Parenting, Belief, and Expectations

Today I watched this video. It is a talk at a Secular Student Alliance conference by high school student Jessica Ahlquist. It’s weird, if I had watched this video even five or ten years ago, I would have looked at her and seen myself; I would have seen Jessica on the level of a peer. Today, I look at her and see my daughter; I see Jessica as part of a younger generation. And so, watching Jessica, I thought of my daughter and my parenting. Jessica has reminded me that even though I no longer share my parents’ religious beliefs, I can still place expectations on my daughter the way my parents did on me.

First, some background on the video (and actually, if you just read this you don’t have to actually watch the video and you’ll still get my point). Jessica is an atheist, and she is suing her public school to remove a prayer banner from its auditorium. She first petitioned to have the banner removed and explained that it violates the separation of church and state and her school refused to budge and told her she would have to sue. The law is on Jessica’s side, and she will win the suit. Jessica explains that she is now mocked, threatened, and harassed at her high school by openly Christian students because of her atheism. Even the teachers are sometimes complicit. And Jessica lives in Rhode Island, not Georgia or Alabama.

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When I heard this story, I had two very different reactions to it.

First, as I listened to Jessica talk about the hatred she has faced at school for simply coming out as an atheist, I cried tears for my daughter. Growing up in an atheist family, I know that Sally will be teased and mocked in school. She will be reviled, perhaps even by teachers. The intensity of the persecution she will face will vary depending on where we live, of course, but it will never completely disappear. She will be growing up as a child of atheists in a pervasively Christian culture. She will be hated, she will be misunderstood, she will be laughed at. If you think I’m exaggerating, remember that Jessica Ahlquist lives in Rhode Island, not Alabama.

There is a part of me that wants more than anything for my daughter to be able to lead a “normal” life, and I know that she won’t truly be able to do that in this country as a child of atheist parents. Sometimes I feel like finding a liberal Christian church to attend and putting on a Christian hat, just so that she can have a normal life and childhood. But I can’t do that. I can’t lie about what I believe. There is nothing wrong with not believing in a God. I don’t want to teach my daughter that beliefs are something to be hidden and ashamed of.

My second reaction is very different. I listen to Jessica’s courage and I find myself hoping that Sally will be just like her. I find myself hoping that Sally will start a Secular Alliance at her high school, that she will stand up for disbelief, that she might even be involved in a lawsuit to remove a religious symbol from her school, or to remove the words “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance. And then I realize what I am doing. I am doing what my parents did, and that I must not do. I must not live through my daughter or map her life out for her. I must not put expectations on her or decide her beliefs for her.

I don’t like the term “Christian child” or “Muslim child,” because I do not think children ought to be allowed to decide their religions for themselves. I prefer to say “child of Christian parents” or “child of Muslim parents,” and that is why in the beginning of this post I spoke of Sally “growing up as a child of atheist parents,” not “growing up as an atheist.”

I intend to teach Sally to be a critical thinker and to think for herself, and then let her choose her own beliefs. Will I be happy if Sally decides she is an atheist and starts a Secular Alliance club at her high school? You bet! But I need to make sure that I am not disappointed if she would rather be the band kid and try out her best friend’s church. It’s not my job to tell Sally who she’s supposed to be. It’s my job to give her the tools to decide for herself who she wants to be.

I won’t hide my beliefs to make her life more “normal,” but I also won’t push those beliefs on her.

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Katy-Anne

    What if Sally for some reason wants to be Christian? Wlll you be "ok" with that if that is her choice? I'm not "judging", I really am just curious. :)

  • boomSLANG

    That's a good question. It makes me wonder how many adult Christians actually explored other belief-systems, and of those they explored, ended up wanting to be a Christian, compared to those who never explored any other belief-system and were indoctrinated as children…i.e..handed the family belief-system. I suspect the vast, vast majority of adult Christians fall into the latter group.

  • Leanna

    Wonderful post. I can definitely relate with my ten year old daughter as well. While I would be very surprised if she adopted the Christian faith in her lifetime, I would support her as long as she came to her beliefs through her own decisions, and not through any coercion by outside sources. Before we homeschooled, my daughter spoke openly in her public school (in Kentucky) about not believing in any gods. (She's tried on different belief hats and has also gone through periods of insisting there were gods.) She was in first grade the first time a peer told her she was going to Hell, and after that she mostly kept quiet. I know exactly what you mean about considering "pretending" to be Christian. It would be SO nice to walk into a church and have this instant extended family that loves and accepts you (as long as you think exactly like they do, of course.) Like you, I cannot lie about my beliefs and teach my kids that they are something to hide and be ashamed of.

