When it comes to religion, parents—atheist parents, in particular—may find themselves stumbling to explain to their kids why other families believe in certain things, but we don’t. There are an endless number of “Big Talks” we have with our kids over the course of their childhood, but talks about religion are often steeped in the experiences of our own childhood, which may or may not hang off us like baggage now.
One atheist parent wrote to Parental Advisory for advice on how to discuss religion with their kids as they grow up in a largely religious community:
My wife and I are atheists, and the U.S. has a largely Christian culture. We are trying to raise our children to be aware of science and reason, but also to respect others’ viewpoints. This can be tricky when religious people believe they have the Truth with a capital T. We probably complicate matters by celebrating a non-religious version of Christmas.
The religion thing is really difficult, especially when you live in a place where people tend to just assume you are Christian. Our son was asking us about it recently, and I fumbled my way through, talking about why I don’t believe in a god, what evidence is, etc. I think I did okay, but it was definitely a B- performance at best.
About a year ago, I caused a major stir in our school community when I took issue with a religious group holding meetings in our elementary school building, and sending fliers home with the kids. This group is a fundamentalist organization that uses scare tactics to teach kids through fear of Hell. The end result was that they can still meet in the school but outside organizations can no longer distribute fliers in the classroom.
How should I navigate these issues and discussions with my children going forward?
I’ll start by saying that this is, at least to a degree, something all atheist parents will encounter and need to navigate at some point with their kids—although living in the type of predominantly Christian community you describe probably makes it a feel like an issue that rises to the surface much more regularly than it might in other homes.
In preparing my answer for you, I reached out to journalist Wendy Thomas Russell, author of the book, Relax, It’s Just God: How and Why to Talk to Your Kids About Religion When You’re Not Religious. The book was inspired by a conversation she had with her own daughter (in which her daughter climbed into the car after preschool one day, totally baffled as to why her mom had never told her how God made the Earth and all the people on it).
One of the first things Russell told me is that your tone during these conversations is everything. It’s not so much what you say—because they’ll forget the specific words you use or explanations you provide. Instead, how you talk about religion is what will stick with them longterm. You’ll want to keep your language straight and simplistic and use a positive tone so that you’re not, as Russell says, “weighing your language down with heavy words or heavy demeanor.”
Keep the conversations simple—and light
Openness, Russell says, should be one of your main guiding principles when talking to children about your religious beliefs (or non-beliefs, as the case may be). You can be open about what you believe, even if those beliefs are different from the religion you’re discussing—and you can discuss both viewpoints without assigning shame to anyone.
“I think when it comes down to it, it’s actually not overly complicated,” she says. “We just make it complicated because we have all of these assumptions and all this baggage, honestly, from our own upbringings and our own experiences that are kind of coloring how we view this situation.”
So if they come to you asking about Jesus, you can say, “Well, people who are Christians believe that a man named Jesus was the son of God, and here is what people of other religions believe, and here is what I believe.” It can all be very matter-of-fact without directing the kids themselves on what to believe—that’s something they will (and should) determine on their own over time.
In your case, specifically, you could even use the situation with the school to talk about what the group believes—that after you die, if you are a good person, you go to a place called heaven; and if you are a bad person, you go to a place called hell. And you can say it’s okay for those folks to believe that, but that you didn’t think it was fair for them to tell all the kids in the school what to believe because everyone should get to decide that for themselves.
In the example of Russell talking to her daughter about how God made everything, she says that she was caught off guard and was unsure how to respond in the moment—she didn’t want to say, “That’s not true,” nor did she want to say it is true. But now she realizes she could have kept things simple by saying something like, “Oh, yes, your friend who told you that God made the Earth and all the people is Jewish, and some people who are Jewish believe that there is a being called ‘God’ who made the planet and all the living creatures on it.”
You can also emphasize how they’ll learn about lots of different sets of beliefs as they get older about God and life and what happens after people die.
Think of your kids as ‘educators’ about other religions
Russell mentioned something else as we were speaking that really struck me and will help me reframe the way I view these conversations with my own son—and it might help you, too. She said she thinks about this process as helping our kids to become educators of various religious beliefs.
“I didn’t think I was raising an atheist; I never thought that,” she says. “But I did think, at times, I was raising an ‘educator’ because I wanted [my daughter] to be able to speak up not just about what her parents believe but whatever anybody else believed.”
She drew a parallel to the way someone’s religion is a defining part of their identity in the same way that their race, sexual orientation, and gender identity are parts of who they are. Talking to children about people of varying races, sexual orientations, and genders helps them become more inclusive—not less—and teaches them to defend the identities, experiences, and points-of-view of others, even if they differ from their own.
Another thing you can emphasize with your kids is that nearly everyone, whether they have faith in a particular religion or not, believes in the basic tenet that we should treat others how we want to be treated.
“If you want your child to be treated well, despite whatever your child chooses to believe,” Russell says, “then you want to teach them to be kind and respectful and fair to children who don’t believe what your child believes.”
We’ve been talking specifically about how to handle these conversations as they arise organically, but it’s also a good idea to think about how we can proactively start these conversations with our kids. Even when you’re not raising children under the belief system of a particular religion, chances are good that they’ll become aware of religion in some way around age four or five, Russell says. You can formulate a plan for how to respond when they inevitably start asking questions, or you can prep them ahead of time.
Kids love to play word games, particularly as you’re driving around in the car or trying the pass the time waiting in line, so Russell created her own game called, “Fact, Fiction, or Belief?”
“I really love this exercise,” she says. “What you do is you try to figure out—or have the children figure out—what is the difference between ‘fact,’ ‘fiction,’ and ‘belief’ in terms of things around them, without making it about religion at all.”
So you might say, “Our car is blue—is that fact, fiction, or belief?” And you define “fact” as being something that is true, “fiction” is something that is untrue (or made up), and a “belief” is something you think is true but can’t be proven either way. So your blue car is fact, pink grass is fiction, and “all dogs are good dogs” is a belief. (Kidding, that’s a fact.)
As kids get better at discerning the difference, you can begin to tie the same concepts into different religious beliefs.
Children’s books about religious stories or holidays are also a great way to introduce your kids to religions through storytelling rather than indoctrination. Russell was kind enough to provide us with a list that she has personally vetted and enjoys:
All religions (and no religion)
And finally, Russell’s own book, Relax, It’s Just God: How and Why to Talk to Your Kids About Religion When You’re Not Religious, includes a “cheat sheet” to the five major world religions (Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), as well as the major holidays celebrated by each, so parents can also learn some of the basics as they’re teaching their kids.
That was a lot of information, Atheist. But it should help you accomplish your main goal—to raise your kids to be aware of science, while also respecting others’ viewpoints—even if those around you are proclaiming their beliefs to be, as you say, the “Truth with a capital T.”
Have a parenting dilemma you’re grappling with? Email your questions to [email protected] with “Parental Advisory” in the subject line.
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