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Op-Ed: Awkward Pauses — My Life as a Secular Parent


Maybe I should just get this out of the way so we don’t waste each other’s time: I’m an atheist. I do not believe that any kind of deity created this world in which we live. I don’t believe that I am going to a place called heaven (or hell, for that matter) after I die. I’m perfectly fine if you think these things, but I'm not looking to be saved or swayed. If these salient facts are troubling, this is probably not what you want to read over your morning coffee.

I just want to offer tolerant believers a glimpse, to the extent that I can in just one essay, of how my nonbelief—a view that is shared by a growing swath of American people, but still a clear minority—has cropped up in my daughter’s public school experience.

By the way, she’s only in Kindergarten. This happened much sooner than I expected.

And I’m not even talking about having to explain why the word “God” is in the Pledge of Allegiance, or why we have Good Friday off but not Rosh Hashanah, though there are those kinds of things too. I’m talking about the social side of school life, and integrating with children and families who hold fundamentally different views certainly from mine, and, it seems, possibly hers too.

A recent survey showed that a majority of citizens mistrust atheists and are least likely to choose a candidate who doesn’t believe in God. We also now know that our highest federal court is comfortable with a certain amount of prayer in the sphere of local government. As a result, it remains hard not to feel a strong sense of exclusion, marginalization, and unease sometimes, particularly in government-backed institutions. It’s also tough to convince your daughter that she could be president one day even though there is no female precedent for that (yet). Try doing that when there are no atheists too.

My daughter is almost seven years old and she is already quite aware of my atheism. Personally, I think her own opinions are still forming, as they should be for someone her age. This is why we, her parents, tell her time and again that she is free to, and should, explore all possibilities, come to her own conclusions, and even change her mind over time as she gathers new information. We also teach her that there are a multitude of worldviews about all of this—including within our own extended family—and that we have to respect those that might be different from ours. We have been crystal clear on these two points since she was old enough to ask and talk about religion, gods, and different belief systems. In fact, this topic has already come up with some frequency because she attended a religiously-backed preschool the year before Kindergarten.

You see, even among religious folks who might differ on specific ideologies or principles, most do share at least one thing in common: that there is something. And, for most of those same people, that something addresses life and death (among other things) in a way that perhaps has more pretty bows than my cosmological common sense and pine-box-in-the-ground pragmatism. This is an area where I’m finding I cannot comfortably compete, at least not without a lot of awkward pauses on my part.

Here’s a recent example that left me flustered and unsure of what to say without offending anyone or stifling my viewpoint just to be polite. Once a month, I visit my daughter’s class to teach them about art. It’s really quite fun to see these twenty young, squirmy children expand their minds through art. But truth be told, the information that Kindergartners really seem to want boils down to this: 1) can they use the bathroom? and 2) is the artist is already dead? Incidentally, anecdotes from some acquaintances in the art museum world report that these two questions are not limited to Kindergartners.

During one of these sessions, after I indicated that the artist in question was, in fact, dead, one of her classmates then asked me, “Is he in heaven with the Holy Father?”

Wait, what?

Thankfully, that pin drop moment only lasted a half-second before another child chimed in and I didn’t have to answer her. But I’ll be honest: I was unsteady and uncomfortable. My gut was telling me to hide what I really think. Then again, why would it not be OK for me to say I didn’t think this artist was in a place called heaven? Doesn’t my opinion count as equally as the assumptions that a lot of other people hold?

I think my hesitation ultimately comes from a place of trying to maintain a level of tolerance and respect for others (especially given the classmate’s young age in this case). Indeed, this is something I want for myself too. It’s also very much about picking my battles in order to preserve the peace, primarily for my daughter. On the other hand, I honestly thought my religion-in-public-school woes would be coming from some of the more standard fare like God in the Pledge of Allegiance, not this kind of conversational interaction that ultimately illuminates who we all are as individuals.

I wonder whether or how much religious folks talk about atheist or humanist viewpoints in their homes. When they talk about respecting religions other than what might be practiced in their own home, do they include people like me too? I hope so. Because if they did, then maybe it wouldn’t seem so outlandish or awkward when I present my perspective. That is, when I have more courage to do so.


Do YOU have an opinion you’d like to share with Literary Mama readers? We look for pieces with a strong focus and argument on issues that are important to mothers and/or writers. Do you have a new perspective on a popular topic or can you introduce readers to an issue that hasn't yet caught the public eye? Check out our Submissions page (scroll down to Blog, Op-Ed) for more details. We’d love to hear from you!


Kristen M. Ploetz lives in Massachusetts. She is an attorney and a writer. She has been published with Literary Mama and NYT Motherlode, and blogs at You can find her on Twitter @littlelodestar.

