Should Atheist Parents Teach Their Kids About Christianity?

Should Atheist Parents Teach Their Kids About Christianity? August 9, 2019

A reader asked me,

Hey GM,

I’m expecting my first child in October. Naturally, my husband and I have been discussing how to raise our kids a lot more lately. We are both atheists, but it just came up in a recent conversation that he wants to expose our kids to as many religions as possible so they can make an informed choice. I disagree. I don’t think there’s a reason to expose them to religions. I believe teaching them about religions gives these ideas a sort of legitimacy or importance that I don’t want my kids to think they have. I don’t intend to try to shield them from religion. I want just to wait until it comes up. Friends or family might talk about it, and I’d answer any questions they have and even take them to church if they want to. I am sure they will also learn about different cultures and beliefs at school. I don’t think there’s any reason for mommy and daddy to sit down and tell them about Zoroastrianism or Jainism in the same way we might explain to them the birds and bees. Instead, be available to answer questions. What do you think?

I grew up without religion, and I didn’t learn about it from my folks. My parents did not expose me to any religion. I didn’t understand what it was until I was much older. I attended a pre-school in a little chapel, and though I was surrounded by statues of Jesus and piles of Bibles, I still had no idea what any of it was about. No one ever sat me down as a young child and said, “Christians believe in a creator god who sacrificed his son for our sins” or something to that effect. I recall, when I would be told to pray or praise god from time to time, I’d be lost entirely. I didn’t know what that meant. I was super shy, as well, so I never asked. I just retreated into my mind and wondered what the hell these crazy adults were on about.

My best friend came from a Buddhist family, and I would go to her house where there was a little shrine that always had burning incense in it. I didn’t know what it was or what it meant. I just thought it was decoration like candles and air fresheners.

All I recall from this time of my life as it related to religion, was that I thought that these people were just very, very weird.

It’s like dinner table manners. In my home, my parents were free-spirited hippies, and they didn’t care if we ate with our elbows on the table. They’d let us eat with our hands and tell fart jokes at the table. We were allowed to get up and leave without being excused. It just struck me as so weird and nonsensical when I would go to a friend’s house for dinner, and her parents would tell us to take our elbows off the table. I wouldn’t ask why and I would always comply because I was so shy, but in my mind, I’d be wondering if these people were off their rockers. How the hell do elbows get in the way of dinner?

I didn’t know what prayer was. I didn’t know who Jesus was. I had no idea what a god was. Churches appeared to be like public auditoriums or community centres to me, and when people would start talking to me about any religious stuff, I would feel like I was in danger. If you can imagine what it would be like to be a child and have a man walk up to you and start telling you about his invisible, magic pony that you can get to do your homework if you stand on your head and call to him. You’d suddenly feel like you were in danger. This is what it felt like when people told me they spoke to a magic dude named Jesus, who granted wishes. I would just assume the adult was not at all well and that I needed to bounce. Fast.

Slowly, pieces of the puzzle started to come together. My dad would often joke about Christianity at home, books I read would mention it, and my religious friends would drop little tidbits here and there. In time, I would put this all together and develop some sort of rudimentary understanding of what religion is. Of course, it then fascinated me in the same way a contortionist might be fascinating. How do they bend like that? I couldn’t wrap my mind around the fact that grown adults believed these things.

Of course, you know my position on religion now. The more I learned, the less I liked it, and I still have the feeling that I am unsafe around many religious beliefs. It’s all still bizarre to me. To this day, I cannot sort out how anyone can believe any of it. It’s as foreign to me as what life might be like on another planet. I think it’s this vast distance between my normal and religious thought that has kept me from ever coming close to believing in god. I never wanted to go to church out of curiosity. I loved visiting Buddhist Temples and Sikh Temples but only for the cultural experience and beautiful gardens and architecture. I fell in love with a church nearby where I lived in Australia because of the unique architecture, but I’d have never attended services by my own choice.

I’m raising my son the same way. Giving no more importance to learning about religion over anything else, but happily and freely addressing it when it comes up in his life. I will answer his questions to the best of my ability, but I wait until he has them to talk about the subject. It comes up when we talk about other topics or when we watch movies and television together. It comes up at school when religious staff and students mention things about their beliefs. It comes up at Cubs when the ceremonies have a prayer at the beginning. These are the times we end up discussing religion but as merely a small part of a more significant discussion. Setting aside time to discuss religion on its own with my child is just not something I am going to do. It just makes it out to be so much bigger than it needs to be.

