Sunday Morning Survey – ‘Impose Atheism Or Let Children Make Their Own Choice?’

Sunday Morning Survey – Because Anything That Gets My Brain Moving Again After Conducting A Podcast Interview At 12am After Doing A Shift At A Science Museum Is Technically A Good Thing.

This, of course, stems from a debate that started up on the fabulous AFA forum-board about the TV show Dexter and this clip from the first episode of the new series.

Mind, the brief debate actually revolved around ‘Is it wrong to want to shag a serial killer?’ after watching this clip, but I’d like to keep this discussion on a slightly less eyebrow-raising platform if I can… mind, Gregory Greenwood has already done a thought-provoking summary on how having a character who is both a father AND a serial killer when taking an atheist stance is hardly the kind of role model we should be admiring.f a downer too. :/

Which happens to be – do you think that it’s right to impose atheism or is it better to allow children to make their own choice about religious beliefs?

I’ve already had a run-in with someone on a forum board who vehemently said the former was preferable… which then led me to ask ‘Then how do you do that? How do you justify it and how do the kids then behave?’

Of course, if the latter is the answer – then what do you think constitutes a well-rounded education to enable a young person to make up their own mind?


About Kylie Sturgess

Kylie Sturgess is a Philosophy teacher, media and psychology student, blogger at Patheos and podcaster at Token Skeptic. She has conducted over a hundred interviews including artists, scientists, politicians and activists, worldwide.
She’s the author of the ‘Curiouser and Curiouser‘ column at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry website and travels internationally lecturing on feminism, skepticism, and science.

  • Danaleigh

    It seems to me you don’t have to “impose” atheism on a child…isn’t atheism the natural state until the child is affirmatively told that there is a deity they should be worshiping? That said, I do believe children should be taught about different religious beliefs, especially that children growing up in a Western culture should be taught about Judeo-Christian beliefs because they are so pervasive in our art, literature, history, etc. If you’ve raised and taught the child to think critically and rationally about the world, being exposed to the fact that some people believe in a god is not likely to cause them to believe, but if they do find something attractive or appealing in the beliefs of some religion, then so be it.

    • Kylie Sturgess

      “Isn’t atheism the natural state until the child is affirmatively told that there is a deity they should be worshiping?”

      What we’re talking about there is the difference between implicit and explicit atheism. As far back as 1772, Baron d’Holbach said that “All children are born Atheists; they have no idea of God.” But how do you test this? Could you isolate a sample of children from infancy and bring them up in an isolated environment where they were cut off from all external cultural influences and see if they develop the concept of god on their own? What about superstitious behaviour or demonstrating belief in agency, as demonstrated around the ages of 2 to 4 when they’re developing Theory of Mind? Do we see children displaying explicit atheism?

      If we were talking about categories I’d probably say that children are weak implicit atheists or perhaps not exposed developmentally to have a firm say in the matter.

    • Aliasalpha

      That would depend on whether you define atheism as a lack of belief in a deity or a disbelief in a deity.

      With the latter you get the active role of examining the hypothesis, looking at the evidence and reaching a negative conclusion whereas the former could well be a matter of non-exposure and therefore not having the opportunity to decide one way or another.

      The former seems like the more natural passive atheistic position (“How can I believe in the one true universal god Graxnar The Transcendant of zeta reticuli when this is the first I’ve heard of him?”) whilst the latter is more of an analytical rejection (“Graxnar The Transcendant is clearly phony since according to the holy grey book, in his mortal life he was born to at least 5 different mothers and his superhero origin story is obvious cut & paste from the story of osiris”)

  • daenyx

    What does ‘imposing’ atheism constitute? There are no atheist religious services or holidays to force attendance/observance of, so if one were to ‘impose’ atheism, that seems to imply preventing a child who wished to participate in a faith-based observance from doing so. I’d say that doing so in the case of a child having expressed a desire to participate in a religion would be wrong, but… does this actually happen? Religious belief requires some kind of faith-based override of all other precepts of rational thinking, so not teaching that override would probably result in atheism/agnosticism, but I don’t consider that an ‘imposition.’

  • martha

    “What do you think constitutes a well rounded education to enable a young person to make up their own mind?”

    If anyone names books in the course of answering this question, I will be eternally grateful. I have 3 approaching the age where they can read real books and I keep fantasizing about writing to Richard Dawkins, Stephen Pinker and other bright lights whose books I’ve read to ask them what ten or so books they would encourage young people read before college. Also I keep coming across old freethought-supporting classics like Elmer Gantry, and thinking, huh, I had a “good education,” why didn’t anyone encourage me to read that?

