Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Raising Atheist Kids in the Bible Belt

My daughter announced one day last spring that she'd stopped saying the "under God" part of the Pledge of Allegiance at school. I smiled. 

I have those kids now.

My son could tell Bible stories in circles around his classmates, but some of the other third-graders badly wanted him to attend the school's Bible Club. "I don't believe in God anymore," he explained. 

"Don't believe in God?!" the little boys gasped. "Then you're going to the hot place!"

These children have already learned how to use religion as a weapon: "This table is only for people who believe in God." Third-graders

Months later, they wanted to know if B-- had changed his mind yet. "If you don't believe in God, you're going to h-a-l-l," they spelled circumspectly. 

"That spells Hall, and I'm already in it!" B-- responded, proving once again that superior spelling trumps dogma.

I grew up truly believing that Christians were persecuted in America. Not as much as behind the Iron or Bamboo Curtains, certainly, but persecuted nonetheless. I guess I really thought that when I joined the ranks of unbelievers, I'd be in the majority for the first time. Hearing my kids stories from public school, where a framed faded motto declares "In God We Trust", was a rude awakening.

We signed B-- up for his first soccer season this year. The Young Men's Christian Association has a facility right at the edge of our little neighborhood. We ignore the prayer request cards in the corridor when we are there for gymnastics, karate and swimming lessons, but religion seems otherwise absent. Until soccer games. Before they began playing, the coaches led the boys in "I pledge before God..." and I winced.

Other fifth-graders don't know what the word "atheist" means, so my daughter educates them. (She has classmates from various faiths--some more obvious than others.) The teachers at the middle school she will be attending assume she has a religious affiliation. M-- is required to log 15 hours of community service this school year. When we asked her teachers for suggestions that would fulfill the requirement, all of them were church-related: babysitting for church programs, helping with Vacation Bible School, etc. <sigh> Fortunately, I have non-religious friends who have helped us find some other options.

Chatting with my daughter last week, I remarked that it must be different for her, not having spent so many years steeped in faith and belief. She agreed. "I never really believed it all," she told me. "I never said my prayers every night, and I read the Bible because you made me." So I did. Just as my mother did with me.

Since they do live at the edge of the Bible Belt, I am sometimes glad my kids have experience with VBS, Sunday School, and AWANA. From a socialization perspective, they are "normal". But I'm glad they don't feel pressured to accept beliefs that aren't their own and that frustrate their intellect or their sense of right and wrong.

Children are not born with a belief in god(s)--but they do naturally trust, and desire to please, the adults they depend upon. When I was a little girl, I wanted to feel secure, to fit in. I wanted to believe the same things my parents did, to be on the same side with them. If God was going to take them straight to heaven, I didn't want to be left behind. If he was going to take care of them during a scary thunderstorm, I wanted to be safe, too. So I would pray in Jesus' name, recite verses about God's protection, and promise to obey him. But I was still afraid of the God whose hands controlled the sky and sea and whose eyes could always see me in the dark. He was said to be loving and good, but when the clouds rolled in, it seemed apparent that he had a fearsome temper, too--much more than my parents ever displayed.

My kids are anxious about the same things I was. But instead of teaching them that there really are creepy invisible spirits in their rooms at night, we explore the science behind shadows, sounds, lightning and weather. If the fear is irrational, we listen to them, reassure them, and help them take charge of their own minds. We teach them to practice the techniques that help us: thought-stopping and thought substitution, relaxation, meditation. Their minds are their own, and they can choose how they will use them.

And what better situation for the use of one's own mind than as an atheist in the Bible Belt?


  1. Hi, Jeri!

    I don't know what state you live in, but I live in the Bible Belt too (in Kansas). I have lived here since I was ten, and I come from an atheist family, so a lot of this stuff sounds familiar to me.

    I remember finding religious people's religion very interesting when I was maybe 8 or 9, and would always be asking them about it. I even asked my mom to show me how one prayed, not so much because I wanted to do it (I wouldn't have thought there would be anyone to hear me if I did), but because I just couldn't visualize it. Do you just talk aloud? To no one?

    I never went to church or anything, and I'm glad of that.

    I also wouldn't say "under God" in the Pledge, but my reason for not doing so might surprise you: I didn't feel like the word "God" was mine to say. Part of socialization is learning to respect other people's cultures, and part of respect is not appropriating that which is not yours.

    1. We are in Kansas, too, Lindsay. :)

      If I hadn't grown up with all types, I'd be curious about prayer, too! It's not something we get to see very often in present-day media. (It did show up in the old movies we used to watch, but Hollywood prayers sometimes made us giggle.)

      And I never really thought about the word "God" that way, but it makes sense from an outsider's perspective.