Raising Atheists, part 2

It’s been a few months since I wrote about atheist parenting.  In response to that post, I think one concern stands out more clearly than everything else.  I’ll introduce it with excerpts from more emails we got recently:

I’d like to hear about how atheist parents combat attempts at faith indoctrination on their children from family and community.  I know that eventually my son will have to decide for himself what he believes, but I’d like to give him the best chance at landing on a reality based on logic and evidence.

This next one is from a young woman who thought she was pregnant at the time, but it turned out later that she wasn’t; however, she may have kids someday and her concerns still stand.

I have a large family; they are a big part of my life, and I want them to be a part of my child’s life. I don’t want them to try to indoctrinate my children, but I don’t know how to explain that to them without causing a huge rift. My cousin recently had a baby with his wife. At the baby shower one of the gifts given was a child’s Bible story book (for which they were not registered) and he jokingly said, “I don’t think this is appropriate reading material, it looks pretty violent. We’ll just wait until she’s older to teach her anything about this,” to which my grandmother replied,”If you don’t teach it to her, we will.” Even though it was a light hearted exchange, I still felt that it was incredibly disrespectful for them to give a children’s book that wasn’t on the registry and then insist that they teach it to their child.

I also feel like I would be easily “bullied” or manipulated by my family, particularly my mother, when I have this discussion with them. She has a way of making my thoughts get all jumbled up. I love my mother, I have tremendous respect for her and everything she has accomplished, and she’s the person who taught me to think critically and not accept every claim at face-value, but when it comes to religion she can be very manipulative. Toby told me that he would go with me and would even speak for me if I wanted him to. For me, this conversation will not only tell my parents that I’m pregnant and an atheist, it will also be telling them that I don’t want them to teach my child the values they hold most dear. It just seems to be a lot to drop on them all at once.

When it comes to dealing with your own parents interfering with your ability to raise kids, this is partly an issue for your own atheist parenting, but it is also a look at the problem of dealing with family members in the other direction.

Your parents have in the past been authority figures over you.  When young kids and teenagers write to us asking how they should deal with their religious parents, our usual answer is very carefully.  Your parents have both legal and monetary authority over you.  Not only can they legally force you to do things you don’t want to, but if you anger them then you might find your home and/or your college fund disappearing.  That’s not a pleasant situation to be in.

On the other hand, if you’re grown up, (probably) married, and have a kid, the situation is most likely very different.  As an adult, you have the autonomy to have only as much contact with your parents as you desire; and it’s important that you establish boundaries that they will respect.

As atheists, we’re already working with a certain moral stigma.  When people say “Atheists have no reason to be moral” — for some, that’s an abstract philosophical argument, but for others it is very definitely a personal attack.  Different atheists handle that different ways.  Some of them take it to heart.  It’s not uncommon for a newly-out atheist to say to herself, “Well, I’ve already hurt my parents so much by telling them I don’t believe in God, and they think I have no morals.  I had better go out of my way to show them what a dutiful daughter I am by respecting what they want me to do. If that means letting them take my child to church, then so be it.”

Stop it.  Right now.

We know you’re not a bad person because you stopped believing in God.  You know you’re not a bad person.  If you’re afraid that your parents or other family members will be mad at you, then you’re looking at the issue from the wrong angle.  It is their responsibility to respect your wishes as a parent.  If they can’t do that, the danger is not them disowning you so much as you disowning them.

As an adult, you have a lot more rights than you did as a kid.  You’ve got your own bank account, you’ve got a job and some cars, you can darn well eat nothing but Froot Loops at every meal if you feel like it (but you won’t feel like it because you have to pay your own doctor bills).  And, no one else but you has a say over how you raise your kids, unless you let them.

As an adult, you’re entitled to some recognition of those facts, and people who do not give you that recognition are not a positive influence in your life.  Learning to manage controlling parents is a skill all by itself, quite apart from what your religious beliefs are, but it’s something that becomes a lot more important when there is some religious conflict.