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Establish your viewpoint while they are young. I am half of a lesbian couple raising a son with Down syndrome. My son recently graduated from a kindergarten where he was the only Caucasian in the class. In other words, we don't fit in at the PTA meetings either. Kindergarteners will accept competing views of the world pretty easily. Once after explaining Down syndrome to a little boy, his only question was would my son die early. Once reassured, he had no other concerns. On a walk, we were once overtaken by a group of girls asking why my son talked funny, why his eyes were slanted, and why he never came over to play. All equally important. And my favorite all time question was from a boy mystified by our family structure, asking incredulously 'why would someone need two mothers?' I doubt most kids this age have had conversations at home about atheism. You being honest about your viewpoint will likely force some of those parents to have those conversations. Most will be fine with it. A few will come back to you and say stupid things. That is the price of change.
You know, I always chuckle a little when I read your "I am an atheist" declarations because I remember when we were little, not understanding why I had to wait until 12:30 on Sunday afternoons to be able to play Barbies with you. My mom would always explain to me that you and your family were "at church", which may as well have been "on Mars" in my mind. So, I always smile when I read your words, knowing that *censored* years ago, you were in church and I was the the little heathen girl itching to play Barbies with you. I can completely sympathize with your situation in raising a secular child. As you know, we have always been very open and honest with our boys about what we do and don't believe, and while little D is still too young to understand the whole concept of "god" and "belief", big brother D has started to form his own opinions about what it all means and how much sense/nonsense it all makes. So much so, that he's already been exiled to Hell by some of his classmates and "friends". And yes, this started in Kindergarten. Now, as he enters 3rd grade, I'm sure the convictions and pressure to "believe" will intensify but I am confident that my kiddo will not be swayed and continue to make his own decisions. Sadly, I don't think religious families discuss those of us who are secular. I don't think they sit down with their kids and talk about different belief/non belief systems and teach them to be respectful and understanding. I don't think they take the time to illustrate that being good for goodness sake is important. I think we (and by "we" I mean, Atheists in general) are brought up in conversations as things to be pitied or saved or prayed for, as though there is something wrong with us. That's frustrating to me because I'm here at home reading my boys Bible stories and talking about how fascinating they are. I'm teaching my kids about Jesus and Buddha and Mohammed with as little sarcasm as possible (I admit, sometimes my eye rolling gets the best of me). And I'm stressing to my boys that no matter how silly they think something is, to never make fun of the person who believes it. Sadly, I don't think "the other side" does the same. The best thing you can do when these situations present themselves is be confident and strong and yourself. Had I been in your position when the "Heavenly Father" question was raised, I would have smiled and politely said, "Some people believe that and if you do then that is where he is". Be prepared for some drama, mostly in the form of "so you believe in nothing" mantra, or the "how can you know right from wrong" discussion, but always be true to who you are.
My neighbor's kids come over to play all the time (8 & 6 [my kids are 5 & 3]). One day the 8 year old started asking me if I knew about God. I said yes, so she then asked me if I was a Christian and I politely explained that I don't believe in God. She wasn't phased by this at all, but she explained what she thought about Jesus and told me that when she dies she's going to heaven. Her only question of my beliefs was after that she asked where I was going when I died since I didn't believe in God. I explained that I didn't think I was going anywhere and that the main thing is to eat healthy and exercise so you can live as long as possible and won't have to worry about it. Agreeing, she went and made her sister and herself a glass of milk after that lol.
I think the proper response to the child's question would have been "I don't know." That's the most truthful response that any of us can make, regardless of our beliefs. You have no more proof of your beliefs about what happens after death than Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus or any other religion. As an atheist mother I'm sure you would appreciate that reply from me, and as a Christian mother I would respect and appreciate that answer from you. (And thank you for volunteering to teach art to kindergartners!)
I can see your point but she already had her own belief and wasn't trying to persuade me to follow hers and I have my own belief and want trying to persuade her to mine. By instead me saying 'I don't know' I would have been lying about my beliefs instead of explaining what I think in response to an honest question. By answering the way I did I'm letting her see that we can all believe different things and still be friends as well as letting her know that there are different points of view. If a God believer explains heaven to my child I am fine with that; I don't expect them to say 'I don't know' because to them they do know and that's what they think abs believe. I don't feel I should have to censor myself either as long as I'm not belittling or otherwise disrespecting their thoughts on the matter.
I'm with Julie - the best response would be "I don't know." (Cuz you don't! Who does?) Enjoyed reading this, as someone who was religious in my youth, not raising our child in any particular faith but trying to encourage her to keep an open mind. I think we tend to overthink how to deal with the "big questions" when our kids are little, when often they are just blurting out the thought of the moment.
