What Beliefs Should Atheists (Not) Teach Their Children?

This is an excerpt from the bad people stole my god by Doug Philips. Philips was a devout Catholic for 40 years before becoming a “full blown non-believer.” The Kindle version of the book is currently available for free. ***Edit***: The free trial has expired, but the book is still relatively cheap :)

Easily the most unexpected and ironic twists to my irreligious epiphany has been the barrage of a particular criticism that continues to land on me like wayward pigeon droppings. “You shouldn’t impose your beliefs (or your adult beliefs) on the children!”

The sometimes direct and sometimes overt implication from these criticisms is that by choosing not to teach my children unverifiable, supernatural mythologies, I’m somehow exposing them to something (reality) that they are not mature enough to handle. Far better for me to teach them that believers in the correct god(s) go to heaven and non-believers in the correct god(s) go to hell, but don’t worry my adoring child, our god is the RIGHT god — all those nice children around the world that are being taught about the WRONG god are going to hell; sleep tight.

Before I expound on what I consider to be a painfully obvious irony, let me first itemize what I do and do not impose on my children.

BELIEFS THAT I DO IMPOSE ON MY CHILDREN:

  • When they ask me if I believe in god I impose on them that I don’t but I used to, and even though I don’t think that I’m wrong, I very well might be completely mistaken on the subject. I ALWAYS explain that their lives are their own and that they are always free to believe whatever they care to (except for Scientology because it’s just too expense of a nonsense indulgence). I explain that I’ll always be honest with them and I will always do the best that I can to explain not only why I believe the things that I believe but what other people believe and the reasons that I think that they most likely believe what they believe. And as I do on most subjects, I explain to them that despite my relative brilliance, I am an expert resource on absolutely nothing and that far better information can be obtained from far smarter people than dear old dad.
  • I impose on them that most people DO believe in a god or a number of gods, and that it’s a very important matter to many, many people. I insist that they be respectful of other people’s beliefs and when they are old enough to understand I’ll explain why certain beliefs do not deserve respect (for — an exaggerated — example: a belief that human sacrifice can help bring a bountiful harvest; science clearly demonstrates that human sacrifice adds no statically significant bounty to harvests unless the corpses are used as fertilizer).
  • When they ask me if I will go to heaven when I die, I tell them very lightheartedly that another life after this life would be great, but I don’t happen to think that such a thing happens; all I know for sure is that I’ll always be in their hearts and that’s all that matters to me.
  • I impose on them that love, happiness and treating people with kindness are good things to focus on and that it’s a far better use of their time focusing on making their lives great than worrying about what happens to people when they die.
  • I impose on them to the best of my ability that human beings evolved over millions of years just like all the mountains of empirical, testable and falsify-able scientific evidence suggest. If future discoveries disprove evolution or any other scientific knowledge, then all the better for whatever it is that humans have learned about the world in which we live.
  • I impose on them that there are no such things and ghosts, monsters, fairies, witches, devils or gremlins. And I would tell them that Santa was bullshit if not for the backlash I’d likely receive from my wife and other parents. Seriously, how nonsensical are we thinking that Christmas morning would somehow be less exiting to a child if he knew that Santa was make-believe? There’s a reason that so many kids are afraid to sit on Santa’s lap in the mall. I’ve never understood why we feel compelled to treat children like morons. On a side note, is there anything more apropos than the fact that the two most seminal traditions in Christianity are most popularly associated with some of the most inane, nonsensical, secular traditions with which we indulge. A fat magic toymaker that, like god, perpetually oversees your behavior even when you sleep, and leaves presents under fresh cut forest trees that we prop up in our homes as we celebrate the arbitrary birthday (which is simply a rip-off of pagan solstice celebrations) of the CHILD of the being that created the universe. And an egg loving rabbit that sneaks into our homes leaving plastic eggs and candy on the day the that we celebrate the resurrection from the dead of said CHILD of the being that created the universe. We even incorporate these two moronic fictional characters into our religious celebrations to entertain the kids during our overcrowded, protracted religious services on the special days. The only thing more idiotic is how rarely an eyebrow rises at our ubiquitous infatuation with make-believe when we contemplate our religious convictions.
  • That being said, I love imagination and make-believe (when it’s understood to be make-believe) and I also impose on my children that one of humanities greatest talents is creativity; I constantly urge them to stretch their minds in every direction. But I also impose on them that make-believe is make-believe and that reality is reality. Radical, I know.
  • I impose on my children that earthquakes are caused be shifting tectonic plates. That hurricanes, tornados, lightening, hail, sun-showers and rainbows are naturally occurring and scientifically explainable events and not the whimsical play-toys of a maniacal sky-daddy.
  • And I impose on my children that not knowing the answer is all right, but not seeking the answer is lazy.

