July 13, 2011


Mia is attending vacation bible school. No one was more surprised than Beth and I. We're both atheists however we think our kids should make up their own minds rather than have us dictate beliefs. Of course, the VBS she's going to is next to our neighborhood, chock-full of neighborhood and school kids she knows and loves, and is free.

Before heading over to a cookout on Sunday, Mia, Owen and I went to the church to register her. After, the three of us had an interesting conversation.

Mia: Is God really everywhere?
Me: Depends on who you ask and what they believe. Some people believe there are many gods. Others believe there are none. Christians, like the ones at camp, believe there's one god and that he's powerful and everywhere.
Mia: Oh, okay. That's not really what I believe.
Me: That's okay. You don't have to. But the most important thing is to respect what other people believe even if you don't believe those things yourself.
Owen: Will God be at the cookout?

We have a ways to go with Owen.

Religion, for us, is like our diet. Beth and I are vegetarian but we don't expect our kids to be. Yes, we're creating a certain bias towards our own choices because children are incredibly influenced by their parents but the decision is ultimately up to them. We try to be as objective as possible explaining things like religion to them. But we do share our own beliefs because their most common question is "what do you believe?"

We believe in being totally honest with our kids and telling them what they want to know, tailored, of course, by what they're ready to hear. I think they'll be better, smarter and more independent people for it.

Do you believe what your parents believed? How did they shape how you think now?

Posted by Chris at July 13, 2011 7:01 AM

Believe it or not, one of the things I'm most grateful to my mother for is NOT raising us in any particular religion. I'm not sure about her feelings on god(s), but I know my mother is at best highly skeptical of organized religion. I don't think she actively influenced my beliefs but I'm very wary of organized religion as well. I think a lot of the tenets of most religions are useful, good, and even beautiful ... but then humans have to come along and mess it up. I hesitate to call myself an atheist only because I just don't know. No one does, you know? Your stance on religion with your kids seems to be a very healthy one.

Posted by: Fraulein N at July 13, 2011 7:37 AM

I was raised Mormon by my mom. My dad had been Mormon too, but had lapsed by the time I was old enough to be aware. I realized fairly early on that I was being groomed (literally and figuratively) to be someone's wife and mother and not much else and that didn't sit well with my 10 year old self. Once given the choice (at 14) about whether or not to go to church, I never went back. I'm a confirmed athiest at this point, but my husband is on the fence.

I never raised the issue with my kids, preferring instead to wait for them to raise it with me. It came up about a year or so ago with both of my kids declaring that they believed in god and that I wouldn't go to heaven because I didn't. That's about as far as the conversation went. I'm really hesitant about pushing my ideas on them at this stage in their lives. I don't want them following what I believe to be true just because it's what *I* believe. I know this will come up again as we live in a very Catholic area, and I have no problem discussing it with them, I just feel like I have an unfair advantage at this point (if that makes sense).

Posted by: Elizabeth at July 13, 2011 7:41 AM

Next week I am teaching at our VBS and I was trying to figure out what I would do if your kid was in my class. I believe, with all my heart there is a God. I suspect those that are teaching in this church do as well. I mean its all volunteer, and its a lot of work to prepare for and you have no intention of supporting of the concepts she is exposed to. I think its great that you want your kids to decide, but right now she is too young to really make that decision. Nice free babysitting you got though.

Posted by: linda at July 13, 2011 8:21 AM

My parents were divorced when I was very young, and later became very invested in the religions of their second spouses - mom a very devout Catholic, dad a born-again Christian. I figured out very young that, despite what I was told, neither one of their beliefs could be 100% right, or else one set of my parents was going to be in very big trouble in there 'hereafter.' :)

I think if it weren't for the pulling of those two very different religious points of view in my childhood, I wouldn't be so curious about all sorts of spiritual beliefs now. I think it definitely shaped my spirituality and belief in *something* that I'm still trying to figure out, but I wouldn't call myself religious.

Posted by: mandy at July 13, 2011 9:56 AM

My parents are old school die-hard Catholic. I (only half jokingly) refer to myself as a Recovering Catholic because of it. I mean like super strict, haven't spoken to me in 5 years because I got divorced Catholic.
I am not a fan of organized religon. At all.

