Saturday, August 27, 2011

Raising atheists, part 1

A fairly typical question that we get on the show and in email can be boiled to, "How should I raise my kids?" As if we were qualified to answer that.

Child bearing seems to be relatively uncommon in the atheist community at large. It probably has something to do with the fact that we're not subject to that "be fruitful and multiply" directive, and we have no moral issues with birth control.

While some people see that as a cause for panic -- Oh no, the stupid people will out-breed us and Idiocracy will become a documentary! -- I don't worry about it that much. Intelligence these days is passed along more by memes than by genes, and you can have a far greater impact on the sum of human intelligence by donating your time as a teacher or a writer than by replicating your particular genetic sequence.

Anyway, for those of us who do have kids, the usual questions I hear basically fall in a few categories:
  1. How can I raise them to be responsible, independent thinking adults?
  2. Should I introduce them to atheism early or do everything I can NOT to indoctrinate them?
  3. How do I handle my family and their peers when they inevitably get exposed to the religions that I've been shielding them from?
  4. What do I do if the child's other parent, or other family members, want to bring the kid up in their own religion, and/or bully me into not talking about atheism?
When it comes right down to it, I don't think anybody has the "right" answers when it comes to parenting, although some do better than others. A quick Amazon search for books with the keyword "parenting" yields 62,830 results, and many of them contradict each other.

Pro tip for atheists: Do not pick this one.

This is one subject where knowledge comes at least as much from direct experience and learning from past mistakes.
Obviously, the issues facing an atheist parent are very similar to the problems facing all parents, but with the additional complication that you hold a minority belief and you can expect to have it constantly challenged as your child gets older. Being an effective authority figure is difficult as it is before you add in the problem of having other people feel that they have a duty to undermine your authority in a major category.

I've got no credentials to present here; I'm not a psychologist and I don't want people to get in trouble over my advice. The only reason I might have some useful advice is by virtue of the fact that I seem to have a reasonably happy, quick witted, and skeptical fourth grader.

But they still ask these questions regularly at the TV email address, and as parents, it generally falls on me or Jen to offer whatever words of wisdom we can come up with. Here's a sample of recent questions.

So my 9 year kid came home with a survey from his school asking him to rate what he values from 1 to 10. On the list are things like, world peace, family security, wisdom, self respect and then the eighth one . . . salvation. That's clearly a Christian concept right? I am not sure how to respond; this is the first time I have come across something like this. Any thoughts?

My daughter just started Kindergarten and unfortunately they are reciting the
Pledge of Allegiance daily. Up to this point has had absolutely no contact with
religious people outside of the bi-annual trips to visit family and even then it
was a prayer before dinner and that was it. With that I don't think she knew
what was actually happening.

So my predicament is she has no concept of god or religion. Which is what I had
wanted, but as I've come to find out she needs to atleast know that other people
believe in it and know the evils of religion. I want her to be prepared and I
suppose that needs to start now. What advice could you give to lay the
ground-work for the concept for a 5 year old?

I feel pretty certain there will be early conflict with our parents regarding us not allowing them to take our son to church at a very young age. They won't care that he's too young to make the decision and I suspect will attempt to push us to "let him decided" way too early all while painting it as a pretty picture to him.

While I have no intentions of completely sheltering my son from religion. I'll discuss it with him. However I feel it's necessary that we make the church decision until he's old enough to understand it and make the decision for himself. As parents that's part of our jobs. I don't see that religion should be treated any differently in that regard.

All right then. I'll do my best to answer by drawing on my own parenting history. If some of the things I say seem badly wrong, just remember what I said earlier: nobody's got all the answers.

In the first place, I'm a big fan of talking to your kid in a way that indicates you take him or her seriously. That goes for all ages. In some respects I suppose this impulse is a carry-over from my experience on the TV show, where I often wind up speaking to people with very different mindsets and assumptions from my own. What I like to do in that situation is not flatly say "I know better than you," but suggest facts, a bit at a time, and then see where they go with it. If they agree with me, I know that I don't need to waste time explaining that point. If they don't agree or don't understand, I try to pinpoint the source of the problem and then find the best angle to explain that point.

Talk to your kid about everything. If they're looking at the stars, tell them they're giant flaming balls of gas that are bigger than the earth. Then, if necessary, explain why perspective makes them appear small. If you're driving, point out street signs or whatever you understand about how cars work. If you're reading to them and they can't read yet, pick out a letter and start helping them to recognize it, or pick out a common word like "the" and help them see the pattern.

