Jesus is a figure of huge cultural, social, and political significance in much of the world, and, even if you’re a non-believer or practice a faith other than Christianity, your child is likely to have questions about Jesus. If you anticipate these questions, you can avoid unflattering deer-in-headlights comparisons and hopefully send the message that questions about religion are no big deal.
At one point, after spending a weekend with her grandparents, Alice said, “Did you know that Jesus made the whole world?”
“I’ve heard that story,” I said. “Is that what Grandma says?”
“Yep. So, did Jesus make the world?”
I decided to try putting Jesus in context. I told her a Native American creation story, about the Big Bang, and about the seven days of creation in Genesis. I told her what we think we know: that once the Earth was here, things started to happen little by little, until one little creature had become a million little creatures, all changing and growing.
“Until there was everything — all the animals and even us and even AdRock,” she said, excitedly filling in the story of evolution with what’s most important to her: animals, her family, and her dog. She spent the rest of the day making up creation stories. “Maybe a giant crow made it. He cawed into the sky five times and the world was made and space and everything.” And later, “Maybe turtles, a whole stack of a hundred turtles standing on each other’s backs and — boom! — they made the world.”
I felt good about that conversation. We had celebrated human creativity and storytelling by putting one story in context with others and rewarded her curiosity with manageable facts.
Of course, for every question I’ve aced, there’s another I’ve totally fucked up, especially when she was very small and I was not so confident in my non-belief. Because I grew up in a Christian household, questions about Jesus have an emotional punch for me that questions about other religions don’t. At times, my answers have been defensive, too emotional, or too complicated, usually because I’ve forgotten to focus on what she’s really asking.
Sometimes, Alice asks, “Why don’t we go to church?” and I hear, “Why are you disappointing your parents?” Sometimes, she asks, “What’s heaven?” and I hear, “What’s the meaning of life on earth?” But those aren’t the questions she’s asking. As she’s grown older and better at understanding, I’ve grown wiser and better at responding to her curiosity rather than my own emotional baggage.
Ultimately, Alice will have to answer her own Big Existential Questions. For now, her questions about Jesus are just questions. Defensiveness or a reluctance to answer sends the message that the topic is off limits, and if there’s one thing I believe as a skeptical mama, it’s that no topic is off limits. I want her to bring me her questions. When I don’t have the answers, we’ll do what humans have always done: tell ourselves a story.
What about the rest of you? How do you address questions about god or religion?
Comments on How do you talk to your kids about Jesus when you’re an atheist?
Wait, your daughter came up with “Turtles all the way down” on her own? That’s amazing.
It sounds like you’ve got it down. There are two bits of advice that I hear over and over again for raising kids in a secular household:
Expose them to all kinds of religion/spirituality: different kinds of churches, temples, meetings in the forest, tarot readings, whatever. Let them see the many different kinds of things that people believe in, and help them understand what role religion has for people. I firmly believe that religious literacy, even for the nonreligious, is incredibly important in understanding and empathizing with those around us.
Try to answer their questions with questions of your own. “So did Jesus make the whole world?” can be answered with “Well, tell me what Grandma told you” and then “What do you think about that? Does it make sense to you?” (asked levelly, not loaded with meaning) Instead of giving kids the answers, you want to help them figure it out for themselves, and ideally they’ll have experiences of past religious ceremonies and stories to bounce their ideas off of as well.
If any of you haven’t found it yet, I highly suggest “Parenting Beyond Belief” and “Raising Freethinkers” by Dale McGowan (http://parentingbeyondbelief.com/)
Excellent points, Valerie.
I have read “Parenting Beyond Belief.” It wasn’t quite what I needed when I read it, but very thought provoking and something I might go back to.
There are a couple of books for kids that come up in these conversations. One is “Maybe Yes, Maybe No” by Dan Barker. A classic for slightly older kids is “How Do You Know It’s True?” by Hy Ruchlis. It takes a more scientific approach. There are many comparative religion books out there for children that might be helpful to some.
I was going to recommend the parenting beyond belief site it’s one of my favourites and I totally agree that exposing kids to all kinds of religious stories as well as myths, legends and folk/fairy tales is the way to go. I am fascinated by how many common themes all these story telling traditions have in common.
My son is growing up with two Atheist parents, but because he has a Granny who is Church of Scotland, a Jewish Step-Granny and two Jewish uncles one of whom has just married a lovely Hindu girl, he is exposed to a wide variety of faiths and traditions. The joke around the table at Christmas (spent at Jewish Grannies house!) was that his younger uncle should go find himself a nice Muslim girl to marry ’cause then we’d have the set.