While my parents certainly tainted it for me, I've also grown into that understanding on my own by developing my own view of a higher power. Any group of people who start talking about how God feels (god is love, yada yada) I stop listening. And I think that's why most people turn away, because they can see the blatant faults in that (why does god let bad things happen to good people, etc). And it all stems from people trying to tie human attributes onto something that isn't human. If you quit trying to do that, you'd find it all much easier to understand.

I'm currently going in more of the Panentheism, Pantheism and even Pandeism direction. It just makes so much more sense to me.

I did what you are doing, Chris. My son, who is now 20, is now an atheist. But he is still willing to enter discussions and is respectful of what others believe. My daughter is only 9 so she is still in the asking 8 million questions stage. She's a little too much like me though because I've seen her roll her eyes at certain things, lol.

Posted by: fauve at July 13, 2011 10:05 AM

I disagree with Linda. Every experience in life can be a learning experience. If I were teaching the class I would see it as an opportunity to teach Mia about a something that meant a lot to me and that I believed in. If she learns something new, that's great. If she chooses not to believe what you believe, that's fine, too. If she decides that she does believe in the christian idea of God, I think that Chris & Beth WOULD support her, wholeheartedly. A five year old deserves a chance to learn about different things before you close the door on her simply because her parents don't believe in the same God you do.
For the record, I'm Catholic and I take my kids to church, but when they are older, if they choose not to go, that's their decision.

Posted by: akofaolain at July 13, 2011 10:05 AM

I go to the same church that my parents raised me in (LIBERAL Lutheran - we ordain gays - have to get that in there because we're not all evangelical nut jobs), but I'm not sure I really believe in all the mythology (especially the Christ part).

However, my family is all dead and there is reassurance in the whole resurrection thing and the weekly liturgy/music/rituals of the church service are familiar from my childhood and bring a certain bit of comfort.

Other than that, a lot of my friends go there, and one of my ex-boyfriends (an agnostic) jokingly called it Lutheran Social Club. I think the moniker is awesome!

Posted by: Heather at July 13, 2011 10:06 AM

Wow, I'm really taken aback by linda's comment. In the interest of respectful conversation (I'm so *not* looking for a flame war), may I ask why she's so...noninclusive?

I mean, I totally get that it's volunteer and lots of work but as a Christian, don't you want to share your beliefs with others? And I don't think its fair to say that Chris & Beth won't "support" Mia's beliefs-- support and agree are not the same. Mia is certainly young, but if you've been reading here a while you'll know that she's an extremely bright kid.

I'm coming from a Methodist upbringing, Catholic high schooling, and now atheist perspective myself-- and have a daughter (now 18) who chose to be a Christian at the age of 7. I did not share her beliefs but most *certainly* supported her right to have them, providing transportation to church events, and attending them when she was a participant (ie Christmas plays, talent shows, etc.) I'm just grateful that the members of her church didn't share your non-inclusive attitude.

As for the babysitting comment...well...I think we all know that was just a little snarky, yes?

Posted by: leslie at July 13, 2011 10:09 AM

When I was a kid, I was invited to attend VBS at the church of a friend. My parents weren't members of that church, and the impression clearly was that members were encouraged to invite the children of non-members as a way to spread the word, so to speak. My parents felt conflicted about that part of it, but ultimately thought it was good for me to be exposed to different things, and let me go. So I guess VBS approaches differ, but I'd imagine many would be delighted to have Mia in their program.

Posted by: pseudostoops at July 13, 2011 10:29 AM

My Dad was raised in a mixed religious household (father was a very vocal atheist, mother is a deeply devoted Christian), which led to my Dad and his siblings being very mixed in their beliefs. My Dad is probably agnostic, if you go by formal definitions. My Mom was raised Lutheran but is someone who doesn't talk about religion. So I was raised attending church (often by myself) but in a fairly "religion? what religion?" kind of household. And I grew up to be a very active active member of my church and someone who tries to live out the church's message to be a Light to the world.

Our VBS openly welcomes all kids, and we get a lot of unchurched children. We see it as an opportunity to share God's word with all children, part of being the Light. Very often, families become more interested in faith through their kids ("and the children shall lead them").

Posted by: Sandy at July 13, 2011 11:20 AM

@ linda: "...right now she is too young to really make that decision". Please remember that as you go about your volunteer duties.

Posted by: Martin at July 13, 2011 11:30 AM

I was raised by a fiercely atheist mother (probably a reaction to her Episcopalian grandparents who were apparently insufferable) and a father who never discussed religion but I think believes there is "something" out there.

