Teaching Children to Respect Others

What are you more likely to hear:

A six-year-old saying, “You’re going to Hell because you don’t believe in Jesus!” or a six-year-old saying, “There is no such thing as Hell!”?

If you were an atheist at a young age, you probably heard the first statement from a classmate. Did you ever use the same tone and try to convince others that they were wrong?

Many of us have encountered rude young Christians in our lives. I assume that attitude comes from the parents forcing their beliefs on the kids. (Not all Christians do this, of course. I’m just saying it happens.)

Do we also hear of young kids raised under atheist parents spouting off disrespectful words in the same way?

I don’t think so. (Feel free to tell me I’m wrong.)

Be-Asia McKerracher writes in the Kansas City Star about how she is raising her children without religion — and she wants to make sure they respect anyone who does believe:

My children know that while some people do not believe in the power of prayer — myself included — anyone has a right to pray to their god without being mocked or disrespected. We then told them what would be coming on Thanksgiving and offered them two options: Either join the prayer or stand quietly and respectfully while others prayed.

Another notable difference is this:

… As an atheist, however, I try to cultivate a culture of respect in our home. We shun none of our family members for their religious beliefs, and we also teach our children to stand up for what they believe, which, right now, is that God most likely is not real.

That last phrase is one I rarely hear from Christian parents. Specifically, the words “right now” (it may change later) and “most likely” (there’s a chance we could be wrong).

That lack of certainty, and openness to the idea that the child may disagree with you about religion later on in life, makes up a huge difference in the way Christians and atheists raise their children.

I wonder if that’s also the reason you may hear more evangelizing from kids with religious parents instead of kids with atheist parents.

  • http://skepchick.org/teen/ Elles

    I recently got into an argument about secularism on Facebook with a Jewish kid who was at least a year older than me. A few other friends got involved, one made a comment that was admittedly off topic that said something to the effect of “religion is a collection of fairy tales” and the kid got sort of pissed.

    He said “if you weren’t an Atheist I’d tell you to go to Hell”.

    If you want to read the exact comment I’ve posted it on my blog here.

    With that wording it seemed he wanted the full theological implications to be considered so that said Atheist could be insulted. Granted, my friend probably shouldn’t have said that, but the theist was being rather rude.

    I pointed out to him that he had just wished eternal suffering upon another human being for the sole act of expressing his opinion. I went off on a bit of a spiel about how long eternity is, made a remark about how even Hitler’s victims only lived so long. I told him that he was either twisted, but it was more likely that he just hadn’t considered what his words meant and that he should probably apologize.

    He then said “God damn you all. HOW DARE YOU compare me to Hitler whose hands my ancestors suffered at! You all deserve eternal damnation for that! That is incredibly rude and offensive”. He then started making slurs against Atheists, grouping them all and saying that we had nobody to teach us values, and then said that the Pledge of Allegiance and “In God We Trust” on our money is proof that we shouldn’t get into hissy-fits about secularism but that’s not particularly important.

    Talk about missing the point. Pointing out how tremendously terrible Hell must be as a punishment for simply exercising your rights, and then being told you deserve to go to Hell because you’ve “offended” them by saying it is sort of like saying “MURDER IS WRONG” and then being shot in the head.

    I said, “sorry, but that damned First Amendment not only has that thing about the separation between church and state but also gives me free speech, as offensive as my free speech may be to you. So burn the Bill of Rights.”

    I’ll admit I may have called him a “git” once or twice, but on the whole I never did anything as disrespectful as saying “all you Jews have to believe in something more to be good people and if you don’t you deserve to suffer the worst kind of pain forever and ever”.

    Have I answered the question or gone off on too much of a tangent?

  • http://fightthedarkness.com Gridman

    Not “respect”, we should reach them to be “polite.”

    There’s a big difference.

    One says, “reality is subjective and facts are meaningless” and the other says, “a lot of people believe a lot or darned fool ideas that just aren’t true, but you shouldn’t rub their faces in it.”

