How Should Atheist Parents Approach Religious Children?

I received this email recently. I did send some of my own suggestions to the parent, but I told her I’d also put the message on here and see what others have to say:

After struggling with issues of faith for a while, my husband and I have recently “de-converted”. Our boys (ages 10 & 12) have been raised in the church and are true (fundamentalist) believers. For example, I recently heard my son say that evolution was stupid, so I asked him why he thought that. He cited the Bible and became very upset when I suggested that there might be some truth to evolution after all. We want to teach them to think critically and especially not to have blind faith in the Bible or church leaders, but we really don’t know how to broach the issue or even whether we should at this point. We’ve been reading a lot of books, articles, web material, etc. but haven’t come across anything that addresses this issue. Do you know of any resources for this?

If you have any advice, please leave a message in the comments!


[tags]atheist, atheism, parenting[/tags]

  • http://toomanytribbles.blogspot.com/ toomanytribbles

    1. cosmos dvds
    2. growing up in the universe dvds

    required watching for every family.

  • http://badidea.wordpress.com/ Bad

    My personal opinion is that people shouldn’t feel like there is some sort of pressing demand to argue someone out of their beliefs, even your own children: loving relationships here are a lot more important than making it a situation like forcing them (which is exactly what I think is bad about teaching kids to be in a particular faith from long before they have any choice in the matter). That said, honest relationships have to be based on frankness and openness about what you believe and don’t believe.

    In this case, the best you can do is be honest with the kids about the fact that you don’t agree with them. They are free to believe what they want, but that doesn’t mean that you have to hide your own opinion either. The reality is that at 10 & 12, their present opinions have virtually no chance of remaining the same no matter what: very very few adults or even teenagers still think the same things they thought when they were that age, and phases tend to come and go pretty fast. Heck, most of us are downright embarrassed about all the crazy things we said and believed at that age.

    So… don’t worry so much about it: give them the benefit of the doubt they are going to continue to grow and change their opinions over time. As long as you are forthright about your skepticism of those views and your values without acting like this means they are being pressured to conform, you’re doing your job. At that age, logically arguing with them isn’t going to work in the way of convincing them, because 10 and 12 year olds don’t really work at that level yet (this has nothing to do with religion either: kids that age just don’t really even listen to the logic of others very carefully: they simply express their needs and desires). What you can do at that age instead is teach them to be logical and questioning, which doesn’t necessarily have to involve any particular controversy at all, just values and methods for thinking. Teach them about the scientific method and empiricism and why it’s important and I’ll bet you dollars to doughnuts that they are far more likely to figure things out on their own (with those tools and values) than they are likely to change their minds just because you tell them that they are wrong.

  • Darren

    Ask those childen “why?” at every opportunity. Make them think for themselves.

  • http://misanthropic-bastard.blogspot.com/ Rasputin

    Clearly they need to be beaten into submission.

    That or the “why” thing.

  • http://www.blacksunjournal.com BlackSun

    Now we know how severe is the poison of faith: Kids won’t even listen to the very parents who taught them the garbage in the first place.

    Faith: Snake venom for the mind.

    My advice? A long sit down (however long it takes) with the kids and systematically go over the evidence about each and every false belief. Have the internet, books and videos at the ready. I don’t buy the idea that it’s somehow in conflict with “loving relationships.”

    What’s more pivotal to love than trust? And what’s more indicative of trust than admitting to your own children you were wrong about something? You’re not “arguing them out of their beliefs.” You’re just presenting the facts. That you cared enough about their mental health to insist on it is going to engender a much stronger relationship in the long run.

    Beyond the “sit down,” you’re going to have to change their peer group and get them away from other fundie kids. Maybe a trip to Camp Quest is in order. Good luck!!!

  • http://www.conversationattheedge.com/ Helen

    I would teach them critical thinking by having conversations not about religion which encourage them to think. Simply ask them thoughtful questions when you talk with them, but avoid what seems like an attack on their beliefs, since that would probably lead them to get defensive and miss the point.

    If you teach them the skills in general I think they will use them to evaluate their religious beliefs when they get to the age of questioning what they’ve been taught – which probably is going to happen quite soon.

  • http://unorthodoxatheism.blogspot.com Reed Braden

    Ask those childen “why?” at every opportunity. Make them think for themselves.

    When I was a kid, I did the same to my parents. It seems amusing to have parents continuously ask “why” to their kids, but it may work.

    Just don’t get mad at your kids or become too argumentative.

  • Darren

    It seems amusing to have parents continuously ask “why” to their kids, but it may work.

    It’s an interesting reversal, yes. Of course, when children ask “why?”, they are seeking answers, because they don’t know or understand. In this case, when the parents ask “why?”, it is to employ the Socratic method of teaching. The point is not to argue or prove a point, but to encourage critical thinking.

  • http://scientianatura.blogspot.com Shalini

    Camp Quest.

  • http://badidea.wordpress.com/ Bad

    My advice? A long sit down (however long it takes) with the kids and systematically go over the evidence about each and every false belief.

    Yeah, that’s going to work really well with a 10 year old. They love to just sit and be lectured to for hours on end by their parents.

    The idea of introducing them to a more diverse range of people and experiences is a good one though. If they hand out with fundamentalist friends exclusively, they will be far less likely to question things than if their friends have diverse beliefs or no beliefs.

