When my son came home a few days ago and announced, "Charlie's* an atheist like me!", I felt my chest tighten. After a deep breath, we had a short discussion about personal beliefs and why some people might get upset with him if their beliefs are different from his and then I reminded him that he is still learning and suggested he might want to hold off discussing religion at school.
Then the guilt came. Had I just made him feel bad for expressing what he thinks? Why was I trying to talk him out of being confident? Why should he not look for bonds with other children whose families might be similar to ours? Why should he be asked to not discuss his family's beliefs? Would a child raised in Christian or Muslim or Hindu tradition be told not to bring up such topics? My first reaction should have been one of joy for him that he had found someone with whom to empathize but instead I shut him down.
My husband and I make a tremendous effort at teaching our son tolerance. He is well acquainted with stories from the Bible, and knows the basics of Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, Pantheism, Deism, Judaism, Wicca and more. We tell him what we believe and why and encourage him to ask the same questions of others. We want him to make an informed decision when he decides which beliefs will ultimately be his own. Having done a fair amount of religious study myself, I am at least somewhat aware of just how much he doesn't know yet and it bothers me to hear him call himself an "atheist" because he cannot possibly have enough information to make that decision for himself. He is placing a label on himself out of familiarity. I don't like to hear children being labeled in the traditions of their parents because they do not have the cognitive abilities to fully understand what those labels mean much less the greater implications of being associated with those labels. But labeling himself prematurely wasn't really what had bothered me so much.
The truth is that I told him to keep quiet out of fear, selfishness and shame; fear that others will use the difference to shun or bully him, selfishness for not wanting the other parents to look at me "that way" and shame because I have been conditioned to believe that there is something wrong with being an atheist. Many of us have it drilled into our brains from a young age that atheists are "bad people" and it is troubling to realize that despite knowing this to not be the case, I still have that reaction within me.
So how do I teach my child to be proud of his family while being cautious of intolerant people and navigating my own inconsistencies? How do I teach him that we are good people? How do I let him know that whatever decisions he makes about who he is, if he comes to them honestly, are good decisions? How do I let him grow up being ok with himself?
For now, I just have to keep reminding myself that he has some advantages in the game. He does not carry the baggage of being raised in a religious home and deciding to leave his traditional beliefs behind. He has not been taught that thoughts can be "bad" or that he is always being watched and judged by an omnipotent, omnipresent father figure. He is still innocent and has a clean slate to build on. He is not me.
I can also assure him by showing him daily what I know to be true; that atheists can be good people. Our family treats others fairly and with kindness. We help where there is need. We are honest and ethical and caring. I can encourage him to speak with others openly and respectfully. I can teach him through example that there is no shame in choosing rationality over tradition or superstition by not letting myself, or him, be held back by who I used to be.
*Not his real name