A book request

Now here’s a difficult question from a reader:

Long time reader, but only very occasional poster here. A friend asked me
to recommend some books to read to small
children (2 -5 years old) to teach the basics of atheism. His son is
getting exposed to a lot of religious training from
his wife, and my friend wants something to present the alternative

Any suggestions? Feel free to open this up to the blog.

BTW, he is also interested in short books about the sciences suitable to be
read to children of the same age as bedtime
stories. Suggestions in this category are also welcomed.

I don’t have a good answer. Usually, I’d just say that there shouldn’t be “atheist” children’s books — there’s nothing not to teach, and I’d rather kids were just brought up to think for themselves — but this is a request for specific counter-programming against religious indoctrination. Anyone have any suggestions?


  1. Sonja says

    I don’t know of a specific book, but the classic fable “The Emperor’s New Clothes” by Hans Christian Andersen teaches the virtues of questioning authority and looking at things how they really are (not how adults tell you they are).

  2. G. Tingey says

    Doing it backwards, when they get a little older, encourage them to read the religious bullshit – but from more than one source, and carefully point out that each of these sources calims to be THE ONLY ONE TRUE WAY – and that they contradict each other.

    At age 2 – 5, it is more difficult.
    How about some potted histories of the crusades, where lots of peole got killed, because of “god”.
    Or a childs guide to the inquisition ……

    Very difficult.

  3. MorpheusPA says

    Pullman’s good for older young ‘uns (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass) around 12 and up. They’re not a bad read for adults, either. Rather like Harry Potter for Atheists.

    I’ve never seen “There’s No God, Sarah” next to “Goodnight, Moon” so I think you may be outta luck there.


  4. Aris says

    Read them a bible version geared to kids.

    And, no, I’m not being facetious. Read them the bible, along with Greek and Norse mythology, classic fairy tales, etc. Explain that you consider the bible to be the mythology of the Hebrews. The ridiculousness of taking amusing supernatural stories seriously will become readily evident to them. That’s what I did with my kids. I didn’t have to indoctrinate them in atheism or anything else. I merely helped them develop their critical faculties.

  5. Kevin Dorner says

    The Dan Barker book is “Just Pretend: A Freethought Book for Children”

    “A fun book which allows children of “all ages” to explore myths like Santa Claus and compare them with ideas like the existence of God. Entertaining, respectful of children’s intelligence, Just Pretend encourages kids to apply the tests of reason to any idea, fairy tale, myth or religion.
    Ages 6-12 recommended (but appropriate for children of “all ages”!), fully illustrated, 72 pages.”

    It can be ordered from the page below. It’s $15.00, member discount available.


  6. lytefoot says

    In general, exposing a child to a lot of alegories and fairy tales is a surprisingly good way to counter religious programming of children. Present Cinderella with the same seriousness as is given to Kain and Abel, and you’ll set up a mindset such that when the child realizes the one is fantasy, he’ll be in a position to realize it about the other, too.

    Throwing in some fairy tales like Cinderella whose morals could stand a good, hard examination is especially helpful here: Stories like Kain and Abel and that all-time favorite the Crucifixion have morals that certainly need to be scrutinized.

  7. Stephen Erickson says

    Instead of recommending specific books, recommend that the two (divorced, I presume) parents act like adults and stop waging their immature power struggle.

    Of course, there’s not much hope. If they couldn’t keep it together even this short amount of time, they probably lack the common sense and fortitude to be decent parents.

  8. kyle says

    Just expose the kid to a lot of things. My very Catholic mother read me Twain, Poe, Bible stories, Fairy tales… And as long as you raise a kid to question authority they’ll end up as an atheist for a little while at least.

  9. CrispyShot says

    I’d throw in an observation that “magic” is very real to this age group, and attempting to make theism look ridiculous could backfire.

    However, presenting biblical stories with the same (light)weight as other tales might go a long way toward lessening their importance. And I suspect that helping “them develop their own critical faculties” is much more useful.

  10. JYB says

    A better tactice would be the “junior skeptic” type books. A poster already pointed out Dan Barker. I have a few books, one is called “Maybe Yes, Maybe No” and there are many other in that vain. I’m pretty sure Skeptic has a list of books for kids. Frankly, any detective story would be good since it teaches about evaluating evidence versus blind faith.

  11. says

    A friend asked me to recommend some books to read to small children (2 -5 years old) to teach the basics of atheism.

    Read to him from the Book of Judges. That will put anyone off of religion.

  12. Christian Burnham says

    Why don’t you first tell the kids that there’s no Santa Clause and that wrestling is fixed. Work your way up from there.

  13. Will says

    I’d suggest attending or contacting the local Unitarian Universalist congregation. That way the kids would be exposed to a wealth of good ideas and teachings and both the mom and the dad would be happy (depending on what the goal of the mom really is here.)

  14. Chili Pepper says

    Give ’em mythology books. It makes it a lot easier to present the Christian myths as myths if a child has familiarity with those of different religions.

    To quote from Ambrose Bierce:
    BABE or BABY, n. A misshapen creature of no particular age, sex, or condition, chiefly remarkable for the violence of the sympathies and antipathies it excites in others, itself without sentiment or emotion. There have been famous babes; for example, little Moses, from whose adventure in the bulrushes the Egyptian hierophants of seven centuries before doubtless derived their idle tale of the child Osiris being preserved on a floating lotus leaf.

  15. Chili Pepper says

    Give ’em mythology books. It makes it a lot easier to present the Christian myths as myths if a child has familiarity with those of different religions.

    To quote from Ambrose Bierce:
    BABE or BABY, n. A misshapen creature of no particular age, sex, or condition, chiefly remarkable for the violence of the sympathies and antipathies it excites in others, itself without sentiment or emotion. There have been famous babes; for example, little Moses, from whose adventure in the bulrushes the Egyptian hierophants of seven centuries before doubtless derived their idle tale of the child Osiris being preserved on a floating lotus leaf.

  16. Stacey says

    I found a couple on Amazon that look promising:

    What About Gods? (Skeptic’s Bookshelf Series) (Paperback)
    by Chris Brockman

    Humanism, What’s That?: A Book for Curious Kids (Paperback)
    by Helen Bennett

    Life on Earth: The Story of Evolution (Hardcover)
    by Steve Jenkins

    If you look these up on any of the major websites they should have “People who bought this…” link.

    Good Luck!!

  17. SmellyTerror says

    The line… “That’s what some people believe.”

    Worked with me. When I was 5, my dad dragged me to Church/Sunday School out of a vague sense of obligation, and on the first day my mum told me “This is what some people believe. Lots of people believe lots of different things, and you don’t have to make your mind up yet”. Just knowing that other people thought differently was enough to turn the whole thing into a bit of a freak show. Never believed it for a moment.

    Doubt is a mighty shield!