  • Tammy

    It actually sounds like this family is in an enviable position that will strengthen their ties to one another. If these parents are just beginning the never-ending process of figuring out what is true, it’s the chance for them as a family to read and learn together. Get the kids interested in this search you’re on, and encourage them to question every source, even the ones you’ve been teaching them are infallible. As the grownups, you get to set the tone and the rules, and admitting that you were misguided in placing your faith in ancient texts and church leadership will actually serve as a lesson in humility to your sons. I agree that the Cosmos dvds should be “required viewing for every family”, as stated above, but haven’t seen the “Growing up in the Universe” series, although I do look forward to watching it and highly recommend everything I’ve read by Dawkins. If you are looking for reasons why not to believe in what’s written in the Bible, and haven’t already, read the books by Bart Ehrman, starting with “Misquoting Jesus”, then if the kids still want to “take you on” when it come to biblical scholarship, you’ll be better prepared.
    It’s very important in kids at this age, who will still grow and learn and change opinions many times, not to try to prove what isn’t. You now have the oppurtunity to show them and learn with them what there is instead. I hope this helps, and I’ll be very interested in what others who’ve gone through a similar de-conversion as this couple advise.
    It may be tough on them socially, and for kids this age, that can be everything, but I agree with everyone who’s recommending to get them away from their church friends. True friends will stick around even if you switch churches or drop out altogether, and that’s another invaluable lesson to learn at age 10 or 12.

  • Concerned Mom

    The main point my husband and I have been debating is whether or not to tell them that we’ve changed our minds. At first, we were even pretending that we still went to church. (Now we just drop them off.) My husband felt that this issue was too big for them to deal with at this age, and that no good could come of broaching the subject right now.

    While I agree that I don’t want to burden their young minds with heavy issues, I’ve worried about the dishonesty inherent in such a major omission. I’ve also had some concerns about the (possibly irreversible) harm that church could be doing. For example, whenever I did let them know I was skipping church to do homework (I work full time and am pursuing an MBA), my younger son would get upset and talk about how missing church is a sin. (I told him the Bible never says you’re required to go to church once a week – it doesn’t!) We’ve also noticed that he seems to react with revulsion to any even mildly “sexy” image of the female body. This bothers my husband, too, since it doesn’t seem like a “normal” reaction from a ten-year-old boy (who has always liked little girls). I certainly don’t want them to be have to carry all the guilt I’ve carried my entire life. I also don’t want them to have the narrow-minded attitude toward gay people, people of other faiths, etc. that they will certainly be indoctrinated with at church. A few years ago (long before we began discussing these issues with each other), we tried to leave our church for unrelated reasons. However, our boys missed their Sunday school teachers & friends and were generally so unhappy about this, that we ended up going back to it and have been “stuck” there ever since.

    Since my husband and I haven’t come to an agreement on what to do or how to do it, we’ve done nothing. Now things have unexpectedly come to a head. After being home schooled their whole lives, the boys just started public school for the first time (again, for unrelated reasons). That’s how the subject of evolution came up, and I realized for the first time how deeply they both believe. The fact that I’m even willing to consider evolution makes my son think I’ve been infected by some evil germ equivalent to converting to Scientology. I explained to him that evolution is supported by evidence, while Scientology clearly isn’t. I told him I wasn’t trying to convince him of anything, but asked him to attend his science class with an open mind.

    This week, our church is putting on a Creationism series, and the boys have asked to go and want me to go with them. On the one hand, this seems like a great opportunity to discuss some of these issues we’ve been avoiding. On the other hand, since their basis for belief is the veracity of the Bible, the only way I can think of to even get them to consider another viewpoint is to weaken the Bible’s credibility in their minds. (Part of me still can’t believe I just said that.)

    That shouldn’t be hard to do – I know the Bible backwards and forwards, having read it all the way through multiple times and even memorized large sections of it as a child. The Bible itself is one of the primary causes of my loss of faith. But, are they too young to discuss that? Will discussing it do more harm than good? If so, how can I get them to think critically when the huge roadblock of faith is in the way?

    As my husband can tell you, I’m prone to over-obsessing about things, especially as they relate to the boys, so thanks for letting me “vent” in your community.

  • http://www.blacksunjournal.com BlackSun

    Yeah, that’s going to work really well with a 10 year old. They love to just sit and be lectured to for hours on end by their parents.

    As the proud father of three grown atheist sons, I can tell you that the long philosophical conversations I had with my boys made a huge difference. I never looked at it as “lecturing.” These started well before age 10. Once they began to understand what was at stake, they sought out the conversations, and always came to me with big questions. To this day, we still like to talk philosophy, and sometimes they successfully challenge my ideas.

    Treat children like they can’t understand, and they won’t.

    Right now, these boys are at a crisis point, and they need an intervention. Otherwise, their minds could be ruined for life. Faith is tenacious and insidious. It will not be an easy job to undo the damage. Especially if they ever begin to characterize it as a way to express their rebellion.

  • http://www.conversationattheedge.com/ Helen

    Concerned Mom, I don’t think it’s that unusual for a 10 year old boy to have that reaction about anything to do with sex, no matter what his belief system is. Yes, he is framing it in his Christian belief system, but he’s probably just Christianizing a normal reaction for his stage of development.

    Contrary to what some might say, I don’t think this is a ‘crisis’ – I think the most important thing is to do your best to have a good relationship with your children. If you can do that then when they are ready they will be interested in what you think about life, the universe and everything.

    Consider this: if you push your atheism on them you are not presenting them with ‘the truth’ – what you are doing is triggering what Christian ideas they have of atheism; probably an overly negative and scary view. It will take a while for them to see the truth about people who don’t believe and ideas they think are anti-Biblical.