My husband was raised in a devoutly Catholic household where his parents are always praying for someone or something (probably us! ;-).

We're atheists and while we aren't dictating what our kids aged 6, 3, and 2 months can/should believe, kids know by default that if their parents follow one path, that's generally what they consider to be the "right" one. We're just getting into the God discussions with our 6 year old and it's really hard to explain religion in a way s/he can understand without destroying the myth of Santa Claus. In your sample conversation above, Nate wouldn't have just let that rest. He wants to know WHO God is, and he'll keep going at us.

This is a really long-winded way to say that while one might aspire to raise one's kids to be completely open, household beliefs and practices will influence them, but not necessarily forever. I remained an atheist, my husband became one in his 20s. I think as long as you are not dogmatic in any one way of life, your children will grow up to be flexible enough to find their own ways.

Posted by: Mandy at July 13, 2011 12:16 PM

I didn't grow up going to church, but my folks sent me to a private Christian school because the public schools in my town were less than desirable, I guess. I spent 8 years there, and came to believe that Christianity is the way. I still believe that, though I struggle mightily with implementing it. I try to walk the walk, but I don't attend church because I don't like people much and I don't think the sermons have much to offer me, although they are well-thought-out and intelligent. I've pretty much heard it all. I mean, I went to Catholic Kindergarten, Christian 1-8, and a Christian college. Three different denominations - there's pretty much nothing I haven't heard, so I read my Bible and think about the message and what it means to me and the way I move in the world. I think I do a good job. I send my daughter to youth group, and I love the youth minister at my church. I hope she grows to be a beautiful citizen of the world and the Kingdom under his teaching. I don't take my son to church, though, and I ought to.

My husband is an atheist. He wasn't when we married; he was agnostic. My husband is not so much a make your own choices parent. He doesn't tell the kids there is not God, either, though. My stepdaughter just got back from church camp (her Mom is Christian too) and she was baptized but I don't put much stock in it because I was her age the first time I was baptized and its import didn't really hit me. Plus she keeps complaining that she had to spend "six hours in church" every day while she was there, so I'm guessing her baptism wasn't, eh, spiritually motivated. But when she has questions, I try to speak to them from our shared Biblical perspective. My husband pretends like he hasn't heard her.

Posted by: Brooke at July 13, 2011 12:19 PM

I'm very unlike my parents. And as far as I'm concerned, that's not a bad thing. My Mother, on the other hand, has always been unhappy that I'm not a carbon copy of her. And my Father never said very much - he worked long hours, and wasn't a real kid lover.

Posted by: cassie-b at July 13, 2011 12:27 PM

My parents didn't take us to church all that much as kids. We went through short periods where we would try this church or that church but nothing really took hold. My best friend and his parents are Christians and that is where I really learned about Jesus Christ and why I became a Christian after college.

My wife and I are raising our son as a Christian (but he is under 2 right now so obviously he doesn't understand a whole lot right now.) I also think it is important to teach him about different religions, because religions ARE very different when you really look at their doctrines (no, it's not all about "being good.")

I know there will come a time when he will need to question and "test" his faith, and I am perfectly fine with that. I can't and won't force him to believe what I believe, I hope he sticks with it though. But whether he "keeps the faith" or not, I believe it is important for him to know for sure what we as parents believe and where we are coming from.

Posted by: Drew at July 13, 2011 2:36 PM

I'm an atheist like my mum and stepdad, I did go through a phase of wanting to go to church because some of my friends did but nothing ever came of it.

I think on something as fundamental as this you can't help influencing your kids when they're young, but I think it's important to allow them to ultimately make their own choices on it.

Posted by: Katherine at July 13, 2011 2:56 PM

Nope. I believe what I believe which appears to be a bit like what they believed, but really isn't. Does that any the question. They were strict Episcopalians. I am not. I love God, and I do believe in Jesus Christ. But I believe in a kinder gentler version than what I was taught.

Posted by: Maribeth at July 13, 2011 4:44 PM

I'm totally impressed with Mia!

I'm also totally loving your answer to her. I'm stealing it when necessary.

I'm not necessarily Atheist, more Agnostic - I definitely don't believe what my parents believe. We were raised Catholic, but stopped really going to church and CCD classes on a regular basis around the time I was 13 or 14 (insert long drawn out story about the break with the church which includes mean nuns and a divorce..suffice it to say, it wasn't pretty). I consider myself a recovering Catholic for this reason.

