PBS: How unbelievers should talk to their kids about faith

April 4, 2015 • 10:00 am

Author Wendy Thomas Russell, a nonbeliever, just came out with a new book, Relax, It’s Just God: How and Why to Talk to Your Kids About Religion When You’re Not Religiousand PBS (the Public Broadcasting System) gave her a platform to talk about in. Her article, “10 commandments for talking to your kid about religion,” isn’t too bad, though I will grouse about a few. But at least there’s some advice out there to help heathen parents prepare their kids to enter a world of delusional faith. I suspect the time is ripe for such a book, and predict it will do pretty well.

Here are her commandments (her own words are indented, and these are excerpts, not the full article):

1. Expose your kids to many religions.  Okay, but not at the expense of science (see below).

2. Embrace the ‘graven image’ of science. Russell says this:

A “graven image” is described as anything worshipped in place of God — whether it be other gods or demons, power, pleasure or money. Because science is something that can be valued in place of God, it’s possible to consider science a graven image. So be it. For every religious book you read, tell your kids one cool thing about the real world. Evolution, the stars and planets, you name it. But, remember, you need not set up religion and science as opposing forces — the way religious people often do. Present the facts. Your kids likely will figure the rest out on their own, and it will mean more when they do.

Well, we don’t “worship” science, and that should be imparted directly: tell the kids that science is a method, not a body of facts, and that it can be wrong, and is certainly incomplete. But I firmly believe that educating children about the methods of science, rather than presenting it as a body of received wisdom, is not only more useful, but is also more correct.

And really, you should be presenting to your kids a lot more facts about the real world than you do religious books. Seriously, you read the whole Bible to them and then, as a palliative, tell them that the closest living terrestrial relative to whales is the hippo? How is that “balance”?  Finally, we’re hearing from lots of believers that religion and science are not opposing forces, so where does Russell get the notion that the faithful see them as inimical? Many see evolution and the Big Bang as inimical to their own faith, and see science and religion as sometimes in conflict, but by and large liberal religionists don’t “set up religion and science as opposing forces”. That’s my job!

3. Don’t saddle your kids with your anxiety over the word ‘God’

The Pledge of Allegiance. The Girl Scout Promise. The motto written on American money. There is religion all around us, even in school. But it need not be a crisis. Let your kid know that God is a part of our culture’s language, its songs, its poetry, its monuments and its works of art.

Good enough; they’ll have to face a God-soaked culture—at least if they’re American.

4. Keep in mind: There’s nothing wrong with faith

Faith in the supernatural is only as good or bad as the people who possess it. Most of the people your kids will meet during their lifetimes will have something wonderful to offer the world; that “something” may be accomplished despite belief in a higher power, or it may be accomplished because of it.

Dead wrong! There’s nothing “right” with faith! Teach your kids to believe things in proportion to the evidence behind it. Yes, not all religious people are bad, or use their faith as a club to beat others or a lever to influence politics. Remember, “faith,” even as defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as well as in the Bible, is belief without sufficient evidence to warrant strong confidence.

5. Honor your mother’s faith

Knowing someone’s religion is a far cry from knowing her beliefs; knowing her “label” is a far cry from knowing her heart.

Just because you’re a nonreligious parent doesn’t mean you have to shield your child from religious family members. If you give your child a context in which to hear about Grandma’s religion — or Cousin Suzie’s or Neighbor Bob’s — you won’t mind so much when those conversations arise. It may benefit Grandma to be able to talk with your child about her faith, and it may benefit your child to hear about faith from someone he knows and loves. And, as long as you’ve set the scene up front in a gentle, non-judgmental way, there should be very little worry. For example, you might say: “Some people believe that a magic power, often called God, created the universe and is watching over us. And many people say that if you believe in God, you will go to live with God in a place called heaven after you die. That’s why it’s so important to Grandma that you believe what she does.”

