When mixed-belief parents reveal their religious differences to someone, the most common next question is, “But then…what are the children?”

The idea of raising kids with no specific worldview label—religious or nonreligious—is as confusing to some people as raising a child without a name. But many mixed-belief couples do exactly that, raising a child who might participate in and learn about two different worldviews without being claimed or labeled by either one until they’re old enough to choose for themselves.

Richard Dawkins once wrote that referring to a child as “a Catholic child” or “a Muslim child” or “an atheist child” should sound as silly to us as saying “a Marxist child” or “a Republican child.” When one partner is a Republican and the other a Democrat, no one says, “But what are your kids?” These labels represent complex perspectives that no young child could have chosen freely. Until they can, there’s no need to force the issue.

The freedom to choose or change your religious identity is a gift of autonomy so universally valued that it’s enshrined in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change one’s religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest one’s religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

This does NOT mean our kids shouldn’t engage in religious practices or belief. It means the exact opposite. Erecting a wall between the child and all religious experience isn’t necessary or desirable. In fact, closing kids off from these experiences can violate their autonomy just as much as restricting them to a single fragment of religious opinion can do so. They can go to church or Sunday school, read the Bible, and pray without being called a Christian, Muslim, or Jew, just as they can challenge religious ideas, debate religious friends, and read The God Delusion without being an atheist.

This does NOT mean our kids shouldn’t engage in religious practices or belief. It means the exact opposite.

A child with one religious and one nonreligious parent is in a uniquely lucky position to do all of these things—learn religious concepts and challenge them, engage in religious practice and wonder if they are meaningful, pray and question whether their prayers are heard.

My own parents achieved this without even intending to. We went to a United Church of Christ congregation every Sunday, but Mom and Dad never asked us to pledge ourselves to the UCC or even to call ourselves Christians. At the same time, we were encouraged to think and question and explore ideas. As a result, I came to my current views on my own. It’s the thing I value most about my worldview—that it’s really mine. Why would I deprive my kids of that feeling of authenticity?

Some kids raised this way end up choosing a religious identity; others choose a nonreligious one. In both cases, the individual receives the gift of genuine autonomy in a major life decision. And in neither case does the child have to go through the guilty turmoil of deciding whether to accept or reject a label placed on him by his loving parents.

About 400 of the 1,000 people in secular/religious mixed marriages that I interviewed for my book In Faith and In Doubt were parents. Both religious and nonreligious partners participated in the survey. I asked those parents to check all statements that were true about the eventual religious or nonreligious identity of their children:

  • 63% said “I am confident they will make a positive choice, even if it is not the same as mine”
  • 78% said, “I will love and support my child regardless of their choice”
  • 55% said, “I would prefer they end up identifying with my worldview”
  • 9% said they would be “deeply disappointed” if their child chose the worldview of the other parent
  • Fewer than one-half of one percent said, “Certain choices could lead me to end contact or support”

This final (terrible) answer was given by just two people out of 400. Though you might assume these were religiously orthodox parents, the two who suggested they might cut off contact or support from their child were both…nonreligious.

Disappointment is another matter. Religious parents were twice as likely as the nonreligious parents to say they would be “deeply disappointed” if their child adopted the other parent’s worldview.

The clear majority of parents in both categories are fine with their children making either choice, and both express confidence that those choices will be positive ones, even if different from their own.

Religious/nonreligious partners are in the ideal situation to facilitate this open process. Both parents can and should wear their own identities proudly, even as they point to each other for alternate points of view. When my daughter came to me at age eight and asked whether Jesus really came alive after he died, I gave my honest opinion: “I don’t think he did,” I said. “I think that’s just a story to make us feel better about death. But talk to Mom. I know she thinks it really happened. And then you can make up your own mind and even change your mind back and forth a hundred times if you want.” And Becca did the same for me, always sending the kids to hear my perspective after offering her own.

Both parents share the experience of their perspective, then say, “Here’s what I believe with all my heart, it’s very important to me and I think it’s true, but these are things each person has to decide for herself, and I want you to talk to people who have different beliefs so you can make up your own mind. You can change your mind a thousand times. There’s no penalty for getting it wrong, and I will love you no less if you end up believing differently from me.” Imagine if that was the norm! Imagine kids growing up with an invitation to engage these profound questions freely and without fear.

Some religious leaders insist that children raised by parents with two different worldviews are subject to “confusion” and “alienation.” In fact, this is rarely the case. Children accept as normal the world with which they are presented. Someone raised in a single-religion home may see anything else as unthinkable and confusing. But children whose parents differ on religion see that as normal, and they tend to adapt perfectly well.

Hope and David

One of the couples I interviewed was Hope and David. Hope had the same worries about her children being confused when her husband became an atheist. She told me that when she asked her oldest what it was like to have mixed-religion parents, her daughter said, ‘I don’t think having parents with different religions is that much different from having same religion parents. I think it just changed the way we think about religion.’” Her answer made Hope…hopeful. “Even though I might sometimes feel stressed out by our difference in religion,” Hope said, “it feels like normal to our children. They are aware that our family is a little bit different from some other families at my church or at my husband’s atheist group, but it’s not different to them—it’s their normal.”

It isn’t always easy on the parents themselves to see their kids exposed to another point of view. “Before David left the faith, we were a very committed Christian family,” says Hope. “We taught our children the catechism. We watched Christian videos, sang Christian songs, and built the Christian bubble around them like so-called ‘good’ Christian parents do.” But since David’s change, she has adopted a more balanced parenting approach—which is not always easy for her.

