Atheist Parents: What Would You Do Differently? February 2, 2012

Atheist Parents: What Would You Do Differently?

Once, when I was twelve or so, my dad forgot to pick me up from play rehearsal after school. In the pre-cellphone era, I just stood at the big double doors of the school’s entrance, watching for headlights in the rural blackness of middle-of-nowhere, Indiana. The evening janitorial staff kept shooting me these pitiable looks, and I was starting to wonder how comfortable the tile floor would be to sleep on, and how I’d never live down wearing the same clothes two days in a row, when at last my dad pulled up in the old Aerostar van. Finally!

Apparently, he just plain forgot that he was supposed to pick me up after a meeting he had had that night. He’d arrived home, and rather than a “hello,” he was greeted with a suspicious, “Where is our daughter…?” My mom says he turned eight shades of green, darted back to the van, and rushed to get me in a flurry of apologies.

Now, we sarcastically refer to this event as if it was the ultimate treachery, and in case my father ever has anything snarky to say to me, I’ll just point back to that fateful day as evidence to his “horrible” parenting. We laugh about it now, about his daughter-erasing brain fart, and my melodramatic response of seeking some sort of habitat for a night in the wilds of my small middle school.

At the time, though, I remember one thought in particular that kept circling my adolescent brain: “I’ll never do this when I have kids.”

How often have you all said similar things? Back then, it was a petulant response, extrapolating an honest, adult mistake to be a horrible symbol of my father’s lack of concern for me; but now, I find myself asking myself the same sort of questions, for very different reasons. Instead of slighting my parents for every piece of clothing they didn’t buy for me or event I wasn’t permitted to attend, I’m now starting to question what things I would do differently.

As a hypothetical parent, I would be in completely uncharted territory, as my own beliefs are radically different from my own parents’ faith-based approach. My parents were Christians, as were their parents, my friends and their parents were Christians…come to think of it, I don’t even personally know any atheist parents.

This does have a positive side effect, though: since there are no models to emulate within my immediate experience, the tough tussling with difficult concepts ultimately comes down to discussions with my husband, which is exactly where they ought to be. As I’ve discussed before, leaving the tough choices about parenting to someone outside of you and your family can have enormous repercussions. Religious institutions in particular often call for prescriptive parenting instead of descriptive; that a child will “become” such-and-such an individual if you follow such-and-such discipline program, as outlined by everyone’s favorite child psychologist — the preacher.

So what exactly would I do differently? What parts of my hypothetical parenting would deviate from my own experience being parented in a Christian household?

I have a shortlist, and I’m looking to add more:

1. No mandatory church attendance.

While this may sound like a “duh” statement to those raised outside of religious influence, the implications are much more subtle and much more fraught if grandma and grandpa are religious and readily accessible to the child.

My husband and I want to raise our hypothetical children to decide for themselves. After all, it isn’t their religion (or lack thereof) that I’d be raising — it’s a whole, complete child, equipped with a personality and wants and needs and opinions. Religion will not be kept hidden from them, nor will it be glossed over or minimized, but they will realistically need to know how it informs the beliefs of the greater majority of their family. Developing critical thinking skills will involve us 100% more as parents; fostering these skills would be significantly harder if they are exposed to indoctrination that teaches them that morality is tied to warming a chair once a week at a specific time.

2. No corporal punishment.

As I mentally began sorting through some of these ideas, I realized that my only arguments in favor of physical punishments were faith-based.

Given the track record of this particular discipline technique, the potential for abuse, and the vehement disagreement with the practice from professional communities, I simply don’t see any evidence to even consider the practice in the first place. Full stop.

3. Rewarding honest inquisitiveness.

One characteristic of the Christian religion — or many variants of it — is to discourage critical thinking by painting “doubt” as a negative (just like calling anger “bitterness,” and the useless trapdoor-of-a-phrase, “I’ll pray for you”). I can’t really remember how many sermons I’ve heard about “Doubting Thomas,” where the punchline of the story is almost universally omitted: he ultimately overcomes his doubt through… evidence and reason! For some reason, Thomas was skeptical of the idea that a friend of his was brutally tortured, died, and rose from the dead to walk among humans again, and asked for some simple evidence that would confirm his identity.

You there! With the valid, strong emotions! Why must you be so bitter all the time?

Curiously, in the account in John 20:24-29, Jesus does provide the evidence that Thomas requested, yet (in verse 29) goes on to suggest that request was somewhat petty:

“Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen Me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.”

However, there are several layers to this case; according to the story, Jesus was able to confirm Thomas’ doubts with actual, physical evidence, which is never available to the person behind the pulpit, claiming to possess the key to unlock Truth. So, in terms of the story, I agree with Jesus: it is better to believe things that are true even if you haven’t personally witnessed it. Things like gravity, pulsars, and evolution can be established to be “true” even if you yourself can never “see” it with your own two eyes.

What I won’t be doing is teaching my children in the churchified version of the Doubting Thomas story, where the blame lies in his curiosity and his “need” for proof. Instead, I want my children to recognize what kind of evidence a given claim will need, and whether or not the evidence given meets those criteria.

