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Today our son asked us what “god” is. He started kindergarten last week, and has religious grandparents, but has never been to church or had any kind of religious upbringing due to myself and his father being staunch atheists.

How do you have the atheist talk? We don’t believe in any religion, therefore we don’t have any literature, examples, or classes to give him. We tried to explain what other people think “god” is, but just couldn’t find the words to describe it. He ended up thinking that there is a god who is a magician who lies to people, which is not what we want him to think. — Jen

We’ve discussed talking about religious deities with your kids, but not about telling your kid you don’t believe in any religion at all. What have you guys tried?

Comments on How do you tell your kid you’re an atheist?

    • i’ve JUST finished reading this book myself, and also found it really useful. it doesn’t prescribe a way of talking about atheism, but gives a lot of different perspectives and personal anecdotes from a range of different atheists from varied backgrounds. worth a read.

  1. Keep it simple and ask him what he thinks. Children even as old as 5 or 6 live in a magical world: Don’t have money, go to the ATM it will give you money (Like there is an endless supply) And they should live in that world… God is an easy concept – someone created the house they live in, therefore someone created the world they live in. Just because he believes that now, does not mean he will in the future. As he learns more and more about the world and science and what you and your spouse believe, his beliefs will change. A good book on this is “Raising Freethinkers” by Dale McGowen

    • I understand what you’re saying here, but hoping that your child’s beliefs will change to match yours doesn’t exactly sound like “raising a freethinker” to me. My partner and I were both raised Catholic, but neither of us believe in religion ourselves, and our parents respect that. Personally, I feel that it is wrong to force religion onto others, but isn’t forcing a lack of religion onto someone, even your own child, the same thing? Why not arm your children with a broad range of information about different religious beliefs, and lack thereof, and let them gradually come to their own conclusions about it?

  2. As both an atheist and a Theology minor, I would suggest starting in the dictionary (or Wikipedia, but be careful). Explain that you don’t believe this thing exists; it’s like pretend stuff (give some example he’s familiar with, like unicorns). But also explain that some people do believe in it. Then try some other books if he’s still interested. I like Molloy’s “Experiencing the World’s Religions.” If he finds the whole concept fascinating and you think both you and he can handle it, try talking to people of various religions to see how they would explain god.

  3. I find it heartening that when asked about religion, the atheists who commented here not only gave rational responses, but also offered up book suggestions–demonstrating that often times, it’s better to defer to an expert.

    As for my contribution, Richard Dawkin’s new children’s book, The Magic of Reality, launches on October 4: http://amzn.com/1439192812 .

    I’m also a big fan of the Flying Spaghetti Monster metaphor, as well as a healthy dose of evolution/history discussion. For the latter two, I recommend either The Cartoon Guide to Genetics: http://amzn.com/0062730991 or The Cartoon Guide to the History of the Universe: http://amzn.com/0385265204 (the former I read when I was 11). They’re great counterbalances to the mythology some confuse for fact from the bible.

  4. I grew up in a church, my parents are still active in church, but I myself am an atheist. My mom sometime takes my daughter to sunday school and I’m okay with it. I explain to her that that’s what some people believe in, but there are lots of other things people believe in. As long as she believes in being a good honest person that’s all I could as for.

  5. My parents weren’t religious, but they brought me up to be very respectful of other people’s religion, to understand the importance some people place on it. My parents impressed on me the cultural importance it plays. That church is a place where people gather together in a community group. My parents encouraged my friends’ parents to bring me to their religious services so I got to go to a bunch of different kinds, so it was clear from the start there was no one “right” religion. I went to Sunday School to learn about the bible stories and learn why we have holidays built around them.

    You could bring him to a church recommended by friends and have the priest explain what they God means to them. They may even have a Sunday School teacher or youth group leader who can explain it in terms that a kid could understand. You could bring him to several religious organizations and get a different answer from each, help show him that everyone understands the concept differently.

  6. I found the book “Good without God” to be pretty good in terms of suggesting atheist (and/or humanist) resources, both in terms of books and community organizations, websites, etc.

