How do you talk to your kids about Jesus when you’re an atheist?

Guest post by Amy Watkins

By: Wayne WilkinsonCC BY 2.0

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.

jesus “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?

  1. I just have to say that I’m loving all of you Christians who plan to support your children’s decisions about religion. At 27, I am still terrified of my parents finding out I’m not a traditional Christian/Southern Baptist like they are. I’m pretty sure they’ll disown me.

  2. this is something i struggle with. i haven’t come to terms with telling my children what i believe, what i believe just seems to be too “out there” but i was raised in an ultra-conservative christian home, with lots of rules, i let my parents take my kids to church, but i don’t go. I still struggle with not letting my kids think my parents are idiots, but still instilling in them different beliefs. this is a difficult subject.

    they ask me “mom why don’t you go to church?” and i can’t tell them it’s because the songs make me cry for what i’ve lost. it was a rational reasonable choice to not be christian anymore, and i don’t care to go back to it. but i have very very pleasant memories of being in church as a small child.

    I have my own very deep beliefs now, but i don’t want my kids to miss out on the family religious thing,
    i guess you can say i’m confused.

    • I definitely went through some phases of grief as I went from being a religious believer to a humanist/atheist. I think that’s natural. For me it was like breaking up with someone; I knew it was for the best, but it still hurt. During that phase, the Kid’s questions about religion were really tough to answer, but it has gotten easier.

  3. Thank you for this post! I grew up in a religious family, and unlike many atheists with similar backgrounds, my memories of my days in the church are fond ones. I have struggled with how to talk about religion with my pre-schoolers. We are in the Deep South, so they are going to hear about Christianity. I’ve decided that for now, Jesus serves a similar role in our house as Santa Claus. We’ll go from there.

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