Below is an edited selection of answers offered by members of the BHA to questions that affect humanist families, showing a range of approaches to common experiences.
The BHA may publish a booklet expanding on this selection if there is sufficient interest. Email us if you would like to participate in this project by sending in your answers to these questions or suggesting further questions.
What should I do if my child “catches” religion at school or university?
I did not fear my daughter ‘catching’ religion because had she done so it would have been her choice, and despite what I believe, it was not my right to prevent her from being exposed to the thoughts and beliefs of others. Similarly we never withdrew our children from assemblies.
These things happen. All we can do is to introduce the skills our children need to differentiate in their own heads between the rational and irrational, good and evil and the skill to debate these with others. If despite this, they feel the need to adopt a belief, then they have the tools to review it at any stage.
I would not worry if a child catches religion: I don’t consider religious beliefs to be an incurable virus. There were months I felt my kids enjoyed the idea that their faith distanced themselves from me (as their still new stepfather – now they have other ways of rebellion). In fact it didn’t, so they gave up that one.
My five-year-old son came home asking me about God. I told him I didn’t personally believe in one but this is something everyone must think about and decide for themselves. He thought about it for ten seconds and announced that he believed in one. For the next three weeks or so he repeatedly asked “Why did God do that?” (pointing, for example, to a squashed hedgehog at the side of the road) and I repeatedly answered that as I didn’t believe in one, I wasn’t the person to ask. I then gave him a more rational explanation for whatever it was and he finally renounced his religious faith.
I ’ve no real experience of this as neither of my children ever did ‘catch religion’, despite going to a church school. One went through an “astrological” phase, which I found very annoying and irrational, and did argue with, and she grew out of it. If either of them found religion supportive and life-enhancing I would tolerate it (as I do with my religious friends), and perhaps even welcome it if it made them happy – but it hasn’t happened.
Should you withdraw your child from school worship and RE, and what is the best way to handle this?
No, I believe strongly that they are entitled to share in full in the life of the school. My approach is to work to ensure the school is not indoctrinating them in any religious belief and that they are fully aware of the nature of religion and the alternative choices available.
We debated this but felt it better to leave the child amongst his peers. Taking children away from a class differentiates them and makes them stand out, which is difficult for a child until they have developed enough to explain why.
No, absolutely not. Assembly is a time when the child is helped to feel part of the school community. Awards are given, notices read out, school rules reinforced etc. Any child who misses this is bound to feel that they are on the margins of their school society. More to the point, who ever was converted to Christianity or any other religion, by a school assembly? My recollection was that assembly confirmed my suspicions that religion was complete nonsense!
I never even considered this – I’m not sure that I was aware of the right to excuse them then, or would have exercised it if I had been. I just don’t think contact with religion or learning about it is harmful. Though RE was the only subject in the school curriculum where I felt duty-bound to correct what they were taught with ‘Well, some people believe that, I don’t…’ I did feel vaguely annoyed that I felt obliged to counteract what they learnt in RE in a way that no other school subject required. But I do think parents can’t leave everything to schools, and passing on beliefs and values is a parental duty.
I struggled with this one when my youngest went to a Church of England school which was very religious and in the end, I did decide to withdraw her (at her request!). But soon after, the head changed and the assemblies became completely different, certainly with no worship.
There was no worship at my kids’ school and I would have withdrawn them if there had been. RE was comparative religion which they found utterly boring, though I encouraged them to learn all about the different faiths.
RE is relevant whether you believe the stuff they teach you or not. Sometimes it helps to know what other people believe.
How do you respond to the religious festivals and religious stories children hear at school?
Religious festivals and stories are treated by us as part of the culture of this country, to be learnt about and enjoyed like other celebrations/folklore/stories, but minimising the religious aspects.
I am personally interested in beliefs told through stories, and enjoy learning about festivals, and so although I can critically dissect the ‘facts’ they present if necessary, my children’sunderstanding of my general view about religious belief is all I’m concerned for them to know. Constantly attacking something is boring as well as ineffective, I think.
We celebrate Easter and Christmas at home. I don’t see any incongruity in this. Celebrating is fun. The children participate in religious aspects of these festivals at school, but they don’t take them too seriously. They know that there is no Santa Clause and no Easter bunny. By the same token they know that there is no god and no life after death.
Religious festivals at school were entirely Christian, and we joined in with the festivities without feeling any obligation to believe the stories they were based on, pretty much as we still do.
How much do you go along with magic and fantasy in children’s lives – Father Christmas and Harry Potter, for example?
We went through the fun of Father Christmas and other fantasies without fear that it would harm them. Today they are both useful adult members of society without a belief in dogma of any sort.
We completely enjoy all fantasy and magic stories and films, while making it clear they are just fictional. I remember saying to my daughter (once she was old enough to be fully aware Father Christmas was a human invention), ‘God is a bit like Father Christmas – you can choose to believe in him if you wish’!
The whole family enjoys fantasy. I think it harmless fun, and would not have deprived my children of it. We had Father Christmas, the tooth fairy, imaginary friends, the lot. They are all complete sceptics and probably always were, but still enjoy fantasy.
These things are fun! It is important for all parents to keep communicating with children and check what is really going on in their minds. Simple questions like: ‘Is that real or pretend?’; ‘Could someone really do that or not?’; ‘Could that person be exaggerating or making up a story?’; ‘How can you find out whether that is true or not?’
I certainly hope that magic and fantasy are valid, because I spend a ridiculously large amount of time writing stories that aren’t true. I used to embellish the truth sometimes when I was younger, and, now I’m older, I’m aware there are things about my life that I’m not sure of as factually correct. As long as I’m not using ‘fiction’ to mislead or mistreat others, fantasy can be effective in highlighting issues, and I often resort to storytelling in the long discussions about life I have with my fourteen year-old daughter. She’s now begun to return the compliment – one that tells the other they matter enough to take the trouble to talk to. Fantasy and a sense of magic are powerful tools of the human brain, and, when truth gets rather hard to take, are also useful to relaxation.