    No one likes to be embarrased or antagonized and we should, out of respect for the shared human experience, treat others in the same way we’d like to be treated ourselves.

    (They should write up a rule about that… I wonder if it’s been copyrighted?)

  • http://learninfreedom.org/ tokenadult

    “Many of us have encountered rude young Christians in our lives.”

    I encountered the most when I was age-similar (I’m talking about college-age people here, who now seem very young to me) and largely a co-religionist. I actually became a more devout and for decades quite militant Christian after encoutering polite inquiries from public school classmates about what I believed. By contrast, the atheists I knew growing up were a good bit more dogmatic about their atheism than the Christians were about their Christianity. And the atheists in my scope of personal acquaintance in my school days were just generally a lot more likely to make fun of other people and neglect opportunities to show human compassion. (The most striking example of this in my youth was a classmate, whom I liked a lot for our shared intellectual interests, who went out of his way to make fun of a girl classmate who had cerebral palsy. That was very off-putting.)

    To sum up, I think a lot of people react very powerfully to human kindness, and emulate the worldview of the people they find in their immediate environment who most exhibit kindness. One can never be too kind to friends, acquaintances, and strangers.

  • Richard Wade

    My very first encounter with religion was when I was six years old. A girl on the playground told another girl that she was going to hell because she didn’t have the right religion. The smug pleasure she expressed from her sense of superiority both angered and disgusted me. My natural childhood instinct of fairness found it revolting. I whispered to her victim that the other girl was crazy, and we avoided her from then on. That was the beginning of my skepticism and revulsion of organized religion. Any more loving and gentle expressions from religion were always accompanied by ideas of exclusivity, superiority and vindictiveness. One was canceled out by the other, so the result was zero.

    I’ve never witnessed atheist children being abusive in such a manner, although I’m sure it happens. I’ve certainly witnessed some adult atheists acting like vicious children. There is a big difference between treating others respectfully and respecting their beliefs. Some non-believers just don’t seem to realize that they can and should treat others respectfully even if they find their beliefs not respectable.

    That lack of certainty, and openness to the idea that the child may disagree with you about religion later on in life, makes up a huge difference in the way Christians and atheists raise their children.

    This reflects two ways of thinking so different that they seem to be from different planets. One is common and one is rare. One seeks certainty, unchanging absolute truth, and escape from doubt and the ambiguities of life. The other seeks knowledge and understands that knowledge is a fluid, ever-changing, ever-growing thing. It cannot be nailed down to static certainty. Which one people follow is a matter of their emotional maturity. The certainty seekers are emotionally children, regardless of their age. The knowledge seekers are adults, regardless of their youth.

  • J. J. Ramsey

    Do we also hear of young kids raised under atheist parents spouting off disrespectful words in the same way?

    Oh, boy, does that question open up a can of worms for me. I haven’t seen children behave that way in person, but I remember seeing PZ Myers’ daughter Skatje write on her blog,

    Next idea for a blog post is ‘Why I don’t believe in god.’ I suddenly realised how necessary it is for me to condense my beliefs and reasoning in retard-friendly format. This format is important for the audience I am targeting with it

    The blog entry where she wrote this is gone now. To be fair, she said after the fact that the audience was her high school peers, not all theists, although this was hardly clear from her post at the time. Still, it strikes me as an example of “disrespectful words.”

  • http://www.blacksunjournal.com BlackSun

    anyone has a right to pray to their god without being mocked or disrespected.

    Simply put, no. Everyone has a right to dignity, and part of keeping ones dignity is to recognize one is part of a diverse society and may not have the right to complete and total freedom of expression.

    I agree that family occasions call for greater than normal levels of tolerance. But having said that, believers should not expect generally that the sincerity of their beliefs entitles them to special treatment. They have to make informed choices about which of their beliefs can be practically professed or expressed in a given situation, and to weigh the consequences.

