Raising an Atheist?

Being an atheist family in the middle of the bible belt is not an easy task. We have been accused of everything from “keeping the truth” from our children to “raising them to be immoral”. Sadly, even our families accuse use of not allowing our children to make their own choices. I am a little confused about this. I have a niece who is a very devout Baptist, and last year when she asked if my two older kids could start going to AWANA(http://www.awana.org )
with her, and after much debate, I decided to allow it. We do not hide the beliefs of other religions from my children. We do not tell them we will kick them out of the house if they ever “turn to god”. But we have worked very hard to ensure that our children understand how religions work, and where their various myths come from. Basically, we do not want them believing everything they hear simply because it sounds good, or simply because everyone else around them believes it as well. As far as Awana goes, they both attended for a full year. I considered very strongly pulling them out after I read one of the chapters in my daughters work book which was all about sin, and informed her that she was “unclean”. Instead of pulling her out, however, I merely had a very long discussion with her about the subject, and told her to take it all with a grain of salt, and to feel more than free to tell the teacher she thought that was bull crap if she wanted to. My kids’ teachers all know about our Atheism, and have always been very tolerant of it. Here in rural Oklahoma, that is actually an amazing thing, and I was quite shocked. In a discussion with my son’s teacher about it, she actually asked me if it would be okay if he participated in the creation of angel ornaments at Christmas time or if she should come up with something more secular for him to do as his project. She even did it without sounding sarcastic or disgusted. I was very impressed and my respect for her grew tremendously. Now that I have babbled, I will ask my actual question.
How can I be sure that I am not as guilty as my Christian friends in indoctrinating my children to NOT believe? Children should be free to believe however they wish. I only want my kids to always question…But I fear my disbelief will become theirs only because it is always what I have told them. I detest parents who “force” faith onto their children, and I dont want to be as guilty in forcing mine to NOT believe. Can you see my dilemma here?

Good for you! I sympathize. We’re not really atheists in our family, but we’re Unitarians, and in this neck of the woods (catholic and calvinist) it’s considered the same thing. But about 25% of our Unitarian-Universalist congregation is atheist. The kids at our fellowship get good instruction about religious history, diversity, and founding their own beliefs on a basis of reason. They get a good background for making moral choices and taking responsibility for their actions without the credo and other things that we, like you, find objectionable. And they get to hang with other kids who come from free-thinking families too. It’s been win-win. Don’t know if it’s an option for you, but its been great for us.

My wife and I are atheists and a mixed marriage to boot. We raised our daughters with secular celebration of Christmas, Pssover, and a few other holidays, but no religion. Fortunately we lived on the coasts, so lack of religion didn’t set us apart.

Our older daughter is as atheistic as we.

Our younger daughter always had a religious temprement. She fell in love with a Jewish guy. Since her mother was Protestant, she needed to go through training for an “affirmation” (essentially a conversion) to become a Jew. Now she’s more observant than her husband, and happy with her religion.

If there’s a moral, maybe it’s that your children will make their own choices, no matter what you do.

Tornado Siren wrote:

Your children probably picked up most of their personality and temperament just from watching you and your spouse when you weren’t aware of it. You’re role models. I’d bet they’d picked up a great deal of their mannerisms from you even before they could talk.

So don’t be surprised if they think like you, too. Even if you tell 'em not to.

I was raised by a former Catholic and a former Baptist, both atheists, but neither stridently so.

My mother explained to me once the concept that some people believe God is everywhere, and i spent an afternoon trying to trap Him under a pot. Kids are funny.

Anyway, my parents left the whole question open without denying that they did not believe. I am deeply, deeply grateful not to have been indoctrinated into any religion. When I was in my mid teens, I began asking the Big Questions, and I ask them still. And I never fail to be glad that I never had to unlearn one thing to open my mind to another.

Stop worrying. You sound like you’re doing fine.


Children will eventually wind up making their own choices, like december said. Not to worry. Only thing that’s floored me so far with my son was, after watching a show on Discovery and then listening to me thoroughly debunk the whole freakin’ thing, having him look at me and say, “So Dad, what do you believe in?” Floored me, I must say. I had to think for a minute before I could come up with something.

Okay…perhaps I have been worrying for nothing. But nothing scares me more than becoming the exact opposite of a radical fundy. Pardon me whilst I shudder uncontrollably.
I do want to relate a small story though. When my daughter was in the 3rd grade, they were doing the standard and obligatory Thanksgiving project which consists of writing down the things they are thankful for. One of my daughter’s friends, having finished hers, was reading Liz’s list. She asked her why she didn’t have god on it. My daughter has always been told not to bring up such things, but to never shirk from telling the truth if she is asked, so she told the other girl that she wasn’t sure if she believed in god or not. (I, of course, got this story second hand from my daughter.) Well, pandemonium broke loose. Apparently the other little girl told this story to her mother, and was forbidden to play with my daughter anymore. So, here I am, with a crying daughter who can’t really understand what the big deal is. I went to the store and bought one of those little pocket sized New Testaments and went to the home of the little girl. When her mother answered, I introduced myself, handed her the small bible, and told her that perhaps she should read up on what she thought she believed in. I am really not sure whether she got my meaning or not, but it made me feel better. It was several years later when I heard my daughter answer the question “do you believe in god?” with “I have years to make my mind up on that.” I have never been more proud.