    Sometimes ‘the truth’ is not an option because whatever you say, people freak out instead of giving you a chance to explain.

    I expect the transition to public school has rocked their worlds already. So they might be feeling stressed about life anyway.

    Anyway it’s up to you…but please consider this. Happy people are more open. Stressed people tend to entrench and get defensive. Maybe they have as much stress as they can handle right now. I would go to the creationism series if they are asking you. If you want them to be open to what you think, you need them to see you are open (even if in reality you have already been there and done that re: creationism and evolution – because they don’t know that).

    Hang in there…parenting is not easy, is it? There’s always a new challenge…I must have been a failure at imparting my faith because neither of my kids seemed to care much when I quit church; they happily quit with me. Oh well ;-) So admittedly I have not faced this particular problem myself and might not know what I am talking about…

  • http://www.myspace.com/leecookebarbo The female Lee

    Concerned Mom, I went through the same thing that you are dealing with now when I turned my back on my religious upbringing 9 years ago. My children at that time were ages 15, 11, and 6.

    The second posting on this thread by ‘Bad’ is the approach that my husband and I took… and it has worked well. This is not to say that we did not have our rough patches; there were disagreements as the kids grew older and more critical of us – typical teen behavior.

    I found that when we consistently answered the kids’ questions as honestly and open-mindedly as possible, we gained their respect over time. We never attempted to tell the kids what to think or believe – we only offered our opinions and views and the reasons behind them. If a discussion became heated, we left the discussion for a later time.

    My daughter (my oldest child) is now 24, and while we still disagree on our beliefs, we respect one another’s opinions and we are very close. In spite of being of believer, she does not feel the need to attend church, nor does she permit other, more zealous believers to pressure her into feeling that she is falling short. She approaches faith from her own perspective and believes on her own terms… not by any doctrine or dogma.

    My older son is the same way… he attends church when he wants to, but he does not fall for everything the church people tell him. His faith is very much on his own terms.

    My youngest son is agnostic. He does not permit anyone to push a certain set of beliefs on him. He is very quick to point out to others that the believer can be no more certain of their god than anyone who has any other god, or no god at all.

    I do not think that any force-feeding of any point of view is the answer for anyone, no matter what their beliefs state. Just be forthright, honest, and strong when the subject comes up… and it will… over and over again. Do not bring the subject up… simply take advantage of those teachable moments that occur on their own. Most of all; Lead By Example. Do not attempt to lead a double life in order to maintain peace in your home. Your example is the most effective teaching tool you have at your disposal.

    I don’t know how difficult it will be for you. I have had a few major battles in which my children saw me as the enemy.

    Once I had made it clear to my family that I was no longer a believer (and learned that my husband was on the same wavelength), I no longer accompanied my children to church, church events, or any other related event so as not to appear in conflict with myself. I made it clear that I did not support the views of my former faith, and I would not subject myself to what I firmly viewed as misinformation.

    As my children became teens, I refused to be their driver to church and church-related activities. They were required to arrange for their own transportation to church.

    I also made it quite clear to church pastors and members what my stance was, that it was firm, and that I would not permit home visits that were geared toward any directive other than a neighborly one. I also let them know that my children still wished to attend their church and all I wanted was for my children to be treated with respect, in spite of the beliefs of my husband and myself.

    I officially renounced my church membership in a letter to the church secretary, and I asked to be removed from the membership rolls. The church members were less than supportive.

    Once the youth pastor, pastor, and members of the church began to directly attack my husband and myself with my children caught in the middle, I then halted my childrens’ attendance to that particular church. I still permitted my children to attend church… just not that one. The new church leaders were made aware of my stance and my past battles with the other church. I let them know that while I was not attempting to dictate my children’s beliefs to them, I would not permit an attack on myself or my own views with my children as the prizes in a twisted war.

    Yes, my children were angry with me – but children are often angry with parents over the protective behavior we exhibit in defense of our families (such as how late to stay out, who they are permitted to befriend, when and where they are permitted to go, and other points that kids and parents disagree over).

    Over time, my children began to understand that I was not going to change… and they began to defend me and my husband to their friends and to church members. They also became more respectful of the beliefs of others. When 9/11 happened, my children were among the few who were not in favor of going after ‘the ragheads’ like so many of the other kids. They were more analytical in the formation of their opinions concerning the attacks than other kids their ages… and I was proud that I had had enough influence on them to think more critically than many of their peers. My children had learned to be more open-minded and tolerant of the beliefs of others.

    I think you will be fine. Granted, you are likely to experience the occasional battle, but just keep in mind that, in the end, you and your children are really on the same team, and that they will respect your honesty and integrity as long as you are sincere and consistent.

  • Karen

    Concerned Mom, I was in the same situation you are a few years ago when I left the church and stopped trying to believe in anything supernatural. You’re fortunate that your husband and you came to the same conclusions (mine didn’t) but that’s another story.

    I let my kids know that I was uncomfortable with some of the things being taught at our church, but even after I stopped going regularly my husband insisted that they go with him. Eventually, they dropped out and my husband changed churches, but the boys had never really enjoyed church anyway. I felt that I had to be honest with them about where I was at, so I sat down and told them the truth. They were probably 12 and 14 at the time.

    They were a little shocked- my older, more traditional son in particular – but they were not upset or defensive with me. I made it very clear that the decision about religion was theirs to make, not mine, and that I would always love them and support them no matter what. I never “indoctrinated” them in atheism, though I also didn’t keep my feelings about various situations (Terry Schiavo, stem cell research, gay rights, right to choose, etc) to myself.