  18. lillet says

    Just have them read lots of fairy tales and mythology. Then then they a) know all the references for when they study literature in school later b) understand that *all* religion is myth. I am convinced my gorgeous copy of _D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths_ contributed significantly to my imagination as well as my athiesm.

  19. ComfortablyNumb says

    I don’t advocate counter programming, just tell your little ones the truth. Kids have endless curiosity and very good BS detectors. There are some really wonderful books that you can read to young children to help them think about biology. Go to the public library and ask the children’s librarian for help. Here are a few of my favorites:

    Chickens Aren’t the Only Ones by Ruth Heller. All about egg laying animals and their behaviour.

    Desert Giant: The World of the Saguaro Cactus by Barbara Bash. Describes the life cycle and ecology of the saguaro.

    It’s Perfectly Normal by Robie Harris. Everything a child would want to know about human biology/sexuality. The blurb at Barnes and Noble says for middle schoolers, but I bought this for my kids as soon as they could read. My kids loved this book – it opened the way for many terrific conversations with them.

    People by Peter Spier. Discusses, illustrates diversity of people all over the world.

    Dinosaurs by Robert Sabuda. Pop up book – need I say more?

  20. TW says

    Our family went a short distance down this road. We attended some Christian services and then some Unitarian services. The kids voiced loud support in favor of the Unitarians. We don’t go to church much any more and every religious assertion is open to discussion.

  21. Patness says

    While I s’pose you gotta get ’em while they’re young, it seems dumb to have to counter-indoctrinate a kid, and it’s equally vile.

    Smelly got it right; all that matters is “that’s what some people believe”. If you want to protect a kid from religion, best to use the methods of extinction and devalue religious myths to just that – myths.

  22. False Prophet says

    Several posters already made the good point of reading them old pagan myths alongside the Bible stories. I started reading both around age 6 (along with a lot of junior astronomy and paleontology books), and I credit that early education with building a foundation of skepticism to religion early on. Even a young child might start to wonder why the myths of the bearded guy in the sky changing into cows and swans and golden showers to impregnate innocent young virgins are supposed to be seen as stories while the myth of the other bearded guy in the sky impregnating another innocent young virgin is supposed to be seen as true.

    Dawkins is right though: at that age, children can’t really be considered followers of a religion. We encourage children of that age to believe in Santa Claus and the tooth fairy, only to pull back the curtain years later.

    I think the most important thing is to raise your child with good, moral values without referencing God or divine authority (parental authority is sufficient at that age, or should be–as the poet said: “Mother is the name of God in the mouths of small children”). Also teach by sympathy and reciprocity (“Do you like people hitting you? No? Then you shouldn’t hit other people.”)–the basis of morality in pretty much every culture, and it doesn’t require recourse to supernatural entities.

  23. Dunesong says

    Earth to Audrey by Susan Hughes, Stephane Poulin (Illustrator)


    My daughter loves this book (2 and 1/2 years old). It has a nice little bit at the end where a parent discusses the Big Bang to a collection of children lying in the grass looking up into the night sky. It is a children’s story not a science book. But the story provides a way for a parent to introduce the ideas of a natural universe by using the story as a starting point.

  24. makita says

    I was faced with a similar problem. My ex-husband went off the deep end after we separated and turned fundamentalist christian. My son gets shoved an unhealthy dose of christian teachings down his throat on a weekly basis, and I was forced to counter-balance some of that. I did it by checking out books on religion from the library. I got him books on greek gods, hindu gods, rastfarianism, you name it. I emphasized that they are ALL stories. And that people truly believe in the story that they have been thought. I then told him that it was up to him whether to believe any of the stories, but that it was ultimately his choice. I talk to him every chance we get, and every time my ex makes a comment like “your mother is going to burn in hell,” I use it as a teaching moment. I teach my son about true morals, and I can use our household as an example. My husband now is (if that’s even possible) even more of an atheist than I am, and we run a perfectly normal, harmonious household without all the gobbledigook (how do you spell that, English is not my first language) of religion. I just recently got him a bunch of science books about life and evolution, I talk to him about the nonsense of “good” and “bad” spirits and angels, and believing in a “holy” book. I tell him over and over that he can make his own choices. He used to be a little confused, but he is a sharp kid, and he is starting to get it. He loves his father (and he is also a little scared of him) and that makes it hard for him. But he will be ok, he has learned to question, to wonder and to not believe everything that is being fed to him. And he will often make off-hand remarks that indicate that he will not be fooled. Considering we live in the South, this is not easily accomplished. But really, the short answer for me was to expose him to many religions.

  25. makita says

    I forgot to mention this example. My second son was born with special needs, and my son remarked a couple of weeks ago that there couldn’t be a god. How could god possible make children like his little brother. That’s just cruel. It was a little painful to hear it expressed like that, but it is so true. There is no omnibenevolent god. And I was very proud of my son that he could see it in those terms, as opposed to the junk he’s being fed of “god works in mysterious way,” and “he has a reason for doing this,” or even worse “your mom and husband are getting punished for their lack of believe.”

  26. aweb says

    Not to point out the obvious, but shouldn’t these parents be able to talk about and figure this out on their own? If the father doesn’t want the child exposed to christian doctrine, he should just stand up to his wife and say so. Sure, you can read different stories and try to compete for a child’s beliefs, but really, the husband needs to not be a wimp here, and just refuse to let his wife expose his child to beliefs he believes are wrong.

    Don’t scheme, don’t compete, just discuss it with the wife, and bring it to a stop. If she won’t stop, well, that’s a larger issue in the family than a few children’s books can solve. A fundamental divergence in beliefs…this is something they should have figured out BEFORE having the child in the first place.

  27. kathy a says

    ages 2 to 5! that is really young to expect someone to choose beliefs, but not too young to get them interested in things they don’t know about, asking questions — building the basis for critical thinking, as several said.

    i agree with the suggestions of exposing the kids to lots of different things, and when the subject of beliefs comes up, using that line, “some people believe that. people believe different things.”

    my kids loved books about science and history. there is/was a great series called “eyewitness books,” with wonderful pictures and text that works for different developmental stages. any kinds of stories about human behavior — and that includes the biblical stories trotted out for little kids — is a jumping off point for talking about what is right and wrong, what might be true or might be made-up, etc. myths and fairy tales are also good for talking about the true/not real stuff.

    i came by my atheism honestly, having been raised in a church and then discovering fairly that i couldn’t make myself believe things that did not make sense. i never told my kids things like, “we are atheists,” and remember being somewhat stunned the day my young son announced he believed in god. [a friend’s mother had been working to save him, it turned out.] so i just asked why, and i think at the time he liked the idea of the big man upstairs taking care of things. i said some people believe that, and we moved along to his passion at the time, reading about “the ancients of egypt,” who of course had a lot of ideas about gods and their powers.

    it seems much more important to develop critical thinking skills and foster interest in a broad range of subjects than to try indoctrinating little kids. sounds like these babes are getting plenty of indoctrination from the other side, and i’m definitely against using kids as fodder for parental disagreements.