I do have friends who take the other approach; who sit down with their kids and teach them about religion on its own. They intend to expose them to all the religions and allow their kids to make a choice. I just don’t see that as the only way a child has a choice. My son also has the freedom to choose religion. I’m not hiding it from him, I’m not forbidding him to explore it. I just simply don’t make a big deal out of it.

I feel that making a big deal out of it makes it seem more appealing.

Of course, we won’t know how our kids turn out until they are grown up, but I do know that friends who have taken the “expose” approach have kids who have requested that they start going to church.

I would never tell them that what they are doing is wrong because I don’t believe it. I don’t think there is anything the matter with this approach. I teach my kid about religion, too, just within the context of other things. I also firmly believe that the more religious ideas your kids learn in a setting where critical thinking is valued, the less likely they are to believe.

So, I do agree with you that lessons that focus entirely on religion give these ideas far too much importance, but I also agree with your husband that exposure to these ideas is necessary. My suggestion is to find a happy medium. Introduce religion to your kids as part of exploring other cultures. Then, it’s just a little part of a much broader topic, and it appears less significant.

My son knows way more about religion than I did at his age, and that really couldn’t be helped because of what I do here. He has the same attitude as I did at his age, however, in that the whole thing just seems so wildly weird to him. If I had my way, he’d stay far away from it but if he ever did choose to explore religion with any seriousness, I’d be right there at his side, loving him just as much as I do now.

I want to know what you think. Do you think learning about religions is essential for your child to make a choice? Do you avoid the topic at home? Let me know in the comments!

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Robert Baden

    My parents were ex Catholics. We only went a few times to a couple of Lutheran churches when I was little. I was more exposed to bible stories at the doctor or dentist by childrens’ bible books. Didn’t find them very interesting compared to Greek or Norse religious stories, of which mom was a big fan.

  • My husband and I attended a progressive Christian social justice-oriented church where we took our kids until we both deconstructed. Our kids were about 6 and 8 when we completely stopped going to church. The kids only vaguely remember going g to church, and other than the occasional funeral or bar mitzvah, they haven’t attended religious services since. I think they learned from their friends and general cultural lessons at school about religions. They are now 17 and 19 and consider religion to be mythology and something they don’t need or want. They are intrigued that grown adults believe some of the ridiculous stories are literally true – I have explained that such is the nature of indoctrination. I doubt if either will join a religion.

  • Theory_of_I

    When our three kids (their mom and I are both atheists) were each about 8yo or older, we allowed them to attend church and other religious events if and when they were invited by their neighborhood and school friends after which we would ask them what they learned, what impressed them, and if they thought it was worthwhile and why.

    Then, using a bit of Socratic method, we offered some possible alternative ideas to the answers they gave us and prompted them to compare our suggestions with what they had been told.

    Needless to say, we advised using their best critical thinking and a little skepticism in choosing what made the most sense to them. Then a day or two later we would revisit the topic to find out what they had settled on as valid and reasonable.

    Happily, now, years later, they are all well adjusted, productive atheists.

  • persephone

    My parents became JWs when I was 12. Prior to that, when I was younger, they would send me to Vacation Bible School and occasionally Sunday school at the local Southern Baptist Church. I had friends who were Catholic and other flavors of Protestantism, but only the Catholic kids attended church regularly.

    In high school, I met kids who were Bahai, which sounded pretty cool. I hated the Witnesses by this point, but I was a teen living at home. I believed it, but I hated it.

    We then moved to a small town in Nevada. I still hated the Witnesses; I didn’t actually hate the Witnesses themselves, not all of them, but I really began to hate the Organization. Finally I was disfellowshipped. Possibly the best day of my life.

    Because of the disfellowshipping, I’ve been shunned by my family. My kids have taken this to heart. They believe that any religion that causes people to reject family members is evil and wrong. They’ve never been to church. They have no interest in religion.

    I’ve used your approach. If they have questions, I answer them.

  • Jim Jones

    I have a pending comment which I hope shows up soon.

