This Is What It’s Like To Raise A Child As An Atheist In The Bible Belt
Where their classmates are pretty sure they're going to hell.
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My son M, 8 years old, is growing up in Atlanta. This is a fine thing: Atlanta has wonderful food, glorious natural beauty, and some of the most genuinely friendly people you will ever meet.
It’s also the Bible Belt, and even though we live in a relatively progressive community here, the entire atmosphere is much, much more religious — especially Christian — than where I raised M’s sister A, now 21, who grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In Cambridge, you say you’re an atheist and everyone is like, “So what?” But here, belief in God — or at least, regular attendance to a religious service—is much more of an expected part of life. So when M’s classmate asked him what church he went to and he answered, “I don’t go to church,” the classmate cocked his head and said, “Oh, so you’re Jewish!” (When a Jewish friend asked M if he was Jewish and M said no, that boy said, “Oh, so you’re Christian!”)
The truth is, M is neither Christian nor Jewish (nor Muslim nor Hindu nor Baha’i), at least not right now. Because right now he’s 8 and he’s growing up with parents who don’t take him to services or follow any religion at home. I can’t really speak for my husband on this (he grew up going to church and is pretty private about his beliefs), but on my side anyway, M is being raised by an atheist.
And rather than feeling like he’s missing out on something important, I think he’s lucky.
This is perplexing to a lot of people. Some of them are horrible people whose opinions I can automatically discount, but even some fairly thoughtful people are alarmed or confused by the idea of raising children without religious structure. They wonder how my kids can learn right from wrong, or worry that without faith they will lack a source of strength to turn to when things get tough.
Even though an increasingly large chunk of Americans identify as non-religious, we are still an overwhelmingly Christian nation. And many of those so-called “Nones” consider themselves spiritual seekers rather than atheists; they are turned off by present-day organized religion, but with the right appeal from the right kind of church, they will come back.
And then there are the mean-spirited, jerky “New Atheists,” many of who would appear to hate the religious, whether due to misogyny, a sense of intellectual superiority, a covert anti-Islamic feeling, or rage at a God they once believed in. These are not my people. Nor do I identify among the people who believe in Science with a capitol S, a substitute God. For me, atheism means I live my life without theism, in that the existence or non-existence of God (or gods) is not particularly relevant to my life. Science explains the origins and working of the natural world well enough for me, and as for the spiritual, I prefer to “let the mystery be,” as the singer Iris Dement memorably puts it.
They wonder how my kids can learn right from wrong, or worry that without faith they will lack a source of strength to turn to when things get tough.
The parts of religion that do interest me, and that I do engage in my own little God-free way, boil down to morality and community. I spend a lot of time thinking about how to be a good person — day in and day out, all the little choices we make even when nobody is watching — and I try to be honest with my kids. Some parents might feel that they can’t offer moral instruction to their kids without a go-to set of instructions, but for me it feels liberating. We talk about treating people with empathy and compassion and a sense of reciprocity.
We talk about courage and standing up for the underdog. We talk about messing up, and forgiving each other (and ourselves). I don’t have any one text to refer to when talking to my kids about this kind of thing, but there is a whole body of fiction and poetry and essays that can help. Human beings have been trying to figure this stuff out for a long time, and we are never, ever going to be done. We tell stories to figure out how to live — whether those stories depend upon a god figure or not, they are all man-made, and useful.
When my kids ask about the big questions religion attempts to answer — What happens after we die? Who made the world? — I’m totally comfortable with the most honest answer I can give: Nobody knows. Then we can talk about what different people think, about creation myths and fables and legends, and about how various those ideas are, and how similar they sometimes are, too. Which is why I like my kids to have friends of many religions, to hear about their beliefs and traditions, and to treat them with respect.
The only thing I don’t want him to feel is that he’ll go to Hell if he doesn’t go to church, as one classmate told him.
I don’t feel any pressure for either of my children to share my (non)belief, by the way. My 21-year-old daughter, A, has gone back and forth from atheist to theist. She has spent a lot of Sundays accompanying her beloved grandmother to an Episcopal church with a dynamic woman priest, a choice I support 100 percent. M, too, has thought and felt different things about religion, and I expect him to continue to. The only thing I don’t want him to feel is that he’ll go to Hell if he doesn’t go to church, as one classmate told him (kids will be kids, but I hope that one’s parents tone it down a bit). And it would be nice if I could find him a summer sleepaway camp that didn’t emphasize religion, which is alarmingly difficult to do, at least in my region of the country.
The idea that children can only grow up to be morally good people if they are raised within a religion is not only ridiculous, it’s dangerous. There are plenty of horror stories about what happens to children in extremely fundamentalist religions. Josh Duggar’s molestation of younger children — including his own sisters — isn’t an outlier in the world of Quiverfull families; it’s an extension of that subculture’s rigid gender roles, silence around sexuality, and privileging of silence.
We don’t know for sure whether Michael Jackson abused children, but it’s quite clear that his own childhood was marred by beatings made worse by a Jehovah’s Witness atmosphere of stigma and silence around sex, violence, and identity. Rape survivor Elizabeth Smart, who has remained a Mormon, has advocated against religion-based abstinence-only sex education. She writes that it was difficult for her to believe her family would still love her and accept her after her abduction and rape, because she had been taught that girls who were no longer virgins were something to be discarded like a “chewed up piece of gum.”
But just as nobody should be ashamed to proclaim their religious beliefs, so too should atheists come out of the closet.
I’m not saying that all religion — even all fundamentalist religion — is damaging to children. I know many families in which religion is part of the glue that binds the children to tradition, to heritage, and to a system of morality that informs how they live every minute of their lives. I have attended their sons’ baptisms, watched as their daughters became Bat Mitzvahs, and sent silver Christening cups.
But just as nobody should be ashamed to proclaim their religious beliefs, so too should atheists come out of the closet. Especially those of us who are parents. Because it’s important that even in the Bible Belt, other kids and parents can see that kids can be kind, loving, strong, and good — without God.
Kate Tuttle is a book critic for the Boston Globe. Her work has also appeared in the Washington Post, Salon, NPR.com, and elsewhere. She lives in Decatur, Georgia. Follow her @katekilla . You can find more from Dame Magazine here:
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