Here we have Russell telling kids not only to not question Grandma’s faith (is that really so wrong?), but also to “believe what she does,” i.e., play along with Grandma’s delusions.  It’s fine to listen to believers, but you don’t have to buttress them. The grandmother of a young child is not liable to be on her deathbed, and might benefit from a little pushback.

6. Don’t kill your kid’s good time. 

A child’s age, certainly, will dictate the tenor of your conversations about God, and which stories are appropriate to share. But don’t forget to have some fun. Go to the library and dig up as many interesting-looking books as you can. The more pictures, the better. And don’t just offer flat readings of the stories; inject the stories about Jesus with all the drama and excitement with which they were probably intended. The same goes for tales of Abraham and Shiva and Mohammed and Zeus and all the other religious figures, both past and present. The more fun the stories are, the more your kids will want to hear them, and the more likely they’ll be to remember them. And that’s good. What kids don’t know can hurt them — and that’s especially true when it comes to religion.

I suspect that injecting such stories with drama and excitement will give them extra credibility. If you must tell kids about Jesus, begin the tale with “Once upon a time.” But why not reach all your kids about the wonder of reality? Why inundate them with religious stories and neglect the science, giving them one bare scientific fact for every entire story about Vishnu or Jesus?

7. Don’t be a jerkwad.

Here’s the thing: When it comes to religion, most humans believe their way is the best way, the right way. But conviction need not translate into being snarky, arrogant or mean. There is nothing at all wrong with criticizing people for saying hateful things or doing harmful things. But let’s cut the vitriol.

That’s fine, so long as you tell kids that “vitriol” is not the same thing as criticism, or asking serious questions.

8. Don’t steal your child’s ability to choose

If you’re going to teach children that it’s okay for people to hold religious beliefs, you must be willing to let your children hold religious beliefs as well. Otherwise, the words sound hollow — and they are.

If you teach your kids to doubt, to accept things for which there’s evidence, then they’ll most likely come to the conclusion that religion is a sham. In that sense you’re implicitly telling them that it’s not okay for people to hold religious beliefs. I don’t see anything wrong with instilling a habit of skepticism in kids. And what’s good for the goose is good for the gander: is Russell willing to tell religious parents not to inculcate their kids with their own faith, and to tell them that not believing at all is fine? I’d love to ask her that question; it’s precisely what Richard Dawkins thinks.

9. Don’t lie about your own beliefs.

Everyone has the right to to his or her own thoughts and beliefs, and that includes you. Don’t hide them! Not only would you be sending a message that religion is an uncomfortable/scary/intimidating subject, but you’d be making it clear that it’s okay to be ashamed of your beliefs. You can put off the conversation for a while, but eventually your kid will ask. Admit when you are confused or don’t have all the answers. Tell them that the existence of God, in any shape or form, is something no one can prove or disprove, which is what makes it so easy to debate.

I’m not confused about God; there’s no evidence for such a being and so I don’t accept it. I’m no more confused about God than I am about Santa Claus. And it’s simply misleading to say to kids that the existence of God is something no one can prove or disprove. Surely there are ways to “prove” God’s existence (I discuss them in Faith versus Fact, though some readers will disagree). Further, it’s okay to tell kids that if there’s no evidence for an orange dinosaur living under their bed, then there’s no reason to believe that—and the same goes for God.

10. Respect the religious without tolerating intolerance

Teaching your kids to respect religious people is important. But that doesn’t mean they must respect religious intolerance. It doesn’t mean they must respect immoral, unethical or hateful words and actions simply because they come under the heading of religious righteousness. . . The bottom line: Don’t hold religious beliefs against people who are being nice. And don’t hold it in favor of people who are being mean.

This seems generally okay, except that you should teach people to respect people, not respect people’s religion, or afford them extra respect because they’re religious. I remember Feynman, in one of his books, recounting how his father taught him not to respect uniforms and what they stand for, whether they’re on soldiers, the Queen, or priests. I see nothing wrong with saying that to kids.