I like the idea of believing what you believe and realizing that others will do the same and just accept and respect that! Don't you think the world would be a different place if everyone believe that??

Posted by: cyndy at July 13, 2011 5:39 PM

My parents are/were Catholic. My dad fell away from the Church but he always supported my desire to go to Mass and I went to a Catholic Grade and High School. I even graduated from a Catholic University. My husband and I are very Catholic...by that I mean we go to Mass weekly, volunteer, teach, etc.
My yet to be made child will be raised Catholic. Will I take her to other churches or temples? Yes I would and I am throwing out a big kiss on your nose for signing Mia up for VBS. I HATE it when parents say they will leave that decision up to the child yet they never expose the child to any form of religion.

Posted by: Dee at July 13, 2011 6:23 PM

I don't believe at all what my parents do. I am a conservative Christian and the entire rest of my family are atheist liberals. My parents beliefs did not really effect me growing up, because I have never agreed with them. But, my parents supported me and let me start going to church when I was 10. I don't talk about politics much with them these days. I do like reading/listening to liberals though because I am interested in what other people's opinions are. But, my brothers can make it things heat up quickly.

Posted by: Tess at July 13, 2011 8:15 PM

My father was very fond of saying that he didn't need to go to church to worship God, he could do that sitting on the toilet if he wants. My mom believed in reincarnation because she read Audrey Rose.

I fell in with a group of conservative Christians in high school and subsequently majored in religion and went on to seminary where I became agnostic. My husband is atheistic, though he doesn't claim that label because he's pretty dismissive of religion as a whole psychological concept. I am leaning that way myself now, though I still miss the ritual and the feeling that a good worship service can instill. But in a round about way, I guess I did kinda come full circle to basically where my dad is on religion, which is that it's totally personal and unique. This is the idea that I want to get across to my kids.

That said, I let them go to VBS last summer with friends and I cringed every time they came home singing songs about the one true god. My son is 8 so he's starting to ask questions and our answers very closely mirror yours. Ultimately I want them to understand that however we were created, we were created to respect and live in awe of the fact that we are all allowed to have our own, personal Jesus. That's the beauty of being human.

Posted by: Amanda L. at July 13, 2011 9:27 PM

My dad was an atheist and my mom was very religious but I'm told that he made my mom promise not to shove religion down my throat and to let me decide for myself what to believe. That being said, my dad (through his actions and way of living) was one of the most Christian people I've known. I believe that because of their polar opposite views, I've grown up with a fairly balanced perspective and a tolerance for people with different beliefs. When I was younger I was very involved with the church and even helped my mom teach Sunday School, but as I got older, I drifted away from the church. I would still describe myself as Christian, and I do believe in God, but I'm not a 'religious' person, if that makes sense. I believe that being Christian is as much about the way you live your life and treat others as it is about believing, and I also believe that your relationship with God is a personal thing and you don't *have to* attend church every week in order to maintain or work on that relationship. Going to church every Sunday doesn't make you any more a Christian than standing in a garage makes you a car. I've known plenty of people who call themselves Christians because they are regular church-goers who fall way, way short of the concept because of the way they live their lives and treat others. In broad strokes I believe that there is a God but that we all know him / her by different names. Religions may differ in how we practice our beliefs, but in the end it all comes back to acknowledging that there is a higher power.

Hubby was raised in the Dutch Reform church which is very strict. However, he's never ever been one to just accept what he's told and loves to question (got him kicked out of cell groups on more than one occasion!) so he is not a religious person. He also believes in God but is much more open minded on the topic than most.

We have agreed that we will raise our son in the Christian faith, but we will also expose him to the other faiths out there and he is free to choose another faith if he feels more comfortable with that.

Posted by: Delia at July 14, 2011 12:20 AM

I was not raised with any one religion but I was raised with a belief of "God" but God being different than what most traditionalist's would say. We think of God in universal terms and I suppose I am raising my daughter the same way, (sun, wind, rain, beauty, etc) I raise her the way I am which is getting in touch with "God" through meditation and Yoga. I teach her that everyone believes something different and the whole point of religion is to help us become better, kinder, more thoughtful, compassionate etc. If she happens to grow up and think SRF (Self Realization Fellowship) is crap then she is free to explore other avenues. Right now she loves Sunday school and everything that goes with it. We do not believe in hell or anything of that nature, it is just a way of life that helps everyone find their peaceful spot and hang on to it through all the "crap" life can throw at you. I want to expose her to what I consider positive things in life, but at the end of all my parenting, I want her just to find what works for her.......Please don't let it be a religion that assures her that her family is going to hell......That would suck.....

