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  • Few months back I turned agnostic.
  • Don't have children yet.
  • Other family members are believers, I am not.

My mother tells me to pray to God and ask him to increase my salary/happiness/safety etc. I can deal with my mother.

My in-laws ask me to pray to the God before embarking on a journey. I do as they wish (to make them happy (not a big deal for me)).

Now, when my relatives tell my future child to pray to God for the above mentioned reasons, how should I explain to him(child) that this God didn't protect the gas chamber victims so there is no reason that you should expect him to help you to get good grades in exams, etc?

I think the child will ask - then why is the grand mother praying to God?
I don't have an answer to this.

My brother and his wife have taught their child (2 years old) that if you do bad things God will punish you.
I want my child to not to do bad things because the bad things are bad, not because God is going to punish.

I want that when he grows up (about 15 years of age) then he should decide for himself whether he wants to follow religion or not

  • till then he should have a free mind. He should be dependent on himself for his acts, not on God.

I don't even know what to do with the "fairy tales" thing. Every comic book for children has these fairies, and witches.

I don't know if it is wise to first explain to a child that the fairy did that, and then if he asks is it all true?? What to reply - yes, it is, but god is different than fairy? OR no, this story is to make you go to sleep!

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"till then he should have a free mind" = You're agnostic. That gives him or her a leg up for having an open mind from the start. – DA01 Nov 2 '12 at 7:19
Some of your topics have already been addressed: teaching morals -- explain why some people believe -- on split-religion families – Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Nov 4 '12 at 13:25
abcd, what kind of attention do you feel is missing from this question? – Erik Aug 20 at 7:21
@Erik I asked this question 3 years back. I want new people to see this and tell me what do they think. Many people may have joined in these 3 years and may not have seen the question. – TheIndependentAquarius Aug 20 at 7:23
Please keep comments focused on the question (raising a child around different belief structures), not analyzing the specifics of the belief structures or terminology used. – Erica Aug 21 at 14:56

6 Answers 6

I actively deal with a situation similar to this.

While the children were younger I explained to them that not everyone believes the same things. For example, there are many different religions with similar views as well as those with different views -- including the view that religions may have the story wrong.

I explained, at the time, though now they may understand better, that I felt it was inappropriate for people to attempt to have them believe any particular thing until they were older and were able to understand the issue well enough to decide for themselves.

This type of explanation avoids putting me at direct odds with the views of everyone else and I quite simply don't have to suggest I disagree with anyone else's view. So, if the kids say anything at all it may simply be that daddy says that I should wait until I'm older to decide what I believe as then I'll understand the issues better.

Now, this doesn't mean I am aware of all the pro-religion messages or even how they feel about them. What I have attempted to do is give them a reason to resist simply accepting whatever other people tell them while they are very young -- which is how most religion propagates. They also know that I feel that taking advantage of young people, by giving them beliefs instead of letting them form their own beliefs, is not fair to them.

As someone with a different view I do share elements of my thoughts on these matters. For example, I suggest I wished I believed in heaven and that people go there after they pass. It would be so much nicer to believe those happy statements -- and that I'm sure it makes some of life's harder issues a little easier to deal with. However, it's also clear that it is possible to deal with life's issues without the ability to lean on religion during tough times.

I do a similar thing with food issues. Everyone wants to push treats, crap, pop, and other overly sugared foods on my children. I feed them less processed foods and tell them that as their father it is my responsibility to look after their health the best I can until they are old enough to understand the decisions they are making. When they understand the issues involved well enough it will be okay with me if they make decisions that I would not.

This concept, of non-decision or stewardship of health, mental or physical, is something they can understand. I can tell my son, the older of the two, respects this answer and realizes that I am trying to leave the doors open for him to walk through once he realizes what those doors entail.

And, honestly, whatever my children decide on their own, once they are able to consider the issues involved, will not be a concern for me. If they want to be outwardly religious then I'll just ask that they respect my views and not bother me with it. I'd prefer otherwise but I'll accept whatever I get.

This is another important issue to me - I am very clear with them that when I am upset at a behavior or event that my love for them is not affected. I know when I was a young child that I thought my dad disliked me when he was upset with me when I'd done something annoying. Removing that type of thought at an early age, about parental love varying based on behavior, will hopefully make things easier later in life if they have any large issues to share with me (potentially including religious views).

In summary, tell them not to make up their minds until they are older and have the ability to understand life's issues more deeply. You may be able to insulate them from undue influence, including your own, and have them look at things with their own capable facilities as they grow up. They will certainly understand, to varying degrees as they age, if you explain a parental responsibility to act in their best interests until they can take over the reigns.

