How Do You Tell Your Parents You Believe in God? June 18, 2012

How Do You Tell Your Parents You Believe in God?

This week’s PostSecret was Father’s Day themed, and I thought I misread this one at first:

How do I tell my Dad I believe in God?

I guess this isn’t a thing I’ve put much thought into — a theist kid coming out to non-believing parents, but I am sure it happens.

If I’m being completely honest, I am not sure how I would react if I had a kid (I don’t) who came to me and told me that she had found Jesus.  Of course, I’d like to think I would be supportive of the life my son or daughter chose to live, but it does make me wonder if I actually would in practice.

Has this happened to any readers?  Has anyone raised kids in a secular home and they chose the church?  How did you react?

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  • Brendan

    I’d feel bad something horrible happened to them that would make them feel the need to believe in invisible friends. But Id probably wait till they got out of their diapers before I took it too seriously.

  • Strange Mike

    I have kids, and I plan to take them to a UU church so they can learn about different religions. But I also play the “Is this real?” game with my son (who’s old enough to have that conversation) to help prime his critical thinking skills. If he told me one day that he found Jesus, I’d ask some probing questions but I’d also try to respect his ability to think through his decision.

  • Rachel_Pridgen

    This actually has happened a couple of times in my freethought group.  We’re in a small town in the deep South.  It’s really rough to be a kid and not believe, here.  

  • ortcutt

    If my child said that he believes there is a god, I would say the same thing I would say to anyone else.  “What is your evidence for that claim?”

  • Ozric

    A couple of years ago my niece lost her mother (my sister) to cancer and her father was a deadbeat that has never really been a part of her life. After her mother died she became a believer. I guess she just wanted to believe that her mother still existed if only in spirit. 

    Until this everyone in my family had been active non-believers or just apathetic about religion in general.My mother adopted her after my sister died and she has allowed my niece to attend church on her own. So the family neither endorses or condemns her beliefs at this point. It’s a difficult situation since she seems to find some solace in her new beliefs. So at this point no one actively speaks out against it to spare her feelings. I hope that some day she will find her way back to reason. 

  • DeepEddy

    My cousin became a born-again youth minister much to the shock of his secular Jewish mother.

  • I would stone him to death and threaten him with eternal torture…..
    Oh, wait…. I thought you were asking what I would do if I were a devout believer and my kid came out as an atheist.

    Now that I understand the actual question…
    hmmm, I guess I would buy him a beer (once old enough) and ask to have a nice chat about it.

    See the difference?

  • Kevin_Of_Bangor

    I have told my daughter who is 13 more than once I could care less if she becomes a bible thumping Christian if that is the choice she wants to make. My love for my daughter is unconditional and nothing she ever does or say will ever change that.

  • Daniel Schealler

    If it were my kid, I’d like to think I’d be supportive too. But it might take a while to get around to getting over the notion that it was some kind of elaborate prank.

    Dad… I… I believe in God.

    Heh, yeah. Good one pup.

    No, seriously. Dad. I do.

    I think I feel a Tui ad coming on. You should call them, I hear you go into a draw for prizes.

    Dad! You’re not listening.

    Can I get a color check on this pot and that kettle, please?


    Yes darling?

    I’m all ears.

    *stomps foot* You’re impossible.

    Only prior to selection from the pool of alternatives. After selection you-

    *harumph* You know that’s not what I meant! I’m gelling Mum!

    Good idea sweetie. I know how much your mother looks forward to a good chat on the topic of my many, many flaws.

    I’m either going to be a brilliant father or a really, really bad one. 😛

  • Same here.  Maybe not the nicest response, but “why?” is a sensible response, just like any other non-evidence-based claim a kid could make.

    I’d like to think I’d be training them from an early age.

    “Dad, I think there’s a monster under my bed.”

    “What evidence do you have for thinking that?”

  • Annie

    I’m not going to lie: I’d be heartbroken.  Yes, of course I would still love my daughter, but I would also feel that I failed as a parent in teaching her the critical thinking skills that are so important to be a scientifically literate person in today’s world. 

