Tag Archives: raising children without religion

Things Not to Say to Secular Parents

Oh brother!I found this list I started working on called, “things not to say to secular parents.” So I’m going to discuss a few here in hopes that it might help other parents.

Over the years, I’ve always been a little surprised by the responses from people when I tell them I’m not raising my kids to believe in God. Interestingly, many of the comments and protests from believers are remarkably similar. Yet all of the comments are just as remarkably uninformed.

Here are my responses to some of those questions and comments:

  1. “If something happened to one of your kids, you would want to believe they are in heaven.”

No, actually I would not want to believe this. Let’s say heaven does exist: not only is it dark and cold beyond words, there is absolutely nothing to do. Forever and ever. You exist in an eternity without a physical being, without a mind and you’re sharing the same living space with ex-boyfriends, ex-wives, bosses you didn’t like, and crotchety neighbors. No, I don’t want my children to live on in a perpetual nothingness. I’d want to know that they thrived on this planet, with as much awareness and love as they could stand. I’d want to know that they enjoyed every second of their short visit here. From where I’m standing, heaven is merely ego’s wishful thinking. Heaven is here. Heaven is our awareness that being here is a good thing.

  1. “But you believe in evolution and science. Those are beliefs, too.”

I believe in science, but that is different from saying, “I believe in God.” I believe in science means that I put faith in the people and institutions that are doing the work, that I have confidence in their methods. I could do the math or science myself, if I had the time and the education. But you and I cannot specialize in everything. We cannot do all things. So we must trust that others are doing their jobs, the same jobs that we could do, using the same methods that we were all taught and have agreed are worthy of our trust and confidence. These things are provable and repeatable and verifiable across the scientific community.

“I believe in God,” as many philosophers have noted, is an existential claim that is made when the thing believed is unrealistic, unproven or highly unlikely. There are other such claims: I believe that eating more burgers before conceiving will create a boy baby. I believe that kissing a frog will produce a prince. I believe in the tooth fairy. Vampires. Leprechauns. Water nymphs. God.

  1. “Belief in nothing is still belief in something.”

This is one of those puerile platitudes that just is not true. I don’t believe in unicorns. Do you? No? Is that a belief in something? If so, what?

Many Christian apologists will insist that atheism is a “belief system” or a religion, too. This is simply an attempt to equalize the two, to bring unbelief on the opposite side of the equation from religion, which is a belief system. If, believers postulate, both sides are “beliefs” and if one is free to choose from two separate–but seemingly equal–systems, then it standardizes religion. Religion is now logical like math and science. Science and math now require a leap of faith. Belief and unbelief are simply one of two choices that any reasonable person can make. This is not logical. One person’s belief in God cannot create two religions: theism and atheism.

This concludes my Sunday rant. I should note that, in spite of all the religious silliness I’ve encountered, I adore Pope Francis. He is a great example of a humanist.

Please feel free to add your, “Things not to say to secular parents” below.

The Three Scariest Words

I found this article about the three scariest words, “I don’t know,” particularly interesting. What got my attention was this story from a surgeon:

“A surgeon tells about the time when, as a new intern, afraid to admit unfamiliarity with a procedure and ask questions, she plunged in confidently — and made an incision four times longer than the patient had been told the scar would be.”

I’m not going to even start to think about all the mistakes that are brushed under the operating table or stitched up, but now I DO know to opt for the middle-aged doctor.

What’s relevant to us is that, perhaps what differentiates those of us who don’t believe from those of us who believe, is that we are comfortable with the answer “I don’t know.”  I don’t know how we got here. I don’t know why we are here. I don’t know if anything happens when we die.

It seems at first that those who believe in God confess they don’t know either. We don’t know why God allowed this to happen. It’s not for us to know. It was God’s plan.

But this is not admitting to not knowing. It’s simply stating, “We know the answer is God.” We don’t need the answer, for someone bigger and stronger (albeit unwilling or unable to show this) holds the answer for us.

