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  • Writer's pictureCourtney Heard

5 Difficult Situations For Atheist Parents and How To Deal With Them

I get asked a lot of questions about how I raise my son. I have strong opinions on certain aspects of parenting and don’t mind answering your questions, so long as you keep in mind that this is what’s best for my family, and may not be what’s best for yours.


The first question is from someone who wanted to remain anonymous:

I have twin daughters who often go stay with my mom on weekends for fun. They love this and look very forward to it. My mother is Baptist and takes them to church on Sundays. My husband and I are both atheist, but have not had a problem with this until recently. They’ve each been given a Children’s Bible by my mother and both have begun to say concerning things that lead me to believe they might be buying into it. How should I deal with this? They are 7 years old.

I have written many times before that letting your kids go to church every once in a while is not going to do any harm. I wouldn’t mind if my son went with a friend every now and again. The reason for this is because there is absolutely no way you’re ever going to be able to fully shelter them from hearing about God and Jesus and the Bible (unless you live in some Heathen Utopia like Denmark or Sweden). They will hear it, no matter what you do. So, you have a choice: either let them encounter such talk on their own without your knowledge and therefore, without your guidance; or bring it up yourself and encourage open discussion about it. Let them go to church if a friend asks. In this situation, you know about it. You can talk about it and raise questions about what they heard.

Saying no to church can also create more desire to go. It gives power to the church that simply is not real. Saying no will pique a child’s curiosity about it, and it could make him or her feel as though there must be something pretty interesting there if it’s off-limits.

The truth is, there is absolutely no harm done in a visit or two to church here and there. You can use it as a launching ground for talking about religion and raising questions about it. It’s a learning experience and an opportunity. However, if someone wanted to take my son to church every week without me present, I’d have no choice but to say no.

There are several things different about weekly visits sans Mommy. First, hearing the same things being preached and reiterated week in and week out will make it that much more likely they will eventually believe. Second, without your presence, the only adult guidance they are getting is from people who are going to further cement these ideas in your child’s head. Third, children learn to tune out their parents at times, whereas other adults in their lives can sometimes get through to them easier. It’s the entire idea behind the “cool uncle”. They rarely have to deal with the negativity of discipline and daily routines and are often viewed as more fun or more “cool” than Mom and Dad. An adult figure in your child’s life like this may have an easier time reaching your son or daughter.

Under no circumstances would I let my son go to church regularly without me there to poke holes in the stories.

To avoid making it a big deal, start taking your kids somewhere fun on Sunday mornings that they will always choose over church. That way, you’re not just saying no and creating a forbidden curiosity around it. You’re giving them a choice.

TL;DR: Don’t let your kids go to church regularly without you! You’re asking for problems!

From Jeremy:

My wife and I are agnostic atheists and expecting our first child. We’re getting lots of pressure from both of our parents to baptize the child. Should I baptize my son to appease them or try to compromise in some way?


In this situation, I would make very, very clear that you are not going to baptize the child. Follow that up by explaining that your child will not be raised religious in any way and that if and when his grandparents ever want to talk to him about religion, they must first ask you and allow you to be present. Explain to them that proselytizing of any sort will not be tolerated and that any attempt to indoctrinate your child will result in the grandparents having less access to him. Draw that line clear as day. The most important part though is the follow-through. Don’t just say this. If your parents cross that clearly drawn line, follow through with the consequences immediately.

Do not compromise.

It’s important to note here, that you are not forbidding your parents from speaking about their religion to their grandson. If they want to take him to church a couple of times, all they have to do is ask and invite you along. If they want to tell your child about how they were raised or what they believe, all that is required is that they ask you and fill you in on what was said. You’re not telling them to shut off who they are around your son. Instead, you’re requesting that you be made aware of what information has been given to your son so that you can be a part of this conversation. This is a reasonable request and if they feel it is too strict, then it’s pretty obvious they want to push belief on your son.

TL; DR: Set boundaries. Enforce said boundaries.

Here's another:

I need advice on how to deal with a rather weird situation with parents of my toddler’s friend.
We go out to the playground a few times a day and we regularly play with different kids, some of them we see rarely, some of them almost every day and even consider them friends.
One of my son’s friends (a girl about his age) has a very lovely mother, my wife and she always have nice conversations while the children play, I met her a dozen times myself and I find her nice, kind and an interesting company.
However, the girl was out with her father a few times (my wife met him 3 times, I met him once). And here where the weird stuff started happening. The guy started talking about religion (which is weird enough on its own accord, we had never had a similar conversation with people we barely know). He said he’s a devout Catholic and he’s glad his daughter could play with us and not with those numerous Muslim kids (there are a lot of Muslim families around, we even have a good toddler friend from a Muslim family). He also said we, Christians, should all stick together. My wife was a bit at a loss, she mumbled something like ‘Well, I dunno, Muslim kids are fine, I guess’ and that was it. I don’t know why he thought we were Christians. Just because we’re originally from an Eastern European country, and he’s from a different Eastern European country… I really don’t know.
At some point I thought my wife was exaggerating. But when I met him he started talking about Muslim kids with me as well. I was more prepared and said we don’t mind playing with kids from Muslim families. That didn’t stop him. We’ve been at the playground for an hour or so, and he kept talking about Christian values dying, how he is going to make sure his daughter would go to a child care with no Muslims, how he brings her to church along with himself every Sunday, etc.
Now, we’re in England, not USA, people don’t talk about religion that much here and generally way less religious, that’s why it’s especially weird.
Another thing, we really like the girl and her mother. We’ve been living in England only for half a year, we don’t have any real friends yet. We did think about inviting those guys over for a dinner or something, but now, of course, this is out of the question.How would you guys avoid such talks? What is a conversation killer? We still want our toddler to hang out with their daughter, but we want to avoid those uncomfortable conversation with the girl’s dad.