But maybe it’s good that I don’t have kids. . .

h/t: Barry

67 thoughts on “PBS: How unbelievers should talk to their kids about faith

    1. Ever look up the real meaning of the word “god” by chance?

      It means to “invoke or call a deity to you” so it isn’t even a noun or pronoun! That why we have theology and not godology. Though most people will not change it so it is there to stay regardless of it being correct. Sad, but most do not care and will simply go on using it wrongly.

      I know I am being the dreaded pedant and OCD suffer whether I am or not. Just had to add that.

      1. The Wikipedia article traces it to the PIE *ǵʰu-tó-m which is thought to have meant “one to whom sacrifices are made”; your version using the word ‘deity’ is a bit of a cheat, sneaking in a derivative of a word traceable to an actual proper noun *Dyēus originally meaning “the daytime sky”. All imaginary beings are rooted in shared experience of real stuff, and their names reflect that. It’s not wrong to use ‘god’ as a noun (or even a name), now, any more than to use ‘deity’ as a synonym.

  1. If Grandma’s faith includes scary, violent nonsense about hell, you need to wait until your kid is old enough to see through that, otherwise you may be in for a spate of nightmares. L

  2. I like no. 6, but for a different reason.

    With all the great children’s lit out there, ancient religious myths are going to be left in the dust pretty quickly, as well they should.

    To paraphrase Hitchens – what is the story of the burning bush compared to Bilbo battling giant spiders in Mirkwood?

    1. I think number 6 is fine too. Read the stories with excitement where the prose dictates it. I don’t think that will make it more believable. Rather, it will put it on exactly the same level as Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. They know those things are fiction; the excitement is only enhanced by the fact that it is fantasy and the authors can play a bit fast and loose with physical reality.

      One thing I vividly remember from my childhood as a devout Catholic was that the Bible and Church teachings were different. Miracles could happen in the Bible and this is the one special exception. They can be mandated by God and they are very solemn and serious. We can rejoice but we mustn’t lose sight of the fact about just how serious competing forms of magic are and just how serious our it is that our eternal fate hinges on this faith.

      I would not be surprised if this line of thinking holds for many faithful; fantasy is fantasy, our faith is believable because it’s serious and precisely not on the level of science fiction or fantasy novels. It is gravely insulting to suggest that it is, or that our Holy Books be read with the same approach as Greek mythology or modern fiction. Rather, I say they should be read the same way and it will continue to chip away at the notion that inanimate objects or text should be held sacred.

    2. I used to read And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street and other Dr. Suess books with great enthusiasm because, well, it is a lot of fun to read to kids that way.

  3. Your comment in re “not stealing the child’s ability to choose (LOL as if you can steal something a person never had) is right on: it’s always a one-way street with the religious, and now apparently including non-believers as well.

    I’m embarrassed for the woman who wrote that: the piece seems to have been written in a void where there is no literature on the subject by believers or non-believers – when there’s LOTS with ideas and values that should be addressed if one is going to bring up the contentious subject in the context of child rearing. Maybe the book is deeper than the one essay. I certainly hope so!

    1. If I had children, I wouldn’t hesitate to make it clear to them that God is a myth. I wouldn’t say, “Well, no-one really knows if witches/ghosts/monsters/etc. are real or not; I want you to make up your own mind.”

      Of course, you can’t order people to believe or not believe in something, and if they ended up believing in God, then I would accept it (I wouldn’t disown them!) But I would try to talk them out of it, just as I would try to talk them out believing in homeopathy.

      1. It probably would’t matter if you told them or not. My parents are atheists (as am I). However, they took me to church* because:

        >A) It was a center of the small liberal community in an otherwise redneck town

        >B) It was full of talented people (hate choir music? not here)

        However, they didn’t say anything about God at home. Guess what? Without them indoctrinating me personally, it took my young mind about 5 minutes to figure out it was BS. Very nice people, though.


        *This is a VERY liberal church and I understand it is a huge outlier.