    I’ll start: Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin, The Cartoon History of the World by Larry Gonick, Winter World by Bernd Heinrich, anything by Terry Pratchett, but especially the Wee Free Men series, the Bromeliad series, & The Amazing Maurice & His Educated Rodents

  • Cuttlefish

    The alternative to “imposing atheism” is what? Imposing one particular faith? Which one? What makes that imposition any less objectionable? Imposing a selection, a representative sample, or an exhaustive collection? How much time do you want left over for … everything else in life?

    “Imposing” is an interesting choice of words, too. “Teaching” also works, or just raising your kid. We generally don’t talk about most schooling as “imposing” our views–even most religious indoctrination (with the exception of the ones we call cults)–should we use that term for atheism and not for religious teaching? Especially when “doing nothing” may be the same as imposing atheism.

    • Kylie Sturgess

      I know! Imposing seemed to be a interesting choice of words and it’s one that I’ve heard being used in regards to both atheists and people of faith when raising their kids.

      • John Morales

        As you note, not imposing theism is not imposing atheism per se; nor is inoculating against (or protecting from) theistic proselytising, for that matter.

        About the only imposition of atheism I could think of would be indoctrination into anti-theism.

    • John Morales

      [ack! My response was meant to be to Cuttlefish, not to Kylie.]

      (I hate threading!)

  • Jayson Cooke

    Personally we encourage questioning and evaluation with our two children (although one is only 4 months old)and it seems to do the trick!

  • Cowalker

    Thumbs way up for “The Cartoon History of the World” by Larry Gonick. I also credit a subscription to “Discover” magazine. Other than that–no special reading material required.

    My kids are now 24 and 28. They are atheists. Here’s the thing. When you encourage them from infancy to think critically, and when you don’t encourage them to be reverent about mythologies, there is really no special reading material required. You, and they, just take things as they come, making the mostly unspoken assumption that there is no supernatural dimension to our existence. Fairy tales make excellent reading, with everyone understanding it’s make-believe.

    However I also sent them both to Sunday school until they were eight, telling them that they needed to know what their grandparents truly believed. I told them that their parents didn’t believe these things, but they were to be respectful of their grandparents, who were wrong in this particular instance. As they approached the teen years, I told them they could attend church with their friends, or I would take them to church if they wished to attend. They occasionally attended church with a friend, but never wanted to go on their own.

    We told them we would always love them, no matter if they decided to become religious. We told them we hoped they wouldn’t join a church that would shackle them would restrictive or ignorant doctrines. But they have each chosen significant others who are also atheists. They are NOT interested in debating the existence of God or reading blogs like this. To them, the atheist viewpoint is self-evident and there is no point in dwelling on it.

    I don’t know if this approach would work for everyone. I can’t even know if they will reject atheism in the future. But I think this is one effective way to pass on one’s beliefs.

    • martha

      We tried a little Bible reading on the grounds that they should understand their culture. We got thrpugh Genesis and there was a general opinion that Jacob was a rat, but no further enthusiasm for the project. Sometimes having never-been-religious children is a culture shock. I read the Bible all the way through when I was a teenager, and while lots of it made me uneasy, I gave in to the apologetic view around me that this was somehow the best god could do with the primitives he was engaging. It never ocurred to me that Jacob was just a rat.

      • Cowalker

        LOL! We tried the Bible reading too, but didn’t get as far as you. It is true that knowledge of the Bible adds a layer of meaning to much of our culture. But I sometimes think that this common history is just going to continue to fade in importance, until it is no more evocative than other ancient mythologies, and that we shouldn’t worry much about it.

  • Rorschach

    I would argue that implicit atheism is preferable to explicit theism, for one. As to imposing to not collect stamps, I’m not sure how that is supposed to work, unless as daenyx points out you actively deny a kid to take part in religious observance. But since they are implicit atheists anyway, they wouldn’t be wanting to do so unless asked or motivated by someone, which some people, me included, consider child abuse. So I don’t quite see the problem.
    And if my child was adamant that he wanted to be a member of religion X, I’d let him. Once he’s 18 and considered old enough to drink, drive, and vote.

    • Cowalker

      “And if my child was adamant that he wanted to be a member of religion X, I’d let him. Once he’s 18 and considered old enough to drink, drive, and vote.”