    I think in order to have a close and open relationship with them, you should be as honest as possible with them. I might not use words like “atheist” or “agnostic” with them, particularly if they are still in a fundy church where they’re likely getting very negative feedback about words like that. Encourage them to question everything, think for themselves and have open minds, especially in science class.

    I would definitely accompany them to any special programs at church so you know what they’re being taught and exposed to and so you can counteract any blatant nonsense with some facts. However, I’d be wary of letting them attend a creationism summit: From what I’ve seen, those things are pure propaganda, through and through. I wouldn’t want their minds poisoned with that “us versus them” crap when it comes to science – they probably get enough of that in Sunday school.

    Just a couple of weeks ago, my younger son brought up the idea of religion when he was invited to go on a church beach trip with a friend. I told him he should listen to what the youth pastor had to say and I would be fine if he wanted to attend that youth group on a more regular basis. He said, “No, I don’t want to. Y’know, I never really believed that stuff anyway. It just didn’t make any sense to me!” I was pretty impressed with him – he’s a lot smarter than I was at his age! :-)

  • Concerned Mom

    Thanks, Helen. I certainly don’t want to push anything on them. I also think that taking them out of church at this point will just foster resentment, and could even entrench their faith more deeply by “proving” how bad a lack of it is.

    I sometimes would like to tell them we don’t believe anymore. I guess that doing so will certainly be a stressor for them and will raise a lot of “why” questions that won’t be answerable without bringing the Bible into it….

  • http://www.blacksunjournal.com BlackSun

    Consider this: if you push your atheism on them you are not presenting them with ‘the truth’

    Atheism is the absence of belief in gods, nothing more. So of course you are not going to ‘push’ this on them. They will eventually figure that part out for themselves. What you should ‘push’ on them are facts, along with clear definitions of the capabilities and limits of human knowledge. In this discussion, you have to also defeat the idea of relativism, which is what all faith ultimately falls back on: “my truth” vs. “your truth.”

    The knowledge paradigm only consists of only one kind of truth, that which can be objectively verified. This is what they must understand. Opinions and beliefs have no intrinsic truth value whatsoever, and are therefore to be avoided, no matter whose they are.

    You should teach them that their own opinions must fall back on facts, and make sure they understand the clear-cut difference. Give them critical thinking skills, i.e. how to spot the fallacies they have been hearing at church: Circular reasoning, Argument from authority, Argument from popularity, the checkered history of scripture, etc. And point out to them all the times religious people bring in the “god of the gaps” when faced with an unexplained phenomenon.

    You may also want to check out my article on Atheist Metaphysics and Religious Equivocation.

  • Kate

    Response to Invitation for Comments
    How about this: unless the kids are actually hurting someone else as a result of their beliefs, why not continue as you are? From the letter it appeared you were honest, and questioned them from what may be from your own interest in their processes and/or to get them to think critically etc., and you are open to hearing what they have to say. Sounds like good parenting to me.

    The kids, and everyone else, get to believe whatever they believe at any point in time. How can it be otherwise? External forces may encourage, train, or pressure the individual on what to believe but beliefs are internal and change in large and small ways as individuals develop. [I know some would disagree and say it is possible for someone to believe they believe in a certain way only to find they actually believe in a very different way during a “moment of truth,” so to speak; but that gets to be a tree falling in a forest debate.]

    Apart from the religious belief issue, the kids are at ages of beginning the deliberate individuation we all go through. Once we learn other families are different from our own, comparisons begin many new ways of looking at the world. We cling to some parentally endorsed views and refine or reject others. I so appreciate the open-minded parent who wrote in for ideas in addressing religious issues under the changing parental perspectives and trust Hement had some helpful ideas.

    I would encourage these parents to be sensitive to where the kids are developmentally. At their age, kids need parents to help them feel safe. When there is a significant change in the family, any family member/s can feel confusion and uncertainty. Kids, especially, need to feel that a specific change, or change in general, is something they can handle and that the family structure continues to be secure.

    Maybe a personal illustration would clarify the safety issue. Though an atheist for over 30 years, I was reared Christian. I don’t remember the source, but at 6 years old, I had the idea that people who “say swear words” go to hell. A very dear friend of the family passed away and I was hysterical about his going to hell because I had heard him use some of these words. My mother had a hell of a time trying to convince me that this would not happen to Don and she was only somewhat successful. I was uneasy over it for what seemed a very long time. If she had questioned where I had heard the notion and then discussed it with me, I believe it would not only have spared the grief then but would have spared me some similar fears.

    The point is that my mom went into damage control struggling with what to say about hell rules rather than actually processing the fear with me. Fortunately, the boys in the family of the letter writer are past the extreme concrete thinking of a 6 year old. Providing an atmosphere of acceptance of other viewpoints would be helpful. Providing a safe atmosphere for open discussion will help them feel secure. Their beliefs are their own business now. Sharing points of view is appropriate and offering materials can be good if presented as something for their consideration rather than as something they must accept. I wish the family well and hope the “de-conversion” feels more like an evolution and not a belief crisis for the parents.

  • Aj

    I’m finding this hard to understand. You’re willing to leave your children in a place that indoctrinates them, teaches them hate and irrationalism? It’s a serious form of child abuse. What would you be unwilling them to learn to hate? Is their resent a valid excuse to letting them come to harm? Of course, if there are non-harmful activities that the church provides, you might want to think about replacing them.

