September 23, 2014

Dear Christians: Having an atheist child isn't the end of the world

I recently blogged about accidentally outing myself as an atheist to my mother, who raised me as a conservative Christian.

I've been curious as to how other Christian parents handle the situation, and so I took to Google. I was really taken aback by the number of Christian parents out there struggling with this question. Today, I'd like to offer some advice and perspective from a Christian child turned atheist.

This is a bit of a new technique for me. Usually, Dear Christians focuses on differences in belief and nonbelief, and my own experiences growing up. This is the first time that I have proffered advice in this column.

Here goes.

1. This does not mean that you raised your child poorly.

On contrary, it takes an extraordinary strength of character to stand up to the threat of Hell itself and say, "I'm sorry, I just can't believe it. There simply isn't enough evidence there."

I know this isn't the type of character that you are encouraged to praise in your children, but it's nonetheless true. You've raised someone that thinks about things, considers things, makes decisions, and stands by those decisions, even if it's not popular.

That's an incredibly strong human being.

2. There is hope in a world without gods.

Again and again, I am running into these same thoughts:

  • What hope will they find?
  • How will they get out of bed in the morning?
  • What do they have to live for?
Coming from a religious background where these questions were sealed, I was actually surprised at how little my outlook in these areas changed. I know, I know, bad Christian--but apparently, God was never the reason that I hoped or got out of bed in the morning.

Atheists come from a wide variety of backgrounds. They come to their decision by a wide variety of reasonings. It would be utterly impossible for me to list them all here, so I won't. But I will say, family doesn't mean less. People don't mean less.

For me personally, my nonbelief translates into a renewed vigor and commitment to life. This is, after all, the only life I have. To paraphrase Ricky Gervais, I have everything to live for. I have nothing to die for.

3. Atheists can absolutely make moral decisions.

Some contest the validity of morality without a higher power, and to an extent, I agree.

I just don't think that higher power has to come from a deity.

To me, morality is motivated by a respect for myself and for those around me. It allows me to make the best moral decision that I can, by considering both my own and wider interests. This is a marked departure from the limited morality that I experienced as a Christian. I've talked before about how morality--even God's morality--has changed over the millennia, and I feel like that's equally valid observation here.

Morality is always evolving. Being an atheist doesn't change that.

A great book on the topic is Good Without God. It certainly may be worth a try.

4. Respecting your child's (adult or otherwise) belief is important.

Maintaining your relationship with your child will require you to respect their beliefs.

One common piece of advice that I ran across was, "Don't hesitate to make them go to church/mass/whatever." I can't believe that anyone thinks that would work at anything but destroying a relationship and creating resentment. I have to ask, also, if you think that advice is fair--my child identifies as a Christian. Would it be fair of me to drag him to our local humanist congregation every week? You'd probably say no.

So don't subject your atheist child to it.

5. Don't quote the Bible.

This is a natural impulse. The Bible is a positive force in your life, and you want to share it in this moment of confusion and anxiety.


Quoting the Bible to an atheist is a bit like quoting Harry Potter at them, only less interesting. That's not meant to be offensive, but to make a point. If a Muslim were standing, quoting the Qu'ran at you, how would you feel? Unmoved? Defensive?

The Qu'ran has no power over you because you don't believe in it. Your atheist child has a similar experience with the Bible.

6. Don't accept this as a personal indictment.

I don't share my parents' faith. It's not an indictment on them. It is an indictment on the religious belief that I was raised in. I know that it can be difficult to separate those concepts, but it's important.

Your child isn't insulting you. They aren't criticizing you.

I don't agree with many of the facets of my upbringing. I don't agree with early indoctrination into religion, I don't agree with purity culture, I don't believe in God, Satan, original sin, Heaven, Hell or a multitude of other things.

But my parents were still good parents. Amazing parents.

They raised me to understand right from wrong in a larger context. To question and wonder and find my answers. To stand up for what I believe in. I would not trade my parents for the entire world.

I know it can feel like your child is rejecting you, but they aren't. They still love you. They love you, and they need the reassurance that you respect their right to believe (or not believe) what they will.

Having an atheist child is not the end of the world.

Some of the responses that I found to my Google query were focused on how this decision affected them, as the parent. They knew people were questioning their parenting, their walk with Christ.

And those people are wrong. Even by your own doctrine, they are wrong.

So why listen to them?

Having an atheist child is absolutely not the end of the world. You have a child. The same child you had before.

What more can we as parents ask for?

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