Atheist parents comfort children about death without talk of God or heaven

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For Julie Drizin, being an atheist parent means being deliberate. She rewrote the words to “Silent Night” when her daughters were babies to remove words like “holy,” found a secular Sunday school where the children light candles “of understanding,” and selects gifts carefully to promote science, art and wonder at nature.


So when she pulled her 9- and 13-year-olds together this week in their Takoma Park home to tell them about the slaughter of 20 elementary school students in Newtown, Conn., her words were plain: Something horrible happened, and we feel sad about it, and you are safe.

And that was it.

“I’ve explained to them [in the past] that some people believe God is waiting for them, but I don’t believe that. I believe when you die, it’s over and you live on in the memory of people you love and who love you,” she said this week. “I can’t offer them the comfort of a better place. Despite all the evils and problems in the world, this is the heaven — we’re living in the heaven and it’s the one we work to make. It’s not a paradise.”

This is what facing death and suffering looks like in an atheist home.

As so many millions of Americans turn to clergy and prayers to help their children sort out the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, parents like Drizin do not. They don’t agonize over interpreting God’s will or message in the event. They don’t seek to explain what kind of God allows suffering, and they don’t fudge it when children ask what happens to people who die, be they Grandma or the young victims of Newtown.

But that doesn’t mean atheist parents are alike in what they say, believe or do.

As the number of Americans rises who say they don’t believe in a supernatural God, atheists have become more public and confident, spurring a boomlet of church-like Sunday schools for children where secular ethics are taught, and parenting groups where people meet to discuss things like the overbearing religious grandparent, how to teach world religions in the home and ways to help children navigate conversations with religious friends.

Written By: Michelle Boorstein,
continue to source article at washingtonpost.com

19 COMMENTS

  1. I think she’s going too far in for example, changing the words to “Silent Night.” All that does is cause her kids conflict with classmates over the words. She should simply explain to them that they have their own choice on what to believe, if they find it plausible etc, etc. This has all been mentioned before. What she is doing is a form of indoctrination, perhaps with the best intentions in mind, but I doubt she’s thought it through. Kids sing nusery rhymes which have their source in the plague “atichoo, atichoo, we all fall down,” but who cares, apart from an historical interest view?

  2. I am not trying to be rude here, and I mean it, I am not…but!

    Can someone who is from the USA explain to me why even when atheist, Americans can come across as evangelical?

    I just find terms like atheist Sunday school and giving thanks to the people who made the food, and give thanks to god a non-supernatural concept, all a bit creepy.

    The English way of being a non believer in everyday life seems less problematic, we just get on with life but leave god out, not replace him/her with anything.

    As unpleasant as the Newtown shooting was, the kids in the UK find out about it by watching the news or from friends at school. Of course we are there for our kids, but we tend to let them deal with these things in their own way, and believe me, they do.

    Kids are so much more resilient than you think, they deal with these things far better than we do.

  3. Bootjangler – Yeah I agree,
    Strikes me as a little dishonest. It’s kind of trying to re-write history. This is a beautiful hymn (in my opinion) about the birth of jesus. I think the plausibility of the content is doubtful, but pretending the genuine content is something else is just trying to paper over history and tradition.

    We need to be more secure than this. We can sign hymns and not believe them, I’m not tacitly supporting a belief in Santa Clause if I sing Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer.

    How about we just try to talk to our children about how the world works, look for the teachable moments, ask them questions, ask them how they could find stuff out, introduce them to sceptical thinking. That’s the tradition I am trying to engage in. My son (just turned five) knows that the honey on his toast this morning is bees vomit, that the lamb he ate last night comes from a sheep raised by farmers and killed for him to eat, he knows the lamb ate plants (which try not to be eaten). He’s watched all of inside natures giants so he knows a little about skeletons, organs and how different animals go together. I hope this will ultimately lead to him seeing life and the world and his place in it scared, but that will be his choice.

  4. In reply to #2 by sbooder:

    I am not trying to be rude here, and I mean it, I am not…but!

    Can someone who is from the USA explain to me why even when atheist, Americans can come across as evangelical?

    I just find terms like atheist Sunday school and giving thanks to the people who made the food, and give thanks to god a non-supernatural concept, all a bit creepy.

    The English way of being a non believer in everyday life seems less problematic, we just get on with life but leave god out, not replace him/her with anything.

    Actually most atheist Americans are pretty quiet because we are in the minority. People tend to vocalize more online. In the case of this article, IMO – and I’m not intending on being rude —you need to keep in mind that the two mother’s have large societal hurdles that they must overcome and may be extra sensitive to other political hardships. I have met several other same sexed couples and there is a strong focus on liberal politics and exposing their children to understand the plights and issues of other people.