In the previous post, I advised parents not to try too hard to shelter their kids from religion.  On the contrary, I recommend that you make sure to get there first, explaining the Bible and the fact that reasonable people disagree about the nature of reality, while you’re still able to do it on your own terms.  If you want the kids to know what church is like, first tell them what church is like, then go to church so they see you’re not spinning stories, then talk about the experience.

Needless to say, this approach is not without some risk.  There’s a chance that the influence of the church will win out over your parenting, and they’ll believe in God.  Could be a phase that lasts a year or two; or it could be a legitimate break from your philosophy for life.  But the thing is, you’re most likely kidding yourself if you think you can stop that from happening just because you hid that stuff from them until a particular age.

If grandma and grandpa politely and respectfully ask you and the kid attend their church, you are certainly free to honor that request — if and only if you feel like it.  You are also free to escort your kid to the church, and brief and debrief them.

What is not okay is if grandma and grandpa demand that they be allowed to influence the kid’s religious upbringing without your interference, or worse, if they start working on the kid behind your back.  That’s not just an issue of religious disagreement.  That’s an issue of overriding and undermining your parental authority, and that’s not something you should tolerate from your family no matter what the circumstance.

If there’s a lack of respect and trust between you and the rest of your family where your kids are concerned, you need to first approach them openly and tell them that they are stepping over your boundaries.  And if they can’t improve, then it may be time to start threatening to cut them off.


That’s about all I feel a pressing need to say on at the moment.  As always, continue posting in comments or write to tv@atheist-community.org if you would like some more — I won’t call it advice, but let’s say brainstorming — about parenting issues as an atheist.


  1. julian says

    Thanks for this post.

    I’ve noticed the habit of deffering to my mother as a form of apology and never thought much of it. (Honestly have no desire to get into it with her) Never thought about how it might affect the children my wife and I hope to have.

    It sets a bad precedent between you and the family. They could easily come to expect you to go along with whatever they want or (worse) become used to simply ignoring your expressed wishes.

    I’ll probably be sending my wife this link as a way of bringing up the topic. Thanks again.

  2. John K. says

    I found myself in an opposite dilemma not long ago. What was I to do as I was watching religious parents enforce the idea that gay men are disgusting? I ended up yielding to parental authority, saying nothing, but I fear that was mostly out of my own desire not to be confrontational.

    Meddling is always a tricky question, since you must be certain you know what is best for someone better than they know what is best for themselves. It is too bad many religious people do not consider the conflict between doing what they think is best for others and the freedom of other people to do as they choose. They just do what the religion tells them to do without much consideration of anything at all.

    This is a great post. Parents do indeed have a certain right to raise their children in the way they think will be best. One of the nastiest things religion does is ostracize dissenting people. It is a really nasty thing to be threatened with an end to family relationships for any reason, religious or otherwise. It is the kind of thing that makes a particular relationship like a cult membership. Don’t let the threat of being cut off influence how you will take care of and raise your children. They are in the wrong for presenting such a threat. You are not in the wrong for standing by your convictions.

  3. amyc says

    Thank you for this, Russel.

    @ John K

    I was in the same situation recently. My nephew is 3 years old and obviously will occasionally cry for no reason about things. My brother-in-law is a great father, but last week while having a small pumpkin-carving party, my nephew was getting sleepy (it was around 10 p.m.) and he started getting a little whiny and crying at things (as 3-year-olds are wont to do). My brother-in-law stopped him form crying by asking him over and over again: Are you a man?
    The whining was annoying, but all he did to stop it was reinforce the idea that it’s wrong for boys to cry (he handled his girls in different ways, so I know he can get them to stop whining using other methods). He essentially made my nephew feel bad about crying in general, when it should have been more situation specific.

    I didn’t say anything either. I promised him a while back (when I told him my boyfriend and I are atheists) that I obviously would not interfere with how he wants to raise his kids. If I had a chance to talk to him privately about it I would, but I would never bring it up in front of his kids and the rest of the family. I think that would be disrespectful.

  4. Lauren Ipsum says

    Information is still the best defense against ignorance.

