How Can Atheist Parents Break Religion Tradition and Help Their Children?

There are plenty of atheists out there who choose to take their children to a church for a number of reasons: It sounds like the “right” thing to do, they want to raise their children with good morals (as if religion is the only route to doing that), their spouse wants to go to church and they don’t feel like arguing about it, etc.

Phil Ferguson used to be one of those fathers who took his kids to church despite being a closeted atheist. At least there’s a happy ending to his story:

I thought that it would be nice for [my kids] to know about religion and never thought that it would take over their minds. Everyone told them that the crazy was true and I kept silent. I was an atheist raising fundamentalist kids. Just a few short years after I stopped pretending they have both come out as atheists.

There are cases (and Phil highlights one of them) where the kids have already drank the Kool-Aid and it’s too late to do anything about it.

So how do you avoid that fate? How do you make sure your kids grow up free of religion — without “indoctrinating them into atheism” the same way preachers do with Christianity?

Phil offers 11 suggestions:

8 ) Encourage the kids to ask questions — lots of questions. This can take some practice but you can do it. Use the Socratic Method to help them explore their thoughts. They must learn that their views will need to stand up to questions — if not then they may want to change them to reflect new information. As my kids were growing up we would often talk about TV commercials. I helped them question how the commercials were trying to get them to want something. The commercials would use music and emotion to control their thoughts and actions — just like church.

All 11 ideas are good ones. In essence, expose your kids to the tricks and tools that religious people use to convince you they’re right. Once your kids have seen those tricks used in other ways, they’ll start applying their knowledge to what they hear in church (or through their friends).

Would you add anything to Phil’s list?

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/6p0120a5509de8970c Mikko

    My mother asked me if i wanted to go to church on yule and i just asked to do what ?

  • Natasha Gow

     What I would add to the list;

    Educate your child about world religions as they stand now. Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism, maybe even Wicca.

    The lesson should be, there are many ways that people think about god. It isn’t simply a case of religion vs non religion. It is a case that each religion competes with or contradicts the view of another. (In exploring mythology I am sure a similar lesson will be learned)

    Also look at the media, current affairs. By questioning and exploring these sources you should be able to help your child see that things aren’t so straight forward and that in some cases religion can be used by bad people to justify bad things.

    I am no parent, so really I don’t know how practicable these ideas are. I just hope that at some point I have the opportunity to raise some reasonable kids with the capacity to think for themselves.

    Tash – http://bethecog.blogspot.com/

    • Trace

      “I don’t know how practicable these ideas are”

      They make a lot of sense. Depending on the age of the child info can be presented to her at different levels. “Children Just Like Me: Celebrations” is a great title for younger ones, it opens many doors to discuss diversity of belief.

      oh, and by the sounds of it, I am sure you’ll make a great parent one day!

      • Natasha Gow

        Thanks Trace, ^.^ Made my day! 

  • Anonymous

    OK, I’m all for going all Socratic on the kids so they learn how to think and not what to think…

    But.

    What is wrong with telling kids God doesn’t exist? Yeah yeah, I know we technically can’t “know” gods don’t exist and all that good stuff, but we also tend to talk at great length about God being just like fairies, mythical creatures with no supporting evidence. When your child asks you “Are fairies real?” you could answer “Well what do you think? but I think no one would blink if you said “No honey, they’re just pretend”.  Why treat God differently?

    I suppose you should, in order to prepare your child for the world outside, specify that God is pretend but it’s pretend a lot of people think is real, and then explain if asked why you say it’s just pretend. Beyond that though, it’s no more “indoctrination” to tell your children the truth about God than the truth about Centaurs. As long as your kids know that you will love them no matter what, even if they come to disagree with you, this should not be a problem.

    Note: This is in no way a criticism of Phil’s list, which I think is excellent and offers awesome suggestions for bringing up rationalist, not just atheist, kids.

    • Anonymous

      We could just tell kids that god doesn’t exist, but that sounds to me too much like what the churches do. (“Believe this because I say so”)   I’d prefer they have the experience of working it out for themselves.  My kids had enough clues and information to work out the truth about Santa for themselves, they didn’t need me to tell them. (My oldest did an experiment to test the reality of the Tooth Fairy, and she extrapolated that to Santa, god, and the Easter Bunny as well.)

      I gave my kids tons of information about different religions and mythologies, about the things religion claimed were real, and also lots and lots of science.  The kids got there on their own, and I really don’t have any worries that they will be pulled in by any religious woo in the future.  They are well vaccinated.

