A solitary project: Some parents build a family religious foundation

By Lorna Collier
Published October 22, 2000 (Chicago Tribune, Health & Family)



When Dianna Narciso's children ask her what happens to people when they die, she doesn't mention heaven or Jesus or angels.

As an atheist parent, Narciso doesn't have religious beliefs to pass along to her three sons, ages 10, 8 and 3, even though it might make answering their questions easier.

"I don't get to handle the `death question' by telling my child a pat story of living with Jesus and God," says Narciso of Palm Bay, Fla. "I have to explain the facts."

To Narciso, this is the toughest challenge she faces as an atheist parent: dealing with the hard questions her kids raise without the answers that religion can provide. "I don't get to teach morals with the pat, `Because God or Jesus said so,' " says Narciso, who home-schools her children.

Atheist and agnostic parents are a minority among the United States' overwhelmingly Judeo-Christian population--according to one study, only about 8.5 percent of Americans call themselves atheists or agnostics, while 86 percent claim a Christian faith. Perhaps because of this minority status, atheist and agnostic parents face a host of special challenges and problems, including, some say, harassment of their children by schoolmates or other children; interference by neighbors or other family members in their children's religious upbringing; limited educational options in regions where private education is predominantly church-based; and the belief that because atheists don't follow a religious credo, they are incapable of raising children with moral values.

Perhaps the top complaint atheist parents voice--especially if they live far from urban centers--is isolation.

"The biggest issue is social," says Theresa Schaefer, a librarian with agnostic and secular humanist beliefs who is raising her son, Joe, 13, in small-town Downstate Salem.

"Where we live, in a rural southern Illiniois setting, the church is a big element in social life and social relationships. We don't have that in our life, there isn't any secular humanist community or Unitarian community here," Schaefer says.

Not only does Schaefer find it difficult to tap into a network of like-minded adults for friendship and parenting advice, but Joe also doesn't know many children who share his beliefs.

"When I go to school and people ask me do I go to church, I'll say no, and they'll say, `What do you believe in?'" says Joe. "I'll say I'm an agnostic or a secular humanist. They'll assume that means the same thing as an atheist, which it doesn't, and they will not talk to me for a few days, just because of what I believe."

To expose Joe to children who share his beliefs, Schaefer has sent him for the last two summers to Camp Quest, a summer camp for children with atheist, agnostic or humanist beliefs, held near Lebanon, Ohio.
"It was a lot of fun," says Joe. "I just sorta fit in. I realized at camp that I got it easy--some kids had been called names and treated real mean."

Edwin Kagin, a Kentucky attorney who founded Camp Quest five years ago with his wife, Helen, says that he has found that many of the 40 children who come from all over the world to the camp each summer have had negative experiences with others due to their beliefs.

"Some were actually crying, saying this was the first time they'd been able to talk about their feelings of non-belief without being ostracized, scorned and threatened by their peers," Kagin says.

Jan Loeb Eisler, editor of the "Family Matters" newsletter put out by the Council for Secular Humanism, notes that adults sometimes are behind these rejections of atheist children.

"There have been situations where adult neighbors have been very mean to the friends of their children who don't have the same religious orientation," Eisler says. "They'll say to their kids, `You can't play with Johnny because he's not a Christian, he doesn't go to church.'"

Although Camp Quest exists as an option for children, many parents have discovered that it's hard to find others who can understand their unique problems. As a result, some have turned to the Internet for support, while others have formed organizations in their areas.

Lynne Schultz is an atheist stay-at-home mother of two preschoolers in Fairfield, Iowa, which she describes as being "in the middle of nowhere." She wanted to send her oldest child to preschool, but couldn't find any in her area that were not church affiliated; she tried to start a preschool or playgroup for atheist children in her area, but couldn't find enough people to join.

"I only found one person who lived an hour away, and that was through the Internet," says Schultz, who has gained support from other atheist parents via a variety of Internet forums, including an e-mail group for atheist mothers, which formed earlier this year and includes about 30 members from around the country.

Bruce and Catalina Chadbourn are an atheist couple who live in the relatively large Minneapolis/St. Paul area, but still felt the need to create a "free-thinking families" group about two years ago
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"We wanted to get together with other atheist parents to deal with issues like feeling isolated or feeling judged by religious people, and also to deal with school issues for children as they grown up," says Bruce Chadbourn.

About four or five families come to the monthly meetings, which are limited to adults only; children come to separate social events planned about four times each year. The parents discuss such things as how to deal with family members who want to evangelize their children.

"One couple is afraid their family might take their children and baptize them on the weekend, which bothers them," says Catalina. Another couple "feels like their parents are too old to deal with it," so they haven't disclosed their atheism. "Everyone is dealing with it in a different way."