  7. What about something like this? “Some people like to believe that there’s a powerful, invisible creature who rules the universe. The word for this kind of creature is ‘god.’ Lots of people have believed in lots of gods throughout history. [Maybe you can share some stories from world mythology, including defunct religions like the ancient Greek pantheon.] We don’t believe in any gods because no one has ever proved that one exists. People who don’t believe in any gods are called atheists.”

    • Just FYI, there are still people who worship the ancient Greek gods. There are also people who worship the pantheons of the ancient Egyptians, Celts, Norse, Mayans (who aren’t that ancient, but still), etc. etc. Some of these folks consider themselves “reconstructionists,” as in, attempting to worship their gods in similar ways to their cultures of origin, while others have more loosely adapted their religious beliefs to suit modern times.

      Since the Neopagan and otherwise pagan religions have been continuously on the rise for the last half century, it would probably be advisable, when teaching your children about religion, to include the fact that many people worship multiple gods, not just one.

      • I didn’t realize the Greek gods were still worshiped by some people, though I did know the Celtic, Egyptian, and Norse pantheons are included in some pagan worship. Thanks for posting this information! I hope my (apparently inaccurate) use of the word “defunct” didn’t cause offense.

      • You don’t think Mayans are ancient? The Mayans are a very old people. They didn’t just spring up when the Spaniards found them. Lol

  8. this is a hard one, we ended up just telling the kids about lots of different religions, from Greek Mythology to Jesus. I’ve got 5 freethinking kids and one Buddhist now, so I guess we didn’t do to badly overall. It let to some hilarious stuff when they were little though. My oldest told her whole class that baby’s come out of mommy’s vag – instead of the myth the other kids had been told. And my oldest boy came home from Kindergarten during Easter thinking Jesus was a Zombie and all the sudden we had a couple of weeks of Egg hunting zombies where all the kids ran around slobbering ‘eeeeggggs! eeegggggs!’ I let my oldest daughter go to church with a friend a couple of times and she ended up wanting to ‘kill herself to be with Jesus’ when she was 7. So no more church – sorry! So basically we just told them about all religions. We even used them in homeschooling. We’d pick various holidays to celebrate, dress up like we were from Germany or India, cook the food, try some words out and generally have fun. We also live in the South where the kids are exposed to A LOT of Christians and are regularly asked now that they are at public school what church they attend. So being exposed to ALL religions at home, when only ONE religion is what they see outside the home definitely gave them some much needed widening of their horizons.

    • rofl “eeeeeeggggggs!eeeeeeeggggggggggs!”

      I think I am going to try this out this Easter. Your children are brilliant! 🙂

      • It’s really really easy. If you are a non-Christian and have never even HEARD of that mythos at age 5, what are YOU going to think when you hear the phrase ‘rose from the dead’ Oh yeah, braaaaaiiiins.

          • …especially during the Catholic mass when everyone gets all solemn and says “It is right to give him thanks and praise” – I go to church with my family on Christmas Eve and still expect everyone to raise their arms straight out ahead of them a la Day of the Dead.

  9. I see it as a time to exercise their critical thinking, after the initial explanation of what some people believe.

    On Facebook, we have a group for atheists (and friends). It’s a secret group (as in it won’t show up on your profile and people can’t see who is in it unless they’re also a member). We’re mostly atheists/agnostics, mostly parents, mostly intactivisit, mostly AP, and mostly love either Harry Potter or Eric Northman (except for the menfolk in the group). You’re all welcome to join: http://www.facebook.com/groups/160883833976115/

    I hope it’s fine to mention the group here, btw. I’m not necessarily promoting the group (even if I were, I wouldn’t profit from more members), just hoping to let others know about a helpful group.

  10. When I was really little, my parents told me that in the “olden days”, people didn’t know what made the world, so they thought that a guy named God made it. It was a good explanation, except I was in for a surprise when I went to school and realized people were still religious. I’m going to have to add an explanation about that when I explain it to my own kid.

