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