THE FOLLOWING ARE BELIEFS THAT I DO NOT IMPOSE ON MY CHILDREN.

  • If you choose the wrong god you will burn in hell.
  • Gay people will burn in hell.
  • Jews will burn in hell.
  • Muslims will burn in hell.
  • Hindus, Buddhists, and people that never heard of Jesus will burn in hell.
  • Parents should kill disobedient children.
  • Townspeople should stone blasphemers.
  • People should be killed for collecting sticks on the wrong day of the week.
  • If humans destroy the world facilitating the return of a certain someone; it’s a good thing.
  • God made the first man from dirt and the first women from one of the man’s ribs, or at the same time as the first man, depending on which version you prefer.
  • A talking snake tricked a naive couple to disobey God.
  • All babies are born defected and need to be saved — thanks to the talking snake and the naive couple.
  • A 500-year-old man collected millions and millions of animals and insects from all seven continents and somehow housed them on a boat for almost a year because God decided to drown every mommy, daddy, child, baby, grandma, grandpa, pregnant woman, sick person, elderly person, mentally challenged person, blind person, person that takes care of sick people, and every animal that didn’t get to go on the boat including puppies, kittens, bunnies, and froggies, because every single person I just mentioned was BAD except for the 500 year-old-man and his family.
  • God DIRECTLY ORDERED many, many people to kill many other people, usually over real estate disputes, exactly as we read in the Bible.
  • People live to be close to 1,000 years old.
  • People can live INSIDE OF A FISH for three days and be jettisoned out smelly, but perfectly ALIVE.
  • Jesus is God because God made Jesus’s mother pregnant without having sex, just the same way that many other gods were created before Jesus was even a glint in his mother’s eye.
  • Jesus is God because he died and came back to life — just like many other gods did before Jesus and just like many other people did in the Bible.
  • Many, many zombies wandered the streets after Jesus was killed and interacted with many people.
  • If certain men (whether they molested children or not) say magic words, crackers turn into Jesus’s actual body and wine turns into Jesus’ actual blood and then people eat and drink Jesus.
  • You can only be a good person if you believe what’s written in the Bible — even though almost no one has actually read the Bible, and even though if they carried out Biblical edicts they’d be arrested and/or be considered insane.
  • People of a particular town tried to rape angels. A father, a man that God liked very much, offered his daughters to be raped instead. After God saved the father and his daughters and proceeded to kill everyone else in the town, the daughters each got their father drunk and raped him so that they could have babies.

REVIEW

Now I ask with a straight face; am I really the one that’s imposing beliefs on children? As ridiculous as this list is, these are real, undeniable tenets of Christianity and/or accurate summaries of real Bible verse. I didn’t make any of it up and this isn’t cherry picking; the list could literally go on for page, after page, after page, after page. Don’t believe me? Read the Bible and find out for yourself. I dare you.

What would you add to the two lists?

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1742797601 Deanna Joy Lyons

    The book is no longer free (although you can borrow it free on your Kindle if you’re a Prime member) but $1.99 is a tiny sum for a book. Buying it now, thanks! 

    Now the big question: What not to teach my (hypothetical) children. I think as long as i’m instilling in them the scientific method, critical thinking skills, and the knowledge that I don’t believe in certain things but do believe in others it will be okay. I guess I’d just let them know that it’s important that they don’t just think certain things because of authority figures, but try to understand the world as it is. But that’s the Cliff Notes version. :)

  • pato

    I was just reading through your list of things that you wouldn’t teach to your child, and everything seemed familiar, then I got to the last item. What the hell is that story? I thought I knew the Bible pretty well…

    • Baby_Raptor

      That would be Lot and his two daughters. Also known as the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. 

      • MegaZeusThor

        Semi-related: 
        Tracie from the Atheist Experience talks about how “Batman Begins” is based on the Biblical story of Sodom and Gamorrah. Discussing the story of Sodom and Gamorrah, God comes off as non-omniscient and a dick.

        Part 1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nMFiN1gsb0I#t=5m18s

        Part 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e5n7CYhpZ18#t=12m12s

        Both from 2008: http://www.atheist-experience.com/archive/?y=2008#table

  • littlejohn

    I think you’ve just guaranteed that your children will become Scientologists. (Assuming you weren’t just kidding when you said Scientology was off-limits to them.)

  • littlejohn

    @pato: The last story was about Lot in the evil town of Sodom, from which we get a wonderfully useful word, if you enjoy gay-bashing.

