Ask Richard: When Children Ask an Atheist Teacher About Her Religion March 5, 2012

Ask Richard: When Children Ask an Atheist Teacher About Her Religion

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

Hi Richard,

My wife and I are atheists, and so is my daughter. She is a graduate of a prestigious university and she is now working as a teacher. I think her students range from very young to pre-teen. Last night, she asked me a question: What should she say when her kids ask her “Do you believe in God?” or “What church do you go to?” It’s important to note that in her school there are parents attending almost every class, so she needs an answer that will satisfy adults as well.

The first thing I told her is that in my opinion it is not worth it to jeopardize her career for the sake of being “pure” to her beliefs. It would be wonderful if she could say: “I don’t believe in God,” but I suspect that the kids would be at the least very curious about it, making it an even bigger deal and I’ll bet money the parents would make a stink.

Yet, she and I also do not believe in lying. Especially to the kids (Both of us can really care less about the parents).

The way she is approaching it right now is to divert the question, which is rather easy to do with young kids, attracted as they are to shiny objects, balls and toys. But I am pretty sure that eventually someone is going to put her in a situation where she is going to have to choose between her principles and her job safety.

Are there any elegant answers she can use without lying outright? When I have been caught in similar situations the best I could come up with was: “I was born Catholic”. Not a lie. But not the whole truth.
She doesn’t even have that fallback. The best she could say is: “my family is Catholic”. Technically, that’s true as both my wife and I were baptized in the Church of Rome, but we never had her baptized.

Anyway, I would love to hear your opinion.

Thank you,

Dear Sergio,

All questions asked of you exist in a context. A big part of that context is the relationship between you and the questioner, and the roles that you and they are supposed to be playing when you are interacting. So when someone asks you an intrusive question that is not suitable for your respective roles, you don’t necessarily have to answer it truthfully, and you don’t have to lie either. You can politely decline to answer, explaining briefly that the context makes it an inappropriate question to ask or to answer.

With a friendly tone and using age-appropriate language, your daughter can say all or part of something like this:
“For me, such things are very personal, so I don’t talk about them at school. When I’m here, I want to be the very best teacher I can be for you, so that is all I think about and all I talk about. My job is to teach you things like reading, math, and grammar, and your job is to learn them.

A response such as this is completely honest and is, in my opinion, more appropriate for that context than either discussing her atheism, or lying, or equivocating with something such as, “My family is Catholic.” It reinforces the boundaries that should be very clear between her role as teacher, the kids’ role as students, and the overhearing adults’ role as parents of the students. Hopefully, that will be sufficient to put the matter to rest. If the student or even the parent were to persist with the question, then the teacher still should not give in and answer it truthfully or otherwise. Keeping a polite tone, she should confront the person’s persistence as being out of line.

I’m assuming that your daughter teaches in a public, secular, nonsectarian school. If she were at a parochial school, things would be much dicier. In that situation, her ability to give a both honest and appropriate response would depend on whether or not she had an honest and appropriate understanding with her employer about her role. If she was expected to include teaching religious ideas in her classes as a believer herself, then the response I suggested would probably not be satisfactory.

I agree with your pragmatism that it is not worth it to jeopardize her career for the sake of being “pure” to her beliefs. At the same time, I also agree with your principle of not lying. We have to constantly search for the best balance between protecting our own self interests and preserving our integrity in an often hostile environment. Our solutions are seldom perfect; we have to keep sincerely trying our best.

Yes, it would be wonderful if she could matter-of-factly say “I don’t believe in God” without having to fear unfair repercussions, but American society is not at that level of maturity and fair-mindedness yet, and it will be a while. We try to challenge and change the injustices that we can, but in the meantime we must also survive.

Sometimes rather than taking a stand in an answer to a question, it’s better to take a stand on the asking of the question.


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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  • T-Rex

    answer with; “I’m currently a practicing member of  “none of  your business”. Religion is a personal issue and I intend to keep it that way as it has no bearing on my job description or what I’m teach you.”

  • T-Rex

    “teaching”. Just glanced at your reply after I posted my response Richard. Sound advice. Heh.

