Atheist Parenting: Call-Out for Tips and Anecdotes

I’d like to invite any of my readers who happen to be (a) atheists or agnostics and (b) parents to offer tips and anecdotes on parenting without God. Figuring out how to go about raising children outside of religion in a very religious country is an especially difficult one for those who, like me, were raised in religious families. Simply write your tip or anecdote (or several) as a comment on this post. I will collect together whatever tips and anecdotes you have to offer and create a page of them to include in my atheist parenting section, which I’m still working on.

Another of my plans for this section is to include a list of resources (books and websites, and particularly helpful articles). Since I am still very new to this (my children being young) and in the learning stage myself, I’d also like to ask for suggestions on what books, websites, and articles I should include.

I’m looking forward to putting this together, and appreciate any help you have to offer! I know I’ll find it useful, and I’d imagine I’m not alone in that!

Stop Stressing Out and Give Your Kid a Snuggle
I Have Never Seen a Supernatural Entity Create a Universe
Why We Should Teach Children to Say "No"
What Kind of Atheist Parent Are You?
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.

  • Caitlin

    We are Unitarian Universalists. Atheism is completely accepted, and our kids get all of the advantages of a warm, supportive church community (which also embraces our gay son).

    • Kris

      I am as well. Probably 2/3 of the congregation is atheist/agnostic. We had a Darwin Day party! It’s more about social activism and community for us than any sort of spirituality, but I feel like that community helps me stay centered and focused on what’s important in life, which to UUs is the inherent dignity and worth of each person.

      The Unitarian Universalist magazine sponsors a blog on UU parenting here:

      I think it is really helpful to provide your child with a community where your family’s beliefs are not an oddity, whether it’s an organized group or just an informal effort to find other parents in your area who are atheists or agnostics. The kids may not end up close friends, but at least my son will never feel like he’s the only kid he knows whose parents don’t believe in god.

  • Carol

    Hi Libby Anne, let me just say what a huge fan I am of your writing. I often forward links to your posts.

    Just as background, we are sort of practicing Judaism and we’re atheists. My kids are staunch atheists, both are teenagers. Our temple doesn’t require a belief in God to participate, it has a very light touch. That being said, we talk about religion, God and Jesus all the time. I feel like an expert, we saw Godspell on Broadway, it was just fantastic.

    So, I have read so many of your posts on authoritarian parenting and really, whatever that involves, we do the opposite. We don’t require that our kids believe everything – or anything – we believe in. We do expect them to be good, responsible people and pretty much they are. Well, I think they’re wonderful, splendid people and just being with them is a delight, those times when they allow us to be in their teenager-y presence.

    So, stories or advice? Well, what we’ve done is basically back off. My husband is much better at that than I am. Sometimes I get frantic about grades or too many video games, but he’s fine with all of it and our kids … well … have I said how amazing they are? We just listen to them, laugh with them, acknowledge their feelings, show them respect, try to give them a happy childhood, give them space, open doors and step aside. We can’t push them, they’ll do what they want and we just can’t worry too much. Pushing them only makes everyone miserable. My daughter has chosen wonderful friends, has many interests and passions, and she is the school moralist and scold. How did that happen, I just don’t know. It’s just who she is. My son is most likely at the top of his class and is the most lovable little nerdling. What more could we demand of them? What more could we ask? They’ve already surpassed us in every way.

    Our goal is to create responsible, compassionate and wise adults and citizens. We don’t have these other worries about conformity or saving their souls, so it’s pretty easy in comparison. We don’t have to conform to what seems to me to be the “Cosmopolitan” method of parenting, where instead of being too fat with the wrong hair and striving for external beauty you’ll never achieve so keep buying our publication, we’ll show you how, it’s how to raise the perfect family, so keep buying our publication we’ll show you how.

    I don’t need to listen to anyone else to figure out what my kids need, all I have to do is listen to them.

    • Caitlin

      I don’t think that all kids need a spiritual community, but I did. Although my parents identified as Unitarian Universalist, we did not attend church when I was growing up, and I became an evangelical Christian at age 10. Ultimately, that church’s belief didn’t square with my own logic, and I began attending a UU church at 16, and I wound up getting my whole family to come. If my own children (now teens, and all atheist/agnostic by their own choice) were opposed to attending UU church, I probably wouldn’t force them, but they all love it, and it has provided tremendous opportunities for their intellectual and ethical growth.

      • Carol

        I agree. I wasn’t raised in any religion, my parents didn’t practice anything, and but they were part of this whole Jewish background that pretty much meant eating lox and bagels, gefilte fish (something most people look upon with revulsion) and insulting people in Yiddish. I didn’t miss not having a religious upbringing at all. I didn’t know anyone who practiced anything until I 20.

