“Can I Tell Him God Made Us?”

During one of our ritual weekend phone conversations, my mother brought up a subject we’ve both avoided for over a year: religion and my son. I was appreciative that she broached the subject, since the last time we talked about it, things got tense. She is a deeply religious person and, in her own words, doesn’t “understand how my daughter, who was baptized, can turn away from god.” Following is our conversation, paraphrased from my memory. I’m sharing this because it was a big step for me in my atheist parenting, and because I was moved by how respectful my mother was of my autonomy as a parent, regardless of how strongly she feels about god and religion.  

Mom: Can I explain to Soren that god created us, and that Jesus is our savior?

Me: You can tell him that you believe god created us and that Jesus is our savior. It needs to be in the context of what you believe, not fact. There’s a difference between presenting your religious beliefs as truth, and presenting them as something you, and others believe.

Mom: Okay. I think I understand that. But I want him to know that Christmas is about Jesus’s birthday and not Santa.

Me: I’d prefer that Soren know the historical context for Christmas rather than think it’s about gifts. I’ve been saying that for the past two years. I want him to understand the cultural and religious traditions behind Easter too — that it’s not about the Easter bunny — as well as Passover, Kwanza, Winter Solstice and many other holidays and traditions. I’m not going to keep him isolated from cultural experiences and historical contexts. I want him to experience those things, ask questions, think critically about the answers he hears and come to his own conclusions over his lifetime. My goal is to make him religiously and philosophically literate, but not indoctrinated.

Mom: What about things like the manger under the tree on Christmas.?I’ve been wondering if you want me to take that down when he’s here for the holidays.

Me: I would never ask you to give up your traditions and keep them secret from Soren. That would be disrespectful of you and Soren. I respect his capacity to learn and decide things for himself as he grows up, with our guidance and encouragement of critical thinking.

Mom: (Pause) Can I take him to church?

Me: Yes, as long as he’s allowed to see it as a cultural experience, as something some people participate in. But not as universal truth.

Mom: But I believe it’s true.

Me: I know, but I don’t and I want Soren to be given the opportunity to make his own conclusions.

Mom: So I can take him for walks and tell him that god made the flowers and the birds and the trees?

Me: First, if you start making this a mission to constantly talk to Soren about god, we’re going to change the rules. And second, — and as I said before — it’s fine with me if you express your beliefs as just that: beliefs. But don’t ask me to back you up. Quite the contrary, I’ll be asking Soren what he thinks about your beliefs, and telling him what I think too.

Mom: What do you believe? Do you believe in god?

Me: No. I don’t. We’ve talked about this and my lack of belief in god still holds true. It’s not a phase. I know that’s not what you want to hear, but it’s authentic to who I am. I also know, because you’ve told me, that you think I’ll go to hell for not believing in god. (I pause, to give her the opportunity to dispute this, but she doesn’t.) It is very important that Soren not be told that if he doesn’t believe in your god, he will go to hell. I don’t want him scared into any religious belief. Hell and soul-saving are out of bounds.

Mom: I would never mention hell to him! (a bit upset at my suggestion)

Me: Okay. Then it’s not a concern. But I have to say it because it’s important to me, and it’s also a central theme in your religion.

Mom: It’s hard for me to understand how my religion isn’t your religion anymore. But I want to respect your wishes about this, and I don’t want to overstep my bounds. This is all new territory for me and I’m afraid to make a mistake and upset you.  

Me: It’s a process for all of us, and I’m learning as I go just like you are. Thank you for respecting our wishes, even though you don’t agree with them.

We ended on a respectful note. I sensed she wasn’t entirely clear on my position or where the boundaries are. We’ll need to have other conversations in the future, which is all the more obvious because she continues to ask me if I believe in god after many years of hearing the same answer. But I feel for her in this situation. She sees that her greatest duty as a grandmother is to be a spiritual guide to her grandson and I am denying her that. Despite how confusing and probably heartbreaking it is for her, she’s being very respectful of the boundaries my husband and I have established. I need to remember to be sensitive and respectful in return.

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9 thoughts on ““Can I Tell Him God Made Us?”

  1. Hi,

    Love your writing! Very refreshing and honest and REAL.

    This is not something I would ever normally ask but I really am enjoying your blog so I am gonna take a risk of not offending you…
    and ask if you might please consider darkening your font. My old eyes just arent what they used to be.

    Either way, it is your blog to do with what you wish. Im trying to raise a free-thinker and am so enjoying your writing about this.

    thanks!

    • Hi Terri.

      Thank you so much for your note! I’m happy you’re enjoying my writing. You’ve inspired me to do some more of it.

      Your comment about darkening the font is in no way offensive. I’ve changed the entire design based on your feedback. It’s an easy thing to do, and I don’t have an attachment to the old look. Readability is key.

      Thanks again. And best wishes with the always adventurous, challenging and satisfying endeavor of raising a freethinker.

  2. Thanks atheistmother… I know I’m late to the party, but my daughter is about to be two years old and both of her grandmothers are religious. This conversation is bound to happen sooner than later, and now I’ve got a little bit more ammo in my corner… I really appreciate it!

  3. Great blog, great posts!

    We are raising our girls as free thinkers in the Bible belt and in a Catholic family. We found that a very good way to explain it to young children is that believers are playing a very long, very complicated game of Pretend. You may pretend to be a cat, but in the end you’d rather eat people food and use the toilet. You know its a game. ‘Church people’ (my 5 year olds term for religious) are ALWAYS pretending the game about the magic guy, Jesus. Always.
    We also stress that it is VERY RUDE to tell a friend they are not really a cat, or that Jesus is pretend. Both require that friends be courteous.

  4. oh my goodness. You and I must be sisters because we have the same mother! Hahahaha I have been having these conversations with her for years and wondered what it would be like when I have kids (I just found out i’m pregnant-ironically). Thanks for writing down your convo, I hope that when I have mine my mother will be as respectful as yours. Peace out, I look forward to reading more of your blog.

  5. I’m so glad I wandered across this post, my partner and I are expecting our first child in May, and my mother in law was HORRIFIED when we told her that we wouldn’t allow her to tell our child that Jesus was real. She was under the impression that she would be able to take him or her to church every week. She’s definitely not on the same page as us when it comes to talking about what she believes as opposed to what is true. She went as far as threatening to tell our kids that we’re crazy… I think we’re going to have a lot of phone conversations like this one in our future!

  6. So…I’m not an atheist, also not technically a theist…guess I’m somewhere in the middle. But I found you blog and have been reading and just want to say how clearly and honestly you are sharing. It shows that you are thinking hard on all of this and on how to raise your son as you believe in a world that tells you your beliefs are “wrong” or “immoral.” I wish I knew you in real life, because I can tell you have the values and convictions I look for in others…values and convictions you have built on your own without needing a guide book to tell you what to think. Kudos for sharing your journey in such a real (and respectful) way with me and your other readers. You rock.

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