Raising a Non-Believer

A reader has just written to me:

“One was on an essay about Religion as a Cause of Strife in the World – you can bet she went to town on that!”

this is a comment you wrote on Ross’ India Diary and i have always wanted to ask you why you believe that Ross has arrived at an independent opinion/thought/decision regarding religion when it is the exact same opinion/insight you and your husband have. maybe mistakenly, but i’ve gotten this impression that you are very prideful that her belief is identical to yours and see it as a sign of her independent, intelligent thought. how much of a stretch is that really? how different is that to the child who grows up with the gospel every week at church and every day at home? how “independent” can that child’s outlook ever be due to that home conditioning?

It’s very true and completely unsurprising that Rossella, like most kids, shares her parents’ beliefs (or lack of). The more interesting question is: did how she arrive at those beliefs?

One of Richard Dawkins’ most provocative theses is that schools and even parents should not be allowed to proselytize children into religion at young ages. He points to lifelong traumas (both physical and mental) inflicted upon people (and cultures) from infancy, in the name of religion.

One might reasonably ask (many have) how Dawkins’ desire to promote atheism is any different from a religious person’s desire to promote religion. The logic here seems to be: “Atheism is just another belief. Why is it okay for you to preach what you believe, but not for religious people to do so?”

Here’s the “fundamental” difference: most religions teach their adherents – and particularly children – to accept certain strictures, norms, behaviors, etc. because someone in “authority” said so. Believers may be allowed to question up to a point, but sooner or later every religion comes down to “faith” – a necessarily blind (because unprovable) belief that there is some “higher power” out there which has an opinion about how you should think and act.

This is emphatically NOT how we raised our daughter.

My husband is a professional mathematician. This means that he thinks long and hard to come up with new hypotheses about how things behave in his particular realm of mathematics. When he can support his ideas with mathematical proofs, and those ideas are new, and important enough to be brought to the attention of his colleagues, he submits them (in the form of articles) to professional mathematical journals. There his ideas are judged by his peers for their truth and interestingness and worthiness of publication. If he gets something wrong, either he or one of his colleagues will figure that out. He thanks the people who point out his errors, and goes back to the drawing board.

The same thing happens in every scientific field. Ideas are developed, tested, and submitted to a jury of one’s peers. Sometimes an idea is proven wrong immediately, sometimes later, as more research is carried out. A few hypotheses survive the judgement of the scientific community and the test of time to become theories: which is to say, scientifically-proven facts.

All of this is done in a spirit of cooperative enquiry and (more or less) humility. No one can claim to know more than anyone else on the basis of some externally-granted “authority” – a scientist must be able to back his or her hypotheses with solid, provable facts.

I’m not a scientist, but I use the classic scientific method in my job every day: Does this work? If not, why not? What went wrong? Test one variable at a time til you find out where the problem is, then fix it. It’s a simple logic which can be usefully applied in many areas of life.

Given our professional and personal biases (and our penchant for arguing about EVERYTHING), Enrico and I have raised our daughter to prize inquiry, and not to grant authority blindly. We would be hypocrites if we had not encouraged Ross to think for herself and ask questions – to which we always gave grown-up answers.

This isn’t a totally easy way to raise a teenager: “Why do I have to be home at midnight?” In a family like ours, “Because I’m the mom and I said so!” doesn’t cut it. In Ross’ most exhausting, argumentative moments, I have gritted my teeth and consoled myself that: “At least I know she’s not going to do something stupid just because her friends are doing it.”

And, mostly, she hasn’t. We raised her to think for herself, and she does think – and, most of the time, she comes to very sensible conclusions.

If Ross called herself an atheist simply in imitation of me and her father, I’d have no reason to boast of her independence of mind. Perhaps at 18 she hasn’t put as much thought into her beliefs as we have, but I don’t think she’s merely parroting us. She knows that she is welcome – encouraged! – to explore what others believe (Woodstock is an excellent venue for that), and decide for herself what she thinks of it all. Her father and I remain open to discussion. Ross is no fool, and very likely someday she’ll persuade me to something I hadn’t previously agreed with. It wouldn’t be the first time.

17 thoughts on “Raising a Non-Believer

  1. Alice Twain

    I am not sure on whether she has already given the whole religion thing in.depth thought or not. Personally, the period during which I gave this subject the most consideration was earlier than that. I have more or less the same religious background as Ross: essentially none. Most of my family members are agnostics, the exception being one of my grandfathers who was atheist. They did not force.feed their religious believes (or non-believes) to me: I was not baptized on the basis that I ought to find my way and decide for myself. I started questioning the whole religious problem at about 12: I never felt particularly compelled towards Christianism or any kind of monotheism, but in the very end what made me decide that I am an atheist indeed is not just the fact that I can’t share the morals of most religions, and in particular of the three big monothiestic ones: it’s the fact that I simply can’t believe that there is any tiny possibility that a divinity may exist. No way! (For me, at least.) On the other hand, at times I have a sort of pantestic, pagan attitude that is not yet religion or belief on a superior anything: we are all part of this wonderful and extremely complicated thing that is the univers, but I do not in the least believe that this is a “goddity” because it has no selfconscience: it just exists and we must respect it (and live on). All of this elaboration strated at about 12, as I have said, and was already finished at 18. So, don’t trust the fact that Ross may NOT have given long and in.depth consideration to this issue: she may have! ^__^

