Ask Richard: Does raising my kids to think for themselves mean allowing them to think the


Mar. 17, 2010

You may send your questions for Richard to (Questions may be edited.) All questions will eventually be answered, but not all can be published. There are a large number of requests; please be patient.

Names are randomly changed for added anonymity.


Dear Richard,

My wife and I are atheists, and we have three children aged 10, eight and five. I think it's wrong for parents to impose religion on children, and so I do not feel I can impose atheism on them, either. We have explained to our children that different people believe in different gods, but neither of us believes in God, and when they are older they can decide for themselves what they want to believe.

What we have told them in favor of atheism is that we believe that science can now explain most of what religion was constructed to explain, that morals and ethics are not tied to religion and that people who do not believe in God are good, too. We have also explained the agnostic view that the idea of god(s) cannot be proved one way or another; however, the probability of a higher power is extremely low, to the point where we cannot imagine how it could be possible.

We aren't perfect, of course, and do our fair share of eye-rolling at what we consider religious stupidity. We dismiss religious belief out of hand and discuss the idiocy of fundamentalism in front of them (and with them), as well.

They do have influences favoring religion in their lives. Their grandmother is hoping to instill in them her Catholic beliefs by discussing religion at every opportunity. (We have told them that they are to listen politely–we teach them to show tolerance and respect for others' beliefs–but to largely ignore what she says about religion.)

Additionally, in Australia, where we live, most schools provide religious education through an ecumenical Christian course, which is 30 minutes per week. Children can opt out of the course with parental permission, and we gave our two older boys the choice to attend or not. The oldest wants to continue with the class. He is not particularly interested in religion, but he doesn't want to stand out from the crowd. The middle boy has opted out of religious education, but he is more questioning.

My concern is, our middle child is now questioning the agnostic point of view that we have taught him. If we can't prove God doesn't exist, how do we know he doesn't? We have had no problems discussing issues such as evolution, but he has been asking about the big bang theory and what (who?) caused that. I'm pleased he's asking questions instead of just accepting what he's told, but it makes me nervous, too. While I can field most of these questions (so far) and I will be searching for some age-appropriate literature for him, I am wondering if our liberal, tolerant, "you decide for yourself" attitude will backfire and my children will become religious. Should we be more hardline? And if so, my other concern is, what if they become fundamentalist (Christians, presumably) as a means of rebelling against us? Is there any way we can avoid this scenario?

Of course, I think atheism is the correct worldview, and I would be doing my children a disservice by not telling them what I believe. But at the same time, if they are never-the-less gravitating toward religion, does raising a freethinker mean allowing them to think the "wrong" thing?



Dear Pete,

This is what freedom means. When a person is truly free to make a choice, they're not necessarily going to choose what others would prefer. And when a person is truly free to have their own ideas, they're not necessarily going to agree even with those who gave them that freedom. This is why freedom, real freedom, is not as popular a concept around the world as many people might assume. Living in a free society requires a great deal of courage to accept that others will make choices we don't prefer and will have ideas with which we disagree. Many people are just not capable of that level of courage. They want to see their beliefs or preferences embraced by others, even at the expense of freedom.

Here is where you get to see if you have the courage of your convictions. Do you really mean it when you say that parents should not impose either religious or atheist views on their children? Do you really mean it when you tell your children they can decide what they believe themselves? Or does your acceptance of them require that their beliefs match yours–as in the case of so many religious families?

You have taught your children to think for themselves and make their own choices, and they are doing just that. Good!

Your 10-year-old is choosing to go through the motions of religious practice, not necessarily because he's actually interested in it, but for the social benefit of "fitting in." That's his choice, and all choices have their pluses and minuses. He'll have plenty of time to sort out what's in his own best interest.

Your eight-year-old is choosing to question what people present as truth, just as you have encouraged him to do. Right now, he's questioning what the two of you have been presenting as truth, both in your words and your reactions. Later, he will probably be questioning other things he heard presented as truth from other people. Questioning things may be part of his innate nature, and you have wisely cultivated that. Like his older brother, he'll have plenty of time to question his conclusions again and again. So whether he eventually becomes a theist, an atheist, an agnostic or a combination, he will have reached that position through careful consideration and deliberation. He's a very thoughtful kid. I like him.

Remember that they are still children. They will go through several more incarnations as preteens, adolescents and young adults. It will be a tumultuous time of experimentation, differentiation, challenge and, yes, rebellion. But young peoples' most destructive rebellion is usually against oppressive and authoritarian parenting. You have given your children the freedom to be who they are as they change and grow. Whatever expression of independence they may display, they won't have to go to extremes in order to make their statements and plant their flags.

It sounds like you have also taught them that there must be a balance between freedom and responsibility. They are responsible for their social interactions and the effect they have on others. They are responsible for their personal choices and the consequences. And it sounds like you have also instilled in them the responsibility to support and defend their own ideas. So if they choose to believe something, they know that they will be expected to back it up with a strong and thoughtful argument. Just keep promoting and practicing that expectation, and let it run its course as they try on different ideas.

You have promised your children freedom of thought. They know what you would prefer them to think, but they are free to adopt your preferences wholly, partially or to disregard them. Now you must honor your promise by not penalizing them if they choose something other than your preference. Regardless how much or little they agree with your ideas as they grow up, I think they will love you dearly and be grateful you had the courage to give them the skills and freedom to find their own paths–even if their paths might diverge from yours. Be glad that they are using your courageous gift to them. Celebrate as equally wondrous how they are both similar to you and different from you.

They are very lucky kids.



Richard Wade identifies as both a humanist and an atheist. He has worked as an artist and as a marriage and family therapist with many years in the specialization of addiction. Now retired, he has counseled more than ten thousand patients. Questions to this advice column are welcome from any perspective or belief, not just that of humanism or atheism. Richard Wade's column can also be read on a regular basis at The Friendly Atheist blog.