Raising Atheist Kids Is Hardest In Times Like This

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As a kid, I hated that my grandparents listened to the news when we were in the car. So, of course, I grew up to be someone who only listens to her local NPR station because life is funny. My children are 6 and 3 and, so far, they haven't complained, but that's not to say it hasn't lead to uncomfortable moments. Like when my son asked, "What do they mean 59 people died in Las Vegas? Really died?" These conversations are difficult for all parents, but for atheist parents, times of grief and terror present a unique set of challenges.

Growing up, my family wasn't especially religious, but we are especially Italian. Italian culture is, in large part, inexorably linked to Catholicism, so the church was an anchor in our home and lives. We went to Mass most Sundays, and I knew the traditions backward and forward. Statues of Mary and Jesus could be found in multiple spots in the house. After my parents forgot to enroll me in Confraternity of Christian Doctrine classes (aka "CCD"), the nuns and priests assessed my knowledge of the Bible and my prayers and agreed that I had a solid enough foundation that I could skip several years of study and receive my First Communion on time without issue.

Photo courtesy of Jamie Kenney

You guys, I don't mean to brag (it is a sin), but I was a damn good Catholic. The only problem was that, nine times out of 10, I wasn't even really thinking about what was being taught to me by the Catholic church, and when I did I didn't believe it. I never had a personally bad experience with the church: I liked singing in the choir with my grandmother, I liked the part during Mass where you just give everyone around you a big hug (because I'm not a committed Catholic, but I am a committed hippie). I loved Sister Rita and Sister Patricia and Flora, the woman who grew up in a Black Baptist tradition and wore glorious bright dresses and big hats when she came to play the organ.

But go back and notice something about most of what I loved about the Church: the good I gleaned all came from women, and women seemed to be all but absent in the culture of the Catholic church. Barring Mary, there were almost no women depicted on the stained glass windows or among the statuary. The stories themselves were, by and large, all about men. The priests were all men and the nuns' duties were limited and specific. I didn't see myself in this world, so, as young teenager, I bowed out completely.  

"Don't you want them to have something?" people will occasionally ask me. And, honestly? No, I don't.

I became fascinated with studying religion from an academic perspective. When it came to faith, I dabbled. Wicca, Hinduism, Buddhism, Deism, Reform Judaism. But while the specific problems of inclusivity I confronted in the Catholic church were no longer an issue, there was something else that kept me from fulling committing to a faith. It took me longer than it probably should have to realize that it's because, well, I had none.

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The idea of being an atheist never crossed my mind, because I was raised to believe that atheism was synonymous with abject immorality. But when I thought about the possibility, things became instantly clear: It wasn't that I'd lost my faith, it's that I never had it in the first place. I'd never believed in God.

My "transition" from Catholic to general theist to atheist wasn't especially dramatic. Like I said, my family wasn't particularly religious so it really didn't come up much. And by the time it did, everyone's lives had changed enough that we'd all sort of drifted away from the church. In other words, it wasn't a huge deal. I wasn't alienated. Nothing really changed. Life continued in the very secular way it had been for years.

But one aspect of life that has become harder as a person of not-faith, are the moments of profound grief, particularly collective grief. It's hard as an individual and it's particularly difficult as a parent.

Raising my children as atheists hasn't been challenging, either. (Except, perhaps, when I try to explain the concept of God to them. Not because I don't want to, but because it's a bit of a doozy if you aren't already vaguely familiar with the concept. Fortunately we have lots of books on various folklores, Bible stories, and mythologies, so that helps.) Geography is on our side, too, as we don't live in a particularly religious region of the country, so it's not built into the culture as much as it would be, say, if we lived in the South or parts of the West. "Don't you want them to have something?" people will occasionally ask me. And, honestly? No, I don't. I just don't see the appeal, particularly when I'm not feeling a call to religion myself. While we're very much in the minority — a 2016 Gallup poll estimates that approximately 89 percent of Americans believe in God and only 3 percent actually identify as atheists — it hasn't had any measurable effect on our day-to-day lives.

But one aspect of life that has become harder as a person of not-faith are the moments of profound grief, particularly collective grief. It's hard as an individual and it's particularly difficult as a parent.

