Teaching Atheist Kids “How to Be”

All parents are constantly questioning themselves.  We look at our children and wonder if we are teaching them the right things. It is natural to feel a sense of fear about raising kids. There is so much unknown and such a huge amount of risk involved in the whole endeavor. We sometimes drive ourselves so crazy that we start to believe that even the slightest misstep on our part could create a serial killer. It’s enough to give a person nightmares that wakes them drenched in sweat.

So what does an atheist do to teach their child how to be a good person?

I think most people would agree that there are two major questions about humanity:

  1. Why are we here? What is the meaning of life?
  2. How do we become who we are? (Nature vs. Nurture)

The reason that these two questions are so puzzling is that there are no cut and dry answers. The more I have seen and the more people I have met, it has become clear that often human behavior is downright bizarre. In addition, not many people seem to have a strong sense of who they are or what they are doing here on this planet.

Teaching a young child

But, here’s what is tricky: Until about age 7, children are totally unreasonable, irrational and consumed with fantasy. How do you teach a small child right from wrong and how to behave using reason when they don’t have reason yet? I tend to think that we should allow our kids to believe in things until they no longer make sense to them. Allow them to believe in Santa until they start to doubt him. Allow them to store their tooth under the pillow until they give up on the fairy. If they begin to, allow them to believe in God (or in some sort of spiritual realm) until their logic and reason say, “That doesn’t make any sense…”

I know that to many atheists this sounds insane. My husband is one of those atheists. How can we allow our own children to believe total nonsense? Well, again, we do it all of the time with fantastical creatures like leprechauns and fairies. Most kids think there is a giant life-sized bunny that brings them eggs each year. Most children, given the opportunity, will come to their own rational conclusions about the world.

My own story may shed some light on my feelings…

I wasn’t born an atheist.  I also wasn’t born a Christian or a Muslim or a Jew. I was just born. I was born to a woman searching for a spiritual identity and a father who had been forced to go to Catholic mass every Sunday throughout his childhood. There was a great sense of uncertainty in regard to religion and spirituality in my home as a kid. My father was not an atheist but, for lack of a better phrase, he didn’t seem to care. He was at peace with his life and his existence and not all that worried about what may come of him when he died. My mother was a “New Age” type. She was into numerology, astrology, crystals… the whole thing.

We went to Catholic Church on and off throughout my childhood. I’m still not totally sure why we started going, but we began attending when I was in kindergarten or 1st grade. We went to a mid-sized church in a suburban area of West Virginia. I actually really enjoyed it and looked forward to going. The priest was big and fat and downright funny, like jolly old St. Nick in a robe.

It was there, where I received my first communion and there where I began my journey into questioning God and spirituality. The first communion at a Catholic Church is an enormous deal. It takes preparation and classes and training. It’s a very special rite for which you wear specific clothing and say particular prayers. This was the first and last religious rite of passage that I went through.  

Before the “big day” I was to have a private meeting with the priest. This excited me in a way that I am not sure it did the other children about to take their first communion. I prepared questions for Father Leo and thought hard about what I wanted to talk to him about. I saw him as an expert and was very curious about his thoughts on a variety of topics.

The biggie, though… the question that was burning me up inside was:

“Is there really a hell? And, if so, how does it follow that heaven reunites us with all that we love? What if I love a person who ends up burning in hell? They won’t be in my heaven which seems unfair if I have earned eternal bliss, right?”

I asked it just like that. His sweet, doughy face softened and his eyes widened. He seemed impressed by my line of questioning, but not thrown. He said, and I quote, “I’m not so sure I believe in hell.” This was a defining moment in my life. This priest, this man of god, this “expert” on all things related to religion and holiness was not sure if there was a hell. 

We talked some more and he seemed genuinely interested in discussing every question that I had written down on my little piece of lined notebook paper. At the end of our meeting, he stood and wrapped his arm lovingly around my shoulder, then he led me out of his office. He congratulated my parents on having raised a thoughtful and bright girl and we left. As soon as we were out the doors I told my parents what he had told me. My mother seemed thrilled at his open-mindedness. My father just smiled his typical tight-lipped smile and nodded.

Later, we moved and the public schools were not great. I ended up in Catholic school at the tender age of 11. I liked it at Catholic school and the kids were nice but I never felt that I understood them. Their families went to church each Sunday. My mother sent a check to our parish each week so that I could continue to attend the school. There was a divide between myself and them.