    You shouldn’t fear questions, it’s important that you’re honest and can answer your children. A defense of rational atheism does not require one mention of the Bible. The reasoning why it’s irrational to believe in any religious idea, can be successfully justified through reason. It’s quite easy to find examples of counter-arguments to all the popular arguments for the existance of God. I recommend The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins.

  • http://www.conversationattheedge.com/ Helen

    Concerned Mom, I see that other people are saying, be honest and I understand why you want to be.

    My main thought is, it might be kindest to let your sons get used to their new school(s) before you add another stressor into their lives.

    You have the choice of who feels uncomfortable – at present it’s you; when you tell it will be them; so be careful that your reasons for telling aren’t overly based more on your own desire to be more comfortable. I think this comes up a lot when people feel uncomfortable about having secrets. They tell themselves “it’s best for the other person if I tell” but really their main motive is, they want the burden off them.

    If you think of this more as a journey than a crisis it might help. In a journey you don’t have to navigate perfectly. You can still get there if you take a few wrong turns along the way. And maybe you’ll see some interesting things you wouldn’t have seen if you’d gone the quickest route and not got a bit off track here and there.

    One other thought – disregard it if it seems irrelevant to you: as ex-Christians you’re probably used to feeling guilty about stuff…you’ve probably been trained into into it and that doesn’t vanish overnight. You don’t need to feel guilty any more…you don’t have to try so hard…ironically the Christian message is supposed to give that freedom but in reality I think it makes people who care work harder than ever to please God.

  • Kate

    Addendum: I found out how much happened between the time I wrote and sent my response. Some good, caring stuff, and I’m sure you will handle the situation well based on my impression of you from your words. Have to say I bristled over the “over-obsessing” label, though; you have every right to be doing what you are to be a good parent. Jeesh!

  • http://badidea.wordpress.com Bad

    I agree that taking them out of church is a not a good move if they want to be there. On the other hand, if that church is not accepting of you and your husband’s stance, they need to be told in no certain terms to back off and respect your wishes: these are your kids, not theirs, and they have no right to turn them against you (I can’t believe that people would really do that sort of thing, but they do).

    I still think that the fact that they are so young, and have probably barely even hit puberty, (I didn’t “get” girls until waaaay past 10, I was still clueless well into high school) means that you shouldn’t let the normal turmoil of them growing up and and rebelling a little against their parents seem like its a radically different thing than what most kids go through. I also think going to a public school will help, because they’ll find lots of different sorts of kids there, many of whom don’t care very much about religion in particular and can help them find different and more diverse interests than just what this one church is telling them.

    The longer you wait to let them know who you are and where you are at, though, the more like a big bad secret its going to feel like when they do find out.

  • http://www.matsonwaggs.wordpress.com Kelly

    I think you’ve gotten some good advice here. I’ll try to keep this brief! First of all, I would be honest with them about how you and your husband feel, and WHY. Let them know that it’s ok if they feel differently, but you would like to talk about it from time to time so that they can understand where you are coming from, and can learn to respect each others beliefs.
    Secondly, I highly recommend you read Parenting Beyond Belief. On that website, click on the “resources” link. There are a lot of books listed there (for the kids and/or for you) that I think could really be helpful. He also has a good forum.

  • Tammy

    Hi Concerned Mom-For what it’s worth, every good mom “over-obsesses” about her kids at least sometimes. You really have to tell your kids the truth about what you believe and why you believe it, but I do agree that timing is everything. If they can’t handle the shock of fiding out you and your husand are atheists right at a time when they are trying to fit into life in a public school for the first time, it may be better to let it wait til they’re a bit more settled. Once they get their bearings and make new friends at school, they are bound to rely less and less on the church friends, who’ve been their main connection to people their own age up until now, I presume. In the meantime, arm yourself with as much information as you can. The more you know to be true, and this will be the case for your boys as well, the less sense the Bible makes.

  • Karen

    Once they get their bearings and make new friends at school, they are bound to rely less and less on the church friends, who’ve been their main connection to people their own age up until now, I presume.

    That’s a very good point. Once they start making some new friends at school, if you’re uncomfortable about what your old church may be teaching them about non-believers, you might think about changing churches as a family. You can tell them they can still stay in touch with their old church friends, but meanwhile you and your husband could check out some Unitarian churches, where people who attend do not even have to believe in god.

    If they were to get involved in the Unitarian youth group, they’d get a whole different perspective on religion and make even more new friends of all kinds – who won’t be praying for your re-salvation or putting you and your husband down as “backsliders” (which you would have been called in my old church).

  • Kat

    You people ROCK. I don’t think there’s anything decent advice I could add.

    Good luck to you and yours, parents.

  • Kat

    You people ROCK. I don’t think there’s any decent advice I could add.

    Good luck to you and yours, parents.

  • Philosopher Jeff

    Concerned Mom,

    I don’t think you should drop a bombshell on them and tell them about your and your husbands disagreement with the church. I would go to church with them and start discussing the things they were told in church by asking them “why” questions.

    Don’t make the kids feel like they either have to pick you or the church! They are too young and this could chase them away from you! Keep going to church with them until they start to question the bible and the teachings they are receiving. Once they are ready to start skipping church and question what they are being told, then still wait a few months longer before exploring the question of God.

    Take your time! They have been told the bible is absolute for years and it will take years for them to lessen their dependence upon the bible and become independent thinkers.

    Be patient. Make sure you spend lots of time showing them love while you start questioning their beliefs. Love and patience is the cure.