    • Fliegerabwehrkanone

      Or a wonderfully useful word if you enjoy sodomy

  • Satia Renee

    I don’t have a job so I am on a personal buying freeze.  I wouldn’t even have a kindle if not for the fact that my son (a non-reader for the most part) didn’t win won.  I’ll see if anyone I know who has a kindle has this book and can lend it to me.  (Apparently even though it is no longer free the lending of it is “enabled” so anyone can lend it to anyone else, which is wonderful.)

    I doubt anyone I know has it in their kindle library but you never know.  

    • Leslie

      You can also read it on your computer – you can download a kindle app for your computer for free, so you don’t need to buy a kindle.

    • Jen Rotteveel

       you can download the Kindle application to your pc, or your smartphone if you have one, and through that you can purchase and read kindle editions of books.  you do not need to own a kindle device to use it :)

    • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

      If you create an amazon wishlist searchable by your name, someone might just give you a copy.

  • http://religiouscomics.net/ Jeff P

    Doug forgot to mention all the verses in the bible that rail against abortion, contraception, gun control, unions, government helping the poor, collective bargaining, industry regulation, etc..  

    Oh wait, the opposition to those were thought up later and then attributed to God by certain interest groups trying to leverage religion for those other agendas.

  • LeslieDFitz

    I have raised my 3 children using the above list and want to say that honesty is definitely the best policy and will pay off in a million ways. They are 14 to 19 now and I am thrilled and proud of who they are. And as they are solidly in their teen years, I can happily report that the oldest two have specifically told me that they think we (their dad and I) are better parents because we have always been honest with them. (We also decided not to lie about Santa either!) I feel like we have a great relationship with our kids that is full of trust because we decided nothing was worth lying to them and that has paid off big time. I highly recommend the truth route!

  • Wintermute

    I would impose on my children the understanding that there are many perfectly nice and well-meaning people in the world who nonetheless believe completely crazy things. And further, we all believe things at times that are wrong in some way or another. We can never escape these biases, which is why it’s so critical that we be skeptical, even when it means asking pointed questions of trusted institutions. If we don’t insist on the facts from ourselves and others, we allow ourselves to be misled.

  • Craig Duckett

    I would explain to my children–in fact, I already have–that the doctrine of Original Sin is fraught with absurdity and contradiction. How? God judges Adam and Eve’s act of eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil as an evil act that summarily imposes death and divine judgement on all mankind, however it could NOT have been an evil act (or intentionally insolent, impertinent, or impudent, etc) since Adam and Eve lacked knowledge of good and evil prior to eating the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (their knowledge of good and evil only came AFTER they consumed the fruit and not before). This is akin to punishing you and all your descendents for knowing what Brazenberry Tea tastes like before you ever once tasted Brazenberry Tea. Of course, there is no way for you to know the unique flavor of Brazenberry Tea until you actually consumed it, but you find yourself being punished for knowing its taste before tasting it, an act judged more heinous then your subsequent knowledge of the tea’s taste itself. Removed from etiological or ethnological analysis, this Bronze Age logic makes no sense (in my humble opinion) and I’m not even going to discuss the talking snake that the Grand Inquisitor has allowed to to slither freely in so-called Paradise whose silver tongue is permitted to tempt the innocent/naive/gullible who as yet lack the knowledge of good and evil. Really? And people consider this turn of events–and subsequent damnation of the entire human race to the atrocities of Hell–the height of ethics and morality?

  • Onamission5

    I do impose upon my children that honesty  is the best policy– with few exceptions– and that it is possible to be both honest and kind at the same time.

    I do not impose upon my children that beliefs are more important and worthy of respect than facts. I do not impose upon my children that if someone stands up against injustice, and ends up on the receiving end of backlash, said backlash is their fault rather than the fault of assholes. I do not teach my children that their thoughts, feelings, and opinions are less valuable than mine simply because I was born before they were. I do not impose upon them that age = wisdom and therefore age is automatically to be obeyed without question, because all too often that is far from the case.

  • http://dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

    Some of these are “impositions”, some are in response to questions. I don’t care much for the concept of “imposing” something on children.

    I’d keep things simpler than these long lists.

    1. Teach natural science. That is, teach how things in nature work.

    2. Of religion, I’d teach almost nothing at all, merely answer questions if asked. When asked, I’d explain that gods and religion are made up nonsense that some people believe, like the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus (no BS there; kids should not be told those things are real, either. That doesn’t mean they can’t enjoy a game with them as make believe creatures.)

