What Happens When You Don’t Tell Your Kid About Religion? Only Really Terrible Things, That’s All.

By Wendy Thomas Russell | April 5, 2012 | 12 comments

Let’s say you’re a secular parent who doesn’t feel the need to talk about religion with your kid.

Maybe you don’t like religion, or understand it, or even care about it very much. Maybe you tried once to broach the subject with your kid, and it was pretty awkward and confusing and you were sure you screwed stuff up. Maybe you decided, after careful consideration, to table the whole thing for another time. And by “another time,” you mean in, like, 20 years.

“So what?” you ask. “She’ll get the information she needs eventually, right? And if she’s really interested in religion, she’ll ask. Plus, what’s the worst that could happen? Is discussing religion with my kid really such a big deal?”

Yes, dingbat, it is.

Now if you asked me whether postponing or avoiding the topic of religion is the worst thing you could do, I would say: Of course not! There are far worse things you could do! But since when is your goal to do “better than the worst” when it comes to your child? Aren’t you the same person who obsesses about which school would best suit your son’s personality? Worries about whether new media will kill his ability to be creative? Feels guilty when you’re forced to hit the McDonald’s drive-through three times in the same week?

But, hey, let’s say for the sake of argument that your gut tells you to just let sleeping dogs lie — and by dogs, of course, you mean gods. Let’s say you want to know, specifically, what will happen if you keep your trap shut and let your kids figure it out for themselves.

By my count, there are exactly five possibilities.

Possibility No. 1: Your kid will feel like an idiot

Maybe it’s a public sort of humiliation — the kind that occurs when other kids tease your child for not knowing something uber-basic, like what a Bible looks like or what was in Noah’s Ark. Or maybe it’s the private sort, wherein your kid realizes she’s not as “smart” as other kids and is afraid to ask questions that might embarrass her. Either way, she internalizes her ignorance, and her self-esteem plummets. Well done.

Possibility No.2: Your kid will offend people.

When a child doesn’t have a foundation of religious understanding, the likelihood that he’ll accidentally offend a friend or family member is extremely high. Now, to be fair, you might not care if your kid offends your holier-than-thou, Jesus-freak brother-in-law. You might even secretly enjoy it. (He’s such an intolerant jerk. It would serve him right!) But how much do you think your child will enjoy offending her uncle? Or best friend? Or teacher? And how much worse is it that your little snickerdoodle won’t even understand what she has said that’s so offensive? Sorry, but saddling your kid with confusion and shame makes you pretty much the worst parent on the planet — no matter how limited her exposure to Happy Meals.

Possibility No. 3: Your kid will assume you have “issues” with religion.

KJ Del’Antonia wrote on yesterday’s Motherlode blog about the responsibility that white parents have to talk to their kids about race. Many parents think that not talking about race sends the message that race doesn’t matter. “But,” Del’Antonia said, “research suggests the opposite: that when we don’t talk about race, our children continue to think about it — and what they think is that it matters too much to talk about.” Avoiding God talks can send the message that you consider the entire subject to be scary, wrong or bad. And even if your child doesn’t see why religion is taboo in your household, he’ll learn quickly to respect your silence and ask no questions. That may seem fine, until years from now when your son meets and falls in love with a deeply religious girl — and you are literally the last to know.

Possibility No. 4: Your kid will join the Taliban.

Okay, probably not, but it could happen. Greg Brown has a fantastic song called “If You Don’t Get it At Home,” whose refrain is: “If you don’t get it at home, you’re gonna go lookin’….” It’s so very applicable here. If you don’t encourage your kid to explore the ins and outs of religion at home, she’ll find it elsewhere. Fundamentalist Christian groups gain a good number of followers from families who have all but banned religious talk from their households, according to Parenting Beyond Belief guy Dale McGowan. And let’s not forget teenage rebellion. When she’s 15, your daughter might very well be hunting for ways to piss you off. And, dude, how pissed would you be if she up and joined the Taliban? Or, worse, the Church of Scientology? [Scientologists: It’s a joke. Please don’t start stalking me or threatening me with your crazy lawsuits. Thanks.]

