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I have two competing interests here and I'm not entirely sure how to handle this. On one hand I feel that the short answer, to questions about gods, of "some people believe that, but it's not true" is not only factually accurate, but protects them from the minority of people who would try to indoctrinate them as children.

On the other hand, I don't want to force my children to believe a particular way. My entire childhood, my Christian parents encouraged me to make up my own mind and I consider it one of the single best things they did as parents.

I also want to expose my children to various religious texts and mythology for their literary value, but without them thinking these things are true.

I suppose an equivalent question for me is this: How can I protect my children from religious indoctrination, while not pushing my views on them?

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“but it's not true” How do you know that? –  svick Sep 4 '11 at 13:04
The comments aren't really appropriate for a theological discussion. If you wish to talk about it, contact me via gmail. If you can't see it on my profile, it's my first initial, "R", followed by my full name as it appears on this site "@gmail.com". My short answer to your question is that the universe that we see around us is incompatible with the existence of a god. Where I define god as a super-human, super-natural creator that exists outside the laws of our universe. –  William Grobman Sep 4 '11 at 15:36
"How do you know that?". It's called 'critical thinking'. –  DA01 Dec 11 '11 at 21:53
@WilliamGrobman, see, and I look at the exact same universe that we see around us and conclude that it is incompatible with the belief that there isn't a creator behind it. Your mileage, obviously, varies; the point is, if you don't want to teach your children any religion, you need to include atheism in that rubric. –  Martha Dec 13 '11 at 1:50
@DA01 Unfortunately, all religious assertions (for and against) assume facts not in evidence. "Critical thinking" is something that everyone asserts, even those crazies who hand out leaflets, or go on mission trips, or try to get the Pope arrested, or... whatever. No one believes himself to be inherently self-contradictory (fundamental tenet of most religion -- man is great at self-justification) and any statement which asserts that this matter is "clear" or that "critical thinking" will resolve it was said by someone not thinking clearly or critically. –  cwallenpoole Dec 19 '11 at 7:56
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13 Answers

up vote 37 down vote accepted

As an atheist, how should I explain theism to my children?

Treat all religions the same way: explain that they exist, and that you don't believe in them, but you do believe that everybody should make up his own mind on what to believe / believe in. As a non-believer, this can be hard to pull off without sounding dismissive toward the concept of religion as a whole.

As a personal example, I'm strongly atheistic but mildly curious about Buddhism and Shintoism (for their peaceful history) while also having strong opinions against Christian and Muslim varieties (less peaceful track record), but I keep all this to myself unless asked. I'm sure I can't provide an unbiased explanation to my son.

How can I protect my children from religious indoctrination, while not pushing my views on them?

I don't think you can avoid some degree of indoctrination, regardless whether it's for or against. Whatever stance you choose, that is the view you're "indoctrinating" them with...

If you provide the texts and mythologies as literary works and not (as they're originally intended) as works of religious fact then you're already saying that religion is mere fantasy. I'm not judging whether that's right or wrong - I'm trying to say that you can't not pick a side.

If you just manage to get across that you do believe that everybody should make up his own mind, then you I think can't do much better.

This related question and its answers might have some useful bits for you (please ignore the noise in comments).

Update: You might want to browse through Dale's blog here: The Meming of Life - it deals with wise but everyday insights by a parent who wants to raise his children with a thorough understanding of religion, but with the emphasis that religion is not "true". There's lots of wise stuff in there, but the most impressive thing is that Dale knows a lot about religion -- when you've got your facts and references straight, you can argue much better.

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The idea that all religions are even slightly "the same" is a pretty major lie and a pretty bad omission... –  Kzqai Sep 4 '11 at 3:04
I think he meant to treat them the same in that you shouldn't show preferential treatment to one over another, not saying they are the same. –  William Grobman Sep 4 '11 at 4:02
@Tchalvak, yes I meant treat them the same way, not as being the same. I've fixed the wording to make it clearer. –  Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Sep 4 '11 at 6:58
In general, more exposure to many religions will allow a child to rationally choose one, or none... this was my experience as I grew up in one, moved and was an outsider in another. Both religions seemed to be good, but imperfect (in my view) and thus, I consider myself spiritual but not religious. –  r00fus Sep 12 '11 at 22:54
"you can't not pick a side", I like that... –  Benjol Jan 10 '12 at 12:34
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My answer is going to be a simple one:

Teach them why you believe what you believe, and let them make up their own mind

This will have the additional benefit of teaching them to think critically in general.

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First, I suggest you check out the excellent book Parenting Beyond Belief.

