How can I raise freethinking children in a religious community without seeming like an angry atheist?

December 21 2012 | offbeatbride
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By: sweetplaceCC BY 2.0
I am a married mother of two girls aged 7 and 9. I am also an atheist. I grew up in an overbearing, strictly Protestant home, and I am loath to inflict any of those experiences on my freethinking daughters. We live in a religious community, and as my daughters get older I'm finding it's increasingly difficult to find secular activities for my daughters to participate in, and I've discovered that even though religion isn't supposed to have a place in the school system, it keeps finding a way to creep in.

I'm finding all of this is especially true during the holiday seasons of Christmas and Easter. I want my daughters to be able to enjoy the holidays, but I don't want them involved in the religious dogma that is so apparent everywhere. On the other hand, I don't want to be too obviously anti-religion around my kids — then I'll be no different than the opposite side of the coin I grew up on. How do I manage to accomplish this without also coming across as a raving anti-religion monster? — Lacey
  1. For every holiday there are a thousand different versions of it. Why not teach your children that groups of people have always tried to explain the universe to themselves?

  2. I am HUGE on age-appropriate truth! Not neccessarily meaning "oh you're too young to know the truth about this yet"…. but the truth kind of tailored in a way that the child can understand…. theres an article about this idea somewhere on this site, i believe. When we told our family that we arent goign all out and trying to convince our son that Santa is real, thigns got very tense very quickly. And the fam seemed most concerned about how he would be left out from school activities. Secondly, they were worried he would ruin it for everyone else. The reality is, everyone is free to believe whatever they want, but its not nice to try to make people believe what you believe. Santa is a very nice story and some people believe its true- and some people dont. And both are ok and both can be our friends….. thats the policy. Actually… its kind of our policy towards everything concerning religion. Dont get me wrong here…. our son is two…… so he is a ways off form his first theological debate, but we really talked about this a lot while I was pregnant. I want to teach him to think and decide things for himself, not be an angry little jerk. if ya know what I mean….. The day will come when he gets in those heated discussions about religion and science and morality and all that…… And we believe that that's really important to convey also- your beliefs, your thoughts and feelings matter just as much as anyone elses.

  3. Find some good books to read about different cultural traditions and religion (e.g. One World, Many Religions). Make it a point to do religious activities that aren't just Christian: see if you can visit a Synagogue or find a solstice party, too. The key to free thinking is allowing your kids to make up their own minds, so if they ask about others' beliefs, say "This is what they think, I don't agree, but you can learn and decide." Have you read Raising Freethinkers or Parenting Beyond Belief? They're both amazing resources for parents.

    FWIW, we do a secular Christmas. MOST Christmas traditions are secular and drawn from different cultures, and are not Christian. Same with Easter. I don't have a problem celebrating these holidays in secular ways.

    Good luck!

    • I just wanted to second the suggestion that you get these two books. Dale McGowan also has a great website at parentingbeyondbelief.com (I really enjoy his blog).

      Also, if you haven't seen it, check out Tim Minchin's song White Wine in the Sun on YouTube, just for your viewing pleasure.

  4. I relate to your experience more than I can say in a web comment. We live in a religious rural ranching community in NM, my husband and I are both atheists, and my girls are 10 and 7. We've had our struggles, and the 10 year old has decided that she is an atheist too, independently. There have been many a tear shed at the hand of groups of mean girls excluding her for her beliefs, and we try our hardest to implement the "Live and let live" philosophy, although it is hard at times. I would love to chat about this more with like minded parents, especially those who face the same struggles as our family. Hit me up on Facebook, I'm sure it'd be a nice departure from the day-to-day slog of "watch what you say around so-and-so".
    —Lara

  5. I don't mean this in a snarky way: do you really mean "freethinking" or do you mean "nonreligious?" Because part of freethinking, to me at least, would need to allow them the opportunity to embrace religion. I also bristle a little when my two children (who we are raising Jewish) say something about God, since I would describe myself as agnostic with atheist leanings. But if they want to believe, or can believe, more power to them. I try to leave myself out of the conversation by asking them what they think, rather than project my views on them.

