Some Rare Sound Advice on Christian/Atheist Child-Rearing

Please stop telling him all this nonsense. You’re scaring him.

First, the newsweekly The Week has a love-advice column. Who knew? But that’s not what’s important. The reason we’re bringing it up here is because the columnist, one “Starshine Roshell” — if that is her real nametackles the perrennial question from a reader:

I really love my husband… but he is a devout atheist and I am a devout Christian. [ . . . ] but we are having a hard time deciding how we will bring up our child. What do people do in this situation?

Can an atheist and a religious person have a successful marriage? How do they decide how to raise the kid? If I’m Christian/Hindu/Baha’i/whatever, do I have to celebrate Humanlight? It sounds so dorky!

We see these questions crop up all the time. And too often, we see the question, however it’s asked, answered at best with the presumption that it’s the atheist who has to “reach across the aisle,” with the hopes that he or she will see the light, and at worst with advice to end the relationship because this nonbeliever is just not worthy.

Remember this gem from Steve Harvey, when he said:

You sitting up there talking to a dude and he tells you he’s an atheist, you need to pack it up and go home. You talking to a person who don’t believe in God… what’s his moral barometer? Where’s it at? It’s nowhere.

Yowza, Steve.

And a million years ago, I wrote about how Dr. Phil, in a show about building bridges and tolerance, was really telling an aggrieved Christian wife to help her atheist husband find God in his own time.

You get the point.

But Roshell takes a tack I found rather refreshing for a mainstream piece of advice (again, this is about children, not just making the relationship work). Roshell says, essentially, be the best whatever-you-are, because the kids will decide for themselves, anyway:

From the first in-utero elbow punch to the email from college announcing that your child has switched to a theater major, parenting is a humbling, decades-long exercise in acknowledging that you are not in charge of this person. You don’t get to decide when they sleep, what they eat, whom they admire — or what and whether they worship.

Well, you’re supposed to decide a lot of those things, but okay, fine, as a parent of two small kids, I see where you’re going.

Children don’t listen to what you say; they watch what you do. If you and your mister behave as the most gracious Christians and atheists (and Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Wiccans, and Scientologists) do — by socking it unto others as you would have them sock it you — your kid will follow suit, no matter what spirituality you profess, holidays you celebrate, or hallelujahs you mumble before mealtime.

[ . . . ] What if, instead of worrying, you looked forward to showing your child what you love about your religion, and letting the man you love express why he doesn’t need it? If you’re respectful of each other’s perspectives, your child will learn to think for herself and be considerate of others’ beliefs.

It’s hard to argue with this. I mean, as an evil, angry, militant, arrogant new atheist, I have a small knee-jerk response that says “respectful shmespectful, Christianity is nutso.” But I know that a real relationship and shared child-rearing doesn’t work like that.

I will say that you could make a case that the Christian “side” in this approach has, for lack of a better word, “advantage” in inculcating itself within the kid, if for no other reason than that Christianity, like most religions, asserts its own absolute correctness despite the evidence, whereas atheism is based on the idea that new data can always change one’s mind. The Jesus thing may have more power to shape a young, squishy mind.

But the overall point is sound. (As is Roshell’s use of “sock it to others.”) My wife and I are not identical in religious-spiritual worldviews (she’s no theist, but she’s what you call “open” to a kind of “universal consciousness” and whatnot), and while it’s not the same dichotomy as Christian-atheist, it does create a touch of tension here and there in how we explain certain things to our ever-more-curious kids. But I also think we both understand that the most important thing we can do is to teach by example — be the best, most moral and ethical people we can be, and let that inform where they land theologically. There’s little chance they’ll go wrong.

About Paul Fidalgo

Paul is communications director for the Center for Inquiry, as well as an actor and musician. His blog is iMortal, and he tweets as @paulfidalgo, and the blog tweets as @iMortal_blog.
The opinions expressed on this blog are personal to Paul and do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for Inquiry.

  • iggy topo

    You sitting up there talking to a dude an he’s dressed like Steve Harvey, you need to pack it up and go home. You talking to a person who believe his tie, hanky and socks should match… what’s his sartorial barometer? Where’s it at? It’s nowhere.

  • Paul (not the apostle)

    Teach them to think critically and demand evidence. Teach them to ask “How do you know that” and then evaluate the response. Educate them in science at good schools. Then let them choose. I know where they will land.

  • C Peterson

    I hear “devout atheist” and I think I’m dealing with somebody who doesn’t really understand atheism very well.

  • Savoy47

    A big realization for the children is that the position each parent is espousing is optional, not a mandatory behavior the child must adhere to. One of the worst things about being a kid is the sense that your life is not your own. I know when I was a young kid I wanted to explore everything in my world and I resented anything and everything that took me away from that quest.

