The Ethical Dilemma: Should We Raise Kids as Atheists?

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Too Young For Truth? At a humanist meeting in Oklahoma, a first-time attendee introduced himself and his seven-year-old daughter to the gathering. He said he was from a small town about fifty miles away. To his knowledge, everyone in his community—except for himself and his wife—was a Southern Baptist, and they had decided to raise their daughter as an atheist.

Everyone in this humanist group applauded their decision—except me. I approached him (and his daughter) after the meeting and asked him how his daughter’s schoolmates were likely to react upon learning about his daughter’s atheism; he said he didn’t know. I asked him if he had considered the likelihood that none of his daughter’s friends and/or schoolmates would be able to associate with his daughter once her atheism became public knowledge. He said that he was prepared to live with that consequence, because his primary concern was that she be raised as an atheist.

I told him he was wrong—that his daughter’s acceptance amongst her peers was primary, and that he should delay her declaration of atheism until she was old enough to select her own friends (as well as teachers, schools, and where she would live).

He angrily walked away from me and sought the opinions of others in attendance, all of whom encouraged him to “do the right thing by his daughter—and raise her as an atheist.”

How would you have advised this well-meaning father?

Concerned About the Child

Dear Concerned,

Both you and the father are clearly well-meaning. Your counsel had some merit, but the way you delivered it came off as negative and condescending. No one likes to be told they’re wrong, especially by someone they just met who is giving them unsolicited advice, regardless of its soundness. And it’s just plain out-of-line to dictate to this family “what’s primary.” That’s a judgment, and the parents’ judgment trumps yours. You certainly achieved your goal of making sure the dad is aware of the worst-case possibilities the daughter might face as an out atheist in a religious town, if he never contemplated them before (which seems highly unlikely). But it’s his decision whether to proceed with launching his daughter to cope with reactions he—but perhaps not she—feels ready for.

Hopefully your aggressive delivery won’t cause the father to dismiss the message because he was put off by the messenger. If you see him again, you might try to reach out and say you hope you didn’t come off alarmist or overstepping. You’re just concerned that being a minority nonbeliever may be hard for a young child, and you wanted to be sure he’s weighed the ramifications. And then back off.

But consider the alternatives implicit in your advice: Are you advocating that the parents actually raise their daughter as a Southern Baptist, which would mean they would all need to join a church? Are you asking them to pretend to their daughter—and everyone in their town—that they are Southern Baptists when they’re not?  Are you advising them to tell the daughter they’re atheists and then instruct her to pretend to her classmates that they’re believers? (And have I missed any other variations?) I’m having trouble imagining how exactly this atheist couple could pull off any of these alternatives, which all seem more damaging than any backlash the girl might face if they were truthful about their nonbelief. And they could be truthful simply by stating “We aren’t religious” or “We’re humanists,” without bringing up the “A-word” if they’d prefer to soft-pedal.

Did you consider that there must be a reason—perhaps a good one—why an atheist couple has settled in a primarily Southern Baptist community? The parents, and perhaps the daughter as well, have probably already dealt with the local attitudes, and they seem to be OK with that. Although it can be difficult for a child in this situation, it’s the parents’ call whether they want her to attempt to fly under the religious radar, as you suggest, or be honest about their views, which is their inclination. They are actively seeking out a community of supportive fellow nonbelievers, as demonstrated by traveling to a humanist meeting fifty miles from home.

Although there’s a chance they may not have thought things through, neither have you: You don’t know whether their town is as intolerant as you imagine, and you don’t know the personality of the daughter. Some very young kids are quite plucky, resilient, and capable of standing up for themselves. And neither you nor the parents know if the daughter will choose to be an atheist when she’s older

In the future, try to be a little kinder and gentler with your advice (i.e., lay off flatfooted phrases such as “You’re wrong”), particularly if you weren’t asked to weigh in. What’s primary is for people attending their first humanist meeting to return for a second one. These people made the trip because they hoped to be reinforced in their commitment to an openly secular family—not to be admonished for it. If humanists in the middle of America won’t stand up for humanism among other humanists, who will?