Ask Mommy: What Would You Do If Your Kids Turned Out Religious?

Ask Mommy: What Would You Do If Your Kids Turned Out Religious? April 11, 2018

What would I do if my kids turned out religious? I get asked this question often. The other day, one of the people I’ve connected with on Twitter emailed me another iteration:

My question might be strange I’m not sure but here it goes… I know A LOT of parents who are Christian and raise their children in the church (I was one of them), and there are several children as they grow up, they decide they don’t believe what their parents believe. They come out as atheists. And it is a HUGE deal. Like I’m talking major condemnation in some families. And other religions even banish their children if they choose to leave the religion, maybe even kill them.

I guess my question(s) is: Do you raise your kids and teach them atheism? If so, what would you do if one of your children came out to you as (insert whatever religion)? If not, why not?

I’m curious how an atheist’ parents response might differ from a religious parents response.

First of all, this is a great question, and not strange at all. It’s a common question, though not usually phrased as nicely when I get asked it on my social spaces. Often it has that “gotcha!” undertone,

“I have a question for you, GODLESS mom. What if your kids grow up to believe in god? What then, huh?”

and it’s usually followed up with one of those laughing-to-tears emojis. I always answer in generally the same way. I’ll expand on it:

I am a mother. I brought a life into this world that I am responsible for. That doesn’t mean I have any say in who that life turns out to be, though. I respect my son, and part of that respect is letting him be his own person, accepting who that person is, and loving him just the same, no matter what.

While I will try to instil values in him that I believe are good, and I hope he grows up with those values intact, I can’t force that to happen. There will inevitably be ideas that become important to him that I don’t understand. To expect him to turn out to be just like me is not just silly, it’s beyond delusional.

Some parents approach parenting with unrealistic expectations and horrific consequences. A lot of these parents have been taught this mode of parenting through fear. Fear of a vengeful, jealous God. Fear of eternal punishment. Fear of not being a good enough member of their religion. God sets the example for parents: you fall in line with these outrageous expectations, or I will commit unthinkable acts against you. It’s no wonder parents who believe in a God like this, behave the very same way towards their children. God says, “If you don’t follow my commands, you will be cast out of paradise and burn for an eternity.” A godly parent might say, “If you don’t fit this mould I’ve built for you, you will be cast out of your family.”

As far as “teaching atheism” goes, it’s not something that can be taught. It’s a position on the belief in a God and one that only you have to come to for yourself. You can’t teach your child unbelief. What you can do, however, is teach critical thought, and that usually leads to atheism. That’s not why I teach critical thought, though. I teach it because it will protect him from dangers in our world, like Nigerian Princes or men with windowless vans offering candy. I don’t want him to be duped into spending his hard-earned money on a psychic to talk to me when I’m gone, and I don’t want him to avoid vaccinating his children when he has them. I teach him critical thought because it’s healthy and our strange, dangerous world requires it if we are to survive.

I do tell my son that I don’t believe in God. I tell my stepdaughter as well. I tell them why I don’t believe in God. I also tell them that many people do believe in God and it’s up to them to decide if they do or do not. I can’t tell them what to believe; it has to make sense to them.

While I am sure there are a handful of atheist parents who would shun their child for turning out religious, I think it’s safe to assume that most wouldn’t think of it. Most atheist parents would love and accept their child whether they’re straight, gay, religious or a Nickelback fan. The reason for this is very simple: we don’t have the fear of God in our lives, fuelling this vengeful method of parenting. We don’t believe in the raging God who sets the “conform or suffer” example.

It’s important to note, as well, that a great many atheists today were once believers. They’ve fought through their own indoctrination and resisted the expectations that were had of them. They struggled to have their own individual identity, in the face of tremendous pressures to conform. This fight, this struggle, tends to give those ex-theists immense respect for another’s individuality, whether they are six years old or thirty. They see another human being as someone who has a right to be themselves, even if it doesn’t match their own beliefs, values and morals.

The most important thing to me, when it comes to approaching any topic with my kids, is to remember that they are individuals deserving of the same respect I’d give an adult. They are their own person and entitled to their own life, opinions, loves and passions. They are not an extension of me. They are separate and will go on long after I pass from this world. Some parents see their kids as possessions or objects to control, and I have nothing but contempt for those types because there isn’t a thing on Earth that brings me greater joy than watching my son or stepdaughter grow into their own individuality.

So, what would I do if my son or daughter came to me and told me they were religious? I’d love them. I’d love them just the same like every good parent is supposed to.