        My reasons for rejoining are varied and hard to explain, it’s a long story. Especially since I married someone who isn’t Jewish, doesn’t practice anything and 18 years ago I swore I’d never step foot in another temple again.

        My kids don’t love going, but they learn a lot. There’s a lot of study and history involved. So I’m totally with you on the ethics and intellectual growth part, if they never went back, it would be perfectly fine, they’ve already accomplished a lot. Actually, that’s pretty much the standard, once they become a bar mitzvah, they’re done with temple, forget all their Hebrew and that’s that. My daughter did continue on with her education there, but most kids don’t.

  • Bertrand Le Roy

    One thing would be to not freak out about peer pressure under about 10: I’d be more concerned about not imposing our own views on the kids, as we are by far their main authority figures. We try to teach them about what others are thinking, and remain honest about what we think without telling them that’s how they are supposed to think if that makes sense?

  • mcbender

    I have to recommend Dale McGowan; I haven’t read his book (Parenting Beyond Belief) on the subject, but his blog is quite good and well worth a look:

    I can’t offer any firsthand knowledge, however, as I do not and almost certainly never will have children.

    • Gordon

      I was going to recommend Dale’s blog too. His anecdotes about his kids give me hope for the future!

    • Adele

      I am an agnostic UU as well with one daughter. I also heartily recommend Dale McGowan’s blog. In additional to being very helpful and a great read itself, the page linked by mcbender above has lots of links to other online resources.

  • blotzphoto

    Check out Skeptic Family, a place I am a teeny tiny part of.

  • not a parent yet

    I’m not a parent yet, but my parents were (are) atheists who were raised in religious families. They basically always emphasized how to think critically, research, and ask questions. They always said that they didn’t believe in god and discussed why, but also that a lot of other people did, and when we were older we’d have to decide for ourselves. They made sure we had a basic education in what all the major religions do believe, but they also strongly discouraged us from discussing it with our friends or anyone while we were kids – I think they were worried we were too little to understand how we might offend people. That is, I don’t think they ever told us not to listen to what other people believe, but they didn’t want us going around tactlessly announcing that our family thought all that religious stuff was stupid, at least not till we were a bit older. I don’t remember them putting in any particular effort to finding other atheist families for us to hang out with, and I don’t think it was an issue at all, but we were also in a large liberal city, so even though there were religious people around us it wasn’t a thing in the way I gather it is in your area. Like, even though most people I knew growing up were nominally religious, I didn’t know all that many who actually went to church, let alone the same church as each other, so its not like I felt excluded. My mom has mentioned that they considered the Unitarian Universalist community thing, but decided against it for some reason. Our whole extended family were religious, but didn’t shun us or anything. Now, most of my cousins my age are not religious anymore either, but they still stay quiet about it around the older generation, so as far as my grandmother knows its just our side of the family that were ruined by my parents ;-).

  • Noelle

    I’m winging it.

    My kids are 5 and 7, and so far winging it is working well. The few times we’ve had to go to church for a family thing, my kids ended up in the nursery pretty fast. They’re not so good at the sitting still and being quiet bit. They’re getting a little old for the nursery though. So the next time I have to go to church for a family thing (and that happens to be this Sunday), I’ll wing it again. The older one has ASD and ADHD. I’m hoping his meds work and there are no nightmarish screaming fits. He can play games on a DS or iPhone for hours if need be. He doesn’t care about anything as abstract as spirituality or God to even notice. The younger one is usually very inquisitive about everything else, but so far is only excited she gets to wear a pretty dress. I’ll field the questions if they come.

    It’s easy to do secular versions of religious holidays for little kids. Christmas tree and presents, chocolate bunnies and Cadbury eggs, the true meaning of everything is chocolate (my husband says it’s family and being with the people you love, but my daughter was good with chocolate) My more religious family lives far enough away it hasn’t been an issue. There are no fundamentalists in the family.

    There must be some things that are different than my childhood. We don’t pray. They have to be good because it’s the right thing to do, not because supernatural beings will reward or punish them. Dead pets and family members are plain dead. We’ll never see them again, but they live on in our memories and stories, and it’s ok to be sad and miss them. I guess those little things that are different add up, but we handle them as they come up, just like everything else in life.