    By the way; i strongly believe, though, that the fact that my parents have given me this freedon on religious issues has also given me the ability to listen carefully and with no prejudice to anyone talking about their religion, as long as they do not try to force-feed it to me. What I have noticed is that many other agnostics, atheists and assorted brights that grew up in religious families have now a way harder attitude towards all religion-related things that sometimes is even a hate for religion itself. I am very happy not to be plagued by such bitterness. Atheism to me is a source of happyness, not a product of rage.

  2. webmaster

    I suspect that “divorcing” from a religion is about as traumatic as divorcing from a spouse – feelings of hurt, betrayal, “how could I have believed in you all these years?” etc. So perhaps those who were raised religious but then turn against it have more to work out than those of us who were raised non-believers.

    Interesting reading here: http://richarddawkins.net/article,1702,n,n

  3. sognatrice

    I was raised Catholic (father’s family all Cathollic) but my mom was always at least borderline agnostic (raised Protestant); little by little my own intellectual curiosity has led me in many directions and I’m honestly somewhere in the middle of all of it right now…although I’m pretty sure Catholicism isn’t going to be where I end up.

    Anyway, all I really wanted to say here was that the way you raised Ross is exactly the way I hope to raise any future children regarding religion–open, questioning minds are always best in my opinion, and I hope I can create such an environment, especially in Italy. You’re an inspiration, and I thank you for so openly sharing your experience.

  4. Noebie

    i admire your commitment to raising an independent, free-thinking child

    believe it or not, though we are roman catholic, we’re trying to do the very same thing…i’ve often said that trying to raise my children to be catholics who think for themselves is an interesting balance

    my problem with dawkins is that, as you propose and then (forgive me) somewhat weakly refute, is that atheism is just another system of beliefs

    thanks for promoting a reasonable discussion

    here’s something i wrote just yesterday on a related subject


    best wishes,


  5. Noebie

    sorry for the mashed sentence in the comment above…it’s early morning in my time zone and i’ve had no coffee yet


    cent’ anni

  6. missb

    I wasn’t raised in an atheistic household, I was raised in a zero-religion household. Nothing. Nada. Zip. No discussion, no badmouthing, no judgment. Aside from church suppers, I don’t feel like I’ve missed out on anything. I feel lucky that my Mom left me to be an info-sponge and make decisions on my own. I was raised in a scientific home; Mom worked (and still does) at the Museum of Natural History in the vertebrate paleontology department. I’ve always had an all-or-nothing attitude about religion (Mom doesn’t, she’s more moderate and forgiving) so I always figured that people could not have it both ways: if you’re going to believe in the teachings of the Bible, then you were not allowed to say “well, except that part about the creation of the world. That part is wrong, because we have all this proof of evolution, you see. But the rest of it is right on!”. I went in the opposite direction. All dinosaurs, all the time.

    I think it’s commendable to raise kids to decide about religion for themselves, and although I’m not a parent myself, it must be more difficult! Wouldn’t it be easier to say to a kid “you have to behave because I said so…and because you’re being watched by something really big and powerful 24/7”?

  7. Rupert

    Agreed. Not that you’ll persuade your reader. You only have to watch the questions after one of Dawkins’ public appearances on Youtube to know how uninterested most people are in logical or rational arguments. I was raised by Christian parents, went to church every Sunday – and went to a Christian boarding school from the age of 7, where we attended chapel twice a day.
    But my parents were very keen that I should think for myself, and persuaded me not to get Confirmed at 13 like my friends, so that I could make up my own mind later on. And when I was about 15 or 16, after I had a qualification in Religious Education, I applied independent thought and critical thinking to the idea of God, and realised that there was no evidence or reasonable justification for believing in invisible friends, other than for comfort. So I came out as an atheist.
    Not believing in God is a choice, not a belief or a default indoctrinated position. Intelligence and reason and questioning instead of a comforting blind belief in something for which there is nothing but contradictory evidence. No wonder you’re, um, ‘prideful’ of her.

  8. vangie

    It seems to me that religions are basically a set of traditions, and traditions vary tremendously the world over without necessarily being “right” or “wrong” or “better” or “worse”.

    In my experience, traditions get in the way of both reason and spirituality. I live in what is known as the “Bible Belt”, and am amazed at how my intelligent, educated coworkers (all classically trained scientists) will abdicate their responsibility for rational thought when an issue is brought up that their church has a position on.

    For me, the “Golden Rule” is at the heart of living well with others: treat others as you would like to be treated. No religion necessary, thank you.

  9. majorch

    I truly feel sorry for you, your husband , and your daughter. I don’t usually say the following , because it can sound condescending, but, in all sincerity, I say – I’ll pray for you.