    In terms of enjoying the holiday season, Miss Conduct on boston.com has a really nice thing about the "different Christmases." You can find it here: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/magazine/missconduct/2012/12/merry_christmas_1.html I would just think about the kind of Christmas that you'd like to have, explain that other families celebrate in other ways, but there's no wrong way to share love and togetherness.

    • I absolutely mean freethinking – which is why I am struggling to not project my views on my girls, which I find harder to do around the holidays. I always share my opinion with my girls but I am trying to do it in a way that is simply Mommy sharing and not projecting my views onto them. As they continue to grow and mature they will need to find their own way and develop their own beliefs – hopefully they will let me help them on this journey, but it is still their journey to make.

    • i love this: " I try to leave myself out of the conversation by asking them what they think, rather than project my views on them."
      i was raised with strict religious views, i would describe myself much like you do, as an agnostic with atheist leanings. my husband doesn't care much either way, but due to my upbringing, i've often thought about how to approach this with my child (especially due to the fact that there are people in our lives who are still very religious and are upset i won't be raising my child with their views.) this seems like a really awesome approach to creating a freethinking environment – i trust you find it works well? i've gotten the message at times that this sort of approach of letting kids decide for themselves is "too grown up" but i'm not sure how else to pass on my ideals of letting THEM figure out what they believe in, religion or otherwise. i appreciate your thoughts. xo

  6. My parents turned Fourth of July, Veterans Day, and other federal holidays into family holidays. We never gave presents but there would be trips to historical sites, readings of pertinent documents (for a while I had the entire Declaration of Independence memorized), and some special food. It wasn't dogmatic either because as lawyers my parents were both aware that the law could be interpreted in various ways and that debating or change could be good.

    As for Christmas and Easter? Those days paled in comparison. We came to see them as time outs for our nation to love one another.

    If you're concerned about the community, maybe you could become famous for your [nationally recognized holiday] dinners and they'll overlook the lack of religious participation? At the least emphasize with your girls that everyone has different beliefs and traditions. That they can still have fun, appreciate them, but choose not to believe/practice them. Ask them each time they come home from a community event how they felt and what they thought.

  7. We don't want him to just keep his mouth shut because he doesnt believe what everyone around him might believe. But with kids….. especially these huge holiday kinda things….. it is kind of important not to spoil it for everyone. SO….. my understanding- which i pass on to everyone I *POSSIBLY CAN* !!!!—- of the whole winter holiday season goes like this:

    Winter is really cold and really dark. And a long long time ago when there werent cars or grocery stores or central heating, winter could be really scary. People would get sick or maybe starve or maybe freeze to death or maybe go kinda crazy because they couldnt go outside and play in the sun ( how vivid you get with that unpleasant piece there is up to you!)…

    SO everyone decided that they should have a holiday …. a way they could get together and share their food and warmth and cheer each other up and remind each other that it wont stay cold and dark forever.

    Spring ALWAYS comes back and before you know it, it will be warm and we can all play outside again and eat fresh fruit.

    This winter holiday thing was such a good idea that everyone kinda does some version of it. They are just different versions.

    Different groups of people eat different foods or tell different stories or believe and celebrate different things, but way down underneath all that is just people sharing what they have and cheering each other up. And theres probably nothing better than that, so ……. if people need to tell some REALLY SILLY stories to help them be nicer to other people and to be not so sad or scared….. then thats ok to.

    And we might be really lucky because we can celebrate whatever version of the holiday we want however we want. We can read and tell ALL the stories or we can tell ALL NEW STORIES!!!! On Whatever day we want!!!!!

    • This is beautiful and my thoughts summed up. This is how I intend to explain my non-religious version of christmas to my son when he's older (I suspect one year olds don't care much for the reasons behind christmas, just the box and paper their present came in!)

    • That's how I consider Christmas. I'm not religious, but I've never had an issue with Christmas because in my mind, it's just a celebration of family to remind everyone that winter sucks but family does.

      And well, I don't even mind singing the religious songs. Because I don't mind reading stories about fairies and magic, so why do I care about songs about stars that lead wise men to special babies?

    • Beautiful description. Just chiming in to add that one of my favourite non religious descriptions of Christmas is in The Muppet Family Christmas special (the one from the 80's when they all go to visit Fozzie's mother).
      Robin and Kermit meet the Fraggles who, being Fraggles, aren't familiar with Christmas.
      Robin describes it as a time when "we get together with the people we love and wish each other peace on Earth."
      Just always found it a simple, age appropriate sort of description that doesn't exclude anyone.

