Dale McGowan on He’s an Atheist, She’s a Christian…But What Are the Children?

Photo of Dale McGowan, author of In Faith and In DoubtThe following is a guest post from Dale McGowan, author of In Faith and In Doubt: How Religious Believers and Nonbelievers Can Create Strong Marriages and Loving Families.

After telling someone else about their religious differences, most mixed-belief couples know what’s coming next: “But then . . . what are the children?”

It’s a sensible question. For most of human history, a family’s religious identity has been assigned to the children of the family at birth. And because same-religion marriage has been the overwhelming norm—Catholics married Catholics, Hindus married Hindus, and so on—there’s been little reason to wonder about other options.

But more than twice as many new couples are mixed-belief today as in the 1950s, so the question of a child’s religious identity has come to the fore. Many of these couples choose to raise their children in one faith or the other, or to practice a kind of Star-of-David-atop-the-Christmas-tree hybrid. It’s challenging, but many couples make it work.

But what happens when one partner is nonreligious, as one in five Americans currently are? At least Jewish and Christian partners have God in common. Can you really bridge the gap between God and not-God—especially when it comes to the children?

For a growing number of secular/religious couples, the answer is yes. The key is realizing that a religious label is most meaningful when it is freely chosen. To help ensure that their children receive that gift of autonomy, secular/religious parents often preserve space around their children to breathe and think and explore ideas without wearing a label at all, religious or irreligious.

The idea of raising a child with no specific worldview label is as confusing to some people as raising a child without a name. But it shouldn’t be. Referring to a child as “a Catholic child” or “an atheist child” should sound as silly to us as saying “a Marxist child” or “a Republican child.” All of these labels represent complex perspectives that they cannot yet claim to have examined and chosen freely. Until they can, there’s no need to force the issue.

This doesn’t mean our kids shouldn’t engage in religious practices or belief. It means the exact opposite. Erecting a wall between the child and all religious experience isn’t necessary or good. In fact, closing children off from these experiences can violate their autonomy just as much as restricting them to a single fragment of religious opinion. This issue is about resisting the urge to place a complex worldview label on a child before she is ready for it. She can go to church or Sunday school, read the Bible, and pray without being called a Christian, Muslim, or Jew, just as she can challenge religious ideas, debate religious friends, and read The God Delusion without being an atheist.

A child with one religious and one nonreligious parent is in a uniquely lucky position to do all of these things–learn religious concepts and challenge them, engage in religious practices and wonder if they are meaningful, pray and question whether her prayers are heard.

Some kids raised this way end up choosing a religious identity; others choose a nonreligious one. In both cases, the individual receives the gift of genuine autonomy in a major life decision. And in neither case does the child have to go through the guilty turmoil of deciding whether to accept or reject a label placed on him by his loving parents.

Secular/nonreligious partners are in the ideal situation to facilitate this open process. Both parents can and should wear their own identities proudly, even as they point to each other for alternate points of view. Both should share the experience of their perspective, then say, “Here’s what I believe with all my heart, it’s very important to me and I think it’s true, but these are things each person has to decide for herself, and I want you to talk to people who have different beliefs so you can make up your own mind. You can change your mind a thousand times. There’s no penalty for getting it wrong, and I will love you no less if you end up believing differently from me.”

Jacket image, In Faith and In Doubt by Dale McGowanImagine kids growing up with that invitation to engage the most profound questions of all freely and without fear. Well a growing number of parents, including many who are partnered across the widest belief gap of all, don’t have to imagine it—they’re doing it today.

Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He is also founding Executive Director of Foundation Beyond Belief, an organization that facilitates charitable giving and volunteering in the nonreligious community. In 2008, Dale was named Harvard Humanist of the Year for his work in nonreligious parenting. He lives with his wife and kids near Atlanta.




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