Second, I suggest you might visit a Unitarian-Universalist congregation if there is one near you, as my family has done recently. UUs believe that each person is responsible for exploring and discovering their own beliefs in a responsible way. Historically it was a Christian denomination but in the last 20 years has become pluralist with a majority of members being non-theistic. The UU has no official doctrine or creed, but instead has principles and sources which I will list below. There is a strong emphasis on learning about beliefs of world religions in a non-dogmatic way for both children and adults.

Principles which UU congragations affirm

  • The inherent worth and dignity of every person
  • Justice, equity and compassion in human relations
  • Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations
  • A free and responsible search for truth and meaning
  • The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large
  • The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all
  • Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

Sources from which Unitarian-Universalism draws

  • Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life

  • Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love

  • Wisdom from the world's religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life

  • Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God's love by loving our neighbors as ourselves

  • Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit

  • Spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.

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While this is a good idea in general and I'll +1 it, unfortunately my wife's and my philosophy is incompatible with the last three items; even to the point that those philosophies are considered bad. But we're unusual and your answer will be useful for most people. –  William Grobman Sep 4 '11 at 5:09
Now you have me curious as to what philosophy is incompatible with love, science, and nature! The book may still be useful, as well as the general idea of exposure to ideas other than your own, with analysis and without pressure to conform. –  JayL Sep 4 '11 at 6:05
Analysis should be customized to the maturity of the child- for example for a pre-schooler you could read a story from some tradition and then discuss if it is "real" or "pretend", and why. –  JayL Sep 4 '11 at 6:21
I'm an objectivist. I'm pro-science and pro-love, but interpret love very differently than most. I see it as profoundly selfish and selfishness as the highest virtue. If you're interested in more detail, rather than that shallow description, check out aynrand.org/site/PageServer?pagename=objectivism_intro for a more formal statement of the basic positions. –  William Grobman Sep 4 '11 at 6:47
Ayn Rand certainly has her own brand of devotees. :) –  Iterator Dec 18 '11 at 4:27
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If you have very young children, you can't do much more than give a simple description of what God is, and say that you and many people think God is imaginary, but many other people think God is real. If they're not yet sophisticated enough to understand that adults can disagree about what is real, or they demand to know what the answer is, there's no harm in initially saying that God isn't real; after all, you're telling them all sorts of other things that they'll grow to question once they're older. No reason to be incomprehensible to them just to try to be fair.

Hopefully you are already teaching your older children to think critically about the world: to base beliefs on evidence, to know what is good evidence (what makes it relevant, what is sufficient to start to believe, how to tell whether information is true). If not, it's never too late to start! This is the best way to let children make up their own minds about everything: help them develop the mental tools to make wise decisions and understand how to evaluate evidence and arguments. Theism and atheism can then be treated just like anything else: you present a little bit of evidence on each side and leave it to them to dig deeper (or dig deeper with them, if you and they seem interested).

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I'm not religious, but I'd advise against saying "God is imaginary", since it comes across as more argumentative/insulting than the simpler "God isn't real" (it's a bit too close to calling God an "imaginary friend"). Your kids will probably copy your phrasing, so less argumentative is better. –  Brendan Long Aug 23 '12 at 20:15
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My husband was raised with no exposure to religion of any kind. He does not even know if his dad is an atheist or just does not like organized religion. He has subsequently spent his adult life exploring and trying to understand religion and philosophy. This lack of exposure and guidance led to a great deal of confusion for my husband. I think regardless of your philosophy it is important to share it with your children. I also think as they reach the appropriate developmental stage, teach them to explore and question. I know my husband wishes there was more guidance in his childhood, not only to what his parents believed but also with the process of exploring other beliefs.

I am relatively certain it is unavoidable to indoctrinate our children in some ways, but as long as we balance our beliefs with exposure to other belief, teach our children to question; they will find their own path. Finally, I think it is always important to teach our children to respect other people's beliefs. I know my parents always presented things to us as we believe this, they believe that - everyone needs to find a path that works for them, neither is wrong.

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Religion is confusing. I'd argue that your husbands exploration in adulthood will lead to a much more clear end-result then had he been blindly fed one particular flavor of it growing up (as most of us get) –  DA01 Dec 11 '11 at 22:01
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As an atheist, at least in the US, I think one failing of our society and education system is a lack of real theology education. Like it or not, believe in it or not, I think we can all agree that religions have played major roles in human history, politics, wars, media, etc.

I find those that are into religious zealotry also tend to be the least educated about different religions. In otherwords, they are ignorant. And that term isn't being used as an insult but rather a statement...they are people that are lacking knowledge in this area.

So, I say let your children know about the entire breadth of religion. Buddhism and Scientology. Greek Gods and Mormons. They're all rather fascinating stories.

To paraphrase (likely badly) Penn Jillette, atheists, in general, tend to be those that have a broader understanding of multiple religions than those that adhere vehemently to one.

