Updated: Sep 5
The other day, one of the people I’ve connected with on Twitter emailed me the following question:
My question might be strange I’m not sure but here it goes… I know A LOT of parents who are Christian and raise their children in the church (I was one of them), and there are several children as they grow up, they decide they don’t believe what their parents believe. They come out as atheists. And it is a HUGE deal. Like I’m talking major condemnation in some families. And other religions even banish their children if they choose to leave the religion, maybe even kill them.
I guess my question(s) is: Do you raise your kids and teach them atheism? If so, what would you do if one of your children came out to you as (insert whatever religion)? If not, why not? I’m curious how an atheist’ parents response might differ from a religious parents response.
First of all, this is a great question, and not strange at all. It’s a common question, actually, though not usually phrased as nicely when I get asked it on my social spaces. Often it has that “gotcha!” undertone,
“I have a question for you, GODLESS mom. What if your kid grows up to believe in god? What then, huh?”
and it’s usually followed up with one of those laughing-to-tears emojis. I always answer in generally the same way. I’ll expand on it:
I am a mother. I brought a life into this world that I am responsible for. That doesn’t mean I have any say in who that life turns out to be, though. I respect my son, and part of that respect is letting him be his own person, accepting who that person is, and loving him just the same, no matter what.
While I will try to instill values in him that I believe are good, and I hope he grows up with those values intact, I can’t force that to happen. There will inevitably be ideas that become important to him that I don’t understand (Minecraft?). To expect him to turn out to be just like me is not just silly, it’s beyond delusional.
Some parents approach parenting with unrealistic expectations and horrific consequences. A lot of these parents have been taught this mode of parenting through fear. Fear of a vengeful, jealous God. Fear of eternal punishment. Fear of not being a good enough member of their religion. God sets the example for parents: you fall in line with these outrageous expectations, or I will commit unthinkable acts against you. It’s no wonder parents who believe in a God like this behave the very same way towards their children. God says, “If you don’t follow my commands, you will be cast out of paradise and burn for an eternity.” The godly parent (not all) says, “If you don’t fit this mould I’ve built for you, you will be cast out of your family.”
As far as “teaching atheism” goes, it’s not something that can be taught. It’s a position on the presence of a God, one that only you can come to for yourself. You can’t teach your child unbelief. What you can do, however, is teach critical thought, and that usually leads to atheism. That’s not why I teach critical thought, though. I want my son to think critically to protect himself from dangers in our world, like Nigerian Princes or men with windowless vans swearing they have a puppy inside. I don’t want him to be duped into spending his hard-earned money on a psychic to talk to me when I’m gone, and I don’t want him to avoid vaccinating his children when he has them. I teach him critical thought because it’s healthy and our strange, dangerous world requires it if we are to survive.
I do tell my son that I don’t believe in God. I tell my stepdaughter as well. I tell them why I don’t believe in God. I also tell them that many people do believe in God and its up to them to decide if they do or do not. I can’t tell them what to believe, it has to make sense to them.
While I am sure there are a handful of atheist parents who would shun their child for turning out religious, I think it’s safe to make the assumption that most wouldn’t think of it. Most atheist parents would love and accept their child whether they’re straight, gay, religious or a Nickelback fan. The reason for this is very simple: we don’t have the fear of god in our lives, fuelling this vengeful method of parenting. We don’t believe in the raging God who sets the “conform or suffer” example.
It’s important to note, as well, that a great many atheists today were once believers. They’ve fought through their own indoctrination and fought the expectations that were had of them. They struggled to have their own individual identity, in the face of tremendous pressures to conform. This fight, this struggle, tends to give those ex-theists immense respect for another’s individuality, whether they are six years old or thirty. They see another human being as someone who has a right to be themselves, even if it doesn’t match their own beliefs, values and morals.
The bottom line, when it comes to approaching any topic with my kids, is to remember that they are individuals deserving of the same respect you’d give an adult. They are their own person and entitled to their own life, opinions, loves and passions. They are not an extension of you. They are separate and will go on long after you pass from this world. Some parents see their kids as possessions or objects to control, and I have nothing but contempt for those types because there isn’t a thing on earth that brings me greater joy than watching my son or stepdaughter grow into their own individuality.
I hope that answers your question!
How would the rest of you answer this question? Let me know in the comments.
If you have a question you’d like to see me answer, email me at email@example.com