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Monday, June 29, 2015

Parenting Beyond Religion ~How I Answer the Difficult Questions

I have a lot of people ask me these days, "how do you parent without religion? How do you talk to your kids about why we don't go to church anymore? How do you explain your beliefs to them? How do you answer their questions?"

These are interesting questions, usually asked by other ex-Christian parents who are struggling with the idea that all the answers they used to have have been pulled out from under them. "For the Bible tells me so" is no longer the answer to everything from "why is lying bad?" to "what happens when you die?" Suddenly, we're forced to think deeper, to be purposeful, and to challenge ourselves. We don't get to play the God card anymore.

I can't speak for everyone who has been through the deconversion process with their family, but I can explain my own experiences and how I've approached parenting differently these days.

In the beginning of our journey, about 3 years ago, we left a toxic church. This was difficult for my kids, who were very young, because it meant losing their friends and social group. Even though we tried to stay in touch with those whom we were close to, it's just not the same when you don't see them 3 times a week and don't share the beliefs they hold dear. ("Friendship by proximity" is what my friend Sam called these relationships, not implying that they aren't genuine but that they are upheld by proximity, as are many other friendships, such as from a job or other social group). They missed the children's church and the potlucks and the singing and activities. They also missed the routine. They asked a lot of questions about why we don't go to church and why we can't go see some of their friends anymore. I avoided these at first, because I was hurting from betrayal and rejection and seeing my kids' pain and confusion was just another knife in my heart. I also just didn't know how to answer them, to explain that I still believed in God, but had no idea what else I may or may not believe it. That I wasn't sure where I was going on my own spiritual journey. And how do you explain things like triggers and panic attacks due to my past to children? Eventually though I had to be honest and explain as best as I could.

That first conversation, initiated by my daughter, K (who was 7) went like this:

K: "Mom, why don't we go to church anymore? I miss church."

Me: "K., we had to leave that church because we  were no longer welcome because we disagreed with some things they were teaching that we feel are wrong and hurtful. We haven't found another church that doesn't teach these wrong things so we decided to stay home and do fun family things instead."
K: "Like what kind of bad things to they teach, Mom?"

Me: "Well, like that women can't do things just because they are women....."

K, interrupting: "What?! That's stupid. That's an Old Times belief. Girls can do and be whatever they want today, so can boys."

Me, suppressing a smile: "Yes, but the church we left didn't believe that, didn't like that we believed something different, and we didn't want to raise our kids in a church that tells boys and girls who they must be and how they must act because of their gender." 

That was the beginning of a series of conversations that we had about a few beliefs that I didn't think were healthy and that were keeping us from church. I kept it as simple as I could and they haven't asked about church in a long time. Their lives are now full of school and friends and family adventures.

Recently, they've begun to ask deeper questions about God, life, behavior, values, afterlife, science, and philosophy. These have been interesting for me, and, I admit, scary as it is completely new territory. Whereas before I would answer "we don't lie because it is sin", now I have be more thoughtful and pragmatic in presenting my values and ethics to them. *I* have to understand the "why" before I can help them understand.

When asked point-blank whether God exists or not, I have explained various viewpoints, including other gods and goddesses in the list of "what people believe". I am very honest in explaining that we cannot prove that any god exists, but that people chose to have faith in one god or many, for many different reasons. I try to stress the difference between scientific proof/knowledge and faith, and how these things are compatible and how they are not. I often answer with "this is what we know and can prove, this is what we don't, this is what some people believe" and asking them "what do *you* think?" Because someday they're going to choose for themselves what they believe and I have no desire to dictate that to them. Not by conditioning them now while they are young or prejudicing them toward or against one belief system or another. I care only that they are good, strong, ethical people, who are critical thinkers and intelligent, not that they worship Jesus or Odin or no one.

Kids are smart and vastly underestimated. Kids who aren't told what to believe, who aren't scared by hell fire into accepting a system they are too young to understand, and who are taught how to think are really fun to have deep conversations with. They know they can ask me anything and I'll answer them as honestly as I can and have no problem saying "I don't know, what do you think?". I have no agenda to make sure they have The Right beliefs or none at all. They are and will always be free to chose any faith or none, THAT is the gift I want to give them now as I raise them to be free-thinkers. It was not a gift ever given to me as a child. The only thing that would ever disappoint me is if they chose a faith system that devalues them and other humans. And yet, I'm not all that worried. They are strong thinkers, science-minded, emotionally healthy, with hearts full of discovery and empathy. I could be wrong but I can't see them throwing out those instilled and natural values, but rather bringing them into whatever faith they choose.

Raising thinking children means being a thinking parent. It means no cliches, no pad answers, no dismissing. This is really hard, not gonna lie. It goes against everything I once was and once believed. It's meant re-training my habits and reactions and thought-processes in order to be more true to myself and more honest with my kids. It means being fearless in my thoughts and my answers to their questions, being vulnerable, being uncomfortable, admitting wrong, being honest and open. But I find myself at peace with the relationship I have with my own beliefs and with my children. This is a journey, one I'm sure we'll be on for a long time yet. But we're on it together, forging a connection and trust, even if I don't always know how to answer their questions.

And, really, that's the most important thing.


  1. LOVE your parenting posts - well, all your posts in general, but your parenting ones in particular I find utterly fascinating. I'm not ever having kiddies myself, due to the possibility of passing on my genetic Huntington's disease, but I have thought of sharing them anyway, hoping one of my two sisters, each with daughters under a year, might see and read them. I noticed, to my dismay, that both of them, during the Duggar scandal, shared blog posts minimizing the abuse as a "mistake," no biggy because he was sorry and the girls had forgiven him. I messaged them, telling them that just because they were Christian didn't mean they had to raise the girls in the unhealthy rape culture that we suffered through, I said please, please, read those blog posts that I had posted on my wall, some of them were written by Christians who had thoughtful input.