    3. I’d never teach them to automatically respect the beliefs of others. I would teach them to respect the right of others to have their own beliefs, and the importance of being civil and polite to others, regardless of their beliefs.

  • FTFKDad

    you seem to be missing all the many beliefs about slavery, how to get slaves, how to treat them and so on.

  • Renshia

    I don’t think there are any beliefs you should not teach your children. I just think it is on how you teach them and how you teach them to think that is important.
    People get things all mixed up, they think as a parent their job is to protect their children. That is not what parenting is about at all, the job of a parent is to prepare their child to face the world.
    As a parent your job is to prepare them to face anything, including the bad shit. As a parent it is your job to subject your children, at sometime, to everything that they will face as an adult and teach them how to deal with it. We need to throw them to the wolves and teach them to fend them off. Then when they become adults they will have a repertoire of experience to draw on to face the things that life will throw at them.

    This silly idea that we need to protect our children is the main cause for the ignorance that creates gullible people that fall for all the bullshit that places like churches teach.

    We need more experience, coupled with critical thinking skills, not the ignorance that protection breeds.

  • http://www.facebook.com/TDouglasBrown Tim Brown

    “People can live INSIDE OF A FISH for three days and be jettisoned out smelly, but perfectly ALIVE.”

    A whale is not a fish.

    • Onamission5

      Of course we know that a whale is not a fish, but the bible often doesn’t. And I quote:

      “Now the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah…” Jonah 1:17

      • Robert Thille

        Of course, that’s the English version, but what was the word in the original? :-)

        • Fsq

          which original. 

          • Onamission5

            Exactly! My children’s bible says that this story is called “Jonah and the Whale,” and yet, two of the other bible versions I have specifically refer to it as a fish. 

            Bible =/= biology textbook!

        • COEXISTential

          The word used is ‘dag’, the same root-word used for fish in:

          Gen 1:26 And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the FISH (dagah) of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.

          AND

          Exd 7:21 And the FISH (dagah) that [was] in the river died; and the river stank, and the Egyptians could not drink of the water of the river; and there was blood throughout all the land of Egypt.

          AND

          Eze 29:4 But I will put hooks in thy jaws, and I will cause the FISH (dagah) of thy rivers to stick unto thy scales, and I will bring thee up out of the midst of thy rivers, and all the fish of thy rivers shall stick unto thy scales.

          Dagah is the feminine form.  I can only find the masculine form used in reference to Jonah. Which raises all sorts of interesting ethical questions ;)

          The etymology of fish ,to big fish, to giant fish to whale is covered well enough here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Book_of_Jonah#Jonah_and_the_whale

    • Fsq

      The bible tells people that bats are birds as well….*sigh*….and sinks like Ken Hamm then say the bible is the inerrant word of god….well, I guess all those years spent around bats mean I should have been a bird watcher….

    • Vance Shaw

       Making a distinction between marine mammals and other marine animals is a very modern phenomenon. It is only in the last century or so that the word “fish” has not included such as whales or porpoises.

  • http://www.facebook.com/aeisiminger Aimee Eisiminger

    Oh to be so eloquent. 

  • Robin

    One story I like is when some kids make fun of a bald guy .. and god has two bears rip them to shreds. 2Kings 2:23  Nice god they got there.

  • COEXISTential

    “(Visited 1,229 times, 1,231 visits today)”  Supernatural?

    I rather like Dawkins’ letter to his daughter along much the same lines.

    I would impose that belief doesn’t trump fact, even when the fact is unpleasant and that understanding how the world is and working to make it better is a greater force for good than believing how the world is and praying for it to be better.

  • Skjaere

    Re: the Santa thing, someone recently told me about a tradition in their own house where, on Christmas morning, everyone receives gifts from their current favourite fictional character or characters rather than Santa. I love this idea.

    • amycas

       That’s actually pretty cool. I’ll have to remember that one.

  • http://twitter.com/silo_mowbray Silo Mowbray

    Something I’ve been teaching my kids that seems to be absent in much religious and non-religious teaching: Nobody’s perfect. When I told my son that his Dad had made some poor choices in his life, he was astonished.  Since then though, he hasn’t been anywhere near as hard on himself as he used to, and he seems to be more thoughtful about everything.

    You certainly don’t have to be a Buddhist to be taught humility or understand the flawed nature of humans, including one’s parents. I’d always thought that a realistic perspective about people would be more common among atheists, but it hasn’t been in my experience.

