Having a baby made me an atheist

Guest post by Amy Watkins

When I was pregnant, I was conflicted and insatiable: horny and self-conscious, restless and exhausted, empowered and totally helpless. And hungry.

It was the fall of 2002. U.S. forces were fighting in Afghanistan and war with Iraq was imminent. My husband and I attended peace rallies laden like picnickers with turkey sandwiches, bags of barbecue chips and jugs of limeade. We didn’t make posters or write protest songs, but if we had they might have said something about the terror of becoming parents in a world where both freedom and safety seemed lost.

In the wake of the Patriot Act, a coworker told me she was happy to give up some freedom in order to feel safe. When I said I felt the opposite—that I would rather face a little danger in order to feel free—she looked at me with a mixture of amusement and scorn and said, “You’ll change your mind when that baby’s born.” No one else was so blunt, but the usual assumption was that becoming parents would make us more conservative.

“Everything changes when you have a baby,” our relatives and acquaintances said, but they missed the point: everything had changed already. It was the baby, that fuzzy blur on the sonogram screen, pushing us further and further from our old world view.

We were both raised and baptized Seventh-Day Adventists. We attended church, prayed and read the Bible. We had both had doubts about religion in the past, but we had put them aside, believing that what our faith gave us was more important than the answers it couldn’t provide. When our daughter was born, though, those elusive answers began to seem more important.

I read the gospels while breastfeeding, feeling safer in the New Testament with Jesus’s reassuring compassion than in the Old Testament with its endless wars and wrath of God, but I was not reassured. Had the Bible always been so inconsistent, so violent, so sexist? Had it always needed so much adjustment to fit with my own sense of right and wrong? I tried to stretch my faith, twisting it like the rubber band I had looped through my buttonhole to give me a few more weeks in my pre-maternity jeans, but it didn’t fit. I tried to ignore my questions and doubts as I had in the past, but there was a new question I could not ignore: What am I going to teach my daughter?

When our parents pressed for a dedication ceremony, sort of the SDA equivalent of infant baptism, my husband and I recoiled. We admitted to ourselves then that we could not raise our daughter “in the church” and, eventually, that we could not raise her in the looming shadow of a personal god.

Our daughter is seven years old now. Like all parents, we are still learning how to be Mom and Dad. We don’t have a model for raising a child without religion — which is both a challenge and a joy. We named our girl after Alice in Wonderland, the story of a child who follows her curiosity and her courage to a place both dangerous and wonderful. It is only a coincidence that her name also means “truth.”

In my progression from faithful follower to skeptical mama, Alice was a line in the sand. The spiritual crisis that lead me to the painful yet fulfilling choice of atheism was brought on by becoming a mother. Without Alice, I might still be in the church pew, dissatisfied but too cozy to get up and search for better answers. My coworker was right: she changed everything.

Comments on Having a baby made me an atheist

  1. Having a baby made me reconsider everything I believed. I think the tipping point was original sin/human depravity vs. the total innocence I could plainly see in my child, and the good intentions I believe, as a parent, are inherent and intact. I have these logical conundrums now I never used to, and no one else around me seems to see the inconsistencies.

    Because, my whole family is still religious. My husband. All my friends — at least 98% of the total, and 100% of the ones I see regularly. And, frankly, I have a lot of good feelings toward and memories of growing up in the faith. So for me to abandon my faith is setting myself apart from my community and my own desires, and so I waver, dissatisfied with both possibilities. It makes me really sad.

    • Lauren, this is so much how I felt at first! My husband was also moving away from religion, but he seemed a lot less conflicted about it. A common misconception is that everyone who leaves religion leaves in anger. That was not the case for me.

      Another common misconception about nonbelievers is that we’re searching for meaning in our lives, which it’s understood will eventually be found in some kind of faith experience. For me, the opposite was true: I was searching for something when I was involved in religion, and once I found it, I was able to leave religion and feel fulfilled.

      My point is not to convert anyone to atheism or insult anyone who finds their religious life satisfying. I think people are uncomfortable with atheism because we don’t talk about this very much, so I want to talk about it. I am interested in showing an honest example of life lived in wonder without god. How’s that for a mission statement. 🙂

  2. Whew, took awhile to get to the comment box! I love this post. Seriously, I find nothing more inspiring than two people asking questions, becoming curious and confused together, and making choices that work for them. Alice is a lucky girl and I love her namesake!

  3. I loved this post… largely because it resonated with my leaving Catholicism. I got to a point in life where I just did not believe anymore.

    But there were things I missed. One is that I valued growing up in a church but having the critical thinking skills to leave it whe I felt it was not right for me. As you mention in a comment that you miss some aspects of faith, may I recommend Unitarian Universalism? Their dogma-less, with an emphasis on caring and questioning, which sounds like you and yours are really concerned about.

