Ask Dr. Gramma Karen: Nonreligious Parents Face Problems Raising Their Children

Your column, “Helping a Grandchild Deal with the Death of a Pet”, got me thinking about other aspects of parenting and religion. Recently, because of a change in his job, my husband, our two young children and I moved from a large, cosmopolitan city to a smaller, southern city. Even though we live in a scientific community, the culture here is very much focused on the Christian religion. It is assumed that you go to church and pray frequently and share your faith with others. Even those who are less-observant talk of heaven and hell.

My husband and I are nonbelievers and do not plan on raising our children according to any religious doctrine. As our children get older we know they will be exposed to questions and comments from those in this faith-based community who talk openly and frequently about their religion.

We want to give our kids answers that honor our values and beliefs, but we don’t want them to be unaccepted or isolated because they’re being raised without a religion. This is a community where prescribed answers from the Bible are given to life’s challenging questions, e.g., what does it mean that Grandpa died and is gone? (death); why do we have to be kind, good and obey our parents (morality)?

Fortunately we’re feeling little family pressure, although after our daughter was born, my mom made jokes that she would sneak off with her to get her baptized. I was offended but it didn’t become contentious.

Any thoughts on how we might address this issue of raising our kids without a religion?

Being nonreligious or “secular parents” in this country is challenging for you in many ways. First, you are in a minority: About 15 to 18 percent of Americans categorize themselves as nonreligious, including over 8 million parents (this group comprising mostly young parents, a percentage has increased from 8 percent in the past decade). Second, there are politicians and others of influence who are committed to making the United States a faith-based nation and try to legislate accordingly. Third, there is often underlying hostility towards secular parents, stemming from a belief that nonreligious people must be immoral and unethical.

To this last point, a CNN report kicked off a furor when it published an article written by a Texas mom titled “Why I Raise My Children Without God”. It received a record-breaking 790,040 views and 9700 comments, many of which wanted it tagged “inappropriate” and removed. Because of the brouhaha, CNN felt compelled to provide this update: “CNN hasn’t flagged this iReport as inappropriate, but some community members have. This is a divisive topic, however it does not violate our Community Guidelines, so we ask people to please stop flagging it.” Indeed, the topic of secular parenting is viewed as divisive and threatening by many.

I think I can be most helpful to you in two ways, first, by giving you some resources, and second, by sharing advice that other secular parents offer.

There are many Web sites available for secular parents (many written anonymously because the secular parents have faced or fear repercussions). One in particular you might check out is Dale McGowan’s Parenting Beyond Belief. It contains his blog; a blog by parents; information on groups for secular parents; forums; information on his books, Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion (a general philosophy of nonreligious parenting) and Raising Freethinkers (specific, practical advice, including answers to the most common questions nonreligious parents ask, family activities and recommended books, DVDs, organizations and Web sites).

You may find it helpful to know how other secular parents interviewed for this column have addressed or are addressing the issues you raise. For example, a secular mother of two adult children says, “I guess the best advice is to make sure you have ongoing, general conversations with your kids about not everyone having the same ideas and encouraging them to tell you if any of their friends say something that makes them uncomfortable. Then you have to be ready to engage in the morality issues when/if they come up, perhaps by pointing to people they know or know of who are not religious, but still are good people.”

A young secular mom writes: “We are definitely in the minority for not pursuing any religion, but we never feel ostracized or shunned because of it. We attend plenty of religious celebrations every year because it is important to the person who invited us and because we respect our relationship with that family.”

The dad in this same family answers his young children’s questions simply and directly about why he does not subscribe to a religion – that is, religion flies in the face of what he knows about science – but he also explains how he understands why others choose to practice one – that is, religion provides comforting answers. He tells them that religion is private and personal and is something they will have to figure out for themselves as they get older.

In the two families above, both the mother and father are nonreligious. By way of another example, a Catholic mother married to an atheist, parents of grown children, says: “When we had children my husband did not want them to grow up with no knowledge of religion in general, and the Christian faith specifically, because it is so much a part of the American life. He insisted that they go to church with me with the understanding that as adults they could make up their own minds. He and I accepted each other’s beliefs and never made an issue of it, so our children grew up understanding that there were multiple viewpoints. Looking back, we don’t think there is anything we would change. Our kids all seem to have grown up tolerant and comfortable in their own religious beliefs.”

In each of these examples regarding the role of religion in their lives, the parents seem to have taken a position along these lines: “Religion is personal and private and you will have to figure out for yourself how it fits or doesn’t fit in your life. It may be different in other families, but this is how it is in our family.”

Interestingly, in both my research and interviews, many secular parents become affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Association for the sake of their children, so when they were asked what religion they were, the children could say, “We’re Unitarian.” Many secular parents expressed ambivalence about doing this, but said they were motivated to do so because they didn’t want their children to feel different or be unaccepted, especially in communities where religion is a big factor.

Further, they were comfortable with the nonreligious principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association covenant “to affirm and promote

  • The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
  • Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
  • Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
  • A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
  • The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
  • The goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all;
  • Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”

In closing, I hope the results of my research and interviews provide some helpful resources, direction, and ideas for you as a secular parent.

Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every other Tuesday.
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