  • Sarah

    Do you want parenting resources in general? I love

    Your child from birth to age five by Penelope Leach
    How to talk so kids will listen and listen so… By Faber and Mazlish
    Siblings without rivalry by Faber and Mazlish
    Child of Mine ; feeding with love and good sense by Ellyn Satter
    Sleepless in America by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka
    Raising your spirited child by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka
    Your One ( two, three, etc) year old by Ames and Ilg
    Becoming the parent you want to be by Davis and Keyser
    No cry sleep solution by Elizabeth Pantley

    Sorry, the formatting’s going to be weird, I’m on my ipad and I can’t scroll in the answer box! I was typing something below and now I can’t even read it, let alone edit it! In summary, these are gentle parenting books. We respect the child, but we regard our as teaching them how to Be nice people.

    These are all from an authoritative parenting point of view. That’s the sort of parent who thinks a child needs to learn how to be well- mannered and considerate, and that it’s the parent’s job to make it happen, within the bounds of what’s developmentally appropriate, and with respect for the child as an individual. They will find learning about developmental stages very useful in coming up with tactics and solutions for each individual

    And for nursing and newborn advice

    • victoria

      LOVE the Penelope Leach book, and have read and enjoyed (and used) several of the other books you mention as well.

      Two others I would highly recommend:

      Between Parent and Child by Haim Ginott, which is kind of the ur-text of some of the books you mention. (He was a mentor of Faber & Mazlish.) GREAT book — cannot say enough wonderful things about it. Ginott was Jewish, but the book is definitely secular in tone and worldview.

      Positive Discipline by Jane Nelsen (there are web resources related to this as well)

      • Wendy

        Positive Discipline is wonderful–a good source for parents who don’t want to spank but don’t know what else to do. (Me.)

  • Sarah

    And for raising my kids to be critical thinkers, I’m in the early stages, but am following the tactic of teaching them about all human mythology, from Zeus to Isis to the monotheistic religions. By presenting them as all equal I hope my kids will be immunised against Christianity and by talking critically of them I hope they’ll be immunised against religion in general. I oarticularly love learning myths like Deucalion and Pyrrha, and talking about how common death and rebirth is, and cannibalism. One day someone who tries to prosetylise my child with christian myths is going to get a rude shock!

    For example, we’ve been talking a lot about how capricious gods are, and how they have to be because of the inconsistent tetrad.


      We read Susan Wise Bauer’s history books with my son starting at a pretty young age, and even though in the ancient history one she was clearly trying to tell a story about the progress of humanity toward monotheism, what he got was how leaders got to just tell their subjects what to believe, which he was just outraged at when he was 3 and 4. I think it lay a good grounding for both understanding history and seeing religion through a social/historical instead of theological lens.

  • smrnda

    I guess I was raised almost totally without religion by my parents, but they did do a good job teaching me about values and made sure I knew how to evaluate points of view or look into social problems. I sure didn’t feel like I was missing anything.

    As for my own behavior, my parents encouraged me to read a lot and to make decisions about what I would or would not do because of what the consequences would be for myself or others, so despite the fact that I wasn’t given a whole lot of rules to follow I didn’t end up getting in too much trouble.

    My parents, I guess, taught me to think for myself, which probably was why I didn’t get influenced much by peer pressure – I was used to doing things for my own reasons so I wasn’t someone who could be easily persuaded to do anything.

    If you’re living in a pretty religious area it might be tougher since your kids are going to stand out. I’d probably make sure to educate them – when they are old enough – about what people from different religions believe, along with probably a little history or background on the religions.

  • veganatheist01

    I’m not a parent, but I think this might be something for you, if you don’t know it already: – they have book recommendations right there on the front page, and also offer some other resources for atheist and agnostic parents.

    • veganatheist01

      (Ah, I just saw someone already recommended the blog. Well, two are better than one! ;))

  • ashley

    “Parenting Beyond Belief”
    My husband and I are not yet parents but are hoping to have our first sometime in 2013 (oh fertility, as a youngster I felt any sex would result in a pregnancy now I worry we will be trying for at least a year!)
    We read it together and we laughed, we cried, and ultimately we feel more confident that secular parenting is not only possible but can foster a wonderful environment for children.

  • ashley

    I should have read the comments, I had the same suggestion as previous posters! I am excited to look at the other resources you all have provided. Sometimes it feels like the only secular parents are “celebrities” so seeing comments from other “regular” people on the topic is really inspiring!

  • ashley

    One last comment…Richard Dawkin’s “The Magic of Reality”. I am so excited to share this one with my kids one day.

  • Sheila

    I don’t consider myself an expert, but FWIW:

    1) My son’s behaviour improved noticeably when I stopped smacking him. I really wish that I’d caught on earlier.

