a one million dollar claim. Even if it doesn’t work as smoothly as this, you will have planted the seed that it’s really okay to require evidence for a claim, and as Carl Sagan famously said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Skepticism is not the stubborn refusal to believe. The Greek word skeptesthai means to look, to see for yourself. It’s simply the willingness to hold back credence until credible substantiation is shown. It is a great and rare virtue.

I recommend two books by Dale McGowan et al, Parenting Beyond Belief, and its companion guide, Raising Freethinkers. I think these will have helpful ideas and answer many more questions as your kids grow. I’m sure that the readers here will also have excellent suggestions for you.

Taking the stance that you want your children to be free thinkers does not mean that you should be passive or negligent about what others may be trying to implant in their minds. There are plenty of people who will slip whatever they can into your kid’s heads, convinced that they’re doing the right thing. Be a good steward of your children’s education; watchful, demanding and involved.

Also, don’t assume that your 3 year-old will forget his/her religious indoctrination at the Presbyterian preschool as readily as your 7 year-old seems to have. Each child can have a different reaction and may be more or less impressionable than another. Even though you like the staff there, remember that their model is that truth comes from authority, and that accepting the word of authority without question is a virtue to be reinforced. To some extent, maybe a little, maybe a lot, you’ll have to keep dismantling that programming.

Lindsay, just the fact that you are concerned about these issues, and that you’re asking these questions puts you miles ahead of far too many parents who don’t spend a single thought about their children learning how to use their minds. Too many are only concerned about their kids learning whatever passes tests.

Live the way you want your children to grow up. They will learn at least as much from simply watching you solve daily problems as they do from your deliberate lessons. When they hear you think out loud, “Hmm. I wonder if that’s really true. Let’s see for ourselves,” you will be demonstrating healthy skepticism and free thinking. I think that you will learn from them and they from you. You will help each other grow.


You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. There is a very large number of letters. I am sorry if I am unable to respond in a timely manner.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • MaryD

    There are very few adults that have any idea what a million dollars is. Leave those kids alone!

  • We look at this book from time to time:
    Our kids have a few questions every now and again…especially since they have started school.

    We LOOOVE these books and read them a lot:

  • “If you don’t give them something, they will look for anything” is intended to sound scary because of its vagueness.

    Not to mention, I don’t think it’s true. It certainly wasn’t true in my case. I’m a lifelong atheist who was raised by parents who were totally apathetic about religion. The subject was never mentioned in our home. We weren’t taught that gods were real or that people went to some kind of afterlife when they died. I never even saw the inside of a church until I was 12.

    That hands-off approach worked for me and my brother. I’ve never believed in anything supernatural, and (last I heard) my brother is undeclared, but equally apathetic about religious topics. I might be a bit more proactive when it comes to my own children (I don’t want them to just be atheist by default; I want them to know why they do or don’t believe certain things), but I don’t think the letter writer should listen to scary proclamations that her children will be sure to embrace theism unless she gives them “something.”

    However, given that the children are being exposed to indoctrination at a Christian preschool, I would certainly be concerned about what they are learning there. Even if they forget most of it, I don’t think they will forget all of it. They’ve already had the god-concept implanted in their brains at far younger ages than I personally would be comfortable with. They already know about the assumption of this particular singular male deity and have likely been familiarized with religious rituals such as prayer.

    For me, that would necessitate a bit more proactive parenting when it comes to religion. It can be as simple as saying something like: “Some people think gods and goddesses are real, but Mommy and Daddy think they’re imaginary.” You might also try exposing them to the many other god-concepts that are out there so that they don’t get stuck on the idea of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic deity.

  • Don Rose

    I’ve always told my kids exactly what other people believe in. They often look at me as if I’m making it up. When I tell them that it’s actually what a lot of people believe, they ask “What’s wrong with those people?”. I answer “I wish I knew”. I think that giving them the facts early will help protect them from an ambush later in life, and make them aware, before anyone starts to ease them toward insanity. The best defense is a good offense.

  • Beijingrrl

    As an American, it seemed to me that if I didn’t address religion head-on when they were young that they would think of Christianity as the default, “normal” religion because it’s so pervasive in our culture. We started exploring and celebrating holidays from many different cultures so that my children had exposure to a wider range of views.

    I haven’t been reluctant to discuss my own thought processes regarding my beliefs and encourage my kids to explore their own beliefs.

    Perhaps in other places where religion isn’t such a visible part of daily life I wouldn’t have taken this tack.

  • muggle

    Questions are good and so is being honest in answering them.

