Raising the Atheist Child
I’ve been an atheist since I can remember. Some people think I’m kidding when I say this, but I can clearly remember my Lutheran kindergarten, when the teacher was going on about Jesus and I was giving all the other kids the side-eye: You’re not really buying this?
Dr. Skull, who’s Jewish, is a kind of believer, in that he’s afraid to eat pork during the Days of Awe lest God smite him with boils, or frogs. But when pressed he admits to agnosticism.
“You don’t really think Moses led all those Jews out of Egypt?” I demand. “I mean…come on. The archeological evidence–”
“It’s not the fact,” he says nervously, casting a glance at the sky. “It’s the idea. The idea of Moses matters.”
“And no pork.”
“Unless it’s bacon.”
So our kid, you won’t be surprised to find, is also an atheist. (“I’m not Jewish,” she insists: “I’m an atheist.” As if being an atheist Jew wasn’t as kosher as an egg cream.)
Sadly, when she was four, we moved to Arkansas, to a town riven through with Fundamentalist Christianity. At her elementary school, not just the students, but nearly all of the teachers attended the biggest Evangelical church in town.
“Lily wants to know what church you go to,” she asked me at six. “My teacher does too.”
“Tell them I belong to the Church of Books,” I said, which at the time I thought was funny.
The next day, she said, “My teacher wants to know what Church that is. She says, is your mama Mormon?”
Then there were their descriptions of hell – to which, since she didn’t believe in their God, she was doomed. My kid already has issues with anxiety. Being told at six that she would burn in a lake of fire for all eternity did not help.
I got the teachers to intervene to stop this bullying (which to their credit they did) and I did a lot of talking.
“Their parents tell them these things,” I said. “Their parents and their church scare them this way. We know hell isn’t real, but they don’t.”
At six, she wasn’t entirely convinced. “How do you know hell isn’t real?” she kept asking me. “What if it is?”
This was between the nightmares.
I explained how I knew. I talked about religious cultures and the origins of religious myths and religious ideas. I showed her sources: where Christians had found their concept of hell, how it was as unfounded in fact as witches or magic or Zeus. I also explained that Jews didn’t believe in hell, not the Christian concept of hell. Dr. Skull backed me up on this one. “Jewish hell is more like a waiting room,” he said. “You go there, you hang around for awhile — maybe a year — then it’s over. It’s very boring, but it’s not for long. So calm down.”
(She took this news back to the other kids at school. “Wow,” Lily said. “I wish I was Jewish.”)
I also taught her to argue from facts and with logic. No one who is raised to respect the evidence-based world is going to buy religious arguments for very long, in my experience.
I did all that, and then, when she was ten and eleven, we embarked upon a course of study: reading Greek mythology, reading Norse mythology, reading the Torah, and reading the Christian bible. (This latter annoying Dr. Skull. What was wrong with just reading the real Bible, he demanded.) She was smart and sensible. The comparative implications of these texts were clear to her.
I did have trouble after that, though, since we had not just read the Sunday school sections of the Christian Bible, but all of it.
“They say their Bible is God’s perfect word,” she said, “but it’s got all this in it? Sacrificing children and rape and Samson killing people just to win a bet? Not to mention the Ark. God kills everyone in the world because they’re all evil? Some of them had to be toddlers! Evil toddlers?”
“Right, well,” I said. “It doesn’t make sense. I agree. But no religion makes sense, really. You can’t expect reason from –”
This was not her point. “I need to use this,” she insisted. “When I’m arguing with Lily and the rest of them at school. These are great moral dirt clods, Mom! You have to let me throw them!”
This was because I had lain down the law: she was not allowed to reverse-proselytize. She could not, that is, attempt to make the other students at her school atheists.
“That would be too mean,” I explained. “They’re only kids.”
“I’m only a kid!”
“An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind,” I said.
“Wait,” I counseled. “When you’re in high school, you can reason with them all you like.”
This was our rule: when both she and they were over thirteen (the age of reason, in our Jewish world) she could fight back. Until then, she had to leave the other kids alone in their religion.
*** *** ***
There are benefits to raising an atheist child, as those of us who have done it know.
