Ask Richard: My Six-Year-Old Son is an Outspoken Atheist

Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.

Dear Richard,

I’m not usually the sort to ask for advice this way, but I’ve come up against a situation where I could use some input. My son is six years old and in his class at school, as is typical, almost all the kids come from Christian families and have been taught to believe in God. Two children have parents who are pastors (both parents in one case), and another has parents who both graduated from seminary but are not currently pastors.

My son and I have talked about God occasionally, and I started from the basis of Greek mythology to explain what a god was in the first place, and why I don’t believe in them. We’ve kept it light, but he’s decided he doesn’t believe either and came to the conclusion that believing in god is stupid. That’s not the way I’ve approached it at all, he just came up with it, and he proclaimed it quite loudly in a very public place at one point. Now on some level I agree with him, but I basically have told him that I don’t like him to call anything or anyone stupid.

On a recent trip to the art museum a sculpture of an Egyptian god apparently brought up the topic among the kids. My son came home and asked me if I believed in god and said all the kids in his class did. I said I didn’t, then told him that the most important thing to me was that he knew how to figure out for himself what was real. I asked if he thought that a lot of people believing something meant it was true, and he said no. I gave a brief version of the scientific method as a good way of knowing what’s real. That was about as far as he wanted to go at the time.

The problem is that he really likes to tell people what he knows. Every time someone calls the bonobos at the zoo monkeys, he corrects them and tells them they’re apes. Apparently he told his mother that he needs to tell his friends god doesn’t exist.

I’m not worried about what he believes, but I am worried that parents are going to stop letting their kids play with him, or kids are going to pick on him. I’m pretty content for kids to have these conversations among themselves, but my kid’s got all the tact of, well an atheist who’s pretty damn sure he’s right when it comes to these things. How can I tell him to be polite without telling him not to express himself? Should I talk to some of the parents that we know and whose kids he regularly plays with and let them know where we come from and what to expect? Is this the point where we suddenly become pariah parents?

Thanks,
Scott

Dear Scott,

Your son is a lucky boy. You are teaching him how to think things out for himself, and you pace what you teach him according to his comprehension level and his attention span. You keep it light and in small doses. Your use of mythology and of Socratic methods such as asking him if a belief’s popularity makes it correct are excellent approaches. Keep in mind that it’s not all about finding the exact right things to say. In the long run, most of what you teach him will not be what you tell him. Most will be what he observes you doing. He will model how to respond to life the way he sees you responding to life.

But in the shorter term, as much as you can, get yourself and his mother on the same page about how to advise him. You really want to avoid him having to stretch between dissimilar opinions and conflicting suggestions from his mom and his dad. Your two approaches might not perfectly match, but try to come as close as you can.

Knowing when to be polite is an important skill for him to learn, and another important skill is knowing when to be prudent. This doesn’t have to be an either/or choice between being polite or being able to freely express himself. It can be a broader choice of the kinds of reactions he will get from others, and the kinds of relationships he wants to have with others.

Use the zoo bonobos as an example: If he’s watched them, he may have noticed that they have distinct personalities. Some are confident, some are shy. Some are demanding, some are easygoing. Some tend to go along with the group, and some do things their own way. Every one of them has to find how to get along with every other one. They do this by trying out little things with each other, and seeing what works. They all learn how to change their behavior just a little bit with each individual, and they learn that they can be very relaxed with some, but they need to be more careful with others.

Explain to him that most people who believe in gods have strong feelings attached to their beliefs, and so they can get upset when someone disagrees with them about their beliefs.

Teach him the difference between saying, “It’s stupid for you to believe that,” and “I need to see it to believe it.” One is a statement about the other person, and it hurts their feelings. The other is only a statement about himself, and it doesn’t say anything good or bad about the other person. Another kid might say that he’s stupid to not believe, but at least he hasn’t been the one to start that. He can just shrug his shoulders and repeat, “I need to see it to believe it. You believe whatever you want. We can still be friends. Let’s go outside and play.”