    I had Don’s experience with my daughter. She’d hear some bit of religious nonsense from her friends or TV or wherever and would ask me about it, knowing full well I was raised believing in God. I’d answer her as fully and honestly in the vein of well, believers think… whatever. She’d invariably wrinkle her brow and protest but that makes no sense. What could I do but shrug and we both took to usurping an anti-drug commercial running at the time that she just thought was hilarious and say, “this is your brain on religion”. We still say this.

    My grandson doesn’t seem to pay much attention to it one way or the other but did ask recently, “Is god real?” as he’s really into a phase of determining what’s real and what’s not. We told him simply, some people think so, some don’t know and some think no. Mom said she didn’t know and he said, “What do you think, Grammy?” and I just answered calmly, “I don’t think there’s one because I just don’t think it makes sense. You’ll have to take what you hear about it and think about it and decide for yourself if it makes any sense or not.” Frankly, he’s a smart boy and only one grandmother is at all religious and she only nominally so I don’t think there’s much danger of brainwashing.

    I do think the main thing is to instill critical thinking skills. This is why I do go for Santa (well, that and because I felt deprived as a kid because my mother wouldn’t let us believe in that false idol), the Easter Bunny, etc. though I told his mother that was up to her when she asked if I thought she should. She did but I doubt he’ll believe it much longer.

    Frankly, no one believes in Santa or the Easter Bunny past age 8 give or take (has anyone made it to the double digits even) and is the best lesson in critical thinking you could give a kid. I know a lot of people are appalled at the idea of lying to their kids and that’s fine. They don’t have to. But I feel it’s a good thing for them to even apply critical thinking to what their parents say — unless, of course, they’ve got parents who can never, ever make a mistake. 😉

  • Annie

    WTF is wrong with so many atheist parents? Why on Earth would you send your children to be indoctrinated into Christian beliefs? Do people not understand how difficult it is to shake off this mind-poisoning?

    Gaaaah. Not only would I never send my child to a Sunday (or Saturday) religious school, I actively try to teach him that religions are all a bunch of nonsense for which there is no evidence. It would be irresponsible of me not to. Even in a regular public school a child will be exposed to a ton of religious beliefs on the playground, not to mention the religious after school activities that typically go on and don’t go unnoticed by the child.

    Our entire culture ASSUMES a god. It seems to me that we need to actively work against superstition and the prevailing mythology to ensure our children don’t fall prey to it. The laissez-faire attitude taken by so many atheist parents baffles me.

  • Lamont

    I’m another lifelong atheist who was raised by agnostic/apathetic parents who just never mentioned religion.

    If you don’t bring he Church/Religion into their life they’ll figure things out for themselves. Of course when they hit puberty they might start going to church just to piss you off, you never know, but you can’t prevent that. And mostly if you set an example by ignoring religion and not going to church, your kids will be able to ignore the rest of the noise out there for a good long time until they start to seek out information, ask questions and come to their own decision. You don’t have to worry about counter-indoctrinating your kids to fight against Christianity — just answer their questions when they come up.

    I wouldn’t send my kids to a Religious school, though. Either send them to a public school, an alternative/hippy school (I’m a product of one of those), or a non-religious private school. Don’t know why you’d send your kids to a school with ties to a particular religion if you’re an atheist…

  • you can explain that the religious stories carry ideas through generation; they were never meant to be believed to have actually happened. the story of jesus was meant to be the story of all of us on our way to kindness. Most of the stories were written to explain what was unexplainable at the time of their writing; whether it be something about the earth or something we experience mentally (why won’t god go away).
    What the superstitious called God, we scientists call unified field now. It does basically the same thing, without all the fear/judgment/guilt.
    When your kids hear Jesus stories, they will be internalizing them a different way, and they wont be offended.

  • Gordon

    A christian pre-school wont tip toe around saying “some people believe there is a god” they’ll refer to Jesus as if he were as real as the postman.

  • pansies4me

    My 9-year old goes to a Montessori school which is very diverse. He has classmates who are Hindu as well as Christian, maybe some other faiths too. Some of the Christian children ask him where he goes to church or if he believes in God and his reply is, “That’s not a question I’m willing to answer.” He came up with it on his own, and I like it for two reasons: He lets them know it’s none of their business, and it also shows that he is reserving judgement until a later date. He says he doesn’t believe now, but I encourage him to explore the issue on his own when he’s ready.

  • WTF is wrong with so many atheist parents? Why on Earth would you send your children to be indoctrinated into Christian beliefs? Do people not understand how difficult it is to shake off this mind-poisoning?

    don’t be too harsh on the parents here. in some regions of this country, there aren’t many good school options. my sister is an atheist and is raising her son to be one, but he went to a Jewish-themed school for a couple of years. yes, he was taught about Judaism. but in terms of the quality of the schooling, it really was the only choice. it’s really not that hard to de-program kids who go to religious schools. obviously, no atheist who wants the raise their children in the atheist tradition should send their kids to a school that teaches creationism instead of science and bible study as history. but there really are different degrees and some parochial schools have wonderful, not terribly religious, excellent prep for college curriculums.

    it seems to me that as long as the parents ask “what did you learn about today?” and then discuss any religious programming with their kids and use reason and logic to show them why only some people believe, it’s not necessarily a wrong choice to send kids to the better parochial schools.

