In Which the Atheist Goes to Church, Probably.

So I’ve been thinking about bringing my daughter to church, and I’m honestly curious to hear what you guys think about it.

I think I’ve mentioned a couple of times here that I’m not religious.  I’m not sure what I am– I honestly don’t give it enough thought to be able to give myself a label.  I suppose if I had to choose one, I’d say I’m agnostic with a dash of atheism, if that’s possible.  I don’t really believe in God, though I wish I did.  I would find it comforting, I think, but I need things to make sense to truly believe in them, and I haven’t yet found a religion that does.

But my daughter is another matter.  I don’t think that my beliefs, or lack thereof, should have anything to do with how she is raised or what she ultimately grows up to believe.  I want her to grow up being who she is, and if she wants to be religious, that’s great– if she doesn’t, that’s great too.  (None of this super-fundamentalist stuff, though.  She has to believe in dinosaurs and, you know, science.  Her dad is a paleontologist.  Everything else is up to her.)

Speaking of Tyler, he does pose a problem to my plan, as a hardcore, unwavering atheist who, it always seemed to me, scorned people of any religion for believing.  He almost seemed to think it was a weakness… that a belief in a higher power was something people cling to because they are afraid to face reality.  He actually once mentioned that he wanted to put it in our parenting plan that neither of us were allowed to raise Caroline as a member of any religion.  I may not be religious myself, but I can’t agree with that.  His supercilious attitude towards religion always irritated me.  I may not believe in God or want to go to church, but I respect those who do, and that includes my daughter if she so chooses.

There’s really no way, though, to allow Caroline to develop her own belief system without bringing her to religious services of some kind.  I certainly have no desire to go to church– ever– but she can’t make any kind of informed decision of her own if she is never exposed to religion at all.

So what’s an open-minded agnostic/atheist mom to do?  We did just move to a new state, and I’ve been contemplating joining a church just to be able to join a community up here where we know no one.  Caroline also does go to church occasionally with my mom and she loves it.  I asked her if she wanted to go to church sometime, and she said she did.  Is it hypocritical, though, or worse, rude of me to attend services and just ignore it and sit there and think my own thoughts?  And how do I choose which church to attend?  Ideally I’d like to expose her to a bunch of different religions, but I have a feeling that “church-jumping” is probably kind of frowned-upon…

If you’re not religious but want to expose your children to church, how do you handle it?  If you are religious, is it offensive or rude that I’m contemplating doing this for my daughter’s sake alone, when I will continue to sit there every Sunday and not believe?

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  1. by Sarah

    On July 30, 2012 at 4:30 am

    As a pastor of a church together with my husband, I really applaud your courage to expose your daughter to something that you don’t believe in yourself. I don’t find your thinkings offensive at all, but sensitive to the individuality of your daughter. WIsh you could come to our church, but I’m thinking Germany is too far ;)

  2. by Leslie

    On July 30, 2012 at 7:50 am

    I have this very same struggle. We do occasionally go to church our family. They go to a non-denominational Christian church, and they seem a lot more open to this sort of thing than a more specific, structured religion (say roman Catholics, or something like that). You could also just find her a once a week, religious preschool class to attend, and then you don’t have to participate at all;)

  3. by Sara

    On July 30, 2012 at 7:55 am

    I think what you are doing is admirable. You are willing to set aside your questions and your feelings about church and God and take your daughter to help her gain perspective. That is extremely unselfish and the sign of a great parent. What you are doing is not rude at all. Pat yourself on the back for this one :)

  4. by Amanda

    On July 30, 2012 at 7:55 am

    I have similar leanings as you, in that agnostic and slightly atheist kind of way. My husband started taking our three year old to church every other weekend a while ago and she doesn’t really absorb much, but gets some exposure. If Caro is still occasionally going to church with your mom, I would think that’s enough exposure for now, at this age unless you plan on attending a church that has a three year old Sunday School.