How do you explain death and deal with bereavement?
Death has been dealt with in a factual manner, but not unsympathetically. For example following the recent death of their Grandma we have shared our feelings of sorrow without suggesting belief in any after-life.
Having pets, being involved in nature conservation and having a number of relatives die did it for us. We have our own sadness and they can empathise and when we explain what our feelings are, they will have some understanding, which will develop as they grow.
We have had lots of pets, and the children are used to the idea that all animals and humans have a natural life span, and can get sick and have accidents before that life span is over. We talk about the quality of the animal’s life, and feel glad that we give our pets the happiest time possible. We have little funerals for the animals when they die. I make it clear to the children that the funeral is for them so that they can have a happy memory of their pet, not for the pet, who is dead and doesn’t care what happens to them.
When the children ask what death is like, I ask them what it was like before they were born. My children seem happy with the idea that being dead is just like not being born yet – not horrible, not scary, not sad, not boring, just not…
We haven’t had to deal with human death yet. My daughter often refers to her long-dead grandma ‘in heaven’, but when I check with her what she believes about heaven she says ‘Duh! It’s only pretend!’ Heaven is perhaps her way of dealing with something that is too big for her to understand. I don’t feel that there is any harm in it.
Everyone and everything that lives is also going to die. People are going to be leaving you all through your life, and when some people leave, all you have left of them is memory. As long as you remember them, they never leave you.
How do you introduce Humanism to very young children?
The only way to bring up children is by example. Humanism has been introduced gradually, like most education – for example, by firstly explaining at infant school age, when they first come across the concept of god, that we choose not to believe but other people do and we should all respect each other’s beliefs.
It depends upon age but as they learn about the world, whether on the news or from local events or personal events, these can be put in a context – we do it this way because we are humanists, we may not believe in a god but we believe in people and in particular, the Golden Rule.
I would merely hope my own behaviour would serve as a positive role model for young children. Humanism as a conceptual word probably is meaningless until late primary or early secondary school years.
I didn’t, but I did pass on ‘humanist’ values – do as you would be done by, put yourselves in other people’s shoes etc… I think that teaching children to be good and why is all you need to do when they are very young. Eventually this evolves into Humanism. We felt no need to mention God, or our disbelief in God (why raise something you don’t believe in?) until it came up at school.
I don’t. I just let them see, through our example, the way to live a good life. So far it is working – they are lovely, sensitive but down-to-earth children. I don’t happen to believe that my children are humanists by default. Being a humanist required positive effort and maturity. When they grow up, I hope that they will be humanists.
Is marriage just a religious concept, or one that is useful to humanists too? What do you teach children about relationships and families?
I have not really linked the choice of whether to get married or not strongly with a religious decision, but for separate and probably similar reasons, shared my view that marriage is an historical institution which is becoming less necessary, but fine for those who wish to use it if it offers people something they want.
The third definition of marriage in my Collins English Dictionary 1979 (updated 1982) describes it as ‘a religious or legal ceremony formalising [the union that is nowhere described as religious]” – which suggests that it’s nothing to do with religion at root. I’m sure marriage is useful to some humanists – I know some who’ve chosen to marry. The value of a relationship (especially a marriage) is in the acts of the couple involved, and I extend this approach to all my relationships. As for others’ choices in relationships, they should be respected, although open to criticism when the actions don’t live up to reasonable expectations.
Personally, I think marriage is important. Staying with one other person for the rest of your life is a challenge, and without the support of friends and family, might prove impossible. A wedding, if nothing else, brings those people together to support you. Children need stability. Unless a relationship is totally rotten, there is much to be said for living and maturing alongside another human being, bringing up children together.
I don’t think marriage is a religious concept, but a morally neutral and useful social convenience for the bringing up of children and for mutual support. If couples can achieve the same degree of loyalty and mutual support and long-term commitment to children outside marriage, then fine, though the statistics give some cause for pessimism about that. I think I would feel happy and relieved if my daughters did marry, because I see it as a grown-up commitment, a sign of settling down at last – this is old-fashioned, I know, but it’s certainly not a religious impulse!
I haven’t worked out what I think about marriage but when I do I might try it out for size. I’ve never discussed it with the kids but have always been open about the fact that I never married and have never been asked for any reason.
The meaning of life?
I thought that all Humanists believed that our existence had no more meaning than the existence of other animal or vegetable life forms on this planet, and that we choose to lead reasonable ordered lives for our own personal satisfaction and the successful function of society.
I don’t recall my children ever asking me this essentially unanswerable question!
- Robert Coles’ The Moral Intelligence of Children (Random House, 1997, ISBN 0-679-44811-X), written by “one of America ’s leading authorities on young people”, full of anecdotes, wide-ranging and sensible, and fairly free of psycho-jargon.
- Atheist Mum: blog by a BHA member and mother
- Family and Parenting Institute (NFPI) is the website of an independent charity working to support parents in bringing up their children, to promote the well-being of families and to make society more family-friendly.
- Books for Bereaved Children recommended by humanist families and the BHA.
- Childhood Bereavement Network for lots of good advice for parents, carers and trainers.
- Morals without Religion: psychologist, humanist and broadcaster Margaret Knight’s historic 1955 radio broadcasts on teaching morality without religion still contain much of value today
- Moral panics, moral education and religion: BHA education officer reflects on humanist Margaret Knight’s historic broadcasts and their relevance today.
- Extracts from The art of creating ethics man, a reassuring 2006 article about moral development in children