I recently came across the question in this Patheos article. I will explore the question, among a few other aspects of the article.
Parenting is hard under any circumstances, but it can be particularly difficult as an atheist parent. Sometimes those struggles stem from the surrounding community. Sometimes those challenges come from your family. And every now and then, those challenges come from your kids themselves.
Take, for example, Siobhan O’Neill. She and her atheist husband chose to send their child to a religious school — not because of its faith-based orientation, but because it offered greater educational opportunities. It’s an argument many atheist parents in the U.S. have made about sending their kids to a Catholic school. O’Neill’s school also had a reputation for being tolerant of folks with many perspectives on faith, despite the omnipresence of predominantly Christian teachings and prayers. As she put it, she and her husband weren’t particularly concerned about their daughter Una‘s exposure to religious doctrine, as they felt they could counter it at home.
That is, until their daughter started taking a greater and greater interest in religion, which led to to some awkward, uncomfortable parenting decisions. As she writes in an essay for The Independent:
I never expected to be arranging a baptism for her so she can be confirmed with her friends, nor inviting Father Michael round to chat over a cuppa; I had to steer the conversation away from science before Ian, with a physics degree, got too animated. But we all approach it with common sense and Una’s best interests at heart.
It seemed obvious that my role was to support her journey to discover herself and I didn’t consider it until a Muslim friend said she thought it was admirable. “If a child wanted to explore a religion other than their own I don’t know too many families who would support that,” she said. Since childhood indoctrination is one of the things I like least about religion, I’m proud of Una for challenging my own atheist indoctrination of her.
It’s a difficult position to be in, for sure, and one I’m growing familiar with myself. My daughter knows of my position (you should have seen the look on my grandmother’s face when my daughter declared, “Mommy doesn’t believe in God,” just before prayer), and I’ve done my best to shield her from too much religious exposure, largely because I know the impact of peer and familial pressure to conform is a lot for such a young mind. At the same time, the plan has always been to wait until she’s older and better capable of cognitive reasoning, then make a concerted effort to expose her to major world religions, allowing her to choose her own path.
It never really occurred to me that she might choose one different than my own. Sure, interactions with my parents mean she knows some of the nursery rhyme bedtime prayers, and she’ll bow her head with them at their dinner table, but there is no formal religion in her life. We don’t read the Bible. We don’t attend church. There was never a baptism, nor do I plan on having one.
But what if? What if, once she’s older and we take that tour of world religions, she decides she believes in some sort of Higher Power? Will I have failed as a parent or succeeded as one who raised a young woman capable of independent thought?
I don’t have the answers, though I know I’ve got time to figure them out. Have other atheist parents gone through the same situation? How did you deal with it?
That is the article in its entirety. Though I normally break them up and go point by point, this one is best done wholesale. Though my response will be a bit critical, I will take into consideration the somewhat delicate nature of the matter. Raising children is a challenge for ANY couple, let alone an atheist couple. Many of whom are more than likely left to their own devices in a sea of theistic intolerance.
I will start with that.
The decision to send the child to catholic school caught my eye. And stuck in mind when it was mentioned that the student begun to become increasingly drawn towards religion. Its hard not to think “Well, what did you THINK was going to happen?!”. Worry not, I will indeed walk that back. In the city in which I live, I am not sure that you would find a good private school with secular values (even though the Canadian education system isn’t bad, overall. At least in comparison to many places south). Knowing the often atrocious state of education in many areas, I can see why those with the means would want better for their children.
This unfilled but obviously necesary niche of good and wholesome education seems a good project for the secular community to work on filling. I know that Aron Ra already does his best to fill in the gaps when it comes to science with his educational video series (a sample), but what about everything else? With the internet and more inter-connectivity than ever before, solving this is doable.
Anyway, lack of choice results in the best schooling option being a catholic school. A school that does not openly discriminate against other faiths (or non-faith), of course. But none the less, a school full of people persuaded into thinking that they know the way for one and for all. Wolves in sheep’s clothing for a young and impressionable mind.
But then we get to the parents. The atheist parents, as self labeled. Being that the above article is actually describing 2 stories (my mistake for jumbling them together previously), we have 2 different issues. One set of parents that is bothered that they are having problems countering the schools teachings. And another set of parents that worries about their child going the other way in adulthood.
First off, when a child is left in the hand of faith teachers with likely YEARS of experience . . . good luck. Even many adults are not immune. As for worrying that your child may end up religious despite being raised atheist . . . also, out of your hands.
Would such a child mean that you have failed as a parent?
Even Madelyn Murray O’Hair had one of her sons become devoutly religious. If you raised a secular child and ensured that they were exposed to as many different viewpoints as possible, you did what you could. When your children have reached an age where they can make their own decisions and come to their own conclusions, its out of your hands. Even if the thought of them being something OTHER than atheist never crossed your mind, its a common feeling of parents. A healthy relationship depends on going past these curve balls, however.
And, thus concludes the Dr Phil portion of this writing (joke being that I am not a doctor either). I now move on to potential criticisms, the meat of the shared title of this piece. Is it indoctrination to steer children towards godlessness?
Maybe. As with many things, it depends.
I know that a segment of people reading this will likely think that answer should be a hard “No!”, end of discussion. But like many other areas of life, it is not that simple.
When it comes to secular parenting, I can think of 2 different scenarios (though there may be more). One I will call Atheist parenting. And the other I will call Secular parenting.
Atheist parenting is based around the behaviors of many outspoken atheists I have come across. As written about in the past, many in the cohort tend to be quite ideological. Though there is an entire community of various types of the religiously faithless, these atheists often only accept one stance . . . atheist. In the context of parenthood, I can see how this may translate to emphasis on the all important stance. Many tend to feel these stances to be both reasonable and rational, so whats the harm in sending a child towards reason?
As for secular parenting, these parents may never bring up the topic at all. Though this may seem an asinine proposition to many, it happens (this was my childhood pretty much in a nutshell). In an environment of extreme religiosity, this could also entail sheltering children from as much of this overt religious noise as is possible.
I am not officially qualified to be giving advice for parents (as noted earlier). I don’t even see children in my future (for a few reasons). But having said that, I can still see where godless parents may take a wrong turn in Albuquerque, as my dad used to say (long before Breaking Bad or Better Call Saul gave a whole new meaning to that phrase!).
To summarize, so long as the choice is always in the hands of the child (AND their choice is respected!) you don’t have anything to worry about.