The thing is, kids learn really fast, and probably pick up on things you say a lot more than you're assuming. We all like to feel smart by figuring things out; give kids the opportunity.

When Ben was little, I read to him a lot... even before he had the cognitive ability to understand something like "The Cat in the Hat." As he got to the point where he could easily grasp the books I was reading to him, I would gradually introduce newer stuff that pushed his limits. "Charlotte's Web" was the first chapter book I read to him, I think he was 3 or 4, and every night when we picked it up I'd ask him if he could remember what had happened already. Today at age 9 we're halfway through the Hitchhiker's Guide series (we just read the penultimate chapter of Life, the Universe, and Everything to be precise), and he's always quoting his favorite passages from previous books.

I know some child psychologists think TV and computers are bad for a kid at a young age, but I grew up with them myself and I've always regarded them as just another valuable facet of art and entertainment. Ben had introductory games like "Reader Rabbit" as soon as he was capable of banging on a keyboard, and he was allowed to take my controller and suicide over and over again when I played Monkey Ball on the Wii.

Fact vs. Fiction

Stop being so impatient, I have a point that I'm getting to!

I know I've told this story a few times on the show, but it's always worth putting in writing because it worked really well for us. With this background in appreciating fiction, I started an experiment where I explained to Ben the difference between real things and pretend things. At this point he was already pretty familiar with imaginary stories, so I playing a game with him. I would pick concepts and ask him whether they were real or pretend. Dad? Real. Cars? Real. Spongebob Squarepants? Pretend.

I found that cartoons are easy to identify as pretend, but live action drama is a bit tricky. Superman LOOKS real, after all, when he's showing up as Christopher Reeve. At least as real as President Bush, anyway. So then we have to discuss filming and camera tricks. Dinosaurs are tricky (what's extinction?). Horses are not as tricky if you've seen one in person. Kings? Real, but hard to believe when we don't have them here. Presidents are like kings, but they can still go to jail if they don't follow the law.

And what about God?

Well, that's where it gets complicated. One of the reasons that's a hard question for atheist parents to answer is, many of us have an aversion to authority. Richard Dawkins refers to raising a child to accept a religion as child abuse. While I've always thought that was very overstated, I do at least agree with him that it's folly to try to force your kid to accept your own philosophical beliefs. It's not just the due to the worry that you might become a tyrant; the worst part is that it's ineffective.

Younger kids can be pretty pliable and cooperative but (speaking from past experience with step-parenting) going through a rebellious stage is inevitable. When they start trying to strike out with their own budding adult identity, the first thing to go out the window is all the stuff that is only "because I said so." If that's the only tool you have to make kids eat their vegetables or stay away from drugs, you'd better start preparing yourself to face some out of shape and stoned teenagers.

My approach when it came to atheism was to simply answer questions honestly, explain that other people feel differently, defend my reasons for not believing, and then say "You're going to have to make up your own mind about whether I'm right or not."

Far from hiding the existence of religions and the Bible from Ben, I introduced them early. I told him the traditional Bible stories right along with stories like "Charlotte's Web" and "Bunnicula." Usually I just played them up to be as theatrical as possible, but there came a time when I read some of the same stories right from KJV. (Do you have any idea how boring the source material can be as a children's book?)

The thing is, if you hide something from your kid, you'll just make it mysterious and alluring. Bertrand Russell pointed this out with the respect to the way religions treat sex in his essay, "Has Religion Made Useful Contributions to Civilization?" Hiding a subject and calling it shameful simply increases the fascination with it.

So, by confronting religion head-on, you can minimize the novelty when some school friend invites your child to church. Which they will. And by introducing religion along with fiction and critical thinking concepts, you'll equip your kid to evaluate critically, which is far more important than simply telling him that he'd better not fall for it... or else.

Even with adults I consider that a better policy. Give me a theist who has given serious thought to his own religion and sincerely listened to the atheist point of view and that of several other major religions; against an atheist who refuses to discuss the subject at all. The theist is the guy I want to hang out with over coffee or lunch (I'm not big on beer).

I'll stop here for now. In a future post I will answer the implied question "Isn't it as bad as religious brainwashing to tell your child about your atheism?" I'll talk about how to handle other family members or friends who would like to convert your child. I'll also do my best to answer any questions that arise in the comments.


  1. Thanks, Russell, this was great. I'm not a parent yet, but I certainly plan to take your advice when the time comes.

  2. When I become a parent I will not shield my child from religious views or indoctinate them into athiesm. I was raised catholic but in my teens I began wondering and asking questions. I wasn't made an athiest I became one through inquiry. I want to give my children the same opportunity.

