The sad reality is that most children will end up going to schools that promote religion. The difficulty for a secular or atheist parent is that many of us do not force our beliefs on our children. This means that the first interaction many of these kids will have with religious ideology, is in the school environment.
How does an atheist parent handle this situation? What happens when your little one comes home and asks about God, death, sin, heaven or hell?
Discussing religion with a child may prove to be one of the tougher conversations that a modern secular or atheist parent may face. What are some of the typical questions that every atheist parent will need to answer?
1. Do we tell our children what they should believe?
Should they be raised as atheists? The reality is that we are all born as atheists and without external influence we would, in all likelihood, remain that way! However, a freethinking atheist parent also encourages their children to understand the world around them and to use reason and learning to plot their own paths. The best answers to many of these questions are all centered on truth. The best answer to even the most difficult question, is the honest one. However, as a past Christian, I know that growing up in an environment of indoctrination can’t be right in any form. The journey to truth is one that must be taken alone. The ultimate goal is to raise children that end up being good adults who have a positive influence on those around them.
2. Do we allow others to own the story because we are doing the right thing by not indoctrinating our children?
In all likelihood others will not afford your kids the same consideration that you do as a atheist parent. We should be hyper-aware of what conversations are being had at school. It is not possible to filter every dialogue that our kids will encounter, whether that is at school or from religious friends and family. I have often wondered, for example, whether my parents say bed-time prayers with my son when they are baby-sitting. As parents, we have a right to set boundaries and also to know what influence teachers are having on our childrens’ lives and development. My advice is to understand the school’s approach to religious education. Don’t be afraid to ask the school head or the teachers what happens in school assembly or in religious education. And then be prepared to deal with the fallout from these interactions at home.
3. Are there valuable insights that can be gained from biblical texts?
Aside from the historical context, which is pretty sketchy in most religious books (See Asimov’s Guide to the Bible), is there much else of value? I would not be opposed to reading my children religious stories. However, apart from some of the central figures having some good guiding principles to live by (Christ, Buddha etc.) there are very few other stories that provide valuable lessons on life and morality. Many are dated and no longer relevant (what we should eat and how to sacrifice animals for example) and many are simply unpleasant at best. There are probably more valuable lessons in Aesop’s Fables and other fairy-tales or children’s books.
4. Should we hide religion from our kids?
Understanding the points of view of your fellow humans is crucial to everyday interactions with them. The likelihood is that in most countries, your child will be in a secular minority despite what appears to be a rapid move to secularism. Some reasons to know about religion:
- Knowing what others believe helps to make sure that you are able to have intelligent discussions on how your own beliefs differ from theirs and where to find common ground.
- A knowledge of history can never be a waste of time and religion most certainly plays a big part in the history of most nations.
- Many people do not want to go around offending others. Personally, I feel no need to ridicule or to convert other to my beliefs. Having said this, I will fight relentlessly where any religion impacts on my own freedom of belief.
5. Do you let your kids go along with religion at a young age because “it can’t do them any harm” or because you don’t want them “to stand out”?
Would lying to our kids not be more damaging than having them stand out? The question is, what happens when your little one comes home from school believing in god? As much as I don’t like the thought of this, it is quite possible that it may happen. Again, I suggest keeping it real! This is not a time to reprimand them, but to be honest about your own beliefs even if your child now starts to evangeliseto you about god!
6. Do children need to be raised with religion to give them a sense of morality when things in their world are still very black and white?
To most atheists this is one of the most annoying comments that religious apologists like to make. There is research which suggest that in fact the opposite may be true. Kids that are raised to be kind, polite, empathetic and considerable do not need religion to develop these traits. They are basic, but desirable human traits which make sense in the context of evolution and survival of the species. A study which was initiated in 2015 and subsequently reviewed in 2017 found that there is no relationship between religion (or lack thereof) and altruism.
7. Do we need to protect them from the answers that may cause them pain such as “what happens after you die”?
Research suggests that once again, truth is the better strategy. On the topic of death for example, there are a number of concepts that may in fact be disturbing, rather than comforting to a child.