    2) Natural consequences work better than punishment (or at least they did for my son). Instead of getting into a row when he wouldn’t put on his coat to go out, I let him go out without one. Of course he was cold. Next time he was happy to put on his coat. I think the cold upset him less than a row, and it was waaay more effective. Of course you can’t do this when the natural consequences are too severe, or when they kick in a lot later. I wasn’t going to let him take the natural consequences of playing in the middle of the road, or not brushing his teeth! But when I could use natural consequences, they worked great.

    3) We had the usual rows about eating veg. Since he was already a huge fan of video games, I told him that in real life, you got health power-ups from eating fruit and veg. I hoped it would work for one meal, or if I were really lucky, a week. It actually worked until he was old enough to understand what vitamins are.

  • Dangerous Talk

    I love this idea and I will definitely be checking back to see what other people have written. I have two children (3 and 4 months), so I don’t have a whole lot of tips yet since they are pretty young. But my 3 year old watches PBS shows that are pro-science and scientific thinking. He loves Curious George and Sid the Science Kid. He’s also a fan of Super Why. We limit his TV time and encourage him to play with his toys and use his imagination. He really doesn’t know anything about religion yet, but at some point I am going to have to tell him about it. I plan to take him to various houses of worship when he is older and have the religious leader give him their pitch and explain to him what they believe and why they believe it. My hope is that he will have enough common sense at that point to ask the right questions. I will of course do the same with his younger sister.

    • victoria

      My kiddo is a few years older than your eldest and has always enjoyed things with a sciencey bent. What she LOVES — and what your three-year-old might like too, since she wasn’t much older when she started on them — are David Attenborough’s nature documentaries. Life of Birds and Life of Mammals are good ones to start with, though none are bad.

  • Ruth

    For those of you with ADD and ASD kids, using social stories before big gatherings at church is a real help. My Aspie hates the unexpected, so we make sure she knows what will be happening, and what she should do. When she was younger, we let her have books to read during the ceremony. Now she is old enough to sit for an hour without them.

    She used to chose clothes not suited to the weather. We made a big thermometer on poster board, and cut out pictures of various outfits for different weather. We would check the forecast, and she could see what she should wear-no shorts unless it was over 75, coat if it was less than 65, etc.

  • dx713

    The basic thing is that I always answer the questions (unless it’s 10 PM and they want a full astrophysics course, when I have to tell them to ask it again the next day ;) Without dumbing the answers down (although I don’t write the math equations, of course.) Without fearing to say that I don’t know and we’ll have to look at it together when they get too far for me (Internet and Wikipedia, I love you!) I make an exception with sexual questions, where I try to respect their being icked by all that by staying at a level they can understand and not volunteer any information they didn’t specifically asked for.

    The most difficult questions I’ve had from my kids that would have been easier to answer if I was religious were bed-time questions about death.
    The perspective of a complete and definitive end can be frightening to kids (heck, it can be to adults too), and they need more than just “it’s how it is” from a parent.
    Answers I’ve found (more or less) effective so far are:
    - It didn’t hurt you not to exist before birth, it won’t hurt more to stop existing after you die.
    - The one you were five minutes ago already stopped existing, because you’ve changed in the meantime (you learned something). You only remember being that kid, but that continuity is an illusion.
    The last one, despite its zen-like abstraction, was actually the most effective.

    Apart from that, I just try not to shield them – when a relative died or they learned about a school shooting, I didn’t sugar-coat the truth – but still protect them from direct danger. (shouldn’t be different from religious people, should it?)

    I also agree that all that “authority struggle” is bogus. I’ve been much less authoritative with the younger one, and guess what? She’s much easier to negotiate with than the elders that have been raised to believe raised voices and entrenched positions are normal negotiations. Plus, she’s much more at ease in society. Okay, it’s anecdotal, but it confirms what I’ve read since: authoritative parenting sends the wrong message plus makes kids shier and more easily frightened.

    • Wendy

      We always admit that daughter 3 had much better, cooler parents than d1 or d2.

    • Sarah

      Do you mean authoritarian?

      Authoritative is the ideal. Permissive is the slacker end, authoritarian is the patriacharchal parent knows all model, and authoritative is ” I’m the adult and I have the wisdom to guide you in life, set bedtimes and help you make good decisions”

      • dx713

        Yes, I probably mean authoritarian… English isn’t my native language.

  • Wendy

    The trickiest part for us was to prepare the girls to cope with the (some) Christians. My middle daughter couldn’t keep God/Jesus straight until middle school (no kidding; I really tried), and I was literally afraid for her. I think an “out” atheist fourth grader is likely to be told she’s going to hell before the year’s over.

    So, I guess, my approach was to teach enough Christian culture and stock answers to keep them out of trouble, and prepare them for the possibility of being bullied, just in case.