  28. aweb says

    Oh, and the same applies if the genders were reversed…re-reading my post, it might come off with a “man in control, wife obey” dumbass vibe. Lack of writing skills and proofreading on my part, not what I mean.

  29. Christopher says

    I’d add two things –
    1) Take your child to the bookstore with you. I remember that my mother did this and she would let me go figure it out for myself…I can’t say that I ended up in the Nietzsche aisle that often, but I do remember being very familair with Greek and Roman mythology from a young age. I’m not sure I made the explicit connection between the supernatural deities in mythology with the Judeo-Christian equivalents…but even after 8 years of Catholic schooling I didn’t by the whole God thing.
    2) This is, I think, in very large part due to the fact that my mother didn’t have me baptized as a baby. I wore that “I’m not baptized” badge very proudly and professed that she did it so I could make an informed decision when I was ready …right now I’m stuck somewhere between a Dennett atheist and a Sagan agnostic. Perhaps communicating to a child that they have this freedom to chose (regardless of whether or not they understand the implications of that freedom early on) is as effective a lesson as can come out of any book.

  30. says

    At a slightly older age level, it gets much easier. I remember devouring a whole series of Isaac Asimov science-for-kids books (the “Library of the Universe” series published by Gareth Stevens, I think). They were each about thirty pages long, had lots of pictures, and covered topics like Stars, Black Holes, Asteroids, Comets and Meteors, etc. I first learned about black hole evaporation and the long lifetime of red dwarf stars from these books. Being an enthusiastic reader, I read these myself, but a parent could also read them aloud. The Eyewitness Science series covers lots of subjects and, at a guess, would be suitable for ages 8 or 9 and up.

    I’ll add my support to all the voices above clamoring for mythology books. Illustrated versions of the classic myths — Pegasus and Bellerophon, Perseus and Medusa, the Osiris family — are not hard to come by, and they put children on the road to a classical education which can bring rewards throughout a lifetime. Once the munchkins hit middle school, introduce them to the wonderful world of Larry Gonick and his Cartoon Guides. Trust me, even the most risque panels — like his version of King David and Bathsheba — are nothing compared to what your kids hear and say every day in junior high.

    At the younger ages, however, books may be the wrong approach — or at least they shouldn’t be the entire deal. Religion tells you to get your wisdom out of authority figures and dusty tomes, but science investigates the natural world. I remember my father and I playing with the Visible Man kit when I was about four (and the house was filled with Capsula pieces when I was five or six). What about magnifying glasses for looking at rocks and leaves and bugs? I mean, what little kid doesn’t love bugs?!

    (Read Richard Feynman’s stories in Surely You’re Joking for ideas on cool things to look at under magnification.)

    Take your children to science museums. The best ones have endless quantities of hands-on exhibits which make lights and noise; it’s not a graduate class in quantum field theory, but it will build the very important connection between “science” and “having fun”. Find IMAX theaters and planetaria. Go stargazing and connect those Greek myths with the constellations. “The stars are other suns, very far away. There aren’t really people in the sky. But these are the stories people used to tell many-many-many years ago, to remember what the sky looked like and to have fun around a campfire. . . .”

  31. JeffF says

    I don’t really favor the “deprogramming” tack here, but I like the idea of introducing kids to many different mythologies. Seeing many different beliefs is the best argument against religion, and mythology is just plain fun.

    As to the suggestion of using “The Golden Compass”, I’m a bit ambivalent. I enjoy the books enormously (particularly since my research focuses on dark matter!) and they take a novel, freethinking stance which is very refreshing in fantasy. Unfortunately I found the conclusion of the trilogy surprisingly disappointing. The author builds things up wonderfully, but it feels like at the very end he lets his message (atheism and the evils of organized religion, in this case, so it’s a good message!) get in the way of telling a good story.

  32. Ethan Romero says

    I think that agnosticism, if not atheism, is a natural byproduct of strong, critical facilities. Any book or exercise that encourages critical though–maybe even try some very simple science experiments/demonstrations–should limit the effect of religious instruction.

    However, to some degree the outcome is out of your hands.

    A good friend was educated in fundamentalist Pentecostal schools through 8th grade: apparently, recycling is sinful because it suggests that the Earth will not be made anew by White Jesus ™. Despite all that, he is doing a Ph.D. in linguistics and is one of the sharpest, critical thinkers that I know. Years and years of religious indoctrination failed to make him religious, or even sympathetic to religion.

  33. Mike says

    A campaign of counter-programming? Sheesh. Hardly should be neccessary at that age. But if the person really wants to then reading children’s version of other mythologies would, at least, have the child considering that other Gods have been believed to exist. And once you accept many, and are told to reject some, then the leap to rejecting others is pretty easy.

    I have to wonder though as it seems from the letter that this reader is trying to do this on the sly from their spouse. This seems odd because kids are pretty darn smart and the fact that the parents clearly believe different things automatically will force them to look at the issue critically rather than automatically accept it as true. Their split loyalties will require this split belief structure while they decide which way to fall.

    Unless, of course, the parent who doesn’t believe is going along with the whole church thing to please their spouse and so is trying to counter the indoctrination on the sly.

    In that case, they will have made their own task far more difficult by giving false credence to something they don’t really believe and also risk seeming dishonest to their child when they try to counter on Saturday the lessons they all go to learn on Sunday.

    And, to my mind, a lesson that dishonesty is good is NOT what you want to be giving at that age….

    If this parent is going to church with the family but wants to teach their child to ignore it, then I say suck it up, lead by example, and stop going to church! Otherwise your own skepticism should be more than enough to compell your child to keep an open mind.

  34. WayBeyondSoccerMom says

    I have a 10 year old girl and a 13 year old boy. They have both been raised as atheists. I have asked them to help me write this.

    #1: My children love The Berenstain Bears. There are about 100 books, and all of them are gentle and thoughtful, explaining positive ways to becoming a better person. FYI: Father Bear in the Dr. Seuss series of BB’s books is funny but pretty stupid. Don’t think that all the BB books are like that. The authors took a different and better stance in their “golden books”, and those are the ones my kids really like. I really do think we have almost every single BB except one, called: The Big Question. That’s the only book that discusses religion. That one, we left in the book store. And, the TV show now appears on PBS. And, there are a ton of videos and DVDs of BB. I can’t begin to tell you how many times the BB have been read and watched, even now by my 10 year old. It’s a great investment since a toddler will still be watching/reading the BB 7 years later.

    And, videos/TV with book tie-ins:

    Little Bear: excellent TV show on Noggin/Nick about family values and friendship and caring. Personally, I wanted to be a mom just like “Mother Bear”. She’s a terrific role model for me, as a kind and playful mom. Little Bear was my daughter’s birthday theme at age 4.

