What Makes a Person an “Atheist” Parent?

What Makes a Person an “Atheist” Parent? January 26, 2015

I was going back through my feed reader lately, and came upon a post on the Friendly Atheist from December. In it the author, Kate Cohen, writes about her interest in how atheists are represented in TV shows and movies shown on TV. She focuses especially on the representation of atheist parents.

She leads with this:

I found one! I found one! I found an atheist mom on TV!

She goes on to explain that she is talking about Doris Walker in Miracle on 34th Street. I’ve never seen Miracle on 34th Street, so I can’t speak to either it or the character, but what stuck out at me was this, from Kate’s discussion of atheists on television more generally:

It’s OK if a grown-up has doubts about God, even if she doesn’t believe. It’s not so OK if she raises her kids that way. “Bones” Brennan on Bones is a staunch atheist, too, but turns out to be “open-minded” enough to have her daughter baptized.


So imagine my surprise at finding an atheist mom in a classic Christmas movie.

I can’t speak to Miracle on 34th Street, but I can speak to you on Bones. I’m very familiar with Temperance Brennan and have followed her character’s lack of faith with interest, and I’ve found her arguments about religion with her devoutly Catholic partner Booth fascinating—and amusing, of course.

So here’s where I’m confused: Why is Bones allowing her daughter Christine to be baptized worthy of a “sigh” here? Christine’s father, Booth, is, as I’ve mentioned, a devout Catholic. Parenting a child with a partner with different religious beliefs of necessity involves compromise. This isn’t about Bones being “open-minded.” This is her being reasonable, and respectful of her partner and his role in raising their daughter. It’s not like Booth has asked Bones to hide her views on religion from their child as she grows.

And what, exactly, is an atheist parent anyway? Is an atheist parent simply an individual who happens to believe in God and is also a parent? That does not appear to be the definition Kate is using, or she would not be annoyed with Bones for allowing Christine to be baptized. Kate says “it’s OK if a grown-up has doubts about God, even if she doesn’t believe. It’s not so OK if she raises her kids that way.” But what does that mean, exactly?

I don’t want to make overly much out of Kate’s use of Bones as an example, but anyone familiar with the show knows that Bones won’t be keeping her lack of belief in God a secret from her daughter. Indeed, her willingness to have Christine baptized was rooted partly in her very intellectual anthropological understanding of religion as a social function rather than a spiritual reality. If Bones warrants a “meh” as an atheist parent, what exactly does an atheist parent look like?

I’ve been thinking lately about the definition of the word “atheist.” The term gets qualified in a variety of ways, with discussion of “dictionary atheists” who simply lack a belief in God but don’t necessarily pursue activism or find identity based on that, and “New Atheists,” who see religion as a problem and are willing to be confrontational. I’ve seen people argue that everyone who doesn’t believe in a God should identify as “atheist” both publicly and on surveys, and I’ve seen people argue that those who don’t believe in God but don’t see religion as a problem in need of challenging aren’t really atheists. Which is it?

I suspect something similar is at play in Kate’s discussion of the representation of atheist moms on television. An atheist mom is not simply a mom who does not believe in God, but rather a mom who teaches her children not to believe in God. In other words, an atheist parent is one who is raising atheist children—and explicitly so, not just through omission.

Personally, I think my own parenting tends to be more in line with Bones’ parenting. (We actually had our daughter Sally baptized even though Sean and I no longer believed in God by that point, in large part because we were still involved in a religious community and it felt like home for us. We have since left that religious community, and therefore have not had our son Bobby baptized.) I intend to be honest with my children about what I do and do not believe and why, but I am not setting out to raise atheist children. I want my children to chose their own beliefs.

I don’t believe in God, and I am a parent. I will be honest with my children about why I do not believe in God, but I do not intend to teach them that religion is a problem. Would Kate consider me an “atheist” parent? I’m not sure. I think I would personally define an “atheist” parent as any parent who does not believe in God and will tell their child as much if asked. I don’t think either an effort or a desire to raise children who are also atheists is necessary to make one an “atheist” parent. But then, I also think anyone who does not believe in God is technically an atheist, whether they claim that term or not, and regardless of how they view religion.

I found Kate’s post fascinating because it applied the disagreement I have seen over what makes someone an “atheist” to what makes someone an “atheist” parent. While I’ve thought a lot about how people define “atheist,” I hadn’t applied that question to how we define what it means to be an “atheist” parent.

What do you think? What makes someone an “atheist” parent?

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