On Raising an Atheist (and an Agnostic): Part II

The steps behind the Unitarian Church of Charleston (SC) sum it up nicely.

Last week, I mused about my younger son’s atheism and my older son’s agnosticism, both which came to light after years of my own questioning and movements into and out of churches. (Here’s On Raising an Atheist: Part I.) I can see that piece may be seen as a cautionary tale to the parent wanting to foster theism. Perhaps it is. This installment, however, I think could inform a parent raising children of any belief system, at least any open to the idea that others can be moral, ethical people even if they hold different beliefs. As a strong proponent of a free and meaningful spiritual search for each individual, I’m fine with my children’s choices, which may be temporal or permanent. Either way is fine with me.


Yes, there’s a but. It’s where I focus attention when we discuss atheistic and agnostic views, where my energy into their religious education goes. My “but” goes like this: those labels tell me what you don’t believe and nothing about what you do. Without a sense of what one then does hold sacred, important, or true, those are labels of negation (atheism) and uncertainty (agnosticism).  There’s nothing wrong with either, but to me, left alone, they are immature and incomplete.

So fostering this deeper thought is part of the work of raising the atheist and agnostic, including myself. What do you believe? I pose this question quite often to my boys, generally receiving a list of what my younger does NOT believe (God, creationism, etc) and silence from my pondering older. I often answer my own question aloud, noting that I believe in social justice, love, peace, compassion, loving kindness, marriage equity, equal rights in general, and the mystery that is our universe. I believe in honesty and integrity, hard work, and the ability of humans to change and grow. I believe in the sacredness of the world but not of any one nation. I believe we are all one in some ineffable way and that there is more in this universe we can ever comprehend, although the act of trying touches the sacred.

I never make it through the whole list without interruptions. “There is no God!” my younger exhorts. “Why would anyone think so? No one can prove there is one, so there just isn’t!”

My usual retort goes something like this, “And you can’t prove there isn’t one.” Witty, huh? Such is theological musing with my ten-year old.

The last time we conversed, he gave a bit of ground. “I believe in science,” he said. That, I told him, was a start.

My older remains silent for these spirited discussions, and I’d guess that has more to do with staying out of the fray than lack of serious thought on the subject. He’s in a Unitarian Universalist Coming of Age class dedicated to supporting that process. (Think confirmation without confirming a preordained belief.) He’s worked for weeks in class on a statement of faith and values –which is perfectly doable without a deity. No, I haven’t read it, but I have some inklings about what he holds valuable and sacred based on what causes him to cheer (Obama’s statement of support of marriage equality) and slump (intolerance of any sort).

Supporting the development of a personal belief structure in a child without a catechism upon which to rely takes more than benign neglect. It takes, I believe, both an education in the religious teachings of the world and in the gritty, sometimes scary and sometimes beautiful world in which we live. Teaching children the language of the sacred and the religions of the world offers context to what they will see and hear throughout their lives.  It also offers them choice — the choice to embrace the path that leads them to the truth as they understand it. Informing children (in age-appropriate ways) of the ways of our physical world, from a sound grounding in cosmology, Earth science, evolutionary biology, and environmental science to a culturally diverse accounting of our planet’s sordid history, poverty, and human rights abuses — this is the education that leads them to establish their values and worldview. Topped with accounts of the world’s peacemakers and civil rights workers, there is a message to spread that good people working hard can make necessary change in a messy world.

I’ve yet to see my children suffer at the hand of theists for their beliefs or lack thereof, but I’m not naive to think that will not happen. Statistics indicate that about 16% worldwide and 3 -9% in the US identify themselves as atheists, agnostics, or non-believers. These are slippery statistics, since nonbelievers also may identify with other philosophical or faith traditions, like Taoism, Buddhism, Unitarian Universalism, or something else.  Others still identify with a theist tradition although reject the notion of a divine actor. There’s overlap, but the message is clear. As agnostics and atheists, we are a minority. And to many evangelicals in this country, Protestant, Catholic, or otherwise, we’re morally suspect and in mortal danger. So far, we’ve been surrounded with gentle, accepting folks of a variety of religious beliefs, many deeply held, including some nonbelievers, who hold just as tightly to their worldview. It’s likely many we’re with don’t know what we believe. Some don’t care. Others likely assume we’re Christian, the assumed norm in this nation. I’m open to the conversation and encourage my children to be the same, but it generally just doesn’t come up.

And this may be the toughest point about raising and atheist or agnostic. Do I teach my children to avoid the subject and give vague answers when discussions about the religious arise. No, but I’m not sure I’ve explicitly taught them how to handle those situations either. Our participation in the Universalist Unitarian tradition admittedly makes this less of an issue. We go to church. They go to religious education. They’re relatively well-versed in the seven principles (which aren’t doctrine or creed but really provide a fine framework for living life, regardless of belief). I’ve largely focused on reminding my younger to speak respectfully to others and avoid his more inflammatory statements about what he thinks about the presence of a god. He’s generally taken this charge seriously, although he’s prone to spout anti-theist rhetoric to those he deems likely to think like him, meaning family and a few close friends.  We’re working on this balance between speaking one’s truth while not being overtly offensive to others.  Evangelicals of all beliefs (atheists included) struggle with this, although most of them are not still ten and struggling neurologically with understanding  that the internal milieu of others might differ from one’s own.

