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While most of my adult life I've been trying to accommodate myself as both an agnostic and a non-theistic Catholic Christian, recent events had lead me to reject being a Christian and embracing my disbelief.

My wife is a devoted Catholic, and I had willingly accepted my children (8 and 5.5) to attend a confessional Catholic school. I'm confident that this school promotes some degree of skepticism and critical thinking (even if not applied to religion), and I still have some positive image on religion and its values.

Some time ago, I would not have worried about supporting my children in their religious studies, or joining them in praying, but I now feel hypocritical in doing so, and I expect them they will soon ask why I am not joining.

It is not my aim to raise atheistic children. While I would like them to be skeptic and embrace critical thinking, and I'd probably regret if they chose to embrace young-earth creationism or similar fundamental views, that should be their call.

I would like them to have a positive view on different religions and on irreligiousity. That they will learn that I am an atheist and why I am agnostic and that they can respect that. But also I don't want to jeopardize their success at the school my wife and I choose for them, v.g. this year my oldest kid will be prepared to take his first communion, and that is an obligation at his school.

Any ideas on how to handle this situation from a parenting point of view?

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Have you discussed this with your wife, to see her viewpoint as well? It sounds like you're looking to not offend anyone with broaching the subject, but is there room for your wife to help embrace religion without dismissing your values in skepticism? – Bart Silverstrim Sep 3 '13 at 15:22
I'd just share your thoughts on it with your children. "Mommy believes this, Daddy believes this." – DA01 Sep 4 '13 at 3:27

4 Answers 4

It's possible to not adhere to someone else's beliefs without undermining those beliefs

This is a concept that took me some years into my adulthood to really understand. In my youth, I was fervently anti-theistic agnostic. Then I spent time as a very devoted member of an almost fundamentalist sect of Christianity. Now, I've comfortably settled into a comfortable ambivalent atheism. It's only been in this latter stage where I've realized how to disagree with someone else's beliefs without trying to tear them down.

Keeping a respectful, accepting tone when speaking of other belief systems is of tantamount importance. You don't want to be condescending, incredulous, or even skeptical in your tone. Likewise, when talking about your own beliefs you don't want to sound superior, cocky, or aggressive. Using non-neutral tones is divisive, and may actually make actually be counter-productive.

It's possible to participate in religious activities as an atheist without being a hypocrite

If people are praying, you can participate by being present and being silent while everyone else is doing the prayer. In this way, you're respecting their beliefs without disrespecting your own. If asked to pray, you can politely decline.

If your children need to study religious material, you can help them study it. What you're doing is spending quality time with your child that's also educational. Some schools teach about Greek myths (or other myths) or other religions (Judaism and Islam), but I doubt you'd feel hypocritical helping them study those materials.

Helping your child learn something that is important to them, and doesn't teach them values you find abhorrent, is something you should strive for regardless of the religiosity of the material. At this point in time, they may be putting what they're studying into practice, but you'll need to mentally separate helping your child learn and be successful from what they're learning and how they're being successful.

It's the responsibility of the parents to ensure their children are receiving well-rounded education

While you hope that the school will teach critical thinking skills, and maybe some level of skepticism, it's ultimately your responsibility to do that. If you want your children to be aware of other belief systems, including non-religions, then you'll have to teach about them. The best way to do this, of course, is by being educated about the different belief systems yourself.

When your children ask questions that may have a religious answer, you can answer with a variety of options. For example:

"What happens when we die?"
"Well, Catholics and some other religions believe you may go to Heaven. But, some religions think you may come back to Earth as someone else. And some people don't think anything happens at all."

Granted, these are simplified versions of complex beliefs on the matter, but they'd do well to answer a child's question and maybe inspire some curiosity.

It'd be up to you as to whether or not you'd wanted to introduce more structured teaching about other religions. Personally, I think answering applicable questions with two or more beliefs is an adequate way to handle this. Your child learns there are other beliefs, and can dig deeper into them if they desire. If you're presenting all alternatives with the same accepting tone, then your child will pick up on the fact that it's okay to have those other beliefs.

You should be honest with your children

At some point, I think it'll be best if you have a family meeting and explain mom's and dad's beliefs, and how they're different. There's no reason for your children to know only your wife's beliefs. If you're made to be uncomfortable sharing what you think, then the relationship is not equal.