Consider telling him gently about your concern that some parents might not let their kids play with him, or how some kids might pick on him. Lightly cautioning him gives him the option of deciding if and how he wants to avoid those things, and it helps him be a little more prepared in case they do happen. All actions have consequences, and making well-considered decisions about what consequences are acceptable is what I mean by prudence. Just as you have encouraged him to figure out what is real, encourage him to figure out how he wants to get along with his friends.

Make sure he knows two things for certain: 1. He can always come to you or his mom for support and advice, and if he feels over his head, you will help him and defend him. 2. He is a good person because of his good actions, not because of his friends’ good opinions of him. Being liked is nice, but that’s not what makes him a good person.

It’s probably inevitable that the truth about your family’s atheism will become known in the community, either by your directly telling other parents or by your son revealing it. Often it’s better to have some control over how that comes out by doing what you’re considering, proactively talking to the parents of his regular playmates. Those parents might appreciate your consideration in giving them the forewarning of what their kids might hear from your son, and also it will be an opportunity for you to preemptively dispel the common misconceptions that so many religious adults have about nonbelievers.

However, whether or not you become a pariah family depends mainly on the other families. It’s very difficult to predict, and you might not have a local example of someone else’s experience to go by. You can present your views to the adults as politely and non-threateningly as possible, but I’ve seen religious families who have had no problem with it, and I’ve seen other religious families react as if the atheist families are rabid, rampaging demons, and every response in between. There’s a good chance you’ll get a sampling of a variety of these from different families. In very general terms, the social reaction to an atheist family can be extremely different between countries, strongly different between regions of the U.S., and strongly different between rural and urban communities in the same region. When it gets down to individual families, it’s idiosyncratic.

You and his mother have your own social needs too. Develop your own adult friends and social outlets that will hopefully not be affected by religious conflicts. The difference between a pariah family and a family that just has a few folks who dislike them is in how well they have built alternative social assets.

As your son grows older, he will encounter different kinds of challenges because of his non-belief, but consider that he will be growing up in a world that is much less hostile to atheists than the one in which you grew up. Every year, more and more of his peers will reject fantasy and superstition and will join him in reason and rationality.

It is likely that he will have some valuable things to teach you, even though he’s not consciously trying. As the father of a 27-year-old daughter, I can say that that is a remarkable experience. Appreciate and enjoy that as much as seeing how he has learned from you.

I recommend that you read Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion, and its companion, Raising Freethinkers: A Practical Guide for Parenting Beyond Belief, both by Dale McGowan.

Richard

Related Posts:
Ask Richard: What Should I Teach My Children About Other People’s Beliefs?
Ask Richard: Teaching My Kids Religious Tolerance and Science at the Same Time
Ask Richard: Seven-Year-Old Faces Religious Badgering at School

You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. There is a very large number of letters. I am sorry if I am unable to respond.

About Richard Wade

Richard Wade is a retired Marriage and Family Therapist living in California.

  • cipher

    Excellent.

  • MD

    Sounds like my youngest. She proudly declares she doesn’t believe in gods, to the point of demanding her 2nd grade class discuss the Big Bang Theory, just so the kids could understand that Genesis was only a story. I’m very happy to live in Europe, where the strongest reaction has been a few kids shaking their heads at her. She’s also had some kids come up to her and whisper that they agree with her.

    I have told her, though, that some people have great emotional investment in their religious beliefs, and to tread carefully. Especially when it comes to family members.

    • Gus Snarp

      …to the point of demanding her 2nd grade class discuss the Big Bang Theory, just so the kids could understand that Genesis was only a story.

      Brilliant!

      • Katherine Harms

        Soo, you would be equally impressed with a 2nd grader standing up in the middle of the Big Bang Theory and saying, “My mommy read from the Bible where it says God made the world. Did God make the Big Bang?” You would like that? Yes? If yes, then good for you. What’s good for one is good for the other. Right?