I was startled by the things I heard and the things that the kids around me believed. None of it made a lot of sense to me.  A pope who was infallible?  A communion experience where the body and blood magically appeared in the place of the wine and crackers… but, to complicate things, they still tasted like wine and crackers.  It all seemed totally fantastical to me.  I loved taking communion because I got to drink wine which made me feel very grown up.  I didn’t mind the songs at mass, either. Other than that, none of it really resonated with me.

I spent 4 school years attending Catholic school. I do not regret my time in a parochial school. These years were definitive for me. I was an adolescent coming of age in a place where I didn’t really feel I belonged. (Yep, pretty much everyone’s story.) 

I was an avid journal writer as a child and teen and would write (and write and write…) my questions and concerns about religion and God. I believed in God as a young person but couldn’t quite figure out why. I would go to mass, on holidays, with my parents because we all seemed to think it was the appropriate thing to do. At times, I was even moved by the sermons or touched by the songs. I, however, never really bought in. It all seemed too easy and too simple, like something out of a children’s book. Say you’re sorry and all is forgiven. Make sure and say your prayers and He will listen. If you keep asking, He will eventually provide. 

I can’t say that Catholic school taught me to be Catholic but I can say it taught me not to be a jerk. There were some decent and worthwhile lessons learned in those days. For example, I learned the value of respecting other people’s views, asking a lot of questions and maintaining a sense of self. There were also many lessons to be learned about having a servant’s heart, being patient and feeling grateful. Looking back, I think my parents’ decisions about exposing me to church and religion were quite deliberate.

As I grew up and went off to college, I became less concerned with the issues of God and spirituality and I never contemplated the meaning of life much. It seemed okay with me to just believe that there was no God and that there was nothing after “this.” “This” was it. I became okay with the fact that I didn’t really know and my need to ponder these issues fell away. My father had died my senior year of high school and, in retrospect, I think it was easier not to even consider where he might be or what that might mean. I preferred to go to parties, drink from kegs and chase boys. 

The event that forced me to bring up old questions about God and religion again was becoming a mother. I had kids and, suddenly, I was more than just my own keeper. I had deep and undeniable responsibilities to these babies and my life was never going to be the same. This type of deep, unconditional love gives you a purpose in life that you can’t possibly imagine until it happens to you. It shakes your whole foundation and changes the way you see the world. I found myself feeling a need to understand life better so that I could help them to understand it too.

I began to wonder what the purpose of my life was. I knew it was to take care of them. That was instinct. But I also knew that life was fragile and that I could be gone in a moment. More terrifying, they could be gone in a moment. Its times like these when I think most atheists would agree that it would be great to just be able to “believe” and “buy in.” 

But, I just couldn’t and still can’t. I’ve had to accept that “this is it” and, though that can be more difficult than believing in Heaven, it also frees me up to enjoy my kids and my life NOW.

Governing oneself

They have not asked questions about God or religion yet and it may be years until they do. However, I think about it every day. How do I explain to them what this life is all about? What are we doing here? Why should we be good to others? Why not steal or cheat or lie? If there is no God, and I do not believe that there is, then we must govern ourselves. 

This governing of oneself is a challenge and a vast responsibility. It’s a job to do it for yourself but when you have kids it can feel overwhelming. Their father and I are tasked with teaching them how to be good men without a rule book explaining how to do so. We can’t fall back on the Bible or tell them to pray until everything gets better. It’s a life that can feel hopeless if you aren’t careful. It’s a life that requires a lot of self-awareness and a willingness to examine things from all angles. Therefore, we owe them the tools to live it well. That, for me, is what raising a child in an atheist home centers around – teaching them to be good even if they don’t have to be.

What do I want my boys to be? Good, decent, smart and open-minded. Kind to strangers. Helpful and thoughtful. Men. Real, honest to goodness, men. Men like their father and my father and all of the men who have shaped me. I look at myself and, though there is much that I need to improve, I can say I am also a decent person with a good heart. 

I try to do what’s right and strive to think of others. I think that that is because I was given the greatest gift: the ability to think for myself. I don’t want to rob my children of that skill and, therefore, am hesitant to say too much on the topic of God. 

In a world that is always telling them what it is to be a man, how they should look, what to wear and how to talk, I want them to be the kind of people who are grounded in their own sense of self and can steer their own moral ship. I want them to think freely and love deeply… no matter what. I don’t know much about parenting, but I am sure of one thing: It’s not our job to teach them who to be, it’s our job to teach them how to be.

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