Over sixteen years ago I committed to becoming a parent, and as of this day I have two beautiful, intelligent girls (age 15 and 12) that have the world at their feet. When I got married 20 years ago, my spouse was a mild believer at the time. So the first question was whether to have a religious ceremony or not, but since she was a mild believer and I was a staunch (re: jerk) atheist, she agreed to have a non-religious ceremony. By the way, I am conducting a poll to determine what percentage of atheists have had a religious ceremony and why. If you have time, head over to the poll.
Once we decided to have children, the next question was whether to baptize our children and raise them with the faith of my spouse. My wife was a Protestant at the time, and I was born into a Catholic family, so we were bound to have a mixed-marriage :-). I think if I wasn’t such a staunch non-believer my wife would have baptized the children, mostly I think for tradition and not so much as a commitment to belief. Again, owing to my staunch atheism and her mild religious belief, we agreed not to baptize the kids and raise them without organized religion. We also decided that we would openly talk to our kids about our points-of-view on the subject of belief. We also decided that should they wish to pursue religion at some later point in their lives we would support this choice.
Funny enough, when our youngest daughter was about 6 or 7 years old, she decided that she wanted to go to church. My wife who still held mild belief at the time (she is now an unbeliever – I will share her story at a later date) agreed to take her to church. At that time she believed in god and saw that a lot of believers went to church. She had also at that time started to contemplate death and was afraid of dying; we spent many-a-night calming her down so she could get to sleep. She thought heaven would be a place where she would see us again after we died. And others around her told her that only believers went to heaven.
She went to church for a better part of a year, and one day said she did not want to go to church anymore. When we asked her why, she told us that her older sister told her that she should really stop pretending and come out and admit she was an atheist – my elder daughter thought that she wasn’t really a believer based on her discussions with her younger sister (although this may have been a projection of her own beliefs or lack thereof – my eldest never really expressed any belief). Also, and this is the heartbreaking part for us, at the time my daughter was being bullied in school and every night after we tucked her in she would pray for it to stop. We did not realize at the time that she was being bullied. After a while, she realized her prayers weren’t being answered, and that if god was all powerful why would he let her go through all this suffering. And then she generalized it to the suffering experienced by children in Africa. So she decided that even if there was a god, if he chose not to make all the suffering go away then how could she believe in him? And so she really started to question this belief and then stopped believing altogether.
So at this time, both of our daughters declare that they do not believe in god. Unfortunately, for our youngest daughter this declaration has resulted in her experiencing two other episodes of bullying; thankfully we were aware of these and worked with her to reduce the negative impact. The first episode occurred right after she stopped believing in god. In school, my daughter was taught to respect all viewpoints and religions, and so she thought it was okay to tell people that she was an atheist. Not a good idea. The other kids started to shun her. My daughter dealt with the shunning by telling her schoolmates that she was just joking around and that she was really a believer. For our part, we talked to her about what topics should and shouldn’t be discussed at school; although we of course feel she should have the right to discuss her viewpoint no matter what. But our younger daughter is really sensitive, whereas our older daughter is tougher and wouldn’t let the bullying get to her.
The second episode related to her atheism occurred a few years later when she thought she was strong enough to put up with the criticisms. She was sitting with her art table group and let it slip that she was an atheist. A young boy in her table group looked in her in the eyes and told her she was going to hell. In the meanwhile, on the bus ride home from school, the group would sing hymns. So it was okay for them to express their beliefs, but when my daughter had a dissenting opinion she was going to hell! I can’t blame the children because they are only miming what they likely have heard from their parents or from the pulpit of their church. But seriously, what are these people teaching their kids? Poisoning young minds with the vile concept of hell verges on abuse.
My younger daughter has taken to subtle subversion at her school, which is rather quite amusing. I have designed a number of t-shirts, some more subtle than others. And she has taken to wearing the more subtle ones to school, and in fact some of her classmates has expressed interest in buying some of these shirts. If they (and their parents) only knew!!! The one she is most proud to wear was actually inspired by her experience of being bullied where she was told she was going to hell. As hell to me is one of the vilest concepts ever dreamt up by humans, I decided to play with the concept and subvert this vile message by designing the t-shirt my daughter is most proud to wear. So far, so good with regard to the backlash.
My parenting experiences as an atheist have led me to wonder about the experiences of other atheist parents. So I have set up a survey to query atheist parents about whether their children are also atheists, and what have been their experiences. So if you have a child or children, please take a couple of minutes to fill out the survey.
Thank you for completing the survey. I encourage you to share more of your experiences in the comments section.