It says a lot about your character when you’re concerned with bruising this man’s feelings while he dehumanizes another group of people. The problem here is that this is not a situation in which you need to be concerned about what he thinks.

You need to be honest. You need to tell him that you’re an atheist and that you firmly believe that children of Muslims, Christians, Jews and atheists all have the same potential to be great people. Tell him that what he is saying bothers you and that you would appreciate it if he didn’t talk that way around you. Don’t beat around the bush. If they walk away from you and your family, that’s their choice. It’s not yours.

The alternative is for you to say nothing and for your son to grow up and overhear you listening to this sort of talk from his friend’s father, and failing to challenge it. You’ll set an example for your child that you do not stand up for what you believe is right. Your child might even think that because you have no objection, you must agree with these sentiments. Your child could also end up at his friend’s house one day, hearing this sort of poisonous rhetoric without your knowledge or ability to counter it.

Hanging on to toxic people will only make your son’s life more toxic. Say your piece. Let them go. Move on.

TL;DR: Be honest about how you feel and let them go if they don’t like it.

Hey GM, how do you explain ‘god’ to a young child?

This can be so hard and frustrating. Here are the steps that I took:

  1. I explained to my son that some people believe our Universe was created by a big, powerful man named God.

  2. I explained that other people believe our Universe was created by other powerful beings. I gave him the example of the Australian Aboriginal creation myth about the rainbow serpent.

  3. I told him that since we have come up with all of these stories, we have learned more and more about our Universe and none of these stories really fit what we’ve learned.

  4. I explained the Big Bang to him and let him watch:

Then I went into the fact that some people still seem to believe in God and that they think God is watching us and making sure we do everything the way he wants us to. That’s why they try to speak to him (prayer), why they build churches devoted to him and why they say they love him, even though no one has ever laid eyes on any God. He asked pretty promptly why they would believe if no one has ever seen him. I explained that that’s how they had been taught as they grew up and they were told not to question it.

“That’s why you should always question everything people say,” I told him.

“Even you, Mommy?”

“Even me.”

TL;DR: Explain different creation myths, counter with what science says then promote skepticism by encouraging your child to ask questions.

Here’s one from a guy hoping to be a Daddy one day:

My girlfriend and I had an argument last night about how we would raise our children, when and if we have them. We’ve been together for 3 years and she is a devout Christian and I am an atheist. She says she wants to raise our kids in the church and seems very unwilling to budge on this. What should I do?

This is one of the biggest problems in interfaith relationships. It’s easy to fall in love with and date a religious person, but what people in this situation usually overlook in the throes of passionate devotion, is the future. How will this play out in the future?

The first thing you need to be realistic about is that having children changes people. It changed me. It’s not just an adjustment to your lifestyle, but it also dramatically changes your priorities, beyond anything you could have predicted beforehand. There are things I swore would always be important to me, and then when I had my son, I learned that I was full of shit. You can think you’re prepared. You can be absolutely positive you’ve got your parenting style down and you know how your life is going to pan out, but you’re fucking naive. There is no way to fully prepare yourself for what you will experience when your child is born. Absolutely none.

With that said, you need to try and think of ways that this can manifest itself. What are the things that could possibly change once you have a child? One of the things that I’ve seen change often, is that religious parents begin to value their religion even more. They become nostalgic for the way they were raised, recalling Sunday mornings putting on their best clothes and heading out with their family to church. Perhaps they recall the religious ceremonies fondly or they remember the comfort the thought of Heaven brought them as a child. In any case, many liberal religious people become more devout after the birth of their children. If your girlfriend is already insisting on raising your kids in the church, will she be even more adamant and pushy about her religion once they are born? Will your relationship survive that? If it doesn’t, have you considered what shared custody might look like with someone who is devoutly religious? Further, have you been made aware of the advantage she will have over you in custody proceedings (if you are in the US)? Many judges feel taking a child to church regularly makes a better, more fit parent.

I guess what I am saying to you is that you need to consider whether or not you can handle these very real possibilities. If the idea of these things is unthinkable to you, is this the person you should be having children with? Just loving someone is sometimes not enough. You have to consider what sort of life you might be subjecting your children to.

In your current situation, I would tell her that you cannot and will not raise your children religious and that it’s a deal-breaker for you. If she can’t handle it, let it go. It will suck, but ultimately, your life with someone who sees eye to eye with you on how to parent will be far more enjoyable and a much healthier environment in which to raise children.

TL;DR: Tell her it’s a deal-breaker. Accept consequences.

What are your answers to these questions? What would you do? I love answering questions, so if you have any, be sure to send them my way:

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