Ask Surly Amy: Skeptic and Faith Based Holiday Parenting

Hi Surly Amy!

My boyfriend and I have started very generally talking about maybe someday thinking about having a baby. I’m worried. Eg, I am 34 so we don’t have forever to be ambiguous about it, & he has a disability that makes it difficult for him to do many baby-helping things. I can deal with those! My question is- he’s not a go-to-church-all-the-time dude, but loosely Christian, mainly likes to think there’s “a plan”. I am atheist & think of it as a weird quirk in an otherwise lovely, smart man. A friend said we’d have to do it like any couple who have different religions. Which is fine except, for the love of fuzzy bunnies, HOW does that actually work? Is it like jesus-y easter with no easter bunny, or christmas with no christ but with santa? Because I can’t really going along with supernatural beings of any sort, or any of the other misogynist crap that comes along with most religious stuff. I can see it causing huge arguments. Help?

~ One half of the odd couple

Dear One Half of the Odd couple,

My initial response to this is to be sure to discuss these issues with your partner before you decide to get pregnant to make sure that you can come to an agreement before there is a baby in the mix. I completely understand the feeling that you need to hurry up and have a baby because you feel like time is running out but having a child is a huge, life-changing responsibility that is all about the child so do try to sort out any problems now, while you have plenty of rest. You know what is worse than not having a baby you want? Bringing a baby into a home where the parents are fighting.

That being said, my family celebrated most of the major holidays without invoking any gods into the mix. We still celebrate Xmas and Egg-and-Bunny-day and Turkey-Day we just don’t acknowledge any of the misconceptions or supernatural stories associated with those days. Holidays and festivals have been around much longer than Jesus and I think these days are important for bringing friends, family together and the community together. In fact, I love holidays! I don’t think there is any need to opt out of celebrations, just make them your own. Sometimes it’s as simple as saying “Happy Holidays” instead of Merry Christmas. In your case I think you will need to come to an agreement before hand as to how much, if any religion is shared in conjunction with those days.

I also thought, since I am child-free, that I should seek out someone who has more experience with parenting to get their take on this issue for you. So I went and found, Dale!

Dale McGowan is editor and co-author of Parenting Beyond Belief and Raising Freethinkers.

Here is what Dale had to say:

Most atheists in long term relationships or marriages ARE paired with Christians — statistically, it’s just going to be that way. And yes, some of them are entirely doomed by inflexibility on one side or the other (or both), but most are not, and yours doesn’t even sound close. Yours, in fact, sounds just like mine was. My wife was Baptist by upbringing and loosely Christian, lovely and smart (as you so perfectly put it) at the time we got together. She was not insistent that the holidays include supernatural elements, and it doesn’t sound to me like your boyfriend would be either. Why not ask to be sure?

Every religious holiday worth its salt has developed a purely secular parallel — Christmas, Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Easter — and many nominally religious people happily celebrate those rather than the far less fun religious versions. Even if he did want some mention of the nativity story, that shouldn’t be a deal-killer. All kids need is to hear more than one perspective, then get the clear message that they get to make up their own minds about things in the long run.

You might also want to read Pete Wernick’s essay “Parenting in a Secular/Religious Marriage” in Parenting Beyond Belief. He does a brilliant job of describing the open and honest compromises he and his Catholic wife worked out. Good luck!

Thanks to Dale, for his input and I hope this helped. Best wishes for a happy family!

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Amy Roth

Amy Davis Roth (aka Surly Amy) is a multimedia, science-loving artist who resides in Los Angeles, California. She makes Surly-Ramics and is currently in love with pottery. Daily maker of art and leader of Mad Art Lab. Support her on Patreon. Tip Jar is here.

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  1. I’m an atheist, my wife is agnostic-leaning-atheist-or-possibly-pantheistic, and we certainly celebrate Christmas. We don’t, obviously, go to church or somesuch, but we do give gifts, eat treats, and spend time being merry in general. We don’t do Easter, but we do Halloween, because watching scary movies, eating candy and dressing up are fun. We basically take the stuff we like, and leave the stuff we don’t. What’s to stop you from doing the same?

