Raising atheists redux

Here’s an email we received about raising kids while atheist with an unsupportive family.

I am a fan of the show. Like so many other atheist i grew up in a very religious household, my mother is an evangelical Christian and performs in gospel music groups, she has been seen on gospel music television, and has performed all over the united states, there are several evangelical pastors in my family that is centered around a church that is owned and operated by members of my family, (Uncles, Mother, Cousins etc) I was the first Atheist to “come out” in my family and in the years that have followed there has been at least one other who credits me as an inspiration to be honest about her beliefs, there are a few others of the younger generation that have secretly confessed to me they share the same beliefs that i do but are afraid to admit this to their parents for fear of being rejected.

(More below.)

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Raising atheists, part 1

A fairly typical question that we get on the show and in email can be boiled to, “How should I raise my kids?” As if we were qualified to answer that.

Child bearing seems to be relatively uncommon in the atheist community at large. It probably has something to do with the fact that we’re not subject to that “be fruitful and multiply” directive, and we have no moral issues with birth control.

While some people see that as a cause for panic — Oh no, the stupid people will out-breed us and Idiocracy will become a documentary! — I don’t worry about it that much. Intelligence these days is passed along more by memes than by genes, and you can have a far greater impact on the sum of human intelligence by donating your time as a teacher or a writer than by replicating your particular genetic sequence.

Anyway, for those of us who do have kids, the usual questions I hear basically fall in a few categories:

  1. How can I raise them to be responsible, independent thinking adults?
  2. Should I introduce them to atheism early or do everything I can NOT to indoctrinate them?
  3. How do I handle my family and their peers when they inevitably want to expose my kids to the religions that I’ve been shielding them from?
  4. What do I do if the child’s other parent, or other family members, want to bring the kid up in their own religion, and/or bully me into not talking about atheism?

This post addresses 1 and 2, the next post will address 3 and 4.

When it comes right down to it, I don’t think anybody has the “right” answers when it comes to parenting, although some do better than others. A quick Amazon search for books with the keyword “parenting” yields 62,830 results, and many of them contradict each other.

Pro-tip for atheists: Do not pick this one.

This is one subject where knowledge comes at least as much from direct experience and learning from past mistakes as from reading. Obviously, the issues facing an atheist parent are very similar to the problems facing all parents, but with the additional complication that you hold a minority belief and you can expect to have it constantly challenged as your child gets older. Being an effective authority figure is difficult already, before you add in the problem of having other people feel that they have a duty to undermine your authority in a major category.

I’ve got no credentials to present here; I’m not a psychologist and I don’t want people to get in trouble over my advice. The only reason I might have some useful advice is by virtue of the fact that I seem to have a reasonably happy, quick witted, and skeptical fourth grader.

But they still ask these questions regularly at the TV email address, and as parents, it generally falls on me or Jen to offer whatever words of wisdom we can come up with. Here’s a sample of recent questions.

So my 9 year kid came home with a survey from his school asking him to rate what he values from 1 to 10. On the list are things like, world peace, family security, wisdom, self respect and then the eighth one . . . salvation. That’s clearly a Christian concept right? I am not sure how to respond; this is the first time I have come across something like this. Any thoughts?


My daughter just started Kindergarten and unfortunately they are reciting the Pledge of Allegiance daily. Up to this point has had absolutely no contact with religious people outside of the bi-annual trips to visit family and even then it was a prayer before dinner and that was it. With that I don’t think she knew what was actually happening.

So my predicament is she has no concept of god or religion. Which is what I had wanted, but as I’ve come to find out she needs to atleast know that other people believe in it and know the evils of religion. I want her to be prepared and I suppose that needs to start now. What advice could you give to lay the ground-work for the concept for a 5 year old?


I feel pretty certain there will be early conflict with our parents regarding us not allowing them to take our sonto church at a very young age. They won’t care that he’s too young to make the decision and I suspect will attempt to push us to “let him decided” way too early all while painting it as a pretty picture to him.

While I have no intentions of completely sheltering my son from religion. I’ll discuss it with him. However I feel it’s necessary that we make the church decision until he’s old enough to understand it and make the decision for himself. As parents that’s part of our jobs. I don’t see that religion should be treated any differently in that regard.

All right then. I’ll do my best to answer by drawing on my own parenting history. If some of the things I say seem badly wrong, just remember what I said earlier: nobody’s got all the answers.

In the first place, I’m a big fan of talking to your kid in a way that indicates you take him or her seriously. That goes for all ages. In some respects I suppose this impulse is a carry-over from my experience on the TV show, where I often wind up speaking to people with very different mindsets and assumptions from my own. What I like to do in that situation is not flatly say “I know better than you,” but suggest facts, a bit at a time, and then see where they go with it. If they agree with me, I know that I don’t need to waste time explaining that point. If they don’t agree or don’t understand, I try to pinpoint the source of the problem and then find the best angle to explain that point.

