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[This column also appears in the April 16 edition of Humanist Network News.]


by Dale McGowan


In a recent article in USA Today (“Am I raising ‘atheist children’?”, March 17), author Nica Lalli addressed a common question for nonreligious parents: “How would you respond if one of your children became religious?” As the topic went rippling through the nonreligious blogosphere, both the consensus inside nonreligious parenting and the false assumptions outside of it were revealed in comment threads.

Like so many questions we hear, the way it is asked is at least as revealing as any answer. Sometimes I can barely hear the question itself for the clatter of the thrown gauntlet. The tone of the question often implies that all my high-minded claims of parental openness are a self-deluding sham—that hearing that one of my kids had chosen to identify with religion would cause me to fly into an icon-smashing, garment-tearing, child-disowning rage, well before the child had reached the stirring refrain of “Jesus Loves Me.”

There’s a strong consensus among nonreligious parents against putting worldview labels on our children or guiding them by the nose into our own. It’s not unanimous; some of the blog comments I’ve seen since Nica’s piece made me wince, like the atheist mother who said she would not “let” her child identify with religion. Fortunately, no hot or staining beverages were in my mouth when I read that. Let? Let? I’m not even sure what that means. But that view is happily rare. Most of us are more committed to parenting our children toward genuine autonomy than churning out rubber stamps of ourselves.

One of the many problems with the question is the implication that religious identification is a single point of arrival, like the day a young adult’s daemon takes a fixed form in His Dark Materials or palms begin flashing red in Logan’s Run. Did it work that way for you—or did you pass through a number of stages and try on a number of hats along the way? I thought so. And see what a lovely person you turned out to be.

A close relative of mine went through a period of experimentation with different worldviews. After being a fairly conventional New Testament Christian for a while, she became something of a Manichaean dualist, believing the world was divided into good and evil, darkness and light. She eventually went through a sort of Einsteinian-pantheist phase before adopting a benevolent, utilitarian humanism.

Then she turned six.

I encourage my kids to try on as many beliefs as they wish and to switch back and forth whenever they feel drawn toward a different hat, confident that in the long run they will be better informed not only of the identity they choose, but of those they have declined. Were I to disown my kids each time they passed through a religious identity, I’d have to keep a lawyer on retainer.

Now let’s get specific. My child has become “religious,” you say. Is it “Love-your-neighbor” religious…or “God-hates-fags” religious? “Four Chaplains” religious…or “9/11 hijackers” religious? Dalai Lama…or Jerry Falwell?

Adding to the difficulties is the almost comic range of meaning of “religion.” A good friend of mine has verses from the Book of Psalms scrolling around the walls of his bedroom and believes that Jesus Christ is the son of God and the sole path to salvation—yet describes himself as “not at all religious, really.” Then you have the Unitarians—the majority of whom are nontheistic—who tend to insist, sometimes downright huffily, that they are religious.

Just as troubling as the idea that I’d protest any and all religious expressions in my children is the notion that I’d applaud any and all nonreligious outcomes. Though many of the most ethical and humane folks I’ve known have been nonreligious, some of the most malignant and repugnant SOBs have been as well. So, then: Is it “Ayaan Hirsi Ali” nonreligious—or “Joe Stalin” nonreligious?

Perhaps you can see why I consider the question, “What if your child becomes religious?” as unanswerably meaningless as, “What if your child becomes political?”

I have three compassionate, socially conscientious, smart, ethical kids, with every indication of remaining so. If they choose a religious expression, it’s likely to be one that expresses those values. They might become liberal Quakers, or UUs, or progressive Episcopalians, or Buddhists, or Jains, framing their tendency toward goodness and conscience in a way different from but entirely respectable to my own way of seeing things. We could do far worse than a world of liberal Quakers.

If instead one of my kids were to identify with a more malignant religion, I’d express my concerns in no uncertain terms. But the consequences of the belief would be the main point of contention, not the fact that it is “religious.” And my love for my child, it goes without saying, would be reduced by not so much as a hair on a flea on a neutrino’s butt.

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.