    For example, what if a person sincerely believed that their God told them they needed to stand on their heads five times per day and roll their eyes in circles for 2 minutes? Or what if they sincerely believed God told them to rip their shirts off, tug their hair 3 times and yodel before getting in a car, without exception?

    People engaging in either behavior in public would be roundly ostracized. If they wanted to continue without mockery, they would have to find ways to keep their behavior private. (Maybe they could get the government to build special private yodeling rooms near all parking lots??)

    We can respect people’s right to hold beliefs, no matter how outlandish. But the actions based on those beliefs deserve to be evaluated based on social norms, regardless of their motivation.

  • Alyce de Carteret

    Oh, I definitely had my rude moments as a budding atheist. I distinctly remember telling a girl in my 5th grade class that God was stupid, and her promptly running to the teacher to tattle on me.

    This isn’t all too insightful, but I know we atheists like to pat ourselves on the back sometimes, proud of how we teach our children to respect other cultures and beliefs. But kids are kids. They can be quick to react negatively to things that are different to them. I know my parents taught me all about tolerance, respect, and being polite, but it wasn’t until I learned what it felt like to be denied those things that I really took their lessons to heart.

  • http://www.poligazette.com Lynx

    I disagree with the very concept of “atheist children” so teaching them to “defend their beliefs” is quite besides the point for me. I’m of course aware that the child of atheist parents is likely to become an atheist, but I deeply object to atheist parents telling their child “We’re atheists and so are you”. That just reduces us to the same level of religious parents who impose their religion on their children. I think it suffices to say that mommy and daddy don’t believe there are gods but that other people do think so. Demand that your child not mistreat others regardless of their beliefs but not to be frightened or bullied into saying or thinking anything.

    The one exception I would make in this case is hell. I would categorically tell my child that hell does not exist, and that if someone threatens them with hell to just say that they aren’t afraid of it because they don’t believe in it. I’ve heard way too much from ex-theists about their hang-ups and childhood traumas about hell to be willing to put a child of mine at the risk of believing in the same thing.

  • TheDeadEye

    I disagree with the very concept of “atheist children” so teaching them to “defend their beliefs” is quite besides the point for me. I’m of course aware that the child of atheist parents is likely to become an atheist, but I deeply object to atheist parents telling their child “We’re atheists and so are you”.

    Do your children believe in Zeus? Are they not capable of deciding that they do not believe in Zeus before they come of age? If they can disbelieve Santa Claus at age 8, they can certainly do the same with the various religious gods, including the Christian one.

  • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com/ miller

    Do we also hear of young kids raised under atheist parents spouting off disrespectful words in the same way?

    I don’t think so. (Feel free to tell me I’m wrong.)

    You’re wrong.

    I once heard about a kid who would often compare God to Barney the dinosaur. And then what do we make of this story from the forums?

  • http://fightthedarkness.com Gridman

    I disagree with the very concept of “atheist children” so teaching them to “defend their beliefs” is quite besides the point for me. I’m of course aware that the child of atheist parents is likely to become an atheist, but I deeply object to atheist parents telling their child “We’re atheists and so are you”.

    Where do you draw the line, though? Do you avoid teaching your children about Cosmology, Paleontology, Geology, Biology and all the other knowledge that we’ve acquired which are, intrinsically naturalistic and therefore reject supernatural phemomena. All of these things are indoctrinating children to be atheistic.

    Let’s face it, the fundamentalists are right to fear education. It is inimical to their beliefs.

  • http://hoverfrog.wordpress.com hoverFrog

    I just want a world where 6 year olds don’t have to say that they don’t believe in hell and where children aren’t ever taught to be afraid of it. To be frank, hell is a stupid idea. Nobody has to respect stupid ideas, only the people who spout them.

  • http://www.poligazette.com Lynx

    Obviously it’s impossible to not influence a child with your own beliefs. Simply by virtue of your child knowing that you do not believe in a god they are quite likely to decide that that’s their position too.