  • Armadillo

    As a middle/high school science teacher I get this question a lot, and I give an answer very similar to what Richard suggested.  If they persist, I tell them that I know there is a wide range of beliefs and I don’t want anyone to judge the information I give them based on my own beliefs (or lack thereof as the case may be).  It is very rare that they don’t accept this answer and move on.  If they do persist, then I usually just change the subject somehow – which isn’t all that hard with even high school students.

  • Ryan Booth

    As a middle school and high school history teacher I have followed the same rule of thumb for the past 5 years.  I answer with “I don’t think that makes a difference either way,” followed by a redirect to what we are studying.  

  • Goober

    As a teacher who helps kids with their social problems at school, this could not have come at a better time. Thank you for this article!

  • I have family with different believes.  If the question comes out I usually say” What do you believe?.  When xmas comes around they talk about jesus’ birthday I enjoy the festivals and be quiet.  They know something different, (the oldest is 7).  I feel that it is up to the parents.  When they are older I think I will tell them that some people believe differently  As they get older to understand I will talk about this…If the parents ok that.   

  • It’s all about honest deflection and deflecting in an age appropriate manner.  One fantastic high school science teacher of mine, when asked by our resident super-fundie (we’ll call her Fundette) if said teacher believed in god, said, “As fascinating as I am, perhaps we should give geology a chance?  Honestly, geology has a fantastic personality!”

    Fundette didn’t give up (She was on a *mission* to save the world with Jesus and annoyance).

    “Now you’ve gone and made geology feel like shist!  Taking it for granite!  See if I try to set you up with one of my friends again!” (and then she moved right along while all the rock nerds (like myself) giggled and snorted.)

    Fundette never brought it up again to that particular teacher. 

    I miss that lady something fierce.  She was a great teacher AND introduced me to Monty Python.

  • Anonymous

    I’d like to recommend reading the Sam Harris short book (ebook only) “Lying”, you can read it in about 40 minutes. The basic outcome of this that I recall is that “you should never lie, and there is always a truth worth telling”. Following this, I had an answer along the lines of “Student, please understand that our opinions of each other are shaped by many factors. These factors can include, gender, age, nationality and race. Most such factors we cannot do anything about at all. However, faith is a personal choice and it is something we can choose. When any of us reveals their faith position to another person, it may cause, in my experience, you to have an opinion of that other person that is unwarranted based on the many other factors such as character and values that are much more important in a person. For example – what if i told you I was exactly the same faith as you – would it make you have a better or worse opinion? What if you found out I had a very different faith from you – wolud you feel better or worse? What if you found out I had no faith at all – would you feel better or worse?”. …. ok a very poor attempt at an answer, but I think Sam Harris’ point is that if there is a truth worth telling, it can often be used as a teaching moment (he also uses a variant of the “anne frank/nazis at the door argument which I thought was pretty good).  My issue with Richard’s answer is that it only feels like a deflection when it could actually be a teaching moment (without sacrificing yourself for that moment).

  • TCC

    In my high school English classroom, I make it very clear up front to my students that I don’t discuss 1) my religious beliefs, 2) my political beliefs, or 3) my preference in sports teams, as people can be pretty defensive about any or all of the three. If you draw the line pretty clearly as a personal matter, you’ll generally be okay, from my experience. (Other issues, like saying the Pledge, can prove more difficult – but not impossible – to navigate.)

  • Justin Miyundees

    When I was 12 I asked an adult how much money he made.  He looked me square in the eye and asked “I don’t think that’s any of your business. Do you?”

    My inquiry was naivety in action and his response was mature, straightforward and direct without any hint of rudeness.  That experience stuck with me and, even then, I recall that I really appreciated the cue to good manners.

  • Otto

    I do think this is good advice.  I do talk to my students about my atheism – sort of.  This comes with the caveat that I teach university students, so I’m in a much more privileged position than an elementary or secondary instructor and not at risk of forever warping wee tykes.

