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.
Such institutions and groups reveal a range of child-rearing views among atheist parents.
Many want their children to have regular rituals tied to traditional religion, like attending a house of worship, lighting Hanukkah candles or decorating Christmas trees. Some began giving thanks before meals when their children were born, directing their gratitude to the people who grew and made the food. Others say a pre-meal thanks to “God,” a non-supernatural concept they have shaped. Polls show 11 percent of atheists say they pray occasionally (6 percent say daily) and many consider themselves highly spiritual, experiencing transcendence in the wonder of space, nature and connections with other human beings.
Some say they want their children to be open-minded and that convincing their children of atheism is not important. Others feel it’s dangerous to unbiasedly present children with world views that aren’t based on scientifically provable facts.
Atheist parents describe talking about death with their children in a straightforward way, without anxiety.
“We are a science-based family. When we don’t know the answer, we say, ‘We don’t know.’ We don’t say ‘Jesus did it,’” said Jamila Bey, a 36-year-old D.C. radio host who attended Catholic churches and schools through college. Her son is 4.
Bey’s son was too young to hear about the Newtown shootings, but she said she was confronted unexpectedly with the topic of death a few months ago when he saw an episode of “Babar” in which a hunter shoots and kills the fictional elephant’s mother.
“He said, ‘Little boys shouldn’t be without their mommies, is she ever coming back?’ ”
I had to explain, ‘Honey, life is very long, but sometimes bad things happen. Not often and they hurt.’
“I said, ‘When people die, it’s just like before they were ever born. They’re not scared, they’re not hungry, they’re not cold. But the people left behind miss them.’ I didn’t fill him with ideas of celestial kingdoms where you get wings and [expletive].”
When Matthieu Guibert’s mother-in-law passed away this summer, his 10-year-old son heard a pastor at the grave mention a possible afterlife.
“He said it sounded weird to him, she was gone; how would we meet her again? It’s hard to grasp for a 10-year-old. I tried to tell him, ‘When you die some people think it’s part of another life, but we don’t believe it because there is no proof. We’d rather focus on this life.’ ”
His boys, 10 and 5, are too young to hear about Newtown, Guibert said, but if they did ask, he’d tell them the shootings were done by a young person who was mentally unstable.
“It’s hard to explain that to children. Even I can’t believe a human being can do that. I am in awe,” he said.
Guibert was raised Catholic in France and his wife as an evangelical in the United States, and they want the boys to be informed.
“We try to emphasize religions with an ‘s.’ We tell them we don’t believe in any of it. Nothing. None,” said the 35-year-old Germantown scientist. But he said they don’t talk too much yet to the children about atheism and “try to stay neutral.”
“As far as morality and how to behave, when it comes up I say ‘You don’t have to have religion to know right from wrong.’ The golden rule is what we go by,” said Guibert, who attends a monthly parent meet-up connected with the pro-secular Center for Inquiry.
Sigfried Gold, 49, has a 7-year-old son who has his own ideas about death and religion. The boy, Solomon, has said he believes in God but thinks life ends when you die. However, the boy did have some questions for his grandmother when a cousin of hers died a few years ago.
Why did he die, the boy asked, and was told his organs had stopped working. Did his skin stop working, Solomon asked?
Solomon was too young to be told about the Newtown shootings.
“I think what’s important for him to know when people die is that it’s sad and we won’t see them again, and there are ways of thinking of them that are comforting,” said Gold, a computer programmer.
Gold has always been an atheist, but one driven to explore moral structures for living “a good life.” He spent time learning about Buddhism, Judaism and the theologian Soren Kierkegaard, but it was only after completing a 12-step program for food addiction four years ago that he found a practice that changed his life. As the program requires, he agreed to try embracing the idea that he needed to turn himself over to a greater power for help.
He has never believed in a supernatural God but says he agreed at his sponsor’s urging to say the Serenity Prayer (“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change...”) before each meal. His son and daughter, 2, hold his hands while he whispers the prayer, which Gold offers to what he describes as an imaginary kind of best self. He says the prayer, which he also says at waking and just before bed, is incredibly effective at keeping him healthy and helping shape his world view.
Solomon, he said, seems to understand his father’s Godless deity and isn’t bothered by it. And Gold is fine with Solomon’s claim to believe in God.
“It’s good for him to know what his parents think. I don’t care what he thinks so much, I just want him to be articulate about it. My objection is to people believing in Gods that don’t help them.”
Drizin said her daughters haven’t been very curious about God. They are busy with the secular infrastructure of the Washington Ethical Society, where they attend Sunday school each week, perform in the winter festival and watch their mother marry people as a secular wedding officiant.
Drizin, 49, who directs a center at the University of Maryland about media coverage of children, said she believes she is giving her children a faithful, spiritual upbringing. Just not one based on a God who can ease what happened in Newtown.
“I think kids who believe in God and are raised to believe in heaven, and to believe that’s where they’re going, there would be solace. But my children, that’s not part of their world view.”