    Do your children believe in Zeus? Are they not capable of deciding that they do not believe in Zeus before they come of age? If they can disbelieve Santa Claus at age 8, they can certainly do the same with the various religious gods, including the Christian one.

    I’m not saying that I would enforce strict agnostic attitudes on a child, I’m saying that I intensely disagree with giving a young child a religious label, and that includes the term “atheist”. We don’t expect children to divide themselves into Democrats and Republicans, because we all understand that those positions involve decisions that are beyond the capabilities of a young child. Why then must we make children self-identify in terms of their religion? Dawkins has discussed this at length. Older children can start identifying with a religion, but a 7 year old is as much a Catholic as she is a Socialist.

    I would raise a child of mine to expect things to be backed by proof, and if asked if there’s proof of gods I’d obviously say no. It would then probably follow that my child would eventually self-identify as atheist, when they came to understand why the hell you have to self-identify as not religious (rather like having to identify as not-a knitter or not-a gardener). But in my view there’s a subtle but significant difference between that and simply informing a child “They are Christians and we are Atheists”.

  • Amanda

    I was taunted by a Christian neighbor about going to hell at around age 6. Their parents also wouldn’t let the girls play at our house since we were so scary and evil.

    That was in Iowa and we later moved to St. Louis. Religion was such a non issue there at the time. Most of my friends’ parents considered themselves Christians, but they never went to church. It was definitely a refreshing change!

    I have never witnessed that sort of impolite behavior from an atheist child, partly I suspect because there are just not nearly as many atheist children compared to Christians.

  • Jabster

    @BlackSun

    “We can respect people’s right to hold beliefs, no matter how outlandish. But the actions based on those beliefs deserve to be evaluated based on social norms, regardless of their motivation.”

    I think that is a much better statement of how we should think as religious beliefs so often are expected to get a “you must respect my belief” card. I can tolerate that people believe in stupid things but I don’t understand why I should be expected to respect these views whether relgious or otherwise. Even saying this toleration has a limit – I don’t see why we should tolerate people who have say homophobic views due to relgious belief any more than a white supremacist should have his/her views tolerated on race. In these cases these views points must and should be challenged.

  • http://www.abandonallfear.co.uk Alex Fear

    Even saying this toleration has a limit – I don’t see why we should tolerate people who have say homophobic views due to relgious belief any more than a white supremacist should have his/her views tolerated on race. In these cases these views points must and should be challenged.

    You’ve never watched a Louis Theroux interview then?

    Maybe it was just that I grew up in the UK, but in the UK most people are either atheist or agnostic. And so kids in school were also either atheist and agnostic – and they were also comprised of bullies, victims, cool-crowd and geek-crowd.

    When I became a Christian, I found out who the other Christians were in my school, they tended to be the quiet ones who simply didn’t fall into cliques. The loud bullies and the cool crowd were the ones who mocked those who held strong beliefs (in anything). It was definitely not cool to nail your colours to any flag otherwise you would set yourself up as a target.

    So what do I deduce from this? America is obviously full of more outspoken people, taught to voice your opinion. Where as Brits are taught to avoid being confrontational and opinionated. Yet in both cultures there are bullies and there are victims.

    Kids are basically kids, and they can be cruel, and they, like all humans, can use their own beliefs as an excuse to belittle others. It’s more to do with our inherent selfish nature, our need to feel accepted and herd-mentality than it is to do with ‘standing up’ for your beliefs.

    It seems to me a child who has been taught to be confident and respectful is more a mark of good parenting than any belief or lack of belief system.

  • Jimjay

    >I don’t see why we should tolerate people who have say homophobic views due to relgious belief any more than a white supremacist should have his/her views tolerated on race.

    That I think illustrates the dilemma. Defining a particular view as homophobic is itself a value judgement based on another view – which is thereby asserted as being more valid.

