I've been wondering about this. Me and my partner (I'm gay) are thinking of adopting soon.
I can't imagine that teaching a child that God doesn't exist is, at it's heart, any different than teaching a child that God does exist. I have some very dear friends who do not believe in God. Really, it's a simple matter of they don't attend church, they observe some holidays (such as Christmas and Easter) from a purely secular standpoint (Santa Claus, Easter bunny, etc.). I imagine that, at some point, the question may come up from their boys, "Why does my friend believe in God and we don't?" or something from that perspective, but I don't see that there's any reason to call attention to the situation until/unless a child brings the topic up first. At that point, you will have to thoughtfully consider how to answer the question. I would hope that you wouldn't want to imply to your child that those who are religious are stupid or ignorant because of their beliefs, so you would have to choose your words carefully--in the same way that a parent who did believe in God might someday have to address the question of why one of their friends doesn't believe in God. I mean, do you really want to possibly sacrifice a personal friendship or one of your son's friendships because of a difference in beliefs? I would never want my child to believe that his friend or his friend's parents are bad or ignorant people because they don't choose to follow my family's belief system.
But I think that the reality is that if a child isn't exposed to a God-centric belief system, they are unlikely to construct one on their own. My oldest is 5, we are Christians, we have friends and family who are not who also have children around his age. They play together and have never discussed God to my knowledge. I expect eventually the topic will come up (especially with my nieces who are being raised--well, truthfully, I don't know what they're being raised exactly), but I don't plan to bring it up unless my children do.
Depending on the diversity of where you live, your child may never ask why your family's beliefs are different from those of his friends and acquaintances. In other areas, like where I live, the beliefs are somewhat more homogeneous which may draw more attention to your child's differences. This might cause him/her to ask questions sooner rather than later. Either way, I don't think the question is so much how to teach them that God doesn't exist, but rather how will you respond when they ask why their beliefs are different from others.
ETA: It occurred to me after responding that you said you were thinking of adopting which could add a whole new angle to the situation. If you adopt an older child, there may be some unlearning to do. In which case, being able to clearly articulate to a young-ish child (say, pre-school age) why you and your partner do not believe in God will be more important. At first, it may be a simple thing of not going to church, but if a child remembers attending church/mass/temple/etc. at some point, then he/she might eventually ask why you don't. I don't know your personal reasons, but keeping it short is probably the best way to address the situation: "We don't believe in God because we can't see God or speak with God or touch God" or whatever your reasons. You can get into other more metaphysical and metacognitive discussions about it when your child is older. This is how we approach teaching our children about God--at their age, the concepts are very simple, but progress in depth and breadth as our children grow older and their cognitive development can process the information better.
First, I think that it is important to think about what it is that you actually want to teach. Atheism is not in and of itself a belief system, it's a metaphysical position. Theism is also not a belief system. A "system" needs more than a single metaphysical point.
So what system of beliefs do you want to teach to your child? You're going to have to teach them something, even if that something is "people believe different things for different reasons and I am personally okay with that because people have a right to believe different things." That's much closer to a system of belief than atheism, because it involves ideas about rights and tolerance and other stuff that is outside of the single metaphysical point of whether or not god(s) or goddess(es) exist for some given definition of gods and goddesses.
So if your belief system is something like secular humanism, you teach your child the principles--be kind to others, show empathy, lying hurts people, stealing hurts people, etc.-- and give them the secular humanist rationale as is age appropriate. At some point they will become aware of the question of whether supernatural things are real or not, which is a different question.
For example, when a child becomes aware of death, they may ask what happens to people when they die. It is really hard to avoid questions about whether there is or is not a god when discussing the possibility of the afterlife. I think that the thing to do in that case is to be honest and sensitive and explain what you think, and that other people think different things. I haven't really had my kids pursue me on why other people think different things. My daughter, who is 4, took that as permission to think something different herself, and decided that when people die, they come back as babies. Now she has decided that this is something that only happens "in the story", although which story that might be is somewhat unclear to me.
The question of god also comes up when well meaning Christians--apologies to the Christians, but I simply haven't been actively proselytized by any other religious group--tell your children that they should believe in god and give them religious material to view. In that case, if they are very young it helps to just treat it like you treat stories about Santa Claus or any other mythical characters. When my kids asked about Santa, I always turned the question around ("Well, what do you think) and that worked out pretty well--they believed for a year or so and then decided that Santa wasn't real. They've never asked about Jesus, possibly because he doesn't bring presents and is therefore less immediate.
The short answer, in other words, is that you talk to your kids about deep topics when they ask, and as much as you responsibly can, you let them figure it out for themselves.