    DragonTales: my kids thought this show was “cool”. And, some Christians hate DragonTales because the children teleport through their bedroom wall. There are whole Internet sites devoted to bashing DragonTales. All the more reason to watch it! DragonTales was my daughter’s birthday theme at age 5.

    Amazing Animal videos: Henry, the lizard, is a very funny and silly character that appears in all the videos and he interacts with the human narrator. It’s an entire series of videos, that cover all sorts of animals. The series is based on science and facts, but is really funny.

    Zoboomafoo: wonderful series and TV show. Very educational but lots of fun. And, as a mom, you can develop a crush on both of the Kratt Brothers.

    Magic School Bus videos and books: maybe a bit too old for a toddler, but it’s worth trying. The MSB series came out with a younger kid version, to appeal to the PreK-K set a few years ago, like “Liz Makes a Rainbow”. My kids like “The Busasaurus” a lot. My daughter likes “Getting Energized”.

    You might have a tough time finding these videos on DVD, but your local library should have copies.

    There are also a bunch of MSB at your local library.

    Try your local library first, before buying anything.

    Another series of great books is the “Help Me Be Good” series by Joy Berry. You should be able to find used books, pretty easily.

    Basically, if you stick with any of the PBS Kids or Noggin TV shows and book tie-ins, you’ll be fine. All of the programs teach good moral lessons along with being a good friend, going to the dentist, etc, without the appearance of any religious doctrine.

    Look for books that use animals as the main characters, acting anthropomorphicly. That way, kids learn ideas color blind. That’s why Arthur and the Berenstain Bears and Little Bear are so appealing, every child (regardless of skin color or creed or national origin) can relate to the actions of the characters.

    And, make plans/save your money to send your kids to Camp Quest. There are several camps in the US and Canada. My kids went last year, and it was a wonderful week for them.


  35. Steve_C says

    I think if one parent is pushing a specific belief system the other parent just needs to educate the child about other cultures beliefs and history of deities. Give the kid TONS of imaginary spirits to learn about. Then it’ll be, “why is mom’s so special?” “I like the (fill in the blank god) better he rides a Chariot!.” Norse gods could be pretty fun.

  36. says

    I have to agree with most of the people here. The best way to deal with something like that is to give kids information. I have never believed in supernatural stuff, and I think it is mostly because my parents allowed me to read whatever I liked. Dad even went through the trouble of convincing the library staff that I should be allowed to borrow whatever I wanted, even though I usually couldn’t reach it and had to ask some adult to get it for me.

    I still do remember one particular book of Greek mythology I read over and over again and I do hold a soft spot for Book of Relevation which was my second favourite fairytale:P

  37. Johnny Vector says

    If the father doesn’t want the child exposed to christian doctrine, he should just stand up to his wife and say so.

    Say what? I’m assuming the parents here are divorced, in which case the father has no legal authority to prevent the mother from teaching religion to the child. Unless it’s in the divorce decree, which seems unlikely. Doesn’t matter which of them is custodial, either. Since teaching religion is not illegal, she’s within her rights to do it.

    And, much as it pains me to say it, that’s the way it should be. Else who decides which teachings are allowed and which aren’t? I just hope the father can provide enough weight to the side of reason.

    (If the parents are still married, that’s a slightly different kettle of jesus-fish, but in a real-life relationship “just standing up and saying so” isn’t generally a solution to this sort of conflict.)

  38. Stephen says

    Smelly got it right; all that matters is “that’s what some people believe”

    Equally important is “that’s a good question”. Encourage them to ask questions. Take the questions seriously. Give answers which lead them onto more questions.

    But as others have said, at 2-5 don’t worry about it much. 8 or 9 is quite early enough.

  39. bernarda says

    I have always liked Dr. Seuss. I never looked for any religious messages, hidden or other, so I can’t say that there isn’t any, but I don’t recognize them if there are.

    There is also a site which has games on it.


  40. Scott Hatfield says

    Give them everything. Science, and the natural world, and also a full pantheon of gods and monsters. Tell them stories from the Bible and stories from the Iliad. Puss N’ Boots and Beowulf. Give them everything, model how you want them to think for themselves, then hold your breath.


  41. says

    Instead of recommending specific books, recommend that the two (divorced, I presume) parents act like adults and stop waging their immature power struggle.

    Yeah, I agree. Divorced is the more charitable assumption; my first read of the quoted e-mail was that they were still married, just dysfunctionally.

    Not having any kids, I don’t have any specific advice here, other than to say that my personal history supports the suggestions of Greek mythology. I read quite a bit of mythology as a kid. D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Mythology was one book I liked, with pictures and everything. Looking back, it was somewhat Bowdlerized, but still has a little of everything about the Hellenistic pantheon. I read that a lot as a kid, and I’m an atheist now. Post hoc ergo propter hoc, I realize, but still.

  42. kathy a says

    i was assuming the family is separated, but maybe not. doesn’t matter — little kids being forced to choose between their parents is bad, and critical thinking is good.

    the suggestion of science museums [and other kid-friendly venues for discovering the world in all its glory] is a great one! having a larger and more interesting world available, and being allowed to question things — those are key tools a growing kid will use.

    i can’t tell you how many wonderful, very competent, caring people i know are fallen catholics. [and the fallen of other former faiths, too — but the catholics of my generation have the best stories, in my opinion.] religious indoctrination is not necessarily fatal, so long as there are tools to sort it out.

  43. says

    How could I be so forgetful? I wrote a whole, lengthy comment and didn’t say a single word of praise for Calvin and Hobbes!

    Off-topic: The Neurophilosopher ran an article about how quantum mechanics may play a role in olfactory perception. Within three posts, well-known woomeister Stuart Hameroff showed up in the comments thread to link this with “quantum consciousness”. People, please. We’re talking about protein molecules here, not even anything as big as a synapse, let alone a whole neuron. Finding a better model than the old lock-and-key idea for describing how receptors work is pretty cool, but it’s got squat to do with consciousness. (I mean, if you read The Double Helix, you find people all the way back in the 1950s were trying to use quantum mechanics to see which DNA structures could be stable. Linus Pauling’s quantum approach to chemistry swept the field during World War II. Does any of this lead credence to quantum quackery? Of course not.)

    I hereby make a falsifiable prediction: D.H. and Deepak Chopra will both make merry with this idea. Quick, somebody give me a quantum anaesthetic, because headaches are on the way.

  44. Christopher says

    Since we’re coming up on the 10th anniversary of his passing, maybe its timely to suggest Carl Sagan’s Cosmos – its not “kids reading” – but there is enough in there that can certainly get a young mind’s gears spinning.

  45. Hans says

    I have at home several books on human evolution with great pics of fossils and reconstructions. My kids love leafing thru them. I’m hoping that presenting them with lot of evidence directly contradicting creationism will help. So far though, my 7-year old just loves teasing me with her proclamation about believing in god. She senses how it bothers me. One day soon, when she’s ready for that Santa is just a myth, I will add god to it. ;)

  46. says

    I found Aesop’s fables to be very fascinating as a child and I think I discovered them around age 5….I think they might be very appropriate, stories like the sun and the wind as well as the fox and the grapes. A bit older than the new testament as well.

