Ask A Humanist, Vol. 2: Aren't You Denying Your Children the Opportunity to be Religious?

(This is Part 2 of an ongoing, meandering stream of undefined scope.)

There's a good joke about Unitarian Universalists. Q: "What's a Unitarian Universalist?" A: "An Atheist with children."

Religious jokes are funniest when there's an element of truth. I would never speak for Unitarian Universalists, but I have been to Unitarian Universalist services before, and I enjoyed them. Mostly because it was church without all the churchy things that make me uncomfortable about going to church. I enjoyed the music, the introspection, the communal aspects, all without the pressure to subscribe to a particular doctrine. (And yes, I realize that this is often what makes church church.) The general vibe of the services I have attended seemed to be: "Hey, it's more important that we come together as a community and celebrate the earth's broad spectrum of beliefs and philosophies than to split hairs over specific doctrines." Sure, the Unitarian church has a set of principles, but anyone can belong (even agnostics and humanists), and many religious traditions inform the service. During one particular service, I recall listening to readings from Martin Luther King, Jr., Susan B. Anthony, and at least two different holy books. So, yes, like the joke, it offered a great opportunity to introduce our children to church services without feeling dishonest about it.

Apart from being funny, the joke pinpoints a growing phenomenon in our society. Many people who were brought up in a major denomination are no longer affiliated with that denomination. Secularity is growing in all regions of the country. These people are otherwise normal people, and like religious folks, they are creating families. When their children reach the age where they start to be introduced to religious ideas, parents have to make some choices, and that presents some challenges and is a source of anxiety to many.

There are any number of ways to go about it, and I don't think that any of them are wrong. I personally know of married couples from "incompatible" religious backgrounds (I use the term "incompatible" in a purely doctrinal sense, since the couples themselves are actually quite compatible) who are no longer formally affiliated with either religion and raise their children in somewhat secular households where the children are exposed to both traditions. I also know of formerly religious married couples who are no longer very religious -- but choose to raise their children in the same structured religious background they experienced growing up. These are only a few examples of different approaches I have seen personally. Neither is more or less correct than the other.

Some of the more vocal non-believers have gone so far as to say that some forms of religious upbringing constitute child abuse.

Richard Dawkins has stated:

"Innocent children are being saddled with demonstrable falsehoods...It's time to question the abuse of childhood innocence with superstitious ideas of hellfire and damnation. Isn't it weird the way we automatically label a tiny child with its parents' religion?" 

Elsewhere he has stated:

"What can it mean to speak of a child's 'own' religion? Imagine a world in which it was normal to speak of a Keynesian child, a Hayekian child, or a Marxist child. Or imagine a proposal to pour government money into separate primary schools for Labour children, Tory children, LibDem children and Monster Raving Loony children? Everyone agrees that small children are too young to know whether they are Keynesian or Monetarist, Labour or Tory, too young to bear the burden of such labels. Why, then, is our entire society happy to slap a label like Catholic or Protestant, Muslim or Jew, on a tiny child? Isn't that, when you think about it, a kind of mental child abuse?" 

While Dawkins certainly makes some interesting, if abrasive, points, he tends to focus only on those parents who actually use the threat of hellfire in their child-rearing, or who go out of their way to label their children. As someone who grew up in a quite moderate religious household, I realize that many parents do not fit his description. However, as offensive as Dawkins' comments may be to some, it is worth asking ourselves if young children should be saddled with the theological concepts of eternal damnation, Satan, the Trinity, crucifixion, and the resurrection. It's an interesting thought experiment to imagine which religious label your child might wear if she were somehow birthed to parents in Kabul or Tel Aviv.

Obviously, for many who are religious, it is a no-brainer: the child will be taught at an early age to believe as the parents believe, because it is "true," is integral to the teaching of morality, and, as many believe, it is important to dedicate an infant to their own brand of religion (through Baptism or other rituals) as soon as possible, in the case of a an untimely childhood death.

However, for many of us who are not religious, or who do not subscribe to supernatural beliefs, these "no-brainers" do not apply. Morality predates the onset of monotheism, and evolved to promote community cohesiveness. Even today, it is important to be good for goodness' sake, for it is difficult to flourish in a society if one goes about murdering, lying, and cheating. And as for dedicating a child to a religion in the case of death -- with no evidence for an afterlife, humanists do not concern themselves with that 'what if.' Furthermore, even if there is a god, if a young child is sentenced to an eternal afterlife of hellfire, then, quite honestly, that god is a tyrannical monster.