  3. I'll never be a parent, at least genetically. I did spend some time tutoring my buddies' kids who were middle school aged at the time. The father of these kids is atheist and the mother is some kind of protestant although I do not think she attends church. While religion never came up specifically, I did tell the kids about evolution, several stories from Greek mythology, and the difference between atheism, polytheism, and monotheism,. The evolution topic got the mother involved as she wanted to be a creationist (we talked a little bit about the difference between wanting to believe something and actually believing as well). During the discussion, she admitted that the science is pretty much irrefutable and settled on "well, God made your soul if not your body." Sensing a parental line here and wishing to stay on topic, I decided not to make a case against an immortal soul at this point and brought us back to looking at the tree of life.

  4. "Far from hiding the existence of religions and the Bible from Ben, I introduced them early. I told him the traditional Bible stories right along with stories like "Charlotte's Web" and "Bunnicula." Usually I just played them up to be as theatrical as possible, but there came a time when I read some of the same stories right from KJV. (Do you have any idea how boring the source material can be as a children's book?"


    That's a great thing. I'm not a parent, but I was raised in a mostly godless household (my parents do believe in other woo-woo things though), so my exposure to anything biblical was through cute cartoons on TV and picture books I sometimes found, which were presented alongside, and looked no different than, things like Donald Duck or the Three Little Pigs (This was one of my favorite cartoons when I was younger!).

    Of course like your son I figured out cartoons and fairy tales weren't real early on. When God was mentioned he was either portrayed as a nice fatherly figure or an abstract concept who never actually appeared, so I didn't have any reason to believe he was anything other than just another character in a story.

    It was years before I was shocked to learn that many of my favorite children tales were not only in the Bible, but people thought that they were actually true! It was a great long-term lesson on separating fantasy from reality.

  5. Excellent job with that post, i agree completely. The only thing i think i'd add is to give them courage to stand up to their beliefs and "smarts" to know when avoiding trouble is best. People will try to force religion on them in various ways and it is good to have them trust you enough to tell about problems that might arise from this sort of thing.

    Personally, i wish i had better parenting growing up with regards to confrontation, i wish i had been taught to hold my ground physically as well as ideologically, almost as bad as i needed self-discipline to study by myself and better social skills to avoid trying to appear smart to impress people (doesn't work very well). Although that's sort of specific to pass as advice.

  6. we have 2 young kiddos and are an atheist family, so i have started a blog about it. not sure how topical i've been so far, but the blog does follow our daily life and interactions, and talks about issues we face/things we believe as parents.
    i have an MA in early childhood special education and a BA in psychology, so there is a little bit of knowledge of social-emotional development imparted into the blog. my husband is a science/math/engineering nerd, so we have a balance of knowledge and perspective.
    anyhow...check out the blog if you wish. i am always happy to answer questions or research/post about topics of interest!

  7. Russell: I see someone *else* has the guilty pleasure (?) of watching Todd Friel's Wretched TV.

  8. This post prompted me to wonder how much of a privileged position we as atheists inadvertently continue to give to religion. For instance, I find myself using the "well, some people believe in God. I don't believe in God because..." However, I've never found myself equivocating on whether the existence of unicorns are a subject with which reasonable people may disagree. Similarly, if I had a child who came home and declared themselves a Christian, I think my initial inclination, as well as that of many atheists, would be to let the child decide for themselves. If the same child came home with the fervent belief that a letter from Hogwarts would be coming on their 11th birthday, I'd be looking to get them some help.

  9. I guess we limit contact with religious people, and explain away their religion as something they do but we don't. It helps that we Homeschool, so he isn't exposed to bullying for being different and actually had a real education on evolution and science. We started history with Greeks and Romans, and just continued with the prevailing mythology as we moved up through time.

    Although somewhere, I failed. My 15 yo is a devout Pastafarian, and worships His Noodleliness with almost daily sacrifices of pasta :)

  10. I dont think any parent should try and shield their kids from the real world. In the home school world it seems as if there are both extremes the ultra religious and super atheists that hate the idea of anyone influencing their kid. My 9 year old daughter knows where I stand although my wife and everyone in my family is christian, unfortunately for the other members of the family they are not as well versed on the bible as i am. so as questions arise the answers will most likely come from me. As my daughter is an only child her friends are over quite a bit and is frequently getting invites to church, and she is never told she cannot attend. There are a number of studies that prove some people are more susceptible to scams, possibly(god gene) genetic. There is also studies showing their may be a gay gene, if my child was gay I would not try and discourage that behavior so if it so happens she has been "blessed" with the gay gene so be it.