  5. by Shannon

    On July 30, 2012 at 8:29 am

    I agree with the person who suggested a religious preschool. A lot of the churches here have preschool programs, and my son is starting one in the fall. It is preschool in the traditional sense where they learn letters, numbers, and all the “normal” stuff, but then they also occasionally talk about God and Bible stories and whatnot. That could kind of open the door to it without you having to be involved right away.

    Our church also has Sunday school before church each week, and starting with kindergarten age they have “children’s church” for kids to sit in while their parents are in the regular service. That might be an option too.

  6. by Amanda

    On July 30, 2012 at 8:40 am

    I think that is awesome that are willing to put yourself aside so that your daughter has the opportunity to make her own choices! :) I am “religious” rather I’m a Christian and I see nothing wrong with church-hopping until you find what best suits you and Caroline. Good luck and as always I admire your honesty and straight forwardness :)

  7. by Meg

    On July 30, 2012 at 8:43 am

    I was raised in a fairly religious family and spent eight miserable years in a very religious school so understandably, I do not identify with any particular religion but I don’t frown upon people who do as long as they don’t push their beliefs on others and they actually live what they preach. I’m personally against pretending to be religious and going to church if you have no desire to believe the teachings. I’ve read about many different religions and they are all so much the same, just different names and slightly different creation stories (Christianity is actually one of the last I would choose to involve my child in).
    Children are so impressionable and will believe anything anyone tells them. My husband and I decided to not raise our daughter in any particular religion, only have answers ready for her questions in the form of “some people believe…”. When she’s older and can make some decisions for herself rather than being swayed by fun songs and pretty pictures at Sunday School, then she can participate in whatever she wants.
    Single Dad Laughing is a blog that had an awesome conversation about what the dad said when asked why he doesn’t go to church but his mom does. Don’t stress out about the church thing too much now. Caroline is young and doesn’t know what it is to believe in higher powers. Just teach her to be a good, honest person and maybe someday she’ll find a religion that matches what she believes, not vice versa.

  8. by Haydee

    On July 30, 2012 at 8:53 am

    I’m in the same boat! A friend of mine gave my daughter a Childrens Bible a few years ago, now that she knows how to read she takes it into her room and reads it. When she has questions I Google search them with her.Instead of me trying to make sense of something I really don’t belive in, I ask her what she thinks something means.

  9. by Meg

    On July 30, 2012 at 8:57 am

    I was raised in a religious home and spent eight miserable years in a very religious school so I do not identify with any religions. I have enough respect for them though, that I don’t get guilted into going to church by my family because I feel that it’s hypocritical if I have no desire to believe the teachings. Just because most of our country identifies as “Christian” doesn’t mean you do too. You can be a good, honest person without going to church.
    My husband and I decided to not push anything on our daughter because she’s so young and impressionable, of COURSE the fun songs and sweet stories will reel her in! We have both studied several religions and feel confident that we will be able to simply answer any questions she has in a “some people believe…” kind of way. Caroline is so young, just worry about teaching her honesty and kindness and someday maybe she’ll find a religion that matches her beliefs and doesn’t try to mold her into theirs.

  10. by Jayne

    On July 30, 2012 at 9:02 am

    Hi Julia,

    When I was growing up, my parents were in a similar situation. For a few years, they took us to Quaker meeting. I thought it was great solution because Quakers have a wide range of beliefs, and none of these beliefs are strongly imposed upon attendants. Quaker meeting generally consisted of sitting in silence with your own thoughts (admittedly not the easiest thing for a toddler, but there was a “Sunday school” equivalent) and people would share whatever was on their minds, ranging from deeply spiritual insights to just things that had happened during the week. I felt that it was a place with a strong sense of community, so I got the benefits of “going to church” without having a strictly defined set of beliefs stringently laid out. This might be a good option for you and Caroline!