    Incidentally, it was my daughter who sparked my involvement in the atheist movement, world, whatever you’d like to call it.  My husband and I were both non-religious, but it wasn’t until our daughter was 5 and announced that the idea of a god controlling what happens on Earth is ridiculous that I started to become more involved.  At 13, she is very involved too, and a much more vocal atheist than I am. 

  • Ronlawhouston

    Why MUST you tell them?  WTF – is it that big of a deal?  Do you tell them that you don’t believe in the tooth fairy?

  • I would be completely supportive. I have many Christian friends and very close Christian family members. They are happy and good people. Sure, they believe things I wish they wouldn’t like anti-gay, pro-life and the like. 

    My 5 year old son went to preschool at my Sister’s church, and he just got done with his second year of “Vacation Bible School”… yah I know… rearrange those three words any way you like and it’s still a triple oxymoron. Amazing.

    If you do a good job raising your children, then one of the values you instill in them is critical thinking. That may falter at the church door some day, but it doesn’t mean that they can’t be good happy individuals that use Reason and Critical Thinking skills in the rest of their doings.

  • I’ve always wondered how my dad would react if he were still alive and found out I was an atheist. I remember when my older siblings were being rebellious, he would actually mention that if this were Old Testament times, he would have the right to stone them.
    I would probably have been disowned. Three of my other siblings were disowned for smoking pot or dating, so yeah.
    With my mom, she would probably just cry if I told her.

  • Honestly, I would be  dissapointed. I would had raised him better than that. Probably I would ask him/her why and then giv him a helmet in case so he/she doesn’t hit his/her head against something.

  • MyScienceCanBeatUpYourGod

    Religion is “lifestyle choice” based on mythology! You’d certainly intervene if a kid made a “lifestyle choice” to stop washing because he rejected germ theory, or a “lifestyle choice” to rob a bank unarmed because he believed he was bulletproof.

    In the end, the only thing you can arm your kid with is information and ability to think critically. Why condone misinformation and non-critical thinking?

  • It was my kids too.  I was pretty much just “non-religious” until my daughters started getting harassed by their peers, (and sometimes teachers) about their lack of religion.  I think that, plus good internet access, is what got me motivated.

  • Annie

    My daughter was harassed by classmates too, when she was younger.  Now, as a middle schooler, it is more teachers.  I am shocked (and delighted) by the number of her friends that identify as atheists… but I think she seeks them out.  It’s really amazing to watch them find their way… and to learn from them in the process. 

  • Gus Snarp

    Define supportive. . .

    I love my kids no matter what, and it wouldn’t change our relationship from my point of view, but I’d certainly challenge them on it and have a good chat. If they were still under 18 or so I’d expect them to try many different churches and be able to actually explain the teachings of the one they chose and why they chose it over the others.

  • I sure hope that would be my reaction.  And I know I’d love him- nothing could change that.  But I do think it would tough for me to not fall into the negotiation trap.

  • Sarainmontana

    So, this is actually sort of interesting to me, as I was in this situation once as the child of secular parents. I went through an unfortunate detour into religion (of a evangelical Christian variety) that lasted most of my teenage years. My older sister did as well (and in fact she was the one who brought the religion to me); I eventually found my way back to atheism, my sister is still a theist as far as I know.

    How did my parents react? Well, I think they were in a bit of a bind. You can’t exactly force belief out of someone else’s head, even your own kid. The whole religion thing started when my sister started attending church services and a youth group with her best friend. Banning her from attending would have come across as heavy handed, so they didn’t do that. Mostly they just continued to express the reasons behind their own lack of belief.

    We had heated arguments about it at times, with my sister and I convinced we were right and convinced we could bring our parents around and “save” them. In retrospect, I find it rather embarrassing. They stood their ground on the issue and weren’t afraid to refer to things like “the Christian myth.” I remember my mom sometimes expressing the thought that they had been so lenient as parents that we “rebelled” by getting religion. I didn’t begin believing in Christianity to rebel (I did have other reasons at the time) and that infuriated me as well.