        • Gus Snarp

          Of course not. Why would I be impressed with a child parroting religious ignorance? Would I accept the child’s right to ask the question? Only if it was done in an appropriate manner and not interrupting the class, although with second graders there’s a bit of leeway for that.

          There’s no indication that the child in question stood up in the middle of anything and said anything. I choose to assume the child did not interrupt class in an inappropriate way.

          And the teacher’s answer would need to be something along the lines of: “I can only tell you what the scientific evidence indicates, any involvement of a god is something you should talk about with your family.”

          • Katherine Harms

            I respectfully disagree. If it is appropriate for a child to interrupt a discussion of Genesis to insist on a discussion of Big Bang, then it is equally appropriate for a child to interrupt a discussion of Big Bang to insist on a discussion of Genesis. Let’s face it. Big Bang is a guess based on whatever we know about science at the moment, the sort of guess we attribute to education. Genesis is a story based on faith matured by years of experience. Considering the absolute fact that nobody was there at the time, what makes one of the options more appropriate for discussion than another?

            • Gus Snarp

              One of us is clearly not understanding the other. First you asked if I’d be equally impressed. A foolish question, from my perspective, but maybe you didn’t mean it the way I read it. It is your perfect right to believe in a false equivalence between Genesis and the Big Bang, but I do not, nor is there any reason for me to. Why would it make any sense for me to be equally impressed?

              But perhaps you just meant that I should consider the children’s right to speak out equal. I do. Neither has the right to interrupt anything, but both have the right to speak their mind in the appropriate way. I thought I made all this abundantly clear, but evidently not.

              You’re certainly not reading the post about the child discussing the Big Bang the way I am, nor are you being charitable enough to show that you’ve read and understood how I’m reading it, even though I’ve told you. I don’t think there’s any evidence from that statement that a child interrupted a discussion of Genesis. It doesn’t say that at all, and I’m assuming that isn’t what happened, but that a child raise her own thoughts in a discussion in an appropriate way. Since it’s an atheist’s child in a school in Europe, I’m further assuming that there was no discussion of Genesis by the teacher, as that would be inserting religion in class, which is inappropriate.

              But originally you proposed that God caused the Big Bang. I can’t take much issue with that. I think it’s a useless and unnecessary hypothesis, but not one that can be disproved. So be it. But now you’re making it about Genesis and drawing an equivalency between Genesis and the Big Bang. That is quite different, as Genesis is demonstrably false. We know with absolute certainty that the Earth has existed for over 4 billion years. That life has existed for 3 billion. We know that humans are very late arrival to the planet, that countless species have oozed, swum, crawled, walked and flown over its surface before the first human was born. Genesis is a religious myth. It simply is not true. Even if you ignore the science, Genesis itself is self contradictory. It cannot be true. The Big Bang is not a “guess”, it is the unavoidable result of the mathematics of rolling back the processes going on in the universe. It is true that we do not fully understand it, but if the laws of physics have always applied, and there’s no reason to believe they spontaneously changed, then something akin to the Big Bang must have occurred (you should also know that the Big Bang was an inaccurate and unscientific name in the first place, and even the original theory has been modified as we have come to understand more about the Universe and improved the mathematical modeling). One of these things is science, the other is religion and religion cannot be taught in public schools, while science must be. You may have a problem with that because you don’t believe the science, but that’s irrelevant. There are people who still believe the Earth is flat, but they do not get to opt out of science, or have their views taught, and this is no different, it is only your ignorance of the science that leads you to believe that the Big Bang is “just a guess” and no better than Genesis.