        A short description of it:

        No hell, no missionaries, it is joint pastored by husband and wife equally, taught kids about evolution and global warming, donates to charity (a lot), and has a freaking sex ed class which involves conversations on sexuality and a sex ed show from the UK that involves naked people to show anatomy. It was rather incongruous with the rest of the town, which is probably 80% creationist.

  4. When she was very young, 6 or 7, my daughter was picked up every Sunday and taken to an LDS church by her best friend who lived down the street.

    I asked her once if she liked going to church and she answered, “Oh, yeah, church is great!” I then asked her what was so great and she replied, “Well, duh! They have cookies!”

    1. I don’t think I would have let my daughter go when she was 6, but she went with a friend (to a christian bible study thing) when she was 12 or so. Once, the teacher told her that she was her best student. Daughter: “But I’m an atheist”. Teacher: “I don’t care, none of these other kids are learning anything”.

      I think it’s good for kids to learn about bible stories. They are a big part of our culture, after all. As long as they understand that they’re just part of the stories, fables and myths that people used to tell in order to impart a message…sometimes not a good message.

  5. Most of these are meh. Number 8 stood out for me, though.

    “If you’re going to teach children that it’s okay for people to hold religious beliefs, you must be willing to let your children hold religious beliefs as well.”

    No one cares what some one “holds”. The problem is not “holding” beliefs, the problem is constantly sharing, injecting and otherwise fronting those beliefs. My kid can believe whatever, but I don’t want to listen all day long to nonsense. People who believe nonsense ought to keep it to themselves. And I wouldn’t hesitate to tell that to my kid.

  6. Isn’t it odd that a declared atheist is the one writing a book like this. You have to wonder if any religious parents would write such a book. Highly unlikely.

    Don’t they mostly just send the kids off to church or Sunday school at a very young age and let the professionals do the rest.

    She seems to be bent over backwards making religion as nice for the child as possible. I’m not sure I could do that.

  7. We are raising 3 kids, and I am doing the best that I can to help them navigate a world that is sprinkled with religion while trying to minimize conflict with their friends, most of whom have been indoctrinated into religion. One family is Evangelical, another is extremely Catholic, and the rest are more moderate but still regularly go to church, bible camps, religious retreats, etc.
    So we often talk about the different views out there. They certainly know that most of their friends believe in God but that mom and dad do not. The rules that I expect them to follow is that they should not criticize religion with their religious friends, but to instead just listen and move on. Several times a year they will be invited to go to church, and we always say they can go if they want to but to be respectful. Their alternative is to attend ‘St. Mattress of the Springs’ on Sunday morning. Other times they are invited to go to an event where the kids run around and play laser tag, etc. They know that at some point they will be made to pray and to listen to a sermon of some sort. They report back that they go through the motions, but that the whole ritual seems silly. Like the other kids they were there for the hot dogs and bounce house.
    We talk about science all the time. At dinner or during drives in the car, they will hear mom & dad — especially dad — going on about astronomy, ecology, behavior, the genetics or anatomy of the food we are eating, whatever pops into our heads.
    So far there has been no sign that they are at all interested in learning more about religion. At various times they have all asked why we do not believe like other families do, and I think the motivation behind these questions was that they were concerned about fitting in with their friends. We navigate through these questions as they come, and so far there has been no conflict that has come back to me. I would also like to give credit of the parents of our religious friends since none have really ‘pushed’ us or our kids about our differences. Both sides seem to recognize that there would be no benefit in initiating what would turn out to be an internecine conflict.

        1. I agree with Lou Jost. I have a problem with the whole approach of the author. I feel like it’s written with a constant eye on not upsetting any religious who read it, instead of focusing on what it’s supposed to be about – helping atheist parents and their kids.

    1. My experience is similar to yours.

      We have four children and, up until the time that they actually asked us what we believed, they had no idea we were non-religious. We never discussed it until they asked. They grew up without religion and, as a result, they were never interested in religion. They have never considered discussions about god and religion to be worthwhile having.