      • Firstly, Love the Muppets Family Christmas reference (everyone thinks I'm crazy when I swear it exists!), but also it's how I explain it to the special needs kids I work with.

        "People get together and wish for good things for their friends, their families, and everyone." I then usually preface it with "I like making good things for my friends and families to eat…want to help me make cookies?"

        For those 'parenting', but not parents, sometimes getting them involved helps show it, even more than saying it.

        Suffice: I work with special needs youth in group-homes, some which have different levels of processing, keeping it simple, and being able to adapt for kids who have religious needs has helped us have less challenging christmases as staff ๐Ÿ™‚

    • I am glad that you are thinking about teaching religious sensitivity and tolerance. But I would leave out the part about "really silly" stories that some people need to tell to help them be nicer to others. That is disrespectful. I think it invites the kid to make quick judgement calls on people's stories rather than being open to them or trying to see them from the point of view of the teller.

      I don't like the term "religion". It is too loaded these days. I try to use "philosophy", "worldview", "life choice", or "tradition". I would not wait for society to teach a worldview to my child. I would start teaching them about traditions right off the bat. Perhaps preface a religious discussion with a broader discussion about other cultures in general. Begin on an international scale and then transition to the micro level. Talk about how traditions in countries far away are similar and different from your own. Ask your kids how their friends celebrate – not just Christmas, but birthdays, Halloween, summer vacation etc. And then ask them if there is anything they see their friends do that they think would be fun to try. Or ask them what things that "we do" in this household that they like best. Then say "wouldn't it be cool if we did this every year? We could make this into a ____name____ family tradition. And let the kid make up a name for it."

      And like you said, tell them that family and togetherness is the most important. Because you collaborated to create a tradition just like other groups around the world. Teach them that collaborative decision-making can be fun. (Like adding toppings to a pizza.) You don't have to emphasize a particular holiday or a particular group. Turn it into a discussion about learning from other cultures and drawing ideas from the world around you. There are many ways to celebrate the same thing. No one is better than the others. Just different.

      And encourage them to ask you or the person practicing the tradition what it is and why they like it. After all, religion is only one aspect of a person's culture. And it isn't a big enough factor to make a judgement on the person as a whole. We are all people and we all need to learn from one another if we want to get along.

      BTW, I am a christian.

  8. We don't have kids yet, but we've been thinking about this too. I think it's okay to be anti-religious. I don't mean that a person has to be rude about it or anything, but I am pretty firmly against religious establishment. There is nothing wrong with that. There is also nothing wrong with passing those values to my kids. Most people think nothing of socializing their children into their viewpoints on food (i. e. organic-only, vegetarian, or paleo diets), medicine (immunizations, herbal remedies, or "alternative medecines"), but come to a block on religion. My mother raised us in a rather loosely Episcopal household, where we knew exactky where she stood on belief, but let us know if we ever decided to espouse different views, that we were still loved. I think as long as you aren't an authoritarian parent, you can stand firm in your beliefs and your kids will feel comfortable to poke around and find their comfort levels.

    • i totally agree- there is a difference between presenting your views to your kids, and having your house follow those views, and then mandating what your kids believe or telling them how they need to believe.

    • That's a great position. We are an agnostic (me) Buddhist (my partner) household. I just worry that if we aren't talking about our beliefs or providing some level of guidance that they will be open to anything. Many religious groups (ahem, cults) know how to prey upon that. I was raised in a loose Catholic household but my parents were very keen to make us aware of cults as we had a family member get involved and it was a very sad situation for everyone involved.
      So not totally freethinking, no, but lots of love and acceptance.

  9. We're Jewish, and our daughter's at a Jewish school, but we're atheist, and are taking a 'Some people believe X or Y about God' or 'Old stories say that God did this or that…' and explaining that these stories can teach people important ideas about how we treat one another.