For one thing, no wasting long lovely hours of the weekend in religious services — I mean, that right there, am I right?
For another, you don’t have to threaten them into correct behavior with promises of eternal torture or tendentious explanations of some supernatural code. Instead, you can (at least attempt) to explain the true reasons for acting right.
I remember (as you might) learning that many Christians claim they are only held back from evil — including rape and murder and theft — by the threat of hell. We can at least hope that this is not true*, that these Christians are lying about why they behave well. But if so, the fact that they feel the need to lie is telling.
(If it’s not true, holy fuck is all I have to say.)
When raising an atheist child, you are free to teach your children to act right by cutting to the chase. You can simply teach your child that hurting other people is wrong because other people don’t like being hurt, no more than they like being hurt.
For instance, when my child was two and bit me, I cried out in pain. I said that she had hurt me. She cried then, because she had hurt me, and I comforted her. I reminded her that we didn’t hurt each other in this house. And – because we didn’t hurt each other in our house, because I had never hit her, and never would – she believed me. She never bit me, or anyone else, again.
It’s not always going to be that simple, obviously. And obviously sometimes it takes several repetitions for a lesson to sink in. When my kid was three, for instance, she had real issues with sharing. It took many, many iterations of “We share with our friends in this house,” and “I share my popcorn with you, don’t I? Then you should share yours with Daddy,” before she stopped wailing with dismay and grief over the very thought of having to share anything, anything at all, with anyone ever.
But the basic lesson we are teaching is not that you should obey because I am bigger and I say so; or (worse, in my opinion) you should obey because if you don’t obey someone more powerful than you will hurt you if you don’t. The lesson we are teaching is that you should do the right thing because if you don’t, other people get hurt. And when other people hurt, your world gets worse. When other people are hurt, you too are harmed.
This is the foundation of empathy, which is the foundation of community. (Thus the root of the word: communitas, from the Latin word meaning fellowship, the sharing of possessions or feelings, from which we get another English word, to commune with one another.)
Teaching that if you don’t obey, the person (or God) who claims to love you will hurt you (apparently horrifically, if he’s the Christian God) teaches the exact opposite of empathy, and thus seems (almost by design) to lead to the destruction of community.
*** *** ***
We didn’t punish our child while she was learning. She made mistakes; who doesn’t? And because she was a kid, she was making more mistakes than an adult would. But we worked with her – reasoned with her – to figure them out, and find solutions for them.
This frustrated and annoyed her teachers to no end, I have to say. They would send home notes about her transgressions at school, obviously expecting us to take action – and by action they meant punishment, and by punishment I expect they meant beatings – and we would reason with our child, and send her on back to school.
“Those delagars,” the school said once, within earshot of our child, I might add: “They don’t do anything to that child!”
Education, y’all. It’s nothing at all.
Eventually, we moved to homeschooling for those years between eleven and fifteen – yes, partly because of this conflict with her Evangelical teachers – so it’s only now that she is free to unleash the rapier of her reasoning mind on her classmates.
It’s been interesting to watch. She’s not the obnoxious kid I am sad to say I was, from time to time, relentlessly battering my Baptist schoolmates in New Orleans with the contradictions in their faith (“If we’re not supposed to divorce, why does Abraham send away Hagar? Huh? Huh?” “If drinking’s so wrong, why’s Jesus turn water into wine at that wedding, huh? HUH?”)
Rather, when her friends are moving away from the bonds of religion, she doesn’t nag or badger them. Instead, she is there for them. She listens to their doubts. They reason together.
And with those who remain in their religion, while she doesn’t mock them for their religion, she also doesn’t give them a pass when their religion causes them to say homophobic or transphobic or misogynistic things, either. She calls them on it, as does the rest of her circle of friends.
Also, she speaks up when her fellow students are wrong on ethical issues.
For instance in a recent class many of her fellow students, nearly all of them Christians – this school has not one but three separate Bible or Christian Prayer Groups which meet before school – were arguing that it was necessary to torture** our enemies. “If they’re going to do it to us,” one of the other students said, “we have to do it to them.”
My kid raised her hand: the only one to speak against this argument.
“Yes?” the teacher said.