  • Libby Anne

    Katy-Anne – That was exactly my point. Yes, I would be okay with that, so long as she came to that herself. (See Leanna's comment for what I mean by this.) If I weren't okay with her choosing her own beliefs, that would be kind of hypocritical of me, wouldn't it? Boomslang – I completely agree.Leanna – "I would support her as long as she came to her beliefs through her own decisions, and not through any coercion by outside sources." Exactly.

  • Incongruous Circumspection

    I grew up as an overt (yet sort of reluctant) hyper-fundie Christian. I was public schooled my entire primary and secondary career. Any mention of the name of "Jesus" or "God" gave rise to ridicule and mockery. Just the fact that I went to church needed to pretty much stay hidden from people so that I could attempt to live a normal life while getting an education.Yes, we live in what many call a "Christian" nation. But, it is mostly nominal, and increasingly, something to be spray-painted on an overpass to argue for wrongs against our country whether internally or internationally.Your daughter will be fine. Atheism is mainstream. It is celebrated voraciously in the media and anyone worth two cents in politics downplays God as much as possible, unless they are talking to their base. When they get in front of the general public eye, they run in circles around previous "god" statements to try and appear as close to an atheist as possible, holding any idea of God at arms length.The few morons that issued death threats or ridicule are no better than the losers at Westboro Baptist and are much less than mainstream.Again, your daughter, as an atheist, will be fine. Nothing to worry about.I know. I lived it. There wasn't a day I didn't want to throw away what I saw as my stupid faith and just live like everyone else.

  • Libby Anne

    IC – Did you watch the video? I'm guessing not. Regardless of your experience growing up as a hyper-fundie, atheist students ARE ridiculed and mocked and, yes, threatened. I'm not trying to make my daughter into a martyr, and I don't think she's going to get beaten up over it, but yes, people will give her crap about the fact that her parents are atheists, just like people gave you crap about the fact that your mother was a hyper-fundie. "Atheism is mainstream. It is celebrated voraciously in the media and anyone worth two cents in politics downplays God as much as possible, unless they are talking to their base." I'm sorry, WHAT? Did you know that it is virtually impossible for an atheist to be elected to public office? You HAVE to play up your religion to get elected! Didn't you see that happen with Obama? Faith is essentially REQUIRED for someone to hold public office! Atheism is NOT mainstream. In fact, atheists are more hated in this country than gays or Muslims! Christianity (read, normal Christianity, not hyper-fundie Christianity) is mainstream. Not atheism. As a fundie Christian, I agreed with you. But then I became an atheist and realized just how saturated in Christianity this country is (yes, it's often simply cultural, but it's still there). This country is not friendly toward atheism. It's really not. But I'm not sure you know this unless you try living as an atheist.

  • Wendy

    I have some pro tips for how to raise safe, atheist kids in the bible belt: Montessori school, Unitarian church, Camp Quest, and lots of coaching. But how to raise an "out" atheist child in the bible belt? Wow. My grandchildren are gonna appreciate your work!

  • Lola

    I agree with Incongruous Circumspection, your daughter will be fine. I attended a public school in an area of the midwest not exactly famous for diversity or particularly tolerant. A large number of my friends were atheist or agnostic or something that was not strictly Christian. There were only rare occasions of awkwardness or intolerance towards those beliefs, and only occurred when both parties involved got militant about their beliefs, not just saying "hey I believe/don't believe x" but honestly tried to persuade the other that they were wrong. I think emphasizing to your daughter, especially when she is too young to understand tact, that people have different beliefs and it's best to just live and let live. Basically, accepting that people will think you are wrong in something you believe/don't believe and that someone will always disagree with you is one of those important lessons of childhood.

  • Libby Anne
  • Libby Anne

    Thanks, Lola, that's nice to hear. I agree, I will be educating her about how other people will react and how to respond. And I hope to teach her to stand on her own two feet. :-) And again, I *know* she will be fine, it's just annoying that she will have to deal with this when if we went to the local Methodist church twice a year and officially believed in God, she wouldn't. :-/Wendy – I already told my husband that we're definitely sending Sally to Camp Quest the very first summer she's old enough! And we've thought about trying a Unitarian Universalist Church too, since you can be atheist and still go there, but when we tried one out and the pastor said she believes in tree fairies, my husband decided it was crazy. :-P Maybe we'll try it again at some point!

  • Wendy

    LOL, UUs tend to attract people who are in the process of rejecting religious dogma but haven't really become skeptics yet. We don't attend, but I'm glad they're here.I recommend Camp Quest Smoky Mountains, but I'm a little partial.

  • Libby Anne

    IC – By the way, there's a lot in those two links, so I thought I'd provide the most relevant quote from the second one: "It seems most Americans believe that diversity is fine, as long as every one shares a common ‘core’ of values that make them trustworthy—and in America, that ‘core’ has historically been religious."