    I don’t just dump it on them, though.  I used to take the pretty standard route of refusing to answer any question students asked about my beliefs on anything – religion, politics, etc. – and explain to them that I didn’t want to unduly influence or intimidate them.  But, during a particular course I was teaching, I was requiring my students to write pretty intensely about their own personal beliefs and positions, and one of my students protested that it wasn’t fair that I was making them do what was for many of them a pretty difficult emotional thing, without having to take any of the same risks themselves.

    Well, crap, I thought.  That’s really NOT fair, is it?  Not that I shouldn’t have a position of authority over my students, but it does sort of feel like . . . cheating on my part to make them go through something I won’t do myself.  So my new rule became that, in any classroom setting where I make my students share their beliefs on something, I will share mine with them IF they ask, but do not offer my beliefs unprompted.  So if a student asks about my religion, I’ll tell them, but I don’t get asked very often.  I think it’s worked pretty well so far.

  • Falconer33

    A friend who teaches Human Geography at a local university started skipping over the religion portion after two guys got in a fight over it during a class. You never know when or where stupidity will rear it’s ugly head!

  • Deflection doesn’t have to be a bad thing when it is done openly and honestly. I think your response is the same deflection proposed by Richard, but a bit more thorough and detailed in explaining the reasons behind it.

  • Annie

    As a teacher, I really appreciated this advice. 

    I’ve been asked by students before where I go to church (they all just assume everyone goes somewhere).  I usually respond by saying, “I get paid big bucks to talk with you about science, not religion.”  This often turns the conversation to questions about my salary, which, for some reason, I feel more comfortable diverting the question or saying (in a more polite way), “that is really none of your business.”

  • Ubi Dubium

    I definitely approve of discussing the question itself  instead of answering it.  In a public school setting I would definitely go with “As a teacher, it’s not appropriate for me to discuss that subject with students.”  And if pressed, maybe continuing with “If you are unable to tell from my conduct, then I must be doing it right.  Now can we get back to discussing your math homework?”

    I’ve also disposed of more than one pushy evangelist with “I think religion should be a private matter, and I don’t choose to discuss it.”

  • Anonymous

    I usually try to say something along the lines of my religion being a private affair and then refocus on what it is we were supposed to be discussing in the first place.  I find that helps with both kids and usually parents.  It takes a “special” kind of parent to push for more than that.

  • Ralph Alair

    That’s exactly how I reply to that question.  Sometimes I also add (when the proselytizing mood seizes me):  “If you’re really interested, I need at least 1 hour of your time to explain my position”.  But that’s only when I know it’s safe to share.

  • Daniel

    This is pretty much what I do (7th grade teacher).  With high schoolers, I have occasionally also used the, “If you’re really interested, you can talk to me outside of school hours”.  I estimate that about 2 kids per year take me up on that offer.  

  • Anonymous

    How ’bout:  “I probably share many beliefs with your parents.  But because not everybody in our class shares the same beliefs, it would be better to talk with your parents about those questions.”  

  • TCC

    The main problem with this response is that the first sentence is way too sarcastic for most teachers to get away with, especially when the question is sincere (which I would gather it generally is). There are other, better ways to note that your beliefs are genuinely none of your students’ business.

  • TCC

    And if pressed, maybe continuing with “If you are unable to tell from my conduct, then I must be doing it right.  Now can we get back to discussing your math homework?”

    I’m going to remember the first part of this. That’s excellent.

  • I am asked this a lot as a youth worker, but I can tell the truth without getting fired. I vary my answer from “I’m not christian” to “I’m not religious” to “I’m an athiest” to “I don’t believe in anything magical” depending on what seems appropriate.

    I think it is important for kids to realise someone they know and like/resect/have an established relationship with (delete as appropriate) is an atheist – so long as it is safe

  • The sad thing is that there are likely to be students who are trying to make some sort of sense out of the nonsense they are being fed by their family and church.  They may turn to their teacher for some guidance with this sort of simple questioning.  Unfortunately, free-thinking teacher’s hands are tied and can’t offer the insight that student’s deserve.

  • Ubi Dubium

    Yes, that’s a shame, but if the same standard can help us stop ultra-religious teachers from proselytizing, it’s a worthwhile trade-off.