4. Recognize autonomy by resisting the urge to “train” a child.

Ultimately, I will have to realize my limited power as a parent. Just like I can’t “make” students learn a concept in the classroom, I can’t “make” a child become something or another. I can encourage certain behaviors while discouraging others, but at the end of the day their identity does not belong to me.

With Christian parents, many people adopt the Driscollian view that their success as a parent lies in the transfer of their religious values to their children, and it’s a recipe for disappointment. By sheer numbers, I would guess that many readers of this blog come from religious backgrounds, and I would guess even further that some might have observed the negative ramifications of religious belief in their cognitive processes. With this kind of irrational desire placed as such a high priority, all other accomplishments — morality, responsibility, love, care, concern for the world around you — take a backseat to the idea that immortal soul of the child they love is in danger. It completely minimizes actual problems and accomplishments, and colors the relationship that parents can have with their teen and adult children. That’s not the kind of relationship that I envision for myself, nor do I understand why any parent would want that.

All your religion are belong to us.

It won’t be an easy journey, but no adventure in parenting ever is. I also don’t believe that my atheism or skepticism equips me to be a perfect parent, but I hope that the desire to think critically about the world around me and my contributions to it will spill over into a dynamic, organically evolving relationship with my hypothetical future children.

How about you? If you are already a parent, what did/do you do differently from faith based parenting approaches? If you’re simply speculating, like me, what are some things that you consider?

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  • I don’t allow my young children (9 and 6) to go to church services. I don’t see why an atheist would put their children into harms way. Religion strives to build an emotional bond with its adherents, and young children are particularly susceptible to such methods. If my kids are interested in going in their teens that’s fine with me.

    I’ve heard this strange argument from other atheists that they bring their kids to church so that they can learn about religion. Believe me religion comes up in everyday conversation with your kids, and as a parent one has plenty of opportunities to educate your kids.  

  • xine_k

    maybe my son was just an easy kid, but he is now a well-adjusted 17 year old free-thinker about to embark on his college journey. if i think back to how he became this way, it just seemed natural. he was surrounded by open-minded non-judgemental types and he always asked questions. The answers given were either well-considered, or he was asked to go and find out and come back to us.
    i suppose the one thing that sticks out the most was his appetite for reading. we read everything in the childrens section of the library when he was very young, INCLUDING the religious books (by that, i mean, Mythology) and he loved those especially. Somewhere round about six or seven he put two and two together himself, after reading a story about the birth of christ, that it was all just a story, like all the other messiah stories we had read before.
    and it went from there.

    i don’t think it has to be a difficult thing to raise one’s child to be critical of the things he sees and hears in the world around him. If you’re as honest as you can be and instill some of the skills he will need to gather evidence himself and critically analyze it, then you’re good.

    My guess is that it is something that all of us who reading this now do anyway.

  • Victoria

    I’d say my own parents were consistent with #1 (as in, we always went to church — they’re religious), negligible on #2, on the encouraging side of #3, and not interested in #4. On the whole, a fine childhood.

    One thing I am planning to do differently is to talk more realistically — to talk at all! — about sex and healthy relationships. The message I got growing up was pretty much “don’t do that,” and while I don’t want to control my daughter’s choices when she’s a teen, I do want to make sure she has the information to make healthy choices rather than trusting that things will automatically turn out OK. I definitely could have used more information along those lines as a teenager.

  • Anonymous


    Church Attendance.  Kids are ill-equipped to deal with the coercive forces at play between church and grandparents.  Originally I was oblivious to this interaction dismissing the importance of such a casual exposure.  My kids went to church once in a while when visiting Nanna and Papa. 

    What I didn’t see, and probably never would have, is how viral religion is and how dangerous it is to the developing mind.  About a year and a half ago my son was diagnosed with leukaemia.  I’m quite proud that my 11 year old son had the analytical powers to reconcile ” The Problem of Evil” with reality. 

    What I’m not proud of is how for the prior 11 years I sat idly by allowing him to *choose* for himself.  Equipping children with the skills for analytical thinking isn’t enough.  Letting our children decide without addressing specific claims made by the church/theists/grandparents is a recipe for later conflict.   Don’t wait until 3 A.M. when the Resident’s do their rounds to address Pascal’s Wager, because I guarantee that your child has already been pressured with that particular piece of logic.

  • guest

    We are bringing up our children to be confident, secure people. That starts pretty early, by letting children learn consequences of their decisions – both good and bad, and with a lot of guidance, of course. Their natural tendency to be curious but also reasonable is encouraged to blossom into critical thinking. We have some very honest and intense discussions about important things in life, like relationships, ethics, sex, money. We never lie to our children, not even about Santa, though we did let them figure that one out by themselves by letting them absorb the myth and go through the investigation and thinking on their own.

