Here’s a handful of the most frequent actions taken by atheist parents who contact me, that in my mind are complete no-nos:
1. Don’t refuse to attend family functions in religious buildings. If you’ve been invited to a family wedding at a church, or a Bar Mitzvah at a synagogue… just go. Refusal to do so, based solely on the grounds that you are an atheist, is petty. By refusing to go, you’re assigning power to the religious venue and don’t think for two seconds your kids won’t pick up on this. If you want your children to see a church or a synagogue as just another building like any other, then don’t give it the power to keep you out.
2. Don’t shield your children from religion or religious people. If there are religious people in your child’s life, be okay with them talking to your children about their religion. Just insist that you are either present or told what has been said. You’re never going to be able to stop them from being exposed to religion completely, so you might as well be in control of it. As well, many atheists will attest, the more you know about religion, the less likely you are to believe it.
3. Don’t tell your kids what to think about religion. Instead, tell them what you believe and what others believe and ask them what they think of it. Prompt their little minds to think critically by asking things like, “Does that make sense to you? Why or why not?”. Putting them in a position to have to explain their thought process will trigger critical thought like nothing else.
4. Don’t push your kids into learning about religion. Let them guide you. If and when they show interest or ask, “Mommy, what is God?”, that’s when you begin to explore the topic together. If your child appears to lose interest, then let it go. Forcing your kids to hear about religion is only going to make the topic stand out to them. It assigns a power to it that other topics simply do not have. You’re saying to them, in not so many words, that religion holds no power over you, but they are seeing the opposite. When you can’t drop the subject or let it go, it clearly does have a power over you. Kids tend to see the examples you set far sooner than they hear the words you are saying.
5. Don’t neglect other topics. I know this sounds like a no-brainer, but I have had a few parents email me telling me that they “try and try” to explain religion to their kids and it sounds almost as though that’s all they talk about with them. Forcing your children to be lectured about things they have no interest in, will only cause resentment and sometimes even rebellion against the very sentiments you are trying to teach. Just relax… teaching your kids about a large variety of things will help keep their curiosity sparked and that is all that’s needed to grow into adults who value critical thought.
6. Don’t ignore their questions. When they ask, answer. If you don’t know the answer, look it up with them. This teaches them several things: First, you respect them enough to answer their questions. Two, they can trust you will answer their questions whenever they come up. This can come in handy when the topic is crucial, like safe sex or calling for a pick-up when their ride is drunk. Three, watching you look up answers teaches your children how to research and find answers for their own questions.
7. Don’t take away religious holidays they might be used to. If all of their friends celebrate Christmas, and they look forward to it and it makes them happy, then why would you deprive them of that? This will cause resentment and also applies a power to the religious aspect of the holiday: it has the power to stop you from celebrating it.
Being an atheist does not come with a dogma. We are not, in absence of belief in God, now forced to reject everything associated with a God claim. This is unreasonable and implies that atheism prescribes a certain way of life. We all know it doesn’t. Don’t let your disbelief rule your world, because your children will see that. They will take note and it could work in the exact opposite way you meant it to. You could end up with your very own Ken Ham living in your basement at 43 collecting pop cans to pay for his model of the ark.
Just relax. As an atheist, religion should not be a serious thing one way or the other. Don’t let it have power. Celebrate your kids’ natural curiosity, be honest with them and I think you’ll find that they grow into critical thinking, rational adults.