“Part of my faith is teaching my children about God,” she said, “but I also think it is important to be respectful of my husband and his non-belief. I let our children know that this is my belief, other people believe different things and they have to make up their own minds when they are older. I admit I’ve had a hard time learning how to achieve this balance. We’ve had lots of arguments over this, especially when I’ve crossed the line into being dogmatic or I have felt David was being disrespectful of my faith. As a Christian, it can be heartbreaking to listen to him talk to our kids about stuff like evolution and God not being real and the Bible not being true. Before he became an atheist, we had raised our kids with Bible stories and worship songs. David had been an active part in teaching them about our faith, and now he was actively teaching them something opposite. Sometimes I don’t know how to handle that. But I’m learning. It’s a process.”

David struggles to find the balance as well. “We did have to reach some agreements. Each of us tells the kids our honest thoughts regarding religion so long as we also encourage the kids to ask the same question to the other parent and listen to their answer.”

As for the religious identity of their children, Hope and David have reached agreement on one of the essential best practices: keeping kids unlabeled and free to explore beliefs and experiences before choosing their own religious identity, if any. “Before David de-converted, I mostly just assumed our children would follow us in our faith,” Hope says. “But now we do not assign a spiritual identity to our children. We both tell them that they are free to make up their own minds and to change their minds as much as they want. We say that they are too young to really make an informed decision one way or another. I take them to church with me most Sundays. Sometimes the kids want to stay home with him. Sometimes I let them, and sometimes I insist they go.”

“Sometimes I feel like a sell-out by letting my kids go to church so regularly,” David admits. “I want them to enjoy their friends, but I hate the BS they are fed while there. I want to have more time with them so we can discuss my thoughts regarding religion rather than just hearing the other side at church. It is gratifying to me that they at least know that not believing is an option and that unbelievers aren’t bad people as they are sometimes told at church. I hope, as they grow older, they will develop thoughtful questions of their own and I’ll be able to offer my perspective more.”

Hope and David’s five kids are each finding their own way, knowing their parents support them. “My oldest is 12. She is a Daddy’s girl, and right away when he announced that he didn’t believe anymore, she said she did not believe in God either. This has given her some trouble on the bus and with classmates as we live in the Deep South, but she has remained steadfast in her non-belief. Honestly, as a person if faith, my desire would be for her to one day have faith in God, and I would be disappointed if she lived her life without faith. But I love and support her no matter what.”

Their second oldest is ten and a steadfast believer. “She has always believed in God,” says Hope. “I try not to put any pressure on her and try to let her know she needs to make an informed decision when she is older. This is a huge area of struggle for me,” she admits, “because it goes against every Christian cultural instinct.”

Hope describes their younger children as indifferent for the moment. “Our five-year-old son sometimes says he believes in God, because he likes the praise music and loves coming to church with me. And sometimes he says when he grows up he won’t believe in God anymore.”

There is never a need for you as a parent to pretend about what you think. In fact, it’s impossible to parent from a place of real integrity if you pretend to have convictions you don’t really have—or worse yet, pretend to have no convictions at all. You will and should have an influence on your child’s developing worldview, but influence and indoctrination are two different things. Only the former is good.

I came to my own conclusions about the big questions as a result of long reflection, introspection, study, and discourse. I’m proud to have worked my way toward it. It’s that effort that makes my worldview a deep and valued part of who I am. I not only know what I believe—I know why I believe it because it wasn’t handed to me. I was present and active every step of the way. Maybe it’s the same for you. So do we really want to deprive our kids of the journey that makes that final choice so meaningful?

Now there are times when a parent must substitute his or her judgment for the judgment of the child. You have to decide whether a bag of chips is a wise replacement for dinner. You have to set and enforce boundaries, define household responsibilities, and insist on honesty and fair play. As kids get older, you’ll want to involve them more and more in these decisions, but until their developing judgment is up to the task, a parent must make certain decisions for the child.

But is selecting a belief system one of those decisions? If it was necessary for children to declare a personal worldview at the age of five, parents would indeed have to choose it for them. That’s the way it’s been done for millennia, of course.

By the time a labeled child is old enough to begin searching for their own place in the world, it’s hard to think objectively about the declaration they’ve worn like a robe for as long as they can remember. If they decide to take it off, it becomes an emotionally-charged act of defiance, a rejection of something given to them, often by loving parents with the best of intentions. And in some cases, the natural urge to separate from parents can lead teenagers to throw it off because their parents gave it to them.

If there is one highest value in freethought, it’s the freedom to think for one’s self—and something as personal and all-defining as a worldview is most meaningful and enduring when it’s freely chosen.

Teach your child tolerance, critical thinking, empathy, and a love of the truth, then trust him to decide what those values add up to. I doubt they will add up to a person who speaks in tongues and believes that Jesus appears in tortillas and hates gays. They may add up to one of the more benign religious expressions—a liberal Anglican, a Congregationalist, a Unitarian, a Quaker. Or they may add up to secular humanism. Regardless, you owe it to your child to preserve the space around her to make her own choice without having to deal with someone else’s idea of the right choice.

Listen to “But then…what are the children?”

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Dale McGowan is chief content officer of OnlySky, author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies, and founder of Foundation Beyond Belief (now GO Humanity). He holds a...