Also living in Edinburgh there’s a whole calender of pagan festivities to be witnessed too such as this http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beltane_Fire_Festival
The best I can hope to do is to bring him up with an open mind and a wealth of experiences on which to base any future decisions regarding religion/spirituality.
We are buddhists, but I will probably still tell my kids about Jesus, not as a man who was the son of God but a man who taught people to love each other, because thats always a good thing.
This is great and something I’ve had on my mind. I’m atheist and hubby is agnostic, and our families (particularly our own grandparents) have religious leanings. We don’t step on each others toes much (though my dad got a little huffy over our marriage being conducted by a friend and not a priest) but I know it’s bound to come up. Thanks for sharing your tips! Also I love what Valerie said: “I firmly believe that religious literacy, even for the nonreligious, is incredibly important in understanding and empathizing with those around us.” SO true.
Please tell me that dog is named after one of the Beastie Boys. That might be the Greatest Thing of the Day.
Yep. “The King Ad-Rock, there is none higher.” 🙂
As Amy’s friend, I just have to say that he is the BEST dog. He is so pathetic and lovable and sweet and scruffy in the most charming way. Here’s a pic with Amy’s man-partner!
Thank you for this post. My husband and I have been trying to reconcile our personal beliefs and the beliefs with which we were raised to prepare for what we will teach our children about spirituality. For some reason I feel the need to put a label on my beliefs and find that I fall into the “Unitarian” category — I believe in something, but I’m practical, too. My husband is an amalgamation of many different religions and philosophies. He doesn’t feel the need to teach our children about the Bible, but I grew up loving Bible stories for what they were — stories — and I want to be able to share that with them.
I’ll probably do something similar. Whenever my kid asks (and I’m sure he or she will), I’ll tell them that there are lots of people who believe lots of different things about how the world was made and whether or not there’s a god. I’ll tell him or her what I believe, and if they express further interest, I’ll help them research and explore so they can define they’re own beliefs.
I’m a great believer in ‘some people think’. If your kids are brought up to believe that every one is different and that its okay to be different, then they should respond really well to that. I’m honest about what I think, and when it comes to science, I make the point that when science proves something, that makes it true. For example…
Did noah really put all the animals on the ark two by two?
Some people think that it’s true, they believe that god was angry that there were too many bad people in the world, so he told the one good person and his family to build a boat and save all the animals.
What do you think?
I think that it’s just a story, but if you think that it’s true thats okay too. Everyone has to decide for themselves.
Then just swap out noah, for divali lights etc. There’s no point in keeping your own views a secret, as long as you make it clear that you won’t be annoyed if your kids think different.
That’s what has worked for us so far, too. Our daughter came home from preschool right before Easter and told us that they heard a story about some man who told people what to do and they killed him for it. I was thinking, “???” and then she said, “They put spikes in his hands!” I was quite shocked.
I told her, “That story is about a man named Jesus. A lot of people think it is a true story, but a lot of other people don’t. Personally, I think there are parts of it that might be true, but mostly I think it is not true. You can learn more about it if you want and then decide for yourself.”
I had religious belief foisted on me for the first 21 years of my life, then discarded it. It felt really bad when it was happening, and left a lot of wreckage. I don’t want her to deal with the same issues coming from me, but with atheism as the theme, rather than Christianity.
This is a great post & topic. My husband and I are both very secular athiests, but his parents are what you might call poselytizing Buddhists. (They are Buddhists who actively try to convert or convince others.) They babysit our 2.5 year old son for us every wednesday, and part of their daily routine is their chanting and meditation. I don’t have any problem with my son being around while they do their practice, but my husband is wary of it because he has unpleasant memories of being forced (seems kinda ironic and un-buddhist, doesn’t it?) to attend all-day Buddhist meetings as a kid, and also of having his mom “ambush” (his word) his friends with Buddhism as a teenager. I guess we’ll just see how it goes… and hopefully handle the kid’s questions about Grandma & Grandpa’s religion as gracefully as you have!
When the time comes I’ll probably tell my toddler about the different religions and their stories and also what we have found out about evolution.
I handled it the same way with my 17 year old son and he has turned out just fine.
I am an atheist, and if I ever have children I think some of the more innocuous Bible stories would make good bedtime stories – I thought the parables were the coolest thing ever when I was little. But you definitely don’t have to stop there – each religion and culture has its own stories that you can learn and share together – Native American myths are so awesome, and Greek mythology is super-interesting even though that’s probably a little bit PG-13. 😉 I think it’s important to expose kids to a large variety of cultures so that they know what’s out there when it’s their turn to choose what they believe, and more importantly that their parents are supportive of a decision that may be different from their own.