              • Katherine Harms

                Every scientific hypothesis is a guess until it is verified to be true. The likelihood of actually verifying a hypothesis about the origins of the universe is pretty small. It’s like weather forecasting Cosmological hypothesis uses the best we know to reverse program the processes and work our way back to the start. Weather forecasting, micro and macro, uses the best we know to forward program the processes and figure out what will happen tomorrow or next century. Neither of those models is foolproof. In the case of weather forecasting, we get to save our guess and test it against reality. Not so with cosmology, so cosmology is always a guess. A highly educated guess but still a guess.
                Genesis is a statement of faith, a best attempt to put into human language something nobody can even comprehend. It isn’t actually in competition with cosmology. It competes with unbelief.
                I respect anyone’s right to believe what he will, but I ask my right be respected as well. To protect our rights, we don’t shut down all language except the language of unbelief. Rather, we bring our diversity together. Everybody gets to speak, not just the atheists, in public school or anywhere else. I concur with anyone’s objection to a command to all children in a public school to be part of any belief system, or system of unbelief. I object with full Constitutional support to the idea that religion does not belong in public schools. When human beings gather in a public school, religion is there. Every person is living his or her beliefs wherever he goes. People don’t shed religion at the door to a public building. The Constitution doesn’t require or expect it. The Constitution is a good principle to govern by — every person is free to exercise his religion. Period. Everywhere. At all times in all places. Atheists and Christians and Hindus can be fully whoever they are under the Constitution, and I am extremely happy about that.

                • Gus Snarp

                  As regards freedom of religion, I generally agree with everything you’ve said, with one caveat, nor have I said otherwise. The caveat is that anyone acting as an agent of the government, which includes a public school teacher, cannot appear to endorse religion, which means that they cannot, for example, teach the Bible unless they are teaching it in a comparative religion class where it is taught equally alongside other religious traditions, something the vast majority of public schools do not have the resources for. No one is, has been, or should be expected to drop their religion at the door, but they cannot use their government position to declaim their beliefs to others, particularly children. And fortunately, the Courts agree with me that that is what the Constitution requires as well.

                • Katherine Harms

                  May I ask for a sampling, say four or five cases, that demonstrate that the courts say a teacher may not speak out of faith in conversation with a child? I am not aware that a teacher has given up the right to exercise his/her faith or to speak of his/her faith in the classroom.

                • KelpieLass

                  The teacher, in her role as a government employee, cannot advance one religious belief over another. The teacher must adhere to the curriculum established by the school, and cannot add religion to science class.

                • JohnnieCanuck

                  Katherine, you really need to learn a little more about the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation measurements that have been made. The COBE satellite was one of the first experiments to verify the predictions of the Big Bang theory. It did so with unprecedented precision. Subsequently the WMAP and Planck satellites amongst other experiments have improved our understanding even further. It is now the Standard Model for cosmology. Nobel prizes have been given for this work.

                  You refuse to accept scientific evidence when it contradicts your religious beliefs because it all happened in the past. How do you feel about convicting people of crimes based on evidence recovered from the crime scene when there is no witness testimony? Which carries more weight, forensic evidence like blood samples identified by DNA, or the memory of a possibly truthful witness?

                • Katherine Harms

                  I don’t dispute evidence that is gathered and recorded with integrity. I do dispute any perception that the analysis of an event for which we have no standard can possibly be 100% correct. Having a standard model for anything is not the same thing as knowing the truth. For example, in weather forecasting, I don’t even know the number of models available, all created by brilliant and committed scientists. Some are more commonly used than others, but most have their high spots with regard to being verifiably correct. Anyone who ever set sail with a 5-day forecast only to discover on the first day that the wind was coming from the north despite a forecast that it would come from the east knows the difference between the model and the fact. I honor science, but I set scientific models on a level of value below the value of observed facts. That doesn’t mean I don’t value them at all, but I don’t accept them as facts. When the facts are known, I can accept them.
                  However, with regard to cosmology and the origins of human beings, I value the models and doubt seriously that there is any way to establish the facts, especially with regard to cosmology. The closer you get to the moment of beginning, the farther you get from anything we can actually observe.
                  I assert again that I can accept facts. No matter what the model said, when the wind blows from the north, I accept that fact and recognize the limitations of the model. I won’t say that wind is coming from the east when it is obviously coming from the north. If someone give me a forecast that says wind will come from the east, or a “back-cast” that says the world started with a single entity that is the source of all matter in an explosion, I will view them with an equal measure of skepticism. I will say, “the wind is expected to come from the east,” rather than say, “the wind will come from the east.” I will say, “some scientists believe the cosmos began with a single entity from which all matter originated,” rather than say, “the universe began with a big bang.” Do you see the difference? I respect all the science involve, but I give models a different value than facts.
                  I do have a religious view that God is the ultimate origin of the universe, but that doesn’t keep me from appreciating the search for a factual understanding of the means he used.

