Saturday, July 6, 2013

How an Atheist Discusses Religion with their Children

atheist parenting atheist parent atheist parent
I am certain that one of the most-Googled questions by atheist parents is How to discuss religion with my children as an atheist or skeptic. I used to do it, look online for atheist parenting ideas, though the internet was quite sketchy fifteen years ago! I love it that the internet is around making it possible for us to share our questions and knowledge and ideas so freely. A generation ago when lifestyles and points of view were far more private, isolated, and insulated freethinking parents couldn't find each other; I would have felt very alone in my doubt, doubtful of my doubt, fearful of my doubt.

How interesting, how exciting that this generation of parents is the first generation in the history of humankind to have such resources readily available to them! We can get to know intimate details about millions of strangers and how they live their lives, how they make decisions, what they purchase, what they believe, how they solve problems, what they struggle with... It is amazing! And fortunate!

So what Does an atheist parent teach their child about religion?
For all readers who are here, reading and researching this all-important role of being a atheist parent, remember this, raising a child is a process. It starts before your child is born and it continues as long as you live. You will do fine. Start today and keep learning. There is time.
Because our American culture is so very saturated in Christianity, religiosity becomes an issue very early in a child's life. I remember my four-year-old daughter pointing out to me religious references in the world around her, a world that I paid close and deliberate attention to! "Did you hear that, Momma? In God we trust." "Did you hear, Momma, One nation under God." 

As a young parent it clutched at my heart. It helped to know, to remind myself, that she also vehemently believed in fairies, Santa, and magic. Those early years, among other things, are the years of magical thinking, so our children are particularly prone to embracing unrealistic connections between cause and effect, magical ideas and illogical connections. (Think Piaget's pre-operational stages of cognitive development, for one.)
Threes and Fours are more likely to invent monsters in the closet.  Momma got sick because I was naughty. Fairies live at the bottom of the garden. That thing happened because I thought about it. My toys are alive. Something I do make magical things happen.

Without being a complete buzz kill, how do we instill critical thinking into the young minds of our beloved children so that they are able to, when the time comes, separate religion from the rest of the pack of ideas while still encourage imagination and pretend and fun?
Well, Momma and Daddy, begin by educating yourself on normal childhood cognitive development. When you begin to understand the role that imagination actually plays in a development of understanding reality, you will feel confident in encouraging it! You will understand that later years come (ages 7-11) when a child's thinking becomes very concrete and far more unwilling to accept pretend explanations. These are the years when rules are rules, things are black and white, and your child will be more likely to want to understand how the magic trick was possible. These are the years when your child will be very interested in pursuing and understanding principles of science and math.
During those toddler and preschool years you will be reading many many many books to your child. Read some nonfiction. Read tons of myth stories from other cultures as well as myth stories from the local majority religion. Taken all together as pretend, the religion stories of the world will be inseparable from mythology from other traditions. An ark in a flood will be just as improbable as a baby getting a new elephant head or ants coming up from underground and becoming humans.
John and I in New Zealand
Explore the carbon cycle, the rock cycle, and the water cycle together.  Look at clouds. Look through telescopes to see out beyond the clouds, far beyond what our own eyes are ability to see on their own.  Learn about how our feelings and our fears can overwhelm us and make us want to have a parent-like protector. Learn how the human body works:  illness, healing, sleep, dreams, growth, death, life. 

Delight in new technology, appreciating that human knowledge is discovering new things every day. Be in true awe at the world around you. Care for the needs of the people in your community. Recognize that your community is global. Learn to recognize when a person or cause is attempting to manipulate your emotions. Have compassion for all people who struggle or who feel bound by a belief system that causes them to behave in unkind or surprising ways. Be willing to question every single thing. Make your own rules. Create a home and a family that are unique to this earth. It is your creation, your gift back to life.
The kids and I in New Zealand
It is on-going and brave to be an atheist or secular parent. I have found myself in the position several times when I have given my child verbal or tacit permission to consider the possibility that magic has, indeed, happened and the unexplained phenomenon was created by a higher being. I have accompanied my children on walks through stations of the cross, religious memorials, and religious rituals and in every case I provided them with the opportunity to accept the message offered by the event. In every case without fail, my children have found the claims to be unbelievable and/or surprisingly silly.
Raising children is a part of being a human being that I take extremely seriously. Nothing that I have ever done has meant more to me than bringing these children up to be caring, thinking, learning, loving human beings. I have made many many mistakes (just ask my kids!). But I continue to learn and to become a better me. 

And so will you.

Greetings to my lovely readers in the Philippines and Italy.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:   
You are not Alone
The Kids and Atheism
First-Generation Atheist Parenting


  1. My bonus son lives with his mom who is a "christian" by association. He is with us for the summer and one night said, "we need to say our prayers before dinner!" To which my husband and I replied "we don't say prayers because we don't believe in god. Instead, we thank each other." And my hubby said "thank you, babe, for making dinner" and i replied with "and thank you for working so hard so that we can have food to eat for dinner" My bonus said was a little confused but smiled and then said thank you to both of us. The next day he asked why and we just told him we have no reason to believe in god and that there is no evidence for god to exist. A few days later he said "you know jesus was a real guy, and that is why we have easter" That one was, at first, a little hard to hear because I know how that all came to be. (super bloody and gory show that I don't a child should be exposed to, ever)I simply responded with, "Chances are Jesus never existed. He is just a man in a story book to teach people that we should be kind to each other." And he went, "yeah, that is true, he is in a book". Afterwards, and my favourite part, we had this conversation;
    Me: "Is it different that daddy and i don't believe in god?"
    B-S: "Yeah, it is different"
    Me: "Do you think daddy and I are bad people for not believing?"
    B-S: "No I don't think that. You and daddy are good people, not bad people"
    Me: "Well some people might try to tell you that we are"
    B-S: "I will tell them that y'all aren't"