    As far as religion, we are also up front about that too, and it cannot be shirked from. There are many who will target your children, from a surprisingly early age, for conversion to any of a number of cults. In the same way that a child can learn to identify when he or she is being manipulated by a peer into some undesirable behavior, such as doing drugs, or being part of a gang, they will be able to identify those who offer their religious organization as an attractive social group, place to be with the cool peer group, answer to all of life’s tough questions, etc. And they are out there! Young Life (TM) hangs out on the perimeter of our public school’s property and does all they can to engage with the kids there, out of the parent’s view. Check them out on their website – they are completely open about this! Creepy!?!

    We have become active in our local unitarian church and it offers many of the benefits of a religion like peer group, community activities, etc but especially education. Children need to learn what religion is, what its claims are, what the various beliefs are, as well as their own beliefs and values. They can find that at a Unitarian church in its wonderful Religious Education curriculum (disclaimer – I teach Comparative Religions at a UU church).

  • Church attendance:  My parents are, for all intents and purposes, atheists who’ve never felt the need to put that label on themselves.  However, when I was a child, they either needed a few hours per week alone or felt guilty about that . . . . so they let my best friend’s mom pick us up every Sunday morning and take us to the local Methodist church.  That lasted until I was old enough to figure out that not everyone was going to church and I could ask not to; they didn’t force me to go once I asked to stop.  Oddly enough, I bought a house right behind that church and next to the rectory.   The only major trouble I remember the moderate Methodists getting me into was the time I drew their “flaming cross” symbol during art time in elementary school, and it was interpreted in an . . . . . unflattering way.  Apparently there’s another group in America besides the Methodists that uses burning crosses as its symbol; who knew?

    Corporal punishment:  we stopped using it because it didn’t work.  Simple evidence.  We spanked our twins until we figured out that the spankings only drove their rages higher (we adopted twins from foster care with severe emotional and learning disabilities, so admittedly, our experience might not be universal.)  But even so, it didn’t take a lot of philosophical wrangling.  We spanked because the previous foster parents told us it worked.  It didn’t, so we stopped.

    Don’t worry too much about the training problem.   You may have a natural tendency to try that (most of us do) but if you pay attention to your kids, they’ll make it plain that it’s impossible the same way you taught your parents.  🙂
    Have fun.

  • I was raised a freethinker and the principles listed in this articles are the ones my parents used on me and I turned out just fine imho.  Religious exploration is normal for most kids and it can be and should be encouraged. The probably won’t ask to attend church or synagogue or mosque until they have friends that invite them, and when they are at that age, they should be able to handle it pretty well.  My son is currently 6 and I have him in a Christian based martial arts class. He has to learn bible verses in addition to the other skills to move up in rank. When we read the verses together I ask him what he thinks about them, and he thinks they are pretty stupid. So, no worries really. He knows he can reject the ideas of others. For instance, he rejects zombie Jesus for easter because Jesus is nice so he must have returned as a ghost not as a zombie. 

    Am I worried about him?  Absolutely not. As long as I encourage him to think for himself, he’ll be fine.

  • Godless Heathen

    “Believe me religion comes up in everyday conversation with your kids, and as a parent one has plenty of opportunities to educate your kids.”
    This! Seriously. I learned a decent amount about religion through friends and media and cultural references to it. Well, I learned about Christianity that way. 
    I will admit that by the time I got to college, I was very interested in learning about religion and possibly finding one that suited me and I was annoyed at my parents for not teaching me more about Christianity because I often missed references to it. However, part of my annoyance stemmed from the fact that the references I heard didn’t make much sense. Studying the bible in college confirmed that most of Christianity doesn’t make much sense. 🙂

    Also, my parents weren’t atheist, exactly, I think they were more agnostic or believed in some vague “higher power,” but one was raised Jewish and one was raised Catholic and the Jewish one did not want to raise us in a church, so we weren’t allowed to go to church things with friends until we were older (later elementary, early middle school) and then it was only if we wanted to.

  • Godless Heathen

    Oh, and about the training thing. I ran track and cross country in middle and high school and I was jealous of the kids who had parents who were runners and encouraged them to run with them because those kids were faster and had more endurance than me.

    At some point in late high school or early college, I told my dad that I was going to make my kids be runners. He responded with, essentially, “No you won’t. You’ll encourage your kids to pursue whatever interests they have and if running isn’t one of those, you won’t push it because you can’t make them like something they don’t like.” 

    At the time I was annoyed with his response, but after getting more years of babysitting, teaching preschool, and coaching t-ball under my belt, I realize that he’s right. You can’t make your kids pursue something they don’t like.*

    *Note: In my family this applied to everything except schoolwork. Which was fine, because I was good at school and enjoyed learning.

  • Anonymous

    I’ve never believed in any god(s), and I think it’s because my mind is just wired that way. I went to an Episcopal church with a friend many many times (didn’t want to go home at 8am after Saturday night sleepovers! so, that must mean this started around the age of 10 or so), including whatever they call the kids classes, singing in their choir when I was a teenager, bowing my head at my friend’s dinner table (maybe even spouting the words of thanks for the food “given” us — not quite sure of my memory, there), and never once believed a bit of it. Now, in middle age, I sometimes wish I COULD believe in an afterlife, since thinking about eventually no longer existing can be very uncomfortable. But I just can’t. (Thanks goodness, really.)

