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.)

I have a 4 year old son, who I love with all of my heart, I am divorced and have custody of my lil boy, He loves science and enjoys learning. at four years old he can name the 8 planets and tell you things about each, he knows what gravity is, and can explain the water cycle and photosynthesis, he can do 3 part addition in his head and is learning some very basic pre-algebra, he is sounding out words and starting to read from flash cards, and can tell you who the president of the united states is. His education is very important to me and i work extremely hard to ensure that he has the best education that i can make available to him.

I have ran into a problem that i do not know exactly how to handle, when explaining the water cycle to my son about a month ago, he informed me that his Granny (my mother) taught him that “Jesus” makes it rain, i explained to him that is not true and conducted a science experiment in my kitchen where i boiled water and let him see steam builds up on a pot lid and watch the water drip back down in the pot and showed him this is how the rain works, evaporation, condensation and precipitation, we watched some children’s videos on the water cycle on youtube, and he now gets it totally, my mother also taught him to say his prayers at night and “Jesus will protect him from bad dreams,” but when he continued to have nightmares he straight up asked me, “why do i still have bad dreams if i prayed to Jesus.?” I felt like i could not lie to him, and told him that some people do not believe Jesus or God is real, but some people like Granny do believe he is real. He asked me what did i believe, I had no choice i could not lie to him, i told him i do not believe in god, and ever since then he has said that he does not either, although he does believe in spider man cause he met him once at universal studios in Florida. i was hoping that this issue would go away cause i knew that it would cause a huge storm in my family, but unfortunately it did not and the very next time my son saw his Granny he confronted her and told her God was not real. I was kind of proud of the little guy but at the same time i knew the trouble that was about to come,
When my mother asked me about this we got into a heated discussion where i had no choice but to defend my position, now i normally try and avoid these conversations with my mom, and only debate religion on a few public forums under the handle PreacherBoy, but the conversation became very heated, and she of course insisted God was real, evolution was not true and used every tired elementary apologetics argument to prove her point, and she went straight first to if we came from monkeys why are there monkeys, i beat that down fast, then she jumped straight to prophecy profiled, i rebutted with knowledge and facts and shot down all of her points, then she said something that i was absolutely floored by. My mother a woman who is not dumb, she is a registered nurse, and is very intelligent, she has been to several countries around the world, and is a very capable woman, actually said to me that she knew the bible prophecy was true because the bible speaks of earthquakes, there are earthquakes now and there were no earthquakes two thousand years ago, my jaw nearly hit the floor at the ignorance coming out of the mouth of a woman who i love with all of my heart. I cannot allow my son to be taught such nonsense.

well apparently the issue is weighing heavy in my sons little mind and heart cause he is now telling random people that Jesus is not real. including his mother who i am divorced from, she is not a Christian but is a believer but not an educated one, i call them holiday Christians, they go to church on Easter and call out to God when bad shit happens, like the old commercials, (Jesus take me away!) i still say his prayers with him at night although he doesn’t say Lord, (Now i lay me down to sleep) he says “I pray the world”

Ive got no problem for him saying the pledge of allegiance or any of the other nonsense crap some atheist make big stinks about, as long as they don’t teach creationism in the class room, ill pick my battles on the stuff that really matters. But i have no idea how to address this issue with the family, I cannot in good conscience teach him that he was born flawed and if he doesn’t beg for forgiveness from a creature that has done far more evil than my son will ever do, then that all loving creature will burn him for all eternity, I cant teach him that as fact, but it is going to distance myself from my family, my mother’s attitude toward me has changed the last couple weeks although she has known i was atheist for years, now it has really blown up and i don’t know how to fix it. I am very close to my mom, and it breaks my heart that she now harbors the hurt feeling toward me.

Now that my son has come out to his mom, she is upset at me as well, although we are divorced, and she is fairly reasonable, i am afraid that this will cause a huge divide, and it has made me worried what might happen if my son announces his thoughts at his public school, where they pray before meals. will he suffer from discrimination from teachers and other students now because of my values, would it have been better for me to remain quiet and let him figure it out for himself when he gets older? I am deeply against indoctrination, but am i guilty of the same thing by teaching him that its ok to believe in whatever he wants, and it is ok not to believe. Do you have any advice on how to handle these situations?

