Talking About Religion in Your Skeptical Family


Guest Post by Karen Leothen

I am certain that one of the most-Googled questions by atheist parents today is How to discuss religion with my children as an atheist or skeptic. That’s because many of them were raised in a religion and are trying to figure out just what to do. I used to do it by looking online for atheist parenting ideas, though the Internet was quite sketchy fifteen+ years ago and there was not much to find!

I love it that the Internet is around. It makes it possible for us to share our questions and knowledge and ideas so freely. I thought that atheist parenting was far more difficult just ten years ago when lifestyles and points of view were far more private, isolated, insulated, and offline. Years ago I felt very alone in my doubt – unsure of my doubt, fearful of my doubt.

How interesting that this generation of parents is the first generation in the history of humankind to have such resources available to them!  We can get to know intimate details about millions of strangers and how they live their lives, how they make decisions, what they purchase, what they believe, how they solve problems, and what they struggle with…  It is amazing!  And fortunate! Lucky for all of those first gen atheist parents out there Googling for information, they will find it.

So what does an atheist parent teach their child about religion?

Remember, raising a child is a process. It starts before your child is born and it continues as long as you live. I promise you, you will do fine. Start today and keep learning for your entire life. There is time.

Because our American culture is so very saturated in Christianity, religiosity becomes an issue very early in a child’s life. I remember my then-four-year-old daughter pointing out to me religious references in the world around her, a world that I paid close and deliberate attention to.  “Did you hear that, Momma?  In God we trust.”  “Did you hear, Momma, One nation under God.”  As a young parent it clutched at my heart.  It helped to know and to remind myself/. that she also vehemently believed in fairies, Santa, and magic in those days. Those early years, among other things, are the years of magical thinking, so our children are particularly prone to embracing unrealistic connections between cause and effect, magical ideas and illogical connections.  (If you want to read more about those early years, think Piaget’s pre-operational stages of cognitive development, for one.)

Three-year-olds and four-year-olds are more likely to invent monsters in the closet.  Momma got sick because I was naughty.  Fairies live at the bottom of the garden.  That thing happened because I thought about it.  My toys are alive.  Something I do make magical things happen.

We parents have one single loud thought in our head:  Without being a complete buzz kill, how do we instill critical thinking into the young minds of our beloved children so that they are able to, when the time comes, separate religion from the rest of the pack of ideas while still encouraging imagination and pretend and fun?

It’s actually quite easy once you think logically. Begin by educating yourself on normal childhood cognitive development.  When you begin to understand the role that imagination actually plays in a development of understanding reality, you will feel confident in encouraging it!  You will understand that later years come (ages 7-11) when a child’s thinking becomes very concrete and far more unwilling to accept pretend explanations.  These are the years when rules are rules, things are black and white, and your child will be more likely to want to understand how the magic trick was possible.  These are the years when your child will be very interested in pursuing and understanding principles of science and math.

During those toddler and preschool years you will be reading many books to your child.  Read some nonfiction.  Read tons of myth stories from other cultures as well as myth stories from the local majority religion. Search your library for the thousands of gorgeous, free titles for the taking. Explore creation myth from every culture you can. Taken all together as pretend, the religion stories of the world will be inseparable from mythology from other traditions.  An ark in a flood will be just as improbable as a baby getting a new elephant head or ants coming up from underground and becoming humans.

Talk about how humans were looking for explanations in the days of myth. We wanted to answer questions that we didn’t yet have the science for and, lucky for us, today we have science to look to for some answers. Why do people get sick? Where do babies come from? What are the stars? Why do good things happen? Why do bad things happen? Why did we get too little or too much rain? Who are those other people?

Explore the carbon cycle, the rock cycle, and the water cycle together.  Look at clouds. Look through telescopes to see out beyond the clouds, far beyond what our own eyes are ability to see on their own.  Learn about how our feelings and our fears can overwhelm us and make us want to have a parent-like protector.  Learn how the human body works:  illness, healing, sleep, dreams, growth, death, and life.  Delight in new technology, appreciating that human knowledge is discovering new things every day.

Be in true awe at the world around you.  Care for the needs of the people in your community.  Recognize that your community is global.  Learn to recognize when a person or cause is attempting to manipulate your emotions.  Have compassion for all people who struggle or who feel bound by a belief system that causes them to behave in unkind or surprising ways.  Be willing to question every single thing.  Make your own rules.  Create a home and a family that are unique to this earth.  It is your creation, your gift back to life.

It is on going and brave to be an atheist or secular parent.  I have found myself in the position several times when I have given my child verbal or tacit permission to consider the possibility that magic has, indeed, happened and that the unexplained phenomenon was created by a higher being.  I have accompanied my children on walks through stations of the cross, religious memorials, and religious rituals.  In every case, I provided them with the opportunity to accept the message offered by the event.  Also in every case, my children have found the claims to be unbelievable and/or surprisingly silly.

Raising children is a part of being a human being that I take extremely seriously.  Nothing that I have ever done has meant more to me than bringing these children up to be caring, thinking, learning, and loving human beings. I have made many many mistakes (just ask my kids!).  But I continue to learn and to become a better me.  And so will you.
So keep Googling! There is much to learn!

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About the Author Karen Garst