    But for any child whose wiring is a bit different, I expect that early exposure to church services could be very risky. And what parent can tell how their kid’s brain is wired at that early age? 

    On the other hand, perhaps it’s because my parents never invoked any god(s) at any time in my life that my wiring is the way it is? Perhaps there is less risk than we atheist parents fear there is. I don’t know. My parents were professors (physics and psychology, wow!), so science was where it’s at, for them. If science is where it’s at for us as parents now, then our kids likely know it, and that will be some protection against the pressures of religious friends, relatives, and neighbors.

    I’ll be interested to see how my 12-year-old handles things if his friends (who all know he’s an atheist) start up a bible study group they’ve recently proposed. They have invited him. I’m sure they’re hoping he’ll be converted. I am hoping it will be the other way around! And I told him it could be a good opportunity for him to do just that, if he wishes. Speaking of that, for his age, what 1 or 2 books should I buy him as ammunition for his own views?

    And I was extremely proud when my then-18- (now 19) year-old excitedly showed us during a weekly Skype call from college that he had bought a used copy of The God Delusion at a sale, for a buck or three.

    When they asked about religion while growing up, we always said “well, we don’t believe any of that, but you decide for yourself.” Never really anything more.

    Sorry for going on so long.

  • I was raised by a single, Christian mother and attended a Methodist church regularly until I was late in my teenage years. My kids have only been to church on a few occasions when they were brought by relatives on special occasions, or for the handful of weddings and funerals that have taken place since they were born. They are inquisitive children and we have tons of reference books along with our otherwise typical collection of children’s books. I have never “baby talked” to them. Children learn by example so we spoke to them as we would any other intellectual being. Thus one of my first daughter’s first words was “echolocation”, and she even knew what it meant. They are currently aged 5 and 7, but we have conversations in the car about DNA, evolution, mass extinction, “good” versus “evil”, principles versus morals, etc. Of course we also have our fair share of conversations about Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber, and Star Wars, but the point is that no subject is off limits and I don’t shy away from discussing anything with them just because it may be “complicated”. Kids are way smarter than we (or perhaps modern pop-culture) gives them credit for.

    In any case, you may go into parenting with a set of ideals and I think that’s a good thing because it means you’ve given the whole thing some forethought, a mental framework for your family. However, I would strongly caution you not to invest too heavily in them or make judgement calls about parenting before you yourself are a parent. I too had ideals about how incredible of a
    parent I would be because I wouldn’t do A, B and C. Well, guess what –
    children don’t follow plans and as a parent you tend to think on your
    feet a lot and ad lib and just go with whatever works. Also, and I’m
    being a bit a hypocritical here because I used to do the same thing, but
    please please please don’t judge a parent by whatever brief glances
    into their world you may witness. Parenting is hard as f*ck. There is
    this perpetual sway from utter despair to bewildering amazement all day,
    every day. I’m not saying I don’t like being a parent – for all the
    hear-wrenching, exhausting moments there are equal or better parts
    amazing and rewarding. But you can’t ever know this if you aren’t a parent. I’m sorry, but it’s true. Louie C. K. says it best, as usual:

    I think as atheists/free-thinkers/skeptics/etc. we may be predisposed to urge autonomy and inquisitiveness. So really the only thing I did differently was to be an atheist. The rest comes naturally, or at least as naturally as my children allow for.

    PS: That church poster is scary as f*ck.

  • Ubi Dubium

    Yes, I’ll also recommend the Comparative Religion class at the UU.  My local UU offers it to the 7th graders, which is a really good age for that.  They study world religions, but spend most of the classes on field trips to various churches and temples.  I had UbiDubiKid #2 take this class last year, and I think it was a really good experience.  8th grade RE is a full year of sex ed (real answers, not the watered down stuff they get in school) and I recommend that as well.
    (disclaimer also – I teach a “big questions” class to 6th graders at a UU church)

  • Amanda, I’d like to recommend you check out  this blog:

    I think you would appreciate the author’s perspective on parenting.

  • Marfknox

    I agree with this whole-heartedly. When I reached the age and level of knowledge about the world that my rational brain started screaming “This religious stuff is all bullshit!” it was an incredibly painful process to disengage from religious rituals and to eventually shed all my emotional attachment to Catholicism I had made during my childhood. All it takes is a few really positive associations with certain imagery, music, poetry, people, etc., and now that emotional pull is embedded in the psych. Of course all children will be exposed to religion just like they are exposed to advertising. But I’m not about to expose my kid to tons of advertising aimed at kids for junk food, so why would I expose a child to religion in a positive (opposed to neutral and purely informative) way? 

