Raising Good Children Without God: My Role as an Atheist Parent
Author’s Note :: this article is highly sensitive, personal, and raw in nature. The opinions and beliefs here are my own, based on my life journey. I am sharing my heart with the hope that everyone will take something from my experience and perspective, and I’d love to hear from you if you can respectfully disagree OR can relate to my words.
I am about to put in black and white what I’ve only uttered to handful of people in my life:
I do not believe in God.
I’ve only told a few people out of fear that I will be harshly judged for my beliefs. Maybe I shouldn’t care what others think, but I do. Maybe someday I’ll feel comfortable enough to step out of the atheism closet, but for now I sit happily in the confines of a conviction that I’ve only revealed to a select few. I am an atheist, and despite the feeling that word evokes for a lot of people, I’m a good person.
I wasn’t raised in a particular religion, and as a child I never knew what to say when people asked me what religion I was. I sought advice from my parents who suggested that I say that I was a Christian. So then the conversation went something like this:
Stranger: “What religion are you?”
Stranger: “Yeah, I know – but what kind, Baptist, Catholic, Methodist…?”
Me: “Just Christian.”
It always left me feeling a bit uneasy … was I a Christian?
As a child, we celebrated Christian holidays, we sang Happy Birthday to Jesus on Christmas, we learned about the resurrection of Christ on Easter, my parents told me that good people go to Heaven after they die, and I even remember praying to God. Somewhere along the way though, I realized that I don’t share in the faith. I changed my answer from “I’m a Christian” to “I appreciate all faiths, but I don’t identify with one” mainly because it sounds a lot better than “I’m an atheist.” And yes, I realize that one doesn’t have to be religious in order to believe in God, so let me be clear — I don’t believe there is an ultimate creator. I don’t believe that we are given a life that comes with a judgment day when our time on Earth is done. I choose to be a good person not because I believe if I am I’ll find eternal happiness in the after-life; I choose to be a good person because it’s who I am and it’s who I was raised to be.
My husband and I are on the same page as far as our faith, or lack thereof, goes. We know our child will soon be old enough to start asking questions, and I want to be prepared when the time comes. I think for now I will reply to the questions with questions:
“Mommy, where do people go after they die?”
“No one really knows for sure. What do you believe?”
I know the situations will get more complicated and the questions will eventually get harder, but that’s my plan for now.
I would be completely supportive if my son found a religion that spoke to him one day because I think that unquestionably believing what you know to be true is comforting. I spent almost 30 years of my life in the questioning place until I came to terms with what I believe, and it was so freeing to admit it, even if only to myself. I respect that my parents never pushed their beliefs on my siblings and me, and I can only hope to not influence my son into believing the way I do just because I’m his mom. I think all too often we are taught what to believe rather than believing what we feel in our heart, and I want my son to decide what feels right to him. I also know that he will look to me to guide him. Is telling a small child that you don’t believe in God like stealing from them a sense of faith and certainty that so many others take comfort in? At the same time, I don’t think it is better to lie about what I believe in an attempt to protect his innocence. So, I choose to be honest with him, and teach him the best way I know how to grow into a decent and good man. I will teach him about love, tolerance, and the golden rule not by showing him a verse in the bible, but by setting the example and showing him that I accept people no matter their social class, profession, beliefs, or race.
So yes, I’m an atheist, but before you judge me or feel sorry for me or pray for me because you think I just haven’t seen the light yet … stop. I don’t think less of you because you believe something different than me. Being an atheist doesn’t mean I’m anti-god, it just means I don’t believe there is such a thing. Respect me for my beliefs because I certainly respect you for yours.