The Inheritance of Anxiety

Sometimes, in looking through the responses to my Survey for Nonreligious Parents, I'm faced with perfect examples of What Not To Do. Here's one from a mom:

My child just yesterday stormed out of her classroom telling the teacher that she was 'indoctrinating' her in the telling of the Christian Easter story. I was very proud my child was so confident, assertive, and sure of her own non-belief that she was able to do this.

Confident and assertive? You bet! But sure of her own non-belief? In elementary school? Hell no. Most likely, this child was simply repeating what she'd heard at home — that talking about religious stories is called "indoctrination." (Ain't irony grand?)

In trying to protect her daughter against religious pariahs, this mother has managed to set her child on high alert over the freakin' Easter story. Religion is an unescapable part of our country and our world, so why try to escape it? Teaching our kids to be tense, anxious or sensitive about religion does little more than set them up for a lot of tension, anxiety and hurt feelings. God is a part of our culture's language, its songs, its poetry, its monuments and its works of art. God is a part of human history, and many of us happen to live in a Christian-majority country.

The trick is to get some perspective.

Is it really all that terrible that our kids hear about Easter in school? Or Passover or Eid or Diwali? Who does it hurt? I can think of many situations in which schools (particularly those with a religious bent) could play a role in influencing our kids. But, generally speaking, secular schools with irregular exposure to religious ideas aren't going to make a damn bit of difference, unless the schools are getting some serious "backup" at home.

Sometimes it helps to think of religious references, events and activities as "cultural" rather than "religious." Would it anger us to know that stories about Native American traditions were being shared in the classroom? Or if a teacher from Turkey talked a lot about the customs and beliefs of her home country?

Just as there's a difference between learning and being indoctrinated, there's also a difference between behavior and belief. We need not load everything with meaning. Kids may pledge their allegiance “under God” (or say they'll "try to serve God" as part of the Girl Scout Promise) not because of religion but because of tradition, the same way they may sing Christmas songs or say “Bless you” when someone sneezes. Why not just explain to kids that the pledge and the Girl Scout Promise have God in them because their authors believed in God? Why not tell them that that people sing Christmas carols to celebrate the birth of Jesus, but that non-Christians can appreciate the carols, too. Why not say that schools may decorate for certain holidays because those holidays are important to so many people in this particular country?

I've said this before, but it bears repeating: If our kids want to a draw battle lines for themselves on these matters, so be it. But (for the love of God!) let's not nudge them toward the battle.

'We'll Miss You When We're in Heaven and You're Not'

Religious breaks in any family structure can be painful. People who find out beloved relatives have "left the faith" can feel heartbroken, even angry. In a survey earlier this year, I asked nonreligious parents whether they had "come out" to their own families, and, if so, whether they'd received support. About 28 percent of the respondents answered yes and yes: They were open about their beliefs, and most of their family members had been supportive. About 18 percent answered yes and no: They were open about their beliefs, but most relatives had been unsupportive. The highest percentage — 37 percent — said they were open about their beliefs to some, but not all, thereby gaining support from those who were able to offer it, and minimizing tension with those who were not. It's not a bad strategy, really, considering that parents and grandparents scorned in matters of religion can be such a vocal sort. Consider these common refrains:

We just don't understand.

What did we do wrong?

How can you be a moral person and not believe in God? 

Aren't you afraid of what will happen after you die?

Why do you hate God?

We're disappointed in you.

You don't know what you're talking about.

You're confused.

You're rebelling.

You're extreme.

You're unhappy.

You're wrong.

This is a crisis of faith.

This is a phase.

This must be part of God's plan.

You'll snap out of it. 

You're a great person, except for this one thing.

We blame ourselves.

How can you do this to us?

It's not fair.

Even if you don't believe in God, God believes in you.

You should believe in God "just in case."

You shouldn't tell people.

You've been possessed by Satan.

We'll miss you when we're in heaven and you're not. 

And the old stand-by:

We'll pray for you.

Yep, sort of covers it all, doesn't it? You've got guilt, anger, insults, incredulity, resentment, fear, disrespect and denial. Good times! The problem is that in so many families, there is no wiggle room: God means moral. God means good. God means happy. God means truth. God means heaven. And the lack of God means, well, exactly the opposite: evil, sadness, pain, ignorance and hell. With that lineup of adjectives, it's no wonder parents are so desperate to stop the backslide.

If you've heard one (or more) of the above refrains, it probably means you've bitten the bullet and shared your beliefs. And that's so very commendable, if not always pleasant. With exceptions, being honest about our lack of faith simplifies our lives and really does benefit those around us — particularly, as it turns out, our children.

Do You Share Negative Views about Religion with Your Kids?

