What does an atheist say to her kids about God?
Nothing, if she can avoid it.
At least that was my plan. Before our first baby was born, I gave my husband the job of discussing religion. He’s an atheist too, but he came out of Catholicism with a much more detailed view of the Bible than my liberal protestant upbringing gave me. In spite of my Sunday school teachers’ best efforts, I never absorbed much beyond God wants your dad to slit your throat (Abraham and Isaac anyone?) and be nice.
My mom’s people, who know how to throw a party a kid will love, taught me to celebrate with food and good company. That’s what I wanted to give my own children. A sense of love and luck at the end of a party with all their cousins and aunts and uncles…the best part of religious holidays in my mind. While I wasn’t really ready for their other questions, I found the truth a hard but steadfast source of answers.
Why did Grandma die? (Cancer.)
Why did she get cancer? (Bad luck/we don’t really know.)
Will we be wearing clothes when we die? (Most people are, but you might not be, my little nudist.)
One day my oldest wanted to hear the Christmas story, which my husband began with Moses’s struggle to bring his people out of the desert (I’m not kidding). That started a cascade of belief discussions, mostly ending with one of us saying, “But we don’t think that’s true,” and her saying, “Well I do!”
That’s when I began to think about the line. The line between my beliefs, based on my experience of the world, and the religious point of view based on tradition, emotion, and ethereal promises.
Everyone who has an opinion about religion has to eyeball that line sometimes. Right now at my house it means asking questions like: What do you say about your Baptist neighbor across the street, the one who makes awesome snow sculptures all winter long? What do you say about your beloved aunts and cousins who worship every week? What about Great Grandma and all the loss she’s had to bear in her life?
We say, “Their ideas about God mean a lot to them, and they would get really upset if we said they are mistaken.”
We say, “We can disagree about this and love each other.”
We say, “Oooooh, somebody brought the good dessert to this party.”
Being atheists means we’re a little different from most people we know, so we teach our kids to focus on the similarities. Then we teach them it’s okay to believe even if their dad and I don’t, and we hope for the best. Is that really so different from what happens in a tolerant religious family?
Elizabeth Hunter never planned to be a stay-at-home mom (or an atheist) but that is how things worked out. She lives in the mid-western U.S., and enjoys talking about parenting, science and good television shows.
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