On Raising an Atheist (Part I)

My older son’s baptism into the Catholic church.

I’m raising an atheist. I’m also raising an agnostic, although that child has at times declared atheist status as well. I’m also raising two Unitarian Universalists, which as those familiar with that religious tradition is open to believers and non believers alike. That works, since my two kids fit into all three of those categories.

I didn’t intend to raise atheists, agnostics, or UUs. I was a practicing Catholic when my sons were born, meaning my then-husband and I attended Mass almost every week. So we baptized our children in that faith, twice promising to raise them Catholic.

By the time our younger was two, we’d left the church. After two years in an Episcopal church, we’d left that, too. The reasons deserve a post of their own, but for me, doubting played a leading role. A few years later, we’d settled into our current spiritual home, the Universalist Unitarian Church of Farmington, beliefs in place: two agnostics and one atheist.

My younger son’s declaration of atheism occurred in the car, before we found our UU home. We were listening to NPR, and the story on the news was about religion. Someone asked a question about something, and I launched into a long, discursive answer that must have led to an explanation about theism, atheism, and agnosticism. I pondered the unknowable, explaining my agnosticism. My older, then nine, thought that word described him as well. He’s a thoughtful child, prone to taking the middle road and preferring to withhold judgement until all the data is in. My younger, at five, claimed atheism.  He’s a bastion of certitude on most every issue, rejecting fully or accepting wholeheartedly whatever direction his mental compass indicates. The issue of the divine was no different.

I can’t say I was surprised at their pronouncements. Switching churches and faiths then leaving church entirely was only part of their religious milieu.  The boys grew up in a liberal religious panoply, moving through three faith traditions in their young lives with relatives ranging from non-churchgoers to Reform Judaism to a variety of liberal Christian traditions. Over the previous year, while teaching ancient history to them, I’d taught world religions, delving into the beginnings and beliefs of Hinduism, Christianity Judaism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Islam . Without thinking about it, I’d emphasized none over any other. I’d illustrated connections and commonalities and pointed out each faith’s take on the Golden Rule.

Yes, we still celebrated Christmas and Easter, with the crèche out for the former and church attended for the latter (at least until we didn’t know where to go). Yes, I read them Bible stories (and then stories from other faiths as well). Yes, we said grace at dinner, although in a rather perfunctory way. But my religious language had shifted over the previous four or five years, subtly, quietly shifted. The internal turmoil I’d faced when leaving Christianity had reverberated throughout my mind and soul, yet the external demonstration of that shift was barely perceptible.

What I retained with that shift, what deepened when I opened myself to the tightrope of doubt, was a sense that compassion, love, and inclusivity were the important foundation of each religious movement. They were what was sacred, inviolate. These central tenets of the religious life were what I taught my young boys to cherish and protect, not the rules, regulations, and texts that accompany them in the world’s religious traditions.

And thus I unwittingly raised an atheist and an agnostic. I didn’t figure all that out on that drive so many years ago. At the time of our discussion, I only marveled that I wasn’t fazed by their choices. Raised theist by parents who remain theists, revoking my theism required some mental gymnastics, a moderate amount of guilt, and eventual acceptance of where I ended up. I think I reached that acceptance that very day in the car, the day my boys defined their stance on the divine. It took another year or so to find a place where our beliefs and unbeliefs were wholly accepted, a place where questioning was the norm and the answers provided were designed to lead to more questions. There we remain, one atheist, two agnostics, and three Unitarian Universalists, bound in community to live lives full of compassion, love, and inclusivity.

Read on! Part II: On Raising an Atheist.

3 thoughts on “On Raising an Atheist (Part I)

  1. I really enjoyed reading this. I, too, had been raised as a Catholic, but later in life decided that that didn’t really define me properly. I now struggle with how to discuss many important issues with my sons (both still too young for such discussion) as they grow.

    Thanks for this insightful and eloquent talk about parenting and religion.

  2. When One enter this world as a mortal whether animal or human. They have no opinion on religion, politics, philosophy, superstition or other worldly matters. All these knowledge are either systematically acquired through acquaintances with other human who thinks they are knowledgeable in the above said subjects. No one is born an atheist or a religious fanatic. It is one’s mind to declare who they are and what they want to represent.

  3. Pingback: On Raising and Atheist (and an Agnostic): Part II | Finding My Ground

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