Believing that God knows all means that we don’t have to discover answers that we might not want to hear: life is not fair; people can be cruel; guardian angels don’t exist; heaven is a myth. There is a certain fear in the realization that, holy sh*t, no one is in control here. It’s just us on this planet, alone, and we’re at each other’s mercy. We are responsible for doing the right thing, even though no one is watching. And sometimes there is no reward in doing what is right–just a salve to our conscience.

By postponing indefinitely the difficult process of thinking through complex and oftentimes painful experiences in life, we avoid more emotional discomfort. Sometimes it’s a lot more comforting to think that God is holding the answers for us because the truth can be painful, because living with the unknown can be uncomfortable.

This is why we need to tell our kids from the time they are young that it’s okay not to know. Think about and focus on questions. They’re oftentimes more interesting than the answers. If we can teach our kids when they are little to be comfortable with not knowing, there won’t be shame in not having the answers. (Until they go to school, of course.) This way, too, they can be open to all possibilities.

Realizing that we don’t know the answers to life’s biggest questions can be a sign of emotional strength, for it is much scarier to walk a tightrope with no safety net. The three scariest words can also give us the most strength.

What’s the Point

I went to Market Street the other day to grab some groceries. The lady who works behind the coffee counter, the one who is always chatty and smiling, stops me for a bit. Where have I been? How are the kids? Did I know she’s finished with Bible school? (Oh joy.)

Yes, sometimes I listen to her tell me about Bible school. She’s been taking classes now for two years. Did I know, she tells me, that I can be a minister, too? (Is that right?) I don’t need a divinity degree. I can minister to people every day by spreading God’s word and being a good Christian. Any one can. Did I know that?

Of course my husband is staring at me, wondering why the hell I don’t tell her to bug off. I bit my cheek so as not to bust out laughing at the irony. This is a woman who is so excited to be on Team Jesus and so clueless, that I wondered, What’s the point? Why not let her talk? Who is she hurting? She’s just trying to do the best job for Jesus that she can. She’s not a threat to me. I thought about the time I worked in a courtroom, and the DA and judge let a man just rattle on and on because the more he talked, the more he incriminated himself.

I ask myself this question a lot. I mean: A LOT. What’s the point? We’re all going to die. Every one of us. Our species will die off. Our sun will burn out. So what’s the point in anything any of us do? Shakespeare won’t matter. Neither will Newton. I sure as hell won’t.

So it seems to me the point is only what we’re doing in the moment. Am I doing my part to make this a good ride for those around me?

Now. I’ve known this woman for years. Probably five or six, maybe more. I don’t know. Time runs like one, big river. This lady has always been so kind, so sweet. She’s so excited to be around people and to help anyone. She seems simple and means no harm. So I smile and tell her I have to grab some groceries.

But as I’m on my way out of the store, she calls to me again from behind the coffee counter, on a crowded Saturday afternoon, right there by tables of customers drinking their Joe, and she says, “Hey! What church do you go to?” She’s wide-eyed and expectant, ready to show me how the ministering thing works. I hesitate for a bit, wondering if I should even answer. This might change things between us.

“I don’t,” I said. She really starts to get excited because now she knows that I am a free agent.

“You don’t?” And I laugh, “No, I don’t.”

She’s really watching me, and I realize that perhaps I’ve underestimated this woman because she picks up on something and lowers her voice a bit as I’m walking by, “But you’re a believer, right?” I stop, with my back against the door, facing her. Here’s my moment of truth. I always say be honest. I teach my kids this. I tell them, don’t volunteer information, don’t be confrontational, but be honest. So I tell her, “No, I’m not.”

“You’re not a believer? Then what do you believe in?” Several customers have stopped what they are doing and are watching me. I laugh uncomfortably.

“I believe in people. That’s it. I believe in just doing the right thing, and I believe that most people are good.”