  • Anonymous

    Although I was sent to a couple religious schools as a kid, my home life wasn’t particularly religious. “Going to church,” meant dressing up nice & going out to brunch at a nice restaurant. So I don’t have much to work against there. My kid goes to the Zendo with my ex, he goes to Pagan celebrations with friends, and rubs shoulders with evangelical Xtians at the homeschool resource center. He’s getting a pretty thorough education in comparative religion, so I don’t think it likely that he’ll be suckered by any of those traps.
    As for “I’m never going to do that when I have kids!” I do remember swearing that when my parents yelled at me, and I’m happy to say that to date, I have never once raised my voice in anger toward my kid, or anyone else’s.

  • guest

    I wish all hypothetical parents thought this out before getting pregnant.  Even the religious ones.  The world would be a much better place. 

    I would add one more point: don’t push them to be the best at everything they can do. Have realistic expectations of what they can handle and whether they want to handle it (within reason: complete all homework but don’t expect a valedictorian)

  • Marfknox

    As a satisfied mother of 2 children I agree with and greatly appreciate this post! Louis CK says it like it is, and real parents end up shedding a good number of expectations when reality comes. But it is good to think of it as altering details while the overall plan and values still get across. 

  • Marfkox

    My parents did a pretty good job giving me the information I needed to know about sex and my body. But I, too, would like to be more frank and open in the way I talk about sex, as I feel there was still a strain of shame about it when I was growing up. I have daughters, and I look forward to seeing how they will enter into their sexuality in the various stages over their childhoods and adolescences. I want them and me to be comfortable talking about those changes, behaviors, and feelings. And hopefully when the time comes my husband will be able to deal with it too. (They are so young now he doesn’t want to even think about it.) 

  • Prosey

    As an atheist parent, I can (and will) say that although your list has a few slightly naive points, the authentic intention is beyond moving. The active intention to follow these steps as guidelines is, in a word, beautiful. Your future children are fortunate indeed.

    I would point out the specifics of where I see a bit of naivete in (non faith-based language) the above list; however, I am presently attending to a sick child, and am limited in online time. In any case, the list IS wonderful, and I wish you well.

  • I would never allow my children to attend church. If they want to explore different ideas, they can do it when they are grown and not as susceptible to believing anything an authority figure tells them. 

    Remember the trump card all of our parents used when they got tired of arguing with us? “Because I said so.” We knew and for the most part accepted, that arguing a different viewpoint past this point was futile… and for some of us a guarantee of punishment.  Our parents pulled this argument out to get us to do things we absolutely did not want to do…. and it worked.

    This is the same argument the church leaders use. “Because the Bible says so.” Except they don’t pull this out as a last resort. They use it to reinforce an attractive concept to a child… a loving old man in the sky, a happy place where they can go and be with angels, lambs lying down with lions, a big boat with a zoo full of animals, and talking snakes. 

    I’d rather send them to a whore house.

  • Justin Miyundees

    The birth of our first son was the straw that broke the camel’s back as far as religion went for myself and my wife.  The families were all expecting baptism announcements, but I looked into the eyes of this newborn and saw pure innocence – in fact, it was probably the first time I realize ever seeing it.  I simply could NOT tag him with that absurd and evil notion – original sin.  What horse shit.  

    From that moment I decided the church can go pack sand up their asses.  The very gall it takes to brand a newborn child as flawed made me furious and I would not play along no matter how pretty the setting and no matter how pious the people around me would feel.  I would not stand up and label my son, who hadn’t even the opportunity to “sin”, a sinner – no I would not.  I’ve always been gratified, even now 14 years later, that I made that decision – it took some backbone, but I stood up for my son instead.

    “Original sin” is the kernel upon which the entire authority of the church is built.  When we jettisoned that “evil little thing”, we were free.

  • Bonnie Taylor

    RE: Not “allowing” your kid to go to church: I think that’s a little extreme and may just incite rebellion and added curiosity about religion. My parents were atheist and I went to church a handful of times with my little friends, usually due to a sleepover. The next morning we’d go to church.

    Thing is, for little kids (under 10), church is not about sitting there and being indoctrinated. It was about entertaining ourselves quietly during the really boring service! I remember church as being all about coloring books and hangman games, not about hellfire and brain-washing. These days it’s probably about texting and playing Angry Birds.

  • Anonymous

    That’s how they hook ’em when their young.

  • Prosey

    To be clear, first and foremost, I *agree* with you about not making kids attend church. However, in practice, it’s not quite as simple as that. To truly have kids be able to think critically, exposure is inevitable. My approach has been, when my older kids reached a certain age, if they were invited by friends, and IF they wanted to go (they were curious), then I had no problem with it. Invariably, in each instance, they came home and had all sorts of questions. I have copies of different religious holy books (heck, I grew up in the church), and when they’ve had questions (plenty!), we sat down and really examined those questions. Both of my older kids are atheists and extremely curious, and are both critical thinkers. I don’t see this approach changing with my youngest — he’s only 2.5 yrs, though, so there’s a long way to go before he reaches the age of either of his older siblings (14 and 19, respectively).

  • Marfknox

    Thanks for starting such an interesting conversation. I am a parent of two very young girls and also have been a leader and volunteer in the freethought movement for over a decade. 

