Dad, am I an atheist too?
The question you don’t expect to hear from a three year old.
It was a beautiful Saturday afternoon and my daughter and I were enjoying a sunny day at the park. Nothing picks me up quicker than the sound of children’s laughter, and my daughter is a giggle box with a penchant for asking unconventional, yet poignant, questions. She’s a smart little whip who is very opinionated. (She also has a slight lisp, which magnifies the cuteness of her adeptly crafted arguments for breakfast ice cream, ten fold).
We live in an area in Dallas where we are surrounded by technology giants (that’s my day job, Technology), so its not uncommon to see high populations of diversity at our playground. As she was on the back-end of the swing, she glanced to the left where two brothers were playing. My bright eyed grand inquisitor looks over to the children on the jungle gym, then back at me, with… “the look“. The one where you hope no one’s really in earshot, because a doozy is crossing those lips -any minute.
The conversations went something like this:
Her: “Daddy – are those boys Ingian (Indian)?” (lisp is killer)
Me: Yes, I do believe they are, but we should never assume.
Her: “Do they believe in God?”
Hmmm. I reviewed a few concepts of religion that she’d already been exposed to and explained to her that, yes somewhat, but not like grandma’s (Christian) God. Then I reminded her of some of the other creation stories we’ve shared and some of the religions they went with. At this point I’m really not sure where this is going, so I press on… with caution.
Me: Umm.. Why do you ask?
Her: “Because I don’t believe in God.”
At this point in the conversation, the swing comes back almost smacking me in the face. I’m thinking, I should probably hold off on any celebration until I get to the bottom of this. I’d always said I wouldn’t label my children, any of them, and I’d allow them the freedom to discover who they were. I think when it comes to things such as belief, its good to expose them to as many different ethnicities, faiths, cultures, etc… This also includes the various concepts or incarnations of god. If they eventually find their way back to “atheism”, that’s great, but I’d not love them any less if they didn’t. However, this was a surprise to me.
Her: “You don’t believe in god, right daddy?”
Me: No… I don’t. I’m an atheist.
Her: “I’m an ateeist, too.”
I stopped in my tracks. Hold up, wait. Saying you don’t believe is one thing, but Atheist at three?
That’s a mighty big word for a little girl and it carries a weight with it. Does she really understand what she’s saying? Is she just parroting what she thinks I want to hear? I mean, being an atheist comes with challenges that a three year old can not possibly comprehend. We have a PR problem that we struggle with, and although we may not be the most hated group in America, we’re not particularly liked.
The thoughts of her getting picked on or singled out, especially here in the South, just started swirling in the back of my head. And just like I cringe at little at kids asserting with conviction, that they’d been saved, I was now doing the same to my little girl. Here I am, the remover of impediments, telling her on the one hand, that she should could be anything she wanted to be in the world, yet when challenged, I was ready to tell her “you don’t know what you’re saying – no you’re not!”
Took me a second to calm myself down and realize that all she was telling me, is that she doesn’t believe in god – that’s it.
So why was I, the big”A” Atheist, recoiling from it?
Then it hit me.
Why are we afraid of Atheist Children?
- We don’t want to be accused of indoctrination. False equivalences are easy to make.We almost make them through reflex. In a politically correct world where we strive for egalitarianism, we equate stances on belief. However, “My non religion is not the same as your religion”. All things being are not always equal. Many atheist, myself included, often argue that children shouldn’t be exposed to the bible, until they’re of age, and we rail against “indoctrination“. Traditionally speaking, what many atheist do with their children is the “lack of indoctrination”. There is no atheist scripture or text. None of my children read Hitchens before bed (or at all). They just exist and excel at being good kids. They’re all good charitable humanists that are socially conscious and use the universal teaching that belongs to no one in particular “do unto other what you would like done to you and don’t do unto others what you wouldn’t like done to you”. That’s a guideline that’s evolved with us, not really “indoctrination”.
- We don’t want them to be attacked as immoral -That’s a challenge we all face as atheist. The question “where do you get your morals from” is something that is bound to come up in interfaith discussions. Its hard navigating that discussion as adults, let alone trying to avoid the pitfalls of it as a child. The climate is changing, especially in the US, where Pew Research indicates that where there is prosperity and wealth, there is a less correlation to the requirement of God for morality. – Pew Research. Worldwide, Many See Belief in God as Essential to Morality. I think that argument is being fairly well defused.
- We don’t want them to inherit the Scarlet Letter: life is hard enough being a kid trying to find your way into adolescence then adulthood. There are going to be several uneasy trials, and as parents we don’t like seeing our children suffer particularly over something like lack of belief. Calling yourself an atheist, could very well result in the limiting of the number of friends, social circle restriction, and being singled out. However, if we don’t start showing people that we are good, normal, people with very few differences, especially at young ages, they will continue to stereotype us. You can’t overcome the stigma of atheism, without normalizing it, and that includes with children. Let them be themselves and show them you have their backs!
Why we should let them use the “A” word
- Don’t deny your child the ability to assert who they are. If they really are sure that’s who they are, support them. If they’re unsure and exploring, support them too. It might be a phase, but its real to them now. Christianity and Islam were phases to me, but I proudly embraced the labels when they weren’t, I will not deny my daughter that ability to explore who she is.
- Don’t be intimidated out of the “A” word. Faithful aren’t better because they believe, they’re just different. They don’t own the moral high ground. You want to change perception, then change the narrative someone else has written for you. I will not allow my child to believe she is “less than another”, because of my fear of letting her embrace what she understands that she is. I do my best to ground her in age appropriate reality, but I will not let someone else’s misunderstanding, define her.
- Prove that there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s a starting point, which merely states your position on god. It says nothing about you, not really, as a person. You can be a host of other things on top of that supposition, which you are welcome to promote as well, but if you really don’t think atheism is a “bad thing” don’t shy away from it. There’s no reason to be embarrassed. Millennials are becoming less religiously affiliated, which allows for more middle ground interfaith discourse. If trends hold up, my three year old won’t have the religious hurdles my oldest did. That’s progress.
When its not OK
- But if you’re not out, and your can’t support your child’s assertion (or make your own), this message probably isn’t for you. I’m lucky, we’ve done a lot of work in the area and minds are changing. If you’re in a place where you’re not safe to come out, don’t. I’d offer that you don’t suppress your child’s desire to identify as atheist, just make sure they understand the situations where it might be best appropriate to “share less” and internally celebrate who they are in other ways. Celebrate them.
Supporting a healthy critically minded human
I don’t know why she doesn’t believe in god, but that’s not my job. I don’t have to convince her that other people “might” be right. All I have to do is show her that other people are different, and that’s ok. I’ll help her critically examine the world through natural lenses, and I’ll support her regardless of where her “non-faith” leads her. Today, she knows she’s right, tomorrow she may find a different truth, but for now, no one is going to shame or coerce me into telling her otherwise.
So if you have a little one who pops out with one of those wonderful godless gems, don’t hesitate. Embrace your child and let them be unapologetically themselves.
If they make the statement that they’re an atheist, you look at them and say:
Good. I’m proud and I’m an ateeist too.
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