Let me start by telling you what we don't do: We don't read Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens books to them. We don't challenge their school's use of "Under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance. We don't pull our kids out of daycare because a prayer is said before lunch. We don't send them to school in a Flying Spaghetti Monster t-shirt on class picture day.  And we don't send them to atheist summer camp.

Despite our lack of religiosity as parents, we believe that it is of utmost importance to raise religiously literate children. Unless your children are homeschooled, or otherwise isolated from interacting frequently with others, they will stumble into any number of religious conversations, or be asked religious questions.  They will ask questions themselves. Religion informs every aspect of life on earth: politics, science, war, foreign policy, popular culture, law, education, art, literature, music, and so on. The histories and the beliefs of world religions are as important as the histories and political systems of governments.

In my family, although we don't pray or belong to a church, we do not shield our children from religion. We discuss it often. As various religious holidays approach, we learn about them together. We will often take part in religious activities, from a variety of religious traditions, and use these moments as an opportunity to explore the beliefs of different religions. We discuss the parts of the world where these traditions originate (and even when and why they may have originated). We take note of people here in our own community who may observe different religious holidays. We find ways to find meaning in these varying traditions as they might relate to our own lives, or as they relate to the people who practice said religion. We use opportunities, like the death of a pet, or a natural disaster, to discuss various religious ideas about suffering, death and dying.  As parents, we try to always say, "Many people believe this," or "Nobody knows for sure." And when we are asked point blank by our children, "What do you believe?" we are honest with them. Most often we respond that we are not certain ourselves, which is entirely true. Or we may state that we have a hard time accepting X or Y based on what we know about the universe. We ask our children from time to time if they would like to attend a church, or if they ever feel different for not belonging to one. Like many parents, we would do most anything (within reason) for our children, and we would not draw the line at taking them to church, if that were what they wanted.  But one thing we don't do as parents is state definitively that there is no God.  We wish to promote critical thinking and self-exploration, and want them to draw their own conclusions if and when they feel comfortable doing so.

We acknowledge the comfort that can come with certain beliefs ("It is nice to think that our pets and loved ones go to a wonderful place when they die, isn't it?"), without stating that whether this is true or false (how can we say for sure?) We may state that Grandma or Grandpa believes X or Y, or that this uncle or that aunt believes A or B. The important message is that all of these people whom we love believe many similar things, but they also may have some beliefs that are very different.

When it comes to holidays, as parents of Christian heritage, we participate to some degree in Christmas, Easter, and other Christian traditions. We talk about the stories from scripture associated with these holidays. If asked about whether these stories are true, we don't provide any definitive answer, but will state that many people do believe that these are true stories, whereas others believe they contain varying elements of myth. We will ask our children to think critically about the stories when they ask, and we support them if and when they wish to believe they are true.

Although we may not be practicing Christians, this is our heritage, and this connects us to our families and to our ancestors prior to their arrival in America. And certainly there is the power of nostalgia. Who does not like to revisit the feelings associated with joyful moments from our childhood? Christmas is a beautiful tradition, full of hope, joy, and peace. And to those who feel that by participating we are co-opting or secularizing their holiday, I would remind them that this 'co-opting' occurs with any number of holidays and cultural celebrations. Christians are certainly allowed to participate in the pagan Halloween ritual. And non-Irish folks can wear green on St. Patrick's Day and drink green beer if they desire.  It should also be pointed out that many of the Christmas rituals that my family takes part in (decorations, gift-giving, lights, etc.) predate the Christmas holiday, and were adopted from other winter festivals. Not that we need this as an excuse to participate in holiday rituals that have been in our families for generations and generations, but people often do like to point out what they see as 'have your cake and eat it too' hypocrisy.

We don't feel that we are in any way denying our children the opportunity to will be religious.  In fact, we would argue the opposite. Their religious beliefs, like ours, will be determined by their life experiences, and by the knowledge they accumulate as they navigate through these experiences. They know what God means to most people.  They know many of the key figures of The Bible and many of the more popular (and age-appropriate) narratives.  They know about Ramadan and Hanukkah.  They know about Buddha. They know about Zeus. We do our best to provide them with the tools to make their own decisions, but most importantly we hope to instill in them the understanding that religion comes in many forms.  It can be the source of much good in the world, and, like anything else, it can also be used to promote suffering.  We teach them that they must respect those who use religion for good, and that they must stand up for those who are unfairly maligned or who suffer unjustly as a result of religious beliefs. We reassure them that it is okay if their views on religion change over time, that their religious beliefs will continue to evolve throughout their entire lives, that they should never feel ashamed by their beliefs, and they should respect those who believe differently.