      From my experience as a strong-minded adolescent and the parent of strong-minded adolescents, I would advise against making this into a power struggle. Becoming religious could look like a great opportunity to establish one’s separate identity. I’d rather struggle over hair styles or cell-phone use.

  • Giliell, connaiseuse des choses bonnes

    OK, so here you’Re getting a family history, and the life-time experience of a child raised by atheists.
    First you need to know that I’m German, so I’m from a country that does not have a clear seperation of church and state and where the two big churches, Lutherans and Roman Catholics have large privileges.
    The atheistic tradition in my family goes back to my maternal great-grandfathers. All four of them were atheists, but leaving the Luteran church back at the beginning of the 20th century was simply not possible (probably there was a way, but you didn’t want your house to burn down), so they were nominal christians, my grandparents were baptized.
    Before my mother was born in the 1950′s, my grandparents left the church, which was now possible. My mother was not baptized. My dad grew up Roman Catholic but left the church pretty early, so there never was a question of what would happen with us kids.
    We are still firmly rooted within christian culture and tradition (Christmas, Easter, St. Nicholas, St. Martin, you name it, I love it).


    I’d say that doing so in the case of a child having expressed a desire to participate in a religion would be wrong, but… does this actually happen?

    It does. It happened with me.
    Because there’s no real seperation of church and state in Germany, in primary school there are school church services. A lot of the lessons will revolve around this. Practising songs, painting pictures for decoration, preparing to play the christmas story…
    But I knew I wouldn’t be there. I wouldn’t sing those songs in church and my parents wouldn’t listen. Nobody would proudly look at my paintings and no matter if I was the person with the best memory, I wouldn’t get to play Mary, not even the 4th shepherd on the left behind the ox.
    So one day I decided I wanted to be a christian and I wanted to believe in god. Oh, I did. With all my heart. I’d feel god and the devil and I’d pray.
    Well, it lasted a few weeks. My parents let me participate in the service if I wanted to, didn’t make a fuss, and then it wore off. The whole thing just doesn’t make much sense when you aren’t told this to be true by people you trust with your life. You see that the story of baby Jesus isn’t that different from Grimm’s Fairy Tales. And yes, you get cold shivers if you sit in the tub for too long, no devil needed, and you are filled with warmth and feel safe when your mum tucks you in without any heavenly intervention.

    Later I became an explicit atheist. Problm is, my mother has always more or less remained a more or less implicit atheist with a deep mistrust of anything mildly religious unless it’s christian. She never learnt to think critically and to seperate culture from religion in any other religion except christianity. With christianity it comes natural, and she’d never think I had become christian because I celebrate christmas, but she freaked out when my sister went for a short break to a “Zen Hermitage”, thinking that she was in the claws of some sect or other.

    Coming from that experience, I want my kids to be skeptics much more than being atheists (although there’s a large overlap). Just not believing in gods doesn’t really do the trick.
    I try to interest them in the world, science, animals, how we know what is real (OK, the oldest one is 4, we’re only beginning).
    I take a firm stand against other people trying to tell them about “god and sweet baby Jesus”. Somebody gave her a book about Noah’s Ark, which will vanish the day she learns to read and could find out that this isn’t about Father Christmas inviting the animals on a holiday. In no world would I find a story about genocide fit for children.
    She has some understanding now about fiction and reality, imagination and make believe, so we’re starting to talk about stories and such.
    We’ll see. It’s a journey we will make together.

  • davidct

    It is interesting that after posing the question as to whether or not to impose “atheism”, the discussion moves to defining the various flavors of atheism. Then we moved to the “do you know any good books on the subject” so that one can have can be proper, teachers,or parents or even atheists. I would agree that for parenting and teaching and belief having some background is essential but with parenting and teaching or arguing belief depending on other peoples opinions is not enough. Until one has been involved in the hands way with these activities it is impossible to really understand what you have read. You cannot by reading alone, even evaluate what is good advice and what is not.

    I don’t like other people defining my terms for me. I consider my self as being an amateur atheist. For most of my life I could treat religion as being irrelevant. When my wife and I were raising my daughters, religion was simply not part of our family life. We had Christmas trees and presents in December and Easter egg hunts in the Spring. I feel no guilt about celebrating good Pagan holidays. When invited the girls were allowed to go to church with friends or relatives. My daughters learned non-belief passively by following the the example of their parents. I guess the professional atheists would say that I am not being a true Atheist since until recently I have not bothered with learning that much about the philosophy of non-belief. Fine call me a heathen than while you debate questions like how many atheists does it take to convert a theist or how many angles don’t fit on the head of a pin. Have fun with that while I enjoy my daughters developing into independent adults.

