An Atheist Mother’s Promise

by Tessa Tinney

A letter to my sons.

Every day, your dad and I are humbled by the responsibility of parenthood. Not only by the needs of feeding you and making sure you don’t bump your head on the corner of the coffee table. (I’ll admit, we’ve failed at that a few times.) But we’re also humbled by the role of raising you to be free-thinking, conscious and deliberate individuals in a society that’s on religious autopilot.

Faithful people often ask your dad and I how we’ll raise you without religion as our guides. They seem to think that we’re rudderless, listing with life’s current and without purpose. They ask how we’ll teach you to be moral without lessons from God. But we have a plan. We’re atheists by a lot of thinking, reasoning and choosing and we will be your parents with as much deliberateness and thought.

Hereafter is my commitment to you.

I promise that by example I will teach you kindness, justice, cooperation, respect and tolerance. Because morality is part of what it means to be a responsible member of society and the world.

I promise to help you see other people’s perspectives, consider their experiences and be tolerant of their differences. I’ll encourage you to see beyond the labels of good and evil to understand the complexity of human existence.

I promise that as you grow and as I get to know you, I’ll accept you for who you are rather than any preconceived notion of who you “should” be.

I promise to teach you that you’re an agent of change in your own life and in this world. You aren’t a victim of circumstance and you don’t need to wait for unseen forces to bring you miracles. You’re your own creator — of fulfillment, joy, love and peace.

Alongside science, history, philosophy and the arts, I promise to teach you about all religions and give you the intellectual freedom to wonder, question and come to your own conclusions. And if your conclusions are different from my own, as many inevitably will be, I promise to respect them.

I promise to tell you the truth as much as I know it. And encourage a lifetime of curiosity, questioning and exploration in pursuit of more knowledge and your own truth.

I promise to show you that this moment right here is all the heaven we need. This life is our gift and our purpose. It’s our opportunity to live richly and to make lasting and meaningful change for society and humanity.

And in guiding you through life, I promise to talk to you about death — as much as I understand it — without euphemisms or fables, but as a natural part of this complex and enduring world. And I’ll talk to you about how brief a time we have in a world that existed before us and that will exist far after we depart.

I promise to love you fiercely, honestly and courageously.

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21 Responses to An Atheist Mother’s Promise

  1. humanist says:

    This is really good.

    My thoughts
    I think over time as our secular society grows and matures defining things like “heaven on earth” will be unnecessary. Heaven as it’s defined is a perfect paradise and the world we live can never be that due to the randomness of our reality. Perhaps happiness and bliss or something in that vein would be worth exploring and defining without the heavliy religious word “Heaven”.

    Also human morality evolves over time and I think Sam Harris is helping us frame it better when he says “Morality must relate, at some level, to the well-being of conscious creatures”. So as we struggle today to grow the equal rights of all human beings around the world perhaps in the future the well being and equal rights of pets and other animals will also be included in our morality.

    These are just thoughts I had.

  2. ohtwinmom says:

    I absolutely love this! Just recently discovered the blog as I search for ways to expain things to my boys now that they are asking questions and am so happy to find this support!

  3. lemurtide says:

    Those are really nice sentiments.
    I wonder whether you will also teach your child, though, that there is no moral standard that has been consistent across human cultures throughout time. That human slavery was a norm across cultures for most of history. That infanticide and torture and gang rape were common elements of the way warfare was waged between both ancient tribes and very modern nation states.
    That in some places these behaviors are still carried out under some circumstances with no moral value attached to them, depending on whom the victims are. Gendercide in China comes to mind. Not considered immoral.
    That the most violent century on record was the 20th century and that it’s ideologies, it’s nationalisms, fascisms and communisms, were the products of secular, not religious thought. It’s tools of mass murder were the product of technological advance. It’s racist ordering of peoples the product of a pseudo-science called social Darwinism, under which sixty thousand forced sterilizations took place in the United States…along with the Holocaust.
    Most importantly, that your own perceptions about what is and isn’t moral did not appear in a vacuum but were shaped both by a Judeo-Christian culture heritage and also your (relative to history and the rest of the planet) extremely comfortable modern circumstances, with abundant food, health care and little statistical chance of premature death. And could change.
    In other words, that things really are all interconnected and complex and that you didn’t arrive at your own beliefs either about what is moral or about the absence of any creative force behind the universe simply after some reflection, but as an outcome of your circumstances. If you went to college or even grad school, you were probably even educated and mentored (again, according to research) by people who share your fierce secularism and (I’m guessing here) left/progressive thinking.
    Another influence, perhaps, to share with your child.
    You see, I’m not at all trying to be critical. I am also a progressive and a skeptic. You seem to be a person concerned with being good. Or minimally expressing that you are good in public venues, which is all I can fairly determine. Perhaps you are implying some ‘betterness’ relative to other people. People, I’m guessing, who raise their children within a religious community and teach them the beliefs and traditions they wish to preserve, rather than a nebulous set of possibilities for belief. Jews, Christians, Muslims. The overwhelming majority of parents, in other words.
    I just wonder in your search to be tolerant, or critical, as the case may be, whether you’ll give both sides an honest, historical appraisal. I don’t think we are nearly skeptical enough of ourselves.
    You see, I think the most fantastical belief of all, more easily disprovable than God will ever be, is the one that says that any of us are “beyond belief” about ourselves and the nature of the world. Accepting that, what is it to be honest with our children? However we share our own truths, whether as part of a faith community or in isolation, we will share them and they will be specific to us. Some parents will be more relaxed others will not. But I doubt you will be teaching your children that all moral orders possible and existent in the world of today or yesteryear are equally valid and so, you will still present him/her with a set of beliefs, rather than an utter tolerance, but will you be honest about where those beliefs actually originate? Where does your moral sense come from? And if it’s natural, then why is it so different from those of other humans across time and cultures? And why would it likely change in you if you were living their lives?