Many argue that by raising children in such a way does not ground them, or leads to confusion or a lack of identity. Or that they will be less likely to do good deeds if there is no promise of reward or punishment.  I would respond by stating that knowledge, literacy, open-mindedness, and compassion serve as a fine foundation for a child to shape their identity. Inherent in these traits is the understanding that to minimize suffering in the world is an imperative. To do harm is to ostracize yourself from your fellow human beings, and to cause destruction to the earth is to deny your descendants the same good fortune you have been afforded.  These are axioms on which a moral framework can be based. These ideas are far from being arbitrary or subjective. They are universal and nearly every religion in existence shares this framework. If and when a child aligns herself with a religious belief system, there is no requirement to undo the framework that is already in place. In short, this is a foundation on which one can layer any religious belief or philosophy.

Some religious folks might argue that it is our duty to impose religious beliefs on our children which we believe to be true. Many believe that we must plant the seeds early or perhaps lose them to a life without God.  I would respond to this by stating that if a religion is "true," then it should find its way to one who is navigating  life with compassion, critical thinking skills, and an open mind. And, just as a child who is taught at a young age that their race is better than another, a child who is taught that their religion is "better" or "truer" than the others is primed for prejudice before they have developed an awareness of religious diversity.

I am a liberal, Democrat, Red Sox fan, with an affinity for literature and coffee. I would not love my sons any less if they grew up to be Republican Yankee season ticket holders with no stomach for books or caffeine, as long as they got there honestly through life experience and critical thought. (Actually, I take that thing back about the Yankees.)

At the end of the day, we will be the first to admit that our approach may be experimental in some regards.  At times, we completely wing it. We absolutely are aware that, in some ways, our children may have a harder time than we did as a result of our approach. That is certainly not lost on us. As parents, both of us are raising our children, as it relates to religion, differently than either of us were raised by our own parents. And it is important to note that neither of us feel at all that our parents went about it the wrong way. For if they had not raised us the way they did, we would not be the people we are now. We would not have found each other, and we would not have had these wonderful children. Without the upbringing we each had, we would not have developed the confidence, the compassion, or the intuition to navigate this uncharted territory.

Luckily, secular parents have more resources today than they have had at any time in history.  Dale McGowan has edited and co-authored two wonderful books on non-religious parenting, Parenting Beyond Belief and Raising Freethinkers. The actress and comedienne Julia Sweeney has a fantastic one-woman show, Letting Go of God, in which she details with great compassion, insight, and humor her transition from Catholic nun-wannabe to secular adult and parent. There are secular parenting groups, charities, and other organizations popping up all across the globe. There are blogs, forums, and seminars. But as any parent would tell you, religious or not, parenting is something that, for the most part, does not come from a book.  And as John Lennon said, "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans."

When it comes down to it, all parents want the same thing: to raise healthy, compassionate children, and to equip them with all the tools they need to navigate through life. All of us are trying to do it as honestly as we can. This is just one of those ways.

Ask a Humanist


  1. Yeah, if my children were Yankee fans or *shudder* Michigan fans, I'd certainly think less of them.

    I know that kids are going to learn from the example you set, not the things you say or make them do. Most kids will rebel against whatever orthodoxy is hoist upon them. But they tend to fall right back in when they have kids, because they have no real understanding to begin with.

    My goal is to provide a foundation of critical thought and skepticism, which they are free to do with as they choose. To build the desire look for an explanation, and never to accept magic as a viable one. Of course, that they know to question everything, means they too often question me. But that's a side-effect I'm willing to live with. :)

    I do not fear them going to church, because I know I've inoculated them against superstition. Reason shall win out in the end.

  2. Great post. Seriously. So many points here exactly what I've found myself explaining to people. Right down to having visited UU services and being on the same side of the Red Sox/Yankees divide. My additional *shudder* moment is the thought of my kids growing up to be Duke fans, a legitimate concern in this area. I won't love them any less if they don't go to UConn (my alma mater) ... but if they come to me one day with Duke applications, I may have to pull a Redd Foxx and feign the Big One.