I hope that answers your question!

How would the rest of you answer this question? Let me know in the comments.

If you have a question you’d like to see me answer, email me at mommy@godlessmom.com

This post is adapted from an older post on godlessmom.com

Image: Creative Commons/Pixabay


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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • As you’d expect, I’d spend the rest of my days shouting, “Where’s your evidence??” at them from across the room.

  • Syzygy

    Use them as an additional source of info.
    Maybe they can identify a difference between religion and superstition.

  • Hahaha, that’d make a great sitcom.

  • Raging Bee

    I wouldn’t shout it, but I would at least occasionally nudge them to explain their beliefs and whatever motivations may lie behind them.

    Directly attacking one’s kids’ beliefs surely won’t work; but gently letting them know that their beliefs won’t go unchallenged in the real world would probably help.

  • Raging Bee

    I think the biggest danger in an atheist’s kids becoming religious, is the possibility of some cult using religious thinking and peer-pressure to turn the kids against their “infidel” parents. Not sure how I’d handle that, if I had kids…

  • The only reason I’d challenge my kids about their beliefs is if they started talking like bigots. Who cares whether prejudice is motivated by religion or rationalization? If they said they support gay marriage or transgender rights because “we’re all God’s children,” I’d consider us in agreement even if I don’t really understand the justification.

  • Ahh, that’s a good point I hadn’t considered.

  • Incidentally, my daughter went to a summer camp at a big lake in New Hampshire a few years ago with a friend of hers, and I didn’t realize until I went to pick her up that it was some sort of holy roller camp. There was a Christian rocker guy singing at the farewell party.

    My daughter has never been religious, so I asked her what she thought of the camp and the God-stuff. She shrugged and said she was only interested in canoeing. And she liked the food.

  • Fred Tully

    Some religions offer community, comfort, consolations while the atheist community offers cold hard reality. Parts of life are hard to deal with, and religions can be seen as the softer, easier way. Religion may become a rational choice, not what I would consider a good choice, but a choice.

  • Cynthia

    I still love your original answer.

    I know a number of people who came from non-religious backgrounds and then became religious. I was slightly in that category myself, but didn’t totally fit the stereotype because my family wasn’t totally non-religious (even though my mom is pretty much atheist, she still finds the community, values, and traditions important) and I became more religious much more gradually instead of suddenly changing my life as a college student. Anyway, I wasn’t really relating to the level of angst that others were feeling about their parents. In many cases, it was a problem of relating to the fact that the child was now an adult with their own POV. My parents had never had any expectation that a relationship depended on agreement, so we were good.

  • Scenario

    What type of religious? Most of the religious people in my area are the type that go to church once or twice a year and pray for the traffic light to turn green so they won’t be late for work. If one of my children marries someone and to keep the peace pays lip service to religion, I don’t really care. On the other hand if they join a cult…

  • Clancy

    I am a cradle atheist. My parents were mainline Protestants, but there was an unresolved disagreement about church attendance, and I grew up unchurched. No effort was made to indoctrinate me, and I never even believed in Santa Claus. Fast forward some decades, and I married a woman who was a progressive mainline Protestant. To please her, we attended church on Easter and Christmas. Of, when our daughter was born, we brought her along. When she was five, she asked if we could go to church every week. She was baptized at her own request at six. There was no way they were going to church without me there to supervise, so I went every week also.
    Fast forward some more, and my daughter gets her BA and MA, intending to go on for a PhD, but changes direction, goes to seminary and gets an MDiv. She is now the solo pastor of a small, rural, mainline Protestant church. She is progressive: LGBT-supporting, science-affirming, pro-choice, universalist. She is happy and successful. She had always known my beliefs, and we simply don’t argue about them. It is not my job to spoil what makes her happy. I have continued to attend church to please my wife, and I participate, although I won’t join, take communion, or recite the affirmation of faith, because that would require me to lie. I have recently retired, and we are moving to be near our daughter, and I will likely attend her church for the rest of my life. She’s already outed me as an atheist, using something I did as an example in a sermon, so I have no need to dissemble.
    So, if your kid is happy, successful, and kind, isn’t that the goal? There’s no reason for concern or conflict.

  • PDF

    This type of discussion always makes me think of an episode of the series “30 days” where an atheist mom stays with a christian family for a month. The christian parents would never think of talking to their kids about the possibility that god doesn’t exist, but in one scene they are all over the atheist mom about why she wouldn’t show her kids “both sides” to let them decide.

    https://vimeo.com/26026368

  • Yeah I was thinking the same thing – what would I do if my kid joined a cult and was suffering harm.

