My son Connor has always been a fantastically curious kid. When he was four, I watched him off by himself at the edge of our neighbor wading pool, oblivious to 60 other screaming, splashing kids, studying a tiny plant growing from a crack in the cement for a good 10 minutes. Fifteen years later, it remains a near-perfect snapshot of the way his mind works.
Even though I’m an atheist, we had Connor in a Lutheran preschool. In addition to academics and socialization, I wanted him to get a basic exposure to Judeo-Christian ideas. It’s a vital part of cultural literacy.
But there came a point when I wondered if he had picked up something else. One day in the summer of 2000 I was following him up the stairs of our home and said, “Connor, look at you! Why are you growing so fast?”
“I don’t know,” he answered with a shrug. “I guess God just wants me to grow.”
That reply would have warmed a lot of parental hearts, but for me, it was more of a sudden chill. Not because of the mention of God—my wife was Christian, and religious explorations of all kinds were welcome in our home. No, this was something more basic: My son had given his first incurious reply. His shrug said that he didn’t have to care or wonder about his own transformation from infancy to kidhood—he’d handed off the knotty question to God.
I realized all at once that I needed to figure out a few basic questions about my parenting, including my approach to religion. I was an atheist raising children—but was I raising atheist children? Not a chance. I wanted to create a space around them to make their own choices. Did that mean I could never share my own thoughts about the biggest questions of all for fear of indoctrinating them? And what was the best way to approach conversations about morality, meaning, and death without the road map that religion provides?
I started looking for resources for raising kids without religion, something I thought must surely exist. Nearly 14 percent of Americans identified as nonreligious, and 37 million households had school-aged children. A conservative estimate of the overlap would suggest seven million nonreligious parents were dealing with the same questions I was. But try as I might, I could only find the occasional essay online and nothing on the bookshelves.
Five years later, Connor’s sister Delaney, who was encountering many of the same questions in the same Lutheran preschool, announced that she had finally figured out, as she put it, “the God and Jesus thing.” She had heard about them in class and had immediately begun crafting her own detailed theology to fill in the many gaps.
She told me she had decided that Jesus made all the good things in the world and that God made all the bad and scary things.
The next five words out of the mouths of many religious parents would be No no no no no—in that order—followed by a dose of theological castor oil to set the child straight. Few would let the day end with their child still entertaining the notion that God might be the source of all evil.
Some nonreligious parents do little better for the child’s independence of thought when they take the opportunity to say No no no no no—God isn’t real. In the process, both sets of parents will have substituted their authority for the child’s autonomous thought. Better to praise the independent thought and let the child run like mad with it. And in the five years since that moment on the stairs with Connor, I had learned how to do it.
Cool, I said to Delaney. I never thought of it like that.
The next week, she promulgated a revised encyclical: God, she said, makes all the things for grownups, and Jesus makes the things for kids. My favorite example: God made the deep end of the pool, and Jesus made the shallow end, for her.
I hugged her. “So God for me and Jesus for you, eh?”
“I guess so,” she said. “I’m not sure. I’m still thinking about it.”
She was parroting one of my constant parental invocations there—the need to keep thinking, to never close one’s self off to further information. That doesn’t mean rolling up in a quivering ball of agnosticism. I also make it clear to them that it’s OK to say what you think is true.
A few months later, on the way home from preschool, she told me about a chat she’d had that day with her teacher. “I told Mrs. W I think God is just pretend. But I said I’m still thinking about it. And I asked if she thinks God is pretend.”
I looked at her in the rearview mirror, munching on the tart apple I’d for once remembered to bring for her snack, so innocent of the fact that she had stood with her toes at the edge of an age-old chasm, shouting a courageous and ancient question to her teacher on the far rim. My daughter hadn’t heard that there are unaskable questions. The very idea would puzzle her.