November 13, 2014

Atheist Mama: What do atheists tell their children about...?

I ran across an ancient (at least in cyber-terms) blog post titled, "What Do Atheists Tell Their Children?" today, and I simply must share.

It started with this nugget:

Much to the distress of intelligent and thoughtful atheists everywhere, being a Christian is awesome because life's biggest wonders are already answered. Most existential questions we may ask ourselves can be addressed by referring to scripture and/or religious foundation, all of which greatly simplifies the question of what we tell our children.

It honestly got worse from there.

The best way to find out what an atheist tells their children--if you simply must know--is to ask. Speculation is a bit insulting, and reveals the questioner's own lack of perspective. The best policy, of course, is for each of us to raise our children how we see fit, and if those children are healthy, safe, and well-adjusted, to stop picking each other (and each other's parenting) apart.

However, as that seems difficult for some folks, I thought I would address this poster's questions. Several were posed.

I want to preface this post by saying, I am in no means the voice for all atheists or all parents or all atheist parents. That is far above my pay grade.

But I do know how I would answer the questions for here we go.

What do atheists tell their children about the origins of life?

There are three basic approaches to the origins of life.

The first is that it was created. So, as an atheist, I might tell my children, "Some people believe that life was created by a god." If they questioned me on whether I believed that, I would explain that no, I do not, because I don't see any evidence for a great creator being personally, and I think other explanations are more credible.

The second is that it was created elsewhere in the universe and crash-landed right here. This, of course, has some of its best evidence in the existence of very primitive lifeforms that can survive in the vacuum of space for long periods of time. It's a pretty unique ability to have.

And the final--and my personal favorite--is that  about 3.5 billion years ago, conditions in Earth's atmosphere lead to the spontaneous formation via a sequence of chemical reactions. As long ago as the 1950s, we had experimental evidence that suggested that molecules necessary for life could be generated spontaneously when the conditions of our early atmosphere were recreated.

These are the physical (so to speak) hypotheses for the events, but what the author of the post we are looking at really hit on was the lack of a metaphysical implication for this, to which I say--why would I need one?

What do atheists tell their children about the meaning of life?

The implication of this question is one that atheists face consistently: if you came from nothing, and you're going to nothing, and there's nothing and no one watching out for you, why are you even here? How do you get up in the morning?

And it's one that we consistently respond to in a very similar manner: This is the only life we have. Why wouldn't we want to live it full throttle? Why wouldn't we want each day to be meaningful? It's quite possibly the last day we will ever see--full stop.

The implication, again, is that our physical explanations for our children pale in the light of the supernatural or metaphysical explanations religious parents have readymade, and to that, I can only kind of chuckle and shake my head.

To my children, I will say this:

"At nearly the dawning of time itself, the atoms that compose you were the last wish of a dying star. With its last breath, it pushed them out, sending the bits of itself flying across the universe, hoping.

You are a child of the stars.

Not only are you a child of the stars, but you are the culmination of billions of years of struggle, each generation rising to the challenges of its environment, changing and adapting. You are not just a child of the stars.

You are a child of the strongest children of the stars.

Each ancestor passed on a little of what has made you, you. An adaptation at a time, you were forged. Slowly, ever slowly, they grew and changed and succeeded and survived, each with a single message for you today:


I don't think that explanation for the meaning of life fails at all.

What do atheists tell their children about morality?

For this one, I'm going to start off with a quote from our source material:

What grounds do atheists have to tell their adolescent children that stealing is wrong, or that having sex at 13 is wrong, or that smoking weed and dropping E on a Thursday afternoon are wrong?

Welp, they got me there. I guess I will have to be a theist...

Wait, no. There are thousands of years worth of philosophy that helps us explore moral and ethical reasoning.

I've talked about how I intend to teach morality in more depth in earlier columns, so I won't stomp on that soapbox again. I've also talked about how I don't consider God--at least the one presented in the bible--as a source of unchangeable morality:

Our most important rule for morality is harm no one. The second is consider your actions thoughtfully.

Harm no one means don't harm yourself or anyone else. The actions the author mentions above all potentially either harm yourself or someone else--so I would consider that a basis for talking about the morality of them.

I don't think threatening kids is the best way to facilitate the growth of moral intelligence anyway. The idea of doing what is right to avoid punishment is actually a very low phase of moral intelligence--as you progress through the stages, you get to what is right because it is legal, what is right because it is right, and what is universally right. All of these are secular, not religious, concepts, and they form the basis for how I teach my children about morality.

What do atheists tell their children about abortion?

Personally, I am pro-choice. So I would tell my children that abortion is an alternative to a pregnancy.

Hopefully, though, we would already have talked about contraception, healthy attitudes about sexuality, and the importance of achieving what you want (or need) to before having children, and thus my children would have a larger grasp on the importance of maintaining safe sexual relations--or abstaining, if they choose--to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.

