Raising a Child Without Religion

Sunday morning my son, like many kids, woke up to a brightly colored basket with books, colored eggs, and a few small toys. This year he had no clue what was going on, only that he liked hanging out in mommy’s bed, shaking the rattle eggs, and giggling like mad at my attempts to sing “Shake it, shake it” with lingering laryngitis.

But some year he’s going to ask what Easter or Christmas is all about, why we celebrate, and what we believe. Frankly, I don’t have very good answers for him.

Like many in my generation, I stopped associating myself with any form of organized religion sometime in my 20s. I don’t remember exactly when, because it wasn’t a formal decision. I never said, “Yesterday I was Catholic; today I’m not.” It happened gradually, and for a variety of reasons. I’m not sure whether I believe in a god or just in the human spirit. And if there is a god, I believe he or she can best be found in the joy of my son’s smile or in the power of an ocean wave, and not inside a building. I’m not into labels, because I believe labels are limiting and part of why there’s so much hate in the world, but if you must stick one on me, I guess I’m a Buddhist-leaning, humanistic, spiritual agnostic. But there’s no box for that on most questionnaires.

Deciding what box to check, though, isn’t my concern. I’m not even really concerned about explaining to my son why we celebrate Christian holidays. For me, that’s easy. Beyond my upbringing and family traditions is the greater meaning of the holidays themselves. The celebrations sprung from religious events and beliefs (as well as many pagan rituals), but they’ve grown to encompass more than that. They’ve become celebrations of family and love and giving and renewal. And those are things I absolutely believe in and want my son to believe in, too.

I also don’t worry he’ll lack morals or values without religion. Recent studies have shown kids raised without religion may actually be more empathetic.* Whether that’s true or not, I have no idea, but I know myself, and I know the other adults who will shape my little man’s sense of right and wrong, empathy, and compassion. He won’t lack for wonderful real-life role models—or good fictional ones, for that matter.

I worry more about the ‘big questions’ I don’t have answers to, especially those that can be scary: What happens after we die? Why do bad things happen to good people? Many religions set out to offer comfort with their answers to these questions, and I will gladly share with little man what different people believe, in hopes he may find an answer that feels right to him. Honestly, though, I never found too much comfort in any answers I was given, and now I realize maybe that was ok. Maybe it’s as important to accept that there are things we can’t know for sure, but still work to be the best we can be.

So maybe my lack of answers is the answer I’ll some day provide. And maybe it’s not such a bad answer after all. I don’t know, little man, how it all came to be or what happens when it ends, but I do know there’s a lot of life, love, magic, and joy to be found in ourselves, each other, and the world. And if some of that comes in the form of opening an Easter basket with mom or believing in Santa, we’ll celebrate it!


In preparing this post I found some books and articles that may be of interest. I haven’t read the books, so I’m not making recommendations, simply sharing what I found.

Online reading: *These articles mention and link the studies referenced in the post. At least one of these studies used parents’ self-reporting on their own kids, which makes me a little skeptical. I mean, who’s going to say her kid is an uncaring jerk? Then again, both the religious and nonreligious families self-reported, so maybe that was taken into account.



Books for Kids

Older than The Stars by Karen C. Fox – a scientific view of who we are

The Belief Book by David G. McAfee – a look at the beliefs of a variety of religions

I Wonder by Annaka Harris – a book about curiosity and accepting that some questions don’t have answers

Books for Parents

Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion by Dale McGowan

Relax It’s Just God: How and Why to Talk to Your Kids About Religion When You’re Not Religious by Wendy Thomas Russell


Photo credit: © Evgeny Karandaev | Dreamstime.com

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