We are an atheist couple with three children aged 10, 8 and 5. The youngest starts school this year.
We have explained to our children that different people believe in different gods, but neither of us believe in god, and that when they are older they can decide for themselves what they want to believe in. I think it is wrong for parents to impose religious views on children, and so I do not feel I can impose atheist views on them either.
We have told them we believe that science can now explain most of what religion was constructed to explain, that morals/ethics are not tied to religion, and that people who do not believe in god are ‘good’ too.
Their grandmother is hoping to instill her Catholic beliefs into them by discussing religion with them at every opportunity. We told them in age appropriate ways that they are to listen politely, not argue, and to largely ignore what she says about religion. We teach them to show tolerance and respect for others’ beliefs, but we are clear that we do not believe in religion as a truth. We have explained the agnostic view that the idea of god(s) cannot be proved one way or another, however the probability of a higher power is extremely low, to the point where we cannot imagine how it could be possible.
We aren’t perfect and do our fair share of eye-rolling at what we consider religious stupidity, we dismiss religious belief out of hand and discuss the idiocy of fundamentalism etc. in front of them (and with them) too.
In Australia where we live, most schools provide Christian religious education, which children can opt out of with parental permission. It is an ecumenical Christian course, 30 minutes per week. We gave our two older boys the choice to attend or not. The oldest wants to continue attending. He is not particularly interested in religion, but he doesn’t want to stand out from the crowd. The middle boy has opted out of religious education, but he is more questioning.
My concern is this: Our middle child is now questioning this agnostic point of view. If we cannot prove god does not exist, how do we know he doesn’t? We have had no problems discussing issues such as evolution, but he has been asking about the big bang theory and what (who?) caused that. I am pleased he is asking questions instead of just accepting what he is told, but it makes me nervous too. While I can field most of these questions (so far) and I will be searching for some age appropriate literature for him, I am wondering if our liberal, tolerant, ‘you decide for yourself’ attitude will backfire and the children will become religious. Should we be more hardline? And if so…
My other concern is: what if they become fundamentalist (Christians, presumably) as a means of rebelling against us? I think children sometimes rebel against their parents by taking the opposite stance – what should we do if it plays out like this? Is there any way we can avoid it? I guess this the same concern religious parents have if their children decide they don’t believe in god. Of course I think I am correct (just like everyone else) and I will be doing the children a disservice by not telling them what I believe to be correct – but does raising a free-thinker mean allowing them to think the ‘wrong’ thing?
This is what freedom means. When a person is truly free to make a choice, they’re not necessarily going to choose what others would prefer. When a person is truly free to have their own ideas, they’re not necessarily going to agree even with those who gave them that freedom. This is why freedom, real freedom is not as popular a concept around the world as people in free countries might assume. Living in a free society requires a great deal of courage to accept that others will make choices that we don’t prefer, and have ideas with which we disagree.
Many people are just not capable of that level of courage. They want to see their preferences followed by others, even at the expense of their own freedom. Here is where you get to see if you have the courage of your convictions. Do you really mean it when you say that parents should not impose either religious or atheist views on their children? Do you really mean it when you tell your children they can decide their beliefs for themselves? Or will their being accepted by you require that their beliefs agree with yours, as so many religious families require?
Your 10 year-old is choosing to go through the motions of religious practice, not because he’s actually interested in it, but for the social benefits of “fitting in.” That’s his choice, and all choices have their pluses and minuses. He’ll have plenty of time to sort out what’s in his own best interests, and to make adjustments to his mix of conformity and individuality.
Your 8 year-old is choosing to question what people present as truth, just as you have encouraged him to do. Right now, he’s questioning what the two of you have been presenting as truth, both in your words and your reactions. Later, he will probably be questioning other things he heard presented as truth from other people. Questioning things may be part of his innate nature, and you have wisely cultivated that. Like his older brother, he’ll have plenty of time to question his conclusions again and again, and to make adjustments to his mix of skepticism and belief.
The specifics of his questions about ultimate causes and beginnings, and about the burden of proof have logical responses that you can offer for him to consider. He’s simply asking you to give him more challenging ideas to apply to his questions.
So whether he eventually becomes a theist, an atheist, an agnostic, or a combination, he will have reached that position through careful consideration and deliberation. He’s a very thoughtful kid. I like him.
Remember that they are still children. They will go through several more incarnations as pre teens, adolescents and young adults. It will be a tumultuous time of experimentation, differentiation, challenge, and yes, rebellion. But young people’s most destructive rebellion is usually against oppressive and authoritarian parenting. You have given your children freedom to be who they are as they change and grow. Whatever their expressions of independence from you they may try, they won’t have to go to extremes in order to make their statements and plant their flags.
It sounds like you have also taught them that there must be a balance between freedom and responsibility. They are responsible for their social interactions and the effect they have on others. They are responsible for their personal choices and the consequences. And it sounds like you have also instilled the responsibility to support and defend their own ideas. So if they choose to believe something, they know that they will be expected to back it up with a strong and thoughtful argument. Just keep promoting and practicing that expectation, and let it run its course as they try on different ideas.
You have promised your children freedom of thought. They know what you would prefer them to think, but they are free to adopt your preferences wholly, partially, or to disregard them. Now you must honor your promise by not penalizing them if they choose something other than your preference.
Regardless how much or little they agree with your ideas as they grow up, I think they will love you dearly and gratefully for the courage you had to give them the skills and freedom to find their own paths, even if their paths might diverge from yours. They are very lucky kids.
Be glad that they are using your courageous gift to them. Celebrate as equally wondrous both how they are similar to you and different from you.