Should Atheist Parents Set Out To Raise Atheists?

There has been a lot of thoughtful discussion on Patheos’s atheist portal the last few days about how atheist parents should present the subject of religion to their kids. You can read Wendy Thomas Russell’s posts here and here, Kaveh Mousavi’s here and here, and Libby Anne’s here. As a professional philosophy educator with a strong interest in the philosophy of religion and as a humanist concerned to see more proactive efforts to create robust humanist identities and communities, this subject interests me a great deal.

Let me start by pointing out something glaringly missing from the other discussions I’ve been reading here. Religions make pretensions to answer vitally important philosophical questions related to what is real, what human nature is like, what is of value, what a meaningful life consists in, and what is ethical. These are not questions that parents should have a feigned (or real) neutrality about because of an over-correcting fear of indoctrinating their children. These are vital questions that deserve serious input from wise and informed people. And children deserve proactive help sifting through them and there should be no shame in giving your children a self-consciously humanistic upbringing. There’s no need to send the message that religious people have robust traditions but atheists are just neutral bystanders, rather than active participants with competitive (more rational and defensible) ideas and values, and who are part of a long and (rightly) proud tradition of ideas and values.

The problem that we face is that in popular discourse the essential existential questions are presumed to be the domain of arbitrary opinions. And religions, as the world’s most brazen peddlers of arbitrary opinions presented as absolute facts, give debate about such topics an awful reputation. 

Religions do this in many ways, but three are of particular relevance.

1. They try to convince their adherents (and outsiders, in the cases of proselytizing religions) that their arbitrary and fantastically improbable supernaturalistic beliefs and their baseless and idiosyncratic religious values are the most important things to adhere to in the world. 

2. They forge extremely hard to break religious identities in their adherents so that it becomes excruciatingly wrenching for them to even contemplate leaving their faith.

3. These two factors  make inter-religious discussion of central life matters structurally doomed to be stalemates because the participants from each religion are usually committed, on pain of rupture within their deepest identity, to adhering to beliefs unfounded in reason or evidence and which they have little hope of persuading their interlocutors of with any kind of shared bases in reason and evidence. The beliefs that are definitionally distinctive of a given faith are not the universally defensible philosophical positions within their faith that they can share with others, but rather the parts of their faith least amenable to independent demonstration. The parts that are most idiosyncratic are the most characteristic and, all too often, they are those treated as the most important to hold onto on that account. And, again, these most arbitrary of their beliefs are often about the most fundamentally central ethical and existential questions humans face.

So to sum up, thanks to religions, our most important existential questions are ones that people are routinely raised to treat as answerable with the least plausible explanations, amenable to the least amount of common ground discussions that can make philosophical progress possible, and held in the the most dogmatic way, wherein the believer is vigorously conditioned to be the least capable of critically distancing her fundamental identity from her commitment to her religion’s most bizarre features.

So, in this context, even many atheists just grant, without even mentioning they’re doing so, that this is the unalterable way of doing things with respect to philosophical issues. They’re matters of the wildest and most unsettleable “beliefs” and there are only two main choices–either join in in the “indoctrinating” into your own “beliefs” (even if they’re actually atheistic ones) or be completely neutral. Because the only way to correct for the abusive, irrational, and systematically unresolvable debates religious people have cross religions is, supposedly, to declare these matters of sheer arbitrary personal opinions where nobody could be any righter than anyone else in principle and so the only decent and non-bullying thing to do is be completely tolerant of everyone else’s personal opinions, whatever they may be, and do nothing to dissuade others of such personal opinions. Any attempts to express firm opinions or to rationally persuade others to them is inherently suspect as an attempt to dogmatically impose on others. And if you’re interested in persuasively explaining your ideas to your children then you’re inherently an “indoctrinator”, even if you don’t actually have any “doctrines”, since you don’t belong to any kind of doctrinal belief system, but rather just have opinions that you have good reason to think are true and valuable.

