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by Carisa Brewster
Lots of things lead people to become non-religious: not being able to reconcile certain doctrines, negative experiences growing up in a religion. Or nothing very dramatic at all — just a gradual, painless separation.
For me, becoming a parent opened the path that eventually led me to atheism.
I grew up in a Christian household, attending a Baptist church in Philadelphia. My memories are quite fond; Vacation Bible School, Sunday School, camps, hanging out with my friends. But when I gave birth to my first son in 2008 (his little brother joined us in 2011), I had only been living in Portland for a little over a year. My husband and I had not settled on a church yet. I thought, “Oh, no! My son won’t have the fun memories of Sunday School that I had! Gotta find a church NOW!”
Well. Easier said than done.
We visited a lot of churches. But there was always something not quite right. The music was bad. The preacher was stale. Most of the typically segregated churches didn’t quite know how to act around an interracial family (absolutely friendly, but still quite awkward!). I also started objectively studying the Bible. And predictably, everything started crumbling. Eventually, my husband and I were left with these questions: With no religion to fall back on, how do we raise our kids to be kind, ethical, empathic people? With no church to attend, with whom would we build community?
So, I set about my mission. When I suggested checking out a local Unitarian Universalist congregation, my husband wondered why. Isn’t that just like church? Well, yes and no. Arguably the most liberal Christian denomination out there, UU congregations welcome people from all faith traditions, or no faith at all. But I saw his point. After being in a constant state of having to “find” one, it was nice to try abandoning the notion of church all together.
So, I started looking around on MeetUp.com. I was already a member of a few SAHM (Stay At Home Mom) MeetUp groups. Maybe there would be something for atheist parents? I found the Secular Parenting Network, a subgroup of the Portland chapter of the Center for Inquiry (CFI). Here, I ended up meeting some awesome people, many of whom had children around the same age as mine, mostly through play dates. While the demands of parenting two small children left us little time to attend most of the events hosted by CFI, the play dates were extremely helpful. We made some friends and so did my kids!
I also read a lot. While there were quite a few books on atheism, there were very few on secular parenting specifically. One gem is a book of essays entitled “Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion.” One thing that became very important to me was for my children to be educated about all religions. In one of the essays, “On Being Religiously Literate,” the author Rev. Dr. Roberta Nelson says, “…because so large a portion of our fellow human beings articulate their own meaning, purpose, and values through their religions, it is essential that our children know as much as possible about those religions. To be fully engaged members of the human society, they must be religiously literate.”
Nelson goes on to say that recognizing that humans have a “spiritual” dimension or yearning for meaning or purpose, is an important part of this literacy. Initially, I scoffed at this part, especially the assignment of spirituality to it. But lately, I’ve come to see that there is definitely something, particular to humans, that causes us to need meaning in our lives. But for many of us, religion doesn’t do the job anymore.
Another essay, “Supporting Your Children in Their Quest for the Meaning of Life!”, by Donald B. Ardell, Ph.D., talks about why finding this meaning isn’t optional. He says, “A sense of meaning and purpose is important for mental health and emotional wellness. But life is without inherent meaning, so to be optimally well, we must invest life with meaning and purpose and teach our kids to do the same.”
Coming from a Christian background, the idea of creating your own meaning was a foreign concept to me. But it felt authentic. And it made sense. Basically, seek and do whatever works for you, even if it ends up being some brand of religion or none at all.
So how do we tow the line between encouraging our kids to think critically about religion, yet accepting the fact that others will continue to find meaning in religion?
“Relax, It’s Just God” is a newly published book by Wendy Thomas Russell that tackles this topic. Undoubtedly there are unique challenges being a secular parent versus a religious parent in our culture. During research for her book, Russell asked 1000 parents about this in a survey. She said three main issues came up (these are not the case for all secular parents, but certainly are for many):
Russell thinks actively talking to kids about religion is important because it’s everywhere in our society. Since some family members or friends are likely to be a part of some kind of religion, it’s a compassionate gesture to explore it honestly. But how you explore it is just as important. Many secular parents have no problem bringing up religion, but it may be qualified by derogatory comments, framing belief in gods as being ridiculous.
“I think that point of view is short-sighted,” said Russell. “It removes the ability of kids to make up their own minds and they will get the message that it’s not a viable option for them.”
That’s a rather large pill for most atheists to swallow: the idea that your kid might become religious as adults. But it does happen. A survey released in May 2015 by the Pew Research Center, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” showed that of the 9 percent of U.S. adults who were raised with no religious affiliation, 4.5 percent of them now identify with some religion. But, isn’t that the point? Giving your child the power to choose and not being threatened by that?
“I’m more comfortable with the idea that no child is indoctrinated into anything, no matter what their parents’ beliefs are,” said Russell. “I think all kids should be given a choice. As secular parents, we have that confidence and aren’t afraid that they will make the ‘wrong’ choice. We don’t have to contend with hell or any kind of punishment if they choose incorrectly. But for some religious parents, that’s a hurdle.”
The main takeaway from the May 2015 survey is that while the Christian share of the U.S. population is declining, numbers of the unaffiliated and non-Christian faiths are growing. The percentage of adults who describe themselves as Christians dropped from 78.4% percent to 70.6 percent between 2007 and 2014. Americans who are religiously unaffiliated — those describing themselves as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” — increased from 16.1 percent to 22.8 percent in the same timeframe. Finally, those who identify with non-Christian faiths have seen a population jump from 4.7 percent to 5.9 percent. Religion isn’t disappearing, but the cultural shift is obvious.
“As a parent, it’s reassuring,” said Russell. “Not because I advocate for the destruction of religion, but rather because the more nonreligious a society becomes, the less likely it is that my child will be bullied or shamed for her family’s, or her own, lack of belief.”
I’m at the point now where I’m not as concerned about what people believe anymore. As far as those beliefs negatively affect public policy or civil rights (and indeed they often do), I care a great deal. And I do have a serious pet peeve when it comes to science illiteracy and denial. But outside of that, who am I to say what gives someone meaning and what doesn’t?
Carisa D. Brewster is a freelance writer and homeschool mom. She lives in the Portland area with her husband and two sons.