  47. Erasmu says

    I grew up in a very fundamental church 3 times a week literal genesis the whole ball of wax kinda household. I learned to read kinda early and loved reading mythologies, but my favorite were Jack Tales. and Revelation and Genesis. At about 7 or 8 or 9 I realized that the people I knew at church were all full of shit. The painful part is that my parents didn’t realize that, and I know a little something about the anger of a converted atheist. I think good critical thinking and reading skills, combined with getting outside and naturalizing, are crucial for avoiding the God-disease. After watching and listening to god-botherers in my early years I realized they were off on a lark.

  48. says

    I second Jenkins’ “Life on Earth: The Story of Evolution.” While not a specifically atheist book, the straightforward and engaging presentation of evolutionary theory goes a long way toward countering some of the goofier claims of religion. It’s one of my kids’ (5 and 7) favorite science books. (We have one agnostically-oriented kid and one who says if he were going to worship something, it would be the Olympian gods.)

    There are also lots of resources for teaching freethought at Teaching About Religion which might be of interest. Most of them are aimed at a slightly older audience, but you could always adapt for your own family.

  49. Heleen says

    Read many tales: Grimm’s fairy tales, Andersen’s fairy tales, fairy tales from around the world, Greek and other myth, and read the Bible just in unexpurgated translation – including the violent bits and the wild tales. Bible in its original version is not sugary as the evangelical fundies make it, and it will make children realize how wildly out from the original the fundies are. Quran is much more boring,and the Book of Mormon bottom of the list as reading material.

  50. Dianne says

    I’m reading my 3 y/o lots of books about the natural world and science and encouraging her to ask “why” questions. This isn’t specifically counter-religious teaching, but it does teach her to question authority, listen to the answers, and question some more. And teaches her that people are a part of nature, not something different grafted onto–or granted dominion over–it.

    I’m not sure that this is so good, but she’s also learned about how some moral problems are insoluble: the prey animal wants to live but the predator is hungry and needs to eat. That problem can’t be solved without one or the other’s needs being unmet. But then again real life can be like that: sometimes there is no good answer.

  51. says

    Read the child a book of myths and fables from all over the world. When I was a child, I liked both stories about cowtail switches(and how some brothers found their dad dead from hunting and brought him back to life with their supernatural powers) and my illustrated book of bible stories. Books from all over the world will give the child a broader perspective.

  52. Don says

    Rather off topic, but I am a teacher at a special needs school which is moderately infested with religious types. We have a rota for assemblies and one of mine falls on February 12th – Darwin’s Birthday. Is there an easily downloadable short clip explaining the basics of evolution that anyone knows of out there?. Target audience is chronologically 12 – 16 years but developmentally 5 – 9 years.

  53. sara says

    My parents just included bible stories in with all the other myths they were reading to me — Greek Myths, Native American legends… and Noah’s Ark…. treat them all the same and don’t eleveate one over the other, and you wind up with the impression that every culture has come up with their own explanations of the origin of the earth.

    Then you get some of the early science books on the universe and evolution (this one: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0618164766/ref=wl_it_dp/102-2456047-8540131?ie=UTF8&coliid=I3O5YG5BC6NM69&colid=1R0MFAQ2O3520 is pretty good and actually will work for much younger than grades 3-6 — its a PICTURE book…)

    and present it as “those myths are from before we figured out how it worked.” or something like that.

  54. Clare says

    Not a book suggestion to read to children, or have them read, but a source of good ideas: Philosophy and the Young Child, by Gareth Matthews. It’s about how to recognize and elicit conversations about philosophy in young children… not in a pointy-headed way, but a critical, interesting way. I liked it because it a: helped me value the excellent insights and observations children make, b: suggested ways — without being dictatorial — to open up conversations about perceptions and ideas that can only help in the development of thoughtful, reflective people (both parents and children, it seems to me).

  55. Mike Haubrich says

    Although, as a divorced parent, I am not sure if it is good for parents to play “tug of war” over religion through the kids; I do agree that detective stories, even the “pet detective” type of stories are good for building critical thinking skills. Even Sherlock Holmes’ (though written by a creationist) methods are great for teaching how to determine the truth; when all alternatives are eliminated, that which remains, no matter how implausible, must be the solution. Ergo, no God. But we don’t have to say that out loud.

  56. No One of Consequence says

    I just throw an occassional comment at my kids –

    “Do you think that could really happen?”

    along with an occassional –

    “Dad doesn’t believe in the supernatural/magic/ghost/vampires/…”

    Although they have had lots of exposure to Catholicism, not one of them believes the Adam and Eve, or Noah’s Ark stories.

    I think as long as the kids know not everyone is buying what religions are selling they retain their skeptical nature.

  57. Mothra says

    Simplest solution: Buy children’s books on Greek mythology, Nordic myths, Vedic myths, ancient Egypt, etc. A child exposed to the great sweep of cultural myths probably will realize that the Bible is just one more story. Certainly, one cannot instruct a child into a null belief system. One can however, teach context and let intelligence and eventual maturity take care of the rest.

  58. NEL says

    Teach those kids the basics of science and the atheism will come naturally. Worked for me when I was in short pants — I read nothing but dinosaur books from the time I was 4-years old all through my childhood. Also, take the whippersnappers out for a walk in the woods. Show them all the critters, great and small; teach them early about the wonders of nature. Take them to zoos, museums and your local planetarium. Once they get turned on to the natural world, they’ll (hopefully) never retreat into the womb of superstition and faith in a Spooky Sky Being.

  59. thwaite says

    Don, for video summarizing evolution:
    Not to overlook the obvious at PBS: a short downloadable video on the process of evolution. It’s not kid-focused, but it’s accurate and relatively short. I’d perhaps follow it by expanding on its hummingbird example, to the overpopulation of cats & dogs – more familiar – and even dogs have many sub-species now, tho due to artificial selection rather than natural.
    The PBS site has more videos:
    http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/evolution/educators/teachstuds/svideos.html – for students
    http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/evolution/educators/teachstuds/tvideos.html – for teachers

    A more up-tempo (with cartoon dodos) discussion of evolution, contrasted with ID, is at the movie site http://www.flockofdodos.com — but again not kid-focused.

    This earlier discussion of science books
    includes Will E’s recc responding to a request for a well illustrated evolution
    book for 5th to 8th grade
    . And I thought there was a separate discussion focused entirely on science books for kids about then too but can’t find it easily now.

  60. Steve Watson says

    Even Sherlock Holmes’ (though written by a creationist)…
    ACD was a creationist? I know he was a spiritualist, and he’s sometimes touted as a possible participant in the Piltdown hoax. But I hadn’t heard he was a creationist (at least, no more so than any other Victorian gentleman — 100 years ago, some sort of creationism was still almost a respectable position. It’s only the subsequent advance of knowledge that has increasingly made it into the intellectually marginal refuge of those with overriding ideological commitments, and the charlatans who prey on them).

