I’m An Atheist Parent Trying To Raise A ‘Moral’ Child

athiestI live in Springfield, Missouri, also known as the buckle of the Bible Belt. It’s obvious everywhere I go: the pamphlet about damnation in a public bathroom, the evangelist who drops what my aunt dubbed a “God Grenade” on strangers in public. We have as many churches per capita as Vegas has casinos (and many are just as flashy, too), but unlike most of my friends and family, I’m an atheist.

I had my first child last winter, in November of 2011. Before she was born, my husband and I knew we wanted to raise her without religion. I believe that it would be an insult to her intelligence to tell her what to believe. I was raised by college-educated Christian parents who not only attended church but did their best to live morally. However, I’m embarrassed to admit my faith gave me a sense of superiority as a child. I remember being 14 and trying to convert my friends, thinking they must’ve had weird families because of their lack of church attendance. I don’t want my girl to grow up with that exclusive sort of mentality.

I also don’t want a belief system to come between me and my daughter. When I “came out” as an atheist to my family, I feel like I severed a tie that I’d never be able to repair. And although I know they still love me, I can’t help feeling I’ve disappointed them—something I never want my daughter to feel.

Fortunately, my daughter is growing up in a more diverse era. But even as the country seems to grow more secular, the 2012 US Census shows that the majority (76 percent) of Americans still identify as Christian, with a mere 15 percent saying they are not religious at all. This means that my daughter is bound to be confronted by a believer at some point, and I’m bound to have a few fingers wagged at me for not raising her as a Christian. After all, it’s a common argument that religion keeps children out of trouble and helps them know right from wrong.

My close friend, an agnostic, is living proof that this simply isn’t true. Madalyn Faucett was born and raised here in Springfield by an atheist father and Wiccan mother. Her moral guidance, she says, came mostly from her dad’s side of the family, who taught her to treat others the way you want to be treated. Principles that are, she believes, simply common sense.

Madalyn recognizes that spiritual growth has to come from inside oneself. “I think a person’s moral compass doesn’t stem from parents teachings alone,” she says. “I gathered info from my surroundings and formulated an opinion based on those. In fact, my opinions are still changing.” It’s exactly this sort of mentality that I want to expose my daughter to: the fact that it’s okay to change your mind as you mature, and thinking about what you believe is just as important as feeling it.

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  • Rebecca

    We’re also raising our kids without religion. My daughter is 4 now though, and has started asking some questions about death and religion. My mother is an evangelical and teaches at a christian preschool so she gets a lot of exposure to “Jesus loves me” type books andcrafts, which really doesn’t bother me. I just explain to her that different people believe different things. It’s a personal choice and when she’s old enough she can choose what she believes, but no one really knows for sure. Which incidentally is the same thing I told her about Santa clause;)

  • bl

    I always find it odd that these kinds of conversations have to take place. I’m Methodist, and I’d be pretty surprised if someone questioned why I don’t plan to raise my kids in the Hindu faith. I would say “Umm. Because that’s not what I believe in, so what motivation would I have for pushing that on my kids?”

    I think that’s enough reason right there. And I would be careful saying Christianity made you feel superior. You felt superior about your Christianity. To me, there is a difference, and if someone was encouraging you to feel/act that way, that goes against the true spirit of being Christian (as I have been taught anyway).

    • av

      I have witnessed children and adults act as if they are better than their peers who are not regular church goers. The hypocrisy in religion is what has steered me away. My parents never pushed me in one direction of faith and I couldn’t be more fortunate for that. In my life, I strive to educate myself and do good for others. Bad things happen to good and bad people just as good things occur to both. People make their own decisions and receive awards or consequences because they put themselves in a particular situation. Nobody can hear a God give them directions on how to go about their lives. We decide on our own. Everything is left to interpretation, which is why no one religion or lifestyle is correct. Your comment just encouraged the writer to think she was wrong about her feelings. I thought a true Christian wouldn’t judge… I recommend everyone watch Bill Maher’s “Religulous.” Very eye opening coming from a man who’s parents were Catholic and Jewish…Watch the film.

    • bl

      Wait, what? My point was that the author shouldn’t have to defend herself, in the same way people who choose religion typically aren’t asked to defend themselves. Obviously she shouldn’t insist her kids believe something she doesn’t.