“An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind,” she said. Then she said, “Also, torture doesn’t even supply useful information. That’s been cited by actual intelligence agencies.”
“Well,” said the same student who had spoken before, “what if we have to torture people to, like, save a school bus full of children? What then?”
“Has that ever happened?” My kid demanded. “Ever? In the history of the world? You don’t do right by doing wrong. Torture is wrong, it’s immoral, it doesn’t work, it doesn’t provide useful information, and America shouldn’t do it.”
She got a round of applause from most of the class. She changed the course of the conversation.
She provided, for that class, an example of what real morality looks like.
This is what we do when we raise children who think, children who reason – whether they are atheists or whether they are theists (because (obviously) you don’t necessarily have to be an atheist to be a moral person). We create for our communities and for the world not just moral people, but examples of what moral people are: what they should be.
That’s no small thing.
*Though at least one study seems to support their claim, sadly enough.
**Side note: Why are Christians so into torture? Do you suppose it has anything to do with all that hellfire and Crucifixion? (#notallChristians***)
***Sorry. I tried really hard to keep the snark under control in this essay. I almost managed it, too! I was doing so well!
(Image Credits: All from Wikicommons: Aleksey Korin, Mother and Child Reading; Herri met de Bles, Harrowing of Hell; Hans Baldung, The Flood; Fresco of The Marriage at Cana, Visoki Decani Monastery)
Ahhh, the atheist child in the religious country.
Germany doesn’t have a real seperation of church and state, which means that school doesn’t only provide religion classes (not religious eductaion in the sense of they believe this and they believe that but good to honest “this is true” religious schooling) and the rest of it is saturated with christianity.
My kid doesn’t participate in these classes, but they spill over. For example, in music they’re currently singig something called “Christmas is a birthday party for Jesus!”, so this week she asked (since we already covered that her parents don’t have any good reasons to believe that Jesus actually existed). “Why do we celebrate Christmas?” I started with the legend of christmas and she interrupted me saying “yes, I know, but why do WE celebrate christmas”*. We as in “our family who doesn’t believe that stuff anyway”. Already, at 7, she notices that we’re different, that she’s different. And we’re not even muslim-different as some of her friends are, but this weird different-different of atheist.
And that’s a tough place for a kid to be in. I know that because been there, done that. I hated it as a child. We were practicing songs but i would not sing them because I didn’t go to the school service. We would put up a performance of the christmas story but I wouldn’t be Mary, not even a sheep in the backrow because I wouldn’t be there. It’s fucking discrimination forced onto small kids.
BTW, it bears repeating that while being an atheist makes all the things you describe possible, it doesn’t mean they follow necessarily. My upbringing resembled christian fundamentalism in many ways in terms of agency, autonomy and emotional abuse (also physical to a lesser degree).
*The answer is “Because I like christmas”. I explained to her that we people have been celebrating at this time of the year for a long time, even before they believed in the christian god and that the things we do at this time of year are simply nice things, decorating, putting up lights, spending time together.
“*The answer is “Because I like christmas”. I explained to her that we people have been celebrating at this time of the year for a long time, even before they believed in the christian god and that the things we do at this time of year are simply nice things, decorating, putting up lights, spending time together.”
This is totally my reasoning too. I love Christmas. I just celebrate it secularly. It gets a little interesting because my daughter is in a religious pre-school, but that’s a whole new post.
My kid wants to know why, if we’re atheists (even if we’re atheist Jews) we celebrate all the holidays.
“Because presents,” I tell her, sometimes, when I’m being especially snarky. But mostly I go into my very long academic explanations having to do with solstices and how every cultures has a festival of lights and a harvest festival and blah blah blah. COMMUNITAS, is the answer, obvs.
Also presents and greasy / sweet food. And wine. Don’t forget the wine!
I forgot to include what my Baptist friends in HS said about Jesus and the Wedding at Cana. He did NOT turn the water into wine, y’all. He turned it into grape juice. I kid you not.
Of course he turned it into grape juice. Really really fermented grape juice. 😉
But yes. Because presents, and pretty things, and a tree in the middle of the living room to make things super special, and fun songs, and food, and…holidays are fun, gorramit!
