The Humanist Dilemma: Should Atheist Parents Send Their Kids to Church?

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Raising the Kids:  My new husband and I were both brought up with typical American religion but neither of us goes to church or believes. We are now talking about starting a family. He wants to raise the kids with no religion. I’m worried that they will feel weird when they see all their friends going to church, and I fear they may get bullied for being different. I think we should send them to a popular church in our area where many of our neighbors’ kids will go. Then, when they’re old enough, we can let them drop it.

—Wanting What’s Best for The Kids


Dear Wanting,

I commend you for anticipating potential issues before you have children and for striving to do what’s best for them. But I think your proposal is misguided. First of all, what’s a “typical American religion”? Last time I looked, our Constitution protected us from any state faith. This country is home to every imaginable religion, and what’s “typical” varies from one neighborhood to the next.  Furthermore, the unaffiliated—atheists, agnostics, humanists, freethinkers, nones—are now about a third of the US population and growing fast, particularly among younger people, with aggregate numbers greater than most religious groups.

Then there’s the concern that your kids will feel weird. Is there any kid that doesn’t feel weird at some time for some reason? No matter what you do to shield them, there will inevitably be reasons they feel different, whether it’s religion or appearance or what flavor ice cream they prefer. Part of growing up involves learning how to cope with, accept, and even embrace differences. Your kids might be proud they don’t waste time on superstitions, or be happy to demonstrate how they can be good without god.

And just how would you propose sending them to church? Would you drop them at the door and pick them up when it’s over, or would you go in with them and pretend to believe yourself? What would you tell them—that Mommy and Daddy think this is crap but feel you should experience it?

Finally, what makes you so sure they would eventually decide to opt out? No matter how much parents want their children to follow a particular path and no matter what they do to ensure that, our offspring will at some point make their own choices, which may or may not be what we would choose for them. Sending them off to a “popular” church may backfire by creating lifelong churchgoers and believers—perhaps even ones who get on your case to do the same. Or they might just have a hard time understanding what possessed you to make them go when neither of you is a believer.

The course you propose would teach them that at least one of their parents is cowardly and hypocritical. I could conceivably condone your idea if you lived somewhere the kids would surely be in for serious physical or emotional attack if they weren’t in the local mainstream faith, but that doesn’t sound like your situation—and if it were, I’d consider relocating rather than masquerading. Or standing up for your views.

Instead of looking for a well-attended church, look for secular organizations the whole family could join, such as humanist or ethical culture groups, which often have their own version of Sunday school. Check out ones that offer parenting resources and online forums. Instead of sitting in pews, spend those hours doing family enrichment activities. You could even “home school” your children by creating weekly sessions devoted to ethics and values (and you could invite interested friends and neighbors to join you).

It’s unfortunate enough when children are forced into indoctrination by parents who believe. It’s unconscionable when they’re pushed into it by parents who don’t.