      And I don’t doubt you’ve seen a lot of Christians acting superior. There are always people who feel superior based on their beliefs (even atheists). I wasn’t judging her, merely pointing out that Christianity does not, in fact, make one act superior. That’s a personal choice, and I even recognized that given her young age, the attitude was likely influenced by someone else.

    • Kacie

      I understood your point bl; I’m sure the author did too.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Carmen-Finnigan/841528248 Carmen Finnigan

    There are more and more resources out there for atheist parents. Here is one of them:

    I also want to raise moral children without religion. You are not alone.

  • Sara

    This is a very interesting article. I think your friend’s comment about her moral sense coming from the need to treat others as you want to be treated was right on–as was the part about the thought of disappointing her parents or hurting someone’s feelings being a powerful deterrent without the need for the fear of hell.
    I’m Jewish and my husband is an atheist, but we’re raising our daughter Jewish. My faith is very important to me from a cultural standpoint, and I would argue that my sense of ethics is directly informed by my Judaism, but more because of the VALUES that I was taught to hold–things like integrity, commitment to education, generosity, etc. These are values that I can trace back to my Jewish upbringing, but not because I was afraid I would go to hell if I didn’t do the right thing. Does that make sense?
    To me, the idea that a person would “need” the fear of hell to keep from doing immoral or hurtful things makes no sense. It seems that if your religious upbringing has taught you to behave morally only because you’re afraid of what will happen to you if you don’t, it’s failed to give you a good moral compass.

    • Ipsedixit

      I agree! I was raised in an evangelical church then converted to Catholicism in adulthood, but fear of hell never held much sway over whether or not something was right or wrong. The fact that an act or statement might hurt someone carried far greater weight. You don’t need religion to have morality.

    • Justme

      I’m glad you brought up the fear of hell thing. As I read the article, that idea stood out to me as unfamiliar but I didn’t have the right words to describe why I didn’t agree. I think that there still are churches and people who vehemently preach about “going to hell” but in the Catholic faith I was raised in, the focus was on doing good deeds to be more like Christ and had less to do with avoiding hell.

    • C.J.

      I was also raised Catholic with the same focus on good deeds. In high school we were required to take a world religion class and were exposed to many different beliefs. We were taught that everyone has a right to their own beliefs. I did have someone once tell me that I was a “sinner” because I was Catholic. Apparently only people from their religion are going to Heaven because they are all perfect. Unfortunately there will always be some churches out there like that.

    • Justme

      I live in Texas – I heard that same thing all the time because I hadn’t been “saved.”

    • LiteBrite

      That’s what my former church believes: you’re either “saved” or you’re going to hell. You could be the most devoted Jewish person in the world, but it doesn’t matter to them. There is no other religion but theirs.

      The pastor of my husband’s church is part of an interfaith council in the city. Every couple of months they meet to discuss modern day issues and their religious interpretation and stance on them. He said not only has it broadened his knowledge of other religions but the additional reflection of his own religion has deepened his faith. I can’t imagine any of the pastors of my former church participating in something like that.

    • C.J.

      That interfaith council sounds like a great thing. Everyone has their own way of believing (or not believing) and we can all learn from each other. It’s too bad that some don’t see it that way.

    • Serena

      Correct me if I’m wrong (I was raised Catholic) but don’t Jewish people not believe in hell? My Jewish friend told me they believe everyone returns to god after death.

  • http://www.facebook.com/lisameyers7 Lisa Snyder Meyers

    Very nice article Amanda. Your daughter is Beautiful by the way! Tell Shaun I say Hello!!

  • Barry

    I have heard parents say that they don’t want or plan to tell their children what to believe but that’s hard to accomplish as a parent, unless you truly will allow them to choose their own moral path. For instance, you can’t tell them whether its moral to lie or not, and under what circumstances, or with whom, at what age, and under what circumstances is it moral to have sex, and so on.

  • Emily

    Great point about morals. The Bible is not the source of Morality — it is just one vehicle for teaching it.

  • teena

    FWIW, neither of my parents were particularly religious and didn’t raise us kids with any religion whatsoever. I’m biased, but I believe we turned out to be generally nice, upstanding citizens. And it was never really an issue for us growing up (or now), or our parents–ie, the dilemma that you struggle with seems to stem from you leaving your own religion and religious culture behind, rather than the concept of religion-free childrearing itself.