  11. by Meg

    On July 30, 2012 at 9:50 am

    My mom took my sister and I to 12 different churches and a Synagogue over a period of a year. My mom has never attended church herself and my dad is an ex-Catholic but they wanted us to make our own decisions. So, after a year, they told us it was up to us to choose a church if we wanted to or we could choose not to, no pressure. Personally, I think this was a very progressive thing for my parents to do and really appreciated having the choice of not choosing.

  12. by Kate

    On July 30, 2012 at 1:39 pm

    I think it’s fine to church hop – gives Caroline a taste of a few religions so she can ultimately pick the one that suits her best. As a practicing roman catholic I urge you not to rule out that religion as ita steeped in tradition and many find themselves loving the religion and sense of community that comes with beig catholic. Yes we aren’t perfect – but no one is ! the interesting thing is I wonder who you are being rude to? Bc if you are sitting quietly thinking your own thoughts then how will other people know what you do or don’t think? They won’t- so you aren’t being rude to them. And if you don’t believe in a God- any God then how could you be rude to him? You can’t. That’s the funny thing about faith – its kind of a double edge sword – for instance you can’t think you are being rude to God unless you believe in him. Food for thought – but I think what you are doing is excellent parenting and you should be applauded !!!

  13. by Sherry

    On July 30, 2012 at 3:35 pm

    Hats off to you for doing this for your daughter, that’s a very selfless act on your part. I’m a believer and would love if my children are as well, so I think it’s nice that you are letting her choose for herself. It sounds like she also has a grandmother who is religious, so she can also get information from her as she grows older. I don’t think it’d be weird for you guys to go to church, and I do agree with other posters as far as a preschool in a church. She would at least be exposed to some things there, and you wouldn’t have to suffer through an entire sermon that she would be bored with anyway (my own opinion, because truthfully, some sermons are boring). Good luck with this and keep us posted!

  14. by mj

    On July 31, 2012 at 8:54 pm

    I come from a similar set of parents: Pop was raised Catholic, now total atheist. Mom was raised Protestant, now agnostic, and just likes religious gatherings for the music and traditions. Though they don’t believe in much relative to a higher power, they were strong believers in our growing up with exposure to religion. We attended the Unitarian Universalist church in our town, which was also attended by many of our parents friends and their children. I went to Sunday school every weekend until I was in 9th grade at which point I was given the option to attend religious education/church. Throughout high school I continued to attend the youth group meetings and events and went to a few religious conferences related to social justice and that sort of thing. I met one of my very best friends through the church, and strongly believe that growing up with religion has made me more tolerant of people who are religious.

    I now have an 18 month old and I’m toying with the idea of raising him with religion, though I am no longer affiliated with the UU church. My husband grew up with nothing – no religion, no spirituality, not even a sense of religion in general – and he’s not interested in fostering the religion thing, though he’s okay if I’m into it.

  15. by Natalie

    On August 1, 2012 at 3:41 pm

    Firstly, kudos and mom awards for being willing to show her something that you may not believe in yourself. My suggestion would be to ask her friends parents what religions they may practice and what church activities they have their children involved in. Then, let her visit a few different church services or events with her friends who are already established in a church. She’ll be more able to get atrue experience of that faith and feel more comfortable with people who already know the ropes. Speaking from experience, it’s much easier to try a different church with someone who already goes there! Good luck!

  16. by Anon

    On August 1, 2012 at 5:30 pm

    Lots of good suggestions above. I’d just add that Caro is still very young, so at this age it’s not so much about her critical evaluative skills–and it’s fine to decide to explore various institutions now or wait. I was exposed to Jewish religious education by my atheist/secular Jew mother–there are plenty of Jews like this in the Reform movement so it’s not unusual that she sent me to Jewish Sunday school. I enjoyed it. My father is an atheist and never discussed any religion. As a high schooler, I was curious for exposure so read as much as I could about Buddhism and attended a variety of churches with my friends on various occasions. I feel that experience enriched me, and high school was the perfect age for me to initiate that exploration on my own. If Caro wants more church exposure now because she enjoys it with your mom, sure give it to her. But otherwise, there is PLENTY of time for her to pursue her interests and it’s enough for you to support her in any path her learning takes.