    Model critical thinking for your kids, even before they’re old enough to understand you. Count the seconds between lightning and thunder and talk about how sound travels slower than light. Point out how a lovely rainbow is the result of the prism effect (and show them the cover of Dark Side of the Moon while you’re at it). Show them geodes. Show them fossils.

    Then read them myths of many different cultures. Start with the Greeks (there are lots of child-friendly books on Greek mythology) and expand to the Norwegians, and then any other cultures which strike your fancy. Point out the parallels. By the time you get to the Jewish creation myths, the idea of a “creation myth” in the first place will be so common that the kids will have a hard time believing Gramma when she tries to tell them “No, this one’s for real!”

    Debriefing post-Gramma may still be necessary, but it will be easier if the groundwork is already laid.

  5. says

    my FIL is a pastor and my MIL embodies just about every negative stereotype you’ve ever heard about pastors wives. so when we were expecting our first baby, we decided not to tell them about it until after she was born. not a single word the entire pregnancy (it was helpful that they lived in chicago and we are in denver). harsh? yes. but, it kept undue stress out of our lives. they were understandably upset when they found out about the baby (about an hour after she was born), but it made them realize that we were in charge of our children’s lives and that they had to play by our rules if they wanted to be included at all.

    we told them about the second baby early on in the pregnancy, and they have visited us once since the 2nd was born. so far we haven’t had any arguments over baptism, church attendance, etc.
    we are very dedicated to raising open-minded children, and will take them to all kinds of religious services when they are old enough to begin distinguishing myth from truth (after age 8).

    i know that it is easier to be bold when you hold all of the chips, and that many parents aren’t in such a favorable position. for us, we had to establish early on that we were not going to be bullied or manipulated by our parents when it came to raising our children. it worked and we are very glad to be independent of our own parents.


  6. King of New Hampshire says

    With my first child just a few months away, I recently had this conversation with my mother. While she voiced her intention to respect my wishes, she was insistent that church was good for children. I finally replied that if church, or religion, has any value or truth to it, then my daughter is free to find it as an adult, but if she feels the need to push it on a young and credulous mind, then she is clearly trying to push something she knows to be false. Caught in the Catch 22, she faltered. That’s when I delivered the forceful speech that any family member taking my daughter to church will never again be trusted with her and will seriously jeopardize our relationship, just as if I had told my nieces there was no god or convinced them the prophet Mohammad was true and Jesus was a false idol. Since my family has already decided (when some of my Irish Catholic uncles turned protestant GASP!) that family is more important than dogma, this did the trick and she dropped the “never know if we might end up in a church” tone. She knew I was open for debate between adults, but I was stone cold serious about leaving the children alone.

    I was scared of the conversation, but you’re right. I’m an adult. I’m a well educated, free thinking, independent, father to be. I have adult rights. So, I love you, Mom, but back the F&#^ off. After the above exchange, everything’s great. Before I came here to FTB tonight, I was checking out the pictures of baby cloths she’s been making, with not a single hint of Noah’s Ark or Jesus Loves Me prints.

  7. savoy47 says

    They will try to change your position by overcoming your objections to “their” position. An old salesman adage goes: “The sale does not start until the first no”. The back and forth will always degenerate into a fight and only escalate from there.

    The way to overcome this is to formulate a short, simple and clear statement of your position. One sentence is best. You do not need to explain or defend your position. However they respond, just restate your position, and don’t defend it. Don’t explain it. The hardest part is when they say something that you can’t resist responding to. That is the trap you must avoid. Just hold your tongue and don’t take the bait. Trust me, sometimes it’s not easy.

    They will repeat themselves over and over but only louder. But just restate your position. After they face the fact that they can’t persuade you to change your position the next thing they will do is try to force you to. They will act just like their god and demand that you submit to their will or suffer whatever hell they can build for you.

    It may come down to the choice of appeasing your family or protecting your child. As a parent most would die to protect their child and not sacrifice them on the altar of appeasement.

    If you stick with this approach you will also avoid: “…my mother, when I have this discussion with them. She has a way of making my thoughts get all jumbled up.”