    I feel bad about the way we were so obnoxious on the religion front. My parents endured a great deal of pressure from my grandparents about religion. They (understandably) resented the pressure they got from one direction that suddenly started coming from the other direction as well. My mom still resents it, and gets upset that my sister is still enmeshed in the religion and is raising her own children in religion.

    I wish I had not wasted so many years believing in such a myth, and trying to force my life to fit within the dictates of that myth. I wish I had more appreciated the secular upbringing my parents provided me. I mean, here I was, living in a home where I didn’t have to waste Sunday morning in church…and I was making myself go to church.

    My mom once commented that perhaps they should have done more to educate us about different religions when we were younger, so we would have been less susceptible to Christianity. Perhaps even attending a Unitarian-Universalist congregation would have helped.

    The good news is, everything they said about religion and their reasons for unbelief DID sink in. It took a while for me to walk away from religion, but eventually I did. On my own with no pressure.

  • It’s hard to imagine a world where atheists are more likely to shun their newly-theistic children, than theist parents are to shun their newly-atheistic children.

  • Mehcakes

    Maybe it is a bit easier with the very young children…  But one of my children believes in a god.  She’s only eight.  We had a discussion just this evening about the issue.  I told her that I would not be angry or disappointed if she decided to follow a religion.  She admitted to believing in god, though she did specify that it was a god of no religion she knew of.  

    I can relate entirely to a progression of beliefs.  It was a very comforting thing to believe in god when I was younger.  I was raised as a Christian, and it took years of  guilt and shame, and feeling very alone before I came to my current beliefs.  So, she’ll probably grow out of it.  And if she doesn’t?  Oh well, she’s a wonderful person anyway.  

  • I would be respectful and loving, unless my kid had been an atheist blogger and turned Catholic. Then I’d be a jerk about it.

  • Guest

    Honestly, if it were my kid I’d be downright embarrassed. I like to think I’d try to be understanding about it, but… I wouldn’t handle it well.

  • Darric

     I really don’t get this unconditional love thing. What is it about having a biological connection and responsibility of well-being (until the age of 18), that makes people think they should have unconditional feelings for their children.

    Why is it that unconditional love is promoted and not scorned, especially amongst atheists?

    We talk about logic and reason but as soon as children are brought up we treat them as little miracles who can do no wrong.

    Would you really love your child if they decided to rape, torture and murder a person? Because if you did, I question your sanity.

  • I would want him incarcerated  so he could not hurt anyone else, but I wouldn’t want him to suffer.

    I might even support his death (doubtful since I’m not big on the death penalty in general) but still love him.

    I don’t think it’s biological.  I think it’s a choice you make to be responsible for someone else.  I suspect adoptive parents do it, and not all biological parents do.  It may not be conscious and outright, but once you’ve made it, you’ve made it.

  • I think the loving your child unconditionally is not so much you love every little thing your child does, but no matter what your child does, you will love some piece of him/her no matter how deeply its buried in them.

  • Marco Conti

    It hasn’t happened to me specifically, but for a time my daughter started frequenting a church with her friends. Since we were not talking much in that period (and she was already a young adult) I did wonder.

    Previously when she was younger, I let her go to church and mass with the usual neighbor busybody and the off relative, but it didn’t stick. If anything the local priest did his best to make sure she would grow up an atheist, those guys need lessons in basic marketing. 

    It turned out that she was going to the church building but she was not tempted to join up. Of course, my first reaction was, like all parents “where did I go wrong?”. But it would not cross my mind to impose my paternal authority to force her in or out of religion or any specific belief. Growing up I only made sure I was there to answer questions but for the most part I left her alone.

    I would draw the line if I saw her joining a cult or even a mainstream fundamentalist sect. She would need to make a very strong case for herself for me not to react and try to dissuade her. Again, I would want to be sure she hadn’t been brain washed, but beyond that I would just make sure to let her know where I stand and I would tell her not to preach to me. 

  • articulett

    I’d probably say– I believed in god when I was your age too.  So did most of my friends.  So I understand.  (I just hope you don’t believe in a god that is going to punish those that don’t believe in him./her/it/them.)

