The Humanist Dilemma: I Can’t Get My Kid to Enter an Atheist Essay Contest

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Money for Nonbelief: Since I first discovered a contest in which students win scholarships for personal essays on atheism, I looked forward to the day my daughter would be old enough to enter. Last year I began clipping and filing the winning entries, contacting the organization to find out when the next year’s deadlines would be, and visiting the website to see if the rules were posted yet. Now and then I’d mention to my daughter that I wanted her to submit an entry when the time came, and she’d nod (without disengaging from her Snapchat or whatever she’s always doing on her cell phone).

The minute this year’s rules were published, I printed her a copy and began reminding her of the deadline about once a week. I’d ask when she planned to start working on it, and she’d say “next month,” and then, when it was the next month, “soon.” As the deadline drew uncomfortably close, I changed my line of questioning: “Don’t you want to do this?”

“No,” she responded.

“When were you planning to tell me?”


It’s too late for her to enter this year, but there are competitions for older students she’ll be eligible for in the future, and I have a younger kid who will also be eligible in a couple years. What can I do to convince my kids to shoot for this money and credential?


Dear Disappointed,

If it’s about the money, urge your daughter to pursue other options for scholarships and financial aid and help her find those options if she asks. But if it’s about the credential, consider that your daughter doesn’t appear to want to write about atheism, for whatever reason. Maybe she doesn’t want to be publicly identified with that tag (it could bite her if she ever lives in one of the many places that discriminate against atheists—or should I say, doesn’t live in one of the few places that doesn’t stigmatize nonbelievers). Maybe your daughter lacks strong convictions about the subject, or she doesn’t want to compromise her privacy by writing about herself. Maybe she just doesn’t feel she has anything she wants to say on the subject. Maybe she’s even a closet believer.

Please recognize that pushing your children to do something that identifies them as atheists or supporters of atheist organizations is not much different from pushing them to practice a religion. Freedom of (and from) religion is about allowing your children to follow their own lights, no matter where they may lead, or what you’d prefer for them.

Continue to keep your children posted on the contests they could enter in the future, if they’d like to, and you can offer to show them past winning essays if they’d care to take a look. But then give them space to decide whether or not this is something they wish to pursue. And don’t take it as a rejection, either of yourself or of atheism, if they just aren’t into it. On the other hand, maybe there’s an atheist essay contest you could enter yourself.