It is funny that you mention Bible stories as just general stories. I am a Christian now, but growing up we didn’t have too much to do with religion. However, I had this old Kid’s Bible, and I really loved some of the Classic O.T. stories like Noah’s Ark and such. They didn’t have anything to do with “religion” to me. They were just cool stories.
I was much the same way growing up. My parents were athiests/agnostic but bought a childrens bible when I was little (very simplified wording, illustrated and heavily edited for content).
I loved the stories but it never occured to me to believe it actually happened in the same way I didn’t believe all the talking animals in other books were real.
My parents too had a children’s bible, but it must have been published originally in the 1950s, with rather terrifying language. They read it to me every night until we got to the bit about locusts and then I had nightmares for weeks. The bible went to the bookshelf and has stayed there ever since! I never did turn out very religious…
My husband and I are Catholic converts and our children will be raised as Catholics, however, we both highly support and encourage our children’s interest in other’s beliefs. I really like the idea that other parents out there, whether practicing a faith or not, are being encouraging and non-judgemental in their child’s questions about religion. Whether or not you believe in Jesus Christ as the Messiah, it is nice, particularly for a Christian mama, to know that there are those who choose to *respectfully* disagree with my own faith choices and are not teaching their children a hateful viewpoint. Unfortunately for me, it has been a topic treated with very little respect by those around me that consider themselves atheists. I find it very encouraging that some of you are simply nurturing your child’s curiosity and at the end of the day, encouraging them to love their neighbor.
Thank you, Kate. I know what it’s like to have my beliefs disrespected, and I definitely don’t want to model that behavior to my daughter. Being unkind to each other doesn’t help anyone.
As an atheist, I’m sorry that’s been your experience, Kate. I think religion is such a hot-button issue for people. A lot of atheists were raised religiously and have taken a great deal of heat from their families and congregations for leaving. It tends to make them/us defensive. Unfortunately, that translates into a lack of respect for others a lot of the time.
I came up to this the other day as well! My 6 year old daughter chose All Dogs Go To Heaven as the movie to watch – and what an exciting choice that turned out to be! We started attending a Unitarian Church about 8 months ago as I wanted her to be exposed to the idea of faith without indoctrination, but though they discuss a bit of different religions, they don’t get into it heavily (or at least not at her age group.) The movie brought up “what’s Heaven?” and “who’s God?” questions I have no good answer to. I gave the answer people seem to be suggesting here – “some people believe…” and also gave examples of what some other people believe. It’s comforting to know I am not alone in working hard to give a “right” answer without imposing upon her choices of faith.
My children will be raised as pagans, as we are Norse Pagans. They can attend different churches if they want, but we won’t encourage nor allow commitments until they are old enough to make the right decision without any kind of pressure. We have plenty of books on many, many different religions and our children will not be forbidden to read about anything.
Since I am not Christian (I was raised Catholic), and I do not want my children having any Christian education, I will have to handle my own bias, I think, when it comes up. I hope that I will encourage open-mindedness and respect for others’ beliefs.
I’m atheist and my bf is as well, though not in a serious way, just in a “I don’t give a flip” way. I had my son baptized before I relied I didn’t believe what was being said at church, I was more superstitious then faithful anyway.
Now I deal with my mom who is a very liberal xian, who believes my sister can talk to ghosts, and who takes my son to church when he stays weekends with them but never says “this is the way it is”
He’s only 2 and not talking much so we have time before the real questions start, but when we do I hope we are well prepared to talk about other traditions, as well as fiction (turtles reminded me of disc world).
I 2nd PBB by Dale, and the next book he put out, “Raising Freethinkers” which is the practical, activity filled follow!
I’m agnostic. This doesn’t mean, as some seem to think, that I’m uncertain about what I believe or undecided. It means, at least in my case, that I firmly believe that some things are inherently mysterious and unknowable. (To quote a bumper sticker, “I’m a militant agnostic: I don’t know, and you don’t either!”)
I’ve recently realized that my beliefs actually make it easier to answer a lot of religious/spiritual questions from my kids. Easier because the most honest, genuine answer I can give them is often, “That’s a good question. No one knows for sure. What do you think?” I don’t feel pressure to convince them of any particular religious stance, and I whole-heartedly support them in their inevitable quest to figure out what they believe for themselves.