  • Henry Stephen

    This must only be online. I have subscribed to The Week for years and never seen that column. Clearly I am old for reading print media.

  • OverlappingMagisteria

    Dennis Markuze, I believe you have a court order to not troll online.

  • Houndentenor

    That’s not a thing. How can you be devout about atheism?

  • Houndentenor

    That seems to be what every atheist parent I’ve ever listened to or read on this topic has said. I can’t imagine more sound advice. You don’t need to teach children what to think. You only need to teach them how to think. Everything that is true can be proven through evidence and reason. Any teaching not based on that is worthless.

  • Pofarmer

    We are going through this now. The main problem is that the christian parent feels like they are a failure. If they are a Catholic, you have the whole convoluted signed a contract with the church bullshit.

  • Daniel

    “The Jesus thing may have more power to shape a young, squishy mind.”

    Quite possibly. But quite frankly, I am not too concerned with what my kids think is true at a young age. We’ve watched a few “behind the scenes CGI” features on some of the DVDs we watch, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if she thinks Griffins are as real as Elephants. After all, she hasn’t seen either in real life, but the Wonder Pets have rescued both of them.

    I think that in mixed belief child rearing like this, the early win goes to the theism (dinner prayers are a fun routine!), but by middle school, the atheism is likely to win out.

  • Julio Rosario

    My parent’s faced this predicament when they had me and my sister. Mom being Catholic and Dad being atheist. However they both just agreed to not influence us either way and let us make our own decisions on our own. So it’s not always this big epic smack-down.

  • UWIR

    I getting a feeling of deja vu. Did another contributor at FA link to this? A commenter? Or maybe it was another blog?

  • JET

    Yup. Santa’s pretty cool until you’re about 7 and figure things out.

  • EvolutionKills

  • EvolutionKills

    There was a really good presentation at the FreeOK 2013 by Dale McGowan, called ‘Raising (Actual) Freethinkers’. It’s a good watch, and expresses similar sentiments, but with a lot more depth.

  • 3lemenope

    Commenter. GubbaBumpkin. Here it is.

  • Houndentenor

    I stand corrected. LOL

  • Q. Quine

    My parents, also. However, my father had to agree to their kids being raised Catholic, or they could not be married. Bad idea.

  • Q. Quine

    Bugs me, too, when folks say, “devout atheist.” It’s like a page being “devoutly” blank. If the wife can defend Christianity, she should explain it to him.

  • ctcss

    “I think that in mixed belief child rearing like this, the early win goes
    to the theism (dinner prayers are a fun routine!), but by middle
    school, the atheism is likely to win out.”

    I am not sure that would necessarily be the case. My mom was the main religious person. She was the one we went to when we wanted help on the religious side of things. My dad (from my memory of him growing up) never really went to church with us. He had his own thing. I’m not sure I ever asked why he didn’t go with us. But he always supported my mom regarding her taking us to church. We also didn’t say grace at mealtimes. But I enjoyed Sunday School because I liked the concepts being taught. And we never were taught about Santa or the Easter Bunny, so there was no false equivalency to God that had to be explained away when we became older. Furthermore, I enjoyed science at school, so there was no unnecessary antipathy between religion and what we learned in school. Basically, the two sides of life did just fine co-existing.

    Neighbors can get along just fine of they respect one another’s boundaries, and so can religion and the secular.

  • Pofarmer

    Yep. Typically, and I was Protestant at the time. You really don’t understand what the Catholic Church teaches until they start teaching your kids. Then there are a lot of WTF moments. Eventually it becomes unbearable not to speak out.

  • Bitter Lizard

    And if one of those guys said something critical of religion he would become a “militant atheist”, the Osama bin Laden of atheists.

  • Icepick Press

    I was respectful, patient and loving raising my kids with my Catholic wife. I even let her bring them to Sunday services and participate in school there. The kids are in college, we’ve been happily married for 23 years and I now have a non-believing son, daughter and WIFE.

  • Birdie1986

    This is essentially my situation (only my husband is a Methodist and doesn’t attend church regularly any more, although his father is a former Religious Studies professor with a PhD in Theology, and used to be a practicing minister, so they are a bit concerned that my husband is not tending to my son’s religious upbringing as well as he should, and I think they blame me for that – wrongly, I might add, as I actually encourage my husband to go to church if he really wants to, and to take my son, as long as I can be honest with my son about my non-belief and critical thinking). I’m hoping my son will make the logical decision, but if he ends up wanting to go to church, I’m not going to criticize him or try to dissuade him (unless he goes culty whacko, which I don’t seen happening, given the way we are raising him (i.e., to think for himself).