We did a show with Dale McGowan, author of “Parenting Beyond Belief”:
I have also written a couple of posts on parenting that you might find helpful:
In your specific case, the first thing you need to realize is that you are in charge of your child’s upbringing, and your mother needs to accept that. If she insists on undermining your authority as a parent, then you may have to warn her that she is going to see less of her grandson until she can learn to respect you.
The second thing is, you should be honest with your kid and let him know that there are differing opinions on the god question. Do not beat around the bush and pretend to believe something you don’t. You can tell him that reasonable people disagree with you, but you do not believe in God or Jesus, and explain why.
Be sure also to tell him about the social difficulties of being an atheist, in terms he can understand. Let him know that talking to other kids about that can sometimes make it hard to keep friends. But ultimately it’s his decision, and it’s up to him to learn how to deal with other people over the long term.
Your relationship with your mom is a separate matter. Some people try very hard not to keep their atheism a secret, but as in your case, that’s not always possible. If you’ve watched the show then you can probably see that it’s not always productive to argue with theists about why you don’t believe in God. On our show we have the luxury of hanging up on stubborn callers who are wasting our time. You don’t have that ability if you want a good relationship with your mom.
I think the key here is to cut off the arguments about whether your position is right or not. The issue at stake isn’t who’s got the right philosophical position; it’s learning to accept that you believe different things, and that doesn’t make you a bad person. Let her know you still love her and respect her religious beliefs, and you hope that she can come to respect your lack of belief in the same way. Ultimately you can’t control whether she will respect you or not, and if she can’t do that then this is going to strain your relationship. Accept that this is not your fault, and promise to be available to her if she changes her attitude.


  1. ludicrous says

    Your kid is lucky to have you.

    My 2 cents

    If he hasn’t caught on already, you can let him know that strong beliefs such as religious beliefs are difficult for some people to discuss without getting upset.

    I think lots of time kids don’t realize they have options, you can let him know that it is his decision (and you will back him up) whether or not he wants to participate in any discussion about religion.

  2. otrame says

    Your son needs to understand that people who he loves and who love him have different opinions on this issue, and that is okay. There is no need to make a big deal about it with him, but always answer his questions honestly. Saying negative things about people in his life who he loves, even if, or especially if, they deserve it, will do no one any good. Take the high road.

    And if he decides to become a Christian at any point, accept that and support him. Trust me, it is unlikely to remain his decision. My teenage son, about three months after being “saved” told me one day after church “Those people are crazy.”. And that was the end of that.

    One more bit of advice: try not to resent your Mom too much. Remember what she believes, try to imagine how you would feel if the situation was reversed. You might try asking her to imagine how she’d want things to be if the situation was reversed.

  3. Mark Massingill says

    I know you love your mother and want to maintain a good relationship with her, however, that street goes both ways. She should show equal respect to you and your beliefs and realize that your son is your responsibility to raise. I’m sorry as this may sound callous, but were it me I’d have to tell her that unless she can respect your beliefs and stop trying to force her beliefs onto your son then she won’t be seeing you or him until she can modify her behavior. I get tired of hearing people saying that as the Atheist we have to respect everybody else and bow and scrape and keep what we think and feel to ourselves. I realize that it may be necessary to keep silent at times to keep the peace, yet when the issue is pressed as in your case I think we need to start making a stand. We have to change the way our families treat us as Atheists if we expect society to accept us. I personally wouldn’t stand for anyone, even someone I love, trying to teach my child their beliefs against my wishes. You have to make your own choices, and do what you believe is best for your son. That may mean cutting people out of his life who would go against what you believe is the right thing for him. It’s a sad and unfortunate truth that many “Christians” hold their church and faith above the welfare of their families. I feel badly for you that you’re stuck in such a situation and truly hope you are able to resolve it in such a way as to keep loved ones in your lives with those loved ones respecting your wishes and beliefs as well.

  4. Colin says

    This is good stuff.

    I’m not a parent yet. I have no idea if I ever will be, but I would want my child to understand the arguments for and the arguments against god and let them come to their own conclusion. Even if that conclusion differs from mine.

    The stuff about setting boundaries is really important. Once you set the boundary and explain the consequences of crossing it, it’s out of your hands. All you can really control is what boundaries you set and how you react if those boundaries are ignored.

  5. edmond says

    He sounds like an amazingly intelligent and intuitive kid. It’s just time for him to learn about discretion.

  6. Paul Wright says

    I like how he showed his son how rain was formed in order to debunk the ‘Jesus makes it rain’ claim. This is very good parenting.