    I'm quite relaxed about the 'God' thing – a lot of kids, especially about the age of yours, have a bit of a 'God phase' I reckon, when they might be really into the idea of God. I know I did. So if yours do, I think it's important to just let it be and not display concern – they will find their own approach as they get older. I think some parents worry that their kids will turn around one day and be angry that their parents took one approach or another, but to be honest, we all deal with this stuff as we get older and I think we all accept there are various reasons, usually good, why parents teach us certain attitudes and that it's OK for us to come to realisations ourselves as we mature.

    • We do the same when asked questions about God. We give them the matter-of-fact answer that, "Christians believe in XYZ" followed by "what do you think about that?" And open discussion. I love this approach, and glad that it works for others too!

    • My parents are nonreligious, but they never told me so until I was an adult. All I knew was that we didn't go to church like my friends. I think they wanted me to really figure it out on my own. Well, in my teen years I also had a 'God phase'. I think it was about fitting in with my friends and finding a community. I give my parents a lot of credit for not freaking out. They drove me to church every Sunday for a couple of years without fail. And then I stopped going and began identifying as nonreligious.

      Long story short, I think their silence served me well. It will be a lesson for me as I parent. Sometimes, just let them be and they'll figure it out.

  10. This weighs on me especially at this time of year; I'm glad this question popped up! My husband's family is very Christian, and mine is fairly Jewish, but we are both more or less nothing…so what to do about holidays and family expectations? Our plan for our little dude is to tell him plainly about holidays, religious practices, and other rituals as they arise, and make it abundantly clear that such beliefs are a personal opinion. It might be subtly pushing our atheist-ish perspective, but if we treat religious belief as deserving of the same degree of acceptance as say, different lifestyles from our own, I feel like our kids will grow up open-minded without thinking that religion is not an option. Plus, we'll reinforce that we will love him whether he is an ascetic monk, an avid hunter, a drag queen, a Catholic priest, a suburban house-Dad, or whatever; religion is just another facet of who people are, and it deserves respect.

  11. I have some thoughts:

    1) Play up the multicultural aspect! It helps to know that there are lots of religions and they all have different beliefs and holidays, all fun, festive, interesting, and (from an atheist's perspective) based on made up premises! Even Christmas is different in various cultures. Celebrate an offbeat holiday by grabbing stuff from everywhere.

    2) It's okay to be a little anti-religious. You turned away from religion for a reason, and part of that reason is because you didn't like it or didn't agree with its message, right? I think it's ok to be up front about that to your kids, and I don't think that makes you a hateful person.

  12. Do you have any Unitarian Universilist or United Church of Christ groups in your community? I was raised by two ex-Catholic parents as religiously free thinking and UU's celebrate Christian and other holidays with a sense of exploration. My husband is very secular and arhuesr so we're probably raising or daughter to meditate in the Buddhist tradition and then practice some UU'S celebrations for the usual holidays. Good luck – it's a big choice but just being open to the other side of the conversation means you'll have better conversations and engagement with your child.

  13. That can be tough. I was raised by atheist parents and will raise my babies the same. I didn't really grow up in a religious community at all and I didn't know many people who went to church. We grew up knowing that Christmas was a time the family was all together, there were parties, presents and super tasty food. We believed in Santa for a pretty long time. My dad also made sure we knew origins about our winter holidays and we always went out for dinner on the winter solstice and talked about why people celebrated the day. We knew other people and some family members believed in god, but we didn't. For us, it really wasn't weird. The emphasis was always family and fun. As for Easter, it was kind of the same. That's when family comes over, we eat turkey AND ham, search for Easter eggs and get some little presents. I don't think I knew Easter was a religious holiday until pretty late actually. Anyway, what I'm trying to get at is that our holidays have always been about family, good and parties. It rules! I hope any of that is helpful haha

  14. Try finding a local Unitarian Universalist church and see if you can attend activities there. They are a liberal Church and don't expect you to believe in God. They will have the community, the spirituality and all without the overhanging demand that you must believe in their god.

  15. My son just turned two and I've started wondering about how we will explain christmas to him. My husband and I are not religious, but both raised by christians. We celebrate christmas and easter.
    We've decided that we will explain to Buddy that Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus. And that he was a man with some really great ideas and teachings. We plan on leaving out the "son of god" bit and focusing more on "love thy neighbor" and "judge not lest ye be judged".