    Respectfully.

    • lorddon says:

      lemurtide: I appreciate you want to be thorough but we ARE talking about speaking with children, and we are speaking to them about opportunities afforded to them in the society we live in presently.

    • Lyoness says:

      I am in complete agreement.

      Every atheist I know was raised with a religious background — the vast majority of it being Christian in some form.

      I am a Catholic — albeit a very lax one who questions the religious structure often — and my husband is an atheist.

      I want to raise my kids (who are all under 6 years old currently) Catholic in a Catholic school. This means prayers at night. He refuses to pray with them.

      My argument is this (to him): YOU were raised Christian and grew up, learned and CHOSE to be atheist. You are okay with letting them believe in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, why not let them believe in God? They will grow up, learn and make their own choices. They will learn both the good and bad in being religious and make up their own mind. LATER. But for now, let them believe in a God who will protect them from the monsters under the bed, the Angels who watch over them while they sleep and fend off any boogeymen in their closets. Let them have their innocence and feel God’s love (even if you believe it’s all fake, it’s a GOOD fake).

      So thank you lemurtide, it’s refreshing to read your comment!!!

      • smithbros says:

        Honestly, I don’t know how you can raise children with someone with such different beliefs.

        Do your beliefs in God correlate to a belief in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy? Praying together isn’t the same as putting cookies out for Santa or putting a tooth under the pillow.

        The key word here is “letting”. Is your husband not willing to “let” them have their beliefs? Don’t ask him to be “fake” with his kids. That cuts off one belief system from them right there.

        • gaylene says:

          Your partner and their Dad should never pretend to be what he is not. You should expect him to discuss what they ‘learn’ in church in light of factual information. Furthermore, I don’t understand why you are willing to lie to your children. God will NOT protect them from monsters, nor will angels watch over them, etc. If these stories were true, children would never be abused – but they are. Often the abuse is at the hands of religious leaders, not boogeymen. Their innocence and safety is best assured by their parents.

    • Checkside says:

      Lermitude, I take issue with your portrayal of the atrocities of the last century as being the result of secular thought. There was nothing secular about Hitler. He was Catholic and his most abhorrent policies, including the Holocaust, were all derived from his religion, tolerated and even encouraged by the churches in Europe. Don’t confuse political movements with secularism either.

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  7. momof4 says:

    Tessa,
    A friend of mine said that I should read this, as she knows that I am passionate about parenting! When I popped in and saw your title I was a bit confused….where had she sent me…I am a christian and a pastors wife to boot….but I was intrigued.
    While reading this tears began to role down my cheeks…. The promises that you have made your boy are the kind of promises that truly matter….It seems to me that you will be raising a man of great character. Your love for your sweet one comes through in every word. It has been and still is my greatest hope that people would love their wee ones with such depth. Not to mention show love and respect to those around them.
    We may differ on a few small things :0) but I assure that I would consider it an honor for our children to be friends and maybe just, maybe change the world for the better.
    It is my hope that when things get tough that you remember to love him fiercely, honestly and courageously as you have reminded me.

  8. karen Loe says:

    I’m absolutely moved by this post!
    Thank you for putting into words how a true “thinking” parent shuns the majority rule goals for parenting and forges a pathway from their own heart, mind, and ethical realities.