This frustrates me a great deal as someone who has been philosophically engaged since I was at least 14 and been formally studying and teaching philosophy since I was 18. Because know that these are subjects that are amenable to rich and varied study from rational points of view. know that when people don’t treat these subjects like matters for fantastic superstitious stories but as topics for rigorous debate on grounds that actually have hope of rationally justifying opinions, they’re invigorating subjects that can bond people closely together to discuss–even when they disagree. In fact, I know that relationships of relentless position taking, questioning, and challenging can be ones that train people in the virtues of disagreeing amicably and maturely and not only tolerating those you disagree with but actually learning from them open-mindedly and loving them for it. And I even know from personal experience that adults who take the time to really seriously teach kids what they think and know about the world, and to let those kids question freely, can cultivate powerfully independent minds–even when those adults have very firm points of view they’re not shy about expressing.

get the instinct of many atheist parents to overcorrect against the tendency to indoctrinate. As an educator and a philosopher, indoctrination is one of the things my life is devoted to opposing. The way to oppose indoctrination is to teach philosophical, scientific, and mathematical modes of thinking. It’s not to go to an overcorrecting extreme of being “neutral” about vitally important issues related to human concern. It’s to give kids access to a range of insightful sources. You don’t have to treat all beliefs as equally valid. You can tell them, matter-of-factly, with no threats of hell or disownment involved, that some ideas are most likely false. Not just the ones unambiguously refuted by scientific facts. You can actually explain the arguments that you think refute a bad philosophical idea or a claim about supernatural realms supposedly “beyond the reach of scientific refutation”. You can actually teach obvious fiction like fiction even if other people believe it to be true for no good reason. There’s no reason to talk as though “other people believe this to be true” makes it a valid opinion. You can be matter-of-fact. There is no heaven. There are no angels. There’s no evidence anyone has psychic powers. The earth was not created in 7 days. Humans evolved. There is no hell.

And that last one especially is one you should be sure not to skip telling the kids about, even if you find it unconscionable to “indoctrinate them” with respect to the others. You should prioritize making clear to them there is no hell and they don’t need to be “saved” because there are countless manipulative adults (and other children!) out there who will be targeting your kids for conversion and will say any number of things to scare them into becoming Christians. There’s no good reason to have your kid worried and confused they might be going to hell, that they may be in dire need of salvation, etc. There’s no reason to put them at risk of having their intellectual and emotional immaturity exploited so that they’re twisted into a conversion that leads to them to false beliefs and harmful values being internalized by them during their formative years. Such an engagement with invasive religious training could last for any number of years with lasting impact on their psyches and the entire course of their lives. If they want to go read theology and attend church as adults and see if they can be persuade of such doctrines with a mature and educated mind, by all means they should do so when they’re autonomous adults. But they shouldn’t be unduly susceptible to adults taking advantage of their immature minds to pressgang them into conversions they’re not ready for by confusing them with blatant falsehoods. You empower your kids by teaching them how to be autonomous thinkers and how to avoid buying into any stories that would have them making their minds subservient to authoritarians who would restrict their ability and willingness to think freely and to develop humanistic values worthy of the 21st Century.

Atheist parents shouldn’t always be playing defense. They shouldn’t treat religious ideas as things that kids learn from people trying to push them on them when they haven’t the foggiest clue what’s going on. There’s nothing indoctrinating of kids to tell them which are the real things and which are the phony things. You can explain to them that other kids are going to believe these things and it’s best to avoid fights with them about them. You can explain to them that even some grown ups believe some of these things and why. Familiarize them with myths and talk about the meaning and value of myths–and the value of separating true stories from fictional ones, and the value of questioning the morals of myths to see if they’re really good ones. Through an open ended process they can ask questions at their own pace and have you give them straight, matter-of-fact, answers (where you have quite good reason to be convinced something’s a matter-of-fact issue). Or you can give them open-ended return questions where they’ve hit on something puzzling even to mature thinkers and start a healthy dialectical discussion with them. No one should be afraid of a kid asking a question that stumps them. That’s an opportunity for you to think together with mutual curiosity.

You should of course be teaching them to understand and appreciate both the bad and the good in others’ religions. They should understand the psychological and sociological and cultural reasons religion matters to people and learn how to be properly respectful without being unduly deferential to other people’s religions. And, most importantly, you should be teaching them a constructive framework for dealing with the world themselves. There’s no reason to be “neutral” on the most fundamental questions of human nature, reality, and values. What you should be doing is teaching them a range of plausible answers and raising genuine dilemmas that even mature thinkers struggle with. You should be showing them what good philosophical thinking leads to as a variety of interesting options. You don’t need to carelessly let the muddleheaded, nonsensical, dead-end routes of thinking and valuing mix in as legitimate and open options so as not to appear “biased”. There are enough good questions and enough good options that good thinkers have that that’s where your energies can be spent teaching your kids to think open-endedly.

