Ask Mommy: Atheist Parents Shunning Kids For Religion?

Shunning kids for religionThe 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 kids 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. 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 mold 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 have to 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 an 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 step daughter 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.

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  • _Paul_

    Great blog and great article! I recently came out to my sons (my wife kind of half-did as well – she’s partial to the idea that ‘something’ bigger than us exists).. and it went totally better than I expected. My expectation probably due to the fear factor I was raised with. Our oldest (15) said he pretty figured as much and our youngest (11) was relieved, stating ‘I’m really not a church guy anyway dad’. I feel the exact same as you – I try to teach them critical thinking, be skeptical and demand evidence esp for extraordinary claims. If religion somehow becomes important in their lives, so be it, I’ll love them no less.

  • A We

    Loved this one Godless, it speaks to the way I raise my son. The only thing I might add is that I feel my atheism has greatly influenced my son to be on “Team Atheist”. Just as in the way many religious parents indoctrinate their kids in all their glorious ways,(and boy have my in-laws tried!) I too reinforce my beliefs as a counter balance. So, in that sense, I believe it can be taught. I’ve never said to him that I wished he would be an atheist, but I have definitely told him I don’t want him to become someone who would be fooled into believing such drivel and to use his common sense and think critically in every situation. I’ve also explained to him that no one on the planet has all the answers, and may never have them. He is okay with everything not making perfect sense. He doesn’t feel the need to “fill in the gaps” with an imaginary friend. If he decides as an adult to become born again, or whatever, I’ll love him just the same.

  • Robert Karma

    Excellent post GM! I think the key takeaway here is the fear factor. Western religion teaches that their God is jealous, angry and vindictive. Either worship him exactly as He wishes or be cast into a lake of fire and brimstone for all eternity. To add an extra level of perversity, He claims to do this out of love for His creation. Freethinking parents raise their children to be who they really are with no specific expectation other than to be kind, caring, decent human beings. If a child decides to become involved with a religion it is their decision. In my experience, kids will go with their friends to church events because of the social aspect rather than for religious reasons. When they are dating, they will go with the person they are interested in to church if they think that will benefit the relationship. Again, they are looking for the social/personal benefit versus the religious experience. While I’m sure it happens, I haven’t personally known of any children of Freethinking parents who have converted to any religious belief. There is something powerful about teaching critical thinking skills and the ethical values of not being judgmental or prejudiced that seem to inoculate young people from the faith-based ideology of religion.

    • cary_w

      As an atheist parent of a 20-something Christian daughter, I can assure you that we do indeed exist. I can also assure you that your last sentence really stings. We tried our best to teach her critical thinking skill, but she fell for an absurd scam in college anyway. I still love her and I’m trying hard to respect her as an autonomous adult, but it’s definitely left me heartbroken and feeling like a failure.

      • Robert Karma

        I’m terribly sorry to hear that Cary. I spent a decade working with adolescents and they can have issues that transcend how their parents raised them. You can inoculate them against supernatural myths but there is no guarantee just like a vaccine can help inhibit catching an illness but there is no 100% solution. All you can do is let her know you still love her and that she’ll always be your daughter. It’s tough but unless she has joined a serious cult it would be difficult to trigger an intervention. Hang in there!

        • cary_w

          I like that analogy to a vaccine, that’s exactly it, we give them all those damn shots knowing they’re not 100% effective, but it’s still all we can possibly do to prevent the disease.

          I also see this as a reminder to all parents: we are not raising our kids to always be ours, we’re just temporary caregivers to unique individuals who will become their own people whether we like it or not. My kids are now both in their 20s so I’m definitely suffering from empty nest syndrome too. On one hand I’m proud that they’re both (mostly) self-sufficient and heading towards bright futures, but I miss them terribly!