  9. kaijade says:

    I think this is a beautiful promise to make to your children. I’m not really religious at all, I say Christian, but I haven’t gone to church since I was little. I guess I’m more “spiritual” than “religious”, I believe somethings out there. This promise is perfect for any and all parents to make to their children.

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  11. rdoggdrums says:

    I did a little review of this and blogged it, here is the address if you would like to see it. Great stuff! http://rdoggdrums.wordpress.com/2013/05/12/an-atheist-mothers-promise/

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  13. Brookemo says:

    I love this it is so well done. I will admit though I have more recently accepted my non-belief (compared to the frustrated and confused person I was before), I have trouble teaching my son about death without heaven. Only because we lost his baby brother at 4 months old, my oldest is 10 now and is really scared of the thought of no heaven, I of course allow him to believe as he wants but he has been conditioned (a nice word for it) by my mother in law a very catholic women and pushed my son to the beliefs he has today though I try to keep him open minded. I wish I had such words he could understand about death and the loss he suffered years ago. Again thank you for this post its perfectly said.

  14. Sergio Vazquez says:

    I loved your letter and I would like to share in my Spanish-speaking community in Mexico. I ask your permission to translate. many Thanks

  15. Sergio Vazquez says:

    Por Tessa Tinney
    Una carta a mis hijos:
    Todos los días, tu padre y yo estamos abrumados por la responsabilidad de la paternidad. No sólo por las necesidades de alimentación de ustedes y por asegurarse de que no se golpeen la cabeza contra la esquina de la mesa del café. (Admito que hemos fallado en eso algunas veces.) Pero también estamos abrumados por el papel de criarlos para ser libre-pensadores, personas conscientes y bien intencionadas en una sociedad que generalmente está en piloto automático religioso.
    Los creyentes a menudo nos preguntan a tú papá y a mí cómo les criaremos sin religión como nuestras guía. Parecen pensar que estamos sin timón, siguiendola corriente de la vida y sin ningún propósito. Se preguntan cómo les enseñaremos a tener moral sin las enseñanzas de Dios. Pero tenemos un plan. Somos ateos por medio de mucho trabajo de pensamiento, razonando y haciendo elecciones y seremos sus padres con toda deliberación y conciencia.
    Este es mi compromiso con ustedes.
    Yo prometo que con el ejemplo les voy a enseñar la bondad, la justicia, la cooperación, el respeto y la tolerancia. Porque la moral es parte de lo que significa ser un miembro responsable de la sociedad y del mundo.
    Me comprometo a ayudarles a ver las perspectivas de otras personas, considerar sus experiencias y ser tolerantes con las diferencias. Les impusaré a ver más allá de las etiquetas de lo bueno y lo malo para entender la complejidad de la existencia humana.
    Les Prometo que a medida que crezcan y conforme llegue a conocerlos, los aceptaré por quienes son en lugar de cualquier noción preconcebida de lo que “deberian” ser.
    Me comprometo a enseñarles que ustedes son un agente de cambio en su propia vida y en este mundo. Que ustedes no son una víctima de las circunstancias y que no es necesario esperar a que las fuerzas invisibles hagan milagros. Ustedes son su propio creador – de plenitud, alegría, amor y paz.
    Junto con la ciencia, la historia, la filosofía y las artes, me comprometo a enseñarles acerca de todas las religiones y a darles la libertad intelectual para preguntarse, cuestionar y llegar a sus propias conclusiones. Y si sus conclusiones son diferentes a las mías, como será muchas inevitablemente, me comprometo a respetarlas.
    Prometo decirles la verdad hasta donde yo sé. Estimularé toda una vida de curiosidad, cuestionamiento y exploración en busca de una mayor conocimiento y de su propia verdad.
    Me comprometo a mostrarles que es este momento aquí y ahora todo el paraíso que necesitamos. Esta vida es nuestro regalo y nuestro propósito. Es nuestra oportunidad de vivir enriquecidos y de hacer cambios duraderos y significativos para nuestra sociedad y para toda la humanidad.
    Y guiándolos a lo largo de la vida, me comprometo a hablar con ustedes acerca de la muerte – tanto como yo la entiendo – y sin eufemismos o fábulas, sino como una parte natural de este mundo complejo y finito. Y voy a hablar con ustedes acerca de lo breve que es el tiempo que tenemos en un mundo que existía antes que nosotros y que existirá mucho después de morir.
    Prometo amarlos intensamente con honestidad y valentía.

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