  17. by Hannah

    On August 2, 2012 at 11:07 am

    long time reader julia! Love your blog/journal!

    science and religion is like comparing apples to oranges. i don’t think one should be used to discredit the other. i hope that makes sense! i’m catholic and well, science makes sense!

    i don’t think it’s wrong if you exposed her to religion with no real solid belief in it yourself.
    It’s just like having a new experience together.

    to be honest with you I dreaded it when my mom would drag me to morning mass! but a great, wonderful memory was when we’d do a quick prayer every night. I remember it being super simple. Thank you for today, bless my loved ones (my mom would let me list everyone I wanted to bless that included classmates and stuffed animals, I have a patient mom) and watch over me tomorrow.

    also no matter what you believe (God, Buddha, Allah, nothing) the 10 commandments to me is a universal moral compass; don’t steal, lie, kill, etc.,etc.

  18. by Sarah

    On August 4, 2012 at 1:32 pm

    Try a Unitarian Universalist church if you can find one. I’m atheist but plan to take my kids there when they get older. It’s a great way to expose them (and yourself) to other religions without saying that one is better than others. A basic knowledge of religion, whether you believe in it or not, is important when it comes to understanding culture and politics.

  19. by Sarah

    On August 5, 2012 at 12:31 pm

    I’m in a similar situation. My mother raised me Catholic (she claims to be an atheist), and I still find Mass appealing. But there’s so much about Catholicism that I disagree with that I’d have a hard time bringing my son to Mass. My boyfriend believes in a higher power, but… well, organized religion doesn’t really appeal to either of us. Owen is only two, so it isn’t a pressing issue, exactly, but I’d like to at least have a plan, you know? Follow your instincts and I’ll follow mine; maybe we’ll end up where we should be…

  20. by Meghann Larson

    On August 6, 2012 at 10:46 pm

    Why does someone need to find a relgion in order to feel a connection to something greater? Your husband is a paleontologist and you seem to understand a basic need for scientific reasoning; how do you not find the wonderous realities of the universe to be moving and beautiful? I was raised LDS and I have very vivid memories of going to church and wanting to feel the way other people obviously felt about what they were hearing, but I just didn’t. But when my dad would read me his Discover magazine or a National Geographic, I would be overwhelmed with emotion. It tapped into that part of me that was in dire need of something to beleive in, something to be passionate about. There’s nothing wrong with meeting that need with science. In fact, it’s the reality behind what a church is teaching you: why we are here, what we should do doing with our time on this earth, etc.

  21. by Melissa

    On August 7, 2012 at 5:20 pm

    I applaud you for giving this serious contemplation. I am a Christian and struggled with my faith during college and early 20′s. I’m now much more secure in my faith. My husband and I found a church we really love and our kids are excited to go to church. We’ve found a community of friends and support, so it’s really worked for us. I can understand having not been raised with a particular belief system that it can seem daunting. I’m sure most churches would be perfectly happy to have you and Caroline visit. A true believer of their faith, whatever that may be, would feel the same. I don’t write this to try to persuade you to one belief system or another, but to let you know that most are welcoming and happy to have you there. I get why Tyler has issues with religion (not so much his attitude toward people who practice). But, my faith brings me much comfort and hope. Some may say I’m naive and brainwashed, and that’s okay. It’s how they feel and they’re entitled to that. Find some place that feels right for you and Caroline. A place where there teachings align with what makes sense for you. I think by teaching Caroline to be open to all beliefs and treat them respectfully is a big step. Good luck to you. I love reading your blog and get much amusement from sweet Caroline. :)

  22. by Anon

    On August 11, 2012 at 10:42 am

    I second the Unitarian Universalist suggestion. From my understanding, they view teachings from ALL religions as valuable guides to a spiritual and/or humanistic foundation. Like with any religion, some congregations may trend towards the political as well at times. However, Sunday School should not have this influence at all. I remember my 4th grade U.U. Sunday School class was all about nature and hugging trees (seriously) – all science and not one Bible story in sight. My father who was raised Methodist was appalled, but it made sense for me.