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You can expose them to many religions. Even a medium sized city will have a lot of different religions. One could easily have exposure to a Quaker meeting (caution: sitting silently in a room full of people doing the same is probably the most challenging thing your kids will ever do in this "education"), a Catholic Mass, a Unitarian debate, an Evangelical experience, and that's just Christian-derived theologies.

One need not stop at just religion. In addition to theistic practices, exposure to ceremonies and customs can be enlightening. In a larger city, it's not hard to gain exposure to Eid ul-Fitr, Diwali, Dia de los Muertos, various harvest and annular festivals, and many other celebrations.

Seeing many different types of people and beliefs is potentially more enlightening than exposure to or against any one religious framework. Knowing that there are many options will give children more capabilities for deciding what works for them, as well as a better understanding of others' beliefs.

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I will outline my particular theological disposition after the body of this post.


On of the absolute best things you can do, both for yourself and your child, is, when asked the question, "Why does person X think Y?" is to go and do the research. Yes, this involves legwork, yes, this involves familiarity with the Dhammapada, the Q'oran, the Bible (and, as Catholics and Orthodox make up more than 66% of Christianity (and their systems of beliefs are far more subtle and nuanced than what you'll find in the Bible alone), you may want to consider learning about the Christian writers that they hold in high regard), and the Bhagavad Gita, but this is a question which will prove no small part of your child's politics, behavior, and intellectual development.

The next best thing you can do, is to keep asking "why". If someone says something disparaging about a religion, look it up. If someone says something good about a religion, look it up. Do the legwork and don't let prejudice stand in the way (that's lazy and disingenuous). Your biggest enemies here, in my opinion, are partial truths and mis-information1.

One of the things I try (and often fail) to do in religious debate is provide a well-reasoned, dispassionate defense of those with different beliefs from myself (as someone who has a family with at least three different doctrinal systems, this is invaluable). I've read all of the above works, as well as Nietzsche, Marx, and Hobbes so that I can try to speak the subtleties of faith. I do this because I've been in too many religious debates which have gone too sour.

1. So, recently, I was referred to an article where someone quoted the Pope as saying, "Theologians in the Church said that this scandalous behavior was not evil at all" when his real quote was more like, "These scandals are caused by a grave and profound evil. Unfortunately, some who claimed to be <insert original quote>, when, in fact, it was totally depraved." Unfortunately, people took the article at face value and then started a series of long tirades against the Pope...

Personal background

(Included because I seems to be the most theistic voice answering your question)

I think it might be a good idea to note first that I am a theist (Roman Catholic), I was born and raised as an Evangelical/Fundamentalist and a young-earth creationist (I once said that the Big Bang was an atheistic philosophy which should not be taught to my physics teacher... in the middle of class), for the first two years of college I professed minimal Christianity and eventually agnosticism. I then converted to Roman Catholicism my Junior Year, and I remain a devout one to this day.

My mother and step-father can be best described as Evangelicals. My father and step-mother are "liberal Christian" — that is hard to explain, but it has generally been summarized that the Bible is more of a "moral guide" and the vast majority of it should be taken figuratively at best. My mother's parents were Protestant (Methodist? It wasn't really talked about), my father's father was a Unitarian, and I only learned that my father's mother had been raised Catholic when I was an adult.

And if you think that this is complicated, you should ask about politics.

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When they're old enough, it's probably even better to get your kids to do the research themselves (and then go over it with them to make sure they're not just confirming what they want to believe). –  Brendan Long Aug 23 '12 at 20:26
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Bear in mind that atheism is as much a religion as theism -- both camps make assertions for which there is no proof, just in opposite directions.

The position of neutrality you're thinking of is commonly referred to as "Agnosticism", which corresponds to the assertion that there isn't sufficient evidence to make any solid claims about the existence or non-existence of deity. If you are truly neutral on theology, then you can't dispute your neighbor's religion, you can only dispute his certainty.

The question of "How can I protect my children from religious indoctrination, while not pushing my views on them?" is fundamentally self-contradictory, since by shielding your children from the beliefs of others you're by definition taking a position against those beliefs.

If you want your children to be atheists, then teach them atheism. Explain to them that god-based religions are wrong and that the briefs of their neighbors are based on delusion and tradition. There's nothing wrong with that (or at least, nothing more wrong than teaching them to follow any specific religion).

However, if neutrality is, indeed, your goal, then don't try to protect them from religion. Instead, I would recommend protecting them from people, since the primary danger in any harmful religion is blind submission to the people who lead it.

The chances of your children being lead into danger by a false god are astronomically small. But the chances of them being led into danger by a charismatic individual more than makes up the difference.