  • Pen

    I didn’t exactly forbid my daughter to believe in god, or santa claus, tooth fairies, dragons or any of those things. I just told her they didn’t exist. I think dragons are the ones she is closest to actually believing in.

  • James Croft

    I think, were I to have children, that I’d raise them in an environment consistent with my own Humanist creed, while ensuring they have access to the best of all religious traditions and culture. If they decide to explore those traditions more fully then I would support that exploration, and if they decided to take up a religion I would do my best to give them my blessing. The only thing that would be non-negotiable for me would be the core moral commitments of Humanism, which I would do my best to instill. It’s a very interesting question.

  • Lord Shplanington, Not A Frenchman

    Assuming I ever have children, I will simply be honest about them.

    Presumably, this will result in them being pretty disgusted with religion and the religious.

  • martha

    From the athiest parenting trenches:

    I was watching the Atheist News video over at Rock Beyond Belief when the noise attracted my daughters and the following dialogue ensued:

    9 yr. Old: What’s that?

    Me: It’s a YouTube video called The Atheist News.

    9 yr. Old: What’s an atheist?

    11 yr. Old: We’re atheists.

    Me: Someone who doesn’t believe in god, who lacks a belief in a god.

    9 yr. old: So why are they saying that atheists know more about Christianity than Christians do?

    Me: Because a lot of people became atheist after getting fed up with Christianity.

    9 yr. old: Except for you, right?

    Me: No, kind of including me.

    11 yr. old: Yeah, because she used to be, uh, what do you call it?

    Me: Catholic

    11 yr. old: Yeah, Catholic, Christian.

    9 yr. old: So, wait, Grandma used to be Christian?

    Me: She still is.

    9 yr. old: Still? Really? Huh.

    BTW, I’ve never told them “we” were anything. Perhaps children are natural “we-ists”?

    I have to ascribe that last set of remarks to my mother’s noble devotion to minding her own business. This would be in stark contrast to my father, who spent the years before his death writing a self-published book of mostly theological, sometimes anti-Dawkins poetry, which he commissioned my sister, as his literary executor, to make sure that his grandchildren get on their 18th birthdays. (Redundant to the copies currently sitting universally ignored on my bookshelf.) I know people with fundie parents have it tougher, but, now that I’m recovering slightly, I really don’t wish the earnest liberal amateur theologian type on anyone.

    (Sorry about the weird capitals, I can’t seem to back up far enough to fix them.)

  • swansnow

    Once my kids learned to read/were learning to read (age 4-7), they were given small collections of myths from various cultures – Greek, Norse, Hindu, etc. – which they devoured and read over and over. We didn’t give them fairy tales, though I think they read a few at the library.

    Once they had this background, we introduced them to a Bible storybook for kids, which they read and (mostly) enjoyed. Then I asked them if they noticed the similarities between these stories and all the other mythology stories they’d read before. Of course they did. Then I told them the clincher: Those other stories are from cultures and people *used to* believe that they were true. Of course nobody really believes them now. But *these Bible stories*? Lots of people still really and truly believe them.

    My kids were astonished. And then I said: there are people who live on our street that believe them, your grandparents believe them. You should realize this, and unless you are ready to get into an argument or hurt someone’s feelings, be careful about how you talk about Bible stories. (We lived in Texas at that time, and I really didn’t want to let my innocent little kids accidentally walk into a thorny social situation.)

    Other than that, we watched a lot of nature documentaries, read a lot of nonfiction books, and just generally assume that religious stories/ideas/”facts” aren’t true.

    I’ve tried to make sure my kids understand that religion can be a divisive issue, to the point where it’s possible that other kids’ parents might be freaked if they found out my kids were atheists, but other than that kind of social coaching (and thankfully we live in a sane city now where religion is a nonissue, at least in school) my kids haven’t needed any kind of “indoctrination” into being rational.

    • swansnow

      (Following up to myself, sorry.)

      I should add that my kids are currently in middle school, so the teenage peer-pressure years haven’t hit yet. Also, I plan to gradually tech them some philosophy and “indoctrinate the” (haha) into being able to think clearly and critically. I don’t want them to be passively atheist, but instead I want them to be able to articulate why they think the way they do.