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Atheist Parenting

by Jake Aryeh Marcus Find Sustainable Mothering on Facebook and Jake on Twitter.

There is an interesting discussion over at PhD in Parenting in a post called Approaching Heaven, Mummies and Infinity about raising kids without religion. As happens to me a fair bit, I began to leave a comment that became so long I brought it over here and turned it into a blog post of my own. Thanks to Annie for the nudge.

My boys are now teens and tween and I have been shocked that “is there a god?” and related questions simply never came up. My boys never asked me “whether” questions about religion. They have only asked me “why would anybody think?” questions. “Why would anyone think there is a man above the clouds? Why would anyone think you go somewhere after you die?” Lots of “why would anyone think X is the answer to that question?”

To my knowledge, none of my boys ever even considered the existence of a god. They came home from time to time telling me what religious beliefs friends had. My main job has been to teach them to be respectful of beliefs with which they disagree unless the beliefs are hurtful. I could easily deal with “Jimmy thinks there is a heaven” with “that belief doesn’t hurt anyone and you can disagree without being disrespectful.” But “Jimmy thinks god says gays are bad” needed a discussion about when religious tolerance must stop because religious behavior is hurting people.

I fully expected at least one of my kids to give serious consideration to whether there is a god and am surprised none of them ever did. It seemed to me that children would be predisposed to think of magical answers to difficult questions. But my children have always wanted scientific answers to questions. My children want facts and if there is only theory, the theory needs a basis in reason and what we do know.

I happen to like magic. Fairy tales are lovely and it has been disappointing to me that my kids have shown so little interest in them. I also really want my children to think things out for themselves. I don’t want them simply adopting my or their father’s views on anything. And somewhere I read that it was normal for children to believe in god. That it made them fear uncertainty and death less. Well, definitely can’t prove that by my kids. That mysteries could be explained by a higher power always seemed just plain dumb to my kids. Go figure. I didn’t teach them that.

As younger children, religion didn’t come up much but when it did I was always careful to say that, while I don’t believe in a god, I am not necessarily right and they may choose to believe in god. When they went to school, they went to Quaker schools. My youngest went to mandatory “Meeting.” If you haven’t been a Quaker Meeting, there is no formal service. Members sit in silence and speak if they have something to say. I went to lots of Quaker meetings when I was involved (for many wonderful years) with the American Friends Service Committee. With great respect to Quakers (with the notable exception of Richard Nixon), I have to say I was really bored. But when my then-four year old went to Meeting, he found it calming and peaceful which makes perfect sense because it can be largely meditation. I suck at organized meditation but my son didn’t. But there was no god involved for him. It was peaceful quiet time and he liked it.

When we started homeschooling, religion came up a lot because most of the organized homeschool groups in my area are dominated by fundamentalist Christians who believe it is their duty to make me feel unwelcome. I have not accepted Jesus as my personal savior so they don’t want their kids playing with my kids. Yeah, I am bitter. I have no respect for that attitude. But I hid it from my kids because I didn’t want them to know there are people we have never met who exclude us out of bigotry.

So my contribution to the discussion concerning what struggle one might have raising kids without religion is … well, there may be no struggle at all.

So what has your experience been? Did your kids ask religious questions without any prompting from you?

About Jake Marcus

Comments (4)

I was raised mainly by my pacifist-christian father. The pacifist part stayed, the christian part faded away as I did not find any logigal explanation for the biblical theories. And I actively turned away from christianity -and religion in broader sense- when I realised how twisted many religious people acted when compared with their guiding books. So I raised my kids that way -pacifist humanitaran- and did not have the slightest problem. They went to Steiner School and every year another set of existance-explaining theories went by: jewish-christian, old-nordic (Edda), India-Persiah, ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman. And I explained that in ancient times people made up stories to explain nature and life and death and to them that made perfect sense, story-tellers as they ar themselves. No trouble at all.
"I fully expected at least one of my kids to give serious consideration to whether there is a god and am surprised none of them ever did. It seemed to me that children would be predisposed to think of magical answers to difficult questions. But my children have always wanted scientific answers to questions." I respectfully disagree. I don't think children are predisposed to think of magical answers to difficult questions. In fact, children will use the sum of their experiences and what they learn from their caregivers to try to answer difficult questions. If the caregiver never teaches the child that there is a "man above the clouds" or that "you go somewhere when you die", naturally the child isn't going to come up with an abstract idea about the existance of God or an afterlife because it won't be a part of his/her mental library.
@Vivi, we agree. I was clearly wrong in thinking children look for magical answers. Children are clearly an evidenced-based bunch. :)
That's okay, Jake, I like magic and fairies myself. Maybe we actually get *less* pragmatic as we get older? I hope so! Have a great weekend :)
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