Oh - and I was responding to the question posed by the kid in the blog post, not in Sean's anecdote. Don't know what Julie meant. Sean, your response sounds perfectly appropriate as far as the neighbor's child.
*want trying = wasn't trying *abs = and Sorry, typing on a phone. Unrelated but mentioned, as for proof of my beliefs I feel that the biggest proof of God's non-existence is the fact that there is zero proof that God -does- exist even after thousands of years of many different religions around the world. We assume sometimes based on evidence, but I haven't ever really heard of assuming based on not having evidence except in the case of religion.
I wasn't sure who Julie's was directed at so that's why I felt the need to explain myself. Good article and comments regardless. Have a great week everyone.
I'm an atheist. My son's friend came into our home and he and his friend began having a discussion about people they dislike. This child said "there is one person in this world that we HAVE to hate." I asked (knowing the answer already), "who?" He responded with "Satan". I debated for a half-second if I should respond, and ended up saying "Well ... I don't believe that Satan exists." He didn't say anything after that. I called the mother to explain the conversation we had (it was in my home, at my dinner table, so I felt I have a right and an obligation to speak up, especially with both of my children there) just so she was aware. I live in an extremely conservative community, and have had many encounters like this. My daughter's friend told her to cross out the "not" in my copy of "God is NOT Great" by Christopher Hitchens. :)
I have had similar issues. My response is "That's what some people believe." That can either stop it or lead into a bigger conversation. I am very comfortable talking about Atheism. I have to show my son there is nothing to be ashamed of for not being a sheep. A common one we run into is people/parents thinking we're rude for not saying "bless you" when they sneeze. If it is called out to my son (9yo) his response has been "You blow germs everywhere and you want me to bless you against an imaginary bad guy in your nose? Yeah, Try 'excuse me' and a tissue next time." My favorite thing he has ever said about in rebuttal to a snarky comment about us not believing is "So I don't believe in your imaginary sky friend and I'm the weird one?" lol
I'm agnostic and raising my child with information about multiple religions so someday she can make her own choice align with her personal belief (or non-belief) system. My answer to her on questions about life, death and the role of a superior being (or lack thereof) is always, "I don't know, but I believe xyz." It is also a great place to jump into a discussion of various religious and atheist beliefs. I realized she needed an education about various religions
The first time I experienced something similiar to this is when I received a phone call from the School Plus instructor telling me that my first grade son was in trouble for upsetting the other children by stating that there was no god. I was a little suprised because we have always emphasized with him that religion is a private matter and not one we talk about in public. When I probed a little deeper, it turns out that all the other children were talking about god and their beliefs without getting in trouble, but when my son stated that we believed, as a family, that there is no god, he got in trouble for "upsetting the other children." I asked the provider if the other children were reprimanded for upsetting my son by declaring there was a god, and of course she hemmed and hawed, saying something about all the children were instructed to not talk about religion at the school. I asked if the other parents had been called, and again, she hemmed and hawed and talked around the question - I knew they had not. It was a really good lesson for me in how it was going to go in the future regarding religion, and again, I just emphasized to my son that religion is a very intimate topic and not one we talk about in mixed company. I would have said that same thing to the kindergarten student - "I'm sorry, but now is not the time to discuss our personal beliefs. That is a question you can ask your (parent, guardian, etc) this afternoon." I don't feel like I am weaseling out of anything - I truly do feel like religious discussions just don't belong at school, whether on my end or someone else's. That being said - I will stand up for my son if others are talking about religion and he gets in trouble for sharing his beliefs, while others don't. THAT was infuriating!
The nurse in me says treat questions like that as musings or hypotheticals. That's what we do when patients ask toughies. As my New Yorker grandmother always said, "Ig-noah!" The educator in me prefers to begin with the clause, "let's think this through..." In this case, "can we ever really know where anyone goes when they die?" Might be a good Socratic follow up.
Kristen, I love the way you wrote about your experience. I'm a teacher and an atheist and I live in a very conservative, Christian, right-wing community. My students often express religious ideas, but by 5th grade it has deteriorated to repeating what they've heard at church and from their parents. There's no critical thinking on this and no room for alternative ideas. I often find myself sidestepping religious comments with responses like, "That's something to ask your parents" and "Remember that not everyone believes what you believe". The latter absolutely horrifies them. Would love to read more as your daughter gets older.
I appreciated this essay. I, too, live in a very conservative area, and have had children forbidden to play with mine because we subscribe to different beliefs. Thankfully, my sons are insightful enough to understand that it's not personal. The most bizarre encounter I ever had in this regard was the time one mother called my home and asked me what she was supposed to tell her son, who was upset that my son would be going to hell for his non-belief. This resulted in an extended conversation about differing beliefs, and her complete bewilderment that any parent would teach world religions and systems of thought to their child and allow them to make their own decision about what and whether to believe.
