Raising Secular Kids In A Religious World

AtheistBus

I believe my son has the ultimate say in the choice of his religion. At the same time, it would be silly to suggest that I let my six-year-old navigate the crowded marketplace of religion alone.

As an atheist father of five I have some perspective on raising secular kids.  In my small circle of secular friends, I’m an oddity with my oversized family.  I’m often confused for a Mormon in my mountain west community, overrun as it is with members of the LDS religion. The idea that atheists or secular Americans should—or even can—raise children religiously “neutral” ignores the raging tempest of religious compulsion that is everyday America.

Contrary to what critics might think, I avoid talking about religion as much as possible with my young children. I would rather they were not confronted with such complex and emotional topics until they are a little older, but I’m completely unable to shield them.

As only one of many examples, very recently a well meaning lady and family friend babysat our two youngest children, aged four and six. At some point, she told our children that “Jesus died for your sins and now he lives in Heaven.”  It had no impact on my four-year-old, but my son, Ray, who is six, hasn’t stopped talking about it since.

“Daddy, I believe in Jesus, don’t you?” He asked me right after we picked him up.

“I don’t believe in Jesus, son,” I said. “But a lot of people do. Someday when you get older, you can decide for yourself what to believe.”

I tried to leave it, but Ray won’t let it slide.  The other day he asked me more questions about Heaven and then, more alarming, about Hell. I answered him the same way, telling him that I don’t believe in Heaven or Hell, but it’s okay for him to believe what he likes. Ray eventually got mad at me.

“Why don’t you believe in Heaven, Dad? I believe in Heaven. Jesus lives in heaven.” Ray is sometimes manic, so he went on and on until I could change the subject.  He has a vivid imagination, and he’s superstitious, emotional and trusting. He’s a great mark for anyone in need of converts or souls. I wish he had a chance to grow up a little before having to tackle the afterlife.

What is an atheist dad to do? I don’t want to tell Ray what to believe, and I refuse to force him into a box of believer, atheist or agnostic. Unlike fundamentalist parents, I believe my son has the ultimate say in the choice of his religion. At the same time, it would be silly to suggest that I let my six-year-old navigate the crowded marketplace of religion alone.

All I can do is answer Ray’s questions the best I can.  He might end up as a Christian, even a preacher, which would be fine with me. As a parent, all I can do is share what I believe, and it’s up to my kids to decide where to go from there.  I’m luckier than most secular parents, because I’ve been through it before with my older kids. They have always made good decisions with the inadequate information I could give them. I’m not on earth to tell any adult how to live, so I often wonder why religious people feel justified when ramming their personal “convictions” down my children’s throats.  I also wonder how many strong Christian parents would be okay with an atheist son or a Wiccan daughter.

I agonize over what to say to my kids on this topic, always conscious of their religious autonomy, and it drives me crazy when people make cheap, easy jokes about atheist parents being just like religious parents, pushing their dogmas on their kids. Thoughtful secular parents are not trying to raise children to follow in our atheist footsteps. It’s all so infuriating as I struggle to give my children the time to decide for themselves what to become, without interference from the religious peanut gallery.

Photo—Atheist Bus Canada/Flickr

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About Edwin Lyngar

Edwin Lyngar is a writer and author living in Reno, Nevada. He graduated from Antioch University in 2010 with his MFA in creative writing and also holds an MA in Writing from the University of Nevada Reno. His essays have appeared or are forthcoming in the Bellingham Review, Ontoligica and RoleReboot. He blogs about parenting, family life and writing at www.edwinlyngar.com and is in the process of finding a home for his first book, a memoir, titled Guy Parts.

Comments

  1. G. Thomas Grantham says:

    Dude, if you don’t think you are “pushing” your beliefs on your children, you have no understanding of the parent/child relationship. There is no “neutral”, of course they will not only be influenced by your beliefs, they will feel inclined, because of your influence over them, to accept them as their own. That’s just the way it is. At least be honest about how “being a parent” works, or you have little validity to advise others.

    • Grantham: As a parent, I try to be as neutral as possible and let them know it’s okay to disagree with me and anyone for that matter. I think the author pretty much summed that up nicely. You are right, being neutral is hard to do with kids, but if you honestly tell them, “this is what I believe and you are free to discover and decide what you want to believe” is the best we can do. How would you handle maintaining neutrality with kids? Have any bright ideas?

      • Edwin Lyngar says:

        E Watts, you capture my feelings perfectly. You can raise your children to think for themselves, and good parents do not try to “indoctrinate.”

  2. Elena Lledo says:

    Hi Edwin,
    it was awesome to read your note, which was posted on facebook by a friend. Thank you!