Possibility No. 5: Your kid will become that intolerant jerk.

So let’s say your kid is way too smart to join the Taliban, or any other fringe religion. Let’s say, at 8, he’s got atheist written all over him. But how — if you don’t talk about religion — is your child supposed to learn that religious people deserve your kindness as much as anyone else? If all your kids observes in his house are subtle eye-rolls, sighs of exasperation and occasional disparaging remarks about “fundies,” won’t he start mimicking that? It’s inevitable, isn’t it? Unfortunately, he may not know enough about religion himself to do be selective about his negativity. He’ll simply lump all religious people together, and treat the lot of them with eye-rolling and signs of exasperation. Goodbye, Tolerance. Hello, Bigotry.

I’m not trying to say there’s one perfect way to discuss religion in your home — just as I’m not judging any parent who hits McDonald’s on the way home. We are human, and we’re all doing the best we can. How you approach the subject will depend entirely on your experiences, your personality, and your beliefs. All I’m asking is that you start the talk while your child is still young enough to want to listen, and seize opportunities to talk these things through. Find websites. Check out books. Read this blog. Whatever gets you started. Define some basic words: God, for instance, and HeavenReligion and Prayer. Remember, you need not know everything there is about Buddhism to say the word Buddhist. Or everything about Islam to say the word Muslim. Simply saying the words out loud and trying your best to answer any questions that arise can be incredibly helpful to your child— and surprisingly empowering for you.


  1. y. m. says:

    You just have to teach your kid to be a good person. That is what supposed to be essential, religion should come second.
    But i should’ve checked you background before commenting, i figured you’re a southie but i wasn’t sure and seeing you bio guess what i wasn’t wrong…
    And people doing drugs because you think they haven’t found god has to go to therapy before church!!!!
    And can someone please explain to me what good it did to mankind to kill millions of people in the name of religion?
    Do you really think that God want us to kill each other, is he really that shallow. I always thought he is better then this, better then humankind.

    I can keep going for pages so i’m stopping here.
    Keep up the good work!!!!! (How ironic am i ahahahah)

    • Sarcastic? Yes. Ironic? Not so much.

      I’m not sure if there’s a language issue here, but you’re completely missing the point on this. This blog is for nonreligious parents. And, here in the States anyway, many nonreligious parents would rather say nothing about religion than to risk having their child become religious themselves. This particular blog post was meant to point out that there are good reasons to tell your kids about belief. (Not teach them to believe, mind you, but tell them about belief). Yes, my examples are extreme, but that’s because I have a sense of humor.

      You are flat-out wrong to assume that just because religion is “everywhere” (thanks to people like me… um, what?) that people “know” about it. They don’t. And it CAN be a problem. That’s all I’m on about here.

      You say you are Jewish, so I assume you were raised in a Jewish household and still believe in God? If so, you won’t relate to this personally. But please try to consider that others don’t share your experience or beliefs before making so many assumptions about theirs.

      • y. m. says:

        Ok i admit i was being way too much sarcastic and harsh and i apologize for that.
        But i have couple of things to say:
        1. There’s no language issue here. I assume the words and the language i used in the first two comments are making completely obvious that i’m capable of understanding what i read in english. So i get that this blog is about non-religious parents and you’re guiding them in your own way to communicate their children about religion. -but that language issue you were refering to proves me that u don’t know much about foreigners.