    His son is going to come up against conflicting opinions regarding atheism and religion, constantly as he grows up. The best way to deal with this is to show him the evidence where possible. Encourage him to ask questions and be encouraged to answer those questions as thoroughly and empirically as you can, would be my advice. Also, as Russell alluded to, he is your son and his grandmother needs to accept that you are his parent. She needs to take a back seat in his upbringing.

  7. Darcy Hamlin says

    Wow, what a brave father; it’s so heartening to read about parents who really care about teaching their kids about religion and inoculating them against its perils.

    I was very surprised to read that at his son’s public school, they pray before meals (last paragraph of his letter)….what?!! Dad needs to contact FFRF about this because it is a clear violation of the separation of state and church…www.ffrf.org

  8. mary2 says

    You are doing exactly the right thing. Your son will soon learn that different people believe different things and that sometimes he should not say certain things to certain people.

    He doesn’t have the problem: you do. You are the one who needs to work out a way to keep your family relationships working and it sounds like you are doing everything that you can.

    No one should be in a position where they have to teach their children something they do not believe just to satisfy those around them. If you were a Muslim living in a Christian community you would not feel obligated to teach your child that Jesus was God. You would teach him about Allah and Mohammad but also teach him when not to have religious conversations.

  9. John Kruger says

    I am really impressed with the writers commitment to honesty. As can plainly be seen in the letter honesty is not always the easy way to go, but in the long run if you want to have an authentic relationship with someone, family member or otherwise, deception is going to be a barrier.

    All the four year old seems to be lacking is a certain type of consideration for other people’s feelings, understandably not realizing how certain topics are going to effect certain people. This is not saying people should always bend to protect other people from hurt feelings at all costs, but neither can we just trample how others feel with no regard at all.

    I would say keep up the honest communication while maintaining a sense that he understands and cares about the family members that are at odds. No doubt they have a lot of propaganda to change their minds about, which is bound to improve if they get to observe things without any deception over time. It seems like the rest of the family understands the child’s position, but it might not be a bad idea to carefully talk about damnation so that he does not get surprised by threats unprepared. Not an easy course to be sure, but I think this guy is on the right track.

  10. KsDevil says

    People can get really defensive if they think they or their ideas are being attacked. It can be problematic when a 4 year old with little self control begins spreading ‘the word’. All a parent can do is teach and guide and keep an eye on situations. That’s pretty much the extend of being able to control a 4 year old.
    As for granny. Well, they never really cut the apron strings, instead opting to string out a little more thread.

  11. David Munson says

    My wife and I are atheists and parents of 8 year old twins. I can attest that raising children in an atheist household can be a challenge (I do agree with Richard Dawkins that there are no atheist children, only children of atheists). My son is very vocal and has run into conflicts when telling other children that there is no god (in his defense, he does not bring up the subject he merely responds to the comments of others). We have spoken to him (and my daughter of course) that not every one thinks the way mom and dad do. We then follow up with an example of something that Christians may believe and what we as atheists believe in place.

    We have encountered very little difficulty from our families (I am not sure that my wife’s family realizes that we are atheists – and I do not feel it is my place to inform them). My family deals with my atheism in a more passive-aggressive manner. I remember my sister (who is a Christian by tradition only, we attended a Presbyterian church as kids) asking me if we were planning to raise our children as atheists. I was somewhat taken aback by the question. I turned the tables and asked her if she asked another sister (who is an extreme fundie) if she were going to raise her children as Christians. Sadly, I am not sure that she got my point, since she followed up by asserting that it should be my kids’ choice. Now when they turn a certain age I completely agree that it should be their choice as to what their religious beliefs are, but not when they are 8 (I again turned it around using my sister and her giving her kids the choice – and again I think my argument fell on deaf ears). As far as I know my fundie sister has never interfered in our decision (although it is unstated, I am sure that she knows that would be the end of our relationship, tenuous as it already is). She does, however, feel fully justified in bringing her religion into everything she does around us (talking about happenings at her church, praying before meals), but if I ever mention atheism I am the “bad guy” for starting an argument (apparently I should just let go their comments, but they are not required to let my comments go).

    Atheist parents need to stand strong in their convictions and realize that many people are ignorant of atheism so they should also expect some inane questions and comments (perhaps that could be a good opportunity to erase some of that ignorance).