    I think more about what my parents did right and try to emulate and build on those aspects of their parenting. Examples: they read to me and fostered a love of reading. I have a deep respect for books and their ability to not only contain records ad facts, but the ability of poetry to express what cannot be expressed literally, and fiction to transport us to another world and more clearly see certain truths about the human experience from a subjective point of view. My parents got us science kits, took us to zoos and museums and camping, ad we developed an appreciation for nature, science, and history. They took us to see art, ballet performances, plays, concerts, and we learned a deep appreciation of that too. We traveled to Mexico and took Spanish classes and thus developed a broader understanding of the world. We were encouraged to play instruments and participate i sports and other extra curriculars. And while we got to choose what we did, once we started something we were forced to follow through, which taught me persistence and the satisfaction found in achievement. We had a lot of free time to play and explore and just be kids, which I also think is essential to children’s intellectual and social development. 

    Some people seem to think religion is necessary for the development of morality, but it seems there is more evidence that empathy is developed through experiences, not a learned set of rules. 

    Ironically, I got my family to start attending church when I was 6. They sent me to a Catholic school for 1st grade, and there I learned that not going to church as a sin. So I won’t be sending my kids to Catholic school! Or church, of course. 

    The only other fundamental change I’d make from my parent’s choices is with food. We ate a lot of junk growing up, and nobody really taught me to cook. I make sure to offer fresh fruit and veggies in a visually appealing way every day, and I keep junk food out of the house (except when grandparents bring it in – argh.) Plus, I’ll be teaching my kids to cook so hopefully they won’t spend the sort of money eating out that I did when I first became a adult. 

  • Arsinoe

    Great discussion. I was interested that Amanda doesn’t know any atheist parents–that might be because we traditionally laid low, not wanting our kids to get beat up. My three children are grown now, and I would describe them as indifferent to religion. It is just not an issue for them; they know religious people/supernatural believers and view it as you would any odd personality quirk. Really, it is not as if we “taught” them atheism; you don’t have to. It’s the natural state of an intelligent being.

    The grandparents thing; you do have to be strong and it is the time many atheist children finally rise above the fear of mom and dad. I come from a very religious family; my pedigree includes some well-known evangelical icons. My husband’s family is traditional Catholics.  I found that if you don’t act defensive when the grandparents ask questions about religion, they back off after a while. My only fear was that my husband and I would be killed in a plane crash or something and the kids would be raised by the religious grandparents. Frankly, I also feared that they would fall in love with a religious person and have that conflict in their lives, but in their relationships, that has seemed like something of a deal-breaker. They can’t really trust supernatural believers to be reliable, seems like. They have religious friends. One of my children is very interested in religion and has attended rituals and services of many types. She’s very interested in the psychology of belief.

  • Liz Heywood

    That’s it exactly, Justin–the moment you look into your baby’s eyes can be life-changing. I was a brain-washed, life-long, anti-medicine& doctors Christian Scientist in my late twenties when my first daughter was born. It took only moments for her presence to begin to rock my world right off its foundation, though it was a few years before I quit the church…and a dozen years of therapy before I could think straight…She’s now an RN student & my younger daughter is an outspoken sixth-grade skeptic. 

  • Bruce_wright

    Off topic… but I just realized that Mars Hill Church is named after the Roman god of war.

    That’s all.

  • Like Marfknox–I want to think you for your reply.  I wish I could go back and slap my arrogant younger self in the face.  I thought I had ALL the answers.  Now I am a parent of teenagers, and I realize that good intentions are wonderful and the first step toward a happy home life.  But there is no preparing for these individuals who will break every expectation you could possibly have about parenting.

  • Re:  Driscoll, TheStranger (which carries Dan Savage, or vice-versa) takes him on:

  • I originally had thought to teach my children a bit about all the religions in the world in order to show them how similar they were to each other and how fantastical they are. I was going to end it there and let them make their own decisions about religion and would support whatever decision they made, trusting in their intelligence to make the right choice. I didn’t want to indoctrinate them. Then about a year ago I though “What the hell am I doing? Believers have no problem raising their children to believe what they do. Why shouldn’t I do the same?”

    Now my wife and I am raising our children as Secular Humanists. I realized that as long as I taught them to think critically, to approach new claims skeptically, and the not be afraid of asking questions, what I was teaching them would not be indoctrination. It would be sharing our values with our kids. We still talk about different religions but only as if they were fairy tales some people believe. We teach them to show people respect no matter what they believe, even if you don’t respect their beliefs.

  • walkamungus

    “What the hell am I doing? Believers have no problem raising their children to believe what they do. Why shouldn’t I do the same?”

  • Anonymous

    I have a 4 and 2 year old (girls) so religious teachings haven’t really been brought up yet.  I’m pagan and not atheist, but my spouse is an atheist and we want our kids to be brought up secular.  Even in my pagan group we talk about our religious beliefs and practices as being fully separate from our morality and values.  For me religion is more like a stylistic choice and less about objective reality.   Many pagan parents are the same – they don’t want to accidentally limit their kids options through indoctrination – so a lot of strategies are similar as what is discussed here.

