A CWH Mother’s Day Special: Parenting, Atheism, and Religion From A Few Angles

In honor of Mother’s Day, I decided to collect a few things old and new that explore important aspects of parenting and, particularly, its intersections with atheism and religion–and their conflicts.

Last summer, I sat down with PZ Myers, Kylie Sturgess, Russell Glasser, and Ophelia Benson to talk about issues relevant to atheist parents.

The luckiest advantage I have had in my life is having my amazing mother and her unbelievable love in my life. (I love you to death, Mom.)

But not everyone is so lucky. And sometimes mothers who fail their kids do so because they are more committed to their religious beliefs than to their children. Bridget Gaudette is an atheist who has had to deal with the psychologically traumatic experience of being disowned by her parents. Read the open letter she wrote to her mother who won’t communicate with her. Her mother may never read it, which makes it all the more important that you do.

Even many of us deconverts not disowned by our parents, who have otherwise good or even exceptional relationships with our parents, can identify way way too much with the awful conversation that The Thinking Atheist produced below to illustrate what it is like for many young atheists when they come out as atheists to their parents:

For help dealing with a wide spectrum of family conflicts caused by religious divisions, I know of no better resource than the amazing “Ask Richard” column written by my cherished friend Richard Wade for the Patheos blog Friendly Atheist. I also had the honor to interview him about many issues, including anger in families caused by religion.

For much more positive examples and thoughts about parenting, there is Shanon Nebo’s great piece on how she dealt with her kid being told he’s going to hell by his friends. And I can never recommend highly enough another of my favorite friends’ work. Libby Anne, of the Patheos blog Love, Joy, Feminism was raised in a religious family that believed some pernicious things about disciplining children. She has had to deprogram herself from a lot of negative things and teach herself even basic things about how to be a good parent. But, because she is so intelligent, so thoughtful, and needed to think out her entire worldview for herself, she has wound up going well beyond minimally good parenting to become an exceptionally insightful and loving mother.

I regularly think about several of these key posts she has written on parenting, and I’m not even a parent:

Casting the Pearls back to the Swine

Parenting is NOT a Contest

Adventures in Parenting: On Reasoning with Toddlers

Gentle Parenting Around the Relatives

Child Rearing: From Cog to Individual

Things Are Different Here: On “Back Talk” and Healing

Listening Can Be Hard: On Children and Disconnects

Critical Thinking and Compromise: Sally Strikes a Deal

Finally, Julia Galef and Jesse Galef have a short and sweet video talking about ways their mom raised them to be rationalists:

Your Thoughts?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • r.holmgren

    Absolutely tragic. How is it that those who claim to be born of love can turn so quickly to hate? On the other hand anger, as a secondary emotion flows quite naturally out of disappointment and fear. Not excusing – just trying to understand such hurtful behaviours. Absolutely tragic that the prophesies of Jesus regarding the reactions of people in general and families in particular to His presence in people’s lives – a presence that shows either as a follower of Jesus, a poor facsimile or as an opponent of Jesus and what He taught are so clearly being played out. Sadly, this is only going to grow in intensity. Luckily atheists are beginning to form support groups that will help them overcome the damage of those who claim Jesus, but ignore His teaching.

    good luck on your journey

  • Kodie

    And sometimes mothers who fail their kids do so because they are more
    committed to their religious beliefs than to their children.

    Just like in your previous post, “Oh You Can Get Good People To Do Bad Things Without Religion Alright…” and the quote you analyze therein, I get a lot of feeling from atheist blogs that it’s only theist parents who are a certain harmful way. I was not raised as an atheist, I was raised in a home devoid of religious expression altogether at the financial behest of my grandfather, an atheist. The ways my mother has decided personally that she has failed us is that she could not defy her father and we relied on his support too much, and that she should have followed her conscience and brought us to church, for as far as I can tell, superficial reasons like having social connections you can only get in church, and not to make us good people, but to provide us with a strong belief in an imaginary friend through times of doubt and pain, and we’ve all, her children, been through some and more of that.

    The story I got about my grandfather, and I knew him and I knew he was supporting us the whole time, was that he forbid us being raised learning that garbage, and aside from a few of his rants some of the time, there was absolutely no substantial talk about religion or identifying ourselves as atheists.

    The real failure here is authoritarianism. My mother was so happy when her father died. She couldn’t wait to get out of his house so bad that she married my father very quickly and suffered that mismatch until only recently. What she hated about her father, I also see in her. She is not warm, but she loves me. She has never denied me what I need except the closeness and support that she thought Jesus would have supplied, and perhaps under the same misapprehension as her father that money equals compliance. We had enough arguments about that along the way, that she can’t buy me, and I might have overcompensated and ignored her when she did say something right, which, in turn, led to a lot of loneliness and detachment from my family and mistakes I’ve made because of my reaction to living in a dysfunctional household – completely devoid of religion.

    I am not trying to paint atheists in a poor light, but trying to expose a mentality that’s really at play. I was not disowned, nothing ever went that far. I do believe my grandfather was an honest atheist, in that he observed the harms of religion and compared it with reality and came up with no god as a conclusion. I don’t know how it came about, and I don’t know if he disowned his family or the other way around, but I never knew a single person on his side of the family until his brother attended his funeral. His atheism does seem, across the generations, and knowing whatever I do know, as a strong reaction to being brought up Catholic. He was still “Catholic,” I thought when people say they are culturally Catholic they still mean all the guilt and old-fashioned rules and mores, which is how I would describe him, and my mother, but none of the emotional warmth and celebration and cohesion of family. I could add this, of which my mother was most insecure and jealous of – other families that seemed to do it right. The only time she let on she was wrong about anything, ever, in achieving this end, is in failing to expose us to church life, and she only told me this one time. I even don’t believe she believes in Jesus, but denying us this imaginary resource she figured could have been more helpful than herself in every way was her only self-examined flaw in parenting.

    To which I say, no, that’s not it. What I see is the damage caused by a cultural mindset reinforced by religion at least somewhere along the line, that rippled its way into my family despite being denied access. Despite having severe differences with my father (every second of my life), he assures me every time we speak that she did everything and the best she could. She breaks his balls to me (and my figurative ones for ostensibly favoring him) every time I talk to her, still, and he has only kind words to say about her and encourages my relationship with her to be one of gratitude, anyway. My father, on the other hand, is also not religious but has acknowledged belief. I know that he does not believe in “organized religion”; in many ways, not only his keeping his beliefs to himself (also under financial duress, of course), but his few expressed opinions about organized religion laid my path to atheism more than having a financial imposition from my mother’s side to resist belief.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    Wow. Dan, you have assembled a rich resource here. I have much pleasurable and illuminating reading and viewing to do. Thank you!


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