    It does change, of course, depending on where you live and the kinds of people that your family interacts with–if you are in the Bible Belt, then yes, it might be a bit of a struggle for your children to be “odd men out” and that’s something you should be (and apparently are) aware of as a parent. But I went to a private Jewish elementary school and some church-based camps as an agnostic child who didn’t know any Hebrew or anything about Jesus and did fine. I was the “odd man out,” but the experience of different spiritual perspectives was enriching overall.

  • Lastango

    If you want to be “diverse”, Amanda, how about exposing your daughter to diversity of thought by (say) taking her to church, and introducing her to the bible? The two of you can read passages together — an ancient tradition! And wouldn’t C.S. Lewis make for some great storytime? Then she actually can make up her own mind. Life is not all wiccans and acacemic humanism.

    • Ipsedixit

      Why not (gasp) the Torah or Koran or other ancient religious texts? Or they could have a great time pointing out the similarities between pagan rituals and religious ones. Something my childhood pastor would never dream of admitting, but my current priest enjoys poking fun at.

  • Serena

    The 76% figure may be overstating it; when people check off Christian on a form it’s often because it’s their heritage. I was raised Catholic and will check off Catholic in surveys/forms but I haven’t been to mass in years. Most of my Protestant and Jewish friends will do the same. Heck all my Jewish friends seem to be atheist but will still say they’re Jewish because it’s their heritage and culture.

  • CharlieFoxtrot

    My stepdaughter seems to know right from wrong without having been influenced by any church or religion. I’m an atheist and my wife is non-religious. The things that challenged us most were how to keep her from feeling like an outsider when other kids were going to church on Sunday – and how to tactfully explain why we don’t go to church and wouldn’t let her go to church with her friends.
    A church can certainly be an inviting community, and a well-played Baptist Christmas pageant can make an adult atheist want to “be saved”. Letting a child make her own decisions when she is old enough to do so is great, but she has to be protected from attractive, high-pressure situations that she doesn’t understand well enough to handle.
    Do you remember the survey a couple of years ago that showed that on average, atheists know more about the world’s religions than those who practiced the religions? The more you know, the easier it will be to help your daughter.

    • Kacie

      Why wouldn’t you let your child go to church with friends though? Just asking, not judging. My parents raised me Catholic, but I went to Baptist, Mormon, Jewish, and Jehovah’s Witness’ friends’ church things.

  • leighanne996

    I knew at the age of 7 that I did NOT believe the fairy tales. Seriously. At age 7, after having attended vacation bible school, I realized that what they were saying made no sense. (MY grandfather was a deacon in his church). My children are now 19 and 22. They are kind, loving, caring people. More so than many of the so called christians they went to school with that bullied other children using their religious beliefs to do it often. Example is what will give your child a moral compass. Growing up, there were kids that were not allowed to associate with me, because I didn’t go to church and I had, in their parents opinion, “too much freedom”. Those same kids did drugs,every single one of them, including one of my closest friends, which I didn’t even know until recently. Most was “pot” but plenty of other stuff like LSD and pills I didn’t even know about. They smoked, they drank, they had sex and plenty of them wound up pregnant. I did NOT do any drugs, I’ve never had a cigarette, I did not drink at all. I was not perfect, but I did far less of the “bad” stuff that my christian friends did. The example I set for my children were things like going back to the store to pay for something that a cashier overlooked, or returning incorrect change. Helping people, like the mom at the bus stop in the rain with a toddler one day when I was not in a hurry and could offer her a ride. Taking winter jackets to a shelter. Donating food, time, service to people that it can help. Those things. And never, ever tell your child to tell the person on the other end of the phone that mommy or daddy is not home because “you” don’t want to talk to someone. Don’t lie, steal, cheat and your kid won’t either. Treat people fairly and your kid will as well. Be a fair, hard working, caring human being, and you will set an example that will help turn them into the kind of people that no amount of preaching “fear” into them ever will.

    • cat

      Some girl told another girl not to hang out with my kid because she’s not a Christian. The other girl blew her off.

  • LiteBrite

    I was raised in a very fundamentalist Christian church. (To the people discussing “going to hell” below me, this concept was a very real part of the party line there. I do, however, agree with what you’re saying.) My experiences there were very negative, and thus I’ve always held a skepticism towards any sort of organized religion. I’ve since grown up and experienced faiths that are much more welcoming and rooted in true Christian principles; however, my primary identification is still as an Agnostic.