    Whatever you choose, if you truly want to give your daughter a sample of what is out there, don’t limit yourself to Christian or even Judeo-christian offerings. (Although, I think it would be safe to say stay away from Scientology.)

  23. by Charlotte

    On August 16, 2012 at 8:19 pm

    I totally respect your unselfish love for your daughter’s heart and her RIGHT to choose, which she cannot without exposure and opportunity!!! What a great mommy you are ! I am a Christian and LOVE the comfort I feel knowing JESUS is the only reliable factor in my life. HUMANS let you down; He does not. I’m a teacher and children can teach us SO much about belief…faith…adults can be so prideful, not open to anything they aren’t accustomed to. It can be quite disheartening, if only we could be MORE like kids. :) I challenge you to pray and ask God, “If you’re real, SHOW ME! PROVE IT TO ME! CHANGE MY HEART.” I love that you’re probably open to that. Your daughter will be better because of it. TRUST ME!

  24. by Tiff

    On August 19, 2012 at 10:59 pm

    Good for you! What you’redoing for your daughter is so beautiful no matter what lens u look at it from. It’s ok that u have your own thoughts while you attend service I think that it is better that you remaininthebuilding winger rather than drop her off and be on your way. Besides even if u don’t agree/believe 100% with the message, u can still get something good from it. It took me years to find a church body that I felt comfortable in. But once I did, I felt likei was at home. The pastor, speaker is a man/woman, so will never be 100% right on in what s/he is talking about, but that’s where discernment comes in. My pastor is more of a teacher than a parched so it’s a more fast paced and upbeat learning environment. The culture is very relaxed and the people are amiable. So it’s a pleasure to join their services. Find someplace where you feel comfortable, like a home away from home. Church should never feel likes burden. Ur daughter needs to feel likewise and it helps if ur neighbors or her classmates attend the same Sunday school. Best of luck and God bless.

  25. by Caroline M

    On August 23, 2012 at 2:13 pm

    I agree with Charlotte.

  26. by Shripathi Kamath

    On August 25, 2012 at 7:48 pm

    Exposing your daughter to superstition is NOT open-minded. It is a sign of your own insecurities being projected on to her under the guise of tolerance.

    There are plenty of secular activities you can do with her today that will show your open-mindedness because that is really what you want.

    “There’s really no way, though, to allow Caroline to develop her own belief system without bringing her to religious services of some kind.”

    There is, be a responsible parent. Going to church is not her developing a belief system, it is you facilitating her inculcation into one.

    You want her to be exposed to religion, go with her to every place of worship. including a mosque. Expose her to hijabs, show her how other believers live.

    Or suddenly do you think that she is too young for that?

    Maybe that’s what you can do. Keep her away from religion till she is grown up enough to choose that on her own. Just like you’ll not allow her to start a sex life just because she wants to develop her sexuality just as soon she hits puberty.

  27. by kellie

    On August 26, 2012 at 12:01 pm

    I am a Christian and in a way I agree with you but alsodisagree with your article. Anyone can be religious, but not all so called Churches are practicing the truth about God! So many are cults! So I would do my research before just jumping into anything, and pray about it. We do have a creator, that molded our bodies an made us in his image. How canwe just come into existance with filters and a motoer that pumps our blood to circulate, and food we use as energy? He made us to love him and Gorify him. I will pray the Lord will lead you in the rght direction and convict yourheart!

