Our journey to disbelief was reasoned, highly discussed, and a gradual process. My husband and I would discuss theology and existence somewhat in secret. We even made a secret pinterest board called Belief & Existence that we shared little snippets of contradictions and other perspectives. In the end, the only thing that made sense – real and true sense – was that it was all mythology.
Then came the question of what to do with our kids. After all, we prayed before every meal, said night time prayers, had crosses hanging in their rooms, bibles all over the house, and religious icons everywhere. How were we going to share with them that all of this has been meaningless?
I will share with you our process with our 4 and 6 year olds and it has been so beneficial. Now at 5 & 7, they are becoming less afraid of imaginary things and more empowered.
Here is what I suggest based on the success of what we did. I say success in that no one is traumatized or hurt and we are a stronger family because of the shared honesty.
1. Confront your own guilt.
It feels cruel at first. How can we tell them this invisible protector is not real? Will we be taking their hope away? What will this do to them? It’s quite scary and raises a lot of self-doubt when you solidify your departure from the faith by sharing it with your family, your kids. Then it is real. But the farther you step outside of the Christian bubble, the more cultish and damaging and scary it all sounds. The alternative of reasoned reality is actually quite peaceful. My husband, in particular, wrestled for years with not wanting to go to hell if he was wrong. He was raised in church and that was what he was told from an early age. It messed with him. I converted as a teenager because my best friend brought me to youth group. I wasn’t raised in a religious home. It was easier for me to let it go. Address that guilt it raises not only in yourself but in the thought of ‘leading your kids astray’. The reality is that you are simply going to stop indoctrinating them and teach them to think for themselves and decide for themselves what they believe. There is no shame or guilt in that.
2. Stop the religious rituals.
We first stopped going to church, which was easy because we had moved to a new area and when trying new churches, we found extremism and anti-Muslim sentiment that was downright scary. We couldn’t find a church in our area, so stopping attendance was an easy task. Then, we simply stopped praying together. When the kids noticed we weren’t praying over dinner, we began the discussion. We told them plainly that we no longer believe. They were a little confused at first but we told them if they’d still like to pray, that was their choice. They held to prayer on their own for a short time.
3. Answer questions honestly.
We did not beat around the bush. Every question that came our way, we answered. We had been studying the history of the ancient world and had stumbled upon so many mythologies that were similar to Christianity. When my 6 year old son asked me why I didn’t believe anymore, I told him I wondered why we said Zeus and Amun Ra were not real, but our god was. Why did I reject all these other gods that people were just as passionate about and devoted to, but somehow mine was real? There is no more evidence for belief in the christian god than these ancient gods. At this, my son decided he was a universalist. He believed in ALL the gods. My 4 year old daughter did not discuss much but she still said she believed in God because God made her (a message we had told her 100 times).
4. Discuss death plainly.
When asked about heaven and hell, we simply tell them we don’t believe there is a heaven or hell. Even some christians we know do not believe in fire and brimstone hell but rather an end of existence. Death does not need to be feared. It is a part of life and will happen to everyone. To reduce the sting of death, we share the comfort of knowing that we will NOT know when we are dead. We simply cease to be. That’s it. Fortunately, we have had the benefit of living on a ranch the last year so they have seen animals born and die over and over. The more they are exposed to death, the less they fear it. Of course, I am not suggesting you take your kids to a funeral home, but when the goldfish dies, talk about it. Let them see it and say goodbye. And then life goes on.
5. Encourage critical thinking in all areas.
In everyday situations, we question thinks and encourage examination of evidence. With every question of WHY that comes up, we work through the process of finding an answer. Recently, my son surprised me by sharing his hypothesis about why he and his sister fought more around the end of the day (because they were tired then). I asked him how he might test this. He suggested observation and data collection essentially – keep track of how many times they fight and what time of day the fight occurs as well as how much sleep they got the night before. This is a kid who is thinking logically.
6. Come Out as an atheist.
Atheist is a horrible term that incites more hate and fear than many other labels. I remember being told never to date an atheist, be close friends with an atheist, let an atheist work in government, etc. However, if we are to change this fear-based animosity, we have to claim it and stand up for it. Initially, I labeled myself as a humanist. Then a secular humanist. Then an agnostic. Finally, I realized if I ever want them to be safe as ‘an unbeliever’, we need to normalize the term atheist. It is not evil. It is simply lack of belief in god, not a blasphemous rejection of God’s invitation for holy redemption. It is simply acknowledging that christianity, islam, and the world’s many religions have no more proof for their god than the egyptians or ancient greeks had for theirs. No one shames us for not believing in ancient gods. And yet it is ‘evil’ not to believe in whichever god the person you are speaking to believes in. As our kids saw us share with friends and family, it removed some of the fear involved (that we had put there ourselves).
7. Always let them choose for themselves.
To this day, they are still free to choose for themselves what they believe in religious or spiritual matters. I have cautioned them to be careful when speaking boldly about our lack of belief with kids at school, because it may not be well received. We have discussed some of the fear and irrationality that comes with the highly religious. That is to say, when asked “why do Christians not like ____?” or “how come some people say _____?”, etc – we have discussions about what people think to be ‘evil’. We have honest dialogue based on our own experiences. My son is actually fascinated by and thinks it humorous some of the superstitions held by various religions. Slowly, he is becoming less fearful himself and much more empowered. If there are no demons in my room fighting to get my soul, I can just rest and relax.