Growing Up Atheist: Learning About Religion

Someone asked a good question about how my parents introduced the concept of religion to me and if I ever experimented with religion. When I was five I think my parents realized it was time to explain the concept. I was starting to socialize more for one thing. I remember going to a friend’s house before I knew anything about religion and a friend showing me a coin with Jesus on it and talking about how important the coin was and how mad her mother would be if she gave it away. And then, for logical reasons that only make sense to a five year old, she said she wanted to give it to me. Ever the goody-two shoes, I demurred. She insisted. I pointed out that my dress had no pockets and that won the argument.

While I did not understand religion or who Jesus was, I understood it was a big deal to her. I’m not sure if I asked my parents questions after that or they just picked up on the fact that it was time. And, being bookworms, they explained by reading a book to my sister and I titled What About Gods by Chris Brockman.

The book explains that god is a mythical character, like fairies and dragons. It also explains that some people believe that there is a god and about religious institutions. It also talks about the scientific process and how we can use science to understand our world.

Whenever in the past I had asked questions about how the world worked, my parents would answer with answer routed in scientific discoveries. Stars are huge balls of plasma light years away from our solar system. Gravity. The basic concepts of evolution. So I had never been raised to seek supernatural answers. I was also familiar with the concepts of the mythical and the imaginary because of fairytales. I’m not sure if I understood that there are people who believe in things that are imaginary, I mean some people believe fairies exist, and I may have been aware of this before my parents read me the book. But I readily accepted that people would create institutions to worship an imaginary being.

My parents telling me that there was no god didn’t cause me any grief. I had never heard of the concept before, so it didn’t phase me.In all honesty, I was more upset about, and have always been upset about the fact that fairies aren’t real (and moreso that I am not a fairy princess). The book had a picture of a fairy and I would stare at her longingly.

After my dad read the book to me he said that my sister and I could be atheists or that we could be religious and they’d take us to church. I stated I wanted to be religious and go to church and my dad said he would take me. Sometime between then and when my dad was going to leave with me I changed my mind. I think what was important to me was to see if it really was my decision and if my parents really would take me. Once I saw that they would, I had no further interest in religion.

Years later in college when I went to a Freethinker’s conference, I met a young man named Reggie who had a son who was five, and he talked about reading that exact same book to his son. When I told him that my dad had read it to me and asked me about going to church, Reggie said that he had offered the same choice to his son who, like me, had at first wanted to go to church but then changed his mind. I think the similarities in our experiences points to the fact that children want to feel like they have a say in what they believe and that their parents will respect it, even if their beliefs differ.

I did end up going to church, just never with my parents. All four of my grandparents are Methodists, and I have gone with them on several occasions. And I went with several friends growing up to various Lutheran, Baptist, Southern Baptist services and Sunday schools or youth events. For awhile my mom taught kindergarten at a religious private school, and since the public school and private school had different schedules, my sister and I would go up with her on days public school was closed and help her, and attend the required Episcopalian morning service. And when I met my Catholic husband he took me to mass more times than I care to count.

Regardless of the denomination or the church service, I was always bored to tears, and very relieved that my parents did not take me on a regular basis.

My parents tried very hard to find a community with other children who were being raised atheist, but before the days of internet this was hard. For awhile they tried taking us to a Unitarian church (Unitarians are very liberal and lots of people who go to Unitarian churches are atheists), however, my sister and I were the only children there. The Sunday school there consisted of talking to the teacher and doing arts and crafts. It was secular, fun, but we weren’t making the tons of friends we hoped we would so we stopped going after a few months        .

And while my parents never sat down and formally taught us about the different religions, we had books, children’s bibles and the like. The other thing that Christians in the southern US do not understand is that it is impossible to live in the US and not know about Christianity. Take football for instance. Even people who aren’t sports fans know the football teams and the basic rules and what a football looks like, because football mania is everywhere. It’s the same with Christianity, except worse, because when people learn you aren’t a Christian your beliefs are constantly attacked, you constantly have to evaluate Christian arguments and constantly have to defend yourself. Most Christians in the US haven’t had to evaluate their belief system before. Atheists do, and daily.

Christian themes pervade literature and our television shows. Growing up some of my favorite books were the Little House books, which includes anecdotes of young Laura learning about the bible and going to church. The tv show the books were based off of and which I adored was downright preachy at times and dripping with Christian themes. Les Miserables, a musical we went to see many times, also was woven with Christian themes, and I went through a huge classic literature phase in high school and managed to wade through most of the Victor Hugo novel before my new kitten pooped on it and I had to through it out.

I think the biggest misconception I had, though, was that people of differing beliefs could agree to disagree. My parents had good relationships with their Christian parents. They agreed to disagree. And my parents would have agreed to disagree had I decided to be religious. So at first I had no compunctions about telling people I met that I was an atheist when they asked what church I went to. Let’s say, I started fending off conversion attempts when I was five.

When I was fifteen, one erstwhile Christian gave me Josh McDowell’s More Than a Carpenter to read. I went home and over a few months read it and wrote a point by point debunking of it in a large spiral. I never had the heart to give it to him, I only managed to tell him I debunked it and it failed to convince me. It later on turned out to be a powerful weapon against evangelists. They would come at me with an argument I recognized from the book and I would finish it before they finished their sentence AND launch my counterpoint. Most were so floored that I had read it and it hadn’t convinced me that they would either retreat or start the ad hominem attacks.

However annoying the proselytizing was, I did get a thorough education in Christianity from it. For people raising their kids secular who want assurance, the proselytizing pretty much confirmed the validity of my parents’ view of the world, and for Christians who think they have a shot, I want to strongly emphasize that I have thought this through, I have heard your worn arguments before, and I’m not interested in going through them again. Considering I have thought about this issue so much, it is extremely insulting to suggest that I have not or that I am letting bad experiences cloud my judgment. I just want to reach a point to agree to disagree and for the larger world to see secular living as a viable and fulfilling alternative to religious living.

For parents who want to raise their kids secular and are scared of them being drawn to religion, I also really can’t emphasize enough how much apologist arguments only appeal to apologists, and that when you raise children to think of religion as mythology, well, hearing people argue that Christianity is real is like hearing someone argue that Sleeping Beauty is the gospel truth or trying to prove the Iliad based on the Iliad. It just makes no sense. Pretty much every second generation atheist I have met who was raised like I was has no interest in religion beyond an academic one.

I never did experiment with religion. For a time I went through an investigative stage where I read different religious works, from the bible to the Bhagavad Gita to various Buddhist works but it was very academic, comparative religion in nature. And as an adult I love archaeology and world history, so I do read the works of scholars like Bart Ehrman to learn about early Christianity.

Between instilling a skeptic’s questioning mind and humanist values my life was full and fulfilled, and I never missed having a religious system. And, judging from how intolerant having one made people, it was never something I wanted to be a part of. I just wish people were more tolerant and accepting of people with different belief systems.

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