  • Libby Anne

    Wendy – I can see that with UU. I can see how it would be comforting to have a place where you don't have to believe, but there's still the structure of a church, so I'm glad they're there too! If we spend our lives around college campuses (as academics) I could see us being involved with the Secular Student Alliance, even as faculty sponsors or something. Also, at the moment Camp Quest Smoky Mountains is the closest to where we live, so maybe that'll be the one! It'll still be a while, lol, Sally's only two!

  • Incongruous Circumspection

    My "core" is making money to pay my freaking bills!I like what PZ Myers had to say. And that study is quite long, but skimming it, I think it proves your point.That being said, I was not coming at this from a hyper-fundie point of view. While I grew up as one, there were other representations of Christians in our schools. They started prayer meetings that were mocked and hardly attended. The annual flag pole prayer day was attended by maybe a dozen peeps in a school of student and staff population of around 1750. You kept your Christianity or church going status under wraps if you cared to just move through life unscathed.Yes, PZ Myers is from Minnesota, as I am. And I am quite familiar with the military's treatment of "foxhole atheists". But, I am convinced that, once you get away from academia (PZ Myers is part of it and so are the peeps who wrote that study) and uber-religious cultures into real America, you can be whatever you want and thrive.I must qualify that by saying there are some pockets of America that I would not want to be a vocal atheist. Oklahoma, for one. And maybe I have just proved your point, against my argument. Vocality may be key here. Live your life as you see fit, and you go through life untouched. Speak up about something people may disagree with you on, and you may be pounded.I wish the very best for your daughter and hope that, when she does grow up, her life will be perfect in every way. Hopefully, people who THINK they accept atheists as they are will actually begin to do so, even if those atheists are vocal about their beliefs (which I'm sure your daughter will be). One qualifier: I am from the Yankee Midwest. Until recently, I thought interracial marriage was accepted everywhere. I was wrong. I hope I'm right about this…or at least, I hope that when the time comes for your daughter to grow wings and fly, I will be right.

  • Petticoat Philosopher

    I guess I'm kind of in between Libby and Incongruous as far as my opinion on the extent to which atheism is accepted in our society. It is true our culture is still "saturated in Christianity" enough that politicians still have to pay lip service to it and to the "Christian nation" idea. (Thanks a lot, jerks!) But they can't get too fundy if they want national appeal because, like it or not, we're NOT a Christian nation and there are demographics you have to win that aren't so thrilled with fundamentalism. Basically, there's two teams, the Christians and the (usually former Christian) atheists and they duke it out in the public eye and both have their committed fans, and plenty of them. How your own beliefs are received really depends on what company you're in. (As for us Jews, and other religious minorities who are neither Christian nor Christian-atheist, we're not invited to the national debate and, most of the time, both sides tend to forget we exist–except of course for Muslims who, yes, are much, much, MUCH more persecuted than atheists…)So I don't really think it can be said that atheists are persecuted. I just think there's a lot of vitriol being tossed around by everybody who's invested in the "debate." But not to the extent that there are any actual limitations on how atheists can live. But yes, of course, all the anger can be hurtful, especially to children, who didn't ask to get caught up in this grown-up fray.Still though, I think Sally will be fine. And I actually do have lived experience as an atheist. Judaism has always been important to me but my beliefs about God and a higher power have shifted throughout my life (there's a lot of leeway for that in Judaism) and, at the age of 7, after deciding that Man in the Sky-type God seemed decidedly unlikely (still does, btw), I proclaimed myself an atheist to my second grade class. It did cause a bit of a stir and a lot of kids called me "weird." But, of course, since I was a bookish, opinionated kid who hated gym class and used words that I didn't know other kids didn't know, they'd decided I was weird a long time ago. After that initial incident, I can't say it was an issue. (And I did not grow up in a liberal area.) And I remained atheist until adolescence, when I started to realize that there are a lot of "God" concepts out there besides Man in the Sky and some of them made more sense to me.Honestly, I had more problems as a girl who wasn't properly "girly" (as in not docile and giggly and acting dumb in front of boys) than as anything else. And, obviously it's not an option to teach girls to conform to gender stereotypes to avoid persecution. If you are raising your daughter to be inquisitive, and smart, and outspoken, that will probably cause her problems now and then no matter what. But its' still the best way to go. Sometimes it's a good thing to be different.

