Choosing Your Child’s Religion

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.

About Edwin Lyngar

Edwin Lyngar is a writer and author living in Reno, Nevada. He graduated from Antioch University in 2010 with his MFA in creative writing and also holds an MA in Writing from the University of Nevada Reno. He is published often in boating trade publications, and he blogs about religion, politics, circumcision, drug reform and just about anything else that might piss off your mom. He is married to Joy Lyngar, and has five children from ages 3 to 18. He is in the process of finding a home for his first book, a memoir, titled Guy Parts.
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5 Responses to Choosing Your Child’s Religion

  1. Richard Evans says:

    Ed there is telling another person how to live and then there is discussing religion. How to live entails much more than a religious choice. Are you suggesting it is not okay to question a persons belief? Or to have a discussion? I hope not. They would not think twice about indoctrinating your child or you. While I agree telling someone how to live, which goes way beyond religion is not advisable or worthy, telling someone what you think about their belief is not out of the question.
    I am very happy non of my sons are believers. Is that wrong?

  2. William Weber says:

    Ed, I like pretend. Let’s play pretend. Let’s pretend there are unicorns and fairies. It is fun to pretend. I like to pretend there is a heaven and Jesus. Jesus floats in the clouds. Let’s pretend Jesus died for our sins. That means he was punished for something we did. Do you think it is right for someone else to be punished for something you did? I wish I never had to be punished for things I did wrong. Sometimes being punished for doing wrong is how we learn like if you touched a hot stove and burned yourself. How would you ever learn about hot if every time you burned your finger someone else felt the pain? I like stories about Jesus. Have you ever heard about Aesop’s fables? I like all kinds of stories.

  3. Ronald Kappes says:

    I think you would agree that besides food, water & shelter the main aim of parents should be the education of their children. They should know the truth. I presume you would have no problem answering a geography question (yes son there is a Romania, contrary to what some people say) but for some unfathomable reason you exclude superstition & magic from the curriculum. I greatly admire your non judgmental, tolerant, loving view of your children’s growth, but unless I’m missing something you’re being naive about the pervasiveness of religious type thinking. Religions prey on the young because they are particularly vulnerable. They insert their memes at this early age so they can fester “under the radar” for the rest of their lives. Unfortunately, this foolish baby sitter upset your applecart & she won’t be the first. Consider it the first “shot across your bow.” This would be a perfect time to impart some critical thinking skills; for example, it would be easy to explain the “argument from ignorance” in an age appropriate, non judgmental way. I don’t think You should be so neutral & I think your son would welcome it.

  4. Brad says:

    Consider for a moment that you may be wrong. Consider that there is a Heaven and a Hell and that Jesus is the only way to save your son from Hell.
    Now consider your son’s future.
    I for one have considered that you might be right. If you are, and I accept atheism, nothing will change at the end of my life. But if you are wrong . . .

    • Ronald Kappes says:

      Brad: It sounds like you’re trying to introduce Pascal’s Wager “under the radar. ” Please don’t insult our intelligence.

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