Thursday, August 29, 2013

Parenting as an atheist

My first daughter, as any five year old kid, would keep asking many questions.  Some of those questions started with the characters she saw on TV.   She saw monsters and goblins in some of the shows, and she was quite frightened, and asked me if they were for real, to which I responded that they were not real.  When Shrek scared off the villagers carrying pitchforks, she asked me the same question, and once again my answer was the same – that he was not real. 

After few more questions in the same vein, I formalized my answer.  I told her that certain characters exist only in stories, in books and on TV, and that they don’t exist in real world.  I extended this notion to tell her that ghosts, ghouls, zombies, and all other threatening and menacing characters do not exist in reality.  [I came to an understanding with my wife that she will not scare our kids with any reference to monsters to make them eat up their supper.]
Soon, it became my daughter’s favorite pastime to ask me each time she saw some character on TV, if that character was real.  Her favorite show is Barbie and when she asked me if Barbie was real I told her quite frankly that she wasn’t.  That did not disturb her even a bit.  I was looking at her and was wondering if she would be disappointed - but she wasn’t.  She kept watching the show with the same interest and keenness.  

By making these characters fictional for her I have not robbed her of the enjoyment and the thrill.  She continues to watch Chota Bheem and Barbie with great interest.  The fact that she got to know that they are not real has not reduced the charm, the mystery or the magic these characters created in her life.  She expresses the same enthusiasm, and enjoys her shows with full gusto like any other kid.

Over a period of time, my daughter picked up this concept quite easily and extrapolated it.  Soon, she could now identify which characters are real and which aren’t.  So, if she saw a lion or shark on Animal Planet, she knew they were real.  But when they came as characters in a Disney movie, she knew they weren’t real.

So, naturally, it came to the topic of Gods, like Hanuman, Bheem and Krishna.  She asked me the same question, and I reminded her of the answer.  She told me that they were not real, but existed only in stories, in books and on TV.   

For some reason it all made sense to her.  I don’t tell her anymore if a character is real or not – she figures it out.  For her, Spiderman, Shrek, Hanuman, Krishna, Bheem, Barbie, Santa Claus, are all characters that are not real, but who exist only in stories, books and on TV.  Whereas, Shark, Giraffe, Bear, Whale, Lion, are all real though she has never see them in real life.  This delineation between real and non-real has not stopped my kid from experiencing awe and wonder while watching the movies, whether they are our mythologies or cartoons.

When I took her for a walk, we saw a dead bird on the street.  She was only four then.  She asked me what happened to the bird.  I told her that the bird died.  She asked me what it means.  I told her quite frankly that the bird ceased to exist.  That it will never wake up again.  She didn’t say anything.  But later she cried and told us she didn’t want to die.  We assured us that she is not going to die anytime soon.  That she would live many many many days, so many days that she can’t even count.  With that assurance she slept quite happily.  Nowadays, she is quick to point out a dead cockroach or a dead mouse without resorting to any fancy stories. 

What I realize is that we can tell the kids the truth in most of the aspects.  And they deal with it quite bravely and make sense of it.  When my kid asks me about moon or sun, rain or rainbow, I don’t bring up some fairy tale to explain it.  I tell her what I know – she makes sense of it sometimes, and sometimes she just makes a blank face.  She is able to say ‘tectonic plates’ and ‘volcanoes’, and tell her grandmother the difference between lava and magma.  And she doesn’t find these concepts difficult or hard to understand.  No sugar coating, no fluff, no need to tell her that Santa brings the gifts or that tooth fairy exists.  The way I enjoy Iron Man movies knowing it is just a comic character, she is enjoys her world knowing all these fantastic characters exist only in stories, books and on TV.

I am not sure how my kid is going to turn out.  She is surrounded by people who are strong believers.  My wife is a believer in God.  Many of my relatives are believers.  Most people who live in my apartment are believers.  I know that they all have an influence on her.  I don’t know if she will be a theist or an atheist, whether this world will make sense to her only as Hindu or as Muslim or a Christian.  For that she has to grow up and figure out for herself if she wants to believe in Barbie or Krishna.  But if she asks me a question I am not going to tell her a fairy tale that Santa Claus exists, or that Tooth Fairy exists, or that Valhalla exists, or that Zeus exists, or that Jesus exists or that Krishna exists.  I will tell her what I know for sure, that they exist in stories, books and on TV.  And it’s up to her to make sense of this world.

I am not going to tell her that there is someone out there in the heavens who will listen to her prayers to help her, or punish her for actions and deeds.  I am going to tell her that she has to do good actions and deeds to become a better person.  It’s up to her what she wants to do.


  1. Kudos!
    I wish all parents did that!

  2. Sujai,
    If you look at the world history from 5000 years people have used religion to kill each other and show that their religion is superior even though most of religious beliefs are fundamentally against science. Fights between various hindu sects, muslims, christians etc happened from the birth of their religions. At the same time non-believers also have indulged in violence (China, Russia and other communist countries). Though religion is supposed to be path for spiritual and moral upliftment its made a rigid identity by man.
    Violence has been committed by both Belivers and Non-Belivers though former is more in number. Inspite of that we have many believers because it offers spiritual solace to those in this materialistic world. Spirutualism can't be explained by scientific laws. What is magic and illusion for you may be a great spirutual solace to someone else.

    It doesn't matter if she is a believer or not as long as we teach
    1)Maintain good moral values
    2)Not to mix religion with politics and nationalism
    3)Develop scientific temper and rational thinking (may be its in contradiction with religion but can co-exist)
    4)Respect for others who have a different religios beliefs
    5)Consider religion as spiritual path between human and god and not make it rigid rule of Do's and Don'ts

  3. some times being an atheist is depressing! i think not every one can absorb the fact there won't be any life after death and when our parents die they are gone forever.

    coming to a conclusion that there is no GOD by experience through age and knowledge is one thing and kids being exposed to this philosophy at young age is other! letter may confuse the young to suffer with a philosophy that none of their friends know and capable of talk? wouldn't it a simple story make their childhood more exciting and joyful? wouldn't she eventually realize that superman is just a mythical character so is GOD?

    in a debate a Christian asks Christopher Hitchens that his anti theism is a philosophy for the strong, for the intelligent and for the well connected.. regardless of truth Christianity offers hope for the people who are not as intelligent as you but what atheism has to offer for such people? putting aside Hitchens answer i believe life with a spiritual angle is more easy to live for a common person.

  4. Nice post by Sujai & I like the comments posted by esvar. I agree to the fact the kids need to enjoy a bit of fan-fare and can later decide for themselves.

  5. Hi, I am posting a blog Carnival for Atheist Parenting at this link:
    I would love to be able to include this blog post, and/or another blog post of your choice... If you would consider this, please submit your post through the email address on my blog.
    Thanks so much for considering this!
    I am really hoping for good quality blogs to feature on my carnival and, with the carnival, I'm hoping to support and inspire secular and atheist parents!

    Please feel free to delete this post!
    Carnival for Atheist Parenting

  6. I hope you blog some more! We need more atheist parents blogging out here!


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