  • Anonymous

    Maybe she is persecuted for being a douche: expecting the world to revolve around her and her atheistic beliefs, instead of having the live and let live attitude that she would have been spouting off if that banner was about anything else except religion

  • Libby Anne

    Anonymous – Thanks for reminding me that unkind and judgmental Christians do indeed exist. :)Ashley never expected the world to revolve around her; she merely expected her school to abide by the Constitution and the law. And when it didn't, she said something. It's not called "being a douche," it's called "standing up for what is right."

  • Anonymous

    Let's say that someone decided to make a stinkBecause during a "winter program" the kids sang a hannukah sing??? I doubt you would say she was behaving bravely. Or if some pagan kids wanted to have a club in school property. No, the bravery factor is only invoked for Christianity. Oh, to quote you, it was "real classy" that you pulled the "mean Christian" card when I pointed out that just maybe it was less about her being honest about her beliefs and more about her being, well, a jerky . I guess your obsession with children being indistinguishable in the general culture stops at blending in religiously, doesn't it?

  • Anonymous

    I am not implying kids should believe what everyone else does, but it is very philosophically inconsistent with your other views. (ooooooh logic!!!!) you seem to think that kids need to unquestioningly like the same trashy tv shows and slavishly follow the same styles, no matter how slutty they might be or they are missing out. This may shock you, but many well adjusted teenagers are not into keeping up with whatever pop fad is out there. Some of them actually reject some fashion trends because they find them, well, trashy. (shopped for Halloween costumes lately??? Happy slut-o-ween!!!!) although

  • Anonymous

    You seem to not so much be teaching your kid to think for herself as you seem to be teaching her to fear not being "with it" . Because of course we all know that if it's in the dominant culture, then it must be good. Unless its however tangentially related to Christianity, of course.

  • Libby Anne

    Anonymous – You've completely misunderstood the things I'm addressing here on my blog. I'm completely fine with a pagan club on school property – there are Christian clubs and Jewish clubs and secular clubs, so whyever not? As for songs during a Winter pageant, I'm not up on the current law on that issue, but yes, I'd want the school to follow the law. And honestly, wanting my daughter to be able to understand popular culture is NOT the same as wanting her to buy into all of it. To equivocate there is just silly. I can teach my daughter to think for herself without isolating her from the world – which you seem to be implying I can't, which is once again just silly. But if you don't like what I say, just stop reading my blog. No one's making you.

  • Anonymous

    So you would make a stink if some Jewish kids wanted to sing about hannukah. And I assume you'd make a fuss about Islam being taught??

  • Libby Anne

    Anonymous – I would make a stink about ANY official government endorsement of religion. I did some googling, and found a document that talks about what is or is not permitted regarding religious holidays in the public school ( Here is what it says regarding religious music: "Sacred music may be sung or played as part of the academic study of music. School concerts that present a variety of selections may include religious music. Concerts dominated by religious music, especially when they coincide with a particular religious holiday, should be avoided. The use of art, drama or literature with religious themes also is permissible if it serves a sound educational goal in the curriculum, but not if used as a vehicle for promoting religious belief."In case you haven't noticed, we have this thing called the first amendment that prohibits the government from making any establishment of religion, and in case you didn't notice, the public schools are run by the government. I have no problem with public schools teaching ABOUT religion, but I do have a problem with public schools TEACHING religion, whether it's Islam, or Judaism, or Christianity, or any other. I would also have a problem with public schools teaching atheism (i.e. telling students there is no God), in case you were curious. The role of public schools is to teach the students academics, not to indoctrinate them in religion. And as I said, I'm totally fine with religious clubs meeting on public school property after school is finished just like any other club. What I have a problem with is simply any official government endorsement of religion.

  • Incongruous Circumspection

    I don't know, Libby Anne. Being a fresh atheist/agnostic, I would have to agree with Richard Dawkins on this one. Being school, they should still include any school of thought in academics.The arguments between religion and non-religion can add much to subjects like sociology, science (in some ways), mental health, etc, etc.I want my children curious.But, I think you would agree with that anyway, so why the hell do I bother typing this up. I'm such a rube.

  • Libby Anne

    Incongruous Circumspection – This is where I would differentiate between "teaching about" religion and "teaching" religion. Yes, by all means, teach about all the different perspectives, absolutely, but in an attempt to get students to *think,* not in an attempt to *indoctrinate.* Teaching about different religions and their holidays is not the same as devotionally celebrating a holiday. This distinction is the same one the Supreme Court has made on school issues and religion over and over again. So yes, I would say we agree. And amen on wanting your children curious – me too! :-)

  • Incongruous Circumspection

    But, I disagree. I like beer. I think all people should like beer. Thus, it should be taught that beer is good and necessary to further mankind's existence, in school.That being said, it must be microbrew or dark and heavy stuff. Preferably a stout. None of that real beer's wastewater crap from A. Busch, Coors, and Miller.