I’m so glad to hear that some people are allowing their children to find their own way. I don’t think you’re forcing your atheism on your children. You don’t insist that your way is the only one, and that all other worldviews are deluded, you don’t refuse to acknowledge other people’s faith. Kudos to you!

I had the good fortune to be raised by parents who had a very open, accepting worldview. I know that much of my nature comes from them. I was told a great deal about many faiths, and found myself gravitating toward an agnostic worldview. I thank them for what they did for me, and I believe that your children may come to see what I do.

I, too, was raised in a non-religious household. (Although later it turned out my dad did hold to a religious-like set of beliefs in the pseudo-science of orgonomy.)

When I was in third or fourth grade, one of the other boys at school asked me if I believed in God. I said, “What’s God?” I don’t remember what the other boy’s reaction was, but I’m guessing it wasn’t pleasant, because I remember asking my dad “What’s God?” later that same day. My dad told me, “God is a really strong feeling some people have.”

Unfortunately, this particular definition wasn’t particularly useful at the time. :wink:

Beautiful! Simply perfect.

Never had quite this same problem, but when my daughter was about 5, a neighbor lady said something about Jesus to her, and she replied with “who’s Jesus?”. After seeing the look on the lady’s face, my husband and I decided that perhaps it was time to start the mythology training. I don’t even like to think what that statement would have done to her southern Baptist grandparents. I would have probably been up on charges of criminal neglect.

My family has flirted with Xtianity since I was baby. The influence of both sets of my grandparents eventually convinced my parents to have me baptized at the age of two. My mother has always felt distain towards the Catholic Church, and refused to take us to church after I was 7 years old. She believes in a God, but not the Xtian one. My father never thought it appropriate to impose his religious views on my sister or myself. He has never had a conversation about religion with me. However, I did attend catholic schools while growing up. I could not escape the influence of my grandfathers, who were both involved in the establishment of the Separate (read: Catholic) School Division.

I never considered myself to be a Catholic and only made up my mind about God’s existence when I was 16. My sister and I are both atheists.

Tornado Siren: You are raising your children the way they should be raised. You are not forcing your beliefs on them. You are letting them make up their own minds.

Tornado Siren: I live in a similar, Bible-belt place where atheism is considered to be horrendously evil. Atheism (and Wicca, Catholicism, and anything else non-fundamentalist-Christian) is just as bad as Satanism here, because “if you’re not with us, you’re against us!” I’ve been participating on a local message board; you can just imagine what people have to say to me. In real life, nobody knows I’m atheist except for my two very closest friends and a few people in my husband’s family because he let the cat out of the bag.

Christians accuse me of forcing atheism on my children, of being a child abuser because I’m not teaching my children Christianity, and they frequently tell me they’ll pray for my children’s souls.

I do let my kids go to church occasionally with relatives. I’ve begun teaching them about different religions, according to their capacity for understanding. My goal is to give them a good education about all the major religions in the world. If they choose to be atheists, Baptists, Moonies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, or whatever, I will not in any way reject them for believing differently than I do (although it would make for some interesting debate around the dinner table!). I want them to make an informed decision. One’s faith, or lack of it, is a most important aspect of that person’s life. The more information you have before you make that decision, the better.

My husband’s family, of course, is determined to save my children from my evil ways. When my (3 year old) son brought home a Noah’s Ark coloring book that Mema (grandma) had given him, he told me this was a true story; Mema had told him so. I pointed out that if the story was literally true, that meant God killed everyone and everything in the whole world except for the people and animals on the Ark. My son was horrified because he hadn’t considered that aspect of the story. He said, “God wouldn’t do that! God is supposed to be good!”

I told him that some people (including Mema) think God drowned almost everybody because the Bible says so, but I, personally, didn’t believe it. I told him that people believe different things.

It’s strange that people who brainwash their children to be Christians accuse me of brainwashing my kids to be atheists. I think they do it because obviously (to them) Christianity is the one true faith, and anyone who doesn’t do everything he can to make others believe it, too, is a minion of Satan.

My husband is an Atheist. I am a “cultural Catholic now non-specific Deist.” I have convinced my husband to raise our children as Unitarians (and now consider myself Unitarian) to address some of the issues you bring up.

The religious ed program for Unitarians is wonderful - teaching respect for all beliefs. After a few years of “Sunday School” your kids will be able to run rings around your average religious layperson. There is lots of Christianity (although some Paganism, Judism, Islam, Eastern Religions, etc) in the standard circulum - acknowledging the Christian culture that surrounds us - but not taught as dogma. Your average congregation will have some Atheists, some Christians, and a little bit of everything else (although a few congregations belong to the “Pagan Covenant” or the “Buddhist Covenant” or the “Christian Covenant” and almost all members in the congregation share that belief).

And it gives your children something to say to the “what religion are you?” question. Most people will assume that UUs are some version of Christian and leave you alone. It also gives them a place to celebrate life rituals.

(You know the SMDB is the only place I’ve ever seen Unitarian Witnessing).

You’re hardly the exact opposite of a radical fundy if you let your kids go to AWANA.