What Kind of Atheist Parent Are You?

What Kind of Atheist Parent Are You? April 9, 2015

Some months ago I mentioned Temperance Brennan in a blog post on atheist parenting, and my readers had a lot to say. To be specific, many of my readers argued that it was unfair that Brennan, an atheist, felt the need to defer to her Catholic partner, Booth, and let their daughter, Christine, be baptized. I did not write a followup post at the time, but my thoughts have been percolating and I think I’m ready to put them on paper. Or rather, in pixels, I suppose.

Let’s turn to an analogy for a moment.

Let’s imagine that I don’t care about sports, but my husband is an avid college basketball fan. Would I have a problem with my husband taking our children to a game, or watching one on TV with them? Probably not. Would I have a problem with putting the kids in basketball camp, or with my husband teaching them to dribble out on the driveway? Again, no. I might feel a little bit left out if they were all excited and into a game and I wasn’t, but that’s life, right? If one of our kids, like me, didn’t care for sports, I would make sure they didn’t feel like they were required to go to a game, or watch with their dad, etc., but that’s about it.

If atheism is simply the lack of a belief in a God, shouldn’t it be the same? In other words, if atheism is merely not believing in a God, why would an atheist parent have a problem with their Christian partner taking their kids to church? After all, if my husband was into college basketball and I wasn’t, I would care only that I wasn’t expected to go along as well. I might think his interest a bit silly, but who cares, right?

Let’s change our analogy slightly. Let’s imagine that my husband is an avid college basketball fan, but that I believe sports is a disgusting display of tribalism that gets in the way of moving toward a society that values peace over violence and cooperation over competition. Suddenly I’m not going to be so cool about our children heading off to a basketball game with their father—or with them going to basketball camp or learning to dribble. I’m probably not going to be so cool with them watching a game on T.V. either.

In the U.S. today, and to some extent in the West more broadly, “atheist” has come to be an identity marker that denotes not simply lack of a belief in a God but also a belief that religion specifically and belief in the supernatural more generally is actively harmful. This is more than just lack of belief in a God. It’s a belief that religion is damaging to both individuals and society.

Let’s go back to Brennan and Booth now. If Brennan believes religion is harmful and damaging, then yes, it is a concession on her part to allow Booth to have Christine baptized. But, if Brennan simply doesn’t believe in God herself, then allowing Booth to have Christine baptized is not actually a concession. In other words, not all atheist parents are the same.

We can talk about “Christian parenting” in generalizable ways (though of course there is variation), but I’m not sure we can do the same for atheist parenting. There are atheist parents out there who really and truly would not care if their children were to become Christians, so long as they weren’t expected to participate as well. Then there are atheist parents out there who might be a bit worried, but at the same time believe religion isn’t all bad. And then there are atheist parents out there who would freak out if their children became Christians, because they believe all religion is inherently harmful.

When we talk about atheist parenting, we need to be clear what we mean by “atheist.” Do we simply mean people who don’t themselves believe in God? Or do we mean people who believe religion is dangerous? Do we mean a “dictionary atheist” or an “anti-theist”? Do we mean someone for whom “atheist” is an identity, or someone who simply doesn’t see religion as relevant to their life?

As for me, I suppose I’m somewhere in between. I don’t see all religion as harmful, but I do think specific beliefs or traditions can be very damaging. At the same time, I want my children to be able to make their own decisions about religion. I have personally experienced the detrimental effects of being expected to believe the same things as your parents, and I don’t plan to repeat that. If my children do join a religion, I may initially be a bit worried, but I’ll deal.

How about you?

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