    And although a teacher should not tell a student “what to think” about religion, we can all help kids by giving them the tools they need for “how to think”.  A kid who understands confirmation bias hasn’t been indoctrinated to believe or disbelieve anything in particular, but they certainly have a better chance of seeing through all the rubbish. 

  • Flesheras

    I really like this. I teach 7th grade and lately, I have been sticking with, “that’s one of those things that I choose to keep between myself and my family… Now back to math.” I think I’m going to switch.

  • Reasongal

     In the small town where I taught, that  question was frequent and was meant to identify one with a particular “home church,” based on the assumption that everyone in _________________ goes to church.  It is almost unheard of that one is not a member of some church.  Any indication otherwise would be a green flag to “save” that teacher at the least, or question their morals at most.  Sucked.

  • Annie

    You must not live in the US!  I’m so glad to learn that there are some places on this planet where people can be honest and not worry about getting fired (even though it is illegal here).  Most of the people I work with (and many of the parents whose children I teach) know I am an atheist.  It’s not a big secret, but I also don’t go around telling everyone.  I am sure there would be a few people who would be surprised, some who would be shocked, and a very small percent that it would change their opinion of me.  If, however, I started talking to their kids about it, I think that would be another ball game.  I like how you answer openly and honestly. 

     I am now really curious  to know what responses Christian, Jewish, Muslim teachers would give.  I would love for the above question to Ask Richard to be posed to a Christian blog, but exchange the word “Christian” for “Atheist”.

  • Anonymous

    I would say that teachers are not supposed to discuss their religion in class because there are students who may believe something different.  Then leave it at that.  

  • banana slug

    Whether or not there are students who believe something different is completely irrelevant.  What really matters is the fact that it has nothing to do with the subject being taught.

  • Anonymous

    It’s a white lie so it wouldn’t matter if it is the best answer.   I think telling the kids it has nothing to do with what is being taught would tend silence many other kinds of questions.    Part of the purpose of my particular white lie is to leave them wondering.   

  • Mike Cowie

    When I was at Primary School in New Zealand, some of the teachers were strongly christian, I remember one teacher who was asked what her favourite book was, and she said “the bible.” Bear in mind that religion doesn’t play much part in the life of the average New Zealander, so all of us 9 year olds were quite surprised to hear such a blunt answer.

    We had a religious education class which involved a nice old lady or man from a local church coming in with exercise books to work us through the tamest elements of christianity. They were discontinued in 2002, and nobody really missed them.

    When I was 10, we had a teacher who were admired greatly. He was the coolest teacher ever. He was ever so polite to the religous education teacher who came in once a week to proselytize to us. One day, after the prosselythising was over, somebody asked him a question regarding the content of the previous lesson, and our teacher said that he didn’t believe in god. It was a big surprise, because the RE teachers had instilled in us successfully enough the value that religion is required to be a good person- but our teacher was so obviously a good person even though he did not believe in god.

    This event had a profound impact on me, I was very much inclined towards disbelief therefafter.

    Now, the place of religion in the public sphere is not a controversial issue in New Zealand. The leaders of most political parties are not religous and overt religiosity is widely frowned upon. Nobody was going to call up the board of trustees or write to a local paper in protest at the atheist teacher. So his action was appropriate. I understand that the situation in many other parts of the world is much more hairy. But just think about the prodound influence that a moment like this can have on a child. It doesn’t have to make them an atheist. It might just open their mind a little, make them more tolerant of different beliefs.

  • edwige

    This discussion is appalling.  How are kids to learn?  How is society to move ahead?  If my students ask, I tell them.  I don’t belong to a church.  I don’t believe.  And then we move on.  If people don’t stand up for what they believe then where are we?  If you teach in a public school there should be no repercussions.  As long as you are not proselytizing.  

  • I can respect Richard’s answer, indeed it would be a proper answer for most professionals. However…

    Teachers are employed not only to teach math, science, arts etc, but to help students analyse their surroundings, frame questions and use their critical thinking skills. The most memorable English classes I ever experienced were not based on grammar – they were conversations, respectful dialogue on race, gender, power dynamics and relationships between subjects and objects.