    Like a few posters above have said, I want to take my kids to UU church for their classes on world religions and to have a liberal minded community so they won’t feel left out compared to their religious friends.   So far I do take them to my religious group, but like any church the kids are bored with all the talking and just want to color and play and watch movies.   Unlike some churches we are more than happy to allow that.
    I just wanted to expound a little bit on corporal punishment and training a child.  I am not a fan of spanking, and certainly not as an applicable form of punishment (as in for each infraction the child gets a number of spanks done in an almost ritualized manner).  I grew up in a house that heavily relied on spanking – not quite Pearl method, but close.  It has been hard for me to fully get it out of my mind as acceptable child rearing.   I may be rationalizing around my own mistakes, but I don’t think it is the same thing as a spanking to give a quick slap on the butt when a toddler is uncontrollably screaming and kicking in the middle of a store.  It isn’t to punish, just to kind of snap them out of it.  I still try very hard not to and I feel terrible when I do.  I haven’t done so in quite a while as my kids are growing out of the tantrum for no reason stage.

    Using spanking as a corrective tool doesn’t seem effective (most parents I know use it) except if you want to train your kids.   I do not, like you I want free thinking individual and independent kids, but a lot of parents (usually religious) have very specific ideas about what their kids should be.

    One thing I really hated about ‘training’ and spanking is that I have a neuro-atypical brother and while he was on some medication and received speech therapy as a kid, my parents seemed to think that they could spank him into normal behavior.  He has many similar symptoms to people on the autism spectrum, but he has Landu-Kleffner syndrome and I don’t think he has received any additional help for his condition aside from attempts to control the anti-social behavior problems.  He was spanked a lot as a kid, far more than either me or our youngest brother, and it certainly never helped him or even changed the behavior that caused it.  I only mention this because many parents say they spank because it is the only way to get their kid to behave.  If this is true, your child probably needs real help (but its probably just that the parent doesn’t want to do the extra work).

  •  I completely agree. I was raised as an atheist and I was never taken to church by my parents. The first time I attended a church I was 12 and had changed schools to a school that required church attendance 4 times a year.

    I learnt enough about religion from the media, from my classmates and from my literature classes where the teacher would point out biblical references and ask the class what they symbolised. While I’m not a parent yet, I don’t ever plan on taking my kids to any church. They can learn all the necessary information from books, tv and their parents, like I did. I feel like learning about other religions that way stops kids from learning about religion in a situation where adults and other children, who can be quite influential on younger kids, are trying to convince you to believe, as opposed to books / tv/ your parents which can represent religion dispassionately and objectively.

  • amyc

    It depends on what church the kids go to. The ones I went to as a child always had a church service (at the same time as the adults’) specifically for the kids–usually aged from first grade to middle school, at which point they join the youth group which may or may not have their own service as well. Children younger than first grade were always encouraged to be placed in the nursery. So basically, for many children, going to church is about being indoctrinated. The children’s services are engineered to make the religion seem exciting and fun, which helps indoctrinate the children into religious belief. These types of services are often used specifically to hook the children. The children have fun, so they ask their parents to let them go every Sunday. The parents bring the children and are then given a guilt trip if they are not a member of the church.

  • Georgina

     Any UU in Europe?

  • Georgina

     21st. century medicine holds much more hope for a cure than anything which came before.
    But, as with any form of cancer, a strong will is important, so I wish your son all the best!  

  • Wildrumpus67

    Research UU in your area.

    The history of Unitarian Universalism goes back a long way – One acknowledged major historical influence is a 16 th century theologian named Francis David from, of all places, Transylvania!!

    He converted the King and country to follow a religion based on reason and tolerance. Pretty radical for 16th century Europe!

  • Wild Rumpus

    I also recommend UU for kids. I know that I am a bit of an angry atheist and if I raise my child and tell him that all religions are bullshit, then I am as bigoted as those institutions I despise. I agree with the other parents who want to raise their children as critical thinkers. In order to do that, I want to give my child lots to think critically about.

    Every year the young teens at our UU church get up in front of the congregation to talk about their spritual beliefs Most of them are atheists and none of them believe in hell – and all of them are critical thinkers with a healthy tolerance to others beliefs.

  • SJH

    It is my opinion that the points you laid out are consistent with good parentinghowever they are much easier said than done. As an example, I fully intended to get through my children’s younger years without spanking them however, at some point it seemed like the only solution so I did it. I now regret it and hope that you can successfully navigate those waters.

    Regarding the assumptions you make about Christian parents, I would say that you are generalizing and you should be careful not to assume that your parents or the parents of your friends represent all of Christianity and its many denominations.

    1.  I know many parents who do not force their children to go to church and allow them to attend churches of other faith traditions. Obviously I take my young children with me to church and I teach them my beliefs but they are free to believe what they believe.