      On the other hand, I was bought up in a relgious household and indoctrinated by all the adult figures in my life. I agree with Richard Dawkins that it is a form of child abuse. I consider my whole childhood and adosecence to have been wasted or ruined by religion. Even now I’m obsessed with religion, with counteracting religious priviledge and religious nonsense.

      But I’m glad that my kids simply don’t care.

      My advice:
      Just don’t give religion an airing; and, when asked, dismiss it matter-of-factly like you would the Easter Bunny. It’s a silly myth. No big deal. No problem.

  8. I chose to expose me son to different cultures, and discuss their religions as needed, and I always gave each religion the respect it deserved, which is none. That makes me sound grumpy and mean, but as someone who minored in anthropology, I did discuss religions within a cultural context, but never validating them any more than I did other fairy tales or Harry Potter.

    as for it being good that you never had kids, prof., I don’t know what kind of parent you would have been, and I am certainly against adding to the 7 billion and counting (I stopped with one kid) but the problem is people like you (or say, Oliver Sacks, or Carolyn Porco) are having few to to no children while religious people spew out offspring like hyper-sexual bunny rabbits! I fear this may be what is limiting atheists and “nones” from gaining ground.

    1. Hey, you could just be right about that but I, as also having none but did have 2 sisters and a brother have to wonder if some parents believe they have more control over the outcome of their kids than they really do.

      1. If by outcome you mean whether the kids of an atheist will turn out to be atheists or not. I have 3, all more disrespectful of religion then I (beliefs not people). I suspect that’s a result of their never having being taught to respect religion in the first place as I was. Anyway my point is all I did was teach them to think critically. Converting someone raised as a critical thinker to a theist is, in my opinion, like convincing someone that 1+1 equals 4.
        The funny thing is I never even discussed religion with them. Didn’t even call myself an atheist until I read The God Delusion. A book that given to me for Christmas by my oldest.

  9. Perhaps what is needed more is an article written by a Christian about how Christians should talk to their kids when they opt out of their religion?

    1. Mom: nothing for xmas!
      Kid: ok
      Mom: no, not ok!

      Mom doesn’t seem to realize that she raised a highly principled young adult. More principled than her.

      1. Mom: You’re going to get absolutely nothing for xmas. Because that’s what Christmas is about! It’s Jesus Christ!!”

        ^Sophisticated theology.

    2. Child abuse.
      I have a sneaking suspicion that the dad is not a true believer either, but knows when to keep his mouth shut.

      1. This video made me wonder how many people there are who don’t actually believe in God, but still keep up appearances for the sake of appeasing their parents and/or partners.

  10. If you teach your children about as many religions as possible you have effectively vaccinated them. This is the duty of all parents. I know it will never happen but one can hope.

  11. I like Jerry’s advice on these. I’ve forwarded this post to a friend (atheist) who has been considering how to talk to her child about these things without imposing her beliefs.

    It’s probably good I never reproduced, as I’d pollute my child with my opinions all the time, including my fear if spiders and cellulite. 🙂

  12. My biggest problem with Russell’s piece is that she stresses that one mustn’t do anything that might upset others, even if that means that you have to put up with bullshit from others that upsets you.

    There are situations where that’s a good skill to have…but you really need to balance that with the importance to be the one to push the Overton Window around a bit.

    I mean, why should secular kids avoid mentioning Zombie Jesus in response to their peers telling them about the perils of eternal damnation for the unsaved?

    So, I’d instead teach children to first have a finely-tuned bullshit meter…and to weigh the consequences of speaking up as opposed to making nice.

    And, above all, I’d make clear to the kids that this is, as much anything, a matter of choosing one’s battles. It’s bad that the Pledge is recited at all, and really bad that it includes, “Under God.” But fighting that battle is a lot of work and might not actually have an awful lot in the way of returns. You might be better off going through the motions until you’re in a better position to do something about it. And, then again, somebody’s gonna have to fight this battle, and if you really want to be the one to do it, have at it!