Meanwhile, my response of “What do you think?” reinforces a core value of mine, in religious matters and otherwise, which is the value of critical thought. My hope for my kids, as well as for myself, is that they arrive at their beliefs (about absolutely anything) through a process of open-minded questioning and critical thinking. What they land on isn’t as important to me as how they get there. If they grow up to be people who never stop questioning and whose beliefs are founded on thorough reasoning and honest soul-searching, I’ll be happy, whatever they believe.
That said, even though I am agnostic, there are religious concepts that I reject. And as my kids get older and are exposed to more religious views, I know I’ll be forced to make tougher decisions about what to say to them. But I hope that I can still encourage them to ponder those concepts for themselves and ask questions, trusting in their process as I trust in my own. But we’ll see. Ask me again in a few years.
Wow… I think I just realized that I’m agnostic. There ya go.
I like to say I am an atheist towards all things religious and theistic….but agnostic towards many of the mysteries of the universe. It’s easier to just say “atheist” but if someone asks for specifics…I mean, I don’t think it’s impossible to know for SURE where the material for the universe came from, but I do think it’s impossible for US to ever know, being tiny little specks of feeble children with limited technology in such a vast and awesome universe. Maybe our descendents (if we don’t destroy ourselves) will evolve into higher-thinking creatures who may someday unravel all of the universe’s secrets….but WE will probably never know.
Thank you for this! It will be a while before our daughter asks questions like this but it is helpful to start thinking about it.
My fiance and I are non-religious. I am reading “Raising Freethinkers” right now. It’s all about parenting non-religiously and it has great resources, activities etc. It has been very helpful and has probably prepared us questions we didn’t even think about!
I am a Christian, but I totally put my foot in my mouth with one of my nephews. He was 2 or 3, and I was telling him about how I believe that God made everything. So we were talking along and he pointed to a bush and said, “God made that” and I was all, “Yup”. He pointed to a tree and was all, “God made that.” and on and on it went…. until he pointed to a car and was all, “God made that”
“Umm no. Technically, Volvo made that” Haha. Taught me I can’t even be black and white about my beliefs with kids.
I am really grateful for this, if a little bit perplexed now! Both my partner and I are non-religious, and I guess up until now I’d only really seriously given thought to how we would pass our own beliefs, morals and ethics on to our son, without delving too deeply into how I would teach him about other beliefs…
My partner is quite interested in and knows a fair bit about religion, so I’m confident in his ability. (A bit like the stack of turtles, he likes the Pastafarian idea of a giant spaghetti monster.)
But this has definitely prompted me to start teaching myself a bit more and thinking of how I can pass it on. Homework to do.
The truth of the matter is that, somewhere along the line, some kid in your kid’s class is going to mention Jesus or God or the flood or whatever and your kid is going to come home and ask you for more information. It’s not about having the “right” answer or really even about having the “right for us” answer, but being able to foster a sense of curiosity and a thirst for knowledge. And if you have to learn together sometimes, that’s okay, too. 🙂
I’ve been pondering this question since even before I was pregnant with my one year old, as my husband’s parents are very strong (but respectful) Mennonites. I tend more to eastern influenced spiritual leanings, although that only came about after a rather confused youth spent dabbling in fundamentalist Christianity. Based on that experience, I think the only thing I feel I will need to emphasize to my child is that the only wrong belief is the belief that everyone is wrong but you. Intolerance for intolerance is what I plan to teach.
It may be a bit militant of me but there is no way on earth I would ever take my child to church. My grandmother has asked to take my child to church but I deny her because I am frightened as to what she might hear there. Perhaps the sermon this week will be on why gays are an abomination, or that if you do something wrong you will burn in hellfire for all eternity. Pretty traumatic for a child if you ask me. To me even though many people believe many different things, some are just plain wrong. If I had a family member that was in the KKK I wouldn’t let them take my child to a Klan meeting so they could “consider other view points”. Some things are just wrong, period, end of discussion. For me religion falls into that same category.
Something to consider – not all Christian churches preach the hellfire and abomination and death to gays stuff. I’m sure you know your grandmother’s church well, but my Christian mother goes to a church that… well, is pretty much the exact opposite of that.
I have to agree here… even the churches that I have been to that have felt it was wrong to be gay, it was rarely preached about. Even now, when I go to Catholic church, they are VERY clear that we have gay congregation members and we should love and accept them as we do anybody else since we are all sinners.
I guess my advice would be to preview the church, or wait until they were a lot older so you could discuss what the message was and how they felt about it.
After a few negative experiences, we don’t let Alice go to church with her grandparents. At least in their congregations, the indoctrination is just too hardcore. On the other hand, I try not to be negative about religious topics with her, less out of a desire for pluralism and more because I don’t want religion to become some sort of forbidden fruit. If she’s curious about it, I want her to talk to me, not the evangelists who canvas our neighborhood or even her well-meaning grandparents. I want us to be able to talk about this subject as dispassonately, logically and rationally as we talk about anything else. Unfortunately, I don’t always succeed.