  11. I’m a Christian who was raised by Agnostic/Atheist parents (I chose my religion when I was 16 and old enough to decide what I believed and could understand what I was committing to, which was exactly what my parents hoped for me) and their take was along the lines of “Christianity/Judaism/Islam/Buddhism/Hinduism/Wicca/ect. is a religion that believes in ____________. It’s neither right nor wrong to believe that, and here is where it overlaps with other religions that we’ve previously discussed. As usual it’s a way that people explain how we got here, why people know the difference between right and wrong, and explain things that they don’t have control over (I.E. there’s a reason for everything, what happens when we die).” And it was always stressed that I should keep an open mind until I’ve done my research and understand where people from other religions are coming from. Even if you don’t believe in any organized religion (or in one particular one) I still think it’s important to educate children about multiple religions in a way that pays respect to the followers and teaching them the facts.

  12. I think that’s a really nice way of putting it, Colleen. A lot of the problems we have in the world today come from a lack of understanding- ultimately, any fundamentalist (and I include Richard Dawkins in that) fosters an ‘I’m-right-you’re-wrong’ attitude, and we all know how annoying that is when it comes to parenting choices, let alone anything else! It’s fine to raise children without religion (after all, China appears to have done ok without a mainstream religion), but as with all things, understanding of what others think as well as what you believe is the key.

  13. We are in this exact same boat right now. Our child is simply being curious when he asks about religion so we just treat it as any other question. We share with him that we are lucky enough to live somewhere that allows people to choose what they want to believe. We happen to believe that we have complete control over how we live our lives (our manners, how we choose to treat people, the way we present ourselves to others, our honesty), and we can be good without worrying that if we mess up, we’ll be punished by an unseen god. Everyone believes something different and that’s completely okay, it makes life more exciting!

  14. thank you for posting this question! i’ve been struggling this with topic for over a year after making poor decisions about when my son was introduced to religion.
    when i was about 7, my family moved closer to my dad’s parents, who were very religious. my mom let them take me to church and i am thankful for that time spent with my grandparents. a couple years after that, a woman at that church made some deragatory remarks about people who are gay and i told my mom it upset me and i decided not to ever go to church again. so when my son was first born, i thought letting him go to church with his grandparents would be the same bonding time i had with mine and when he didn’t want to go anymore, he would tell me. what i forgot was that i wasn’t taught about religion until i was old enough to separate fact from fiction and already knew my own morals. after several months i started to realize my error and struggled with how to tell my ‘in-laws’ they couldn’t take the kids to church anymore, and why. i was finally able to stand up for what i believe and what i’d like to teach my children after i caught my son saying ‘amen.’ they don’t go to church anymore, but i have been wondering when the questions might start and how i’ll respond to being asked about god.
    so again, thank you for this post, and thank you all for the helpful responses. (:

  15. When I was in grade 3 (about 8 years old) I came home from school upset because “Everyone is a Christian except me, and that means the Devil is controlling me and I’m going to die and go to Hell”. My father’s response was to take my sister and I to church (a nice, relaxed United one) for a year. Just one year – just to get an idea of it. We always knew it was temporary, just to see what people mean when they say ‘Christian’. Somewhere during that time, I started to ask my dad about dinosaurs and evolution, and was confused about what I was learning at school versus what I was learning at church – and so he explained that everyone believes different things, and he explained to me that one day I’ll figure out what I believe, and told me how important it is that I not let anyone tell me what to believe, and also how important it is to let other people believe what they want, and not expect them to see everything my way.

  16. I was about 3 or 4 when I had this conversation with my dad. I went to a day care center that had a lot of christian kids (who told me I was going to hell because I didn’t know who god or jesus were) but was raised in a very atheist home. My dad told me that “God” was a metaphor for good. After he explained what a metaphor was, I very quickly surmised that (according to what he was telling me anyway) there was no God. I’m still a religion-free heathen. I don’t know how I’d do things differently though… or if I would… He was being very gentle about it but I guess he wasn’t expecting me to be so quick on the uptake of what he was saying.