Fifty-seven percent of the nonreligious parents I surveyed earlier this year said they viewed religion "negatively, with exceptions," while another 21 percent said they viewed it "both positively and negatively," depending on the specific religion. This shouldn't be all that surprising. Hell, even religious people have issues with religion. I bring it up, though, because I wonder how many parents are (unintentionally or intentionally) passing on these negative views to their children. I honestly don't know, and because I'm a moron*, I didn't think to ask that specific question in the survey.

It's very possible that, in a quest to give kids a chance to make up their own minds, parents keep quiet when it comes to placing judgment calls on religion in general. But it's also possible that parents feel they're entitled, if not obligated, to share their opinions. Even parents who don't wish to "poison the waters" might not edit themselves in every situation — including ones in which their children are likely to overhear.

If you’re reading this blog, there's a good chance that you're not an anti-theist. But that doesn't mean you don't have strong opinions about some religious beliefs. (I'd be disappointed if you didn't!)

So, I'd like to ask you….

Do you share negative opinions about religion with your kids? If so, which ones? And how old were your kids when you decided it was time? Also, do you balance out negative views with positive views, or give each view the weight you think it deserves.

Thank you kindly.

* Your cue to strongly disagree.

Is a Lack of Vomit the Best We Can Offer?

Did I ever  tell you about the time my husband told me hated the word tolerance? I was sure I’d misheard him. I was all, like, what? Huh? You can’t hate the word tolerance! Everybody LOVES the word tolerance. Simon Wiesenthal and the Museum of Tolerance and all that. Remember?

Yes, he assured me, he did remember. But he still hated it.

See, in my husband's view, tolerance was a word used to relate something bad, not good. A guy ate a piece of rancid beef but was able to tolerate it; that is, he was able to barely not vomit. A woman tolerated an abusive husband; she hated him but was terrified to the point of inaction. An Arizona sheriff tolerated illegal immigrants; he left them alone, but anxiously awaited the day he would be allowed to arrest and deport them. A liver transplant patient tolerated his new organ; he may have been in a lot of pain, but at least he didn’t die.

Tolerance isn't something to aspire to, said my husband. Barely not vomiting just isn't good enough. Hard to disagree with him there.

In my Survey of Nonreligious Parents, I asked people what tolerance meant to them. Nearly a quarter of the respondents said tolerance meant “regarding religious people with respect, even when their religion is not respected.” About 35 percent said it meant allowing people to have their own religious beliefs.” And the highest percentage — 38 percent — defined tolerance as “embracing all people and all beliefs, as long as those people/beliefs are not hurting anyone.”

This struck me as somewhat encouraging.

It shows that, to many, tolerance signals a sort of conditional embrace — where the “conditions” are based on whether an actual harm is being committed. Now embrace — that's a far nicer word than tolerance, isn't it? Embrace makes you think of warm hugs, peaceful acceptance, even love.

But now we must ask ourselves: What do we allow to constitute actual harm? After all, if we define harm too broadly, there’s not a shred of room for tolerance, much less embrace.

Are all Roman Catholics committing harm by being members of an organization that has harbored pedophiles? Are all Baptists or Mormons or Muslims or Jews responsible for things done by sects of their own religion? Define harm too broadly, you see, and pretty soon we’re vomiting all over everyone.

I’m not trying to tell anyone how to define harm or tolerance or anything else. But I do think that, as parents, we owe it to our kids to aim as high as we possibly can — so that they might aim even higher.


O We of Little Faith: Highlights from Nonreligious Survey

Bird: Results Are In

My Survey of Nonreligious Parents parents concludes this week, and I want to, once more, thank everyone who was involved in the project. I managed to get close to 1,100 responses, and the results have been fascinating. I'm most grateful for all of those who took the time to explain their answers. I learned so much more when I let you tell me about your experiences in your own words. First, the basics: Most of the respondents (about 75 percent) were women and between the ages of 26 and 45, and most had children under the age of 12. Most respondents had either one or two kids and, reflecting a lack of diversity in the non-religious population as a whole, respondents were overwhelming white — 95 percent — a figure that, in my survey, included both Latinos and non-Latinos. I'm proud to say that respondents hailed from all 50 states, plus Guam and many countries outside the United States.

As far as labels, most people said they thought of themselves as atheists, agnostics, humanists, skeptics or freethinkers. And, as far as belief in a higher power, 73 percent said they did not believe in the existence of a higher power, with another 18 percent saying they did not know whether a higher power exists. Interestingly, 7 percent of those surveyed said they believed in the existence of a higher power, showing — once again — that "nonreligious" does not equate to "non-believing."

Among the highlights:

• Although 57 percent of those surveyed said they viewed religion "negatively, with exceptions," 90 percent wanted their children to make up their own minds and adopt their own religious or non-religious identities — a figure that speaks to the importance of non-indoctrination in secular families. As such, the most common difficulty parents reported was not knowing how to be honest with their children about religion without indoctrinating them; 33 percent of respondents said they had struggled or continued to struggle with this.