Perhaps a better title for these posts would have been “On Raising  a Respectful and Responsible Atheist (or Agnostic) Who Appreciates the Role of Religion in the World and Can Articulate What Values and Beliefs He Has, Not Just Speak Against Others.” That’s a bit unwieldy, however, and still likely missing something.  I’ll stick with the original and continue to encourage my children to articulate their beliefs and values that accompany their atheism and agnosticism. I’ll teach them paths to peace from all the world religions and open their eyes to the real need to work for that peace today. Whether they remain agnostic or atheistic or not, whether they remain within the Unitarian Universalist church or not, this education will serve them well.


4 thoughts on “On Raising an Atheist (and an Agnostic): Part II

  1. I disagree with either of them being immature or incomplete. What’s immature is believing in a book that was written by, well, let’s face it, God knows who, and being staunchly unbending in what’s been jammed down many of our throats all our lives. It takes a lot of guts to admit that you don’t believe the same as what most or all of the people around you do. Just because Christianity is held to be the truth by so many people does not make it so. There was a time when most people believed the earth was flat, that leeches and bloodletting could cure what ails you. Virgins were thrown into volcanoes to keep them from erupting. There’s a multitude of examples I could give but I’ll spare you.

    There will always be debate, because as you pointed out, there is no proof on either side. There doesn’t need to be, though. There are good people of all faiths, or lack thereof, and there are horrible people as well. Faith and/or what or who you believe in doesn’t make you a better person. Your actions toward others make you who you are. And no book should dictate your morality, whether it was written today or thousands of years ago. All but a tiny minority of us know the difference between right and wrong. Your God is not in a book. “He” is in your heart. Follow that.

  2. One can be immature and incomplete in their faith/lack of faith whether atheist, theist, or somewhere in between. Plenty of theist adults have an elementary-aged faith and knowledge about that faith, although they can likely outline the basic values they see their faith to have. Perhaps thinking about it as creating an inventory personal values would clarify what I’m saying. Atheists (like theists) are undoubtedly all over the map with their values — what they hold important and true (positive statements, not just rejections). This is fine. Creating one’s own creed, way of living, or whatever can be a step towards growth and living with integrity.

    Living according to beliefs can indeed improve the way you move in the world, and, yes, the values alone are insufficient. If I believe in peace, I must practice peace. If I believe in radical inclusivity and unconditional love, to be a person of personal integrity, I must practice those. God or no god isn’t the point. It’s value-guided living that develops with age, experience, and maturity.

    As for the sacred texts, atheism hardly precludes finding useful keys to living in them. From the Tao De Ching to the Rig Veda, from the four gospels to the Psalms, there is something to be gained for theist and nontheist alike, if only a bit of literature and understanding about the thoughts that have shaped much of the world.

    As you said, ” There are good people of all faiths, or lack thereof, and there are horrible people as well.” Exactly. Do I believe in the god of the Bible, Koran, or any other number of holy books? No. Do I know truly good people working to make this planet a more just, compassionate, and loving place who do believe deeply in a deity. It is truth for them, informing their lives in ways that make our world better. Belief in a deity or not, that’s work that desperately needs to be done.

    And that’s why the “truth” of their beliefs doesn’t bother me. Many paths, one mountain. I don’t want derision headed my way, and I won’t throw it at another. I’m a Golden Rule kinda gal, even when the theological mud flies.


  3. Pingback: Photo A Day 13 « Styles Today

  4. I sort of accidentally came across this post when I was looking for images of the Charleston, SC UU church, so I’m rather late to this party. I teach middle school kids at the Unitarian Universalist church in TX. I appreciate your views and sharing your thoughts on this. My son believes in science too…

    I used to feel that I was an agnostic and then an atheist. I kept rejecting God and other religious terms because they were so offensive to my senses. I find that so much of religion that we see around us is defined by other religions and what I do NOT believe in. I came to the realization that I was allowing others to define things for me, especially those outside of UU church. When I began to re-define what it means to believe in “God” and that includes a scientific notion of God as a force, the big bang, and that we are made of star stuff, I saw that the definition of God was metaphorical and not literal. I was then able to embrace “God” more and feel comfortable saying I do believe, whereas in the past, I allowed others to define God for me, and I didn’t like the narrow definitions that were given to me.

    So I tell my Sunday school students that once they define what it means to them, then it opens doors to them that once may have felt closed to them. I also told them it is ok to change their minds and that what they think today may not be the same as what they discover in their 40’s, and if it stays the same, that is ok too. Each of us is on a journey to discover it for ourselves.

    I drew a simple picture to show them what God and religion means. I drew a huge circle, and inside I drew smaller circles. The largest circle represented UUs and their definition of GOD, which were many definitions of all types as well as literal and metaphorical meanings. The smaller circles inside were other religions and their definition of GOD as a specific, one thing…. It was to show that UU’s are inclusive and to show that we are talking about the same thing but in the largest context possible, as well as metaphorically and literally. In the past I thought that UU’s were on the outside looking at other religions. But now I see that we are so big in the ideas of God and religion that we were unable to see ourselves. It was like seeing the individual trees (other religions) instead of the forest (UUs)….

    I find that I really enjoy teaching middle school kids because they are starting to develop their sense of self and how they relate to religion and with others. In teaching, I wanted to show that as UUs, we are “accepting” of other’s beliefs even if it doesn’t match our own or we do not feel it is true to us. We must see that someone’s belief is the tree in a forest of beliefs. So we have to be respectful of other’s beliefs if we expect others to be respectful of our beliefs. I share this with you because I hope it helps with your discussion with your kids as it has helped with my Sunday school students.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s