    But yeah, go you for following your heart.

  4. Sometimes the posts here fall outside my comfort zone. Sometimes I just don’t even care about the topic. And sometimes they make me say “YES!!”.

    So… YES!!! I love this post.

  5. Thanks for this article! I’m a proud agnostic, and I always fear that becoming a mother will make me a religious person. Glad to hear it can go both ways!

  6. Becomming a parent made me ebrace catholocisim…I even got confirmed in the church when I was pregnant with my twins (baby 3 and 4). Mostly because I realized that the design of the human (and most everything really) was no accident. I believe we defenitly had a designer. And I think Catholics are the only Christians that don’t take the bible literally.. (7 days to create the world wasn’t exactly 7 days.. ) so It was the one that resonated with me most.

    • Many former christians wrestle with how to raise their kids without the built in community of church. That’s why Amy’s essay is so remarkable. There are other options for parents who want to raise ethical, intelligent kids. Thanks Offbeat Mama, for sharing this story!

    • The Catholics are most certainly not the only Christian church that doesn’t believe in Biblical literalism! (Some examples: the United Church of Christ, the Metropolitan Community Church, and pretty much any of the other liberal mainline Protestant churches.)

  7. I very much identify with this. My partner and I had issues with the Christian traditions we were part of before we had kids – especially the fundamentalist traditions we grew up in, which were incredibly hateful and judgmental. But it wasn’t until we became parents that it slowly began to dawn on us that we couldn’t be Christians any longer. It wasn’t an instantaneous thing. We did go to church for some months afterwards, but when we really started questioning why we were still doing it, things fell apart pretty quickly. Neither of us could stomach the thought of raising our kids to believe one religion was more or had more of a corner on morality than any other, when we didn’t believe the former and the latter was SO obviously false. We also began to think in more detail about aspects of our religous upbringings that we hadn’t really considered for years, and realized that, well, some of the stuff we were raised to believe was abusive and really f@%$ed up. And as a feminist and progressive, I really couldn’t justify staying in a church, much less raising kids in a church, where the official teachings were so misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic, and the culture was so often classist and racist. So now I’m an agnostic and my partner’s an atheist.

  8. Thanks for sharing your experience. Similarly I was raised in the same cult (SDA) and escaped (barely). I was determined NOT to submit my kids to same mental and spiritual abuse that I suffered. (Not to mention the resulting necessary therapy). They are now both grown, adult, happy atheists.

  9. Wow, very well written. It’s great to see something like this. It seems like all the mainstream parenting sites and groups, even the more natural ones, are all pretty heavily dominated by religious people.

    I was raised a christian and my husband wasn’t raised anything, and we are both strongly atheist. I don’t have any worry of how to raise our baby (first pregnancy now) as it seems very natural to me to be atheist, but I worry about finding other families with similar values to befriend!

    I left my religion when I was very young. I remember most of the stories in sunday school being very disturbing to me. The story of Abraham did it for me. I remember something in me breaking that day, when I realized my mom would follow the word of god even to that extent. I wanted out right then and there!! Everything that was taught made me feel uneasy and I always felt like I could see right through it, and I just could not understand how everyone around me could all be so into it! The church we went to went as far as to show abortion videos to us young kids though, so there were a lot of things going on there that left me scared.

    Still not close with my religious mother, and I actually worry my child would become super religious, and how distant that would make us.

  10. This was an interesting post, but the comments were even interesting to me. Everyone has a a different story on how they decided how to handle religion with their children, whether they were believers or not themselves. Its facinating to read how you all came to that point.

    I attended Church from birth until I was old enough to refuse to go (around 11). Although being indoctrinated from a young age I never related to any church or teachings. Religion has never made sense or felt right to me as an individual. I appreciate to some people it does.

    My husband is more athiest and I am more agnostic. As close as those two views seem to be, we do disagree slightly on how to raise our children.

    He would like to teach them that there is no God and that you can only trust theories/facts based on evidence. I feel that this would be as unhelpful as teaching one religion as true; closing their minds to possibilites and not giving them the space to explore and think for themselves.

    I would like to teach our children about all religions and beliefs and that even though we (their parents) dont beleive in any of them, it is up to them to decide what they believe.

    There are good things and bad things about religion. I hope we can bring the good things into our child’s life (sense of community, sense of place in the world etc) without bringing in the bad (intolerance, exclusivenes etc).

