respecting other’s beliefs – life as an atheist family

There seems to be this idea that atheists are just wayward people without any beliefs or morals who just don’t know any better. A couple of summers ago Mr and I were walking with the kids down Spring Garden Road and a very earnest young man came up to us and started shoving pamphlets in our hands. In response to Mr’s “No thanks, I’m an atheist” he said, “I’ve never met anyone who didn’t believe in anything before”. There are a lot of things I believe in. Love. Family. Honesty. Gravity. Kindness. Nature. Science.

Recently, a few of Miss N’s friends have been sincerely inviting her to church. The one that made me angry? Not at the child, mind you. She is doing what her Sunday School teacher and parents have told her to do, but they added the clincher of a treat bag if you are new to the church. Yup. They’ll bribe your children all the way. It may be called a gift by the person who thought of it, but it’s similar to the toys given out by McDonald’s – it’s not enough to sell french fries, there is the extra bait of a toy that will break in three days. I understand why these children feel it is imperative to invite Miss N to church, it is a fun place where they sing songs, eat a snack and talk about the underlying fear of what happens after you die. These children love Miss N and even though they can’t quite articulate it in this way, they think we’re failing Miss N and her brother by not taking them to church.

This part will be touchy for people who do not believe the same as we do and I respect that, I’ll raise my kids and you can raise yours. I do not think religion is for children. I think that they should be exposed to the beliefs of all people and while I will tell my children “this is what Mommy and Daddy believe” I do not expect her to believe the same thing. I’ll ask Miss N what she thinks and she has some really amazing thoughts on the matter, but I will not tell her she is wrong if she disagrees with me about the big beliefs. I do not tell her she is going to hell if she does not believe as I do, that she ought to live in fear for the people in her life who do not because it is unfair to expect a child to live like that. It is not right to speak in absolutes with children because they will believe anything and everything you tell them and they are still developing the cognitive ability to sift through the logic of some claims. Case in point: Boy honestly thinks Batman is a viable career choice (after Miss N encouraged him to come up with a back up plan, he’s settled on police officer/Batman).

Many people don’t understand that atheists have a belief system and that we are just somehow lacking and need to be led to “the right way”. There are a lot of right ways in the world, it’s what makes our world so awesome and awful at the same time because so many of us are walking through the world with blinders on. I am very proud of Miss N that she tells her friends that she has her own beliefs and their church is not the place for her – it’s like school for people who believe in their god, it’s not really our place. Our church is in the museums, in our garden and at the art gallery. Our church is when we come together as a family at the dinner table (every night) and we talk about the world we live in and how we can treat one another with respect and kindness in our daily lives. Miss N asks a lot of big questions, about where humans come from and what others believe. As part of our “lesson in respect” I don’t say that people of other faiths are liars or wrong, I preface it with “Hindus believe… Christians believe… Some people believe…” because it is not my place to judge you for your beliefs. I only ask that you don’t do the same to me or my children.


8 thoughts on “respecting other’s beliefs – life as an atheist family

  1. cbmackay says:

    It can be instructive to remember that Mr Earnest Spring Garden likely expects that members of any faith others than his own — and probably most of the members of his own faith who could, after all, only be less pious than he is — are also going to hell.

    • Ms. Joy says:

      Most definitely! Outreach and mission work is a basic tenet of many beliefs, it’s part of the fear that comes with believing absolutely in a terrifying afterlife (or a really good one).

  2. Off Duty Mom says:

    I really loved this. I was raised Catholic, but don’t really consider myself religious in any way. I actually went to a Jesuit university (which I choose DESPITE it’s religious affiliation, not BECAUSE of it), and was refreshed to hear the teachers express such open-mindedness. Even at that age, I was still formulating my own “self” and was happy to be a part of a community that taught me about the world, not just about the world-as-THEY-see-it. I drank beer with one priest. I heard him say “fuck” once and that made me smile. My “religion” class was broken into equal sections where we learned about each of the major world religious and were required to attend a service at a place that was different from our own upbringing.

    I have specifically chosen to stay away from faith-based preschools for my kids (of which there are many in our area) because I don’t want anyone else talking to my kids about God or what they ought or ought not to believe. My husband and I will talk with them about what we believe. And, we welcome them to differ — so long as they truly differ and aren’t just selecting “beliefs” because of what someone else guilted, forced, bribed, talked or manipulated them into believing.

    Great post.

  3. kimbelina says:

    The idea of rewards for bringing friends to church is cringe-worthy. Ugh.

    However, I think it is absolutely our job as parents to pass on our values and beliefs to our children — whether that be some sort of religion or veganism — (and it would be really weird to drop my kids off at a babysitter while I attend church or continue to purchase meat when I don’t eat it) but one of the most important values I can instil in my children is respect and boundaries for others. I love your idea of saying “Some people believe…” — I think it’s a great way of phrasing things without judgement.

    Really, I just want everyone to get along (how naive is that, right?).

    • Ms. Joy says:

      We pass on our values and beliefs without fear tactics. Miss N believes the same as us because children will naturally adopt the beliefs of their parents (who knows what’ll happen when she’s a teenager but it’s important to us to give her and her brother the tools to critically analyze what people tell them). We do a lot of “what do you think” and give her space to figure things out, ask questions and we do expect that she carries our values of respect and non-judgment. There are things we don’t allow, she’s not to go to church because it’s not our space but also because I don’t think it’s an appropriate place for children. It’s up to us as parents to expose our children to religion in that “Some people believe…” way and not absolutes. She is not to bully anyone because they are different than her or believe differently than her, there’s enough space in this world for everyone.

  4. Kimberly Hosey | Arizona Writer says:

    I was happy to see this featured on BlogHer!

    My reply there:

    Gosh, MsJoy; I think we’re kindred spirits.

    I think you’re doing it exactly right. Respecting your kids’ beliefs. Respecting the beliefs of others. And still trying to instill fantastic values in them, as best you can.

    I’ve always kind of made a distinction between “believe in” and “have confidence in” or “agree with” or “accept.” They’re all synonymous, potentially, but the first one seems to be fraught with too much baggage. I’m sure I use it in common conversation all the time, but my son and I have talked about reasons for believing in something, evidence, and all that. For now, he accepts things he can see reason to accept, but he can see why people like to talk about something bigger than themselves. For him, that’s nature, and being a good person “just because,” so he’s good. I guess he might change his mind, and I can’t say I’m not happy that we have the same opinion right now, but I’d be fine with anything he chose to believe in, I think.


    So yeah, I think you’re awesome. So glad I found your blog. I think the “what do you think?” games are perfect for kids. I do disagree with some philosophical and religious views my own parents hold, but more than anything they taught me HOW to think, and then took my views seriously. Most valuable lesson ever.

  5. aprilviv says:

    I commented on blogher. I was so impressed by this post that I am following you now. I at times feel the religious persecution is over the non religious persecution is rampant. I get treated so badly when I tell people I am not religious that I usually shut up and say nothing.

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