    A student that frames the question “What religion are you?” is making an implicit normative statement that all people are categorized into a religion. This gives the teacher the opportunity to teach the student(s) about (1) why is it important (2) which powers make that important (3) what does it matter if someone is without faith, a Mormon, Hindu, Muslima etc. 

    I think teachers call this a “teachable moment”.
     I think the writer should get her daughter to speak to senior teachers or academics that are atheists. While doing a Bachelor of Education, many classes focus on how innocent questions can be transformed to give students a chance to have some insight about society, life, norms and ethics. THIS is one of those moments.

  • Eivind Kjorstad

    “My family is catholic” is a lie. It’s a lie of the worst sort, where the person lying tells themselves that “technically they’re telling the truth”, but nevertheless the sentence is intended to mislead, leading the asker to believe “catholic” when the honest answer is “atheist”.

    There’s only two answers: Either say you’d rather not say, you consider the topic private/out-of-topic for the class or else, tell the truth. If the word “atheist” feels super-scary you could try going with “I’m not in any church”, which is true, and not misleading.

  • Anonymous

    I really can’t believe this is even an issue. I live in the UK where religion has no bearing on any part of my life. Ever. I don’t even think I know any religious people anymore now I’m at University. Even our Christian Union is ridiculed rather openly on campus…

    It makes me really sad when I read stories like this in a civilized, western liberal country. What the hell is wrong with America?!

    I think all the advice above is good though. It’s just depressing that there needs to be a deflection or cover story at all.

  • I’ve taught high school English for nearly twenty years, and I simply say it’s not my place as a teacher to discuss my personal views on religion.  I do this not because I’m worried about my job, but because I wish to remain accessible to all my students, regardless of their beliefs.

    If I tell them I’m an atheist, there’s a good chance that a portion of my classes will shut down and no longer accept my teaching as readily.  I felt and behaved the same way when I was theistic.That isn’t to say that I don’t take stands for rationality.  I very forthrightly defend separation of church and state and the fact that creationism has no place in the science classroom, but those are stances that one can and should take whether theistic or atheistic.

  • LutherW

     Sounds more like a lie because it is misleading.

  • A response such as this is completely honest and is, in my opinion, more appropriate for that context than either discussing her atheism, or lying, or equivocating with something such as, “My family is Catholic.” It reinforces the boundaries that should be very clear between her role as teacher, the kids’ role as students, and the overhearing adults’ role as parents of the students. 

    I disagree with Richard (as I often do), because the fact is that it is considered perfectly acceptable to answer this question in a culturally conforming way, and by telling atheists they should take a stand by not answering the question, what you’re actually doing is reinforcing the problem.  

    Now, to be clear, I don’t think the teacher in question is compelled to answer honestly.  We don’t all have to be martyrs.  But I strongly disagree with Richard that she is compelled to avoid the question.  Richard implies that if she chose to answer it openly and honestly, that would be the less principled thing to do?  I simply cannot agree to that.

    We don’t all have to be Rosa Parks, but when you tell me the more principled stance is to just not ride the bus at all… I can’t swallow that.

  • Some people home-school their kids. I’ve often been tempted to tell people that I home-church my kids and if people pry just tell them that my home-churching is private and leave it at that.

    Of course my “home churching” consists of occasionally bringing up the fact that different societies throughout history have believed all sorts of things and the society that we live in believes just another man-made-up story.

  • Caitlin Roufa

    I’m a teacher in the US… I’ve taught elementary, middle school, and high school students and have been asked this question many times. I respond with, “It would be inappropriate for me to discuss my personal beliefs in class.” Then I usually get asked why, so we sometimes get into a discussion about the question depending on the class, current topic, and age group.

  • Why should an Atheist have to hide their belief and not say “No” when a Christan can say “Yes” and it is acceptable???

    As a teacher, you don’t teach religion,  but if a kid asks a simple yes/no answer, any not answer them so they understand people are different.

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