I don't know is not the appropriate response. Theists do not say "I don't know." I can't give you a quick easy answer. I would have rephrased the question to something like "the artist is no longer with us" or "the artist lives forever in his art." In my experience, children can tell when you are lying. If a child asks you a direct question, answer than question the same way you would answer the question if it was posed by your own child.
Unfortunately , children are influenced by their parents at an age well before they understand . Religion should be treated something like alcohol .... Let them wander and wonder before giving them your personal facts and opinions..... To go against a parents view is not your place to influence the young brain....again unfortunately...because supreme beings are very hard to escape ...when Pandora's box is opened so young .
Religion is one of those topics that comes up in our house, but isn't forced. I'm a Christian, my husband is agnostic, his sister (who lives with us) is atheist, and his mother (who visits frequently) is a Jehovah's Witness. My side of the family is conservative Christian, loose Mormon, with a few Buddhists thrown in...if they even stop to think about religion. Most of the time, religion doesn't cross their mind. My husband and my goals are to expose our children to the different religions, encourage to study what interests them, and let them make an informed decision. I'd probably have responded with an "I don't know" to the child (or rather a shrug and a scrunched face).
Thank you Bernie, you said that well. I don't know is not the answer a theist would give, and if that is not what you believe, then you should not say it. I would have turned the question back "Is that what you believe? People believe many different things about what happens after we die." I was raised a UU by formerly Catholic parents. We went to church every Sunday but we learned about all different religions, andthe main lessons were humanism. I always knew that my parents believed in God, but it was never pushed or stressed. My own relationship with religion was tumultuous and I sometimes resented my parents for my lack of indoctrination. It does indeed make you very different from most of your peers.I stopped claiming to be a UU in college and spent most of my early adult years calling myself an agnostic. I don't think my own views really came into clear focus until I had my own children. And as precious and miraculous as they are, I truly believe they are miracles of science. I now proudly call myself a humanist, because that's what I am. I've had friends distance themselves from me because of it, as has my oldest, now 11. I hope my children grow up asking the hard questions, and finding the answers that are true for them, not the ones they were told to blindly believe in. Good luck to you Kristen. It is an uphill battle, but being true to yourself is always worth it.
I was sort of surprised when my son was told he would go to hell by his kindergarten classmates when he said he didn't believe in god. But mostly because we live in an area I think of as fairly liberal. My spouse and I are both second generation atheists but we encourage him to come to his own conclusions. More importantly we repeatedly discuss with him the importance of respecting other people's beliefs and religions. A first grade teacher told me that when kids bring up religion and politics she just tells them they need to save those discussions for home and redirects them to the topic of the lesson. Thanks for writing this!
Much like "deciding to be gay," some say "decide [about religion] for hemself." But for me there was no deciding; it was more "find my own way."
It's only beginning - my agnostic daughters and their Jewish, atheist, Hindu, Muslim, and other non-Christian friends have had to participate in Christian prayer rituals (for fear of being ostracized) in public and private settings their entire lives (not to mention all the derogatory comments about atheists and non-Christians) - I use these things as examples of how not to behave - and have told them the parents of the children should be ashamed of themselves for allowing their children to impose their religion on others.
My atheist kids are getting pretty big now (9 and 7) and I appreciate their responses to peers in these moments. While my head suddenly spins with "appropriate" responses and their ramifications, my kids say, "in our house we don't believe in God or Jesus or Heaven so we try to find out the answers ourselves." It certainly shows me how religious doctrination at an early age shuts down critical thinking and religious tolerance at my age is holding me back from honest conversation.
Beautifully written. Thank you Kristen for writing such a thoughtful piece, and reminding us atheist parents that we are not alone!
What a thought-provoking piece, and what a great conversation! We have had many discussions about religion and beliefs around our dinner table. We are atheist parents, but we hope we are encouraging our kids (13 and 10) to ask their own questions, and to pursue their own truths. It has been tricky, as we live in a very religious part of the country, where going to church each Sunday is considered the norm and NOT going can make one stick out badly. I do sometimes wrestle with worry that by not providing my kids with an organized belief system I am somehow making the world a more difficult and frightening place for them to understand -- then I remind myself that this is a reality which I know tests all belief systems eventually, and which knows no boundaries.
Thanks to ALL for the polite, respectful comments. YOU are why Literary Mama stands out from the crowd!
What a great piece! We are raising our girls as Unitarian Universalists (my husband is an atheist and I'm an agnostic) and it has been a tough road. My oldest daughter is embarrassed to admit in front of her friends that she is anything but Catholic and will often feign belief in order to be part of the crowd. Absolutely an up hill battle. I am so glad you shared this with us!
I don't have anything new to add to the conversation except to say that I admire your honesty and I admire you for sticking up for YOUR beliefs, even if they differ from your daughter's friends' parents. Also, the comments here have been so thoughtful and interesting!
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