    My husband I became non-relugious when our kids were little, so other than the occasional funeral or bar mitzvah or random family church service, they have been relatively unexpired. They are 16 and 18 now, and I recently asked them if they were interested in finding out more about religions. Both said no for different reasons. My daughter took a mythology course in school and considers all religions mythology. My son says he doesn’t need or want it because we already taught him ethics and he doesn’t want extra rules that serve no tangible purpose (like no meat on Fridays during Lent or prohibition on pork). I leave it to them to figure out. If they want to ask me questions about my religious past they can. They know my reasons for leaving. But if they became religious down the road, as long as they aren’t suffering abuse or try to convert me, I don’t care.

  • Winston Lawrence

    I love and respect my children no matter what they choose, but that liking Nickelback thing would put quite a strain on things.

  • Tommy Osborne

    My son has recently moved in with me to finish high school and this has come up. My son says he’s a christian, but he’s really not sure yet. I told him and continue to tell him “now that you’re old enough do your research and go with your heart”. I’ve no problem if he chooses to be religious, as I’ve no problem with other religious folks. I still point out all of the Christian religious questions on Jeopardy, by screaming at the screen where’s the (insert anything other than Abrahamic religion) questions. I really believe some folks really need religion to be good people.

  • We never told our kids to be atheists. We taught them critical thinking, and gave them a good background in mythology, in the face of preachy presents from the in-laws and pressure from their classmates. We gave them a vaccination of limited exposure to religious services and ideas, and discussed them afterwards. We talked about religion, but never told them what to believe. I think they might have believed in a god for awhile, but got over it about the same time they figured out the truth about Santa and the Tooth Fairy. Without a childhood of indoctrination, religion never took hold of them.

    And now they are both solid atheists, by their own decision. Once she was old enough to have made up her mind about things, our youngest went to Camp Quest a couple of times, and loved it. We took them to the first Reason Rally, and my oldest sang along with Tim Minchin, and knew all of “Storm” by heart. I think they are pretty safe from any conversion at this point.

    The only way I could see either of them getting involved in a religion would be to humor a romantic partner. But I don’t think either of them will ever buy into the B.S.

  • parktop

    This is where the atheists need to step up and teach others how to give warmth and comfort without a god. It IS possible, although I have not done well with it occasionally.

  • pennyroyal

    My son was raised Unitarian Universalist and was an atheist at 16. Later he married a fundamentalist and the moved down south. She rules the roost. The children (2) are homeschooled with a horribly Evangelical curriculum including Creationism. They socialize only with religious groups. I don’t care what the adults believe but why rule their children’s lives and overdetermine their choices. I know so many former Christians who spend years throwing off the indoctrination which they had imposed on them. I fear that will be them–or worse–that they will say in it.

    We don’t go down to see them because they are also Trump fans and GOP, anti-abortion. We are distant from our grandchildren (calls are monitored). Our son is also racist. He said a month ago despite all the charges against Trump: “oh, yeah. They still love The President.” The daughter-in-law is hostile toward me and I don’t want to go down there and have her attack us. The oldest is a girl and she will be unprepared for college. A family friend said she wouldn’t even make it at Liberty University.

  • pennyroyal

    not in the humanist circles I inhabit. Speak for yourself.

  • Very true. Thanks for reading!

  • Wile F. Coyote

    Relations with children has never been an issue with childless me. But during the 70’s two sisters lived for a few years each with their husbands in Colorado Springs and changed from small town liberal Presbyterians who went to Sunday School and church 51 weeks a year because Mom made us — she wasn’t overtly religious, the Bible wasn’t read in our home, grace was only included with meals on Thanksgiving/Christmas, if then; but Mom craved attention, and our family faithfully at church all but one week a year must have gratified her from comments she received where she worked at the only bank in town, or something like that — got swept up in the born again movement thriving in the Springs at that time.

    Some years later I was visiting over the Christmas holidays and they started in on my atheism. Within a minute or two my patience ended, and I set a clear boundary: the next time they introduce Christianity as a topic to bludgeon me with will be the last time I come to their homes, and if necessary anywhere else we all might visit together.

    This was around 1990. I have not had to shun them in these intervening years, and in fact we get along quite well. We also do not discuss politics. One of the two for the first time did not vote GOP last election, and went with me and our other sibling to the Womens March at the state capital a year ago. We don’t talk about this stuff when all four families are together so as not to alienate the arch-conservative, who is otherwise a very quality person.

