January 14, 2016

Atheist Mama: Are you raising atheist children?

One of the challenges I've encountered as a first-generation atheist coming out of an incredibly religious family is the assumptions my family members make about my parenting.

I briefly touched on this in a post about a conversation with my mother a little over a year ago. Most of what I hear is pieced together from family gossip, because people are surprisingly reluctant to address the issue head-on.

Truthfully, I think most of this could be hemmed up nicely if they would ask me the one question that lies at the root of all the parenting assumptions: Are you raising atheist children?

To which I could respond: no.

I'm not raising atheist children. Here's why.

Atheism is not a belief system.

I really can't address this point enough. I read an essay by Penn Jillette--I think it was actually in Parenting Beyond Belief--where he compared the idea that atheism is a religion to the idea that not collecting stamps is a  hobby. I found the analogy really apt.

Atheism isn't a belief system. It's not a religion. There's not a set of values associated with it. There's no core teachings. It's just my own personal belief that there is no god or gods. I'm a pretty staunch atheist--I don't believe in anything supernatural, which includes souls, an afterlife, ghosts, etc--but there are other atheists who are less staunch. Some believe in different degrees of supernatural phenomena. There's no set code.

That means that there is nothing to pass on to my children. They know that I don't believe in any deities, but that's it. There's literally nothing else.

Raising atheist children, in my opinion, is all the more difficult for that. When I was being raised as a Christian, there were core values, a shared history, stories and mythology, that I was systematically taught. None of that exists in atheism.

My children are their own people.

My kids aren't my property. They aren't an extension of myself. They are their own individual autonomous people.

As their parent, I've accepted the responsibility and challenge of helping them find themselves. There are some values I will try to cultivate--every parent does--but by and large, nonbelief won't be one of them.

If I'm being brutally honest, leaving my religion was one of the most difficult bridges I've ever crossed. My Christian faith was a monstrously huge part of my identity--a cornerstone of my self image. It was one of the most important lenses through which I understood myself.

I don't want to do that to my kids, in either direction. I don't want them to be raised as atheists who then find religion and go through that same trauma.

Humanism and atheism are not synonymous.

This is a sticking point for me, not only with regards to theists, but with other atheists too. Humanism and atheism aren't the same thing.

Humanism is a belief system. It's got a variety of core values that I agree with--thus I consider myself a humanist, although I also use the atheist label.

The American Humanist Association defines humanism as such:

Modern Humanism, also called Naturalistic Humanism, Scientific Humanism, Ethical Humanism, and Democratic Humanism, is defined by one of its leading proponents, Corliss Lamont, as "a naturalistic philosophy that rejects all supernaturalism and relies primarily upon reason and science, democracy and human compassion." Modern Humanism has a dual origin, both secular and religious, and these constitute its sub-categories.
Whether humanists are secular or religious typically depends on whether they define humanism as a philosophy or a religion.

Humanism--or at least the AHA--has a series of aspirations that I personally agree with, and yes, I'll try to pass those down to my children...but those can be reconciled with a wide variety of religious views. None of them require atheism to function.

A pluralistic view allows children to understand all of their options.

It's especially important to me that my children make their own spiritual decisions. I don't think it's necessary for them to make decisions young about their spirituality.

In the mean time, I want to let them experience a wide variety of religious views so that when they do decide, they can be secure in that decision.

This is a luxury I was not afforded it. There wasn't an option to not be Christian in my family. Indeed, I remember wanting to practice yoga as a teenager and being told that I couldn't because that was a facet of a different religion.

Allowing my children to understand a variety of religious and spiritual options lets them make the decision that will satisfy them the most, and I can't ask for more than that.


Really, most of this isn't different from how many progressive religious parents I know approach parenting. You want to impart a set of values, yes, but you also want to leave room for your children to live their own lives.

In the end, you may have children that believe as you do...or you may have children that believe differently. But as long as they are well-adjusted and secure in themselves, I consider that a "risk" worth taking.

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