  13. This …


    … got a big, wet tongue bath in a free Bay Area painting magazine I read with my coffee this morning. Whatever, dudes! My take on Jerry’s post is now that young parents are so desperate for good advice on parenting – don’t ask the Gen-Xer and Boomer grandparents! What would we know about parenting? – there is a hugely elastic market for “alternative” parenting styles designed to make the world a “safe space” for their littl ones. Ceiling Cat forbid kids should have any character-building experiences. I didn’t read the book about Asian “tiger moms,” but my sense is that their focus on hard work and accountability is a better prescription for success – as measured by self-actualization and -esteem – which is the focus of my family’s style – than this faith-centric drivel.

  14. I agree with your assessment of that list, Jerry.

    As to #5, my mother is a sort of Christian-lite, just believing in pieces of the Jesus story she likes and finds comforting.

    During Christmas she has my two sons set up little figurines depicting the Nativity Scene, and she would sometimes read a very short, child-level illustrated book about Jesus’ birth.

    I had no issues with that. My kids are critical thinkers, they know I don’t believe and (in short form) why. They understand what Grandma believes but that they don’t have to believe it themselves. They get that it’s a comforting ritual for my mom.

  15. It’s a lot easier in a country where religion is pretty much a non-event. My parents largely ignored it as did I with my kids. It popped up from time to time but as I recall mainly because my lot were bemused by what they saw as odd behavior by school friends. Opposite of the US I suppose.

    1. Yes, in the US, in my opinion, one really needs to educate one’s children about religions and how to speak to religious people.

      It’s a minefield out there.

      The places and times when people I deal with have pulled their god out and brandished it about (assuming everyone agreed with them) continue to amaze me.

  16. I have a four-year-old and find most of the above list are just variants on #3 with #1 being the solution. Its not just Christianity, either: you cannot teach your kids the classics without loads of references to gods and spirits and so on. You cannot teach them fables from various cultures without loads of references to gods. You cannot introduce your kids to good folk and rock and roll music without loads of references to god, gods, and spirits.

    We have found the best way to deal with such stuff is just to treat all such references matter-of-factly. Yes there are gods in this story. Yes they have powers. Yes, they are talking about a place people go after they die. Yes, some people believe this is real.

    #1 is the solution because when your kid hears Aesop’s fables about Hercules and Mercury, and stories about Raven stealing the sun from sky god, he/she becomes pretty well prepared to handle references to heaven or devils or what have you. Oh, that’s a story/song about magical beings just like the others daddy tells me!

  17. My wife is Jewish in a deist sort of a way. I agreed (prior to marriage) that our kids would be raised Jewish. And she agreed that I wouldn’t lie about my atheism. I did my fair share of driving kids to religious school, I attended services, i volunteered in the synagogue for non-religious stuff, I was always respectful.

    When they found out I wasn’t Jewish, they were surprised and interested. IIRC, they were 6 and 8. My wife let that particular cat out of the bag. I answered their questions. My answers including telling them about my atheism and why. Time went on. They were bar and bat mitzvahed. And now, some years later, they are atheists who understand that nothing deserves a pass on evidence.

    I asked my wife if she was disappointed; she said no. She knows that one can be an atheist Jew (our synagogue is awash in them). She hopes that Judaism will mean something to them even if they are atheist. I have my doubts on that score. They are kind, thoughtful, caring young adults.

    1. I see nothing wrong with honoring your heritage. As you say, atheist Jews are rife in the US anyway.

      Your kids have become “thoughtful, caring young adults” who “understand that nothing deserves a pass on evidence”. Wow, what more could you ask for? Sounds like: “Well done!” to me!

  18. “If you’re going to teach children that it’s okay for people to hold religious beliefs, you must be willing to let your children hold religious beliefs as well.”

    That’s a mighty big if. If you think that religion on balance has a negative effect on the world, why would you teach your kids that it’s okay for others to hold religious beliefs?