But, you ask, “Why not just let the kids explore the bad answers as plausible and just trust they’ll figure it out on their own?”

The reason is that humans are loaded up with natural tendencies towards cognitive biases, logically fallacious reasoning, and superstitiousness. And we have a brutally difficult time sifting true from false beliefs “on our own”. There is a wealth of good information in science and a wealth of good insights and puzzles from philosophy that even kids can grasp. And, most importantly, they need to be educated to understand the kinds of systematic, rigorous thinking that helps sift the good beliefs from the bad. These tools and the discoveries we’ve made are hard won human accomplishments. Let your kids start out by reaping those benefits. Help them climb right up onto the shoulders of the giants from the start.

You can do this in part through dialectical questioning that lets them come to their own answers to an extent. But part of the “good answers” you should be teaching them is how not to commit the kinds of fallacies that lead even grown adults to be under the sway of bogus religious authorities who restrict their options in belief and practice for no good reasons. Natural human reasoning is systematically flawed. We need rigorous techniques of scientific and philosophical and mathematical analysis to correct for its mistakes. Treating it as up to people to “just figure it out for themselves” is irresponsible. They will frequently get it wrong that way. They need to be proactively trained in critical thought. And that means being helped to see the simple errors that even most adults can’t. It means to learn how not to accept bullshit for an answer. Again, this doesn’t mean dogmatizing the kids. It means helping them see clearly the kinds of things that should be clear to any properly educated adults. Religious superstitions persist because our brains are still hardwired for certain kinds of errors and because religious institutions deliberately and systematically reinforce the brain’s worst approaches to reasoning. Supernaturalist religions proactively encourage overactive agency detection, they ingrain it in kids that it’s a good thing to tightly associate their identity with their beliefs, they teach them to be manipulable by fear, they muddle kids’ abilities to tell fantasy from reality, they role model motivated reasoning, etc., etc. Just look at lists of cognitive biases and logical fallacies and count up all the routine examples of religious messaging and indoctrination techniques that shamelessly exacerbate our cognitive weaknesses rather than correct them.

I say do the opposite. Deliberately focus on educating kids, whenever you can, to spot a cognitive bias or a logical fallacy in action. Go over the reasoning processes and how they work in a way they can understand. Even talk about why you think a religious idea is false by going over how the mind leads to that kind of error. Playing dumb and “neutral” about the falseness of patently ludicrous religious ideas disrespects children’s intellects. Start by asking them what they think and why. And gently reason with them. Help them analyze which of their reasons are good and why. Just having a reason is not enough. Not even just agreeing with mom or dad is enough. Only having good reasons. Be respectful of their disagreements and congratulate them on their cleverness when they have a good objection to your ideas. Help them develop their own lines of thinking even when you don’t agree with them. Say, “That’s a good idea! Let’s see where it leads!” rather than shooting it down. If it fails guide them to see how it fails through a process that rewards them for thinking in the first place. And when they ask you what you think, they need honesty. Tell them as sincerely as you would an adult but without putting down their own speculations in a way they may take personally. Be honest about how strongly or not you hold a given opinion. Be honest about the reasons and the reasons for holding your view as strongly or as tentatively as you do. Ask them what they think of your reasons and whether they’re compelling, and why or why not.

None of this has anything to do with forcing them to believe as you do. If you’re matter of fact about it and not making a big song and dance out of how important it is they agree with you, they won’t freak out. They won’t see this as any different than any other topic that they talk to you about and get your honest opinions about. They won’t know religion is supposed to be a matter for excruciating manipulations and game playing and obfuscation and confusing ideas and parents who lose their minds. They’ll treat it matter-of-factly and open-mindedly and as a topic for speculation if that’s what you model and if that’s the tone you set.