THANK YOU!!! This is exactly how I feel. I think sending my son to any church would be like I am setting him up to be lied to. That is not the setting I would want him to find out about other cultures. Museums and books at home are okay, but a church is place where the pastor/rabbi/priest/whatever are speaking about their own deities as is if they are the ONE TRUTH, which I can not support in the slightest. I also don’t tell him that Santa brings presents or that the Tooth Fairy brings him money. I only tell him things that are proven and true. You might think our holidays are drab and boring that way, but they’re not. We still have a sweet xmas tree and give tons of gifts, they just say :”Love Mom & Pop-O” instead of “from Santa”
I’m so glad to hear someone else say this. We atheist/agnostics are encouraged to be open and tolerant to other people’s viewpoints, but I don’t feel that that sort of open-mindedness is often reciprocated by church-goers. Churches teach that their way of thinking is the “right” way, and if my child expresses doubts or asks uncomfortable questions, he will quickly be taught by them that this is not okay. Why would I want to put my child in an environment where he is not free to express himself?
Not all churches preach that way though…I’m agnostic and before I met my now husband, I had never had a good church experience and just assumed all would make me feel uncomfortable and that I was a “sinner”. But then when I met his parents for the first time, who are Methodist pastors, I went to his dad’s church. I was surprised with how nice it was and I actually was touched by what he was saying. It was a sermon on love, in general and talked about caring and loving others, even those who don’t agree with you. The more I got to know his family, the more my mind has opened when it comes to religion. Though, I will never convert to any one religion, I am more comfortable with it and hope that will help me when I have children of my own with these questions.
I’ve had chats with my kids when they come up with questions and explained it to them as many of you guys have. That different people have different beliefs, that daddy and I have different beliefs from each other too (I’m atheist if I have to pin a tag on it, he believes in God, but in a pretty non-denominational way), and that it’s all completely cool. Also that they can take the time to make up their own minds about what they believe.
The only struggle I have had with this is when some of their friends come over and have made blatant statments like “Mum didn’t make me, God did”. I have taught my kids to respect other people’s views but it’s pretty tricky with one-liners like that! Also, not wanting to disturb another parents views on how they raise their kids means having a conversation on religion and sex and procreation is not ideal in front of someone else’s cherub.
General rule is that there’s no need to mention religious beliefs really unless it comes up naturally and if someone voices theirs, then feel comfortable to let your own be known, esp in our own home. No putdowns of others beliefs. Oh, and no getting too into the ‘nitty gritty’ of how babies are really made if someone doesn’t know!
There’s plenty more, but as long as it’s never a closed conversation we seem to go okay.
I agree with you about the one liners. It’s a little like talking about politics. I don’t mind if we have different opinions about things, but please don’t quote talking points from political TV shows at me.
We haven’t had anything tricky come up with other people’s children (except for the Santa issue I mentioned in another post). We do, however, run into trouble some times with devout family members and a few strangers who, rather than sharing their beliefs in a friendly way, have tried at times to indoctrinate my child, usually behind my back. A few times, she’s come up with questions that sounded very coached, which I didn’t appreciate. Mostly, though, we have no trouble getting along.
This is exactly why we attend a UU church — a community built around pluralism and asking questions.
This stuff is confusing the heck out of me too. We’re raising a daughter in a Quaker household with one Christian and one Agnostic parent and helping her find her own path is something I’m both excited and bloody terrified about!
She’s not 2 yet so when things come up I can still get away with ‘some people think x, some people think y or don’t know’ without much more detail. I plan to add ‘what do you think?’ to that as she gets bigger as some other commenters have said they do. It’s tricky. I’m keen not to push my own beliefs. But I don’t want her to feel I’m unwilling to share my thoughts or ashamed either.
How about you ask again in 20 years’ time? I may have some clue by then! Or not. 🙂
I really enjoyed this post and like your ideas.
I am a Christian and plan to raise my children with an awareness of my beliefs, but I don’t have any desire to force them to agree with me…if they come to believe what I do I would far rather have it be of their own accord, after asking questions and considering other possibilities (something that is highly lacking in the Christian church).
Also, I don’t think I would bring in defensiveness or emotion if they asked me the questions in regards to other beliefs, but I could definitely see it being a possibility – especially if it was something I strongly disagreed with.
Though my daughter isn’t old enough now to ask the questions, I will definitely be keeping this post in mind…
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