                • JohnnieCanuck

                  You are missing the part where all scientific conclusions are tentative, for some value of tentative. That is, in the face of new evidence one must be willing to modify or even discard the old conclusion. When this happens, the old verified evidence must still be explained by the new theory.

                  I think you’ll find that cosmologists would assert per Stephen J. Gould that their theory has been “confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent”.

                  You misuse the (in)accuracy of weather predictions in your selective criticism of science you wish to ignore.

                  I have an explanation that I like about how the computer devices we are using are actually using magic green smoke to operate, not science. My evidence is that whenever green smoke comes out of an electronic component, it stops working. Nothing you can say about band gaps and doping levels or flip-flops and registers is going to convince me otherwise, because I have seen the green smoke for myself.

                  The cosmologists have shown that no god needs to be included in explanations of the evidence they have discovered. That you find comfort in holding onto a divine father figure is not enough to reject the evidence otherwise.

            • KelpieLass

              Hmm. Maybe because one is based on the scientific method, which constantly improves and updates knowledge, while the other is based on the best knowledge of iron age shepherds and permits no advancement or improved knowledge beyond what was known in the iron age??

              Genesis and other religious and/or mythological stories have no place in a science classroom. Our best understanding of the world as a result of scientific inquiry does belong in the classroom.

              As a previous poster wrote, the teacher should say: “I can only tell you what the scientific evidence indicates, any involvement of a god is something you should talk about with your family.”

    • http://gloomcookie613.tumblr.com GloomCookie613

      Your daughter sounds like a pretty awesome kiddo. Nicely done, parental units! :)

  • islandbrewer

    Thank you! I could have written the exact same letter (although I don’t know of any parents who are pastors). It sounded like it was describing my son.

  • Hat Stealer

    I often had debates about the existence of God with my fellow students when I was 5. They were philosophical and deep, consisting of “God exists!” “No he doesn’t!” “Yes He does!” “Nuh-uh!” However, there was never anything more to it than that. Kids tended to forget about the conversations once they were over. Hope the same is true here.

  • http://yetanotheratheist.com/ TerranRich

    My 6-year-old son is an outspoken atheist as well. His mother and I have always told our children that they should always ask questions when somebody tells them something is true that they’ve never heard before, and to demand evidence for things that sound silly or outlandish. We use the question of whether there’s a god as an example: always demand evidence of this god before just believing something. Never believe anything without a good reason.

    This has resulted in a boy who came to the conclusion that there is probably no god, and that claims about such must be met with criticism and doubt. He doesn’t say there’s no god; he just demands evidence of one when confronted.

    I’d say that “Scott” has raised his son well. :)

  • http://agmmusings.blogspot.com/ Alessia Lane

    My 6 year old is an outspoken atheist as well. Dad and I just remind him that it is not polite to tell other people their beliefs are “wrong” or “myths” and that he has to be respectful. On the other hand, when someone tells him he’s going to hell, he has our 100% permission to tell them that he’s not worried since it’s not a real place.

    • Art_Vandelay

      Why can’t they just tell people that they think their beliefs are wrong respectfully?

      • jfigdor

        I told a former employer* that I found her interest in Astrology and practice of Tarot reading laughable. We got along really quite well and spent most of our time talking about things we shared an interest in. You can disagree without being disagreeable, and you can be friends with people whom you disagree with quite vehemently.

