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Sep 12 2009
Should children discuss their non-theism with other children

This is something I've tossed back and forth. On one hand I think they should, for the sake of principle. There is nothing wrong with non-belief and my children are as entitled to their views and the expression of those views as other children are theirs. I want my children to feel comfortable with our stance, and to not feel it's something they have to hide. And it's just plain hard sometimes to have to watch what you say to avoid even accidentally bringing up the subject of religion and remaining mute is sometimes awkward as well.

On the other hand, nobody wants their child to be the weird kid or subject to ridicule and the hate and bigotry that we all sometimes face. Jake (my 9yo) was told by another boy in first grade that his mother had forbidden him to be friends with Jake when she found out we didn't go to church - and I don't think she even knew we were atheists (gasp). (Now some "friends" just are worth having, and this child was one of those, but it still felt like a slap in the face.) We as parents never want to see our children hurt, and so encouraging them to refrain from religious discussions may help shelter them from some pain. After all, kids can be cruel enough by themselves - do we really need to make our children more vulnerable by revealing their membership to the most distrusted minority in America?

From a different perspective, I almost feel like I am being passive aggressive by keeping silent. This goes for my own silence among my peers as well as my children's silence among theirs. I keep silent because I am afraid of the other person's reaction. I see this as the same thing as not trusting the other person. And is that fair? Surely not everyone is an incorrigible bigot. Shouldn't I give the other person the benefit of the doubt and trust that they will be reasonable and compassionate? And also, if I maintain the cycle of silence I am doing nothing for the cause of tolerance. I am perpetuating the public's misunderstanding of atheists by not showing the positive side of it, by not putting a friendly face with it. I once outed myself to a potential friend, and she said "she wouldn't have taken me for one of those." Later I asked what she meant and she said all the atheists she "knew" (I have doubts about that, but anyway) were hateful and always suing for this or that. And so I saw my open atheism (at least for her) as a positive thing, because I could maybe show by example that we are just as good and just as ethical as the theist, and not only that but we could actually be desirable as friends.

I know that a person's religious persuasion is nobody's business but that person's, and that's fine. Atheists should not "have" to make their views open to the public. But what if they want to?

Right now, my husband and I have chosen the route of discouraging the boys from discussing god and religion in general and our views in particular. I'm not comfortable with this, though. I think that we have taken the easy route. I almost feel like we are doing our children a disservice. Wouldn't it be better to teach them to stand up for their beliefs, regardless of the cost? Wouldn't more discussion, no matter how difficult now, pave the way for more tolerance and less taboo later? And yet I sorta feel that asking my child to do that is asking too much. I feel like I'm throwing my children into the line of fire and hoping that the best in humanity will prevail (and, well, sometimes I'm cynical).

Dale McGowan (Parenting Beyond Belief) recently blogged about this: And the Friendly Atheist put in his 2 cents: ... -children/

Sep 13 2009
Re: Should children discuss their non-theism with other children

I haven't yet met a little kid that I thought was really capable of thinking about these sorts of questions on their own. Perhaps there are a few particularly precocious kids out there, but the vast majority just say they believe whatever their parents believe. Even if being ridiculed or treated as an outcast wasn't an issue, even if the kids were really going to have an honest debate about it, I don't think it would do anything good before they were at least 15 years old. Before that, repeating the beliefs your parents gave you to other kids is just another part of your own brainwashing. My opinion: beyond knowing that different kids can have different religious beliefs and that's just fine, I don't think kids should be talking about religion at school.

So, I guess I'd recommend that they not bring it up themselves, but in response to a direct question, they say they are atheist or secular humanist or whatever, but that they refuse to get into a long discussion about what that means or which belief is "the right one" until they are really old enough to think for themselves.

Sep 14 2009
Re: Should children discuss their non-theism with other children

I agree that up to a certain age, kids are basically parroting their parents beliefs. I don't know that I would say 15, though. My oldest is 9, and while kids do vary from kid to kid, I think he is at the beginning stage of understanding what's going on - not the big picture yet, but some of it. For instance, I think he's seen enough of various life cycles (and composting!) to understand that when we die, that's it, we're dead, our bodies are just physical beings the same as the other plants and animals, and the ethical corollary that we therefore need to make the most of the one life we have. I would also agree that there is no reason for a debate per se (I guess the subject line including the word "discussion" is somewhat misleading - sorry! I took that straight from the Friendly Atheist), but some topics of religion (what church do you go to? my grandfather is in heaven, god put the baby in mommy's belly, do you want to come to my cub scout meeting, etc.) do come up, and in a case where it is brought up to him, I'd like for my child to feel comfortable responding honestly. I think that simply stating one's views (not even getting into the "why," but just stating the "what") is a good first step to later tolerance and acceptance. Of course, that's easier said than done, I don't even take my own advice sometimes. :o) I do think, though, that - at the elementary age, at least - that bringing up religion is probably not a good idea - just for the reasons you have said, that they really aren't capable of a good, honest discussion at that level.

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