The meeting could go something like this:

  • Ask the children if they know how there's different types of Christianity besides Catholicism. Like Protestants or Baptists. If not, teach.
  • Then ask if know that there's other religions besides Christianity. Like Judaism, Islam, or Hinduism. If not, teach.
  • Then ask if they know that some people don't have any religion. Like Agnosticism or Atheism. If not, teach.
  • Then talk to them about how Mom is Catholic, and Dad is Atheist (or Agnostic). Avoid the phrase "Mom is Catholic, but Dad is Atheist". Try to phrase it a way that is completely neutral
  • Ask if they have any questions for you
  • Let them know they can always ask you (both) questions about these things
  • Assure them that even though Dad isn't Catholic, he'll still support them in their Catholic activities
  • Assure them that even though Mom isn't Atheist, she'll still support them if they choose non-Catholic activities
  • Assure them that if they ever want to learn about a religion that isn't Mom or Dad's, then you'll both support them

The parents need to be on the same page

You'll obviously need your wife's full support for this meeting to happen. She has to be willing to allow you to share your beliefs, but also agree to abide by the idea of supporting the children if they choose not to continue in Catholic beliefs in the future. Please note, I'm not talking about school. Children can get a fine education at a Catholic school without necessarily taking Catholicism to heart. There's no real reason that changing schools needs to even be discussed.

You also have to agree on the when of this meeting. It shouldn't be held off for any reason, but it's not immediately pressing. Ideally, your children would have reach their current ages already knowing this stuff. (Ideally to me, that is.) However, if you're worried this may affect your son's commitment to his First Communion, then it may be best to wait until after that. Not because that belief is more important than yours, but your son's mental health is more important than your beliefs.

Lastly, you'll have to agree to answer questions in a way that takes into account both parents. You'll need to try and answer the relevant questions the way your wife would and the way you would. She should also be trying to answer such questions for herself and for you. This way, you're presenting yourself to your children as a team that understands one another and works in unity, even if not together. If one of you isn't quite sure how to answer in a way the other parent would, then it'd be a great time to say, "I'm not sure what your [other parent] would say, so you should ask them."

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I realize this question was asked some time ago, and that the OP's son has likely already had his 1st Communion. However, you can replace "First Communion" with "Religious Commitment/Event happening in the near future". That's what you'd have to do to make it relevant for other posters, anyway. – CreationEdge Jan 27 at 18:51
Still a great answer, lots to think about. – James Bradbury Mar 6 at 16:58

If your children have specific questions about why you're not participating in certain religious activities, I would answer them honestly without attacking the subject. You could say you have questions about X that you haven't found answers to and because of that, you cannot participate without feeling hypocritical, or that you feel it's disrespectful to participate in something you have questions about.

It sounds like your children are kind of young to really understand if this is the only subject you're skeptical of. Are you a skeptic about the world in general, or just religion? Do you listen to resources like podcasts from the SGU? Letting the children in on why you think the way you do...the reasoning behind your conclusions (or ongoing questions)...may plant the seeds of critical thinking that will help them better understand what your thought processes are.

I think that you may never completely escape the friction of religion and non-religion in a household if your wife is devoted to Catholicism. Any attempt to introduce your way of thinking may well result in resentment that you're undermining their religious studies. Depending on attitudes of friends and family, you may end up creating a number of problems. When it comes to religious topics I'd probably wait until the children broach the subject with you.

It may be better to instead teach them to view the world with a skeptical eye. Lead by tolerance towards others and other viewpoints. Ask the children what they think of appropriate news stories, then ask why they think that way. Challenge their thinking. Ask questions that demonstrate if they understand why the religion classes teach what they're teaching, and what they think of it. Learn about the history of science and the scientific method.

Much of the harm from religions (or any dogma) comes from the encouragement that "We have the answer, so you shouldn't question the idea." Instilling the use of reason and logic about a wide range of subjects usually spills over into a broad range of topics in life. If the children know it's okay to question ideas and that a parent will tolerate their questioning and accept their conclusions, even if they're contrary to the parent's belief, you may get positive results.