    My husband, on the other hand, had very positive experiences with religion in general. After years of lackadaisical church attendance, he is has started going more regularly (mostly to please his mother), and when he does he brings our son. At the age of 20, I would’ve vehemently opposed this (it would’ve been a deal-breaker for me), but now I’m not as dogmatic about my anti-religion stance. However, I made it clear that I am not changing my own religious opinion just to suit the situation. My son can go, but I’m not going to simply to put up some kind of superficial front. Should the conversation ever come up on why I don’t attend church, the answer will be honest: Because it’s not what I believe. If he’s old enough to discuss it further, we will.

    In regards to raising a non-religious child with a moral compass, I believe that, stripped of all other elements, many religious (not just Christian either) principles can be boiled down to one simple command: Do unto others as you would have them do unto yourself. You don’t need a set of formal regulations to teach you that; it should, in my opinion, be natural.

    • Kacie

      Even before I read your “simple command” I said out loud, “Do unto others..”.. :)

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  • Another Steph

    Something I once heard that’s stuck with me is the belief that atheists (the good ones, anyway) are actually more moral than religious folk, because their moral core isn’t based on ‘getting into Heaven’. It’s not something I agree with as a blanket statement – I’m a practicing Christian myself and I don’t do things to score points with God, while I know some pretty morally bankrupt atheists – but I do think it’s an interesting thought, and that it does have some validity.

    • Bymynishus

      I agree Steph, and we also have some morally bankrupt people who identify themselves as Christians and figure deathbed repentance will cover them. In the end we all have free will under the eyes of God and “The Golden Rule” has been self evident among secular and religious people around the world since humankind has walked the Earth.

  • Amanda Low

    Thank you for all the comments, everyone! I should add that I’m looking into the Unitarian Universalist church — it’s a church where everyone has different religions (some are Christian, some Buddhist, plenty are atheist) and people gather as humanitarians to better the world. This is definitely something I can get behind, because I do care about helping my community and that’s one thing that’s easier to do when you’re involved with a church. I also like the idea of taking a little time out of the week to take a step back and examine one’s beliefs and consider what to do to be more helpful to others.

  • cat

    We are atheist. My 12 year old has a much more altruistic heart than I. She just BUGS me day in and day out to go to her volunteer hours at the Humane Society. She puts her bday money in the red kettles- I’m talking 25-50 bucks without a blink! Kids really tend to take on their own causes.

    One issue we’ve found that new parents may want to be aware of- my kids would miss several jokes or insinuations or passing references to Bible stories. Our culture is heavily built on the shared knowledge of those stories. So you’ll want to teach them to your child. Things like two-by-two. Great floods. For example, my daughter loves the song by Arcade Fire about Abraham about to sacrifice his son. I had to tell her the story. Or, we watch Family Guy on TV, and there’s so many Jesus jokes….Just something to think about for your future to do list!

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  • Laura

    I think you know in your heart what you’re doing is wrong and that’s why you’re so conflicted. I am in an opposite place where Christianity is the minority (maybe 1%) and I know I am giving my children the greatest gift I could ever give them by teaching them the love of Jesus. They are persecuted for being Christian but I have no doubt at all that I am doing the best for them as a parent.

    I’m grateful God has put your child in a Christian environment so she will at least have some people in her life who will tell her the truth. I was raised by atheist parents and I now know that it is the same as abuse. You had the benefit of a Christian upbringing and now will deprive your own children of the same. How desperately sad.

  • Laura

    Yes my father is an atheist and he feels VERY superior to me, a Christian, and never stops reminding me how much more intelligent and reasonable it is to be an atheist. When I visit it takes about 90 minutes before her starts bashing Christians and then I politely take my leave. Sad.

  • Laura

    That is so confusing and false. You don’t pick a religion because you like it, you believe it because it is true.

    • moonie27

      It’s a church, not a religion.

  • Laura

    Amen, Lastango. Thank you for the sanity in this sea of ridiculousness. Americans are so privileged and it is because of the Lord’s blessing. I wish they could understand that. People in Asia are risking their lives to worship Him! I know an Iranian woman who converted from Muslim and can’t go home because of her new found faith! Wake up people! Jesus is with us and you don’t have to do anything to receive Him except open your heart to Him. All these poor people with their messed up religions. Grace is a free gift. Not accomplished by works as the Catholics believe. Jesus is the way the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father (God) except through Him.

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