  3. wow...so much of what you said resonates for me as a child of a church of christ minister...where not only was being a christian the only option, but actually church of christ being the only option for christians...as a young child i embraced it and was baptised at the age of ten of my own volition...or was it??!! i began to question when my parents divorced at the tender age of 13..the church of christ did not accept ministers who were divorced so in one fell swoop my family fell apart and we had to suffer rejection from our church family...church made me feel "dirty" from that time on and it affected my personal development on so many levels...thankfully my brother, 10 years my elder had begun his questioning much earlier..he had followed tradition and became a church of christ youth minister, then hospital chaplain with rigorous training in THEOLOGY not just christianity...it was a brutal break, but he decided that his truth was different from what we had been indoctrinated with as children...he in fact is a UU minister...my own experience as a young single mother was confusing for me since i had to struggle with the feeling that i had alienated myself from my family in many ways, but all the while trying to raise my son to be a thinker and not burden him with the closed world of religion that i had to endure...i too tried to expose him to alteranative views to my own undefined beliefs (we all but "grew up" together spiritually)...at the age of 46 i still struggle with what i see as truth and my belief or non belief in god...my son has not had to suffer as i did the feeling of shame and rejection that i have felt and i feel thankful for my ability to help him to develop his own belief system free of guilt and shame...i still struggle with what to believe...the biggest kicker for me was the complete deletion of any mention of jesus' life from 12-30 in the bible...wtf??!! suffice to say that i appreciate the opportunity to participate in discussions that don't make me feel like a dirty sinner...thank you for sharing your perspective and experiences eric...

  4. These are both truly beautiful posts! Thank you for expressing this all so well. And for whatever it's worth, the way you are raising your children is the way that I was raised (and that I, in turn, am raising my children) and it has never left me feeling empty or that I lost anything. On the contrary, I have enjoyed learning about different religions and participating in cultural rituals that connect me with my ancestors. My morals and ethical codes are in full working order and I am in daily awe of the wonder of the natural world. I have watched people who were raised in very religious homes struggle with what might "wrong" with them that they didn't believe and it's very sad. Though I guess not sadder than people who never stop to ask questions or think for themselves.

    We never had a label for it, it was just what was normal for us, but I think raising your children to be free-thinking compassionate people can only be a good thing.

  5. Holy shit (not a religious statement)--you wrote here what my husband and I are constantly saying when we discuss the role of religion in educating our children, right down to the "We are not sure" and other responses. So, obviously, I think this is a great post. Our basis is what you've described: "Despite our lack of religiosity as parents, we believe that it is of utmost importance to raise religiously literate children," and for the same reasons.

    One thing we do argue about (it's not really an argument, but anyway)...is, is it possible to be a secular Christian, i.e., one brought up in and observing some of these traditions of Christianity without the underlying beliefs?

    By the way, I homeschool two of our children (secular homeschool, very science heavy), and we're currently studying world religions.

  6. Emily - I wondered if I'd find another homeschooler reading here! (I came in by way of Parents Beyond Belief.) By the time you pile "homeschooling" on top of "non-religious" you get to a pretty small group. And for the record, my kids aren't isolated - I wish we stayed home more, it would make for a much less hectic schedule!

  7. I had to come over from PBB too after reading the "homeschooled=isolated" line there. This article is great (and I'm glad I came over and read the whole thing) but talk about labeling kids.... especially since I know of far more (privately) schooled kids who aren't allowed to associate with kids outside their religion than homeschooled.

    It is a great series of articles though!

  8. The point being made above -- homeschooling does not equal isolation -- is a valid one. It was not the intention to generalize about this large swath of the population. I know many homeschoolers who do a wonderful job in raising their children, and in teaching their children about the diverse cultures, ideologies, etc. that are represented across the globe.

    I do need to be more careful not to generalize homeschooling. I admit that, in writing this piece, I had in mind the large number of people who homeschool for the purpose of shielding their children from certain ideologies, or for censoring curriculum that they feel is at odds with their religious beliefs. Many of these children are indeed sheltered from experiencing the spectrum of ideas that a public education might provide.

    But to your point, there are many homeschoolers who do not fit the above description, and who are religiously literate and well-rounded.

    1. "We don't know" and "nobody knows for sure" are disingenuous, borderline dishonest, answers. If your kids watch The Little Mermaid, do you tell them that "nobody knows for sure" whether or not mermaids are real? No, of course you don't, because we've been studying marine biology for a long time, and although we don't have a definitive and complete listing of aquatic life that exists (or used to exist) on the planet, the complete lack of evidence of mermaids makes it an unreasonable thing to entertain as a serious possibility.

      It is intellectually dishonest to treat the supernatural differently. Further, you strengthen religion by acting like a reasonable person on most accounts and then arbitrarily deciding to abandon rational thought and pretend that this one particular flavor of unsubstantiated, nonsensical bigotry "might be" right.

      You're not helping to fix the problem by sweeping it under the rug, and I can't think of a good reason why you'd want your children to have the opportunity to grow up believing bigoted garbage. Yeah, it's always tougher (at first) to go against the grain. But it's cowardly not to, and it doesn't help society to advance. Be a Winston, not a Neville.