  • KG

    Hi, as a British atheist (and to fill in the most significant demographic details, white, English born but living in Scotland, Anglican/Methodist family background, middle-class, research scientist) father of a fine son I can perhaps give a usefully contrasting picture. What’s strangest to a Brit (at least, to this Brit) in the comments above is the number of American atheists and agnostics who nevertheless regularly attend a church or synagogue. Religious organisations just don’t have the same importance in most people’s lives here, even among many, perhaps most, of those who self-identify as believers. Being an atheist is not, in general, problematic – two of the three main party leaders are open non-believers.

    On the other hand, religion still plays a significant part in most state schools* (which my son has always attended), churches and other religious groups run many state-financed schools, and the (Anglican, Episcopal) Church of England and to a lesser extent the (Presbyterian, Calvinist) Church of Scotland still have niches in the bizarre, rococo construction that we call a constitution – even though it’s not written down in one place.

    So the social and cultural context is very different. My wife is also an atheist, although much less “strident” than me, my parents were not religious near the end of their lives (both died when my son, now 16, was 7). But my wife’s parents, and particularly my father-in-law, are serious Anglican Christians – his father and grandfather were C. of E. vicars. So there was a possibility of conflict there, and I’ve certainly heard of such in other families, but fortunately they have both been very good about the issue. My father-in-law once asked my wife to ask me if I would mind him inviting our son to a service. I said that was fine by me, but our son did not want to go. However, he’s very close to my parents-in-law, and it’s good that he’s seen that I get on well with them despite very different views. I’ve intervened once with his primary school when they were pushing Christianity rather strongly, without even being honest about it, and offered to get him out of tedious Christian activities at his high school a couple of times, but he’s preferred to go along with his friends. Most of his class at school are now non-believers, but he has, or has had, both Christian and Muslim friends. I’ve seen no sign at all that he might be drawn to religion, but of course, he could yet surprise me.

    So all in all, life for an atheist parent, at least of my cultural background and socio-economic status, is a good deal easier than my nearest counterparts would be likely to find in the US – unless maybe in areas unusually rich in non-believers.

    * State schools are equivalent to public schools in the USA. British “public schools” are the most expensive private schools – they were set up centuries ago for the promising sons of the (relatively) poor, but the rich have long since colonised them and pushed the fees up.

    • Carol

      Hi KG, that’s so interesting. I think for me one of the reasons why I like to go to the synagogue, at least one of the things that attracted me to it initially at that time, is that there are no more public spaces in the US to go to, to get away from the vast media, advertising and consumerism. I was attracted to the peace and quiet, the knowledge that I just had to sit there and listen to beautiful music and couldn’t do anything else.

      We’re not so much citizens as consumers here and you have to look pretty hard to find a place where you can express yourself as a human being, not just a desk jockey or consumer.

      We also talk about religion a lot in terms of what is going on out there politically. It’s getting a little crazy here in the US and it’s good to have all kinds of information. My husband, a non believer, reads Karen Armstrong who is hands down the expert on the development of religions throughout history.

  • Dave J


    I recently found some good books for elementary kids. I really like Maybe Yes, Maybe No by Dan Barker. It is about teaching critical thinking. I got them from a site called You can also get it on Amazon, but I mention the evolvefish site as it has a lot of other books with this sort of theme.

    We are having our daughter get involved in sports. There are a couple of reasons for this. One, it is a community with a focus that is not religion. Two, it is very reality based. You either scored or you didn’t. And it is pretty easy to teach and demonstrate that it has more to do with your actions than your prayers. Three, she will (hopefully) get physical confidence to match the social and intellectual confidence we are trying to help her develop. We hope she will be well rounded and solid in all areas of life.

    We started with swimming and tennis, but tennis was a flop. The swimming seems to suit her more, so we will stay with it for now. When she is a bit older, we will try a team sport and see how that goes, but that isn’t currently offered to us. New school in Sept., so we shall see what they have.

    The other thing we have been doing is reading to her, a lot. As part of that, we ask her what she thinks of the story or writing. That gives us lots of chances to engage in discussions on morality, ethics, social life and pretty much anything. You can pick the stories and themes to match the issues you have at the time. We have also put in some myths (the Greeks are fun) and discuss how people thought they were gods. Basically, we are laying a framework of knowledge and thinking that, we hope, will create a skeptical shield between her and the inevitable exposure to more active religion.

    Oh, and the best advice of all. Sleep in on Sundays and have your kids come wake you up for a chat. She loves waking us up (instead of the other way around) and you can have all sorts of interesting discussions while all snuggling warm in the covers!