“I just can’t believe it. I never knew,” she said. She looks a little confused or surprised or maybe both. “Really? I just never knew,” she repeats.

I thought about telling her, “Well, you never asked, did you?” But that would be cruel. She’s just like so many other Stepford Christians I’ve met along the way, assuming that their way is the only way. Then she says, “Well, you act just like a believer. Did you know that? You really do.”

I’m not sure if she was trying to convince me or herself. Or maybe she was wondering, like I was, if she was giving me a compliment or an insult. Of course, I want to tell her, “Well, you act just like a nonbeliever. Almost. Except for the evangelizing part.”

She follows after me to tell me that a lot of the Christians she knows don’t act like one. “They don’t have Christian behavior.” She gives me examples. I don’t tell her, “Yeah, we (on this side) already know that. It’s old news.” I just listen to her because this lady just came to a realization on her own that is so much more powerful than me telling her: nonbelievers are okay. You cannot differentiate from the outside who believes in God and who doesn’t. Maybe next time she strikes up a conversation with someone, she won’t make the assumption that everyone is a Christian.

She’s been desensitized a bit. She’ll go home and tell her husband and her kids and maybe some of her teammates. Not believing in God isn’t so scary after all.

So that’s the point.


I showed my older son the video, Gospel of Intolerance, by Roger Ross Williams. You can find it on this NY Times link. You can also find the video in this article. It might be a good piece to share with your children.

American Evangelicals have turned their fight against “sexual immorality” to countries such as Uganda, which are more malleable to influences tied to donations. Sexual immorality is defined as anyone who is gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. Currently, those behaviors are against the law in Uganda, and there is a bill on the table again to make repeat offenders suffer harsh punishments, even death.

My son watched this video (he’s become a little cynical at this point). He shook his head and said, “Why do people care so much about other’s choices?”

I thought this video was a great jumping off point to discuss religion, politics and what it means to give. Here are some questions to get a dialogue going with children. Feel free to add more:

Evangelicals have invested a lot of money in building churches in Uganda. Why do you think they do this?
How are the “laws” of a church made? How are the laws in our government made?
What does it mean to be immoral and who defines this?
What does it mean to donate? If you tie a request or a condition to a donation, is that selfless or altruistic (a trait churches value)?
Why do you think some churches and their congregations care about the homosexuality issue?
If a person is gay or lesbian, how does his or her sexual preference affect society?
What would happen if homosexuality were made illegal in America? Do you think people would change their behaviors? What costs or benefits would be associated with changing the laws?


First, I wanted to thank everyone who reached out here to share their experiences or their views. It is very encouraging to see the kindness of strangers. I was truly moved. Hopefully, by speaking up, we can all make a difference.

Has anyone seen the movie Compliance? If you’ve never seen it, it’s about a man who calls fast food restaurants, pretends to be a cop, and asks the managers to strip search employees. (Read more here.) If you’ve never seen it, and want to rent it, I won’t tell you too much. Sadly, the film is based on actual events. I’ll just share a few things.

When told that the caller was a cop, managers followed the instructions of the “police officer,” even though the requests were illogical or immoral. There were a few who doubted and refused to follow instructions, but there were many who did exactly as asked. I’m sure you know where I am going with this.

We are trained to respect authority, not to doubt, not to question. The caller in the film exploits that weakness. The problem is that we are so conditioned to accept what we hear as true, we oftentimes relinquish our common sense. Authority does have its place, bringing order and safety to society. But we have to keep our radar up at all times; we have to keep that sense, that small voice, which tells us something is not right, no matter who is saying it. The movie is frustrating to watch–I know becuase I watched it last night. We think, who would continue to take those instructions? Would I? I suppose until we are in a situation like that, we just don’t know.

But I do know that the radar, telling us something is not right brought us here. It brought us to the place where we’ve rejected the notion of god that many of our authority figures have held as true. We were not compliant.