    Best of luck. I can’t imagine how difficult this is for you and your husband.

  • Darryl

    So far as I know, I was the first one in my family to reject faith. I worried over my kids and what they might believe, since by that time they had been indoctrinated as I had been by my parents. I did not try to deconvert them or change their minds on anything. I simply told them what was on my mind whenever they asked about it, and I listened to them when they were inclined to talk to me about these things. Perhaps my kids are unusual, but they have both come to positions quite similar to my own, yet distinctly theirs. Religion is not a problem for them in any way. I am pleased to see them happy and well-adjusted on these matters.

  • Deconverting Christian

    I’m currently going through a similar experience to yours – but from the child’s point of view. I was raised in an extremely conservative, religious family and remember having reactions to the idea of evolution like you describe your son having.

    My advice? Don’t attack their faith directly. Rather, as others have said, introduce them to new ideas and new people in a variety of ways: have them join groups that aren’t as religious as Sunday School, so they make friends outside of their religion. Introduce them to other cultures – try new foods, watch Bollywood movies, that sort of thing. If either of them are big readers, I highly recommend The Golden Compass trilogy. Get them passionate about things that aren’t religious! There’s a lot more meaning to life and the world we live in than can just be found in religion.
    They’ll probably have quite a few questions – particularly about why you and your husband believed for so long and suddenly (to their eyes) decided to change. They may be angry, there may be tears, and there probably won’t be a quick and easy resolution. Be there for them, answer their questions, and accept them as they learn to accept the world.

  • Jonah Emery

    It’s not so much the beliefs that are the serious part… it’s the cult like environment that your son is being subjected too. And you too. As a minister, when I made the exit from fundamentalism, it became pretty clear I had to move.

    What we believe and what we throw our lot in has big consequences. Unfortunately the issidious nature of the writings of Paul and the misinterpretations of fundamentalists pretty much mean you have to get away from it.

    My advice?

    Move.

    If your in a big place, move to the other side of town, 20 minutes away. Get into a different enivironment to stop the social pressure of church attendance. Get your kid out of there as soon as possible.

  • http://www.conversationattheedge.com/ Helen

    Hi concerned Mom’s husband – it sounds like you have a well-thought out plan. Trust your parenting instincts and your knowledge of your own sons. Some people will disagree with what you are doing and think another way is better, but, hasn’t that always been the case? ;-) I expect the resources you ordered will provide additional helpful information/be useful.

    I hope everything works out the way you want for you, your wife and your sons.

  • Paul

    Hello everyone, I’m Concerned Mom’s husband. I posted this a few minutes ago, but it disappeared when I tried to edit something, so I’m sorry if this is a repeat post.

    We want to say thank you to all of you who have given us your thoughts and advice. We were truly touched by many of the comments above.

    We have considered all of the comments and have decided to continue doing what we’ve been doing, which, incidentally, coincides with much of the advice given. We are going to take things in easy slow steps as they come up.

    I’m sure some kids their age could respond OK to a no-holds-barred sit-down talk where everything is laid on the table to be discussed and challenged, but, knowing our children and their idiosyncrasies, we think it is best for our family to take things slowly and in steps as discussion opportunities arise. (Although, if worse comes to worst, I suppose that type of sit-down talk might be our only choice.)

    A big first step, we think, already occurred when our oldest son said evolution was stupid and we had a light talk with him about it. He wasn’t convinced, but he was put at ease a little. We told them both to think about things, and to not just believe something because someone says it is true (including us), but to really seek out facts that can be backed up. I think a seed was planted that evening.

    We did go to the first night of the creationism event last night, and we plan to discuss that with them this evening. Due to the harsh propaganda and downright nastiness of the guy doing the presentation, we have decided not to take them to the other nights. We’ll talk about all of that and we hope another thinking seed can be planted over this.

    We will, for now, continue to take them to the regular kids’ events at church. Even back when my wife and I went to church there, the boys virtually never went into the main service to hear the pastor deliver a sermon. There is always some alternate event for kids.

    We realize that they will still be subjected to the same suggestions, but, hopefully, as we learn more about how to teach them to think rationally and ask “why” questions with them, they will step in the right direction toward us without us having to yank them too hard.

    Fortunately, our church is not so much “on fire for the Lord” as some nutjob churches can be. I am quite certain that no one will harass us or the boys at home or elsewhere as we extract them from the church. Lucky for us ours is the kind of church that other “cultier” churches accuse of being “dead”.

    It is our fault we are in this situation, but just two years ago we believed all that stuff ourselves. How were we to know? We eased into rationality fairly slowly (secretly and separately at first, then, to great relief for both of us, together), all the while keeping the boys happy and secure in their social circle at church. We have ordered “Parenting Beyond Belief”, the “Growing Up in the Universe” DVDs, and a couple of other books (our local library has the Cosmos series and what we thought was a really good PBS series about evolution), and we hope these resources will help us help them develop into thinkers.

    Thanks again

  • Concerned Mom

    Hello everyone, I’m Concerned Mom’s husband. I posted this awhile ago, but it disappeared. Sorry if this is a double-post.

    We want to say thank you to all of you who have given us your thoughts and advice. We were truly touched by many of the comments above.

    We have considered all of the comments and have decided to continue doing what we’ve been doing, which, incidentally, coincides with much of the advice given. We are going to take things in easy slow steps as they come up.

    I’m sure some kids their age could respond OK to a no-holds-barred sit-down talk where everything is laid on the table to be discussed and challenged, but, knowing our children and their idiosyncrasies, we think it is best for our family to take things slowly and in steps as discussion opportunities arise. (Although, if worse comes to worst, I suppose that type of sit-down talk might be our only choice.)