  • articulett

     Or “Great– which one?” (And then I’d hope it was a cool one Mazu).

  • articulett

    I don’t think there is anything my kid could do that caused me to stop loving them. How can you “unlove” your kid.

  • articulett

    Just remember what you were like at your kids age– that always helps.  And remember that there are lots of people who once had very strong beliefs in god that no longer believe.  There’s hope for even a kid who becomes a preacher (egads) as the clergy project shows.

  • articulett

    I’d consider it a phase– like being into astrology.

  • ortcutt

     What if your child is Anders Behring Breivik or Osama Bin Laden?

  • ortcutt

     I’ve never understood why asking for the evidential basis of a belief is considered not a “nice response”.   People who don’t have a good answer can find it irritating, but there is nothing unkind in the question.

  • articulett

    I suspect their mothers still love them (if they are alive). Scott Peterson’s mother loved him though he was clearly a sociopath. I think that a mother would wonder how she messed up if her kid grew up to be a sociopath– did you ever see The Bad Seed?  I’d probably blame myself or wonder if it might have something that happened during pregnancy or an injury to the head.

  • Bob

    Unconditionally loving someone does not mean you let them get away with whatever they want. A parent could condemn their child actions and support their imprisonment for the good of society yet still love them. 

  • Tainda

    Shaming a kid because they believe in a god is just as bad as the other side shaming a kid because they don’t believe in a god.

    Everyone should have the right to believe or not no matter how misguided it is.

    With that said, if my daughter became an extremist of any kind, we would have a serious discussion.

  • Stev84

    I’d hope s/he wouldn’t be a bible thumping fundamentalist. That would indeed be a disappointment. Some sort of liberal Christian I could easily live with

  • Kevin_Of_Bangor

    Darric people below pretty much answered the question. If my daughter was to rape, torture or murder my love for her would not simply go away. I also don’t treat my daughter as a little miracle because she is not. She is just another human on this little blue dot we call earth.

  • Kahomono

    Unless I missed it, none of the comments to this point have noted the fact that the presumptive speaker is a baby, pretty obviously less than a year old.

    This is an attack on the fact that children are born as atheists, and need to learn to believe in something from their environment.

  • Gringa

     Have you reported the harassment by teachers?  That sounds unethical and illegal to me. 

  • Skwiver

    My 30-ish daughter is a fundamentalist christian, since about age 16.  She knows what I think, I know what she thinks, and we respect each other’s decisions.  What else?

  • Annie

    I’m sorry.  I should have assigned a different verb to the teachers… sloppy late-night writing on my part.  Nothing that I would term as  harassment from the teachers, but more having teachers that think their religious views are shared by all of their students.  And yes, it has been discussed with the teachers, and in one case, reported to the administrator.

  • Wilsongirl72

    I’ve struggled with this issue as well, with my 7 year old son.  I have 3 boys, and they are 20, 17, and 7.  My oldest sons were taught to be their own leader in life and to believe what was in their hearts and minds.  To learn, and educate themselves further than what I have already taught them.  Which they are atheist.  My youngest son however, is struggling.  Because he does attend the YMCA day camps during the summer and they do attend Vacation Bible School through the Y.  He is exposed to a lot of wonderful companionship among peers, but on the other hand he is being exposed to indoctrination, which I am against.  Being in an area where we have no other alternative than to send him to the Y for the time we (my husband and I) are at work, I feel very frustrated.  I spoke with my youngest son just the other day about his Papa (my father), that died when I was still pregnant with him.  He says, “Papa is in heaven with god, and he and god are in your heart”.  Which I told him to look at me smile, and then proceeded to tell him that yes, Papa is in all of our hearts, and you can even see him when I smile because we share the same smile.  And I told him to look in the mirror because they share the same cheeks.  He then tried to argue with me, saying that god is real and so is heaven.  Even before I said anything else.  So being very patient, I asked him who told him this and if god was real, where is he?  Have you seen him?  Normal questions.  I then talked about dinosaurs etc.  Trying to be understanding and educating at the same time.  But he wasn’t budging.  I also have to deal with my mother who is very much a believer, and I have yet to “come out” to her.  Because it would just cause unneeded stresses.  (that is a whole other story).  So I respect others, and I listen and I am patient, but where do I start to really throw it out there?  I mean, being an atheist, I am finally at peace in life and with myself.  And it is SO frustrating and SO stressful being in the South, with so much pigheaded BS to deal with everyday.  If I respect others’ beliefs, why cannot others respect my beliefs?  I have quite a few friends that do and I am fortunate for this.  But with my youngest it isn’t that way.  I feel like I am in a rock and a hard place on this one.  