    The motivation to accomplish this sort of congeniality has to come from all sides, and that doesn’t happen in every instance by a long shot. See Seth Andrews Thinking Atheist podcast episode from last week for an example.

  • Daffodil

    Haha! We told our kids we would love them no matter what . . . unless they joined a fraternity or sorority. Then we would disown them.

  • Daffodil

    Very well said. Can’t think of anything I would add or change. Funny how religious people project how they would react onto you.

  • evolved fish

    You said it about as well as I would have said it myself. Each child is an individual. I often say that I can think of no greater failure as a parent than to have your child turn out to be exactly like you.

  • DogGone

    Yeah, our child wouldn’t, but I can see that happening. I don’t care what anybody believes, but I won’t allow anyone to bully me or take away my rights, not a parent, not a sibling, and not even a child. I see Christians in our century here in America as nasty bullies.

  • That’s wonderful that they were able to hear you and stop bringing the topic up. I’m so glad it worked out for you.

  • Yes! That’s exactly it. They are projecting – they think we would behave this way because that’s how they would. Thanks for reading!

  • Ahh, I like that. Thanks for reading 🙂

  • Radical MD

    Fear of non-existence plagued my childhood, from age 5-16. Even went to the Mormon exhibit at the 64 World’s Fair for relief (it lasted about 36 hours-another story). By 12 knew there was no “God”, but continued Bar Mitzvah training and then confirmation (age 15). Considered going to Hebrew Union College and actually interviewed there, but just wanted a bully pulpit that would pay the bills. I consider myself an atheist and became one after reading Twain, Camus, Rand, Sagan, BF Skinner, and many more. I read excerpts from all of these to my step children (5 from three marriages). The first two know there are no gods, the second two also accept reality (they are not happy about it though-as they have not figured our their purpose yet) and the last one remains with her father and Trump and God. At age 27, she is relatively fixed in her thinking. All of my children (all non-bio) know that they can rely on me for caring, talking, and love. No more money though!

  • zenmite

    My 15 yr old daughter was an atheist when she met and later fell in love with a young man about her age. He was a fervent southern baptist. For a few years she remained an unbeliever. She began going to church with him on Sundays. Still, she was not a christian. She once told me; “I just go to church to be with him.”. A few years after they were married, she moved an hour or so away from us and began spending much more time with her husband’s family and friends. Still, I was shocked to discover that she had been baptized and had become a baptist. After 14 years together, he left her for his secretary. But it was too late. Her indoctrination was complete. 7 years later, she is still a christian…though she attends church only sporadically. She had also naturally ‘converted’ to the GOP. People seem to underestimate the power of peer pressure and romantic love on belief or lack thereof. I’ve seen a buddhist marry a catholic and suddenly become a catholic. My cousin was raised pentecostal, then married a mormon. She then moved to Utah and converted to mormonism. Having a romantic relationship seems to cause enormous pressure for the couple to be the same religion. I still love my daughter very much and we are on generally good terms, but it seems that religion has put a thick, invisible wall between us that didn’t exist before her conversion. Parents are by far the biggest source of religious indoctrination, but society and peers exert enormous pressure too…especially if you are surrounded by a nearly monolithic religious culture the way we are in the deep south of the u.s.

  • pennyroyal

    Thank you, Zenmite; your message is a gift to me. It also names and describes something that has been overlooked–the inducement and the ‘seduction’ of a spouse and maybe children, the spouse’s family, extended family, church family, community, and culture. I lived in VA and the NC. If you didn’t have a church, no one could place you, you were a doubly or triply an outsider. We need community and connections, and the then familiar (conservative Christianity) keeps drawing them back. Even if they have doubts, they can slide into going along with the religion and the church because, at least it’s familiar and a known entity. Doubts, perhaps an unaddressed desire to leave or to question, but unable to do so; an ill fit with beliefs, doctrines, preaching style, etc. All this unease can get repressed. Sometimes women or men in relationship are too ‘nice’ and too placating of their religious spouse and end up stuck.

    There are many inducements to stay and it takes courage to make the move. It takes ego strength and assertiveness to not capitulate in these scenarios. Those of us who leave are impelled from within by a deep feeling of something being wrong that we cannot accept. To do so, to ‘go along to get along’ would do great harm to us If we have a sense of agency, the ability to act on our own behalf and not falter, we can chart our own way. It may mean the end of the marriage, shunning by in-laws, publicly being maligned, loss of friends. I’m in a FB page for people who have left Christianity, mostly evangelical churches and often suffered a great deal.