Unless of course, one does not find them fun, in which case, that is also fine and one of the great things about having all holidays be opt-in as the default heathen setting.
That’s why! We know it’s sentimental, but we just really like it!
Ooh, gonna have to learn that one for my advent calendar. https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCpETPEBRHsKeCKeBG4lcYRQ
Oh, and as an update on the atheism thingy
#1 just commented “People invented gods so stories would be more interesting”
I know it’s an old article and comment, but you must be in southern Germany. I started elementary school over 30 years ago in the north and while there is a class called “religion” it’s not to missionize kids, but to learn about all kinds of religion. Plus, it’s optional, and you can take an “ethics ” class instead.
Almost everyone around us back then was atheistagnostic. So much that it wasn’t even worth talking about. If there is no God/no one who believes in God why even mention it?
Now 30 years later my son goes to elementary school in a 60% Mormon, 30% other religions, 19% atheist town. He does run into problems…
Oh wow, I am so glad I found this! As a born and raised Roman Catholic turned atheist in my early 30’s, and living in the Bible Belt (Charlotte, NC where it’s hard to find a single road without SOME kind of church on it), I have been struggling with how to raise our 8 year old daughter. We’ve been letting her go to the Episcopalian church where my parents go, and this is a VERY “liberal” church, to say the least, but the Sunday School classes are teaching her stuff that I’d rather not get her started on. My main motivation was to let her be exposed to Christianity in an environment where it’s ok to question and doubt, so she’s be less likely to feel an attraction to the more fundamental side that she’ll certainly be exposed to with friends.
Now, it’s not like she’s all gung-ho about Christianity, but she does kind of believe in the idea of “God.” If anything, I’d like to wean her off this, but now I don’t know how to go about doing it. She is VERY bright and loves to read, and she certainly sees me reading books on Zen meditation around the house, so I’ve started talking with her about “other” beliefs.
Can anyone make some suggestions? I would love to get her started on some basic meditation and introduce her to other belief systems so that we can start talking about the differences, similarities, etc. I do try to challenge her thinking in order to build critical thinking skills, but am not sure how far to push that at her age.
I let my kid go to church with my parents when she was little, for as long as she still wanted to, which was how I phrased it (“You can go if you want to.”). That’s kind of how I would handle it, if I were you. Leave the choice up to your daughter. My kid, when she was little-little, was curious about God and religion, and we read kid’s books about it. There are a lot of kid-level book on religion and God you can find. But at eight, really, she’s probably old enough to start reading seriously.
I wouldn’t think of it as “weaning her off” it, though. It’s why (as I said in the post) I presented my kid with the various religions. I never told my kid that any religion was wrong, exactly. I always told her she could make up her own mind. Now, I did always also tell her I was an atheist; but she knew her father was Jewish and that he (sort of) believed. I also always told her she had to decide for herself what she believed.
OTOH, as I said above, if you teach your kid to reason from evidence, WELL.
So, you know, that’s what I would do. Expose her to as many religious texts as you possibly can. Have her read the Torah* and the Christian Bible and study the Tao Te Ching and maybe some Norse mythology. Gilgamesh is also good. Herbert Mason’s is a great translation, and it’s free on Kindle.
But yeah, don’t try to tell her what to think. Just teach her well and get out of her way.
*This is a good edition. It’s five volumes, with commentary: http://www.amazon.com/Jewish-Childrens-Bible-Genesis/dp/0943706319/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1417642210&sr=1-1&keywords=the+jewish+children%27s+bible
Thank you so much for your advice; I’ve really been struggling with this, so when I found your blog posts here, it was just the resource I needed. And thank you for the link.
I certainly do intend to teach her to think critically, and so I use the Socratic method lots of the time – answer a question with another question. As she gets older, it will probably drive her nuts, just like when my Dad did it with my sister and me, but it does keep her thinking!
I could have been your daughter 30 some years ago – I’m second generation atheist. My mother totally rejected her conservative religious upbringing before I was born, but I was regularly exposed to religion through grandparents, other relatives, friends, etc. My advice, having been a kid who *wanted* to believe, but also knew in the back of my mind that it was silly, is to let her alone in terms of specific “god” stuff and work on ctitical thinking skills. Like delagar says, don’t think of it as “weaning her off” so much as providing a different perspective and respecting her desire to learn more about the world in which, let’s face it, she’s going to have to manouver.