  61. says

    The Pullman books are very good but are not atheistic. In them, God is very real, but he’s the Bad Guy. Still, they are probably good for warping your children.

    But let me recommend The Tree of Life, an illustrated biography of Charles Darwin by the wonderful Peter Sis.

  62. DrNathaniel says

    My suggestion would be:

    Haroun and the Sea of Stories
    by Salman Rushdie.

    It’s a great book to read aloud, fun, and smart.. pretty close to The Hobbit, with appeal that’s just as wide. It’s not exactly athiestic, but it does have a great appeal for the values of a skeptic: being open-minded, honest, rejection of secrecy, leading by consunsus rather than authority. Heck, to be honest, I’ve forgotten some of the themes… time to go find my copy again!

    For older kids (once they’re old enough to want to read on their own) I ditto the suggest of Pullman.

    —Nathaniel, who has no kids but has juvinille reading habits.

  63. thwaite says

    mtraven, that’s a pretty promising TOL browser you made there. Java, and it worked pretty well even on my locked-down Firefox (Adblock, Flashblock, NoScript) on a Mac powerbook with a bluetooth mouse for the buttons & scroll wheel.

    Amazing how far down the tree you have to navigate to get to “our” neighborhood and near-recognizable taxa…

    As for Kipling – indeed, bad**3. But it’s clear you know that.

  64. C.W. says

    Don’t. Explaining atheism to kids at age 2-5 is kind of pointless. Wait until they’re about 12, explain what a logical fallacy is and give them a pamphlet from Jehova’s Withnesses. Did the trick for me.

  65. says

    skepticism is a lot more useful to teach a 5 year old than evolution. Norse myths are great for that — not only do heaven and hell destroy each other in the end, but they can’t even tell you if that’s happened or not! General education as to mythology is not only interesting but genuinely useful for a future career in any field.

    As an example, i work in IT and it’s a great way to come up with hostnames.

  66. Matt T. says

    First off, I’ll give a 10-4 to them that’ve opined on the unsettling nature of this scenario, what with the obvious power struggle between the parents – and the friend getting in the middle of it – as well as the off-putting of indoctrination to the Kindergarten crowd. Granted, there is definately something to be said for starting the youngsters out on good science, so I’d of the opinion it shouldn’t be a matter of offering contradicting info, but as much info as possible. Give the kids books on myths, dinosaurs, the planets, other cultures, other religions, etc.

    I may’ve missed an earlier suggestion, but how about a subscription to National Geographic? My folks have had a subscription their entire marriage – all 35 years of it – and as a young’un, it was definately a favorite of mine. Of course, most of the articles were too rich for me, but the pictures and illustrations were always endlessly fascinating and generally fairly easy to follow. Plus, it’s always such a plethora of info. One month’s issue will have stories on ancient cultures, evolutionary breakthroughs, cultural movements in other countries and, if we’re lucky, tree frogs. It’s a good magazine to grow up with, and I still have a subscription to it.

    As a side thought, I’ve never read anything pro or con, but what is the basic perception of National Geographic among scientists and scholars? I understand it shouldn’t be considered anything more than a taste of whatever the article in question is about, but I’ve never seen any criticism of it beyond the lunatic ravings of fundamentalists upset at the naysaying of their world view. I do know it’s the only magazine I know of that won’t piss me off some how or another when I read it.

    Another idea – and another source of my own lack of religion – is comic books. I grew up on Marvel and DC books, particularly that last golden age of Marvel of the late ’70s to the mid ’80s or so (say, right around that godawful second “Secret War” series). Not only are scientists portrayed as cool heroes and even cooler super-villians (and really, who wouldn’t want to be Dr. Doom), but there’s also plenty of examples of how human beings use myths to explain the world around them. Marvel, especially, what with a mythological being – Thor, God of Thunder and Smack-Talking – as one of their iconic characters. Or Captain Marvel, who has the powers of mythological beings like Zeus, Biblical characters and fictional constructs. Or Wonder Woman, blessed of the Greek Goddess.

    It’s a fairly short hope from Thor whupping ass on the Wrecker to looking up the actual myths involved, and then realizing humans have been telling stories for a long damn time.

  67. Mike Haubrich says

    “ACD was a creationist?”

    I should probably double-check, but there were theories that he was behind the Piltdown Mans hoax as a way to embarrass evolutionists.

  68. Pattanowski says

    I have not read many of the comments on this thread, yet wanted to say that I also think that Jesus should be included with the rest of the children’s liturature. My little three and a half-year-old already seems to gravitate more towards reality than myth and I even make an effort to take her to church on occasion. If people are engaging in any sort of behavior of influence or consequence, I think it is worthwhile to observe it at least enough to get a basic understanding of it. (Provided that it isn’t x-rated or drug-related or worse) Well, I just self-destructed that idea by my own reasoning haven’t I? I suppose that I just feel confident that our own investigations of the world have been fruitful and in-depth enough to have already fostered a love for level-headedness in figuring stuff out. Also, parents who are not afraid to have real talks about the permanence of death, the interdependance of life, etc…should have no problem greatly increasing the odds that their youngsters don’t end up in the loony chapel. Oh yeah, we read everything and love myth and nonsense verse, etc….but it’s amazing how immune to para-normality like Santa and angels that she already seems to be at this early early age! Just yesterday we were talking with someone who actually asked her “is Santa real?” Her response was a smile, a laugh, and a NO.

  69. says

    Age 2 to 5, well, it depends on whether the kid can read. Hopefully the answer to that is ‘yes’. It’s a bit young for the skeptical treatment.

    Good books are anything about animals and the natural world in general, lots of pictures. Dinosaurs are super popular with kids of all ages.

    Aesop is always great and I agree with the Greek myths, loved them as a kid (raised as an atheist in the 50s). Fairy tales, yup they are great. I actually liked the bible stories (Old T) they used to read in school too, they are all fables. They don’t do that anymore.

    Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak is good for little kids
    Norbert Nipkin is good, my kid loved that when she was about 4

    Any books about science are good, such as experiments kids can do with stuff from around the house.

    Mainly though, they should just leave the kid alone and let him or her fool around, have fun and learn things sans indoctrination.

    The old saying ‘give me the child before he’s five and he’s mine for the rest of his life’ isn’t just bluster.

  70. Crudely Wrott says

    I began to learn to read at about 4 years of age. I remember sitting in Ma’s lap, her arms around me holding open a volume from the (vintage mid-50s) Book of Knowledge encyclopedia (every time I type “encyclopedia” I hear Jiminy Cricket).

    For me that memory represents a watershed. That marks on paper could be words you could understand and, and tell you about things you could not otherwise know! Their being so far away or so long ago, you see.

