When I became pregnant with my first child, my family was upset to find out my husband and I wouldn’t be raising our new baby with religion. I was raised Catholic and he was raised Presbyterian, and neither of us had set foot in a church more than a handful of times since graduating high school and moving out of our family homes. We are both atheists, and having a baby wasn’t going to change that.
The questions I got most often were about how we would teach our child right from wrong and morals and values. Reminding my family that those were not concepts exclusive to the church, I assured them that we would be just fine, as would our heathen baby.
At 5 years old, our son has displayed no signs of horns or a tail, and his eyes are an earthy shade of green rather than red. He’s a kind, gentle boy who is about as considerate and empathetic as you can expect a 5-year-old to be. Although he tests the boundaries often, he has a pretty firm grasp of the difference between right and wrong.
My son also throws tantrums, is touch and go with sharing, and acts like little green specs in his spaghetti sauce are trying to kill him. Overall, I’d say he’s pretty normal for a kindergartner.
Nonreligious households are becoming more and more common. And while stereotypes have long led to the idea that religious people are of a higher moral standing than nonreligious people, scientific research is contradicting that.
A study published in Current Biology found that nonreligious children were more likely to display altruistic behaviors than religious children. It also found that as they age, religious children are less likely to give to others.
The study didn’t find that religious children are bad. But it does make you think about preconceived notions of how we learn right from wrong or even how we learn to treat others, especially those who are different from us. Some researchers believe that while religious children are brought up to do right because an omnipresent creator is watching, nonreligious children are taught to do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do. Kind of a “be good for goodness’ sake” path to morality.
Raising my children without religion isn’t something I give a lot of thought to because it’s just how we exist. The only time I really think about it is when we are interacting with other families and there is an invite to church or something else that might bring up religion. Much like I imagine most religious people don’t introduce themselves with a handshake and “Hi! I’m Patricia, and I love the Lord,” I don’t walk around with a neon, blinking Atheist! sign above my head.
And when it comes to raising my children to be moral and ethical people, that’s another thing I don’t think too much about because it’s just how we (and most people) try to exist. Treating other people how you would like to be treated and trying to have empathy for someone else’s situation or circumstance are things I am trying to teach my kids. While I’m not always the most perfect example (they hear a lot of grown-up words when we get stuck in traffic) and they aren’t always the most fastidious students (because 5-year-olds and toddlers), I feel like we are doing a decent job.
Which makes me feel really weird about how weird I feel “coming out” as an atheist to other parents. I know it’s silly, but I worry about the assumptions they might make about me and especially about my children, even though the obvious assumptions I worry about aren’t true. I don’t worry about my son interrupting grace at a friend’s dinner table to yell “This is bullshit!” But I do worry about him not being included during these early years when parents are the brokers for social interactions outside of school.
Morality provides a distinction between right and wrong, and that line doesn’t muddy just because someone is an atheist. You don’t need a higher power to know that treating other people the way you would like to be treated is a fairly decent way to go about your daily life. And aside from different plans on Sunday mornings, atheist and religious children have more in common than you might think.