  • http://yetanotheratheist.com/ TerranRich

    A friend of mine told me this story of her childhood, and it is something that I will use with my own children. When she was around 4, until around 10 years of age, her mother would ask her a “critical thinking question” once a day or so, where she would pose a “what if” question about some scenario, and have her think it out critically and using logic and reason. Kind of like an exercise in how to think, not what to think. It was the greatest idea I had ever heard in raising a child to be a critical thinker.

  • TnkAgn

    This is worth printing and saving for our own children to consider when they become parents. Bravo, Mr. Phillips.

  • Robert Thille

    I wouldn’t impose the belief that a whale is a fish. :-)

  • Fsq

    I would teach any child to never go anywhere alone with a priest….or Michael Jackson for that matter, but the latter is kinda moot, where as the pedophile priests are a real danger today.

  • http://annainca.blogspot.com/ Anna

    No wishy-washy treatment of death. Children can handle it, really. It’s better to get them used to the finality of death when they are young, rather than have them wishing and hoping for immortality. When children are taught to indulge in afterlife fantasies, it just makes it more difficult for them to transition out of supernatural thinking. Look at all of these adults who can’t handle the reality of death. That only happens because they were groomed from earliest childhood to believe otherwise. I would encourage atheist parents not to beat around the bush.

  • CK

    I’ve recently had conversations with my young child (upon her asking questions and also in teaching her about life) and I feel as if I could have written most of your first list as that’s pretty much exactly what I’ve discussed with her.  OK, except the part about Santa and the Easter bunny.  We do practice that secular bit of stuff at her age.  Sorry.  But so did my nonreligious family, and I didn’t feel betrayed or lied to, etc., and she enjoys it at this age.  That being said, the rest is pretty much exactly what we have discussed.  She has never seemed to worry about monsters, ghosts, etc., as I have always told her there are no such things.  (She was worried about coyotes at one point, but at least those can be valid concerns…)  I stress being kind to others, being a good person, and respecting others’ rights to have certain beliefs (so long as they aren’t harming anyone) even if we do not share the same beliefs.  Whenever she has a question about something, we discuss the causes and look up more information online or at the library — helping her learn to research answers to questions and learn about science and the world.  And creativity is part of our everyday journey.

    Your second list is very scary.  Since I did grow up in a nonreligious household, some of it is quite shocking. I know about a lot of it, of course, from having lived and having been curious about others’ beliefs and having been curious why “religious” people quote certain things in the bible, and why they seem to be the ones who actually “cherry pick” what parts of the bible they practice while touting the bible as a whole to the rest of us.  I’m sure it’s one part hypocrisy and one part not having actually read the whole bible, themselves, which I find quite bizarre.  How does one espouse something that one has not even read fully?  It’s not like the bible is a 300-volume set.  It’s just one volume, and yet most religious people don’t even know the content much less the actual history of it — and even fewer practice exactly what is said in the bible, of course.  So why espouse this book as the basis for all one’s beliefs and then decide to do this or that and not the other?  How does that work?

    I will continue to teach my daughter as she grows the importance of ethics, of learning, of being a good, kind, and caring person. 

     

  • Glen

    I told my son that the only thing I would guarantee about religion was that they should reject whatever their parents tried to tell them. I guess he listened because he adopted Judaism. Oh well!

  • I_Claudia

    Why not change this:

    I impose on them that there are no such things and ghosts, monsters, fairies, witches, devils or gremlins.

    to this?:

    I impose on them that there are no such things and
    ghosts, monsters, fairies, witches, devils, gremlins or gods.

    Don’t get me wrong, I understand that gods requires a longer conversation than all the other myths because lots of people believe in them and they could run into trouble if they assume they can outwardly treat gods the same way as fairies. However gods are just as credible and have as much supporting evidence in their favor as fairies (and arguably less than witches, which do exist in Wicca but don’t actually have any powers). So there is no reason to give a substantively different answer to a child asking about the existence of fairies or gods. “No sweetie, that’s just make-believe.” In the case of gods you then have to explain that a lot of people think gods are real and progressively teach them about religion, but that shouldn’t affect your initial answer. We can’t expect kids to treat gods like any other unsupported notion unless we do it ourselves first.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_ORRVVC5R2QWLTXEM6SX5L6BORE Jay Arrrr

    Talking donkeys. Yeah, that really happens…

  • mcbender

    Thanks for the recommendation, Hemant. Even for $1.99 this is a good read and is well worth a look.

  • Nodysseus

    Santa was a disappointment for me, finding out he wasn’t real, but it hardly ruined my life.

    And I was hoping that this article would actually make some effort to speak to people who were religious as well as those who are not, but as usual all I can see is a speaker trying to vilify religion and antagonize its members. 

    People should be better than this.


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