Obviously, your daughter may be absolutely nothing like me, but my reaction when my mother chafed at my religious curiosity was to double down on wanting exposure to god and religion. If anything, I would work on her exposure to other religious beliefs so she has a broader sense of what religion is and what it does in the world.
Emily, thank you so much for that advice, it sounds wonderful. I certainly don’t want her to feel like I’m pushing her away, so it’s a delicate balance.
Another part of the challenge here, is that my stepdaughter, now almost 20 years old, became a Christian when she was a freshman in high school. While I wasn’t “happy” about it, it was ultimately a good thing for her, as she was going through some dark times that her mother and I never knew about, and her faith gave her the necessary strength to walk away from some negative situations and people. And I’m certainly not anti-Christian, but her faith is edging towards the more literal side, which saddens me, but it’s a topic that we simply don’t touch. Maybe when she’s older.
My wife and (step)daughter are from Pakistan and grew up as Zoroastrians, which means …….. not religious. So my wife doesn’t really care one way or another. LOL
Thanks for the article. I think this is a difficult topic for me. I was raised in a religious family that lorded the concept of hell over me and my sister in such a way that I was just terrified that was just where I was going until one day I woke up to the idea of NO HELL! It is hard for me to have any positive feelings about religion as it was used as a tool to scare us into submission. (My father was raised that way, so I think he came to this theology earnestly, but it was no less destructive. We are estranged now and I know religion plays a hand in that along with other things.) But my daughter (age 6) wants to embrace the best parts of religion. And until reading this article I hadn’t considered just doing that. Helping her to explore the world, take what she wants from it and leaving the parts she doesn’t like. (But I think that we do that as a family anyways. We celebrate Christmas and will work with religious groups if they are doing charity work.) She had asked a while ago about religious stories and as I explained them too her, she explained to me and my mom that is not true, snakes can’t talk and the great flood thing is just too far fetched a thing for her to take seriously that she relates it to the cat in the hat rather than reality. So I guess what I am saying is, it is hard for me to reconcile religion, our families lack of belief and what it means to support my daughter as she explores her world. I love this article as it gives great insight into what other people are doing.
greenstone123: So many of my students, especially the ones that have moved away from their Evangelical / Fundamentalist families, have written essay for me, or talked to me, about that, about the fear they lived in as children, how they were terrorized by their parents and their preachers with stories and threats of hell. And I saw it to some extent with my cousins and members of my extended family, who were much more Pentecostal than we were.
(My grandmother used to tell my tiny baby cousins and my little, little brother than the devil hid under their bed and in other places, waiting to grab them and take them down to hell. I mean serious, WTF?)
But yeah, I think there’s a way to incorporate the useful aspects of religious traditions into our lives while leaving behind these horror-shows. (Especially we can leave behind the fucking submission required by the patriarchy! Can I get a boo-yah!) That’s another reason I think it’s good to read the texts — all the texts, the Christian Bible, and the Torah, and the Tao Te Ching, and Coyote’s tales, and so on. Wisdom literature has, well, wisdom in it. If we separate it from the oppressive bits, the parts where we get told you have to believe this or YOU WILL BURN, the wisdom is helpful. Love your neighbor. Don’t build your life on desire. Be here now. Don’t get attached to the rules. Forgive your enemy. That’s all good stuff.
I like that: ‘wisdom literature’. I think that is exactly how I will introduce it too. 🙂 We are a family that loves literature all the way around too, reading is something that we do anyways and there are so many texts that I regularly draw on now. I hadn’t thought about pulling from them, including religious texts, in reflection to morality in introducing them to my daughter, who would just love this stuff. She is growing out of the basic introduction to morality of do this because mom and dad says that it is the thing to do so your friend isn’t sad blah, blah, blah stuff. The religion can keep its four horsemen and we can pluck out the gems embracing loving your neighbor. My daughter is getting interested in a bigger picture and what it means to be apart of a community. This is great stuff!
I got a little teary-eyed at the end! Well done!