  28. by Debbie

    On August 27, 2012 at 9:47 am

    Look online for the North Point Ministries partner church in your area. I’m sure there is probably one there. Your child will enjoy the children’s classes while you sit in the auditorium and listen to practical life teaching. Senior Pastor Andy Stanley and his staff teach to Christians and non-Christians alike. He says, if you don’t believe in Christ, or God, “these things don’t apply to you,” but they are still good to follow in a practical since for anyone. If you aren’t a Christian, you can still feel like you haven’t wasted your time because you will come away with things to apply to your life right away without being “religious.”, click on Partner churches.

  29. by Tammy

    On August 28, 2012 at 4:12 am

    As a fairly “religious” Christian, I don’t think you would be disrepectful at all. As far as thinking your own thoughts, etc, as long as you are not disrupting another person’s experience, which it sounds like you have no intention of doing, I don’t think that is disrespectful at all. The only time you would cross a line is if you attended frequently, still didn’t believe, but accepted a leadershp role. You wouldn’t have to explain your beliefs, but you should beg off of that. But short of that, I think it’s all good

  30. by Brie

    On September 1, 2012 at 3:23 pm

    I am atheist and my daughter’s father is pagan. We were both forced to attend church as kids and hated it so we decided we would let her decide what she wanted her religion to be. We considered raising her pagan so that she has a foundation to start from once she is old enough to decide for herself what she wants to believe in.

  31. by Philosomom

    On September 11, 2012 at 9:57 pm

    I highly disadvise sending your 3 year old to a religious preschool. I am in the same boat as you, I’d say, at this point in my life, contemplating if I should allow my 3 year old daughter to be exposed to Christianity when I, myself, was raised southern baptist and am now a devout agnostic/semi-atheist philosophy grad student. My child was in a christian preschool, but when I figured out that they were going to be teaching the REAL Easter story, i did not allow her to go the week of palm sunday/easter. Reason being: do you really want someone telling your little one that someone they don’t know died on a cross for their sins? And this was at a non-denominational church, too. So, my advice is ask her questions and gauge her interest as she matures: example: “Caroline, how did the sky get to be blue? Where do you think stars come from?” etc, to see what kind of a thinker she is or isn’t before you allow monumental ideas to be seeded in her little super-ego at a young age. Take it from me– its difficult to undo religion (and not resent it) once it has been conditioned into one’s way of thinking about themselves and one’s place in the universe. Healthy and empowering, or oppressive and neurotic worldviews are too crucial to our outlook and introspection to take lightly.

  32. by Bridget

    On October 22, 2012 at 9:15 pm

    If you believe that as humans, we are just meat, and there is nothing left of us after our bodies die, then I wonder why you would want your child to think about religion or spirituality. If there is no God, and we have no more soul than any other animal, then why bother with morals or religion? Why not live for the moment?
    If, on the other hand, you believe that there is more to us than meat, then where did that ‘more’ come from? Why do people see it as good to be good? Where does conscience come from? It seems that if you think we are more than animals, then it would be wise to seek out knowlege and experience with and for your daughter. If we are more than animals, then she needs to be educated about that part of herself, too.
    Just don’t get sucked into new age feel-good cults that have popped up to make you feel warm and fuzzy while they take your money. Look for a belief system that includes women and has strong positive, moral female role models.

  33. by Dan

    On December 4, 2012 at 3:11 pm

    Excellent. I’m in exactly the same position, and we seem to have practically the same ratio of atheism/agnosticism. I take my son to church (Catholic) occasionally mainly because there is no other public forum or active community I know where (mostly) good values are celebrated and confirmed. So, as many Catholics do, I treat the mumbo-jumbo as philosophical metaphors in discussions with him. My own personal question, Am I a hypocrite, is what brought to your quite helpful article. I find it is a compromise, as is so much in life. As I did and as my parents encouraged, we start with an openness to the transcendant to introduce a higher degree of awareness and the wonder and majesty of this universe (“creation”). I am gambling, I admit, that he will become a critical thinker, and we will go on having the conversation. Nobody knows all.