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The language and ritual of comfort in the face of great tragedy has long been the realm of the spiritual or religious, which makes perfect sense, even for those who are not especially devout. Because too often tragedy does not make sense. Why would men fly planes into two buildings? Why would a man pick up an assault rifle and murder 20 children and six teachers trying to protect them? Why and how did a plane go down for no apparent reason, causing the deaths of nearly 300 people? Moreover, these events do not appeal for our visceral and very human yearning for justice. But I would argue that the most powerfully upsetting aspect of events such as these is that we have still not sufficiently processed the idea of death. I don't think we have the capacity to do so in any way that would be sufficient or satisfying. How does a human being go from present to not present just like that? What does it mean? What happens to them? They must have gone somewhere, because they were more than their body. And then, of course, there's the knowledge that this will happen to all of us at some point.

A tragedy like a mass shooting or a plane crash or a natural disaster is not only tragic in its own right, but it reminds us that we don't know what we can't wrap our heads around these losses any more than we can around our own inevitable demise.

For the atheist and the faithful, death is scary, even when you're not actively scared of it, because it is completely outside of our realm of control. A tragedy like a mass shooting or a plane crash or a natural disaster is not only tragic in its own right, but it reminds us that we can't wrap our heads around these losses any more than we can around our own inevitable demise.

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So people, particularly in their grief, turn to faith and religion. Because people don't have the answers they need, and all the logic in the world will not manifest any. But faith and religion are used to dealing in both mystery and comfort. After all, God has the answers. And not only does God have the answers, but He orchestrated everything, which is part of a divine, just, and beautiful plan. Certainly faith is tried in moments of crisis ("How could a just and loving God allow such tragedy to befall innocent people?"), but it is also a tremendous source of comfort to the grieving. Faith promises us that, "We don't know the answers, but someone does and they have everything under control."

I say this without irony or disrespect: that is a beautiful idea, but I just don't believe it. It's not that I'm against it — I begrudge no one their belief — but even if I tried (and I know because I have) I can't get on board.

Not only has the language of comfort been deeply embedded in the language of God and faith, but our answers are super unsatisfying.

And I will give this to the theists: when it comes to comfort in moments of sorrow, we cannot compete with you. Because not only has the language of comfort been deeply embedded in the language of God and faith, but our answers are super unsatisfying.

I recognize our emotional limitations. And just as faith is challenged in moments of crisis, so too, in some ways, is atheism. Some say there are no atheists in the trenches. While I disagree, I can understand why many would find themselves drawn to a definitive, if challenging, answer.

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But part of being an atheist is being uncomfortable with a lack of cosmic justice, definitive answers, or reassurance that someone is at the wheel. Personally, I'm OK with sorting through sorrow or trauma without the idea that this is part of a greater and glorious plan; the knowledge that God doesn't make mistakes, even though it may seem that way to us; the promise of a beautiful and eternal heaven where those who have been taken from us can rest blissfully until we meet them again; the comfort of knowing that what we know is not all there is.

It's one thing to opt out of the language and ritual of communal comfort, but it's another to know I've opted my kids out as well.

But then I turn to my children, who are just as desperate for answers as the rest of us, and my helpless shrug of, "The void is unfeeling and meaningless! Our trajectory through life is chaotic and without divine purpose!" feels worse than usual. It's one thing to opt out of the language and ritual of communal comfort, but it's another to know I've opted my kids out as well. And while I believe this to be the overall best course, I know that moments like these are going to be uniquely difficult. Because not only are they going to have to find comfort without certainty, they will have to find their own way to give comfort, without the benefit of the sort of script for it that can be found in religion, to others in moments of sorrow.

Certainly, if they ever came to belief on their own, I would never try to take it from them. And who's to say that they won't. Maybe one day my son or daughter will be an essayist writing about finding Jesus after being raised by two atheists. But I'm not going to actively promote an idea I don't believe is true. I would never "Well actually..." someone who believed in God, but neither would I seek to make my children believers because it's situationally convenient.

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In times of tragedy, we're all kind of children: we don't know what's going on and we just want to know why. I imagine that even if the answers don't make sense to people of faith, there must be some comfort derived from the idea of being able to point to something and say: "It doesn't seem to make sense, but I am confident it does because I trust in God." I don't have a God to trust in, and I don't care to find one. Whether my children do in the future is entirely in their hands. But while they're in mine, I can only hope to instill them with the compassion, empathy, kindness, and grace to be able to find some way to say: "I don't understand, and I don't speak the language of most people who are seeking to, but we are hurting together and I hope we can be here for each other. I want to do what I can to make this world as just, painless, and beautiful as possible."

I hope they will be able to take comfort in that.

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