It's not easy being an atheist mom. Those open about their non-belief face everything from passive aggression to criticism to blatant harassment. It's surprising that a country founded on the separation of church and state, and one that guarantees its citizens' right to religious freedom, would be so virulently opposed to the irreligious. At a time when moms are under scrutiny for every move they make, it's worth taking the time to try and understand each other. As a non-believer, I think there are things atheist moms want other moms to know, especially about ourselves and how we've decided to raise our children.
I grew up going to vacation bible schools and attending Methodist and Lutheran churches, but not with any regularity. I was baptized in junior high and, seeking to become closer to God, I later decided to attend a Christian college. Although I enjoyed my religion classes from a historical and intellectual standpoint, there was incredible pressure on behalf of the student body to conform to a particular type of conservative Christianity. It just didn't fit with my liberal upbringing. (I was the only one on campus with a Gore/Lieberman sign in my dorm window, for example.) I was turned off by the intolerant attitudes of my classmates, and I started to feel more and more like I was faking it. I know not every conservative Christian or deeply religious individual harbors intolerance toward others, and in no way am I trying to paint with a broad brush or assume a few represent the many, but within my own journey through organized religion I felt like my path wasn't the same as those I went to school with or sat next to every Sunday morning.
As an adult, and away from that environment, I found that I could not reconcile the injustice and tragedy in the world with a belief in God. My wedding to my husband was a civil ceremony, but when it came to our daughter, things got a little tricky. I agreed that she could be baptized and raised in the Catholic church, so long as I would not be required to attend mass or keep my beliefs from her. I'm figuring this out as I go, and it's challenging, to be sure. But honestly, the worst part is how deeply I feel misunderstood as an atheist mom, so I think it's time to set the record straight.
We're Not Amoral
There's a bumper sticker in my neighborhood that says, "Where God is not, anything is permitted." It's just not true. Just because we don't subscribe to a particular belief system doesn't mean we're not bound by a moral code. There are common threads throughout all faiths, such as the Golden Rule and values of generosity, kindness, and compassion.
There's a reason for that. It is our own inner voice and conscience that tells us it's wrong to kill and steal and that we should love one another. Most people have that whether they believe in a god or not.
We're Not Anti-Religion
There are parts of Catholicism that I really love. I attended mass for a year when I volunteered at a Honduras orphanage, and I loved the tradition and community. I'm a big fan of Pope Francis, and I admire the charitable work different faith-based organizations do. I think Jesus was a wonderful teacher, and I kind of want to be a Jesuit when I grow up.
Most atheists understand why people need God and religion. It brings a sense of comfort and hope in a scary world and provides structure and community. We're not looking to dismantle organized religion but rather to keep it in its place — inside the home or place of worship and outside government and public education.
We Celebrate Holidays
Many of us, anyway. Atheists recognize that a lot of holiday traditions are actually pagan (e.g. Easter eggs, Christmas trees). Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas are secular for us, but we take part in the themes that speak to us: joy, gratitude, family, togetherness, and giving to others.
We're not trying to highjack your holidays (neither is Starbucks). Contrary to popular belief, the nativity in your front yard and a cheerful "Merry Christmas" don't offend us in the slightest, even though we don't honor the birth of the Messiah. We think there's room for everyone to celebrate in their own way.
We're Giving Our Kids A Choice
Most atheist parents try to educate their children about different religions and let them decide for themselves when they're old enough to make that choice. My daughter may go to church with her dad now, but if she concludes that youth group just isn't for her, that's her prerogative. Likewise, I'll drive her to confirmation classes if that's her jam. If my child grows up to be religious or not, I don't want it to be because a particular worldview was shoved down her throat. Yes, that includes mine.
We Don't Want To Be Converted
I hesitate to even say this because I understand that proselytizing is part of many religions. However, I am uncomfortable going to events at places of worship because I am worried that I will be aggressively questioned. I've had experiences that amount to religious bullying, and I'm not about it. I'm much more likely to attend a function at a church if the invitation comes from a friend who lets their character and actions speak for their faith.
We Have Religious Friends
We don't have to agree on everything in order to be friends. As long as both sides are respectful, there's no reason we can't get together for a playdate. Some of us are even in Moms of Preschoolers (MOPS), a Christian-based support group. We all need our tribe, and religion shouldn't be a barrier.
We Believe In Honesty
I'm not saying that religious moms are lying to their kids. Like, at all. I know they're sharing what they believe. Atheist moms opt for scientific explanations, however, and in the absence of surety, we'll say we don't know. Now, I know that science and religion can and do co-exist, so I'm definitely not assuming that all religious parents mock science or avoid using science when explaining the wonders of the world. I am simply speaking from my experience.
When my daughter inevitably asks me what happens when you die, I will tell her, "Nobody really knows. Some people believe you go to heaven. I believe that the part of you that makes you you leaves your body but continues to exist in the memories of your loved ones."
We Value Tolerance
Atheists have been turned off of organized religion for a variety of reasons, from the sex abuse scandals of the Catholic Church to the questionable financial dealings of mega-churches to their own religious journey to bad experiences with religious individuals to a wide variety of personal, unique experiences.
For many of us, however, the tipping point is intolerance. It's interesting because most religions teach forgiveness and withholding judgment. As an advocate for LGBTQ and women's rights, I've been disappointed specifically by the stance of many (but by no means all, which I want to highlight again) Christians.
For the non-religious, tolerance extends to all ways of loving and being. You'll likely hear us talking to our children about being inclusive and allies, but honestly, I know plenty of religious mamas whose faith drives them to raise their kids the same way.
We Want Our Choices To Be Respected
It is not respectful to say you feel sorry for my child or that my immortal soul is in danger (in not so nice words, that I'm going to Hell). In a society like ours, parents should be able to raise their children the way they want to without fear of retribution. And yes, that absolutely means that you should be able to practice your faith without being belittled, too.
We're Raising Good People
Atheists don't reject religion so that they don't have to follow the rules. We are good people who most certainly want to cultivate a moral compass in our children. We want them to choose patience, love, kindness, and peace, and although we may not see them as fruits of the spirit, they're just as important to us.
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