  • Grandmother ClearSky

    This topic just came up with my own adult son and his 7 year old daughter toward the end of the last school year. She came home from school and told him that she knew what the first man’s name was, and proceeded to tell him “Adam.” Then she told my son that the first woman’s name was “Eve.” My son asked my granddaughter if she learned this in school, and she said yes, from (blank) and named a 7 year old friend. So, she hadn’t actually learned it as part of the curriculum, but one of her little friends on the playground. My son had do some explaining. He called me later that night to tell me I was right. As an anthropologist, I had suggested a few years earlier that he and his wife (who call themselves agnostic; I know, not the same as atheist), that they should approach the topic of religion as an anthropologist–in academic terms–especially since they live in a primarily religious/spiritual country. at least in word if not in actual practice. Religion is one aspect of a culture, just as language, art and architecture, political constructs and social institutions are. Approaching religion and religious information like a myth or an academic subject would have prepared his daughter. She may have been able to process the “story” her friend told her as just that, a “story,” instead of something factual. My own son grew up with me reading him Creation myths from around the world, with the myth of Adam and Eve being just one of many. I also read him many different Flood stories from around the world (the version in the Judea-Christian Bible is just one of many). Looking for other Flood stories? Check Native American Indian sources. If my answer hasn’t been made clear, I agree with your husband–except, don’t just expose your children to Christianity; expose them to all the major (and even some minor) religions. By focusing only on Christianity, you are giving that one religion legitimacy over the other world religions. I don’t think that’s what you want to do.

  • WallofSleep

    Without addressing everything written here, the quick and dirty short answer is “Yes. Because if you don’t, someone else will, and that might not be a good thing.”

  • Jim Jones

    Nope, still not showing up.

  • Jim Jones

    > They believe that any religion that causes people to reject family members is evil and wrong.

    Me too. That’s a sure sign of a cult.

  • WallofSleep

    I’m guessing there are no mods active here today. Patheos and it’s nanny bot can…

  • Jim Jones

    Pity. Usually they semi hide them. Here, there’s no sign of the post.

    It’s a long list of links: to books for kids of skeptics.

  • WallofSleep

    I can’t confirm, but I’ve been given to understand that if a comment languishes in “pending” without being approved after a certain period of time, disqus or patheos simply disappears it.

    Patheos and disqus, a match made in (the fictional) Oceania.

  • Jim Jones

    16 hours and still pending/hidden!

  • Jim Jones

    Yes. The notion of moving to another site and letting Patheos sink into obscurity is still attractive.

  • rationalobservations?

    It’s a parental duty to warn their offspring against all toxic cults and ideologies. Not just the misanthropic and self hatred inducing cult of christianity, but the poison of all religion.

    The 4th century founded cult of “Jesus” is founded upon myths legends and lies and the blood soaked history of barbarity, terror, torture, crusade and inquisition is a warning against totalitarianism of the sort that is the benchmark of religions.

    Teaching humanistic humanitarianism love and respect for all fellow citizens and the rule of secular peaceful laws is part of the positive education of young people that has led to the predominance of peaceful predominantly secular democracy across the developed world today.

  • Madison Blane

    Only replies are semi-hidden. Stand-alone comments disappear until approved. It’s that way for all flagged posts, no matter what they’re flagged for. Convenient when it’s something spammy, so nobody accidentally clicks it, thinking it’s a real comment. Annoying as all get-out when it’s flagged for a no-no word, though.

    (I mod for another page on patheos. this is true across the entire platform.)

  • Madison Blane

    It’s not true. I mod for another page on patheos and I can see every post ever flagged for any reason at all on any article written for that page since the beginning. It’s that way for all page owners and moderators across the entire platform. All our tools are the same. Some page owners and moderators just don’t approve flagged comments for their own reasons, and not everyone actively moderates or bothers even accessing the moderation panel. But the comments do still exist, and you should be able to access them from your own profile page. Editing a flagged comment to remove the no-no words won’t take it out of moderation though. Once it’s flagged, it’s there until someone manually approves it – which could be never. You have to copy and repost it without the no-no words.

  • WallofSleep

    Thanks for the insight Blane, much appreciated. The implementation of this patheos censor bot has been far less than transparent, and has led to many rumors and much speculation among the folk who comment here on patheos.