    I see it as analogous to racism, sexism, or homophobia. There are still a lot of people who fall into those categories, particularly older people. I try to teach my daughter to not necessarily demonize the people who hold those harmful views, but to recognize their backgrounds and circumstances that led them to believe what they do. It’s not condoning the beliefs, but cutting people a little slack because it’s so easy to be indoctrinated into beliefs when you’re taught them from a young age. But it’s also as Ben Goren said about picking your battles. While it may be simplest to look past a great uncle’s off color jokes, I think it’s fair game for my daughter to dicuss religion with her peers.

  19. Just teach your kids to be skeptical thinkers, to be scientifically literate on a basic level, and that while people should be granted a certain level of respect, the same doesn’t automatically apply to everything they believe.

    If there’s one thing that excites me most about the prospect of having a child, it’s getting to try my hand at raising that child to appreciate and understand the basic precepts of skepticism and science from a young age.

    As for this book, I think I mostly agree with about two of the ten rules listed. A few just seem completely misguided and wrong.

  20. My mothering skills are open to question, but I have managed to raise three atheists (they don’t smoke either) which I consider success. It’s much easier in Australia than the USA, but we do have to negotiate god in our state schools, and I also sent my kids to various religious schools for high school. Basically, I tried to keep them away from religion as much as possible until they were old enough to recognise if for the nonsense it is. My youngest daughter accidentally got a bit of religious indoctrination in primary school, (it was an opt out system and I forgot to return the form) and announced that she believed in god when she was about 10, to which I replied “That’s nice dear” and moved on. My kids are pretty bolshie and I always had the feeling that they might decide to rebel by becoming Christians or something worse, so I didn’t make a fuss. It didn’t last long.

    I have degrees in various kinds of science, so I was always big on facts and information and they had dozens of science books of all sorts, so the silly stories of religion could never compete with the magic of reality (even before Richard wrote the book). Face it, the only decent story in the Bible is Joseph and his life, the rest are very second rate or just horrible, like Noah. The Hobbit and dinosaurs are so much better.

  21. 10 commandments? Jeesh!

    Just give it to your kids straight–God doesn’t love them; it’s completely indifferent to them and whether or not they live a moral or an immoral life, ad nauseam. Tell ’em it’s all a con game by preachers and priests and other control freaks. Tell them that they no one can think and believe at the same time. Tell them that “the suspension of judgment is the highest exercise in intellectual discipline.) (Raymond Gilmore). Tell them that your advice is not to take anybody’s advice and not to waste their time and money on potboiler books that prate endlessly about the subject.

    That’s my advice.

  22. My children are young and very atheist. I teach them absolutely nothing about religion. They have no idea what Christmas is, though we get a tree a tons of presents.

    We simply have no time for it…too much to do, hike swim eat play piano learn science …instead of waste time on telling them about nonsense.

  23. Expose your kids to many religions? I don’t think so. They’ll encounter them soon enough, along with lots of other beliefs you think are wrong, silly or unnecessary. Why is it your job to lend any credence at all to them?

    I’m speaking as a child of two atheists. I think my parents did it exactly right – they didn’t expose me to anything. They waited until I asked, and then they told me what they thought.

    1. I couldn’t agree more. Your kids’ daily lives are going to present plenty of learning opportunities as their peers expose them to religion. When they ask, start explaining what they can absorb at whatever age they are.

      Concentrate on teaching (and modeling) critical thinking; that will pretty much take care of the rest. As an atheist, you probably have non-theistic literature around the house for them to discover, and hopefully some interesting science books, vids, toys, computer games, etc.

      I hate books like the subject of this post–who appointed her to set down rules?

    2. Expose them, no I agree. But teach them about them? Yes.

      We taught our son about as many as we could. And then we asked him questions like, “can these all be true?” “Does any of them sound like it’s true?”

      And then we discussed them in detail and told him why we don’t believe in any of them. He’s a very perceptive boy — he totally got it.