Of course, during the teen years all bets will be off! ;)

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This problem seems to come up a lot, and I think it comes for a large part from what stuffe mentioned in his answer. People put religion on a special pedestal, like it's a more important/valid/respectable/believable thing than any other opinion people hold. This causes the situation to be approached very differently from most other discussions, because both sides often buy strongly into the idea that you can't tell a religious person they are wrong because that's rude and religion is special/important.

Once you take that pedestal away, it becomes a different story, and suddenly talking about religion is more like talking about opposing political views. Also a discussion where people can get angry and loud, but at least one where saying the other person is wrong is somewhat acceptable.

Then, next is the idea that there is such an idea as "the true path", which is still pretty common with politics, where many people will refuse to accept that they might be wrong or that "the other" might have a good point. If you can take that away, suddenly talking about religion or politics turns into something closer to discussion favorite flavor of ice-cream. Without elevated importance or one-true-way-ism, a discussion about beliefs becomes just that: a discussion about what you believe. We never hear people asking "How to explain my child that I prefer chocolate, even though most people around him prefer vanilla" precisely because we accept that it's just a personal thing. And we would very quickly disassociate with people who keep hammering on how it's a sin to eat chocolate ice-cream. (The very idea sounds ridiculous, does it not?)

So... to go into the actual answer, I have below The 4 Rules you should teach your child to teach it to deal with this situation. (And many others)

Rule 1: There are no pedestals

There are only opinions and personal convictions. One's belief in gods is not more respectable than another's belief in alien visitations. Treat all of them the same way. People have a right to their opinions, and it's a basic virtue to not be an ass to people by crapping on their beliefs, but that should be extended to all beliefs equally.

For the most part, this will come down to pulling a few things down from their established pedestals so that they can be discussed for what they are: opinions.

When someone shares their belief with you, accept their opinions, say "that's nice", and maybe share your own. If they respond to your opinion with something that gives you the idea they treat your beliefs as less than their own (whether it is because you follow a different religion, no religion at all, or because you like a different football club or whatever) simply point out that both are just opinions and that you will refuse to discuss the topic unless both opinions are on equal footing.

(This will probably end most religious discussions, which is a good thing: there is nothing useful to be had from discussing religion with someone who believes their religion is more valuable than a dissenting opinion.)

Once you can really accept that there are no pedestals (and this is not as easy at it sounds; you will struggle with this, I still do) then you can discuss anything like a rational human being and you can cut short any pointless discussion with someone who put their opinion on a pedestal.

Rule 2: Accept that people can be wrong

Because a lot of them simply are. Topic does not matter; you will bump into people who are wrong all the time. This is something you will need to learn to deal with. We are often taught, sometimes openly and sometimes less so, that people with authority are correct, but this is simply nonsense.

This means that you will have to teach your child that you, the parent, might be wrong. His teacher might be wrong. The local pastor might be wrong. The policemen might be wrong. The president might be wrong.

That also means that when grandma says you are going to hell, you will fairly quickly start thinking "she just thinks that, she is probably wrong". It gives you a pretty good defense against strongly worded (unfounded) opinions.

So what you need to do when people tell you things, is think for yourself about whether they are correct. Think about why they think that, what they have to back their opinion up with, etc.

When you get into a religious discussion and someone says "God is against it", feel free to think they might be wrong and ask them "Why do you think that?" If they say "Just because", that means you can store it under "their opinion" with the backing arguments of "none at all", and it will hold no value to you.

If they complain that they should not have to back it up, because it is their religion, remind them about rule 1: everything is just opinion; there are no pedestals. An unfounded argument about religion is just as worthless as an unfounded argument on any other topic.

Rule 3: Accept that you can be wrong (and probably are)

This one is even harder, and even more critical. There is a near unlimited amount of information in the world and you don't know much of it. So realize that a lot of things you believe, especially those you have for a long time, might be wrong.

Be willing to hear people out. Accept that maybe your opinion of them, or of their opinion, or their religion, was unfounded. If you have believed something since you were 6, there is a good chance that opinion needs some updating. (After all, you probably believed in Santa too, back then)

This one is very important to teach children, because it will prevent them from brain-lock. That is a very common condition among adults, where once they believe something, they will never stop believing that thing because they refuse to accept that they could be wrong. It is how indoctrination works, and it's the last thing you would want to do to a child.

It also means you will never stop learning and will approach all situations with the idea that you could improve from them. Even religious discussions.

(And yes, it also means you will remain critical regarding these rules, which is a good thing! After all, I might also be wrong.)

Rule 4: Many people will refuse to accept these rules

A lot of people will adamantly refuse to admit they might be wrong about their religion, or will absolutely not accept their religion is just their opinion. You will need to learn to deal with these people (which is the crux of your question, I think).

Fortunately, the other 3 rules gives you plenty to work with. Ultimately, it is not within your power to change the opinion of a person who doesn't want their opinion changes, but then that is not the goal either.