  10. Rick Freeman

    Perhaps it’s true that a child brought up in a non-religious household is less likely to be religious, but … so what? I think that non-tolerant people are sort of sad, too. Deal with the fact that the differences between various people and cultures is absolutely huge, you’ll live a happier life.

    Of course, I have a lot of work to do on that, I’m not very tolerant of religious people doing there darndest to change the world to how they think, even though that’s just the way things work in our world.

  11. Rick Freeman

    “there darndest”? Sorry … I was so concerned about how to spell darndest, or if it would be considered poor taste, or whatever, that I ended out illiterate. Their.

  12. Christina

    Congrats on having a great daugther, Deidre.
    I was raised without religion. Religious people were a strange minority. Nice, but silly. Mostly older people. The young ones would sing around candle light and oppose the military(draft). Now I’m in the US and things are the other way around. The religious ones are the majority and they are in favor of death penalty and war! Very confusing. Anyway. I started telling my kids (4 and 6) when they started a discussion among themselves (they are going to a Christian after-school care, I didn’t have a choice) whether god was dead or not (confusion between god and jesus): There is no god, people just made up gods through the ages for comfort etc. Meanwhile I did some reading (Parenting beyond belief) and thinking, and I decided if I force them into non-belief, they could be seduced in anything other as well. So I encourage critical thinking now. Just asking questions. “Do you think Santa is real? How do you think this or that works. What has been your experience so far? Etc.” I will not be upset for them if they join a religion. I will be upset if they don’t think, but just follow blindly. Of course I will be happy if they come to similar conclusions as me, because that’s what make sense to me…

    Please don’t pray for me, do something useful instead:)

  13. Christina

    Also I’m trying to educate them (stories) for now about the ancient gods of Rome, Greece, Egypt, India… That sets things into perspective, I think. And I introduce as much science and paleontology(sp?)/archeology as feasible and interesting at this age.

  14. webmaster

    Re. stories, y’all might enjoy this one: http://www.beginningwithi.com/aboutme/bible_stories.htm

    Also, I had brought back from a trip to India some of the Indian comics I love, featuring Hindu gods and goddesses in the classic myths, somewhat like superheroes. It’s great fun to see someone with four arms and her tongue hanging out discussing strategy with a blue guy holding a trident…

    Ross decided from these that her favorite god was Ganesh.

  15. Norman Van Rooy

    I marvel at a blade of simple grass and past that to the simple molecules that bind it together in nothingness. It should not exist nor should my mind that reflects on it’s existence. A scientific approach would ask the question about intelligence and its origins which would include concepts of an indescribable life force that has evolved or exists outside the physical parameters of the limited dimensions we are aware of.

    The concepts brought out by the new string theory posit the possibility of multitudes of dimensions, spaces, and universes. What we do not know is a quintillion to the quintillionth power of what exists.

    My own quest for truth has cast out many of the demons that plague the doctrines of the Christian teachings I was raised with. I have little tolerance for proselytizing but have a thirst of what is over the next horizon. What happens at death?

    Several years ago I produced a documentary film on people who had clinically died, been resuscitated, and who’s lives were dramatically changed by what they experienced during the death process. All those who I interviewed and others whom I listened to had one thing in common. There is something which they would call Holy, Glorious, Beautiful and Loving with such overwhelming intelligence and humor that they begged “IT” not to make them have to return back to earthly life. Somehow they were “willingly” convinced to come back because their life had a purpose and that they needed to finish their work.

    I would recommend a work by Ken Ring called “Heading to Omega.” Ring carefully examines all aspects of this phenomena without trying to force God on the reader.

    One has to examine all aspects of reality including the internal and mystical reports of credible people. Love does not exist. It cannot be measured or quantified, but it can be deduced from multitudes of experiencers. Go beyond non measurable love into the mystical experiences of many who cannot be convinced by any means that their experience of this “IT” or “God” is not real. Unfortunately the religions have corrupted the primal experience and it is rare to find a few to rise above religion to its true essence.

    When one sees a person transfigured from fearful bitterness to outgoing love one can deduce by the measurable behavior that the story of this change has crediblitlity. Perhaps it doesn’t fit neatly into a test tube but it gives room for thought. A-Theism loses the childlike mind that thinks outside of the box, no longer with wonder lays on its back in tall grass looking into the starry universe and feeling an intuition of something larger–something bigger then we can yet understood. Not logic only but deep feelings of awe.

  16. Sara

    “A-Theism loses the childlike mind that thinks outside of the box, no longer with wonder lays on its back in tall grass looking into the starry universe and feeling an intuition of something larger–something bigger then we can yet understood.”

    As an athiest, I have to strongly disagree. I have never lost my awe and wonder of the world or outside the box thinking. For me life doesn’t need an ultimate meaning or destination, it just is and I appreciate and value it as it is. But if pressed for an explanation for “loving and awe inspiring things I sense and feel”, I’d say the logical explanation is energy, brain chemistry, all of these things and more can create love, euphoria, a sense of being at the same time at one with the universe and also such a small part of the whole. That it is “only” chemistry and energy at play doesn’t in any way lessen the magnificence of the experience. I just don’t call it God.

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