And, again, open up genuine areas of puzzle and inquiry for your kids and think with them. This is how you create kids who can think for themselves–by giving them real problems where thinkers with good ideas can disagree. Practice taking positions and speculating freely about those kinds of questions where you can be genuinely uncertain with them and changing your mind with them. Don’t pretend that the myriad pseudo-questions religions ask are hard or are ones your kids need to waste their time agonizing through for themselves. Catch them up with what the best thinkers think so they don’t have to waste time on nonsense but can get going thinking through legitimate questions and get way ahead of all the other kids. There are lots of fascinating questions about religion to worry about without giving a second moment’s thought to preposterous propositions like whether Jesus rose from the dead or whether we need him to save our souls.

What I will admit is a problem is that plenty of atheists are themselves too incurious about philosophy and religion. Too many atheists have knee jerk, ill thought out (and usually scientistic) assumptions about philosophical issues and not enough interest in figuring out what the deeper and better puzzles related to philosophy and religion might be. That’s not a problem of atheist parents passing on their atheism and their humanism to their kids though, rather it’s a problem of atheist parents who are not themselves invested enough in critical thinking and wide education. Were I to have kids the atheistic things they said and thought that were philosophically improvable would be just as subject to challenges as any religious things they said. Just as I challenge my fellow atheists or my atheist students wherever interesting ideas lead, I would challenge my kids to think more clearly and precisely and probingly should their atheistic thinking be lazy. And, just as I do with all my philosophy students, I would even explore with my kids those theistic ideas that actually are interesting or raise good philosophical puzzles. Again, the goal would be to move kids past the stuff that should be settled and to the stuff that’s really worth thinking about and having conflicting opinions about. There’s so much of that out there.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, for far too long atheists have been the deferent ones in their families and their cultures. If two spouses are religious, the atheist is almost always the one allowing the kids to be indoctrinated into the faith and values of the religious parent, no matter how antithetical they might be to the beliefs and values of the atheist parent. If there are two families, one atheistic and one religious, the atheists are far more likely to be raising their kids in a laissez-faire way with respect to beliefs while the religious family is loading their kids up with at least some deep religious identity and enculturation and, in many cases, numerous profoundly ingrained beliefs. And this is unfair to the kids of atheists. There’s no reason their parents shouldn’t understand what their religious counterparts rightly get—that proactive discussion about matters of ethics and spirituality and human nature and our place in the cosmos is vitally important. These aren’t subjects for passivity and neutrality, even if they are subjects for a plurality of good opinions to chew over. Humanists need to be developing outlets for people’s, including kids’, needs for ritual, exercise of their “spiritual” sides, and deliberate ethical cultivation. Again, we can expose kids to multiple ideas without treating all ideas as equal simply because some stagnatingly stubborn tradition happens to hold to them. We can have (and we need) deliberately humanistic communities where philosophy is vigorously and informedly discussed, where values are deliberately formed and routinely reexamined and debated, where “religious” and “spiritual” practices that ennoble and empower people are cultivated as an alternative to those that try to keep people trapped in stagnating, outdated modes of thinking and valuing, deferent to baseless authorities.

I don’t think religion is an inherent evil. Far from it, I rather wish humanists were better about creating 21st Century religions (or religious-equivalents, at least) that empowered people where the extant, mostly outdated religions are failing people (besides a few notable exceptions like the relatively humanistic UUs). I want religions that simply move past supernaturalism, faith, and authoritarianism and are grounded in a rational and proactive approach to reality.

And no I wouldn’t disown my kids if they adopted a faith-based, supernaturalistic, and/or authoritarian religion despite all my efforts to see through the flaws in such bankrupt institutions and ideas. I think that in such a case my kids would be at serious risk of suffering intellectually and with respect to their values because surrendering their autonomy to arbitrary authorities like that is unduly constraining of their options and their ability to discern what is true from what is false and what is good from what is bad. I don’t think that’s “simply equal” to the life of open-ended and rational philosophical reasoning about the most important issues that I would try to cultivate in them. I don’t think it’s a matter of indifference to the quality of their life if they hamstring their own ability to engage with reality like that. Should I have kids, I would sure hope that by that time there are far more flourishing humanistic communities and resources developed so that they won’t feel the need to do that in order to have their spiritual, communal, ritual, symbolical, and mythical needs met.

Your Thoughts?


My Atheistic Appreciation For Religion
On Why We Should Do Specifically Humanistic Charity
In Defense of Trying to Deconvert People

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