  11. Not that I have any mini-mes, but I would think that one would want one's child to be influenced by as many people as possible.

  12. I live right next door to my mother and she has three foster children. She is a Mormon and, of course, makes the three young boys go to church.

    My daughter just turned 11 yesterday. She is always wanting to go to church with them. She is aggressively social and wants to be included. She wants to spend time with her grandmother and also likes meeting new people at the church. I have let her go a few times, but I am concerned what kind of lasting influence it will have if she attends regularly. Given the freedom she would probably attend every week. I do not know what kind of effect it would have if she was subjected to that kind of indoctrination every week, especially from people she would certainly come to love and respect.

    Of course this also creates stress between me and my mother. She is already upset that I am an atheist, but, when my daughter is begging to go and I say no, It makes her even more unhappy. At least she respects my decision and will not let my daughter go without my permission.

  13. This is a great post, Russel.

    I am soon-to-be wed to a wonderful woman, and this topic has come up in regards to religion and also diet. Both my fiancee and I are vegetarians, and when we want to have children, we would like our children to be able to choose whether or not the lifestyle is for them or not. We would like them to approach the ethical questions themselves, and understand *why* the child's mother and father do not eat meat.

    We would also like to take the same approach with religion. However, as you've said, it's not as easy as being vegetarian. Our child will run into many people at school (hell, maybe even some of the teachers, as it seems the religion is slowly becoming more and more acceptable in public schools) who might try to preach or invite to our child to church. We want very badly to raise the child in a manner that will result in his immediate response to the stories of the Bible as exactly that: stories. From there, the child will figure out for himself whether or not he thinks the story is true.

    We will definitely be introducing biblical stories along with other fiction. That's a fantastic idea.

    We don't want to raise an atheist, we want to raise a freethinker. That, I think, is the difference between religious indoctrination and honest child-bearing.

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  15. K,
    I appreciated this post a lot because I have two children and lots of family members who have various religious beliefs.

    First a quibble: I'm quite certain that in The God Delusion, Dawkins states that 'labeling' a child with its parents' beliefs is child abuse. His point is about society at large assuming that religious belief is somehow automatically assigned to children through the parents.

    Two points:
    I like your description of how you've explored the world with your son. It's clear from your description that your son sees you modeling scientific skepticism. As a parent, I think my first job is to be the sort of person that I would like my children to become. If I want them to be kind; I need to show kindness to them and others. You get my point, I'm sure.

    You cite one email: '... as I've come to find out she needs to at least know that other people believe in it and know the evils of religion.' I have open discussions with my children abou science and knowledge. If I can inoculate them against bullshit when they're young, they'll be harder targets for scams later. How could a parent keep their children away from religion, and brand it as evil, while making an honest investigation with them? I hate to say it, but I think isolating them from the real world is a bad idea in the long run. It isn't necessary to go into diatribes against religion; if I have the correct facts and the best interpretation of them, I don't need those labels at all. If I don't have the facts or the best interpretation, it's time to change my mind and show my kids why.

  16. Sorry to post this here, but I don't know what an appropriate forum would be.

    Is anyone else not able to load the chat when they watch the show live? I haven't been able to see the chat for several weeks now. Doesn't matter if I'm signed in or not, and the chat still works for other channels.

  17. Overall, I can't say that teaching your kid about atheism is much different than teaching them about evolution. Just because an issue is controversial, doesn't mean the other side has any good arguments. Like with evolution, we have evidence on our side (Or lack thereof).

    The primary difference, of course, is that evolution is something that's proven, whereas atheism is about something that's unproven. However, just because you'll tell a child something is true or not, doesn't mean you can't explain it.

    An important thing to remember is how absolutely absurd religion is to anyone who hasn't been indoctrinated in it. You won't need to tell your kids that religion is silly, all you need to do is describe it to them. Try telling them the story of how a loving god needed to forgive humanity for their mistakes, and so, in order to do so, he had himself murdered. No child will find that reasonable. If you want to, try telling the story of how Odin hung himself as a sacrifice to himself along side. Don't treat the Norse mythology as any more or less credible than the christian mythology.

    Just because you tell a kid something matter of factly, doesn't mean you have to tell them dogmatically. Just explain the reasons why. I'd be more worried about indoctrinating kids about my economic policy beliefs, as those are far more complicated. Religion, on the other hand, needs institution and weekly meetings in order to keep people believing. There's a reason for that.