    To reverse the question: why should someone with a religious belief tolerate a “religio-phobic” view due to a personal opinion that such belief is nonsense, any more than a white supremacist should have his/her views tolerated on race?

    How do you decide where the lines are, especially in the grey areas?

    >“We can respect people’s right to hold beliefs, no matter how outlandish. But the actions based on those beliefs deserve to be evaluated based on social norms, regardless of their motivation.”

    I think it is also important to distinguish between the belief or view and the person holding it.

    “Christianity is bunk” is fine, just as “humanism is a religion” is fine: they are opinions. But at present one premier UK secularist site is running a headline describing a pre-Christmas reception as “an infestation of faith leaders”. Is that acceptable? Would it be an acceptable description of Women? Men? Republicans? Roma? Native Americans?
    (Ref:http://tinyurl.com/paperssay 2nd Jan 08).

    In my judgement, no – as it is an attack on the value of people, never mind that the same language has been used to stir up violence against the same groups in the past.

    Returning to the central point, I’d see kids spouting off abuse using an atheist base as just being a matter of time if it doesn’t happen already. The “religion is mental child abuse” meme has been created, used, legitimated, defended, and asserted. There is no way young children will not pick that up from parents and the media and use it against their “different” classmates and their parents.

  • Allison

    Well, by 6 yo the neighbor adults, forget the kids, were telling me that my entire family was going to hell and it was my responsibility to save them all. I was subject to pretty aggressive attempts to convert me throughout my childhood. By fifth grade I’d really had enough of it, to the extent where I made up my own evolution pamphlets to distribute on the bus any time I was harrassed about religion.

    I know my oldest has, in public around people he KNOWS are Christian, expressed amazement that so many people are Christian. I suspect he may not be the most polite about it at times. OTOH, I also know he’s been subjected to religious talk, including the talk about the devil and Hell, by his peers. I’ve taught him the stories (I shelve them with the mythology), and he knows that I don’t believe, but I try not to put any pressure on him one way or the other. I think the Exodus story was the one that really clinched it for him so far — the killing of the first-born appalled him.

  • Jabster

    @Jimjay

    “That I think illustrates the dilemma. Defining a particular view as homophobic is itself a value judgement based on another view – which is thereby asserted as being more valid.”

    So restricting the rights of non-hetrosexuals is not homophobic but just a “value judgement based on another view” can you please explain how this is true as you’ve completely lost me here as to how this falls into a grey area as I think the line is fairly simple but you don’t seem to agree.

  • Lea

    “Maybe it was just that I grew up in the UK, but in the UK most people are either atheist or agnostic. And so kids in school were also either atheist and agnostic – and they were also comprised of bullies, victims, cool-crowd and geek-crowd.”
    In regards to this subject of raising “atheist” children, (which i specifically googled, hence my commenting), here is where the difficulty lies. As it so happens, my son is 6. Just a moment ago, my son asked me a question, preceded by some other question that i don’t remember (there are so many of them right now), that “if all the people were gone, god would just make more babies, right?” now mind you, in my current agnostic state (veering very near to atheism), i have explicitly avoided any discussion of God or creationism and have avoided his questions regarding such, which are obviously coming from outside sources. This is because i want to be clear in my discussion, and want to raise him with morals and character, which i feel can be very separate from religion. The problem lies that i, as most people i know, learned about religion through religion, and that is the only way they came to disown it. How do you clearly explain these things to a six year old, where things are very black and white, and i would even be willing to dispell Santa Claus if it weren’t for the outrage it would cause among his peer and our family. My response to his question was simply – “God doesn’t create babies, people do”. He followed up with, “well what does he create then?”. It is obvious to me that God is already a fixture in his mind, and while i don’t mind him having an interest in religion at the point where he is old enough to understand it, I do find issue with many christian teachings. My point is, how do you appropriately discuss religion with a six year old, when it has always been that you just tell them how it is, not how it might be? (i know i drag on, my apologies)


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