        * I didn’t get fired.

        • KelpieLass

          “You can disagree without being disagreeable”

          This is exactly what I want to teach my munchkins.

      • Anon

        Because the examples given are children.

        The most well behaved and tactful of six year olds will, on occasion, say something that is offensive. That’s not to say that it is okay, but that it is going to happen at some point.

        My six year old second cousin once ran up to another relative, hugged her and asked her if she was having a baby too (she was a rather large lady and his mother was pregnant).

        • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke

          omg i so did that to a woman when i was a little girl. i knew enough to be embarrassed when she said she was not.

          i was pretty direct with my atheism as a child. it didn’t really hurt me that much or prevent me from having friends. i went to church a couple of times with the believing neighbors, was totally bored, and said “thanks but no thanks.” they still hired me as a babysitter, when i got a bit older. there will probably be some fanatics who will tell their kids not to hang out with yours, but the truth is you probably don’t want him hanging out with those kinds anyway.

        • Art_Vandelay

          Okay…and I agree with you to an extent but how does a kid ever tell another kid that they think they are wrong about anything? I mean, doesn’t this crazy idea that religion is off the table when it comes to challenging ideas start when you’re a kid? Would it be disrespectful for a kid to tell another kid that he was wrong about Justin Bieber being the greatest recording artist of all time?

      • http://agmmusings.blogspot.com/ Alessia Lane

        Well, because he’s six. When he is older and can back up why he thinks it is wrong, he can do it all day. But he’s six now and his understanding of why they are wrong equates to “ancient people didn’t understand the world so they made up gods to answer their questions”.

  • Tainda

    When my daughter was growing up she was allowed to experience all kinds of beliefs. She knew what I believed and when she was 10 or so started to doubt. When she was 16 she started being hateful to people who believed in gods. We had many discussions about being rude in general. That’s the main problem with children, they need the “How to be polite with ANY difference” discussion often.

    Too bad so many adults didn’t get that lecture when they were young.

  • Carla

    When I was six, if someone had tried to tell me that my stuffed dog was anything other than a Super Powerful Protector and Companion, I would have been very upset. Does your son have a comfort object? Try explaining other’s attachment to religion in those sorts of terms to help him understand and be more compassionate towards other’s need for a god and why it’s not always nice or appropriate to take away someone’s comfort object. He seems like the kind of kid who wouldn’t stand for injustice for any reason, so I don’t think that would legitimize religion to him, but also like the kind who wouldn’t really want to hurt feelings.

  • Croquet_Player

    It looks like you’re doing a great job with your young son, who sounds bright and delightful. It’s important that children learn that even if we don’t agree with them, other people are entitled to their views. And just as your son is entitled to not be mocked or teased for being an atheist, religious people enjoy the same right.

  • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

    I’d just like to know what Zoo has Bonobos in it.

    • Gus Snarp

      Looks like San Diego; Jacksonville, FL; Milwaukee; Columbus, OH; and Cincinnati, OH, at least.

      It’s quite fun to see the reaction of parents to the goings on in a bonobo exhibit.

    • MD

      Planckendael Zoo outside of Antwerp.

      • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

        I’m afraid you’ve caught out my Amerocentric blinders. I was thinking of Zoos where I wouldn’t have to worry that some group with ‘Family’ in their name might lobby for Bonobo chastity belts.

        • MD

          Haha, those “Family” groups are so obsessed with sex, aren’t they?

  • JKPS

    TIL what a bonobo is.

  • beatonfam

    I have found the use of “I” statements very useful with my outspoken son (now 12). It works well in many situations and can almost always provide a polite path through conversational rocky waters.

  • http://www.facebook.com/chad.boswell.104 Chad Boswell

    I’m guessing he doesn’t believe in Santa Claus anymore?

  • Dan Waters

    There is nothing wrong with your son saying religion is stupid…it is stupid..incredibly so.


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