    Hope this is of some value to you.

  8. Mary says

    This has been an interesting discussion. My situation is a bit of the flip of this. I am the Grandma. My upbringing was strict catholic. I brought my children up not so strict catholic, but they did attend catholic schools. My daughter has two beautiful children (ages 4 and 6). She and her husband do not include religion in any significant way in their family life. Hockey takes precedence over church on Sunday without question. They chose to send the children to the catholic school as they feel the environment and discipline is more to their liking than the public school in the area. So, they are being taught catholic principles.
    After searching for an adult version of my religion after high school and not finding it, I began questioning my beliefs. So, it never bothered me when my children did not buy into everything they were taught and stopped attending church. There were stretches of time I did not attend and when both my parents passed away, I stopped attending completely. However,it has only been in the last year and a bit that I have realized that rejecting the idea of a god all together is perfectly okay. TAE played a huge role in my coming to my senses–thank you, thank you, thank you. Catholic guilt and fear are powerful things.
    Now I find I cringe at the assignments that my grandaughter brings home with things like drawing pictures of the gifts of nature given to us by god. She asked if god draws a pattern first of everyone before he makes them. I will work very hard to make both of them critical thinkers and scientifically literate. However, I can not, will not be telling them what I now think of religion and god(s) as much as I know there will be times I would like to. All the reasons discussed in this thread go both ways. Grandparents don’t have the right to impose religion nor the right to suggest religion is illogical. I will not chance having my daughter question what I might be telling them behind her back. What I can do is share with them the wonders of science and the natural world and share our fascinating universe through my telescopes. I have pretended to move paper just by thinking and then asking if they thought I really could. Then I explained how I did it and said they should always, always ask questions and not just accept things at face value. My daughter smilingly calls me weird, but enjoys that I do little experiments with them that suit their age and encourage them to think. The kids, especially my grandaughter (6,) likes when I do ‘fun stuff’ like that.
    I can only hope that in time, they will come to the conclusion on their own that the ‘Magic of Reality’ is so much more wonderful and liberating than religion could ever be. Hey, it took me 60 years.
    The ‘Magic of Reality’ is a great book by R. Dawkins written for children, but great for all ages. I recently found out that S. Hawking and his daughter have written some children’s books. I have ‘George’s Secret Key To The Universe’. My little darlings are a bit young for it right now, but it won’t be too long before I can share it with my grandaughter. There are other titles, also.

  9. scenario says

    I wet to church every Sunday when I was a child but I never remember believing in God. My family went to church more for social reasons than religious and when my grandmother died my parents stopped going.

    I’ve never hid my atheism from my children and since my wife’s faith is essentially a vague believe in heaven in the hope that she’ll be with loved ones she’s lost when she’s died, the children were never pushed into it. Both of my children are currently attending religious schools. Both started in 6th grade. My son is in a Quaker school and is openly atheist. He is respected for his belief’s and they are quite common at his school. My daughter is going to a Catholic school and she is also an atheist but because the school environment is much more overtly religious, she doesn’t speak up. This is easier than you’d think because religious class is generally more of a morals class and bible history class than a true religious class. You say the right words at the right time and rub blue mud in your navel at the right time and you get along.

  10. Josh1415dr says

    I’m new to this blog and going back through these older posts I’m learning a lot of important things that are really going to help me. Thank you for posting this.

    I had serious doubts in my faith for years before I finally admitted to myself that I didn’t believe anymore. It was easier to pretend to be a believer than to admit being an atheist. One of the biggest reasons I took the last step was because my daughter was getting older and I can’t lie to her by telling her I believe things when I really don’t. Now I’m faced with the trouble of getting my wife and mother-in-law to stop indoctrinating her. They are full blown crazy with end times prophecies and fire and brimstone. It’s just a matter of time before they turn my daughter against me by having her pray for my lost soul. Life would be so much less complicated without all this religious dogma.

  11. says

    Other objects this sort of as lotions, lotions, and shampoos for the newborn can also be excellent presents that the mother and father will value.