  • Madison Blane

    Understandably. I don’t blame people at all for speculating. The owners have been… let’s just say “less than forthcoming” about the whole thing. None of the writers or moderators were given any say about it; it was sprung on all of us without any notice whatsoever; it’s adding extra work and taking advantage of voluntary labor, making it much more difficult to cultivate or maintain the active and engaged commenting community that so many of us have spent years building; they have completely ignored all complaints; and their given rationale has been one blatant lie after another. And because of the new contracts, even if the bloggers decide to leave, they lose all rights to everything published on the site already – which, for some of them, is close to a decade of daily posts (many of which are still actively linked to and read daily – or at least I know they are at LJF) and those could all be deleted. It’s absurd. But then, that’s all pretty typical of authoritarian conservative christian bigots. They can’t counter it rationally, so they do their best to ruin it some other way.

  • WallofSleep

    Holy farkin’ shirt, dude! If that really is the case, I would suggest bloggers compile whatever evidence they can and post an expose on this elsewhere. And backup their previously published content before doing so, even if they can’t repost it elsewhere.

  • Jim Jones

    There’s far too much lousy coding in Disqus. It really is a shoddy system.

  • Jim Jones

    3 days and no sign of any moderator effort. What a disgrace,

  • Madison Blane

    Writers have already been locked out for offending the new owners (including Christian bloggers, albeit liberal ones. Throckmorton was only able to retrieve and re-post his content elsewhere before Patheos deleted it thanks to the help of others. His ‘sin’ was writing disparagingly about Mars Hill when Patheos wanted to keep Mark Driscoll happy), losing access to and control of all their prior posts, most with no explanation or warning whatsoever, and some of them have no idea why. out

  • WallofSleep
  • Thank you! Sorry it took so long to approve. I have a backlog of perfectly fine comments stuck in my spam filter. 🙁

  • Actually, “link” and “stupid” are restricted words. SO MUCH FUN.

  • Jim Jones

    If you need help. let me at it. I cleaned up Tippling Philosopher in under a day and now help keep it very up to date.

  • I’ve cleaned this one all up, now but I will be away for ten days and I’m worried it’s going to get backed up again. Interested in your offer. Email me, pretty please?

  • Madison Blane

    Seriously ridiculous, right? It would be nice if they had at last consulted us in the first place, but even now they won’t listen to reasonable requests to remove common words from the list that are causing benign posts to be put into pending status. There is just no good reason for it.

  • Susan Steinkraus

    I recommend the book called “Parenting Beyond Belief” by Dale McGowan

  • bullet

    My wife and I were recently watching Good Omens with our 8 year old daughter. We’ve never really discussed Christianity with her other than to answer questions about her grandparents and their church (Catholic). My wife and I started laughing from the very beginning and she just sat there looking puzzled. I realized I was going to have to explain most of the old testament and revelations for her to understand a lot of the show. So we paused the show and did just that. Afterwards, I don’t think she believed us that people actually believed those things were real, but at least she got the jokes.

    In conclusion…yeah, I got nohin’.

  • DogGone

    Absolutely, yes. It is a part of our culture and kids should know what it is. Remember in Sleeping Beauty parents rid the kingdom of spinning wheels. It was the princess’s unfamiliarity with the device that caused the prediction to come true. Teach kids ABOUT religion–all religions. That’s not the same thing as indoctrinating them with the fears and false promises of any faith.

  • Jet Kin

    I was raised totally without religion also. I recall having a big fight with a friend when I was about 8 when she told me the story of Noah’s ark, and I basically said that it was the dumbest story I’d ever heard. How could you possibly fit all those animals into that boat? Besides, within a week the lion’s will have eaten everyone else, including Noah and his family, and that would be that. I was always a very logical child 😉
    Then I was sent to a catholic private school from age 11-16 because it was a really good school academically. I think my mom started to question her judgement when I started reciting the names of the apostles in the car on the way home one day. But I actually ended up getting involved in witchcraft, not seriously of course but because I thought it would be cool to wear nothing but black for three years straight and cast “spells” on my enemies. So no long-lasting ill effects!
    Although I don’t have kids yet, I think my response would really end up depending on where you live. Maybe if you live in the bible belt, you might feel safer to “immunize” your kids against religion before they go out in the world and catch it from one of their peers. But I think it’s more important for kids to have a scientific answer when facing peers who want to share their myths as the “truth”. So if your kid has read Grandmother Fish and has been exposed to scientific theory of evolution, they’ll be better prepared when faced with the story of Adam and Eve. Because the first woman was named Lucy, obviously 🙂