    One of my sisters promptly blocked me and now I'm not welcome under her roof, which means I'm not invited to my adorable niece's birthday party this Friday. God, I wish my sisters were more like you :)

  2. This is an interesting journey. I haven't deconverted, but I have moved away from a "bible thumping" approach to the big questions, like you have. I agree that it forces you to think more deeply, and actually *know* why you believe what you believe about ethics. It's a much more rewarding process than simply checking the legalistic boxes and fitting the pattern. I also believe it leads to better behavior, whether you add a deity to it or not.

    1. Definitely! And I think that Christianity could only be benefited if critical thinking were more a part of everyday life.

  3. I think you should let your kids go to church still- if they want to. They can think for themselves and whether or not they like it or enjoy it or not. I would just drop them off (if they are old enough) or have someone sit with them for the duration of the event. Parents should let their kids explore religion regardless of their own personal opinions and beliefs.
    As for me, I look around at Nature and see the Divine everywhere! Creation by design is amazing!! So yeah, I believe God exists- this world is too wonderful to not have a Creator that is amazing!!

    1. And have them taught that being gay is a sin? That they'll rot in hell if they don't do what a fairy in the sky says? That that fairy loves blood so much that he killed his own son to satisfy his blood-lust and if they reject this "gift" he'll torture them for eternity? That only some people are worthy of love, and only if they say the right words, go to the right church, and follow the right rules? That only if they follow the right god in the right way will they not go to hell?

      See, small children do not have the mental capacity to realize this is all damaging bullshit. Developmentally, they cannot listen to such things and think critically about them. They believe what adults tell them and fear is a hugely powerful motivator for a child. They don't have the mental or emotional development to process such things in a healthy way. Of course when they're older, they can do whatever they want and I'm sure we'll have fun, rousing discussions since I am teaching them to think critically and freely. But I absolutely will not subject them to such damaging and abusive teachings as young children. It is indoctrination at that age, something I wish them to grow up free of. I grew up with fear of hell over me every waking moment. I will not teach such atrocities to my children.

      This is an excellent article on the subject: http://journeyfree.org/childhood-religious-indoctrination/

    2. And it's not just Christianity I don't want to indoctrinate them with. I wouldn't send them to a Muslim church or a Hindu gathering or a Buddhist temple either. They can explore different religions when they are old enough to process the information and think critically through it.

      But I'm guessing from your comment that what you really meant was "you should send your kids to church to indoctrinate them before they're too old to be fooled by such nonsense." Gotta get 'em young, indoctrinate them good while they're still impressionable. There's a scientific reason why "ministries" aimed at children work really well.

    3. Also, this. I refuse to perpetuate this ridiculousness on children who can't know better: https://youtu.be/cJrqLV4yeiw

    4. Nope, just thought your children should have "free choice". Indoctrination was not even on my radar, actually. I know of some churches that are Christian and yet very loving and forgiving and definitely don't teach "hate" of any kind.
      And actually Jesus had free choice- His Father didn't force him to die... He could have fought back but he made the choice not to. It was Jesus who sacrificed Himself for us. God didn't force him to.

    5. My children most certainly do and will have free choice. But as their parent, I am responsible for ensuring that what they are exposed to is age-and-developmentally appropriate.

  4. Darcy, I found this video online regarding a de-conversion. His story sounds a lot like mine. Can you view it and tell me what you think? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ojPGvYcMrPk

  5. Darcy, I really appreciated this article. Thank you for sharing this. It's particularly encouraging to me as in the past year I have moved from a more liberal Christian perspective (after growing up in biblical patriarchy) towards being unsure about whether I am a Christian or believe in God. When I was still very certain I was a Christian, it was easy for me to dismiss any worries about how I'd teach religion if I had kids: I'd just make sure I found a welcoming, LGBT-affirming church, and make sure that I taught my kids that they don't have to believe like I do.

    But now I have been wondering how to approach it. I am a little worried that shutting out religion entirely (not attending church or teaching them that God exists) might be a sort of indoctrination in itself? Fundamentalists love to say that "everyone brainwashes their children!" which is ridiculous, yet I see the point--that all parents will present ideas that aren't necessarily objective. I guess the difference is that real, harmful indoctrination lies in teaching kids that they are in danger or bad if they do not believe *a certain way*.

    It was helpful and encouraging to read this post, and see that there are other folks dealing with these questions. And thought-provoking, particularly the part about answering whether lying is wrong! The do-no-harm rule works pretty well but I would have to think harder to see how that applies to something like lying where it doesn't seem like there is always a harm to other people. Anyways, thank you again for sharing!

    1. I am in the middle of a book called "Parenting Beyond Belief". I highly recommend it. There's a chapter about the importance of religious education that I hadn't considered before, but the author makes an excellent point about being sure your children are familiar with religion, all religion, so they have the education to engage with those around them and choose their own paths.

  6. Well, it is four months since you posted this but it brings me joy and peace in the Christmas holiday season to know that you are are parent, Darcy, and that you respect your kids' right to love and freedom, to be free of fearful ideas and indoctrination. I am happy to see that you are not misled by the 'friendly' church advocates who, being indoctrinated, see nothing at all wrong with condemning as God commanded and/or hiding all the judgment and hatred behind nice little teas and gatherings with music.
    I found much support in my parenting of two now young adult children, in the works of John Holt and the child advocacy of Norm Lee and Jordan Riak. There is so much healthy, respectful writing out there now! If people had not been so disrespected as youngsters themselves, I am sure they could not tolerate the lack of decent personal boundaries in evangelical churches.
    Thank-you for adding your voice, Darcy.