Posted by: Shannon at July 14, 2011 1:56 AM

I was raised Catholic and went to a Catholic grade school. My mom is practicing Catholic (as is the rest of her side of the family). My dad was Catholic, but he never practiced it after high school. My husband was raised Catholic (with a tinge of Buddhism -- he's half Cuban, half Japanese), but never really practiced any of it.

I made my mind up back when I was in HS that I didn't completely subscribe to the whole 'organized' religion thing, where they told you what to believe, how to believe, when to sit, stand, bark, etc. Sure, it works for some people, but not for me. I happen to think that I'm smart enough to know what's right and wrong (for me) and what I believe and don't believe. I DO believe there is a God, but I believe it in my own way. I don't need to go to church to 'connect' with him/her. I don't think that God eschews people because of their sexual orientation or because they behave one way or another. (Of course, those who are purely EVIL -- those who murder, for example -- are entitled to being eschewed, but I digress...)

My husband is pretty much a cookie-cutter of me in the religion department, only he likes to question and discuss, whereas I just don't. We're both respectful of others and their religious choices, and we do have intellectual conversations about religion with others, but we allow everyone to have their own opinion and beliefs -- and that's what we plan to do with our son. I believe we'll approach religion with him much the same way you and Beth have approached it with your kids.

Being a teacher, it's my job to present facts and allow you (or the student) to form your own ideas, opinions, etc. It is NOT my job to tell you what to believe (aside from concrete facts).

Of course, I've left a lot out here, but you get the idea. However, there is one item I AM struggling with: baptism. I understand the 'reasoning' behind it... but I think I want my son to be baptised (but not in the Catholic church), but I'm not sure I can explain why (especially here). Maybe it's just what was ingrained in me at a young age, I don't know. But I'm still struggling with that one thing. *sigh*

I think you and Beth are going about things the right way, and I hope to follow in your steps!

Posted by: ironic1 at July 14, 2011 1:57 PM

Dad and Stepmom both went and still go to the same Lutheran church that they did when I was a kid. My dad has served on various committees and loves to be active in the business side of the church. I had to go until I got my first job, and then I made sure that I was working every Sunday morning.

My wife and I are both athiest, yet all three of our kids have gone to a Methodist pre-school. Our girls have been to church with their friends. Like you and Beth we will support whatever their decision is, and that will be something that they have to decide for themselves.

Posted by: Rex at July 14, 2011 10:37 PM

Well, for some people, God is at the cookout. It's not that bad a question, really.

If you ever want to get the kids immersed a bit into other religions, I find getting the kids' books versions of Hinduism, mostly the vedas, and even Greek, Celtic, Norse, etc. mythologies aren't bad ways to go. Islam, Taoism, Buddhism, the tenants of others' faiths help us understand each other's points of view. I am Catholic, but knowing about other people and what they think and believe really makes all the difference. Happy to field questions from the kids, too. If it made any money at all, I'd be a theology professor. :)

Posted by: alektra at July 15, 2011 8:21 AM

Oh, and I taught VBS when I was in high school, did the art program. We had kids who were not Catholic. All the kids just liked gluing macaroni and coloring. It was really fun, and questions were easy ones to answer.

I guess volunteer teachers are like teachers everywhere - most love what they do and some are not so happy with what they do.

Posted by: alektra at July 15, 2011 8:28 AM

I was raised a Southern Baptist - mostly beacuse of my mom, my dad went to church on Easter and Christmas with the odd choir recital thrown in. I went to church twice on Sundays and on Wednesday nights. I was "saved" when I was 8 - but somewhere starting in middle school I began to question things. My husband is Jewish - raised reform but not really active after his Bar Mitzvah. So - neither one of us are very religious people, but we do pray and attend Jewish services. I think everyone's beliefs should be experienced and respected! I don't have kids so I have zippo experience on that leve...

Posted by: Sue R at July 15, 2011 12:12 PM

Does God like hotdogs even though he knows exactly what goes into them?

Posted by: Karen at July 23, 2011 9:02 AM