  • Gringa

     Glad to hear that 🙂

  • “WHERE did I go WRONG???”
    That was the first reaction. But it seems that it was just a phase and now she, if not Atheist, is at least atheist-leaning.

  • Gus Snarp

    Hadn’t really thought of that. The picture could just be a picture they chose, without that intent. But you could well be right, which makes this downright silly and insulting. Makes me wonder which it is.

  • So funny, and so true.  My wife became an agnostic about 8 years ago.  I deconverted last year (after 26 fundy years.)  My 11 year old son has obviously been listening to the many detailed and lengthy discussions my wife and I have had since I found my way out of the delusion.  He’s asked a few questions, but we’ve never delved too deep into the topic one-on-one yet. 

    A few weeks ago he had one of his best friends here for an overnighter.  They were playing in the loft which is outside my home office.  This little fella (great kid) is from a family of dedicated evangelicals.  His grandfather is a pastor, etc.  Anyway, he made said something to my son about god and Jesus, I don’t remember what. 

    My son’s answer:  “Well, we don’t believe all that stuff.  I mean, how do you know there’s even a god?  Have you seen him?”

    Being kids, they decided to fire up the Wii instead 🙂

    The kids are listening, and challenging their conclusions is good medicine 😉

  • Thegoodman

    All of this “respect their views” and stuff is not something I feel like I could do in this situation. I would react the same way as if they told me “I really love doing heroin” or “I plan on going to Haiti to have unprotected sex with prostitutes”.

    I would provide my child with a boat load of evidence on how and why every religion is full of holes. I would do the same for the corruption in organized religion. I would also challenge them on why and how they have their beliefs and explain to them the importance of believing things for a reason. I would also show them how often and how bad religions hurt individuals, societies, and ultimately our planet.

    This is honestly one of my biggest fears of raising a child in the US (which I will do soon enough).

  • T-Rex

    If one of my kids told me they believed in a gawd first thing I’d do is check them for head trauma and/or intoxication. If they showed no signs of either, I’d have them admitted to the nearest psychiatric hospital so they could be held for observation. You should never take any chances with mental ilnesses or brain injuries. 

  • The counter example that occurred to me was Clifford Olson.  From prison, he wrote letters to the families of his victims (boys 9-18), describing in detail how he had tortured them.  Even behind bars, he continued to hurt people.

  • James

    Don’t be embarrassed. You obviously took your own path and are a better person for having questioned your beliefs. I once believed that communism was the answer to all the problems our capitalistic, free-market world faced. I really didn’t even understand it at its core. Communism, as has been pointed out by thinkers greater than I, is nothing more than a rip off of the messiah narrative, being just as essentialist in nature.

    I even used to browse metaphysical stores extensively looking for meaning and guidance in their books on hocus pocus (also in my teenage years.) Kids take all sorts of crazy paths, sometimes to spite their parents and sometimes because they are asking deeper questions and want to find meaning.

    I would venture to say that a real atheist isn’t just someone who lacks belief in God. It is a person who has a whole list of good reasons for not believing. So having come around to your current belief is more admirable than just accepting what your parents told you growing up, however loving and caring they were.

  • LesleAlvarado

    My children will occasionally tell me, “Mom, I’m sorry, but I believe in God.”  I’ll ask why, and they never have a good answer.   Other times they’ll admit, they don’t have any idea, but it doesn’t make sense.  I think this is normal, they are still very young (all under 13). 

