How I’m Raising My Non-Religious Children in a Religious Community January 10, 2017

How I’m Raising My Non-Religious Children in a Religious Community

This is a guest post written by Kayla Cox. She’s a writer, secular activist, and mom trying to bring a little more rational thinking to her corner of the world.


I’m an atheist.

That’s probably obvious, given the nature of this blog, but I try to say it as often as possible. You see, I’m living in rural South Carolina, and sometimes, I’m the only out and proud atheist the people around me meet.

Growing up, though, I was raised to be an independent fundamentalist Baptist. I believed that atheists would burn in hell and that Humanists worshiped human beings. It’s an interesting starting point when I’m interacting with my community. I already know that many of them hold some seriously wrong-headed ideas about me and my beliefs from the get-go because, not so long ago, I held those ideas, too.

In many ways, I’m lucky. I’m able to be open about my atheism when some of those around me can’t. Even my spouse, an Agnostic, can’t be as open for fear that it will cause hostility in his workplace.

The biggest struggle that I face is raising my children in a community that is overwhelmingly religious. According to the Pew Forum’s Religious Landscape Study, 87% of my fellow citizens are absolutely or fairly certain in their belief in a god. 83% of them consider religion very or somewhat important in their lives. (Compare this to the Northeast, where 78% of people are absolutely or fairly certain and 72% consider religion very or somewhat important; or the West, where the numbers are 77% and 72%, respectively.)

In our community, church isn’t just a place where you show up once a week and you’re done. It’s a community focal point. The church offers you a place to socialize, find support, and mark your milestones. It outlines how to live your life, even how to parent.

Not only does it define how you connect to your community but also how the community connects to you. Where you go to church is shorthand for the type of person you are, for what you believe. The absence of church and religion in one’s life is noted, and no one feels that more than children who desperately want to belong.

As a secular family, we do a lot of things to help our children adjust.

1. We are proactive about discussing our lack of belief.

This is really important, and sometimes it’s obscured by our desire to avoid indoctrinating children.

I’m deeply opposed to that because I was indoctrinated. It was psychologically scarring, and I still feel the marks today. When you’re living in a heavily religious community, though, you have to openly and proudly discuss your own belief system with your children because everyone else is telling them that your family is wrong.

I’ll never forget the first time that I sat across the dinner table from my oldest — who was about seven at the time — while he told me with tears in his eyes that his best friend had said we were bad people who were going to Hell because we didn’t go to church and good people went to church.

How do you even respond? You can only explain that church isn’t the best barometer for whether someone is good or bad. Only a person’s actions are. Most of all, though, you tell him that your family is good, that you believe yourself to be good, and that you believe your beliefs are good.

The message you want to send is that there’s nothing wrong with you, even when the full weight of your community is telling your kids differently.

2. We seek out openly non-religious communities.

It’s tiring being secular in a religious area. You need a support network of your own. I once read a piece by a secular community organizer who said it’s easier to find strong secular communities in religious areas because that’s where they are most needed, and I think it’s very true. When I went to the first meet-up for the Freethought Society of the Midlands — I’m no longer affiliated because we moved, but they’re great! — it was like coming home. At the time, I wasn’t out to everyone in my life yet, and that support gave me a chance to build my confidence and flesh out my beliefs.

It also allowed me to connect with non-religious parents. That gave me a circle of people I could chat with about parenting struggles. They never came back at me with, “Pray!” or “Here’s a James Dobson book!” As parents, having a network of other parents you can rely on for advice and support is critical. That’s even more important when you’re a secular parent.

The non-religious communities send a message to our kids that our families aren’t wrong or bad — they’re just different from most of the families we know. It’s far more effective than when you, as a parent, say the same thing.

3. We actively teach about different religions.

This was especially important for our older son. He’s the one that remembers when we went to church, and it was very important to me to safeguard his well-being as we transitioned out. We don’t want to force him to submit to this change. When we first connected with the freethought society in our former city, one of the first questions I asked was for advice on how to ease his transition, and someone suggested two books that I recommend to every secular parent, but especially those in deeply religious areas of our country.

The first was What Do You Believe? by DK Publishing. The book explains a variety of religions and even touches on atheism (although, I have to admit, I was less than impressed with their coverage of us). At the end of the book, my son said, “I don’t know that I believe any of it, but it’s really interesting.” Then he went on to identify for a while as a Christian Buddhist — don’t ask me why! — before finally landing where he is now. If you ask, he’ll say, “I’m thinking about it, and maybe I’ll make up my mind later.”

The second book is Virginia Hamilton‘s In the Beginning: Creation Stories From Around the World. It highlights creation myths from different religious traditions, and it’s neat to see some of the things they have in common (as well as their differences).