    The old bunkhouse on my father’s place held a treasure trove for a grade school boy. Post magazine, Life and Reader’s Digest and National Geographic! Dating back to the 30s! OK, mostly from the 40s and 50s.

    The attic of my grandfather’s summer camp at Merrymeeting Lake was where us kids slept when we stayed over. At first the strange objects and their threatening shadows kept me awake. Then I found the mother lode: Popular Science and Popular Mechanics stored in boxes, in close to chronological order from about 1960 back to the mid 30s, with some singular issues dating in the 20s.

    I admit that the total amount of time I spent pouring over those blessed pages (counting only the first read) must amount to a significant portion of my formative years. How glad I am. I can still recall images and articles from all these sources.

    What they all have in common, the magic, as it were, for me, is that these resources were concerned with the way the real world works. And how it may be measured and recorded and thus regarded. To this day I solve problems by employing ideas, history, general knowledge, tips, tricks and shortcuts that I first knew about by reading the “popular technical press of the day”.

    Then there is Asimov. Issac Asimov wrote a wealth of essays on diverse subjects that I devoured like ice cream on the 4th of July. Anybody remember one titled “The Abnormality of Being Normal?”I found it astounding that at the age of 14 I had a pretty good handle on general cosmology and relativity. And it was communicated to me so effectively in normal English prose (hat tip to Martin Gardner).

    Then there was the habit I developed at about age 10 – the evening news. At first it was Cronkite, Huntley and Brinkley. It took about 6 years for me to realize that the news was of similar character, though greater import, than the daily soaps. Soon thereafter I faced the prospect of military service in ‘Nam. Service happened differently but I had suddenly become politically aware.

    So I’d say get your kid a subscription to National Geographic, Discovery and US News and World Report. Encourage them to watch some local, national and world new on the tube from time to time. Introduce them to blogs representing opposing viewpoints. Engage them in reading, listening, watching and thinking. You will not be able to do this by yourself which is why you must rely on resources such as books, libraries, wire services, search engines, encyclopedias. Newspapers aren’t a bad idea either.

    In a word, to prepare your children for the world you must allow them to see it, know about it, have an idea how its different elements relate and interact; to have a reasonable understanding of human nature.

    Your job is to release into the world a functional human being.

  71. says

    Simple. Take a real-live Children’s Bible, read it to the child, and explain how silly it is and how it is wrong either historically, scientifically, or whatever.

  72. Kadin says

    Another vote for world religions and ancient mythologies. I was reading that sort of thing from the moment I learned how to, and when I attended my school’s Bible in Schools classes from ages 6-13, I would just sit and think to myself, “Well…it’s really all a bit silly, isn’t it?” I just couldn’t see the difference between any story in “Myths and Legends of Long Ago” and anything out of the Bible.

  73. says

    PZ –

    Long-time lurker here. You might want to refer the reader to the Agnostic Mom blog at http://www.agnosticmom.com.

    She’s raising a godless family and has frequent candid posts about questions here children have.

    I’m sure she’ll know some good books, too.


  74. Michael Kremer says

    As a most of the time lurker and a Christian, I’ve watched this discussion with interest. I don’t know if the strategies being suggested here will work for the person asking for advice. It all depends on the strength of the mother’s faith, her bond with the kids, her commitment to transmitting her faith.

    As a child growing up in a Catholic household I was exposed at an early age to most everything being recommended here by posters: my aunt (a church organist, as was my grandfather) gave us a subscription to National Geographic (and there were fascinating stacks of old National Geographics going back to the 1920s in my grandmother’s attic). I absolutely loved the National Geographics and was offended when my brothers wanted to cut them up for school projects. We had books of Greek myths and Norse myths, and I read plenty of science fiction in adolescent years. And one of my favorite weekend activities was a visit to the Royal Ontario Museum (Toronto) where a stop at the dinosaur exhibit, the exhibit on the evolution of the horse, and the dioramas of ancient oceans (with trilobites — I somehow loved the trilobites), was a must every time. My father was a philosophy professor and we had free wheeling conversations at the dinner table in which everything was fair game. Nonetheless I came out a believing Catholic. I never for a moment doubted the existence of God, and though I’ve struggled with various aspects of Christianity over time, these struggles have always resulted in a deeper understanding of my faith, not abandonment of it. I credit this to the strength of my parents’ faith, their example, and the way in which it imbued our lives.

    One thing in particular that differentiates me from some of the commentors above: in reading the Greek and Norse myths, and comparing them to my children’s Bible and what I knew of the Bible from what is read at Mass, I did not get the impression that “these are all alike.” Far from it; I came away with the feeling that I understood far better what is distinctive about Christianity. I don’t think you can open even Genesis and really read it and think you are just in the same world as you are in reading the Greek myths, say. And that isn’t even to mention the Psalms, or Job, or Isaiah, or the Gospels, or Acts, or Romans, or Corinthians. Especially in the New Testament books you are quite clearly reading something that is rooted in history, whether or not it is historically accurate. None of this is an argument for Christianity. But I don’t really see how an intelligent reader could have the simple reaction reported by several commenters above.

  75. Caledonian says

    I never for a moment doubted the existence of God

    There’s the problem. Intellectual inquiry requires doubt. Without uncertainty and the willingness to question assumptions, there’s only sophistry and rationalization.

  76. MrKAT says

    Any kind of popular kid astronomy books, where Galileo case versus Church is shortly mentioned.. ?
    It vaccinated me.. ;)

  77. J Bean says

    I’m late to the party here, but my mom gave me Greek and Roman mythology around the time that I asked about the Bible and dinosaurs (age 7). It was a coincidence (I think), because she just remembered being interested in mythology at that age, but somehow the Bible got placed in the mythology category in my mind.

  78. Michael Kremer says

    Intellectual inquiry requires doubt where there is a reason to doubt, and questioning of assumptions where reason has been given to question those assumptions. On the other hand it is foolishness to doubt things when there is no point in doubting them. In fact inquiry always proceeds against a background of unquestioned assumptions and certainties. I would venture to guess that you have never doubted that you live in the United States of America (or wherever you do live), or that your name is whatever it is (not, I guess, “Caledonian”), or that apples are good to eat, or that 2 + 2 = 4, or that Sir Isaac Newton lived long before you were born. (Have you?) In fact I would venture to guess that the vast majority of the things you believe are things you’ve never bothered to doubt.

    In any case, my point was that the various things suggested by commenters (National Geographic, science fiction, videos about evolution, Greek and Norse myths) did not seem to me to provide reasons for doubting my belief in God, and that they will probably not function to induce doubt in the children of the man who wrote to PZ Myers for help in combating the religious indoctrination of his children by his wife, for the same reason. (Of course, they could be reasons for doubt even though I refuse to admit them as such. But to be honest, they still don’t strike me as reasons for doubt.)

