An abbreviated version of this article appeared on the Good Men Project.
As a secular minded person, I find American religiosity sometimes annoying, but it’s fairly easy to ignore as an adult. During prayers at a sporting event or a public meeting, I shove my hands in my pocket or fiddle with my phone. Much like a prostate exam, it’s over soon enough. When it comes to my children, America’s brand of intrusive religiosity becomes much more sinister. In fact, it is all but impossible to raise children religiously neutral while living in America.
As only one of many examples, recently a family friend babysat our two youngest children, aged four and six. At some point, she told our children that “Jesus died for your sins and now he lives in Heaven.” She is a very nice person and I never expected her to do such a thing. Her words had no impact on my four-year-old, but my son, Ray, who is six, hasn’t stopped talking about it ever since.
“Daddy, I believe in Jesus, don’t you?” He asked me right after we picked him up.
“I don’t believe in Jesus, son,” I said. “But a lot of people do. Someday when you get older, you can decide for yourself what to believe.”
I tried to leave it, but Ray wouldn’t let it slide. The other day he asked me more questions about Heaven and then, more alarming, about Hell. I answered him the same way, telling him that I don’t believe in Heaven or Hell, but it’s okay for him to believe what he likes. Ray eventually got mad at me.
“Why don’t you believe in Heaven, Dad? I believe in Heaven. Jesus lives in heaven.” Ray is sometimes manic, so he went on and on until I was able to change the subject. He has a vivid imagination, and he’s superstitious, emotional and trusting. He’s a great mark for anyone in need of converts or souls. My only wish was to give him a few years to grow up before having to tackle the afterlife. I failed.
What is an atheist dad to do? I don’t want to tell Ray what to believe, and I refuse to force him into a box of believer, atheist or agnostic. Unlike fundamentalist parents, I believe my son has the ultimate say in the choice of his religion. At the same time, it would be silly to suggest that I let my six-year-old navigate the crowded marketplace of religion all alone.
I have struggled with this for years, because I have five kids total, aged four through nineteen. Having such a large family is rare for an atheist like me. In fact, I’m often mistaken for a Mormon in the LDS-heavy community in which I live.
I agonize over what to say to my kids on this topic, always conscious of their religious autonomy. Thoughtful secular parents are not trying to raise children to follow in our atheist footsteps, we just want the chance to share our values and let our children decide for themselves. Contrary to what religious people might think, I avoid talking about religion as much as possible with my youngest children. I would rather they were not confronted with such complex and emotional topics until they are older, but I’m constantly thwarted by well-meaning believers.
When my older kids reached a certain age, I told them that Santa Claus isn’t real and that I think Jesus is a myth. Religious people are often horrified when accidentally witnessing these talks, but if my kids are going to be exposed to religion, they are also going to be exposed to the other opinion. I can only fight what I think are superstitions and myths with sound reasoning and open discussion. It’s an imperfect solution I know and to complicate the issue I have to fight my own tendency to be derisive and dismissive of religion. I often fail there too.
In the end, all I can do is answer Ray’s questions the best I can. He might end up as a Christian, perhaps even a preacher, but I’ll be fine with whatever he decides. I’m not on earth to tell another adult how to live, but I wonder how many Christian parents are as religiously tolerant as me. I’d be curious to see the number of fundamentalist household that would be okay with an atheist son or a Wiccan daughter. Even better, I wonder what would happen if I walked into a Sunday school and told all the little kids that Jesus was a load of hogwash. I doubt believers would be very understanding.