I was born in the early 80s, and my parents were at the forefront of a new phenomenon, atheists raising their children to be atheists rather than attempt to join a church community just for the belonging. From things I have read, what my parents did was rare, and most atheists at the time just buckled up and took their children to church for the socialization and community. Recently I met someone who is a few years younger than me whose parents were atheists but raised her Church of Christ for the community, and it is interesting to talk about our different experiences. I’ll call her Michelle.
She is now an atheist, and the big take away is, she does not plan to raise her children with a church community. The benefits she got were not worth the pain.
It does seem that there are pros and cons for each. However, atheists I know who, like me, were raised atheists tend to want to do the same for their kids, even though the lack of a community was something that was felt while growing up, and this is something I don’t think Michelle experienced.
Michelle, though, was apparently terrified of the thought of Hell while growing up and would stay up at a night worrying about it. I never believed Hell was a real place. I also, from the time I was a young teenager, thought of the concept of Hell as a very immoral concept. No one should be tortured for eternity. It is not right or just. And I would take a stand against anyone, human or supernatural, who advocated for it.
The sense I get from Michelle is that while she did have a sense of belonging growing up that I always lacked, the judgment, the fears of damnation, the fire and brimstone, and the guilt trips destroyed any benefit that came with it, and that she was glad to leave it all behind. Talking to her, she even expresses being traumatized by it.
For me, and the other atheists I know who were raised atheist, while we faced persecution from Christians, and while we grew up knowing that any friendship we forged was threatened the moment we came out as atheists, we had great memories of growing up and engaging in secular activities with our families, such as discussions about science, politics, and the morality of the latest Star Trek episode, sleeping in on Sunday, and those rare times when we did meet other atheists, we enjoyed and valued their company.
My parents tried very hard to build a secular community for my sister and I. They subscribed to a newsletter run by the Family of Humanists for children who were Freethinkers for us to read, and they tried taking us to a Unitarian church, but my sister and I ended up being the only kids in the kid program there. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that the North Texas Church of Freethought started, and aside from one other teenager who went sporadically, I was the youngest one there. I did have good memories of going there and talking to people who weren’t judgmental and were accepting, and for once forging friendships without having the fear in the back of my mind that as soon as my atheism became known the friendship would end.
In college I went to a conference organized by the Center for Free Inquiry in New York for college atheists, and I had the best weekend of my life there. I felt so accepted, and the discussions I had with other people there were so thoughtful and intelligent. I met some incredible people, but at the end of the weekend, I had to go back to Texas and remember that I was the only person there representing the Lone Star State. For one weekend I was surrounded by amazing atheists, and then it was back to the hostile south.
The sense of estrangement I feel from those around me hurts and has been overwhelming.
Yet, even with the estrangement and the fear that comes with being an atheist in the south, I’d choose those over raising them with a group of people who feel that a difference in religious opinion is a good reason to break up a friendship and to harass someone.
Being raised in a faith community helped Michelle realize the faults of those community, and decide that subjecting her children to those faults was not worth it. As for me, I’m aware that finding a community for my children is important, but if the community is toxic, then it’s not worth it.
Worse, after being so ill treated by Christians, they have given me no reason to want to try to build a community with them. I’m at this point where it’s real hard for me to believe a Christian when they say they care for me, because I know they are sharpening the knives in the backroom they are attempting to entice me in with pie.
So, what to do if you’re a hated minority estranged from any sense of community? Find ways to build one!
The internet has been transformative for the atheist community. Back when they had chat rooms I would spend my pre-teen years on Atheist Chat, connecting and talking with other atheists. Now, we have Meet Up, and atheist parents are reaching out to each other to form communities that we did not have growing up.
So ultimately, most atheists see the problem of a lack of community as fixable to an extent. While taking my kids to interact with other atheist families doesn’t change the oppressively religious culture here, it does expose them to hotspots of tolerance.
Meanwhile, the rot within Christian communities is such that there’s nothing atheists can do about it. Best leave them to their own decay.