Talk to your kid about everything. If they’re looking at the stars, tell them they’re giant flaming balls of gas that are bigger than the earth. Then, if necessary, explain why perspective makes them appear small. If you’re driving, point out street signs or whatever you understand about how cars work. If you’re reading to them and they can’t read yet, pick out a letter and start helping them to recognize it, or pick out a common word like “the” and help them see the pattern.

The thing is, kids learn really fast, and probably pick up on things you say a lot more than you’re assuming. We all like to feel smart by figuring things out; give kids the opportunity.

When Ben was little, I read to him a lot… even before he had the cognitive ability to understand something like “The Cat in the Hat.” As he got to the point where he could easily grasp the books I was reading to him, I would gradually introduce newer stuff that pushed his limits. “Charlotte’s Web” was the first chapter book I read to him, I think he was 3 or 4, and every night when we picked it up I’d ask him if he could remember what had happened already. Today at age 9 we’re halfway through the Hitchhiker’s Guide series (we just read the penultimate chapter of Life, the Universe, and Everything to be precise), and he’s always quoting his favorite passages from previous books.

I know some child psychologists think TV and computers are bad for a kid at a young age, but I grew up with them myself and I’ve always regarded them as just another valuable facet of art and entertainment. Ben had introductory games like “Reader Rabbit” as soon as he was capable of banging on a keyboard, and he was allowed to take my controller and suicide over and over again when I played Monkey Ball on the GameCube.


Fact vs. Fiction

I know I’ve told this story a few times on the show, but it’s always worth putting in writing because it worked really well for us. With this background in appreciating fiction, I started an experiment where I explained to Ben the difference between real things and pretend things. At this point he was already pretty familiar with imaginary stories, so I playing a game with him. I would pick concepts and ask him whether they were real or pretend. Dad? Real. Cars? Real. Spongebob Squarepants? Pretend.

I found that cartoons are easy to identify as pretend, but live action drama is a bit tricky. Superman LOOKS real, after all, when he’s showing up as Christopher Reeve. At least as real as President Bush, anyway. So then we have to discuss filming and camera tricks. Dinosaurs are tricky (what’s extinction?). Horses are not as tricky if you’ve seen one in person. Kings? Real, but hard to believe when we don’t have them here. Presidents are like kings, but they can still go to jail if they don’t follow the law.

And what about God?

Well, that’s where it gets complicated. One of the reasons that’s a hard question for atheist parents to answer is, many of us have an aversion to authority. Richard Dawkins refers to raising a child to accept a religion as child abuse. While I’ve always thought that was very overstated, I do at least agree with him that it’s folly to try to force your kid to accept your own philosophical beliefs. It’s not just due to the worry that you might become a tyrant; the worst part is that it’s ineffective.

Younger kids can be pretty pliable and cooperative but (speaking from past experience with step-parenting) going through a rebellious stage is inevitable. When they start trying to strike out with their own budding adult identity, the first thing to go out the window is all the stuff that is only “because I said so.” If that’s the only tool you have to make kids eat their vegetables or stay away from drugs, you’d better start preparing yourself to face some out of shape and stoned teenagers.

My approach when it came to atheism was to simply answer questions honestly, explain that other people feel differently, defend my reasons for not believing, and then say “You’re going to have to make up your own mind about whether I’m right or not.”

Far from hiding the existence of religions and the Bible from Ben, I introduced them early. I told him the traditional Bible stories right along with stories like “Charlotte’s Web” and “Bunnicula.” Usually I just played them up to be as theatrical as possible, but there came a time when I read some of the same stories right from KJV. (Do you have any idea how boring the source material can be as a children’s book?)

The thing is, if you hide something from your kid, you’ll just make it mysterious and alluring. Bertrand Russell pointed this out with the respect to the way religions treat sex in his essay, “Has Religion Made Useful Contributions to Civilization?” Hiding a subject and calling it shameful simply increases the fascination with it.

So, by confronting religion head-on, you can minimize the novelty when some school friend invites your child to church. Which they will. And by introducing religion along with fiction and critical thinking concepts, you’ll equip your kid to evaluate ideas critically, which is far more important than simply telling him that he’d better not fall for it… or else.

Even with adults I consider that a better policy. Give me a theist who has given serious thought to his own religion and sincerely listened to the atheist point of view and that of several other major religions; against an atheist who refuses to discuss the subject at all. The theist is the guy I want to hang out with over coffee or lunch (I’m not big on beer).

I’ll stop here for now. In a future post I will answer the implied question “Isn’t it as bad as religious brainwashing to tell your child about your atheism?” I’ll talk about how to handle other family members or friends who would like to convert your child. I’ll also do my best to answer any questions that arise in the comments.

 

UPDATE: Part 2 is up.