    It's because religion is so obviously silly that even a child can figure it out.

  18. I don't see any reason to consider God more likely than the little fella with the square pants, so to me, the correct answer to "real" or "pretend" would be "pretend", just like that.

    At the same time, it is useful to point out the general idea that some people believe things that others don't believe. I personally believe that Allah and Jahwe are both pure fantasy, with zero substance. But there's many people who consider one of them to be fact -- allthough nobody that I know of believe in both.

    I sometimes feel like we're being *too* respectful towards religion. Just being many, does not make something right, or even less ridicolous.

    Jesus and the easter-bunny, are about equally ridicolous. And just because there's more people who believe in one of them than the other, doesn't really at all change the status of the belief - it's still something you can believe, but which violates everything we know about logic and physics, and for which there isn't a shred of evidence.

  19. I have a 1 year old son and I think about parenting a lot. Mostly I am trying to strike a good balance between authority and letting him learn on his own. At 1 year, I cannot really explain the reason behind various rules, so I am forced to rule by authority. When he goes for the scissors I can only prevent him from getting them, no discussion possible. As time goes on I hope to give him more autonomy as he demonstrates responsibility, after all I want him to be a fully self sufficient adult someday.

    So for a while it may have to be no church because I say so, but I want a dialogue and to eventually have all his decisions based on reasoning without a dependence on authority, mine or anyone else’s. I plan to be as honest as I can be about everything, discussing what we think about things together. I want him to eventually surpass me, not be trapped obeying me.

    The hard part is figuring out when to let him do as he pleases, at what point he will have a sufficient understanding to be responsible for his actions. There is no easy way to figure that out, I will just have to evaluate these things as best I can as time goes by.

  20. People say I am good with kids. I always talked to them as if they were a person and had a brain. I treat them with respect. Unfortunately, because I was a late bloomer, I will never have kids.

    I would teach them about religions, but tell them they are not real. Make sure they know there are many religions and all have no more claim to the truth than any other one. Later, when the kid gets older and starts asking about specific points, then expound about how a particular verse or idea makes no sense. you probably want to couch even those observations as questions. "now, does that make sense to you?" Any pressure to lean a certain way will be rebelled against on some level. Just my 2 cents.

  21. Thanks, Russel. I had a child because I thought god wanted me to. Two years after he was born I became an atheist. So far the parenting doesn't feel all that different, except we have the full weekend off now, and I'm not worried about telling him how to escape hell. I'm sure he's going to get religious exposure in time, but I'm looking forward to the chats we will have on the matter.

  22. I am an atheist while my husband is a sort-of spiritual, Buddhisty-type thinker. We were both raised by devoutly Christian parents and grew up going to church every Sunday. We're the parents of a 2 year-old with one on the way.

    I, personally, don't have a problem with going to an occasional church service with our families. We have two copies of the Bible in our home and even display some Christian-themed nicknacks in our home that were gifts. One says, "May the Lord protect your coming and going." It's just as ridiculous as saying "May Zeus protect you," but I appreciate the sentiment with which it was given. Besides, the plaque is really pretty.

    When the time comes, we plan on telling our little ones that people believe in many different things and why. Mom and Dad even believe differently that each other. If my child wants to attend a service with a friend, I'm alright with that. But if it turns out to be a regular thing, we'll discuss why he wants to attend. They will be free to choose their own belief system. Religion or the lack thereof is such a personal decision that I think each person has to decide for themselves. But I have to admit, if he became a Bible-thumper, I would be very, very disappointed.

  23. Just today my 6 year old asked me "How does God make people?".

    First, is the problem that she injected god into it. I know it must be coming from her friends and friends family, because there is no "god" in my house.

    My answer was "Mommies and daddies make people. God is just pretend, like Barbie."

  24. I'm not a parent yet, but I study education in university and am very interested in the topic. That's why I looked into parenting advise regarding freethought and found the works of Dale McGowan, who was a teacher at a catholic college once and is now a freelance author. He's the author of "Raising freethinkers" and "Parenting beyond belief", has written a few novels and is quite a enjoyable columnist as well, as can be seen on his blog:

    IIRC most of his general advise goes along with Russels, altough he might be a bit more accommodationist than the geneal ACA crowd.


    This video is called Raising Kids Who Can Think. It's a great place to start if you're wondering how to raise kids who are skeptical, scientifically literate, critical thinkers.

  26. Please don't circumcise your kid. That's a chicken way of trying to kill your kid as holy sacrifice. Come to think of it penis skin is great sacrifice material.


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