    So heartwarming, he is only 4 so I am glad we are making an impression on him that you don't need god to be good. We make sure to fully answer his questions or get him to answer his own questions instead of just saying "because". He is super interested in how evolution works. We told him about the link with humans and apes on night and he is obsessed now.
    When it comes to explaining anything religious, we take a historical perspective of it, that way we can give him the factual background behind the pretend story. It is nice to see how he is seeing the world so openly. I remember at my age I was very closed off because my mother was incredibly religious so nothing was very exciting because "god did it all".

  2. Thanks for this post, it is something I have thought a lot about and am just beginning to experience with our four year old daughter. I am curious how you explain to them why people they know and respect believe these ideas? My husband's family are all conservative Christians, and we live in a very conservative town. She hasn't been exposed to any religious stories so far, but I like the idea of reading them along with other Mythology. I am just not sure how to explain why Grandma and Grandpa believe in these pretend stories.

    1. Sades, I'm glad you are here. I hope you read through some of my older posts and, maybe, check out my pinterest page under "Parenting" or "Secular" because I have written quite a bit about it.

      I highly recommend always using respectful language when discussing why people believe these things. "Some people believe in (name a few beliefs from several different places.) Here in our country, many people believe in a god that they call "god". They see him as a father-like god and they pray to him and say that he does all good things. Gma and Gpa have believed in this god for their entire lives. While we don't share this belief, we love them and we respect that this is very important to them."

      I don't know how gma and gpa will talk to her about it. My experience has been fairly unpleasant with this one. Without taking a hard like, trust that you are your daughter's main source of information. Will they attempt to discuss this with her? Probably. A little leeway in the beginning is OK...she has LOTS to take in. Allow her the freedom to explore the ideas with them WITH YOU PRESENT or with some caveats. Religious instruction at this age less instructive and more about making the religion look cute and fun and adorable, (think Veggie Tales and such) so I would avoid that if possible.

      So, in the simplest form, explaining might include something like, "Our family likes to explain why things happen by looking to science and the natural world. Some people get comfort from thinking about that father-like figure...etc..."

      Does this help?

      For the believers who read this, as I anticipate your question about this, YES, this is what I have said and what I think about this. I am an atheist.

      Peace, Karen

  3. Thanks those are great ideas. My inlaws live far away, so we don't see them too often and they aren't really alone with our daughter for extended periods of time. We would prefer to wait until she is older to expose her to religions, when she can make her own informed decision, though I have mentioned to her some info about Jesus and God when we came across them in library books etc. She lawson knows gmail and Gpa believes in these things but daddy and I do not because there is no scientific evidence to support them. I am just not sure what to say when she makes the connection that they believe in something that we think is a myth. I just found your blog,but will be sure to check out some of your earlier posts.

  4. love this karen!well said as always. I wish I had known you when I first began this journey to rationalism! <3

  5. I have a two year old and I'm trying desperately to keep my balance when we start discussing this. How do I instill them with a critical mind but tolerance for personal faith?

    The best I've come up with is to teach him to always ask "why" but respectfully. Whenever he asks "why" I try to never turn it aside or blunt it, but to find an answer that is honest and understandable and to encourage him to continue to ask.

    1. Nick, as your two-year-old becomes more and more verbal, you will enter a new phase of life. The phase where you realize just exactly how PRESENT every child is. Children listen and watch and learn.

      Honestly, the best way you can instill a critical mind and a tolerance for personal faith is to have those things yourself. By living with these values front and center, your child will move into their own life reflecting these things. You know, you are already doing the right thing...thinking, learning, being open to the healthiest messages, and seeking to present yourself as the best parent you can be in this moment.... So good for you.

      I have a few other posts on raising children. Look for those tags here on my blog and I think you will find some more posts, some with more specific information. If you don't find what you are looking for, please write again and I will be very happy to offer more of my brilliance and wisdom.
      Also, I have a a series of memes on Pinterest (I KNOW, I KNOW, you totally don't want to go there!!! lol) But I have some great memes under the "Parenting" board that I think may also add to your thinking process. On the right side of this blog somewhere you will find a link that will take you to my Pinterest boards. You might also find some memes in the "Secular for a Reason" board.

      BTW, I just followed your name linky thing to the website with the ts. I'll be checking that out!

    2. I LOVE the Apostles of Science t shirt! Very cool!

  6. I am atheist and my wife is more or less a lapsed Hindu. We have raised our daughter religion-less and have no particular drive to add it.

    That said, we sometimes have to explain things to her about the outward displays of religion we see everywhere. I usually say "Religion is something left over from the days before people understood how to use science to find out how things worked. They invented stories that made sense to them in order to explain what happened in their lives. For instance, 'I got sick because a witch put a curse on me' is a religious story, while 'I got sick because of bacteria in the drinking water' is a modern explanation."

    My kid is full of wonder, full of fun, full of existential awe.

    Incidentally, my story of "Growing Up Atheist" has more on the subject:

    Best wishes,

    Warren Senders

    1. I have met quite a few lapsed Hindus lately. Must be a trend. *wink*
      That is exactly how I explained it to my kids too.
      Isn't it wonderful?!


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