  3. Doug Zeigler says:

    As an atheist father of 4 myself, I understand just how difficult it is to let your kids find their path to belief or unbelief, especially when this is my second marriage and both my wife and I’s exes are very religious. I answer as honestly as I can, but I do try to end it with the caveat that belief is a personal choice, and that we’ll love them no matter where their spiritual journey takes them. Well said, Edwin.

  4. I really appreciate this article and the respect you clearly have for your kids as autonomous human beings. I’m a Muslim convert who was raised in a fervently Christian home, but I also try to talk to my kids about religion from the perspective of what I believe, rather than forcing it on them. Six year olds ask deep questions and I have found that my most honest answer is usually “I don’t know,” or “This is what I believe, but you’ll need to figure it out for yourself and you will be fine.” I think it’s important to emphasize that just because someone is an atheist, does not mean that they are anti-religion. I have met many who are, who actively teach their children to hate religion and to look down on religious people, and it’s really unfortunate. For me and my family, it feels like “Raising Muslim kids in a Christian world,” and I imagine that we face many of the same frustrations and challenges. Disdain, fear and miseducation abound, and our kids have already had to deal with prejudice and proselytizing. Christian culture (though it feels very secular to me) is in our face 24/7.

    I’d like to think that my kids and your kids would defend each other in the lunch room–that they would share common values of pride in who they are and confidence in their ability to think for themselves.

  5. I am the wife of a pastor and mother of two children. We raised our children to think for themselves and have always been open to discussions about religion or the lack thereof. Our son, age 22, is an atheist. Our daughter, age 19, is agnostic. My husband and I are fine with their choices. We only ask that they be as considerate of other peoples’ beliefs and choices as we are of theirs. Frankly, if the god that fundamentalists rant about is truly a god I don’t want to believe in him either. For me belief is a highly personal choice and not something that I feel obliged to share with people or ram down their throats. I would never share my faith with someone else’s children, that is not my job or role in life. I prefer to live my life and faith by being a decent human being who cares about other people. This is the other thing we ask our children to do – it’s part of being the human race and has nothing to do with faith beliefs. Mr. Lyngar you have my complete support!

    • “Frankly, if the god that fundamentalists rant about is truly a god I don’t want to believe in him either.” <—– YES!!! Thank you!!! :-)

      As someone who was raised in fundamentalist Christianity–and walked away at 18 vowing never to go back–I wish more Christians had this attitude. Too many, especially fundamentalists, seem compelled to ram their religion down the throats of others (as you put it) and show nothing but disdain and disrespect for those of other faiths (or no faith.) They don't seem to understand that the way they present their religion is driving many people away instead of encouraging them to join, and those that they are drawing are often very damaged and dysfunctional people. (Hence, perhaps, the high rates of divorce and poverty in many of the Southern "red" states where fundamentalism is rampant?) When I hear my fundamentalist relatives complain about how "persecuted" they are and how the growing acceptance of things like gay marriage amounts to a "war on Christ" I almost have to laugh…they don't seem to understand that in many ways, they have been "persecuting" and "declaring war" on non-Christians for decades, many of whom (especially atheists, agnostics and pagans) seem to be finally standing up and saying "enough!" (Or as a friend of mine put it: "From what I can tell being Christian means you have to be an ignorant, bigoted, sexist, homophobic, judgmental, self-righteous a–hole. Sorry, not interested.")

      Religion should be something that people consciously choose for themselves, rather than something that is forced upon them, or done out of habit (My husband, raised a church-going Methodist, quit going to church when he began to realize he was only doing it out of habit, not because he actually believed in what he was hearing.) Forcing religion on children, who have yet to develop critical thinking skills, can be especially damaging and can backfire when the inevitable cognitive dissonance hits. My own disenchantment with Christianity began at 13, when my Sunday school teacher informed us that anyone who engaged in premarital sex was destined to burn in hell. I asked if that included people like a classmate of mine, whose stepfather had recently been arrested for raping her. My teacher said, unfortunately, yes it did. When I asked why a God who supposedly loved us would send a rape victim to hell, the teacher became enraged and ordered me out of class for "asking too many questions"! It was all downhill from there.

      A person who consciously chooses to be Christian (or Buddhist, Wiccan, atheist, agnostic, etc) is a person who truly accepts and lives by the tenets of their faith (or non-faith) and is a person deserving of respect. This is something a lot of fundamentalists just don't understand. I know that is probably a threat to a lot of Christian congregations who depend on "butts in seats" on Sundays to keep their doors open, but as a society we would be better served if we had more people who consciously chose to live by their beliefs, rather than just going to church by habit, or making themselves feel better by bullying others into believing just like they do.