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Your answer makes an implicit assumption that all religious instruction is 1) likely to be dogmatic and 2) opposed to the scientific method. Both assumptions are false. – justkt Sep 3 '13 at 23:57
@justkt - Only the original question-asker can say for sure if, in his case, the assumption is false. Seeing as he's looking for help at approaching the topic and the description sounds as if it's a sensitive one, I'm thinking he believes himself to be in a precarious position in this area. In my experiences there have been far more examples of religiously-minded folks taking offense to questioning their teachings. – Bart Silverstrim Sep 4 '13 at 1:08
I grew up in a Catholic environment (I went to confessional school, attended mass, etc.) and inside that environment I found a lot of tolerance on how to think, I learned about scientific method and evolution, and so on. I've praised the values I learned in school even if I've questioned the dogma. I know, however, this is not the case of all experience in confessional education. If I'm certain my children will find the same approach I met, I'd be less worried and I would focus mainly on them understanding irreligiousity. – Carlos Eugenio Thompson Pinzón Sep 4 '13 at 11:35
That is slightly more in alignment with what I've heard in my area. Just because X was met with tolerance, it's hardly reason to expect it everywhere. I don't know if you're in the deep south of the US, but tolerance is not the default assumption there as it is in the more northern states of the US, for example. – Bart Silverstrim Sep 4 '13 at 12:52
I'd also add that jumping me for implicit assumptions isn't exactly a friendly way to approach someone about religious tolerance. I tried to word my answer in a manner that was neutral, and I didn't attack anyone's religious beliefs. If you feel the advice I gave is bad, please leave an answer for the original question-asker. – Bart Silverstrim Sep 4 '13 at 12:54

Regardless of what strategy for explanation you choose, you and your partner should be clear about your stance and what you will present to the kids. A loving, supportive, environment will take care of the rest.

If they kids don't ask questions, it's not a big deal.

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If children are brought up in a controlling environment, whatever that may look like, they will probably rebel against whatever it is be it clothing, beliefs, music, opinion etc. If they are brought up in a loving environment, which is open and honest, then they will feel comfortable sharing and be able to make the choices they need to.

Provided your wife and you talk about your differences in a loving way in front of the kids and with them, not making a big thing about it and not ridiculing or demeaning either one regardless of either of your (plural) opinions, then the kids will be the best environment they can be to make up their own minds; regardless of them believing something that you don't like. The only phrase that you've used that's inconsistent with this is that

...I'd probably regret if they chose to embrace young-earth creationism or similar fundamental views...

Here I loop round to the start of my post, because if you deep down know that if they make a certain choice you will regret it then you will try to control what they think whether or not you intend to. You have to let it go, completely. Love, acceptance and confrontation; teach the kids that you and your wife each have voices and so do they and how to use them, primarily by demonstrating it.

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I strongly disagree with this take. It's perfectly reasonable to even encourage a child to learn an instrument or get a career in a specific academic field, and then regret it when they overdo it and get a dangerous or breadless occupation in that area or concentrate so much on it that the odds of ever seeing grandchildren are close to zero. The same applies to religion. Denying scientific research, picketing abortion clinics and bombing planes are definitely in this category. – Hans Adler Jan 26 at 13:02
I'm not sure how you got to this. One way to entirely encourage fundamentalism is to bring a child up in a controlling environment when it comes to belief. If one thinks one will regret something now then that will affect how one treats those around one. And controlling behaviour is founded in such underlying thought processes; almost completely founded in fear, and if you live with that fear in mind, be it the even the fear of regret, that will result in controlling behaviour. – David Boshton Jan 26 at 14:06
Maybe we can simply agree that when raising children, as a general principle it's very important not to think of what we don't want to happen to them, and it's also not advisable in general to plan their future. Of course one shouldn't obsess without very good concrete reason over the possibility that a child might become a fundamentalist or alcoholic. This is bound to cause what we want to avoid. But at the same time it's perfectly OK for parents to establish, by words and example, a clear moral compass that includes contempt for dangerous extremism. – Hans Adler Jan 26 at 14:37
Clearly we are reading the OP in completely different ways. In my opinion, none of what you are writing was in any way prompted by the OP or by my reaction to your answer. Sounds as if you were taking for granted a violent, anti-intellectual style of parent-child interaction. – Hans Adler Jan 26 at 17:58
There are many things I'd would not want my kids to turn, but that I have no plan to prevent them in a controlling way. For instance, I would not like my daughter to be a teen mother, but I don't plan to control her into being virgin till she marries at 30, but rather that she respects herself and she learns how to protect herself. And, if that fails, I will take care of her and the grandchild; and the same applies to any other issue: drugs, politics, religion, etc. – Carlos Eugenio Thompson Pinzón Jan 28 at 3:29

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