  17. First, let me say how awesome it is that this thread is completely respectful and conversational. So many times religion comes up and people get so pushy, grouchy, and nasty (which seems really strange, since most religions emphasize the importance of kindness).
    Secondly, I’m really excited there is a post on this. My son is only 6 months old. but my husband and I are already starting to talk about the religion issue. We were both raised Catholic. My parents are very devout (I went to Catholic school for a few years and was homeschooled for a few years), but my husband’s parents are pretty lax. Both sides are hounding us to have our son baptized but we just aren’t feeling it. My husband is vocally atheist, where as I’m just disillusioned with the Church (that whole gay marriage thing really upsets me). We don’t want to stand in front of people and promise to raise our son a certain way if we don’t really intend to do that. It’s strikes me as disrespectful.
    But with grandparents that are so religious, how do we explain that to him? I want him to discover religion for himself, not have it forced upon him.

    • My SO and I don’t have kids yet, but we’re going to be facing the same thing. We’ve decided to just tell them that the kid(s) are not going to be baptized and if they have a problem with that they are free to take time out to deal with it themselves. Maybe in a few years I’ll let you know how it turns out.

  18. I always follow whatever explaination I give with, “What do you think?” I also try to use the word, “I”, as in “I believe ____________. What do you believe?” I’m trying to impress upon them that their opinions can differ from mine.

  19. I think a nice discussion about why you don’t believe in god during a visit to a natural history or science museum would help. For awhile, the St Louis Science Museum had a Darwin exhibit and I took my nephews through and explained evolution while looking at replicas of hominid ancestors. I think it really helped to have that visualization in front of them. Their dads are Christian, but my sister and I are agnostic/atheist (it’s a bit fluid at times) and she wanted my help in explaining our viewpoint.

  20. I recommend looking into a Unitarian Universalist church. They’re a liberal faith (I’m atheist, and I believe most of the congregation I go to is atheist/agnostic/deist or drawing from many religions).

    They do great religious education for youngins (and adults), focused on tolerance and knowledge.

    Plus, it’s a good social gathering, minus the guilt and brimstone.

    • Different UU congregations can be completely different from one another. We have three in our city, and one (the oldest) is very “churchy” – picture High Church without much mention of god. One is very Wiccan/pagan/earth-centered. The one I attend is where most of the atheists end up – we’re pretty secular-humanist.

      They are ALL very respectful of people’s beliefs, but some will be better at giving a well-rounded view of religion than others (mine is terrible at it, the earth-centered one is pretty good).

  21. I agree with Sarah.
    According to some people my wife and I met when checking out our local Unitarian Univeralist “churches” it’s where “Atheists take their children for Sunday school”.
    When I eventually foster and/or get pregnant I’ll be taking my kids there. They teach everything from Christianity to Buddhism to Athiesm to Wiccan.
    I think it gives kids good tools to decide for themselves what path they want to take and also to be able to grasp different concepts/identities as everybody holds different beliefs in an open and accepting environment.
    Just a thought! It’s also a good place to meet tons of like-minded parents.
    xx
    D

  22. this is a great conversation that i wish my parents had been able to read and take part in when i was i a child! They were both pretty atheistic, but liked the structure, community, and morals that the church down the road from us instilled. i, however, was on different wavelength and protested to the maximum my going to church and sunday school. Always make sure that your son has a choice about things,otherwise, it will just create an aversion to whatever is being forced. For example, if he wants to praise jesus at every meal, let him!

  23. I have a feeling that I’ll have to explain this to my kid once they learn what the word “heathen” is, and why daddy calls mommy that hahah

  24. This is one of the first posts I’ve read on OBM and I’m so glad I did! Hubs and I are both atheists (I always have been, his is a recent move from Catholicism). My daughter spent Kindergarten in northern Alabama and came home from school with a lot of religious beliefs. When she asks me I try to tell her “Well, a lot of people believe this or that” without going in too much to what I believe. I don’t want her to think that she has to believe what we believe just because we’re her parents. She has held on to her ideas of god and jesus (whatever she learns from kids at school at this point). I really want to educate her on a lot of the different religious beliefs found around the world so she can make her own decision. I don’t want to force her in to any one belief (or disbelief).
    The closest I’ve come to telling her “I’m an atheist” was when she asked if we were celebrated the birth of jesus for Christmas. I told her that hubs and I don’t believe in jesus in that way, but that she could celebrate that if she wanted to. It’s hard when they’re 6.

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