• It was clear from the survey that being non-religious doesn't mean removing yourself from religious populations. On the contrary. Eight-six percent of respondents said they had close family members who were either somewhat or very religious, and 93 percent said they had religious friends.

• While 63 percent of the parents surveyed said they had never pretended to be religious (by attending church services or praying at family dinners, etc.), 60 percent said they had avoided talking about their religious beliefs or had refused to answer questions about their beliefs to avoid discomfort or shame.

• Being a nonreligious parent, even a quietly nonreligious parent, isn't always easy, the survey showed. Many parents (56 percent) said they had felt criticized by family and friends for raising their children in nonreligious households, 41 percent said they felt a need to edit themselves or hide parts of their identity from people they love, 39 percent said they had to deal with religious influences in their kids' schools, and 34 percent feared family members would say something insensitive to harm their children. Furthermore, almost 40 percent of parents said they feared that, simply by raising their children in nonreligious households, they had put their children at risk of being left out, ostracized or hurt by their peers.

In other words, it isn't just me.

Nonreligious Parents: It Only Takes a Few Minutes to Make a Big Difference

I am so grateful to all of you. The results of my Survey for Nonreligious Parents have been pouring in, and the results are absolutely fascinating. All your answers are so thoughtful, heartfelt and inspiring — not to mention quite funny at times.

A few examples:

  • In answer to the question, "If you considered yourself religious and no longer do, what describes the reason you made the switch?," a father checked the box for "Something I read." Then, in the comment field below, he explained: "The 'Something I read' was the Bible."
  • A mother said she was forced to have the "God" talk with her son after he heard some Christian songs at a relative's house. The boy had misunderstood the lyrics, apparently, because he came home that day announcing, "Don made me! Don made everything!"
  • A mother confided: "I did, at one point, say that the idea of God was like a make-believe wizard in the sky who some people thought had powers to do things to or for people. This was, in retrospect, possibly a little narrow."

So, yeah, I'm staying highly entertained over here.

But — that said — I’ve got a goal to reach, and I’m not there yet.  So please pass on the link,, to all your friends and relatives, clubs and groups who might be interested in adding their voices to this fantastic chorus. I'd appreciate it ever so much.

And in case it's not clear: This survey isn’t just for atheists. You may be a believer who chooses to keep religion out of your child-rearing, or a spiritual person with an open mind about matters of religion. As long as you'd describe yourself as a nonreligious parent, I want to hear from you.

Again, thanks so much in advance both for the amazing responses so far, and for your help in promoting the survey. Special thanks to Dale McGowan, the Facebook pages Parenting Beyond Belief, Mothers Beyond Belief and Grief Beyond Belief, Atheist Nexus, the blogs Life on the Hill and Empress of Dirt, and all the good people of Twitter who have put the word out time and again.

It’s a worthy cause, I promise.


Help Break New Ground! Participate in Survey of Nonreligious Parents

I don't want to make too big a deal about this, but DUDE! MY SURVEY FOR NONRELIGIOUS PARENTS IS READY TO GO! I can't tell you how excited I am to see this survey come to fruition. Some of you may know that Parenting Beyond Belief author Dale McGowan conducted an excellent survey of nonreligious parents a couple of years ago — the first of its kind — and, in a way, my questionnaire begins where his left off. It delves into how we nonreligious parents make it work in our families and communities, how we've chosen to address religion with our children, and the hardships that so many of us face in doing so.

I truly believe the results of the survey will be fascinating, inspiring and important. But it's going to take a lot of respondents to get there. So please take part, and then pass it on! Have fun, and let me know what you think.

Click here to take the survey!

And special props to my friend Catherine Gritchen — my data-collecting inspiration. She's living proof that Christians can be as open-minded as the rest of us.

Survey Says!


As part of my book research, I’ll soon be conducting a formal survey of nonreligious/not-very-religion/quasi-religious parents on the subject of religion and kids. That is, people for whom religion is just not a major factor in their life decisions. Please note, this survey is not just for atheists, but for parents who don't feel a need to raise their children in a certain religion. The survey shouldn't take too long. Most of it will be multiple choice and focus on four main areas:

•  How have your beliefs (or non-beliefs) been influenced by your own religious background and upbringing?

•  What challenges and/or opportunities have you faced as a result of being a nonreligious parent?

•  How have you chosen to address religion with your children?

•  What would you say are benefits and drawbacks to handling of the subject the way you have?

If the survey is successful, the results could be of use to parents, sociologists, universities, and, of course, my own readers. But I’ll need hundreds of you to participate, so please pass around my name, url or email to anyone you know who might be able to take part.

In the meantime, are there any specific questions you'd like to see posed? If so, now's the time to air them.

Thanks, everyone.