Q. My husband and I are happily married with two cheerful, healthy children, 3 and 5. We are the picture of the typical American family, except for one thing: We're atheists.

Despite a staunch Catholic upbringing, we both believe that the force responsible for our existence is a natural one that should be respected, not a god that should be worshiped. It's becoming more difficult to stay "in the closet," however, as our children grow older. They ask questions about church, and many of their library books turn out to be religious in nature. We do our best to educate them about all beliefs as well as caring for the Earth and its inhabitants, but I feel there's something missing. How can we pass our beliefs to our children without making ourselves outcasts?

A. Atheists may not be persecuted these days but they don't have it easy, perhaps because there are relatively few of them: Studies show that 90 percent of Americans believe in God and two-thirds of them belong to an organized religion. Even though you're up against popular opinion, you still can give your children a firm set of values, but you'll probably do it better if you belong to a community that holds those values as dearly as you do. As you've discovered, an atheist group that spends its time bashing believers is not productive, so look for a nontheist group instead. It should fortify your own sense of love, justice and honesty.

A positive group also will give your children a sense of belonging. That will be extremely important in a few years. If 7-year-olds had to choose between conformity and candy, they'd choose conformity.

Perhaps the best known, and most respected nontheist community, is the American Ethical Union (AEU), which connects 24 ethical societies across the country.

This community is mostly made up of agnostics and atheists who come from Christian or Jewish families and tend to be pretty intellectual, liberal and committed. Families like it because it celebrates the seasons. First there's the January ritual, when the slate is wiped clean, mistakes are erased and promises are made; spring, when dreams--and seeds--are planted; summer, when routines are lightened and the soul finds time to play; fall, when the harvest and the blessings are counted, and finally the winter festival, when the inner light gleams brightly.

To find an Ethical Society near you, write the AEU at 2 W. 64th St., New York, N.Y. 10023, go to their Web site, www.aeu.org, or to the Washington Ethical Society site, wes@ethicalsociety.org.

Whatever you do, don't flaunt your choice or feel you have to tell people where you stand or why. Your religion--or the lack of it--is your business.

Tell your children what you believe, in simple language, but don't expect them to have exactly the same values you have when they grow up. You had the right to make choices and so do they--even if they decide to be staunch Catholics.

Please send your questions to Box 15310, Washington D.C. 20003 or to margukelly@aol.com