As I said in the preface to this, though, I am not a voice for all atheists. It's a common misconception that only religious people are pro-life. There's actually a thriving secular pro-life community. I may not agree with their reasonings, but they certainly have what they consider good reasons--and I imagine those reasons are what they would impart to their children.

Again, the best way to find out what an atheist thinks is to ask them about it. There's no default moral position on any subject just because someone is a nonbeliever.

What do atheists tell their children about Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny?

Atheists have a wide variety of views on what to tell their children about these childhood traditions.

Some believe that it's not good to lie to children, under any circumstances, and so they do not play the game--not unlike religious people that don't play because they have religious reasons for not doing so.

The author of our source material, however, sums it up like this, and is, spoiler alert, wrong:

Telling a child that Santa Clause exists opens their mind to a world beyond the material, and there is the potential risk of a child growing up to believe that God is possible, if not in fact real. Yet telling a child that Santa Clause is not real eliminates the incredible wonder that comes with such beliefs.
First, I've literally never read or heard the argument that teaching a child about magical creatures increases the chances that they will believe God is possible...because most atheists don't worry about what their children are going to believe. We accept that they may very well grow up to be believers, and as long as they come to that position through consideration and reasoning, we'd be happy with it. It would still be open to debate and discussion, because EVERYTHING we do and believe is open to debate and discussion.

Second, how does not believing in Santa Claus eliminate the wonder of the season? There's many alternative explanations, many of which are, in my opinion, even more enriching.

In our home, we do Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. It was never a question. Dale McGowan had a great piece on the tradition in Parenting Beyond Belief, where he talked about using Santa Claus to teach children to question their beliefs and come up with their own reasonings and justifications.

I don't make up elaborate stories about how Santa does things. If my kid asks, "How does Santa get in when we don't have a fireplace?", I say, "I don't know. What do you think?" And we open up a discussion that way.

So, yes, there's an analogous position to belief in God in Santa--but it's not in that "God is possible." It's creating a tradition of questioning the beliefs that we hold most dear, scrutinizing them the most.

What do atheists tell their children about Gods?

The author of our source material is working from this perspective:

Atheists hate to believe that God is real. They hate to even entertain the possibility. I am beyond counting the number of debates I have witnessed between atheists and Christians in which both sides present perfectly good, valid and often convincing arguments, yet despite the real possibility that God exists it is rarely acknowledged by those who argue against it.

I don't personally hate to believe that God is real. I don't believe that he is real. There's a significant difference in the two positions.

I regularly entertain the possibility, as a former theist myself, that God is real--but I simply don't see the evidence for that position, and so I reject it out of hand. It's a belief, much like those that believe in God have rejected the position that there is no god.

So what will I tell my children about God?

Some people believe in God. Some people don't. Those that believe in God may believe he is all-powerful, always present, all-knowing, compassionate, just, perfect, good, or any variety of other characteristics. They may believe that he is the arbiter of morality, or that he is part of a trinity of beings. It's okay for people to believe what they want, and it's important to respect the beliefs of those around us.

Full stop.

What do atheists tell their children about Christians?

I...what does this question even mean? Feel free to visit our source material for the author's take, but for those of you reading this that are Christians, have no fear. Here's how an actual atheist tells her children about Christians.

Some people believe that God is part of a trinity of divine beings, including God the Father, Jesus the Son of God, and the Holy Spirit. They believe God sent his son Jesus to die for the world so that people could be saved from their sins. Some of them believe that Jesus will come back one day to take them to heaven. I don't believe that myself, but it's important to respect the beliefs of others, even when we don't agree.

And that would be it.

What do atheists tell their children about the human spirit?

No, I don't believe in a spirit or soul. It's kind of part of being an atheist. So technically, the author is correct here, because I would definitely chalk most of my emotional responses up to how my body reacts chemically to stimuli, as well as to the billions of years of evolution that have gone into making me capable of experiencing exquisite emotional reactions.

But again, I don't see that position as inherently inferior anymore than I see a religious response to this question as inherently inferior.

We've been crafted by natural selection for millennia to be committed, to experience joy, and love, and wonder. It's a gift from our long line of ancestors.

Wrapping It Up

The author finished the post by saying:

I've made a lot of educated assumptions in this post, and it's one of the few times that I truly hope I'm wrong.

Please excuse me while I go get these ribs I broke while laughing so hard at this statement checked out by a medical professional.

Educated assumptions? Any number of parenting books on parenting without religion would have given actual answers to these questions from actual nonbelievers. Educated? I'm...really, I can't stop laughing at the idea.

 I hope that the author has realized, in the year and a half or so since this was posted originally, that these "educated assumptions" were pretty far off the mark.

This atheist mama hopes that people will take the time to actually read up on the positions they are attempting to analyze in the future, but she also understands that that is probably a bit much to ask of the internet.


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