    I’m not worried about it though, because I believe as they grow older they will realize how illogical the whole concept is.  And I suspect their intermittent belief is because it seems like all the other kids believe and they want to fit in.  Also, very normal. 

    I draw the line at them actually going to church with their friends though…I refuse to allow my kids to be subjected to that nonsense up close and personal.

    If as adults they approach me and tell me they they believe…I would definitely be disappointed, but I can’t imagine not loving them or disowning them.  That’s just not who I am. 

  • James

     I agree. Depending on the age/development of the child I think the dialogue needs to be more about acknowledging their fear of monsters or belief in fairies and then asking some more gentle questions to get them thinking about their rationale. Saying, “explain your rationale” is going to be lost on the kid because he/she will just say “because I do.” I don’t think a young kid should have to deal with huge questions like “Is there a God?” until they are ready. I guess a good parent would be able to draw the line between make believe for fun and the existence of God. 

  • kagekiri

    Yeah…my parents are fundies, so they’d probably just snipe at me constantly, talk about how ungrateful I am, ask if they can pray with me, blame all the “bad” things I did on my atheism, accuse me of being atheist because I want to sin, expect me to “respect” their beliefs and get dragged to church, etc.

    And I say this from second-hand experience, as I’m closeted, but my brother is pretty openly atheistic and I’ve seen how they treat him. Not quite stoning, but they do threaten disowning him and not supporting him over religious arguments at times.

  • Rachel_Pridgen

    You *are* between a rock and a hard place.  No escaping that.  I’m sorry for your lack of options.  I totally understand.  You know this because you have older boys as well, but you just need to remind yourself that he’s seven.  He really doesn’t understand much of anything right now.  Make sure he gets good science and critical thinking training even if you have to do it yourself after school.  The rest will come in the next 5-7 years as he starts questioning everything.  🙂

  • Tria MacLeod

    I have two children, the younger boy is firmly in the rationalist group.  The elder daughter always gets upset when he and I talk about how harmful or idiotic religion is.  She keeps insisting ‘you can’t know’ and gets upset when I mock creationists.  She has gone to church a few times with her friends and I think that’s the true crux of the situation.  She is more prone to want to ‘fit in’ with her peers, and her boyfriend of nearly 2 years has already told her that if they would get married she would have to convert to Catholicism, which is actually pretty funny as he doesn’t believe 2/3 of it himself but it is what his parents expect.     

    I have the feeling if she does ever convert she’s going to be one of those ‘in name only’ religious sorts, more to fit in with her peers than for any actual belief in a deity. 

  • Wilsongirl72

    You know what I see a lot and have come to realize?  The last sentence that you wrote…  “more to fit in with her peers that for any actual belief in a deity”.  I think that is more true for most people than it is an actual belief.  Some people use religion as a crutch to become sober, be without “sins” or have some sense of common bond with others to cope or deal with their problems.  I think it’s the wrong way to go about it, but to each his own.  And sometimes I say,whatever makes you good!  And then I think there are people out there that use religion for their own peer acceptance.  Then there is that fear factor thrown in there.  I was a victim of this.  I thought for sure something bad would happen or I would most certainly jinx my life or something crazy to that effect.  I was indoctrinated growing up, and had so many churches, preachers, crazy church people and several types of religions and “supernatural” BS shoved in my face all through my childhood and young adulthood.   But after reading, learning and understanding, and in all honesty?  Letting my guard down and having to stop being so pig-headed!!!  I came to realize what I was missing out on.  It wasn’t the acceptance of my other religious peers, it wasn’t the common bond that so many share in this world.  It was having peace within myself and my heart.  Learning to accept that this is MY life, I am responsible for it, and I am completely and solely a human being of choice and to live as though you can go on forever beyond the clouds is completely insane.  I want to live my life and fulfill what I can and be a positive influence on others to do the same.  I am finally at peace.  And it feels so good.  

  • Michael Appleman

    What strikes me most about that photo is that it is a photo of an infant. An infant doesn’t even understand basic concepts such as object permanence let alone religion. Using a baby like that is just another intelligence insulting cheap shot religious people use because they don’t have a retort with any real substance.

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