Lifetime Connections

Exploring women's relationships in families and friendscapes

Parenting My Atheist Sons

It's about Ethical Living and Doing What's Right

Adolescents are driven to try out new identities and unfamiliar behaviors. They take risks about which their youthful sense of immortality diminishes their estimation of potential for harm. Teenagers live in a world in which they “perform” their lives on an “imaginary stage” and naively, but honestly, believe in personal immortality and immunity from harm. Belief in anything beyond their own superiority and invincibility is asking a lot from many adolescents.

Teenage risk takers can talk themselves into many situations in which their health is put at risk. They may assume that youth offers protection from the adverse health consequences of substances such as nicotine, caffeine, and hard core drugs. Young girls might assume that “you can’t get pregnant the first time you have sex.” Young men might believe that pushing their cars to reckless speeds could never end in tragedy, because they “know how to handle this machine.” The limits that we place on our teenagers are the precise limit that they will feel compelled to break.

I have friends whose families attend the same religious services at the same church generation after generation. Church cemeteries seem to be named in the family’s honor for the sheer number of times their family name is found memorialized on granite and marble within the gates. Their children are born into the faith, baptized in the faith, move from the church nursery to the church youth group, and a few years later are then are teaching the next crop of kids when they take on Sunday school teaching assignments. And we might assume that their parents are doing an excellent job raising pious and devout offspring to become pious and devout leaders in the church.

Sometimes, however, what we see from the outside is not necessarily what is seen from the inside of the family structure. Perhaps there are arguments from teens about the expectation that they attend church with the family. Or perhaps a teen’s only reason for regular youth group attendance is a romantic attraction for another member of the group. Or perhaps it is the iron rule of the family’s matriarch or patriarch that is behind the “Sunday Show-Up” for a youth. Whatever the reason, no doubt there are multitudes of adolescents going through the motions related to religious observance. I know – I have raised a couple of young adult men who have let go of their once avowed beliefs about the existence of God or of just about anything that cannot be scientifically proven. They are very bright young men, but they also reflect a culture in which almost anything that can be imagined can be created – just think about the amazing development of “3-D Printing.” Faith in a God that is paternal, forgiving, and a balm for the soul seems totally unnecessary by many young atheists who believe that “right behavior” is the right choice and that they don’t need the threat of eternal punishment to motivate their ethical choice making. They see the world not as the product of seven days of work by an omnipotent God; it is the product of an awesome meteorological event that created the planets, the stars, and animal, vegetable, and human life at rates commiserate with the complex and lengthy tasks at hand. Life is moving us forward this very moment and we need to be “in the now” they would remind us. But “carpe diem” is hardly a new admonition!

Are atheists “bad” because they don’t believe in a heavenly good/God? Are parents “bad” for allowing their children to try out new ways of looking at the old problems? While certainly many of my sons’ friends are devout and believers in a faith-based religion, several young men are as strong non-believers as my most non-believing son. One of my son’s best friends is a self-proclaimed atheist. His highly religiously active family assumes it is “just a stage,” and his girlfriend tries vainly to induct him into her family’s faith tradition. This is the boy who volunteers for community service events at his college, who is always a kind and responsible house guest when he visits our home, who is polite, well-mannered, and who is the kind of young man about whom many of us would say, “Wow, his parents really raised him right!” And if you listen in on a discussion between him and my son, you might hear them debate the merits of a variety of music groups, video games, potential occupations, and college choices. And you may also hear them talk about a view of the world in which today is what is given and all that we can assume, that we are fortunate that evolution happened the way it did so that the two young men could be sitting together, in the same dimension, passionately discussing their perspectives and their beliefs, or lack thereof.

While one mother might fret and worry that her son is going to be lost to the eternal fire of hell if he does not see the light and come around, another mother might be grateful that her son is not buying into “fairy tales of creation.” Another mother might just recognize that belonging to a faith-based institution doesn’t guarantee ethical, right-minded behavior any more than being born into a hotbed den of family atheists will produce a felon.

If my sons choose to do what is right in this world, to care about the well-being of others, to advocate for those who are unable to advocate for themselves, to make the decision to live healthy lives without excessive indulgence in those things that can harm them, then they are living a life that cannot help but make a positive impact on the universe. So long as their paths are marked by ethical choices and striving for personal growth and development, I can easily embrace and celebrate those good-hearted young men.

Suzanne Degges-White, PhD, is a licensed counselor and professor at Northern Illinois University.
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