  • and as someone who actually studied religion pretty extensively in grad school, i would also add that there are many good books out there, by secular scholars (many of whom are atheists) of religion that can be used in the home to help children understand religion. a book about the history of world religions, a book about the differences in theology in various sects, and a book on different religions in American history would all be a good start. sometimes, all you have to do is show kinds that there are many religious ideas out there to get them to realize, in that way that children do, that those ideas are mostly silly.

  • Christine

    A few years ago my daughter saw our neighbors’ garish plastic nativity lit up on their lawn. Pointing to Mary in her blue and white robes, she yelled excitedly, “Look! It’s Cinderella on her wedding day!” As much as I enjoyed her atheistic naivete, I figured she needs to know about these beliefs to function in society.

    I couldn’t find any picture books that didn’t clearly assume that we all believe in God ™, or come out with something like, “and God sent Baby Jesus to save you and me!” So I finally just wrote my own book about the Christmas legend, and published it through I have a feeling I might become a prolific author before my kids grow up!

    Oh, and Dale McGowan is great, and he gave a wonderful idea: tell your kids they can think about this stuff and change their minds as many times as they want. My 7yo was so clearly relieved and grateful to hear that!

  • DrMatt

    We joined a Unitarian Universalist congregation to help our elder with her issues. They did.

    An unexpected side benefit is our younger is not only knowledgeable about all the world religions; she is effectively vaccinate against them.

    I, who was raised in a Christian vacuum, where we never discussed religious views, spent years searching for the proverbial black cat that did not exist in pitch black room, lead by evangelists who claimed to have found it.

    By all means, educate your children to the world’s mythology. They will be less likely to be taken in by the latest “answer” given by the cults.

  • MH

    We live in New England, are a coupled of mixed religious heritage, and didn’t do any religious instruction with our kids. In New England you can do this and people will generally not notice or care. But twice in ten years we’ve gotten some disapproving comments which we’ve ignored.

    But eventually the topic of religion comes up from your children due to the religious instruction a child’s friends are getting. So it is good to have something prepared because this can be an awkward topic.

    We didn’t and the topic came up when a friend of my daughter was getting her first communion. My daughter asked me what it was and I explained that this service was important to her family, but not to ours. I mentioned the holidays of other religions and how we didn’t celebrate them either. Problem deferred.

    Several years later my daughter asked more pointed questions on the topic, so I explained some Christian theology to her. She had a look of complete disbelief and asked me what I believed. I asked her how this would help and she said “I want to believe what you believe.”, which floored me. I said “we don’t go to church or synagogue because we don’t believe their claims are true.” She looked relieved.

  • I wrestle with how far to go in actively trying to “make” our son an atheist. I like Richard’s idea of instilling critical thinking skills and letting him reach his own conclusions. You other parents have given me confidence in this approach with your stories of childhood shock when religious beliefs are explained!

  • WTF is wrong with so many atheist parents? Why on Earth would you send your children to be indoctrinated into Christian beliefs?

    Yes, I know in some parts of the country secular preschools are not readily available, but if my only option was a religious preschool, I simply would not have my children attend at all. I just can’t fathom sending them to a place where they will be taught to believe in a particular deity and familiarized with religious rituals such as prayer. Especially not at three years old. Their brains are still developing, and they have no defenses at that age. They’re simply going to swallow whatever they’re given, and I don’t want to intentionally expose them to the god-concept while their minds are in the process of forming.

    A few years ago my daughter saw our neighbors’ garish plastic nativity lit up on their lawn. Pointing to Mary in her blue and white robes, she yelled excitedly, “Look! It’s Cinderella on her wedding day!”

    LOL! My niece used to think that the Mormon temple in San Diego was Sleeping Beauty’s castle at Disneyland. If you’re looking for a secular picture book treatment of the Jesus legend, I’m pretty sure there have got to be some out there. The UUs would probably know. I did find an interesting article here that seems to indicate Jeanette Winterson’s might be a good choice.

    For atheists hoping to educate their children about the reasons people celebrate various winter holidays (not limited to Christmas), I’m personally very fond of The Winter Solstice by Ellen Jackson and The Shortest Day by Wendy Pfeffer. For parents wishing to educate their kids about world religions in a non-biased way, I recommend The Usborne Book of World Religions. It even includes a positive blurb on atheism and agnosticism.

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