  16. My baby boy is due in April, and this topic has already been on my mind. Or at least some variation of it.

    I'm very fortunate that for the most part I come from a family of free thinkers and live in a very multicultural community. Here is what I plan to pass on to my son.

    Like some others have noted; I think it's an excellent idea to explore the beliefs and traditions of other religions and cultures with your child. Knowledge is power!!

    I hope to hit home with my son that essentially most religions have the same message – Be kind. And while the story behind the message may change, and they might not be for me (or my son if he chooses so) that it doesn't make religion a bad thing, because we should all be kind!

    When people say "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Hanukkah", or "Bless you" to me in my head it translates to "I am wishing you well", and I respond accordingly to the translation ๐Ÿ™‚

    When the right time comes, I also won't shy away from exposing him to the negative aspects of religion. But I hope that by the time we get there, he will already have a firm foundation of acceptance that will allow him to conclude that **MOST** people are kind.

  17. I was thinking of celebrating a different 'version' of Christmas each year. I want to learn, I want my sons to learn and I want to make sure they realize the classic Santa and baby Jesus holiday in December is not all the holiday season is about.

  18. I'm a little disappointed with a lot of these responses. It's not that they're terribly offensive or anything, this is obviously a delicate subject, but it seems to me that there is a lot of prejudice toward atheism here. A lot of these answers were suggestions of different religious influence, as opposed to no religious influence. I don't believe in stopping your kids from educating themselves or becoming interested in belief systems other than your own, but you also don't have to simply substitute one religion for another. There doesn't HAVE to be any religion involved in a childhood, and trust me, kids will still grow up to be curious and discover it anyway. I just felt like there were too many ideas about trying different religious traditions instead of just making new secular ones.

    • I didn't see your comment here before adding my own beneath it, but I definitely get what you mean. I grew up in a secular house because both of my parents were (in their recent words) "iffy on the God thing". I was curious as I got older and explored it on my own, no prodding necessary. I ended up an atheist, but I am a very well-informed atheist who is happy to hear about someone else's faith so long as I'm not being preached to. They raised me to be curious and respectful without ever bringing religion of any sort into our home or forcing me to learn about it.

  19. I am a little biased, but I think my parents did a really good job on that front with me and my brother. To this day, I am not really sure where their religious beliefs lie, partially because I don't think they know. My brother and I grew up in a secular household that celebrated Christmas and Easter, but without the religion. I didn't learn about the origins of Christmas until I was in school and some girl got mad at me for not knowing (easily shrugged off at the age of 5). I went home and asked a lot of questions, and my parents did their best to answer them, but admitted that they didn't know everything and didn't know if there was or wasn't a God. I was satisfied with that response, and went about my business. I should note that I grew up in a very WASPy community.

    Over the years, I attended several different church services with several well-meaning friends and their families. My parents never made me go, they left it entirely up to me. I went, I saw, I was unimpressed and unmoved. I made a point of learning about other religions as I was introduced to them, but ultimately nothing stuck. I went through a Wiccan phase at 13, a Catholic phase at 12 (very short lived, that one), and a Buddhist phase at about 15 that lasted one week. I've been to Bar Mitzvahs and Christenings, and I've had a seven year old patiently explain to me (at 21) all the different parts of a Passover dinner (she was a real champ for that). These days I identify as an atheist, and have done for several years. My parents always supported whatever religious beliefs I had, and no matter how much they may have rolled their eyes in private I didn't see a shred of evidence that they disapproved. They didn't try to influence me, but rather, gave me a safe environment to explore everything until I felt like I had come to my own conclusions. They also made a point of letting me know that my religious beliefs were my own and not any better, worse, more right or more wrong than anyone else's and that I did not have the right to judge someone else for their beliefs. They were very clear on the fact that religion is personal and not to be pushed on others, nor is atheism an excuse for being a dick to someone who is religious. My mom was very serious about the "don't judge others" thing, and I credit her for making me a better teenager than some.

    So, I mean, your mileage may vary, but I think the most important factor is support. As long as your child feels that you do not judge them or think less of them for their religious beliefs – no matter what they are or how often they change – they'll feel okay about exploring things at their own pace. I don't know if my parents were ever worried about my religious experiments. If they were, then they had some seriously awesome poker faces, and I love them all the more for it.

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