Exposing our kids to different religions is our way of inoculating them. We ask questions about what’s similar, what’s different, how we know what might be true, etc. It’s a way of getting them to think critically about religion without us resorting to, “This is all bullshit.”

It’s also important for them to learn how to navigate a religious world, and the first step is understanding the different belief systems that the people around them hold.

4. We build secular holiday traditions.

Every year, our family does a Christmas Eve celebration. Growing up, it usually consisted of finger foods, gag gifts, Christmas pajamas, and a very prominent Bible reading about the Nativity.

2015 was our first time to host and it hit me about a month out that we had no holiday traditions of our own. None. For a moment, it was devastating to realize how disconnected I was from my family background. It really hit hard as it was our first year in our new home, we hadn’t connected with our local secular community yet, and it really seemed to underscore how lonely I was in general.

However, we settled on having a Harry Potter themed evening, with snacks inspired by the books, our Christmas pajamas, and a copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone: The Illustrated Edition. It was a relief in a way to be able to incorporate some of my family traditions but, instead of reading about the birth of Christ, sitting down next to my kids and reading those magical words: “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much…”

Building that tradition really gave us a sense of connection that isn’t always readily available to us as a non-religious family. My sons had heard their friends discussing their holiday traditions, and now, they had one of their own to talk about.

We’ve got other more frequent traditions now, too. We regularly celebrate the birthdays of scientists, authors, and other thinkers (for this, I greatly recommend the For Kids series, which highlights a variety of figures with activities to explore their lives and discoveries). We star-gaze with our family telescope. We’re doing our first Darwin Day this year. Each tradition gives us a chance to reinforce what makes our family unique. In some ways, it’s not unlike what we did in churches, where we memorized Bible stories and verses to connect with our religious community.

5. We pick our battles in our schools.

Our former school district was great about separation of church and state. We had one letter sent home about the Good News Club, and that was it. They weren’t even listed on the school calendar.

Our current school district… not so much.

We get letters about church events regularly sent home in our children’s agendas and homework folders. We’re constantly reminded about the Good News Club. Many of our school’s community outreach efforts take place through local churches. It feels like a constant tension between what they are doing and what we feel keeps the balance for our children.

And then we face legislation that could potentially make it even worse — this site already covered the pre-filed House Bill that would allow teachers to proselytize to public school children. It’s a nightmare given what they are already doing, and we feel powerless because it’s such a small school. It’s not that we shout out, “Hey, we’re the atheist family,” but we’re still likely to be prime suspects should we choose to try to have an organization send letters and intervene on our behalf.

As secular parents, we don’t want our children to feel any backlash for our beliefs, so it’s a constant tug-of-war between our own principles and what we are willing to accept in order to keep them shielded to some extent.

6. We pick our battles in our families, too.

My extended family is religious, although far more progressive than they were when I was growing up. I’m fortunate. Most of them, especially my parents, respect the decision to raise our children without religion.

My grandmother doesn’t feel the same way. She recently tried to convince our youngest son that God created Adam and Eve and that’s where people came from. (He repeatedly replied, “That’s not how that happened.” He’s admittedly pretty confident for a six-year-old.) Because she lives with my mom, though, I have very little recourse as to how to respond. Taking away my children isn’t an option; my family is really tight-knit and it would be damaging to everyone.

So you balance it, and you pick your battles. You set clear boundaries about what is and isn’t okay. Ours boil down to this: It’s okay to talk to our kids about what you believe personally, but it’s not okay to make truth claims. You can’t say, “This is how it is,” but we are okay with you saying, “This is how I believe it is…” It’s similar to how we address our lack of belief. I don’t say to my kids, “There is no heaven.” I say, “I don’t believe there’s a heaven.” There’s a big difference between the two statements.

This is, by nature, a fairly cursory look at some of the challenges presented by raising non-religious children in a highly religious community. We’re constantly adjusting what we do to protect our children while still allowing them the room they need to think and grow. It’s a tension most parents experience, I’d imagine, but it’s exacerbated for us by the religiosity of our community.

At the end of the day, you want to leave your children with something positive, something to hold onto. You want them to grow up knowing that, like Carl Sagan once said, “We are star stuff which has taken its destiny into its own hands,” even when it seems everyone you know is aligned against it.

Every now and then, you overhear a conversation that tells you you’re doing it right. At a recent sleepover at my house, when my older son’s friend remarked that the pancakes were really good and we should all thank God for them, my son responded, “Why would we do that? My mom made them. Thank her.”

Moments like that remind you that all of your efforts will pay off. The kids will be just fine.

(Image via Shutterstock)

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