    A big first step, we think, already occurred when our oldest son said evolution was stupid and we had a light talk with him about it. He wasn’t convinced, but he was put at ease a little. We told them both to think about things, and to not just believe something because someone says it is true (including us), but to really seek out facts that can be backed up. I think a seed was planted that evening.

    We did go to the first night of the creationism event last night, and we plan to discuss that with them this evening. Due to the harsh propaganda and downright nastiness of the guy doing the presentation, we have decided not to take them to the other nights. We’ll talk about all of that and we hope another thinking seed can be planted over this.

    We will, for now, continue to take them to the regular kids’ events at church. Even back when my wife and I went to church there, the boys virtually never went into the main service to hear the pastor deliver a sermon. There is always some alternate event for kids.

    We realize that they will still be subjected to the same suggestions, but, hopefully, as we learn more about how to teach them to think rationally and ask “why” questions with them, they will step in the right direction toward us without us having to yank them too hard.

    Fortunately, our church is not so much “on fire for the Lord” as some nutjob churches can be. I am quite certain that no one will harass us or the boys at home or elsewhere as we extract them from the church. Lucky for us ours is the kind of church that other “cultier” churches accuse of being “dead”.

    It is our fault we are in this situation, but just two years ago we believed all that stuff ourselves. How were we to know? We eased into rationality fairly slowly (secretly and separately at first, then, to great relief for both of us, together), all the while keeping the boys happy and secure in their social circle at church. We have ordered “Parenting Beyond Belief”, the “Growing Up in the Universe” DVDs, and a couple of other books (our local library has the Cosmos series and what we thought was a really good PBS series about evolution), and we hope these resources will help us help them develop into thinkers.

    Thanks again

  • http://off-the-map.org/atheist/ Siamang

    What amazing advice. I’m so happy that you’re getting such good advice that I only have a tiny bit to add.

    Number one is, I think you are awesome parents, and not because I agree with you on your beliefs about religion. You are awesome parents because you are doing your best to be honest to your children about your changed beliefs, but you are also being very conscientious about theirs. In this entire thing, it’s clear that you have their beliefs and respect for their right to hold their own beliefs front and center, and that’s admirable. The next step is to respect them enough to be honest with them about your own beliefs, and it’s clear that you intend to do that. That’s brave.

    Number two is, don’t worry about them. I know it’s hard, but really, don’t.

    Number three is, don’t underestimate the power of surroundings. If they stay insulated in a bubble of like-believers, they’re more likely to model their behavior on the group at-large. If the evolution issue is a problem, take them to museums. Most science museums have youth classes or day camps for a nominal fee. Involve them in science, and surround them with people for whom science is a passion. Wow them with science. Bring them to the natural history museum… bring them to two or three. Visit the Natural History museum in every city you visit. After awhile, it’ll be pretty clear what the real deal is.

    Anyway, it’s about their surroundings… YOU don’t have to be the only person asking the right questions. Put them in some classes… let the experts work with them.

  • http://julieannmullengmail.com Julie

    Wow. I have read the post and these comments in a sort of excited state of mind. I’m really anxious to post but I almost don’t even know how to fully express myself here–I hope I don’t forget anything. Let me just get as much out as I can.

    I just want to say first that I’m a 3rd generation atheist, on both my mom and dad’s side, but I still have gone through different stages with my belief system. Being brought up by questioning and honest parents was a wonderful gift. My parents were not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but I’m incredibly grateful to them for leaving me to make my own decisions about faith and for their honesty regarding their own personal journeys of belief / non belief. My father was a staunch atheist–always, no change, no questions–he’s a great debater at this point, because he’s been doing it for so long. My mother was sort of wishy washy / spiritual and occasionally experimented with Christianity. But in the end, all my questions were always answered with, “This is how it’s been for me, and religion or atheism or deism or whatever–it’s all a very, very personal decision. And no matter what you decide, we’ll love you.”

    But for you–telling these kids that you don’t think there’s a God, well, that’s going to be a bigger blow than the Santa Claus thing. That’s for sure! God is their whole worldview. I think, though, you can’t avoid telling them. You have to just sit them down and explain what’s happening and be totally honest. Then let them know that no matter what they believe, you will love them and be there for them. Sharing your personal journey, and letting the kids know that you have really explored this issue, made perhaps some mistakes or been led astray–all that stuff is going to be tough but they will respect you for it in the long run. Kids get it, more than you probably think. It’s hard to remember being ten, but kids that age really do understand more than we give them credit for, most of the time.

    The truth is that there are way more influences in the world than you. I don’t have kids, so maybe that’s telling you the sky is blue, at this point. I’m sure you know, as a parent, that kids pick up their own ideas from friends, TV, music, whatever. I embraced my father’s atheism, after a journey with sort of loose spirituality. My brother, however, met a very pretty girl he wanted to make happy–and became a Catholic!!! So you’re going to see your kids go through a journey, just like you and your husband did. And that has got to be okay with you.

    But it has to start with total honesty.

    Also, I would really recommend you find the Unitarians or perhaps an atheist organization in your area. Or just any activity where kids can make friends and have a social group and have that social network not at all rely on religion. Your kids are being indoctrinated. And well, you did some of the indoctrinating, so you have to be honest with them if you think that you’ve changed your views.