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While I completely disagree with your comparison of atheism to religion (the word really encapsulates both stronger positions and what you think agnosticism means; any lack of positive belief = atheism = without theism = without belief in god), I really like your point about the beliefs being less likely to mislead than a believer. However, your objection to my worry about indoctrination is contradicted by your point that "a charismatic individual" may try to indoctrinate them. If you edit for focus and clarity, you have my +1. –  William Grobman Dec 11 '11 at 16:47
No, atheism is not a religion. Use a dictionary, please. –  DA01 Dec 11 '11 at 22:05
@Martha I'm a linguistic perscriptivist; no matter how many people misuse a word, they're still wrong. Agnosticism is essentially an expression of skepticism's epistemology as applied to a deity and it doesn't even begin to answer the question of whether someone believes a god exists. The latter criticism also applies to apatheism; dodging the question isn't an answer. Theism and atheism are binary states--you either believe or you don't (though it's possible to either change state often or be unsure of what you believe). –  William Grobman Dec 13 '11 at 4:33
@WilliamGrobman, if you were a true prescriptivist, then you would never apply the word atheist yourself, because it used to mean "immoral, wicked". In general, it's a fallacy to base your definition of a word on its etymology. –  Martha Dec 13 '11 at 14:48
@Martha Just look at the root of the word and the prefixal modifier; the rules of language, not history, prescribe meaning and even the person who coins a word can be wrong. However, I'm personally glad to be considered immoral and wicked by philosophies that consider faith and altruism virtues. I wouldn't object to applying those labels to myself with full context. –  William Grobman Dec 13 '11 at 16:08
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I would start with an explanation of what faith and belief means in human mammals - theism in general requires (a possible blind) faith and strong belief, and before getting into the specifics of different religions, I think it is important they understand these concepts well. Especially if you are including wider belief systems of how the world was created or what man's place in creation is.

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"human mammals"? –  Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Sep 4 '11 at 7:04
Sure, human mammals, like you or I and not like apes or elephants that have been shown to mourn their dead, suggesting the possibility of a spiritual belief system in those mammals. –  Ash Machine Sep 6 '11 at 19:15
@Ash Machine I think the confusion is the over-specific nature of the remark; there are not human non-mammals. I don't know if you're a native English speaker, but typically when a sub-set is used, the containing set is not explicitly mentioned. –  William Grobman Sep 8 '11 at 17:48
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I have a bit the same dilemna, but I'm more agnostic than atheist. Moreover, I live in China where religious education is "sparse". I want my kid to have the choice, so I will probably push a little bit of religious education, even against my beliefs. I don't think atheist should be taught. But the cultural christian background is something I want for my kid.

Maybe our context is very different. In a place with very strong religions, I would not let anyone fill the brain of my kid with too many beliefs, especially those I consider harmful.

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Look man, you should always educate your children with the very best information that you have at your disposal. If the very best information you have is Christ is Lord then teach them that. If the very best information you have is religion was made up by crazy people then teach them that also. There is no shame in pointing out the delusion in religion or making very clear why your stance is so and so and why you don't believe in Church or skycake. Don't be ashamed to "argue against" religious philosophies, share your experience with religion, or basically take it down. After all, the Christian parents are doing the very same thing with you. One day your child will have a confrontation with a Christian who will say he is going to hell. And if he cannot answer or explain that, as Erin said, he will be very confused.

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Do you really have to do anything? You found your way to atheism somehow, so your children can do it too.

You could maybe ease things along a little, provide some tools? Religions, regardless of their merit, get a lot of their sticking power from group thinking, superstition and easy answers.

Group thinking: One thing to watch out for is the natural way children will segregate the world in "us" and "them". I was raised a lax Catholic (now atheist) and I still remember that when I did my "first communion" there were a few kids that had their "spring party" instead and I was thinking how weird they were for doing that. Your kids may do the same or encounter the same, it would be good to be there when it happens.

Furthermore there's superstition, basically pattern matching in overdrive, which would probably be good to be addressed as soon as it pops up. If you see your child stepping only on the white paving stones, maybe coming up with a white-black scheme together would turn that into exploration. Pattern recognition is good but superstition brings it to a potentially crippling thing. IMHO, religion enforces superstitious-like thinking and therefore being questioning and open about other possibilities gives that barb less of a hold.

Easy answers: One thing you could do is provide you children with the tools to reason about questions of life. Since much of religion's power is the ability to provide answers to un-answerable questions, having some extra answers available won't hurt. If you've discussed "why do we live" and "where does the world come from" and "is everyone equal" etc from various points of view, religions become just other viewpoints.

All in all, keeping an open viewpoint and encouraging critical thinking are probably the things to train in your kids. And if they end up being religious, hopefully they can pick one that makes them really happy.

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You must explain all aspects of the world to your child or your child may be very confused one day, as Erin said. –  bobobobo Aug 19 '12 at 3:19
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