    Personally, I’m all in favor of giving thanks to people who have made a meal possible especially when in mixed religious company. Easter food that I spent hours preparing was rejected because it was not blessed. They ate the store bought, blessed food first.

  5. “atheist Sunday school”

    According to ABC news, ‘Time’ magazine coined that term as the header for an article about children of atheist parents meeting at Palo Alto’s Humanist Church on Sunday mornings.

    I would link the article (2007), but haven’t figured out how yet :/

  6. In reply to #2 by sbooder:

    Can someone who is from the USA explain to me why even when atheist, Americans can come across as evangelical?

    Just gimme dat Ol’ Tyme atheism!

    We’re pretty lame like that. You should see our gay districts. Everything is converted to a gay version of itself. There’s a gay laundromat, gay ice-cream shop, gay cafe, gay bookstore, gay X-mas, gay Ghostbusters, we even have gay Black people.

    It’s “Keeping Up With the Joneses” (speaking of Black people). If ‘they’ have it, ‘we’ have to have it, or else they have something we don’t.

  7. In reply to #8 by sbooder:

    Nope! Two replies now and I still don’t get it.

    Hmm, Well then maybe the view that America started in war and that we are still fighting fits your fancy. Maybe the atheists were converts from a fundamentalist religion and still didn’t quite lose that habit. Maybe it’s our bluntness and need to be heard. Maybe you just don’t really know enough American atheists and you are picking out the ones that seem Evangelical because you have some sort of issue – can’t help you there – IMO most of us are pretty tame.

  8. In reply to #5 by QuestioningKat:

    Personally, I’m all in favor of giving thanks to people who have made a meal possible especially when in mixed religious company. Easter food that I spent hours preparing was rejected because it was not blessed. They ate the store bought, blessed food first.

    Eh? You had guests and they “rejected” food because it wasn’t blessed or something? That’s nuts if you don’t mind me saying.

  9. In reply to #2 by sbooder:

    I am not trying to be rude here, and I mean it, I am not…but!

    Can someone who is from the USA explain to me why even when atheist, Americans can come across as evangelical?

    I just find terms like atheist Sunday school and giving thanks to the people who made the food, and give thanks to god a non-supernatural concept, all a bit creepy.

    The English way of being a non believer in everyday life seems less problematic, we just get on with life but leave god out, not replace him/her with anything.

    I don’t live in the US and haven’t visited for a long time but I think the difference is in your and my country (Australia) is that it is possible to just get on with life and leave god out. It’s far less so in the US. My kids where never going to be asked about god by friends at school or told they where going to hell so we just never discussed god and it very rarely got mentioned. In our societies devout, in your face religious people are a definite minority. In the US my impression is they are far more common and you are going to have to arm your kids against them.

    As an example did you see Obama’s speech after the Newtown massacre ? Can you imagine David Cameron trying for a theological justification that god has prepared a better place for us all beyond this vale of tears etc, etc ? I can’t even imagine the Archbishop of Canterbury trying that on.

    Michael

  10. Hhm. No edit I can see on the new system. Here is the part of Obama’s speech I was referring to

    To all the families, first responders, to the community of Newtown, clergy, guests, scripture tells us, “Do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, inwardly, we are being renewed day by day.

    For light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all, so we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

    For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven not built by human hands.

    Michael

  11. She rewrote the words to “Silent Night” when her daughters were babies to remove words like “holy,”

    It’s been done before – many times:-
    I recall from my primary school days certain “playground” carols :-

    ” We three kings of orient are,

    selling chocolate, tuppence a bar,

    matches seven pence,

    fags, eleven pence,

    Oh! what a price they are !”

    I also linked some spoof and parody versions of Xmas songs on another discussion.
    Googling for them will produce lots.

  12. “I’ve explained to them [in the past] that some people believe God is waiting for them, but I don’t believe that. I believe…”

    This makes it sound subjective and ambiguous. It could lead to a gooey postmodern explanation of why people “believe” different things.

    I am trying to focus on the word *belief* now when I discuss this subject. 
    I tell people that I don't *believe* things to be true, but I *accept* things and I have *confidence* in things based on the integrity and evidence. 
    

    There’s a fine line between being semantic/pedantic and having a serious discussion about the bigger meaning behind words. It’s hard to avoid sounding trite or novel about word usage.

  13. In reply to #16 by Phen:

    11 percent of atheists pray? I struggle to believe that. Most religious I know either don’t pray or don’t proclaim to pray, except when obliged to in church or wherever.

    Atheists praying!? Yuk- that sucks. I live in the ole’ United States of Generica and there seems to be an over emphasis on replacing faith based things with atheist things. I suppose as a parent, some feel that they want their kids to feel like they’re doing the same stuff as other kids, just in a different way. I don’t think I’d be like that as a parent, but I guess I wouldn’t know unless I had kids.

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