The Atheist Parent Challenge: Is It Indoctrination If You Steer Your Kids Toward Godlessness?

Parenting is hard under any circumstances, but it can be particularly difficult as an atheist parent. Sometimes those struggles stem from the surrounding community. Sometimes those challenges come from your family. And every now and then, those challenges come from your kids themselves.

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Take, for example, Siobhan O’Neill. She and her atheist husband chose to send their child to a religious school — not because of its faith-based orientation, but because it offered greater educational opportunities. It’s an argument many atheist parents in the U.S. have made about sending their kids to a Catholic school. O’Neill’s school also had a reputation for being tolerant of folks with many perspectives on faith, despite the omnipresence of predominantly Christian teachings and prayers. As she put it, she and her husband weren’t particularly concerned about their daughter Una‘s exposure to religious doctrine, as they felt they could counter it at home.

That is, until their daughter started taking a greater and greater interest in religion, which led to to some awkward, uncomfortable parenting decisions. As she writes in an essay for The Independent:

I never expected to be arranging a baptism for her so she can be confirmed with her friends, nor inviting Father Michael round to chat over a cuppa; I had to steer the conversation away from science before Ian, with a physics degree, got too animated. But we all approach it with common sense and Una’s best interests at heart.

It seemed obvious that my role was to support her journey to discover herself and I didn’t consider it until a Muslim friend said she thought it was admirable. “If a child wanted to explore a religion other than their own I don’t know too many families who would support that,” she said. Since childhood indoctrination is one of the things I like least about religion, I’m proud of Una for challenging my own atheist indoctrination of her.

It’s a difficult position to be in, for sure, and one I’m growing familiar with myself. My daughter knows of my position (you should have seen the look on my grandmother’s face when my daughter declared, “Mommy doesn’t believe in God,” just before prayer), and I’ve done my best to shield her from too much religious exposure, largely because I know the impact of peer and familial pressure to conform is a lot for such a young mind. At the same time, the plan has always been to wait until she’s older and better capable of cognitive reasoning, then make a concerted effort to expose her to major world religions, allowing her to choose her own path.

It never really occurred to me that she might choose one different than my own. Sure, interactions with my parents mean she knows some of the nursery rhyme bedtime prayers, and she’ll bow her head with them at their dinner table, but there is no formal religion in her life. We don’t read the Bible. We don’t attend church. There was never a baptism, nor do I plan on having one.

But what if? What if, once she’s older and we take that tour of world religions, she decides she believes in some sort of Higher Power? Will I have failed as a parent or succeeded as one who raised a young woman capable of independent thought?

I don’t have the answers, though I know I’ve got time to figure them out. Have other atheist parents gone through the same situation? How did you deal with it?

(Image via Shutterstock)

About Lauren Nelson

Lauren Nelson is an advocate and aspiring ally focused on intersectional justice. When she's not gabbing on social media or chasing after her precocious seven year old, you'll find her researching and writing extensively on the subjects of politics, policy, culture, neurodiversity, and faith for The Friendly Atheist and Rethink the Rant.