You only need to accept that they are wrong, they keep their opinion on a pedestal and they don't want to have their mind changed: that means the only thing left to do is cut off any discussion from happening. Respectfully, if you can manage, or more strongly if you must.

The goal is to raise your child to think critically, challenge everything, not accept easily, be willing to discuss anything and revise opinions based on that. Once you do that, you can drop your child in any community and they will have the tools to deal with differences in opinion without being swayed by unfounded opinion.

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As an atheist with children and a mildly religious wife, family and school, this question keeps troubling me, too. I have found no answer yet. And I think that the question is based one some misconceptions, which I will try to point out.

First, imagine a child who only gets exposed to people of the same faith/nonfaith. A child who only gets to know devout Christians, or only die-hard sceptics, or only money-worshippers, who all agree on everything. Luckily, you will hardly find such a poor child. Luckily, most children are told one thing by one adult, and another thing by the next. That way they learn to deal with cognitive dissonance and make up their own opinion. It's troubling for everybody, but that's life.

Then, imagine a child who gets shielded away from any belief system, so that he/she can choose freely at the age of 15, as you suggest. I hear this idea a lot, but it's totally unrealistic, isn't it? Nobody has a "free mind", and then picks a belief. Religion is not something you choose freely as a teenager. It's an environment thing, it's a social phenomenon. People get soaked in it, and then it sticks.

You cannot not influence your child. Be open with your opinion and tolerant with other opinions. Don't overthink this before you actually have a child. Once you have one, muddle through.

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Do you mean you are Athiest? Agnostics believe in some sort of universal energy, force or being and often adopt bits and pieces from a variety of religions to form their own metaphysical understanding rather than following the practice of any one religion. I ask because in some ways, it impacts the answer.

If you are an athiest and believe your child should also be an athiest, you can join groups that offer resources for raising kids and helping you in explaining death as well as how to respond to other's religious beliefs.

If you mean you are an agnostic, why not take your child to a mixture of church services, temple meetings and synagogues. You can also try pamphlets and materials from a variety of resources including a variety of belief groups and books and materials published by other agnostic groups.

In either case, I suggest taking the higher road and be as respectful of other beliefs as you can. This is family after all. There is nothing wrong with simply stating that different people believe different things and that while Grandma believes God is real, you don't - or saying that "while Grandma believes in a God that would" . . . "I believe in a (God, Force, Energy, Higher Source, Being - whatever) that would never . . . and does . . . instead."

Just stating the different beliefs without putting a judgement of a value on it gives your child the message that you believe what you believe but don't have to be judgemental about the others (trust me, if the others in her life are less respectful about it and get pushy - you'll know nad your child isn't likely to appreciate it as much as your, more respectful manner - your actions will speak far louder than words ever could).

When your child gets to the age that he or she starts asking what is real, you can speak frankly about it from a standpoint of proof vs. faith. At this point, if your child says anything like, Grandma says you are going to hell is she right? You can say, she believes that when people die, unless they believe exactly like she does that they will go to hell. Because she loves you, she tells you this to convince you to believe like her. I believe she is wrong and there is no proof that she is right. You can then go to "grandma" and stress to her that she is upsetting your child and while you love her and understand her motives, you need her to back off.

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Agnosticism is a but if a fuzzy term and can be an umbrella for a variety of particular stances--including which you describe. But it also comes in other flavors as well: – DA01 Nov 8 '12 at 3:59
I did not mean to say what I described was the only type of agnostic. I was simply differentiating between agnostisism and atheism which claims there is no deity whatsoever because to me it creates a slight difference in how to address the question. – balanced mama Nov 8 '12 at 4:01
The main point and definition of agnostic is that they don't know if specific belief is correct. Whether they hold any particular belief is irrelevant - agnosticism is about the certainty level and not the content (an agnostic can very well think that there's probably no god. Or that there is one. Or that the Force binds us all together. The point is, they are not SURE they are correct, but they are sure it's impossible to know who is correct). By contrast, an atheist is 100% certain that there's no deity of any kind. – user3143 May 29 at 2:23
None of these definitions seem right, but in any case, starting an answer with "you are not really a member of the group you say you are a member of" is pretty much grounds for a downvote on its own. – Erik Aug 20 at 7:19
I would just summarize agnosticism (and not only religiously speaking) as "I know that I don't know and will probably never know". If I had to find a synonym, I would go for "neutrality", although I know this is way broader than that... – Laurent S. Aug 21 at 14:20

I live in a christian household with a five year old sister, and I am similarly concerend. Luckily my parents faith differ, so I can talk with her about a lot of things, even things like evolution. She's very smart, but if either my parents succeed in setting their particular religious beliefs into her heart, it may be difficult for her to one day reason on the matter in an entirely objective way. Something I do is to tell her always ask questions. Two words that I taught her to always say are 'why' and 'how', and she really enjoys saying them. Maybe you should encourage your future child to be as inquisitive as she can (which sets a challenge for you as her parent). This way you might, in a way, proof her against unreasonable ideas, and may even find one day that you have a lot to learn from her too.