    2. I do not think that corporal punishment is tied to any faith-based arguments.  I think people spank their children because it is a natural reaction to use pain as a means of forcing your child to do what you want them to do. Isn’t this common in the animal kingdom? I am not saying it is good to spank your child but it does seem natural and not necessarily tied to faith.

    3. Again, I do not think your interpretation of “doubt” is true for many if not most Christians. I and many others are encouraged to doubt and question truth. It is only in an honest analysis can we truly come to believe. As I have sad before, belief without analysis is not belief at all.

    4. As a christian parent I completely agree with your first paragraph here. Your second one, however seems to generalize once again.

    Your beliefs are your own and I do not expect to change them but perhaps the negativity of your memories has less to do with Christianity and more to do with the actions of those that surrounded you when you were young.

  • SJH

    Wouldn’t you expect the same from a Christian family. If they believe that Christianity is healthy and necessary then should they be respected for taking their children to church? Is this considered indoctrination?

  • SJH

    I think if you wanted to learn about religion you should probably try a set of more reliable sources. Parents are often good sources but many times inadequate (as mine were). Books can be good but without proper direction how do you know you are not reading an author that is writing nonsense? TV? I am surprised you included that one. TV is the worst source except for perhaps your other source, friends who learned what they know from TV.
    Before you disregard something it would probably be wise to make sure that you are receiving good information. If something seems false then, in my opinion, it is better to figure out why it is false and be open to the idea that I may be misunderstanding the deeper concept.

  • SJH

    Parents should follow their conscience when raising their children. If you believe that humanism is the way to go then you should probably teach your children that. Having said this however, I think that you should be careful because it sounds like you are indoctrinating your children to believe that religions are “fairy tales” (which, by the way, is disrespectful to those religions). Maybe the better way to frame the discussion is to teach them what we as parents believe and that other people believe differently. If our children want to explore other beliefs then we should encourage them to do so. If we teach them to think critically and with an open mind then they will come to see the truth. Maybe we will even learn something in the process.

  • Carson

    This was an interesting post, because I WAS raised by, if not necessarily atheist, at least areligious parents. I think your resolutions are very good, and they’re pretty close to what my parents did. 
    I was raised in Utah, an extremely Christian(Mormon) society, but my parents didn’t teach me very much except to be open minded. A great example of this is when my parents took us to Church once when I was fairly young, just so we could see what it was like. Also, probably due to the state in which I lived, I did believe in god when I was little, but the importance of god was never really played up that much, so it went out with Santa Claus, no pain, no giant epiphany, I just kind of saw god as more or less the same sort of thing. 

    I think the best thing my parents did was to just answer questions about the world honestly. They weren’t the sort to answer a question with “because that’s the way it is” or “because I said so”. They either gave an explanation, or just said they didn’t know.(with the occasional “we’ll tell you when you’re older :P”) Through this I implicitly learned that if you don’t know how something works, or why it is, you either find a reasonable explanation, or you just accept the fact that you don’t know, and don’t make up stories, because that’s dishonest. 

    I haven’t raised kids myself, but considering how full of Christians my school, and early life was (including my friends), I don’t think you have to try very hard to make your kids atheists. Just don’t try to force their ideas, expose them to everything, (this includes lots of mythology :D) and try to help them be not afraid of not knowing. Try to help them realize that your life doesn’t have to have some greater purpose to be worth living :).

  • Joe Rawlinson

    Why are we saying f*ck? Since Louie CK speaks nothing but truth… 

    Just say Fuck. Please?

  • Exactly! There are ways for children to learn about religion from objective sources, like reference books or documentaries. I think that’s certainly better than sending them to indoctrination sessions in the hopes of giving them some sort of “balance.”

    And speaking of balance, why do parents only talk about bringing their children to church? Just because Christianity is the most popular religion doesn’t mean it should be given more attention than other religions. Are these atheist parents also bringing their children to Hindu temples and Sikh Gurdwaras? Or are they just letting their kids go to church because it’s what they did growing up and it’s what Grandma and Grandpa expect?

  • Joad

    We are Atheists raising a beautiful teenage daughter.  We don’t go to church but our daughter’s friends all do and it became a bit of the forbidden fruit kind of thing when she was in junior high so we relented and let her go with a girlfriend after first ensuring that it was fairly milk toast, no hell fire and damnation sermons. She went a few times and then decided that the Christian based mythology wasn’t as interesting as Greek or Japanese or any of the myriad of other creation stories we used to read to her as bedtime stories. We used universal myth and the human need for stories to explain why religion is so prevalent. We’ve explained that while we base our beliefs on science, the stories she reads were the best version of science available thousands of years ago. A world balanced on many turtles must have made sense at one time or no one would have believed it.  Happily she is getting good grades, wants to be a scientist working with genetics, and agrees that Carl Sagen was a bit of a hottie when he was young.  Our role as parents, in my opinion, is to raise a civilized person who is capable of critical thinking and compassion. If we are successful our child will not succumb to the tactics of snake oil salesman whether they come bearing the elixir of eternal youth or a get rich scheme. 

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