May 21, 2011

Raising an Agnostic Child

Recently my mom had to tell my three-year-old that her dog had died. My daughter asked "Did Olive go to heaven?" My mom replied that yes, the dog had gone to heaven. Bethany gave Nana a big hug and said "I'm so sorry!"

How sweet. How touching.

Flash back to the previous week. Bethany and I are watching a Tom & Jerry cartoon. A piano falls on Tom and Tom's soul rises from his body and boards an escalator. Bethany asks "Why are there two kitties? Where is that kitty going?" I said "The kitty died, he's going to heaven."

"What's 'evan'?"

"'Heaven.' It's where you go when you die, sweetie."

She continued to watch, fascinated, as Tom waited in line for St. Peter with some other cats who had recently died violent deaths (including a wet sackful of drowned kittens).

So, um, that's what she thinks heaven is. That's the only time she's ever even heard the word.

I'm not against religion. I'm fascinated by other people's religious beliefs. I personally believe that it is impossible to know anything for certain about the afterlife (on a side note this means I categorize atheism along with the rest of the religions, since atheists hold a concrete belief about what happens after we die).

I've now realized, however, that as an agnostic I still hold a responsibility to give my children a religious education. I may even hold more of a responsibility to do so than a religious parent would.

When studying racism as it relates to children a few months ago I learned something fascinating: white parents don't talk to their kids about race. We find the subject to be so taboo that we avoid it completely. Our assumption is that if we don't bring it up then the kid will never notice that people have different skin colors.

Stupid, when you think about it. We're leaving our kids to form their own opinions about why people look different. We all know that kids can come up with some pretty wild stuff. It makes a lot more sense to start talking to them about it at a young age so that they understand what it really means.

I now see religious education in much the same way. I assumed that I should leave the matter to my children to formulate their own opinions. Obviously that was a bad idea. I'm not sure how to approach it, yet, but my kids need some foundation for understanding what religion is and what the different belief systems are.

I don't care what they choose to believe when they grow up, but if they form erroneous assumptions in childhood it may scare them off the entire subject for life.

I'd love to hear your feedback on this!     -Kim


  1. Kim, I love your perspective on this, and I agree. I have felt some of the pressure to "do right" by my kid when it comes to religion. I'm the only one in my family I know of who does not subscribe to organized religion, so I understand it's popular among my people. I want Tara to feel like she has my support to believe what she wants.

    I told her that things become true by believing in them. God is absolutely true to those who believe, and so are faeries and Santa and the Easter Bunny. For awhile she would tell people proudly, "My mom doesn't believe in God, but I do." I felt like I had succeeded.

    Still, I need to do better about teaching her the Bible stories. The Bible is behind so many of our North American traditions and history and even laws, that I think kids should know where it all came from. Simple expressions mean more if you know the Bible, like "build your house upon the rock" or "coat of many colors."

  2. That is such a good point about the Bible stories! My husband doesn't have any religious background and sometimes I'm really surprised at the references he doesn't get.

    I'd like to know more, myself, about religions other than Christianity. Maybe my kids and I can make the journey together when they get older to visit some places of worship and hear what they have to say.

  3. Growing up, my dad spent most of my childhood working in a series of three different United Methodist churches here in our area. His position was a pseudo-assistant pastor-type position, a lay-learder of sorts, as he had never had seminary training. Regardless, he was a person very visible in the church, which meant that our whole family had to be that "perfect" church family. Mom and Dad, married, with their son and daughter all sitting together in the front pew every Sunday morning. If we weren't there, you could guarantee that the missing family member(s) were inches-from-their-deathbeds sick.

    Church was a major part of my life, 3 times a week, never because I wanted for it to be but because that's how it was in our family. I was a "leader" in the childrens'—and later the teens'—groups, and was expected to set the example for my peers to follow.

    Good thing I was a good actress/liar, because I never felt and connection to or belief in anything we were being taught there. Well, not the theology, at least. I firmly believed, and still do, in all the parts about helping your fellow man and trying to live a life worthy of being proud of.

    Near the end of my senior year of high school, and while still attending this United Methodist Church, I was introduced to several form of paganism. I began to secretly research various religions on my own, and began to feel strong connections to the teachings and beliefs of the ancient Celts. As soon as I reached adulthood and was released from the bonds of family church obligation, I "officially" began to follow a Celtic paganism tradition, and still am on that path now.

    My son is 3, and we often talk about religion. I explain things to him, as unbiased a manner as I can and in terms he can understand. He joins in in the singing of the "blessing" before lunch each day at daycare, and that's fine by me. He seems to be currently connecting with the idea of the Christian Protestant God, and that's fine too. I never heard anything in church that I would be worried for my child to believe. And I'm sure that, like most people, his personal beliefs will evolve over time as he grows up and his understanding of the world around him deepens. If ever he has a question I am unable to answer, we will find some reliable person or other reference that CAN answer the question for him. For now, I simply focus on raising him to follow the directions given him by adults in authority in his life and to be nice to people he encounters wherever we go.

    1. I looked into Unitarian Universalism because that seems to fit my belief system, but perhaps I'm a little too lazy to commit. I'd love to see my daughter actively involved in something that would provide her with spiritual structure of some kind. Maybe open dialogue will have to suffice until she's a bit older.

      I'd love to hear more about paganism. Do you recommend an online resource?

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. :o)


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