    The political affiliation (addiction) goes along with this creating a double whammy. This is not often quantified or discussed. The thought of my grandchildren coming to be right-wingers and living crabbed lives could bother me more than it does. We can do nothing about it now. Maybe when they are over 18, things will change. My heart goes out to you zenmite and others like us. We are on an little regarded path. Families can be great or they can be toxic. And as grandparents we often have to walk many a fine line.

  • pennyroyal

    Being Christian, wearing a cross, our touting one’s belief is the entree to many groups and circles, on the job and off. It is a way to signal you are a ‘good Christian.’ It’s like a passport, in a sense. My son wanted the structure of a houses of worship and a clergyman who told him he was a good man. He was insecure, although he’d never say that. Now he’s ‘safe’ and part of a likeminded religious and political (and I fear, racist) circle. Beliefs have consequences and those consequences can lead us into territory and actions that we would never have contemplated at the start. But your son will probably avoid all this.

    My husband and I were a clergy couple late in life in life. I think he tried to push it in our faces that he would choose his own path and reject ours. He doesn’t think things through and analyze. He accepts what the minister and church leaders tell him. He was raised to question and to think and read but somewhere along the way that was lost. We are endlessly curious about every subject. He’s made a different kind of life which is his right.

    At the same time I see high school aged young people who are looking for meaning and purpose, still very immature and afraid to think differently than the herd. One must be independent minded and learn to think for oneself and question what ‘everyone knows.’ If religion keeps him from getting into alcohol, or drugs or the other bait for young people, this may be functional. I have many ‘good Christian’ friends who I could trust with my life. They would never push religion on me or vote for right-wingers. There are worst thing than being a ‘good’ Christian in that vein. Many former Christians by age 30 have gotten bored with attending church and moved on to study and work that brings them in touch with engineers, scientists, skeptics, educated people who think deeply. Around that time and afterward, there is often a reclamation of their childhood and coming of age and a winnowing out of what no longer works for them. Religion can then recede in their attention span. Good luck.

  • -MARK-

    I think this is a great personal response. I think the situations happen exactly as described, maybe a majority.

    But the generalizations appear to be too much.

    “You can’t teach your child unbelief.” Why not? Beliefs is a much of an emotion as it’s a thought. Maybe more so. A parent can certainly exhibit disgust at a religion and have it stick. Happens all the time. An atheist would just make that into all religions.

    How often this happens I don’t know. But it would certainly fall under teaching unbelief.

    The second generalization was that religious parents teach from a position of fear. That requires a huge qualifier, some. Certainly that is how many people grew up as religious, so it’s real for them. But I don’t see ‘fear’ being necessarily a function of religion as in all religions or or religious people have it.

    For what it’s worth as a Jewish person. Parents would be more upset at a child converting than not believing.

  • You sound like a wonderful parent! Thank you for reading!

  • You can absolutely teach your child to dislike religions, but you can’t teach them to not be convinced of something they are convinced of. You can create doubt, but only if there are holes in the story, in which case, doubt is healthy.

  • mike100274

    Great insight! I never made the connection between some Christians shunning and casting out their kids and God doing that in the “afterlife”. Interesting connection. I’ve gotten smarter by reading your article! woohoo!

    By the way, I am a metal head and I would hope that teaching my boy the ability to discern and make good choices in life would help him avoid Nickelback. That’s just offensive!

  • Haha, I am a metal fan here, too!

  • Brianna LaPoint

    Depends on the religion. Everyone has their own experiences, and the worst case scenario Id say, I raised you better than that! But like i said, depends on the religion.

  • Peter Damian
  • Perfect.

  • SeeingClearly

    I struggled with whether to take my daughter to church when she was little, just so that she could learn the stories (mythology) of christianity. I finally decided that I just couldn’t be so hypocritical by doing that when I couldn’t with a straight face pretend to believe the nonsense taught there; I knew all the myths because my mother took me to Sunday School as a child. Sometimes, I still regret not taking my daughter for a few years just to learn the legends, but, on balance, I see that it was the right thing to do–because religious people in general are such hypocrites and I really can’t stand the holier-than-thou attitudes when so many of them are holier-than-nothing. Anyway, you’re right: kids do lots of things, as children and adults, that we don’t particularly like or agree with, but we still love them. That’s the beauty of secular humanism: we don’t sever relations with friends (or relatives) who don’t “believe in the one true god” (as theists do) because we just don’t care about that sort of thing.