  • M Vanroy

    For the Socratic method to work, however, the parents have to be smarter than the kids.  Mine weren’t.

    One time my dad said that a Slurpee only cost 7-11 about a dime to make.  This was long before I majored in economics or even entered junior high but I knew it couldn’t be that simple.  The most obvious fallacy is you can’t make a Slurpee without a Slurpee machine, and only 7-11s had them.
    I pointed this out to my dad and all he could do is reiterate what he had already said about Slurpees costing a dime to make.  Finally he got the point when I said “Here’s 10 cents.  Make me a Slurpee.” and he couldn’t do it.

  • mysciencecanbeatupyourgod

    How is atheism “indoctrination?” Are you indoctrinating your children when you tell them there are no such things as vampires and werewolves? Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny? Atheism isn’t “indoctrinated” any more than math, science, and history. Religion is what requires being indoctrinated, atheists is what are by default before someone starts indoctrinating it into us. Atheists especially need to stop drawing false equivalence and not tolerate theists who do.

  • Ed

    Atheist parent here…I joined a Unitarian universalist church. Atheists welcome and thrive. We do the world religion studies bit, and we really encourage discussion. I feel like I am teaching my kids the stories, the morals, and teaching them to live in a world with religion. I teach everything as fables. The UU church is the only place that I feel will teach my kids to think for themselves, and gives them the tools to do so. Plus, they are not made fun of for not going to church, which is about the second question asked around here, just after “what is your name”? I would say it’s about 75% atheist or humanist, the rest questioning or going with a spouse in those categories. They have parenting classes for atheists and sex Ed taught the proper way to kids of all ages. What concepts!

    • Anonymous

      Agreed on the UU.  They also have a RE program for 7th graders called “neighboring faiths” that is a year of world religion and field trips.  My youngest took that last year, and it was great.  (This year she is in the sex ed program, also awesome).  I’m teaching RE there, to 6th graders, and I’ve added heavy doses of critical thinking to my classes.  What other church will let you show “Pale Blue Dot” to the kids or discuss how to tell if the Invisible Pink Unicorn is real?

      Yes, there is a lot of woo in the UU congregations.  But skeptics can talk and not be thrown out, so that is a place where we can do a lot of good.

  • Griddlebone

    I was raised without religion and frankly I always felt like I was missing something.  As a young adult I found neo-paganism and for 20 years I was a die hard, polytheist True Believer.  However, I was strongly against indoctrinating my children into ANY religion, my own included, much to the bafflement of the pagan community. 

    My kids are teenagers now, both dismissing religion without quite being sure whether there’s a higher power or not.  Wavering between deism and agnosticism, and still asking questions. 

    When I had my “anti-epiphany” my kids understood my reasoning, but did not join me in a logic-fest.  Hey, they’re asking questions and making up their own minds, that is what matters.

  • Lix

    I was raised in a home where Christianity was everything.  My dad has been a pastor my entire life, and my parents were church planters/missionaries in Europe until my teens.  13 years ago, I made a well thought out decision to leave the church and I haven’t gone to church since then, other than to hear my dad speak on occasion (because he’s still my dad and I appreciate him).

    So, I’m now a mom to a 5 year old boy.  Neither I nor my son’s father are religious.  However, my mom picks my son up every Sunday to go to Sunday school at my parents’ church.  Neither I nor my son’s dad have an issue with this, even though we’re non-believers.  

    Our reasoning is that we want our son to make his own choices in life.  I had no choice but to participate in religion as a child, and it took me years to come to the final conclusion that I didn’t belong there.  I received a lot of pressure from my parents about leaving the church.  I stood my ground, but I still feel guilt because I’ve seen my dad cry about it.  
    I don’t want my son to feel guilty for whichever beliefs he chooses, whether it’s Christianity, lack of religious faith, or something completely different.  I do believe that in order to make his own decision, he should be exposed to many options.  Restriction or “preaching” one thing without allowing exposure to other possibilities limits his ability to develop very strong independent reasoning skills.   Guilt is a killer of reason, and kids are so impressionable.  He can have a Christian education now (at his age, it’s just stories anyway…from my experience, it wasn’t until high school that it started getting into theology, etc).  He will be taught about other religions too though.  He will also be taught about ethics and non-religious ideas.So, he goes to church now.  When he’s a bit older, I will tell him that he can choose his own path and never to feel guilty about what he chooses, whether that means he *chooses* to be a Christian, or he *chooses* something else.  Kids can be very smart, intuitive and observant.  I believe in giving them the tools to figure these things out for themselves.


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