"It's nice to be around kindred spirits," says Catalina, who felt the sting of prejudice against atheists in her former job as a nursing assistant at a hospital. She worries that her children--an infant and a toddler--will be the target of harassment when they are older.

"If they are ever teased by being called an atheist, I'm not sure yet how I'm going to deal with that," says Catalina. "There's a lot of mean-spirited clergy out there who badmouth atheists. They need the bad guy, and we're it."

Deborah Boak and her husband, Timothy Gorski, a doctor, are an atheist couple who live in northern Texas. They say their children have experienced prejudice. When their oldest daughter, now 10, was in kindergarten, she was beaten once a week on the playground by about seven classmates, who called her a "dirty atheist," says Boak.

That same year, Boak's next-door neighbors discovered the family's atheism; the neighbor boy, age 12, began shouting, "You'll burn in hell!" at the Boak children whenever he saw them outside playing, says Boak. The boy's mother preached to Boak's daughter over the back-yard fence, telling her that her parents were wrong in not believing in Christ.

Not long after these incidents, Boak and Gorski, along with another atheist couple, decided to start a church for "freethinkers," called the North Texas Church of Freethought, which aims to provide all the services a church normally offers--such as ministering to the sick, sponsoring charitable works and organizing social activities--"but without the superstition that we just couldn't believe in," says Boak.

Not long after these incidents, Boak and Gorski, along with another atheist couple, decided to start a church for "freethinkers," called the North Texas Church of Freethought, which aims to provide all the services a church normally offers--such as ministering to the sick, sponsoring charitable works and organizing social activities--"but without the superstition that we just couldn't believe in," says Boak.

Since forming in late 1994, the church has grown to include about 400 members, ranging in age from newborn to senior citizens, says Boak. Meetings are held monthly in an Irvine hotel conference room, though other activities take place throughout the week; the church also has started a building fund to construct its own facility, and has inspired similar churches in Houston, California and Australia.

"A lot of what we want to bring to people is a really good sense of how to make your life better, how to live your life in a very good way," says Boak, who is in charge of the church's youth department. "A good half of the children's lesson is devoted to moral issues. We very strongly know that human beings can be good and do the right thing without superstition."

The idea that atheists aren't moral people because they don't follow Biblical rules, and therefore can't possibly raise moral children, is one that sticks in the craw of many atheist parents.

"We give our child a sense of right and wrong, but from a critical thinking approach," says Catalina. "You don't need religion to teach children about how to interact in a loving way."

Nonetheless, studies have found that children in families that attend church do better in school and stay away from drugs and sex.

"What hasn't been fully examined is why that is the case," says Kristin Moore, a senior scholar with Child Trends, a nonprofit research group. "Is it because families who are able to go to religious services on a regular basis are well-organized, cohesive families, and the results are because these children come from effective families? Or are they involved in a peer group who is engaged in positive behaviors? Or is there, in fact, a belief factor?"

Mimi Doe, co-author of "10 Principles for Spiritual Parenting," says this type of research "leads to the terrible guilt many families feel" when they don't feel comfortable with any organized religion and aren't sure how to raise their children from a religious or spiritual perspective. In fact, says Doe, this was the No. 1 question she received as America Online's spirituality expert.

"Parents can't find a church that resonates with who they are," Doe says. "I say, `Look: don't worry about that.'"

Doe, who has a master's degree in child development from Harvard University, does believe kids need to have their spiritual needs met: They need to feel connected to their families, nature and other living things. But atheists can be just as spiritual as religious people, she says, because, in her view, spirituality and religion are separate.

"I define spirituality as the consciousness that relates us directly to God, but instead of God, you can certainly use `the universe,' `all that is' or `a higher power,'" says Doe.

The important thing, she says, is for parents to help fulfill their children's spiritual needs in a way that works for them.

"I don't believe a family must embrace religion in order to be spiritual," Doe says. "Indeed, it's the everyday lives we are living with our children that offer the richest opportunity for soulful growth."


WHERE TO GO FOR MORE INFORMATION

There are numerous resources on the Internet for atheist or agnostic parents, including the following:
- The atheist discussion board on "Parent's Place" can be found at http://boards2.parentsplace.com/messages/get/ppatheist23.html.
- The Freethinking Families guide to "Secular Parenting Resources on the Internet" is at http://www.geocities.com/secularparents/parenting.html.
- Parents' Corner is a list of articles and other resources for nontheistic parents; http://www.infidels.org/families/parents/.
- America Online has chat and message boards available to atheist parents by going to Keyword Atheism and following the links.

Copyright © 2000, Lorna Collier

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