      Bravo to everyone raising your children to think for themselves, rather than checking their brains at the door of the church.

      • Edwin Lyngar says:

        Thanks to you all for the great comments. I am particularly pleased to see religious parents raising kids to think for themselves in matters of faith. I realize that it’s hard to watch your children choose differently from you, but it’s worth it to raise independent thinkers.

  6. I feel your frustration, Edwin. Almost all of my child’s family (besides me) is very religious. I don’t mind what he’s told by others with one exception: hell.

    That’s the thing that keeps radical fundamentalism going. If they believe that you will burn in eternal torment if they don’t convert you before you die, then nothing in their minds can possibly take priority — not friendship, not courtesy, not respect, nothing. They must convert you in order to save you from an eternity of suffering. They’re doing you a favor by doing so.

    Luckily (if one could view it that way), my child was told about hell at about the same age as yours. It disturbed him enough to come and ask me about it, so I was able to give him a brief but impactful explanation. “Son, I think some people believe odd things because they misinterpret their own religion’s scriptural writings. They’re doing the best they can to understand, but sometimes I think they just come to the wrong conclusions. Doesn’t that same church teach that God loves everybody no matter what? That God *is* love? Well, would you dip anyone you love in hot lava forever and ever? Even if they didn’t follow your rules about something?”

    It worked for him. He chuckled in relief and said that no, he wouldn’t ever do such a horrible thing, even if someone didn’t believe him or refused to follow rules. Once the pressure of eternal torment was gone, he was fine and was totally okay that others might not believe the same way the rest of his family does. If he grows up to believe in hell one day, at least I will know he came to his own decision about it.

    • Edwin Lyngar says:

      Threatening children with eternal torment for not following religious dictates can be considered child abuse, in my opinion. I am delighted that you were able to help your child walk back this fear. The threat of hell is one of the most odious aspects of some forms of Christianity.

  7. Raising our boys in a quasi Catholic and Jewish home. For my husband and I it can be rough and it changes sometimes (usually around Christmas, Easter, Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah) One thing is always steadfast though and that is our fervent desire to raise tolerant and loving children. My 9 year old has chosen to believe that Jesus isn’t really important. That may change for him. My 4 year old loves biblical stories but he takes them as just that…..stories. I tell both of them that I hold fast to my Jewish beliefs but they can decide what they want.

    Great article. I’m always curious about agnostic and atheist views and as a mother, I have a particularly peeks my interest on how atheist & agnostic parents deal with situations like this. In many ways, it’s the same way I deal with living a Christian area. Thanks for the good read.

  8. It’s a golden opportunity to teach him the difference between beliefs and knowledge. A belief is nothing more than an opinion, and everybody can have those regardless of how much they actually know about the topic.

    “I believe in X” is neither more nor less than the declaration “I personally like X.”

  9. The answer is not to teach him what to believe, but to teach him how to decide what to believe. Namely: critical thinking.

    When he says he believes in Jesus and Heaven, ask him why. Make him THINK about what it is he says he believes, and question everything (including you!). You’re right that a 6-year-old isn’t equipped to navigate the myriad of religious messages by himself, so equip him with the necessary skills to do so.

  10. Veronica Grace says:

    I totally understand this! I also worried about the pressure on my sons from other kids at school and that this is one more thing that makes them different. Different in a way that freaks people out to the point of them being scary sometimes.

    For my family we found comfort and community in the Unitarian Universalist church in our area. It’s full of atheists, humanists, pagans, buddhists and a few christians too. They focus on teaching kids to figure out what they believe and to question things. But best of all my sons now have a community of people around them that aren’t mainstream christian, we still have wonderful mainstream christian friends and family members but now my sons’ world is filled with all different kinds of good people they can look up to so that know whatever they choose will be fine.

  11. Kirstyn says:

    Thanks for posting this, it’s nice to not feel alone with these difficult questions. My nephew is a very bright, inquisitive and sensitive 5 year old who is somewhat preoccupied with death and what comes after. His family (immediate and extended) runs the gammut from catholic to atheist, but even those who are agnostic have gone the “Heaven” route just to avoid difficult conversations and emotional meltdowns. I, on the other hand, when asked by him whether I believe in Heaven, find myself unable to lie about my beliefs; I tell him that I don’t know where we go when we die, that I’m not sure if we go anywhere at all, but that there are a lot of people who believe in Heaven and if that’s what he wants to believe, then he should. But then he gets upset that I don’t believe the same thing that he does, and then everyone else in the family gets upset with me for making him upset. It sucks, because I love this little guy more than anything in the world and would never do anything to intentionally hurt him. It’s really hard.

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