- The thought of loved ones being “alive” and buried under the earth.
- The thought of loved ones being alive and yet in another place could cause feelings of abandonment and confusion.
- Not to mention the thought of a dead family member watching everything that you do which just seems a bit creepy!
Death is inevitable for every living creature. We should explain that this is a natural process and is the end of a life. It is also the time of celebration of a life that will live on in the memory of loved ones. These conversations will not be easy, but then, no conversation about death is easy. Growing up as a Christian child I knew it was the end, and the fluffy pictures of meeting up in heaven provided me with little comfort in any event.
8. Will secular families miss out on a sense of community if they don’t go to church?
There was a time when churches were the center of local communities. How important was this from a social perspective and how do atheist families compensate? There are two aspects to this discussion. Firstly, churches of today attract people from a wide catchment area and the real sense of community is not what it would have been in the smaller towns and villages of the past. Today, communities revolve around other activities such as hobbies, interest and sport. There are even those who have established secular “churches” to replicate some of the support and community aspects of the previous religious communities. Community is an important part of life but church isn’t the only answer.
9. Does religion provide cohesion in families?
There is research pointing to potential strengths of a close-knit religious family unit. With fully atheist families still being somewhat of a rarity across generations, it’s hard to imagine that the necessary experimental controls have adequately accounted for this change. The inverse is also true. For example, where one member of a Catholic family joins an evangelical church severe family conflict can erupt. This example is one that I have experienced within my own family and the resulting chaos was something to behold. It took many years to settle into something resembling a truce. Discord may also happen in religious families where one member reveals their homosexuality, gets divorced, has an affair or admits to some state which is counter to the family “norms”. I have known core atheist families that are very loving, caring and cohesive! These are not values that are exclusive to religion. Far from it.
10. How does the concept of sin (or lack thereof) impact on children?
The concept of sin and its associated guilt factor has always been one of the most unpleasant aspects of religion to me. The reality is that we all make mistakes. Most decent human beings will look to compensate for these mistakes by (for example) apologizing to the person wronged. Forgiveness makes us all feel good. It doesn’t have to be an imaginary deity that’s doing the forgiving. In fact most religions suggest, in any event, that you right the wrongs you have done before looking for god’s forgiveness. This is because it feels right and eases the conscience! The thought that an all-seeing deity is keeping a ledger to punish you with one day, seems grotesque (not to mention petty).
Some general rules for raising secular humanists:
- Expose children to critical thinking. This will help them to distinguish between fantasy and reality. If they have stopped to consider what they are told they will be much better equipped to navigate whatever situations life may throw at them. I think it’s important to remember that this really means that kids need to make up their own minds about things. I always remember Carl Sagan’s comments on trusting those in positions of authority in your life. “One of the great commandments of science is, “Mistrust arguments from authority.” (Scientists, being primates, and thus given to dominance hierarchies, of course do not always follow this commandment.) Too many such arguments have proved too painfully wrong. Authorities must prove their contentions like everybody else. This independence of science, its occasional unwillingness to accept conventional wisdom, makes it dangerous to doctrines less self critical, or with pretensions of certitude.”
- Kids should be taught to question those in authority even more robustly. That is because humans are likely to take advice from those they trust at face value. That includes your advice to your children!
- Kids that are taught science as a key skill are more likely to be skeptics and to trust only what they can prove or accept as a decent explanation. Raise children who are inquisitive and driven by learning. From a young age, this means encourage them to read, read and read! As hard as it is, I have taken the approach to provide my best possible answer when my 3-year-old asks “why” for the sixth time. Even if my answer is tongue-in-cheek or an aside that mom will find amusing!
- Even as an atheist parent, teach your children to know about religion, what people believe, and what makes them tick. Let them see the good in people no matter their background. The golden rule is always a good place to start. There are people with religious background that have and will continue to make great contributions in many fields.
- Encourage and don’t expect your kids to blindly follow your beliefs. After all, there is very little difference between an atheist who doesn’t question, and a believer!