All you need do is not teach them that God exists. If (when) they hear about God from elsewhere say something like "Some people believe in this God thing, but we don't. When you get older you will be able to make up your own mind, and look into it more if you want. But we don't believe in it so we're not going to make you go to church or anything."
I think thats a better approach than preaching atheism, if you get what I mean. For a start, as a child grows they will want to rebel. What better way to annoy Dad than dating a Catholic (Muslem, Hindu insert faith as appropriate)?
I think your best bet lies in teaching your children what you do believe or think, rather than what you don't. Not that there aren't times when you'll need to explain that something's not true, but it's generally more powerful to give your child the tools they need to determine what's true.
Children make wonderful scientists because of their curiosity. Nurture that. Don't settle for giving them answers like "that's just the way it is", and when they tell you something try asking them to explain why it's so or how they know it's true. When you can explain your lack of belief in a god in these same familiar terms, it will make sense to them.
Try to avoid prejudicial criticism like "Christians are stupid". One day your child will meet a nice, smart Christian and realize you lied. Instead use reasoned, specific criticism. Talk about who you disagree with, why you disagree. Give your child a chance to ask questions or raise objections, and address them seriously.
In our kid's school they teach them about a wide range of religions (Islam, Christianity, Hindu, Sikh etc) and while the school itself is slightly Christian, they support children in learning why their friends may have different beliefs than them, so my son, who is atheist/agnostic has a amongst his friends a couple of Muslim, one Hindu, a few Christians and some others who don't believe in any religion.
They don't see this as weird - it's just the way things are, like some have ginger hair and some don't. Some have different sexuality. Some have 1 parent, some have 2 the same sex etc.
They start to bring these teachings in around age 5 (not in much depth until a few years after that) and it doesn't actually start with religion - it begins with tolerance and an understanding that everyone is different.
Teaching them that god does or doesn't exist isn't necessary at this age - just give them a tolerance structure and enough information for them to work their own way. I'm definitely an atheist, but I give my kids enough room to decide when they are older.
First, consider the methods.
To teach that a specific god exists, you would typically raise your child as a member of a particular church.
To teach that 'god' doesn't exist, I see two primary options:
- Don't bother joining a church. They'll figure stuff out on their own eventually.
- Teach theology. Having a broad understanding of religion on the planet will likely lead them to a conclusion you'd be happy with (even if it's not atheism).
For option 1, you'd obviously be able to start that 'non-teaching' at day 1. For option #2, I don't think there is any one answer there. That's really going to depend on you.
We did it (gently) as soon as he started asking about Jesus - he went to a religious preschool in part so we could get this nonsense out of the way earlier. You know: Everyone has different beliefs but mommy and daddy believe this because of these reasons. Do you think Santa Claus is real or pretend?
I don't believe in teaching my beliefs to my child. I believe in talking about whatever interests my child in an adult manner. When my son asked me: "What is 'religion'?", I tried to explain my perception of the matter to him. He knows about the big bang, so when I said that some people believe that God created the universe, he replied: "But that is not true, it was created by the Big Bang." I said that I agreed with him, and that this seems the most probably theory to me, but that we don't know for certain, because no-one has been there and witnessed either. I don't usually bring up topics that my son is not currently interested in. And I try to give him all the facts I have, discussing their relative merits, and giving him the opportunity to chose his own interpretation. After all, I don't need him to be a sceptic like me. If he wants to believe in God, why not? But then I guess that this practice will make him a sceptic ;-)
You will of course chose your own message you want to convey, and the above was only meant as an illustration of what would be the best manner for all kinds of parents, independent of their beliefs:
- talk about what interests your child when it interests him or her and don't force topics on them that are irrelevant to them at the moment and won't reach them
- talk to them like you would to an adult; use words your child knows, but don't simplify the matter - children are able to deal with not understanding everything at once and will come back asking for more details, when they are ready
We simply didn't go to church, pray, or talk much about God in our home because, well, being atheists, God and religion aren't an issue we spend time on.
Round about second grade, it came up with our oldest. She asked what church was, and why people went there. I think it was annoying that so many of her friends were unavailable on Sundays. We told her some people believe there's a powerful being called "God" that created everything and watches over everyone, but that mom and me had never seen any reason to believe that was true, and that her friends went to church to pray to and sing to God.
It never really came up again, until she became politically aware, and became disgusted at the way fundamentalists push their beliefs into public policy.
(Yeah, trying to force everyone to live a Biblical lifestyle is forcing religious beliefs into public policy. Live your life according to your beliefs, and let others do the same.)
Little sister seemed to figure it out, or perhaps she asked big sister, because she's never brought it up with us. She's the fourth family science nerd after me, (math/physics), mom (biology/chemistry/medicine) and big sister (conservation biology).