        2.That sense of humor is really offensive coming from an american since you guys are so politically correct. Because -the next comment can be very harsh, but i’m standing by it- you know nothing about terrorism. I meant it!
        One 9/11 doesn’t make you guys expert on it and it sure doesn’t give you the right to joke about it. I live in a country where terrorism doesn’t stop. I’m 33 years old and i’ve seen my share more then anyone you may possible know. I’ve seen synagogues bombed, friend’s parents died because of bombings,i hear dead soldier news everyday since i was ten.
        It never stops here, really it doesn’t stop.
        So to joke that one person may join Taliban because he/she doesn’t know about god is just cruel.
        Do you know how people join Taliban or any other terrorist groups? They join them not because they don’t know about god but because they’ve been brainwashed since the day they were born. They come from very poor families. They have nothing to eat, no money nothing. And these groups feed them, give them money, give their parents money. And make no mistake those people do everything they do in the name of god.
        My point is religion shouldn’t be so important in one’s lfe.
        I believe it actually does make a person question about the existence of god since all thos killings happens in the name of him.

        3. I was raised in a jewish household yes but it only made me question religion. Because judaism tells us that there are no religion other than judaism, that the jews are higher beings.

        Does a mother love one child better then the other? I believe there’s one thing that created the universe but i’m not sure whether it’s god or not. I’m really not. But i really believe that religions are made up by humans.
        And there’s difference between God and religion.
        I believe in god but religion, not so much…
        What i don^t understand is are you talkind God or religion?It’s quite ambigious because in the post you’re saying that your kid asked you about god but your subject reads: “What happens…………”
        And to finish: You are right, i should not making assumptions about other people’s lives, i apologize for that to. But neither should you…
        Thanks for replying to my post so calmly btw :)

        • y. m. says:

          I shouldn+ have said i believe in God, i believe in something i call it God but i’m not sure of it’s existence, still i keep believing in it.

        • Okay, now I think I understand where you’re coming from (literally and figuratively.) And you are right that the Taliban was a poor example of the extremist cults kids here in the States are likely to get caught up in. Although I can’t say I’m overly politically correct myself (my friends can chime in here anytime…) I am also sensitive to your concerns — and absolutely sensitive to your living situation. I can only imagine how difficult that must be. I do hope you are safe, and that things improve in your country sooner rather than later. You’re welcome to write anytime, and I hope you do.

  2. y. m. says:

    “And, dude, how pissed would you be if she up and joined the Taliban? Or, worse,the Church of Scientology?”
    Are you kidding??
    Are you really saying that the opposite of being religious is being a terrorist?!?! OH MY GOD!!!!
    I’m jewish and i live in Istanbul, Turkey. I know a lot about terrorism trust me and i know a lot about religion both judaism and islam. But i’m not religious and my parents never set me down to explain about any of them. And shockingly i never offended anyone.
    How can someone not know about religion? It’s everywhere thanks to people like you!
    People are STILL killing each other over religion and we’re not in he 15.century…
    And to think that kids would be STUPID just because their parents don’t talk to their kids about religion is… I can’t find the words…
    Friends who lived in The States told me that Americans are narrow minded and i never agreed but you sure did prove me wrong!

  3. Derek Cramer says:

    I have been sitting on this article since it was posted, and have been giving some thought to what you have said here. I think I am in the minority here that I was not raised in a religious household, and none of my close relatives are christian.

    After reading this, I gave some thought to what my parents did religious-wise when I was growing up. My parents did not shy away or try to shield me from religion, but at the same time they did not sit me down and say “some people believe this”. I had normal exposure to the kid-friendly bible stories, like Noah’s Ark and whatnot, and when the neighbor kids asked me to join them for guest day at their church, I went along.

    I never had the problems you mentioned about not knowing what a Bible is or being made fun of for that. I do remember in Middle School being asked what I believe, and not having a good answer, but at that age, if the kids don’t try to pick on you for that, it will be for something else. (Yeah, Middle School sucks).

    My point is that my parents didn’t really try to go either way on the subject. They didn’t sit me down with a bible, or a book on bible stories, but they also didn’t try to shield me from them.

    With my kids, (my son is almost 3 years and my daughter is 3 months), I wouldn’t mind finding a good book on bible stories, but I don’t know if I will try to make a strong distinction between these and fairy tales. I think the important thing is to train them to not only ask “Why?”, but also “How do we know why?”, and “Why can we trust what we know?”.