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+1: why + how = science! – Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Nov 4 '12 at 13:26
how = science while why is often answered by religion. The two things can compliment each-other nicely, either way skepticism is a healthy thing for kids (you really are better off with an independent thinker) as long as you are prepared to parent a skeptic - for example, mine is six and already figured out about Santa and often seems a bit like a lawyer in training. – balanced mama Nov 8 '12 at 2:26
I have to backup balanced mama here. Why is can be used in very non scientific ways. "Why does the apple fall from a tree" can be answered scientifically "because of the attractive force of gravity" or religiously "because that's how god wants it". It's always good to encourage your children to question things though. – Warren Hill Nov 30 '13 at 20:53
@Warren: "because that's how god wants it" is not really an answer. It rather is a deflection, a different formulation of "I don't know". – M.Herzkamp May 11 at 11:42

Speaking as an atheist whose child has religious grandparents, my method has been to put religion on a par with any other choice in life and not elevate it to have any special place as more or less important than a great many other choices in life.

If someone believes in God and wants you to do the same, then it's up to you to decide if you want to. It's no different to me than having a friend/neighbour/relative who supports sports team A, and wants your child to do the same. The child should be presented with the knowledge that such things are personal choices, without judging that choice. I explained to my child that her grandparents believe in God and go to church, I also explained that I do not, and I backed it up by saying it's just what we have chosen to do, no-one is right or wrong in their beliefs, so when they send her religious materials at Christmas and all that I don't deride them, I simply use it as a real life example about how everyone is different.

Until such time as they can make such a decision independently, it's simply unfair to attempt to force them to believe anything that they don't naturally have a tendency to do so. You wouldn't force a child to change his favourite colour because your parents prefer Green, in fact you simply wouldn't try to enforce any preferred colour, you just explain that there are all these different ones, and you can prefer what you like, and furthermore you can change your mind at any time, no one choice is correct.

I personally would steer away from any talk of gas chambers, by the time they are in any way prepared to be faced with such a concept, much less understand it, they will likely be old enough to have started to make their own choices anyway. And, as you say, you only recently changed your own mind, so don't expect a kid to live through life with what he first is presented with.

A more important lesson when it comes to the grades thing and all that is that the only people who can help in such matters are the child themselves, and the teachers/friends/relative they are surrounded with. There is simply no replacement for trying your best, and no amount of praying/hoping/wishing/begging (whatever you prefer to call it) is going to make up for not doing so.

As for Fairy Tales etc, kids don''t (in my experience) tend to believe what they see quite so rigidly as we might think as adults. There is no need to explain that cats don't talk should they see a cartoon with a talking cat. Tooth fairys, elves, pokemon etc etc, this list goes on. Ignore the medium, concentrate on the message - if a cartoon is about being friends, that's what you talk about, not the fact that the people being freinds are 1 eyed fluffy aliens who don't really exist. It's the same with the Christmas stories I get given for my child, the message is more important than the scenery, so you can take values of kindness, charity and so on from a story, without them having to believe in (for example) Noah's Ark, or 3 wise men etc.

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Great question, and great answer! – Christine Gordon Nov 2 '12 at 11:38
Nicely said. It's important not only for kids to come to their own conclusions but also to respect the beliefs of others even when they don't agree with them. Personally, I tell my kids that the Bible is a story and like many stories it is not generally true even though there are some facts within that are true. But I also tell my kids about Santa Clause and the Tooth Mouse (we were in Switzerland -- they have a mouse instead of a fairy) knowing that someday I'm they're going to realize that they're just fun stories. (Except Santa... even I believe in Santa!) – Brian White Nov 2 '12 at 12:42
This is a great answer. The only real trouble is what about all the people who don't respect atheists and will insist that we agree with their beliefs? For instance, Grampy who told my 4-year-old son that he would burn in hell because he doesn't go to church. (We don't visit Grampy anymore, but the damage is real and lasting.) – Kit Z. Fox Nov 2 '12 at 14:49
However you are trying to raise your kids, someone always oversteps the mark. If this happened to me I would disagree (politely) and if I was not present at the time I would certainly take them to task later. As for the child, stick to the rest of my answer, I would tell them that I think that he is completely wrong, and try to think of another example when they had also been wrong about something else to show that people can be wrong. Something this extreme I would probably mention that no-one has ever been to or seen Hell, and as far as anyone knows it's just a made up place like Narnia – stuffe Nov 2 '12 at 18:22
+1 for concentrating on "message over scenery", that actually is great way to handle such things. – mthomas Nov 4 '12 at 20:26

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