    If they really, really want to go to Church still, I suppose you can let them. I used to get permission to go to Church with my friends when I was a kid. It never really poisoned my mind–I just got to see what Church was like. I was a little afraid of Hell, but ultimately I rejected all of that stuff, just like my Dad. But I would seriously look for other activities for your kids, so they get a balanced perspective.

    I do believe that indoctrination into religion is a form of mental abuse, and I can’t really mince words about that. But on the other hand, taking the kids suddenly out of something they enjoy might be a big problem and just create a backlash. It’s true–I hear you on that.

    Consider this: in addition to being brought up by unbelievers, I also had to move every two years as a kid. And I was totally, totally fine. I complained, and then I made new friends. Friends when you’re ten, or even in high school–they’re a little easier to find than friends when you’re in your 30s. Kids make friends with practically anyone who’s around. And right now, your kids’ friends at that Church, while they might be nice, are reenforcing fundamentally flawed thinking that might affect your kids forever.

    So can you come up with some kind of multi-step plan to get them out of there? Or just stop dropping them off now?

    Whatever you decide, my last comment would be that you will find, as an atheist, that you avoid conversation about your beliefs with many, many acquaintances, coworkers, family members, and even friends. We all are a bit guilty–well most of us–of being in the closet when we need to be. It’s just to hard to confront the majority of the US every single day. But don’t be in the closet with your children, who you love and are responsible for. Be proud of your new understanding of the universe and your place in it. It’s wonderful to question and being an atheist can make you feel more alive and more in touch with reality. Share the joy of it with them. Don’t be embarrassed and afraid in your own home.

    I think that’s everything I wanted to say.

  • Julie

    I see you posted as I was writing. Obviously, we don’t know your kids, so you probably know best! I would just say again that it’s joyful to be a naturalist, a skeptic, a person with a scientific outlook. So I hope you can tell your kids soon, because it’s really something to be happy about.

  • Christine

    Asking the kids why? is a great suggestion. Sit down with the kids and the bible. Show the kids all the things in the bible that have been proven false so far, such as a Flat Earth and that the sun does not revolve around the earth. If they see that there are other falsehoods in the bible they might be given the doubt they need to seriously think for themselves.
    In the book “Maybe Right Maybe Wrong”, author Dan Barker affirms a child’s ability to think, to seek information, and to ask “”Why?”" By using factually based information and the tools of critical thought, without recourse to dogma or holy books, the book’s main character, Andrea, learns vital moral lessons. Her most important insight: Regardless of one’s own beliefs, you should respect everybody’s human rights.” evolvefish.com

  • http://badidea.wordpress.com/ Bad

    Don’t forget that by thinking all of this through as parents, you’re already doing better than the vast majority of parents: even if you later decide that this or that approach wasn’t the right one (though, how could you really know except in hindsight), the fact that you cared this much to really be thoughtful about it is worth a heck of a lot in and of itself. That’s something else that, as they get older, your kids will be able to appreciate about you.

  • Concerned Mom

    I just want to say “thanks” again to all of you who’ve so thoughtfully shared your experiences and advice. We have definitely gained a lot of good ideas that we can hopefully put into practice over time.

  • http://www.popcorngallery.blogspot.com Max Dionne

    The kids are much more likely to branch out to other ways of thinking of they come upon those ideas themselves or get them from peers. Make sure you keep them away from religious ideology and make sure they are exposed to as much secular ideas as possible — especially if they come from a peer group.

    Camp Quest is a great idea for that reason. Give them lots of exposure to the world — exposure that kids with religious parents would be sheltered from.

    Above all nurture their curiosity. That above all else will ensure the development of a questioning mind.

  • http://www.williamely.name/ William

    Education is the key. Religion cannot stand up to knowledge. The more you know, the less you believe. Thought is the opposite of belief

  • Mriana

    My younger son also thinks there is some value in Creationism/ID and accused his older brother and me of being closed minded when we said there is nothing scientific about it.

    I think the other issue is to confront the teachers, after school, at parent-teacher conferences, etc, as to what they are teaching in their classes and if it is Faith Based, there are options on how to change that, but you may have to fight your particular state too with the help of FFRF, ACLU, and alike. I never had to go that far, thankfully. Missouri is backwards, but so far it is teaching Evolution, but I heard recently that schools got the right to teach ID too. :roll: If so, you know I will be saying something.

    The other thing is to be involved in their education at home too. Not just at school.

    Know their friends and their friends’ family, if at all possible. I’m not saying choose their friends, but know who they are. Believe it or not, your kids learn things, even creationism from their friends. What to do about it another matter though, because you can’t shelter your kids either, but you can talk to your kids and let them know your opinion of various subjects, esp when they are mentioned.

    As for resources, I’ve always relied on educational books and DVDs. We love Carl Sagan (Cosmos) around here. These things are great over the summer, but remember to have fun books and DVDs too. Not just educational or you’ll burn your kids out of learning.

  • PrimateIR

    My younger son also thinks there is some value in Creationism/ID and accused his older brother and me of being closed minded when we said there is nothing scientific about it.

    One day my youngest announced that he beleived the Bible. I said, “That’s fine, but you know, you should read it before you make up your mind.” and then I pulled it off the shelf and started to read Genesis.

    “That’s what it says?!?” He said after a couple of paragraphs. “Well, I guess I don’t, then.”

  • Mriana

    ROFLMBO! That was too good, PrimateIR. :)

  • PrimateIR

    Thanks Mriana. Poor kid. He just wanted to be unique.

  • Mriana

    It’s hard to be unique when others have fell for it before. :(


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