    As for the whole “Kid will offend people” thing, if someone is offended by a child asking them questions, there are other issues going on. My dad always took a stance of avoidance when talking to other people about religion. I am not sure that is always the best policy, but it is the safest. I am not sure how I am going to approach that when my kids are old enough. We live in a diverse society, and I think it is much more socially acceptable to be “non-religious” or atheist today than when my father was a child.

    • Derek!

      Thanks so much for this. Always appreciate your take.

      I TOTALLY get where you are coming from, and you are right to call me out on my clearly exaggerated, sky-will-fall list. Many kids — most? — confronted with a less than a minimal introduction to religion will be just fine. Kids are resilient, etc. etc. Honestly, this was meant to be a worst-case-scenario list for worst-case- scenario situations — and I believe strongly these are some of the worst possible outcomes American parents are up against when they try to keep religion from their kids.

      I think what you describe as “normal exposure” is what I’m advocating, actually. Parents need not do this thing perfectly. (I don’t even know what that would look like.) But ignoring religion altogether, treating it like it’s nothing — or, worse, teaching kids that religion is something to be avoided at all costs — is misguided at best, harmful at worst. I’m guessing that exactly zero of my regular readers have this issue; but many others out there do.

      Two other quick points.

      1. I don’t at all think you need to make a strong distinction between Bible stories and fairy tales. I just don’t think you need to make a connection, either. The important thing, in my mind at least, is that you share the stories, be honest about your belief or lack of belief in the stories, and explain that many people in the world do believe these stories are real. No judgment; just facts.

      2. You’re right that adults who get offended by kids are obviously experiencing some emotional weakness. But it does happen. Even more so sometimes because kids have no filter and are just so damn honest. Saying that someone shouldn’t be upset by something doesn’t do anything to make them less upset. (Of course, I’m not talking about kids asking simple questions; I’m talking about kids repeating offensive language.) I think you’re dad was right about avoiding religious talk in mixed company, especially because he knew his own limitations. I can talk about religion with some people and not with others. Entirely depends on the person and their take on religion (and atheism, frankly).

      Bottom line: If you’re respectful about religion inside your home, your kid is likely to exercise that same level of respect outside it.

  4. Elaine says:

    Agreed, and very well put. But can I now have a word for word of what to say when please :)

  5. Jill says:

    You GO Wendy (at the risk of sounding patronizing). You have touched on concrete consequences that might be experienced by a child who doesn’t know about religion. I was particularly struck by your assertion that a kid might just join the Taliban (as you said, who knows?). In my own experience, it was looking for socialization, emotional comfort and desire for something greater than myself and my daily experience that took me to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (not quite the Taliban). Those “LDSers” really know how to party in such a safe, drug/alcohol free, cozy way. It is amazing to me that as a teenager I showed up at “seminary” at 6am at the church every weekday. Maybe it was the pancakes we always had afterward that influenced me? Anyway, in a very simple way, it just felt so nice to be included and interacted with, and contrary to what some of my family members thought, I was not rebelling against or discounting the beliefs of my Catholic upbringing. I wish not just my Mom discussed religion with me and I applaud you for encouraging secular folks to communicate about religion and seek out more information even if it is not their forte. I think if more religious people had really interacted with me in an accessible way, I may not have felt such a need to join in on all the LDS hoopla even though I did reap several benefits from my participation. Great blog Wendy, gets me thinking.

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Due out March 31, Relax, It's Just God: How and Why to Talk to Your Kids About Religion When You're Not Religious offers a well-researched look at a timely subject: secular parenting. With chapters on avoiding indoctrination, talking about death, vaccinating kids against intolerance, dealing with religious baggage, and getting along with religious relatives, the book offers a refreshingly compassionate approach to raising religiously literate, highly tolerant and critically thinking children capable of making up their own minds about what to believe. The book may be pre-ordered by visiting Brown Paper Press.

      Natural Wonderers is my new blog published by the Patheos faith network. An extension of my previous blog — Relax, It's Just God — Natural Wonderers offers stories and advice on raising curious, compassionate children in secular families.
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