We’ve had a fun intramural spat here on The Heathen Channel at Patheos over whether or not you should deliberately raise your kids to be atheists. If you’d like to catch up on that discussion you can read here, here, here, here, and again here. I could spend lots of time interacting point-by-point with what they’ve said thus far but I’d much rather economize my time by telling you how I handle the matter of raising my kids to think for themselves, something I think everyone here wants. I’ve got plenty to say since I have five children, four by birth and one by choice. More on the fifth shortly, but first a word about my four daughters.
My girls are being raised to be devout Baptists because that’s what I was when they were very small, and that’s what their mother still is today. Navigating those differences is not an easy thing for me, but we all have good relationships with each other so we’re making it work. It was only a few weeks ago that I finally felt comfortable directly telling my girls that I’m an atheist, so they’re still very new to this dynamic even though I’ve been at it now for five years. Coming out as an atheist to family can introduce a painful awkwardness and distance between people who were formerly close, so many of us have good reason to stay in the closet about our disbelief. I explain that in a bit more detail here. The short version is that I want them to remain as natural and unguarded around me as possible, and telling them where I stand may very well make that more difficult for them. I hope they persevere, because they mean the world to me, and for me it’s been well worth the effort enduring the uncomfortability on my end all these years.
In addition to my four girls, I am also helping to raise a son. His mother, Amy, and I have been together for three years now, and I’ve shared the responsibility of caring for him long enough to claim him as my own. I’ll call him Junior, both because it’s cute and because for the last month or so he’s been replaying Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade over and over again at least a hundred times, so the nickname is thoroughly lodged in my brain. Junior is not a neurotypical kind of kid. He has been diagnosed with Asperger’s, Tourette’s, and off-the-charts ADHD, which means there’s rarely ever a dull moment (or a quiet one) at our house. Parenting him requires a completely different set of skills (and instincts) than does parenting my girls. In a sense, I have two families now, and each one of them occupies a different religious identity. One household is Baptist, and the other is Secular Humanist. My life is a little complicated.
DO I TRY TO PERSUADE MY DAUGHTERS?
I’ll admit that my situation with my girls is not typical, although it’s probably more common than you may realize. I get email and private messages every week from people seeking advice on how to navigate mixed faith marriages and how to relate to both parents and children (young and old) when those involved are on opposite ends of the faith spectrum. I usually recommend they immediately purchase Dale McGowan’s In Faith and In Doubt because I waited years for such a book and I’m thrilled to have it as a resource to recommend. Dale has lots of great advice for how to bridge the gaps left by this ideological divide, and he does a good job of talking through the ways you can locate those points of agreement whereby relationships can be strengthened and common ground can be found.
But the differences between Southern Baptists and atheists are pretty big. More often than not, I have to keep my opinion to myself because when you’re outnumbered you have to pick your battles carefully. As an atheist, I belong to a despised group of people. And yes, reader from Seattle or Frankfurt, I know it’s not that way where you live, but it is here, okay? Around here, I am a part of a subculture that is blamed for everything that’s wrong in the world. In fact, I am a part of “the world,” which for Baptists is a code word for the aggregate of people and cultures under the influence of the Devil, threatening the health and strength of God’s people. I am seen as a negative influence, a “dangerous person.” And yet here I am, parenting. I work extra jobs just to be sure my girls have everything they need, which cuts down on my ability to actually be around them as often as I’d like. Sometimes I get the feeling that some of their caregivers are just fine with that arrangement. The less they’re around me, the less I can influence them to the dark side, right?
Well, they needn’t worry. I am no more interested in them forsaking their belief in Jesus than I am in their decision to pursue one career or another just because it is what I would want for them. I want them to decide for themselves what they believe, and frankly I’m not convinced that will be set in stone while they’re still children. I was taught as a child to believe many things which I left behind in my mid-thirties. Why should I expect them to be any different? And what really matters most to me? What do I feel the strongest about passing along to them as they grow up into the women they will become? I’ve written about that before in my Letters to My Daughters, particularly in the one entitled “The Silver Lining in Your Situation.” The short version is that I care much less about what they believe and much more about the kind of women they become. Are those two things connected? Sure they are, but the former doesn’t determine the latter nearly as much as some would have you believe. Your beliefs don’t completely determine your values or your character. They interact, to be sure, but the former don’t dictate the latter.