  11. All these posts are fascinating to me. There are so many different life experiences. I was raised Catholic, and my faith is still strong today. There was a time when I relaxed some if my beliefs to suit what I wanted. I had so many questions about what I should do, and everone I knew offered answers. Few had solid reasons for their opinions, though. So, I sought the Church’s teaching on the matter. Never have I found more love and solid logic from one source. I heeded the way of the Church, and I have never felt more free. I feel like my renewed faith makes everything I do more beautiful. Catholics often get a bad rap because of the fanatics who misrepresent our faith. I think if people actually studied Catholicism, they would find answers, love, and forgiveness. That’s not what all the crazies will tell you, so I’m here to tell you the truth.

    Also, question…I understand there are many belief systems out there. But the UU church…how is it a church if it is led by an atheist? I would honestly like to know. Thanks.

  12. There are places between the church and atheism. I was raised informed to choose, and I’ll do the same for my daughter. My mother is an ex hari krishna, and my father follows shamanism and was raised Irish catholic. But, we were always taught that God is what you make it.

  13. As someone who has always eschewed organized religion while still enjoying “religious” texts as quality literature, I’ve always debated with myself as to whether or not choosing to be atheist–to have “no faith”–isn’t actually just another form of faith.

    • I appreciate where you’re coming from, but I disagree. Being an atheist is a choice, just like being a catholic or a muslim is a choice, but it is not another form of faith. Unlike the other choices, being an atheist is based on evidence.

      • I agree that being an athiest is a choice the same way as being religious a choice, however athiesm is not based on evidence.

        Athiesm is based on the lack of evidence of there being anything else. There is no proof or facts to suggest there is no higher power any more than there is facts to suggest that there is.

        If the human race could prove with evidence that there is no God or anything supernatural in the world (or that there is) I’m sure there would be a lot less debate on the subject.

        That being siad, Faith is defined as “a strong belief in a supernatural power or powers that control human destiny”, so I would have to agree with Amy that athiesm cannot be considered a faith.

      • I have to lean towards what Jesscar said. I chose my religion based on evidence, so I don’t think one could say atheism is a choice based on evidence where as religion is not. I think we all look at the evidence, judge it against our own experiences and in some peoples case, “gut feeling” and arrive at different conclusions. I think many Atheists find that there isn’t sufficient evidence to have faith in a religion and thus choose to believe that there is no higher power (maybe believe is the wrong word, but I think y’all know what I mean).

  14. While my mother wass pregnant with me her mother told her the same thing; that church would become more important or that she would feel differently after i was born. My father being an atheist and my mother being a no longer practising scientologist agreed to not raise me “in the church”. But they didnt limit my views to the non-religious. My parents were alway open to answering any questions I had about religion. By the time I started high school I visited every church in my little town (we have 13) and read books on almost every religion I could find and i dont really fit with any religion but i have my own beliefs and that is good enough to me. Just believe what you believe as long as it makes sense to you and screw the rest.

  15. “Just please consider that religion is not the opposite of free thinking or critical thinking, and you are not making a choice between those two things when you choose secularism for your child.”

    The commenter may not have intended this, but I don’t think we should be choosing for our children (whether it be to raise them athiests, secularists, Christians etc). It’s just my opinion, but I’m going to make sure my child is free to learn, question, and explore, and while I’ll set them a good example of the values I think are right, but I want to be careful that they acquire critical thinking skills without me telling them how to think, even if it means they come to different conclusions to me.

  16. We too are lone atheists raising children in a christian community. My children are still young, but I constantly worry about the challenges they will face. Nice article!

  17. Thanks for the great feature! A touching story and beautifully written.

    “But what are we going to teach our kids?” is a question I find clears things up for a lot of people. Some people get back to religions they’ve drifted away from when then have kids, and those are the stories we hear most often. It was so lovely to hear an opposite story–someone whose child made them examine their religion and find it wanting.

    I was raised as an atheist, and I can’t express to you how fulfilling it has been. It was a great way to grow up–I’d recommend it to a friend. 🙂

  18. “Rather, we, as parents, have the obligation to teach our kids critical thinking based on reason, logic and evidence; specifically we need to teach them to put religion into the same category as superstition and fairy tales, i.e., it shouldn’t be given any serious consideration at all (except in the context of historical man-made mythologies, concocted out of ignorance, in an attempt to explain nature, without the advantages of modern science). ”

    I question anyone who tells me I “need” to teach my children that religion is in the same category as fairy tales and superstition. Granted, I don’t have kids yet lol, but as I have previously stated, I will raise my kids in the context of my belief system. When they reach the age where they question that (which if I teach them properly, they will do so) I will support that process. If that means they leave my religion… well, I would be disappointed, but I would still be supportive.

    I guess I take insult to your comment mainly because even the religions I don’t believe in and I do think are false still hold great value to me. While many people take the stance that religion has brought nothing but trouble to our world, I believe that religion has given us great contributions (and I think atheism has too… so don’t worry, I don’t leave anyone out on this one, except for extreme fundamentalists in religions) and shouldn’t be reduced to “fairy tales”.

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