      And I constantly point out people in Muslim or Sikh or Jewish garb and ask him: What religion is that person? He usually knows. And then we discuss what they believe and how we don’t and why.

      I strongly believe that kids need to know (very well) about religions and why they don’t make sense.

  24. With respect to the ‘Honor your mother’s faith’ part of this, I have found most difficulties can be avoided by simply using good manners. We might teach our children that faith is unfounded, but we certainly wouldn’t teach them to be rude to Auntie Flo. Nothing wrong with kids learning that they don’t say out loud every thought that comes into their heads (in fact it’s a rather necessary self-censorship if we are to co-exist). In the same way, in my teens I was greatly enamoured of the enlightenment and Voltaire’s ‘I disagree with what you say, but…’ statement. But how to keep that principle when people are spouting nonsense about crystals and ley lines? Again, manners to the rescue. I’m prepared to politely smile until they open the subject for debate, which might mean a simple ‘What do you think?’ or it might mean imposing their view on someone else. Once the topic is introduced I’m free to debate it. I hope this means I don’t have the reputation of a disputatious bore who thinks he is always right, but still allows me to let fly when people ask for it.

    1. Absolutely. It often seems as if manners are falling by the wayside nowadays, when they are actually so important for pleasant interaction and avoiding emotional conflict. Or physical conflict!

  25. I have a young son; and this subject has been very important to me. Many of our relations are religious (some very strongly so). Fortunately, none ask me the direct question — because I would answer truthfully. I generally avoid all such talk. I never volunteer to speak on the subject.

    So, we have a policy of dancing around the issue.

    We started with my son by teaching him about a serious selection of the world’s religions. We had an excellent book (The Kids Book of World Religions by Glossop and Mantha, highly recommended) on the subject, now sadly out of print. The book gives a good overview of what each believes.

    I’ve read on religion for a long time so I was able to fill in a lot more information for him.

    We talk a lot about what people believe and why. We also talk a lot about science and how science, math, statistics, testing, etc. show us how things really are. We have done our best to raise a skeptic. He (fucking) loves science, so I think we are well on the way. We don’t mince words with him (on any subject). He knows he can ask us anything and get an honest answer.

    We do make some fun of religion in the privacy of our home.

    We have taught our son to avoid the subject at school. The vast majority of the people he will meet, including his best friends are religious (or come from religious families). We have told him that he needs to be very careful about how he talks about religion.

  26. When I was a kid, my father was gullible, would believe almost any line of BS, and hopped from Methodist to Baptist, to Bible Baptist. One preacher, who was a bronc-busting, WW2 Marine vet who had been in the worst of the Pacific battles, was a fire-and-brimstone preacher who would get red in the face while telling us that if we didn’t accept Jesus Christ as our personal savior and come forward right then, we would burn in eternal damnation. I was too “chicken” to come down, but I did pray that night and asked the Lord to forgive me for my sins (whatever He thought they were; I couldn’t think of any). It didn’t work.

    However, I didn’t treat atheism as a religion either–I became aware that I was another organism, that was part of a chain of life, not superior or inferior to any other organism, but part of a particular kind of organism that had invented culture, including religions, and one that intentionally behaved in ways that went so far beyond the satisfaction of basic needs that it has fouled its own nest to the point of being on the brink of destroying, not only itself, but other species as well. I can only conclude that culture is about as close to a terminal psychology as one can get.

  27. It’s the believers who treat non-believers with disrespect, not the other way around. Atheists are discriminated against and hated more than any other group on earth and it’s not even close. We don’t need a book to teach us how to be nice to those who consider us heathens and have no problem telling us with complete confidence that we will spend the rest of eternity burning in hell for not accepting their beliefs. And I certainly didn’t ever teach my kids to treat believers with respect when they started to tell them what was going to happen after we’re dead nor did I suggest they should listen to me or anyone else tell them fictitious stories about Jesus and Moses and their cohorts as they traveled through the desert doing horrible things and speaking gibberish. What a crock.

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