  79. says

    I vote for telling them about all the religious beliefs, gods, creation myths, hells, demons, rituals, duties, taboos, sacreliges, commandments, prayers, scriptures, fetishes, icons, religious wars, sacrifices, prohibitions, heresies, schisms, myths in general, magical incantations, holy places, cosmologies,ends of the world, heavens, angelic beings, and unquestioned assumptions about right and wrong and human nature you can find and that the children won’t be too shocked by. “Some people believe” is a good phrase.

  80. Caledonian says

    Intellectual inquiry requires doubt where there is a reason to doubt

    Wrong. First, you doubt. Then you look at the totality of evidence. Then you draw a conclusion from that evidence.

    If you had no doubt, not only is there no reason to look at the evidence, human nature tends to make us perceive only the evidence consistent with our beliefs. You cannot decide on the conclusion before you ask the question. Asking the question requires that you remain open to any possibility.

    Your certainty amply demonstrates the need to instruct children in the scientific method and the uses of doubt – by the time they get to your age, it’s probably hopeless.

  81. Michael Kremer says


    For one who claims that doubt is the key to all inquiry, you certainly are sure of yourself.

    You haven’t addressed any of the reasons I gave for doubting your claims about the role of doubt in inquiry. It is you who are the dogmatist here, not me.

  82. Michael Kremer says


    “First, you doubt. Then you look at the totality of evidence. Then you draw a conclusion from that evidence.”

    What exactly do you doubt, first? Any of your beliefs? Or only specific ones? And if those, then why those, rather than some others? Here is why a reason is needed for doubt.

    What constitutes “evidence”? This is, for the time being, anyway, a set of undoubted and unquestioned beliefs, against which the belief in doubt has to be measured. Again, a reason is needed for doubt, or doubt is merely arbitrary and inquiry will have nothing to base itself upon.

    How do you draw conclusions from the evidence? Using what methods, and what further beliefs? Again, not everything can be cast into doubt at once; and so if we are to doubt any one belief or method, we need some reason to doubt it rather than any other.

  83. Ichthyic says

    What exactly do you doubt, first?

    your senses and your preconceptions.

    And if those, then why those, rather than some others?,/i>

    because eventually, repetition of negation of preconception will lead to doubt.


    You’re overthinking this.

    pick a simple visual observation, say, and run with the history of its explanation to see where doubt starts.

    geocentrism being a classic example.

    How do you draw conclusions from the evidence?

    you’re running in circles. You’re simply asking the same question as “What exactly do you doubt, first?”, though apparently you don’t realize it.

    conclusions change as increasing independent evidence comes to bear.

    as to your point, it appears lost in your own confusion on the matter, and I since I’m not a philosopher of logic, you would be advised to ask Cale what to read to get a better grasp on the philosophy of logic.

  84. Jeff P says

    Hello. I am a 36-year-old happily married father of two wonderful children, ages 4 and 5. My parents weren’t religious but sent me to Catholic grade school, where I underwent the sacrements, was an altar boy, learned about Catholic guilt, etc. On the rare occasion that we attended church on Sunday, I saw my mother sit in the pew while I accepted communion (eating a stale wafer that was supposed to represent the body of Christ). Although she had received the sacrement of Holy Communion as a child, she always said the church did not deem her worthy of taking communion because she had divorced my father.

    Anyway, I have recently realized that I am agnostic, and after hearing about it on NPR’s Fresh Air, I am excited to read Bart Ehrman’s new book, “God’s Problem.”

    Sorry for the long intro, but here’s my question: How should I approach religion with my children? I am afraid of the social ramifications they could face if they go to school and tell their friends (who in turn tell their parents) that their classmate’s father doesn’t believe in God or the Bible. Do I keep my beliefs to myself and expose them to Christianity (church and Sunday school) because I owe them that as a parent, so that they can make their own choice? Do I tell them why I don’t believe and still introduce them to church and Sunday school?

    I would love to hear other atheist/agnostic parents’ experiences with this. And can anyone recommend any good books on this?

  85. Damian says

    Hi Jeff, my advice would be that you should expose children to as many view points as possible – within reason, obviously. We know that young minds are like a sponge, which is why many atheists, agnostics, humanists, etc, are opposed to what can often amount to indoctrination by parents.

    Of course, the intent is not necessarily there – it is natural that someone would want their children to believe as they do – but the perfect opportunity to help to shape a well-balanced, respectful, and tolerant adult is when they are a child. They are, without question, too young to make up their own minds on such issues. The best that you can do is to prepare them for the time when they begin to think about these things, more seriously.

    It is important to many people that they at least attempt to maintain cultural ties with their past, so taking your children to church is not a bad thing. Why not take them to different churches, if possible, which perhaps look at Christianity from different perspectives, etc? Personally, I wouldn’t force them to go every week (unless they wanted to), but it entirely depends on how much you value at least the cultural aspects of your own upbringing. As I have said, though, if you do this, I would make a special effort to introduce them to Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and non-belief, etc. That doesn’t mean that you should take them to a place of worship – although, why not? – just that you could teach them about what others believe – customs, rituals, etc.

    I would also suggest that you should place a high value on explaining as many of the findings of science, as possible. It is without doubt our best (and only in many cases) method of understanding reality. Science, being tentative, teaches you to think critically, to explore, to question, and to never be satisfied with easy answers. As Carl Sagan once said:

    “How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, ‘This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant?’ Instead they say, ‘No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.’ A religion old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science, might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.”

    Now, you could approach all view points by stating that, “Some people believe”, etc, and in that way, you won’t be favoring any particular view. Of course, your children are likely to ask you what it is that you believe, and I can think of no good reason why you should lie to them, personally. It can be done respectfully, such as saying, “I honestly don’t know, but I see no real evidence for many of these claims”, while explaining to them that much of religion is cultural as much as spiritual. People like to congregate and take part in ritual, etc.

    Evidence is something that we should all hold in high regard, and if you expose your children to science – the scientific method and the benefits that it has brought to the world, as well as some of the horrors when abused – they should appreciate that rational decisions can only really be made in light of evidence. Much of todays world is irrational and based on how something feels. Honest inquiry means that a person should be prepared to accept what they believe to be true – based on evidence – even if it is not what they wanted to hear.

    As to the problem of children being stigmatized by the fact that their parents no longer believe, there are no easy answers, I’m afraid. What you should not do is forsake your own children’s future by being bullied in to conforming. It goes without saying that children benefit from understanding the world around them, and you would be doing a disservice to them if you didn’t explain that everyone has to make their own minds up on these issues. I wouldn’t be swayed by others, personally, as I would be sure that I was doing the right thing, and that, the other children are really the ones that are losing out.

    A few books that you might want to look in to:

    Parenting beyond belief

    The Oxford Children’s A-Z of World Religions

    The Story of Religion

    The Kids Book of World Religions

    There are lots of fantastic science books out there for children, as well. If you need anything else, just ask. Good luck.