When issues of moral value come up, I tell my girls what I think is right. For example, when one of them asked me recently what I thought about same sex marriage, I responded that I see no reason to keep two people who love each other from marrying simply because they aren’t heterosexuals. She listened, nodded, and politely informed me that she believed differently. But then she asked why I wasn’t against it, which gave me the opportunity to explain my reasoning. It was a pleasant talk, and soon the conversation shifted to Greek mythology and whatever Rick Riordan book she was reading at the time. She may never agree with me. I don’t know. But she knows now that between the two most important people in her life there are equally strong and reasoned positions on controversial matters. She respects and loves both of us. And neither of us berates the other or talks down to the other for holding a different view. In other words, we are modeling what it looks like to be grown-ups, and in time she will decide for herself how to process these complex ideas.
SO WHAT DOES JUNIOR BELIEVE?
Junior is a different kind of bird. He loves some of the same things that other boys his age love like Minecraft, Skyrim, the Avatar series, and talking about the smell of farts. He also loves science and never runs out of questions which require advanced degrees in multiple disciplines in order to answer. He is as curious and as bright as my girls—maybe more so—which makes him easy for me to connect with, especially when his “stimming” behaviors aren’t acting up (parents of kids on the Autism spectrum know what I’m talking about). He happens to have a major problem with authority, as children with his condition sometimes do, and that has its good points and its bad points. The upside of his compulsion to question everything is that he tends to be more naturally skeptical, and he isn’t easily taken in by ideas that don’t have rational merit. I think even if his mother and I had been devout Christians, he would still think the bulk of it was pretty sketchy.
So do we tell him not to believe in spirits, gods, and life beyond the grave? Not really, no. We are honest with him about our own disbelief in the claims of Evangelical Christianity, which is the overwhelmingly dominant religion of our region (we live in the Bible Belt), but we never tell him what to believe. We have good reason for that, too. Both of us arrived at our way of thinking by working through our own questions and by thinking for ourselves. Neither of us was pushed into our skepticism by others; in fact, we were the ones pushing our way out of our childhood indoctrinations against an overbearing culture that judges people harshly for leaving it. Leaving your religion comes at a high cost where we live. People don’t typically do it here unless they cannot live with themselves any other way. And because we arrived at our positions by the sweat of our own intellectual brows, we don’t particularly feel a compulsion to push anyone else in that direction, either. We’ll honestly answer the questions we are asked, and when glaring moral and ethical conflicts arise, we will speak up. But we aren’t trying to program anyone, even our own children, to be copies of ourselves. That’s not what “freethinkers” do.
I cannot say the same, however, for my Christian counterparts. As a Christian, you are taught that it’s your responsibility to “train up a child in the way he should go,” meaning that he should grow up to adhere to your religion. If your child ends up leaving your religion, it is seen as a failure on your part as a parent. I know this because I’ve watched the reactions of my own family and of the families of my friends. Our parents are deeply disappointed in us, deeply saddened, and sometimes blame themselves for their child’s apostasy. Some with a more masochistic bent will believe that God is judging them for their own sins by condemning their children, handing them over to Satan. The drama can get intense, and the emotional displays can be quite demonstrative. It touches a nerve, and often it turns nominal Christians into evangelistic firebrands almost overnight.
We refuse to push our children into an intellectual mold. Yes, we will equip them with critical thinking skills and help them think through the moral and ethical implications of the decisions they make. But if they choose a religious tradition because it satisfies their questions better than anything else we expose them to, then so be it. What they believe about magic and the supernatural isn’t really the most important thing about them. What matters most is what kind of people they become. We want them to learn to be kind, compassionate, critical thinkers who absorb and internalize our own desire to leave the world a better place than we found it.