Just like when teaching children about sex, violence, or video games, there is no one correct way to handle the topic of religion that works for every family. No “one-size-fits-all”. I do believe, however, that there are wrong ways. I believe that it is wrong to teach your child to be disrespectful to another person because of their beliefs. I believe that it is wrong to make somebody feel bad because they don’t conform to the norm in that society. And, perhaps most importantly, I believe it is wrong to let yourself feel bad because you’re different.
Unlike many other adult atheists I know, I was never a Christian. My parents did not believe in God or go to Church and therefore I did not either. What many people don’t know is what it’s like to grow up feeling like you’re the only kid in the world who doesn’t celebrate Christmas for it’s true meaning. Who isn’t going through confirmation. Who will not stand up and say the pledge of allegiance because of the “under God” line. It’s tough to be an atheist kid. Seriously guys, it’s brutal.
I was teased and left out from as young as first grade. I questioned whether or not I could force myself to believe in these Bible stories that sounded just like the other fantasy characters I didn’t believe in. When my cheerleading squad ended practice by saying a prayer, I stood there feeling numb and wanting to cry. Why do my parents have to be the weird ones? Why won’t they just let me be a normal Christian kid so I’ll belong and people will like me more?
Yeah, it was that bad, and I don’t ever want my children to feel the things I felt. Thankfully, they might not have to. A secular summer camp for kids exists. It’s called Camp Quest. The first year I attended, I was 12 years old and entirely resistant to the idea of “atheist camp”. I thought, “Are you kidding me, guys? First you alienate me at school and sports, and now I have to hang out with other freaks?” Little did I know, that week of my life would be a total game changer.
I met my very first atheist friend (Hi, Rita!), and learned that I was not the only preteen in the world “doomed” to a life of being different. Between swim time, cabin games, horseback riding, squid dissection, pseudoscience, and all the other wonderful things I spent my teen summers doing at Camp Quest, I became the confident atheist woman I am today. I refuse to hide myself in the shadows just because that’s what other people want or expect of me. There is nothing wrong or shameful about being an atheist, and I’ve learned to love and respect those who hold beliefs that are quite different than my own.
The painful teasing of my childhood is forever in the past, and now it’s time to pass what I’ve learned onto my boys. That’s why Camp Quest will always be an important part of my life.
So while there may not be a “correct” way of teaching your children about religion as an atheist, I believe that there is a best way. Immerse them in a secular community full of other kids who share their values. Encourage them to abandon all notions of “normal” and let them be themselves. Let them question the world around them, even if that includes questioning atheism. Allow them to explore their inner thoughts and try out different identities, no matter how much it may scare you. When given the tools to explore their beliefs, children will begin to embrace them. A closet is no place for a child to thrive.
It’s not too late to register your child or volunteer for this summer’s Camp Quest session, but there are only a few spots left! Minnesota’s two sessions run from July 19-25 and July 26-August 1. For more information, check out the website at http://cqminnesota.org/