    Basically, talk it out. Agree on stuff. Agree on them for the right reasons, and agree on what you’re going to be teaching your kidlet. If he wants to raise the sprog Christian and you’re vehemently opposed, well, that may be a problem. If he’s fine with raising the kid infornmed about Christianity (as in, “I believe this, your mom doesn’t, but that’s fine”/”Your dad holds this belief, I don’t, but that’s fine”) but not impressing any particular beliefs, well, I’d say that is acceptable to most atheists – I’d guess you as well.

  2. I’m an atheist and my wife is a non-attending uninvolved Christian. We enjoy the cultural, eating and drinking aspects of Christmas and other holiday traditions, and my wife has no expectations that I participate if we’re attending a church service to hear a choir or see a friend perform. My daughter, who’s now 18, attends church and helps with a youth group and my 21 year old son is an atheist like myself. We all pretty much have agreed to disagree about religion and focus on what makes our relationship and family work. I think coming to some form of agreement before having children is important. I dropped my religious beliefs after my children were born so making things work was the only option available to us.

  3. Vaguely believing in a “plan” is a far cry from believing/celebrating that Jesus is the son of God and that he was born on Dec. 25th and that he died and rose from the dead 2 days later. It doesn’t sound like your guy is going to insist on Jesus-based holidays. If you discuss it, you can make the holiday your own. My husband and I are both atheists and we did very low key Santa/Easter Bunny stuff. We never tried too hard to hide the fact that we were the ones filling the stockings and hiding the eggs. We never used Santa and presents as a bribery tactic to make the kids behave. By age 7, they were all done with it.

    Other than the holidays, significant problems with religious differences could pop up when you talk to your young children about death and the belief in an afterlife. It would be very confusing for them to hear two different versions of that! That pesky existential stuff comes up when they get a little older. By that time, they may be able to understand and accept the fact that you and your husband have different beliefs.

    And finally, don’t be shocked if your little atheist starts exploring religious belief. My 20 year old daughter started going to church for the first time, about 6 months ago, with her boyfriend. It was the last thing we expected, but we are not making a big deal of it. We planted the seeds of science and reason and love. She has to make her own decisions.

  4. My parents were nominally religious, giving me just enough information and experience with religion to cause me to make up my mind that it was all bunk. As for holidays, we set up a nativity at Christmas, ate ham at easter, and otherwise treated most holidays as a good time to get together with family. Christmas was a time for singing carols, but nobody ever told me that I had to believe what the carols said or that my nativity had to be a “true recreation” of the birth of baby Jesus. It was just tradition – a thing we did for fun because we always had.

  5. “Most atheists in long term relationships or marriages ARE paired with Christians — statistically, it’s just going to be that way.”

    Oy! This sounds logical, but as someone who has surrounded myself with atheist friends and manages to date only non-believers, this seems a bit shocking. Maybe I’m spoiled by living in Portland, OR. Ending up with a Christian partner sounds unfortunate, but it’s something I simply haven’t considered much. I’ve always thought of non-atheism as a dealbreaker. I can be overly judgmental, though, so maybe it doesn’t have to be that way.

    1. I can assure you that it’s not as bad as you imagine. I think that many people probably end up in mixed relationships for the same reason that I did: we changed our beliefs well into things. If I was dating, I’m not sure that I would go for a believer, but I’m perfectly happy with my husband who is nominally Catholic. When we met, I was a committed Baptist, and now I’m an atheist. I think it would get hard if one partner was a strong believer, but if both people agree to work together and the religious one isn’t of the mind that everyone else is gonna burn, it’s not that tough.

  6. I’m Atheist and my wife is reformed Jewish. The synagogue she joined with the kids is very cool and the rabbi has no problem with me and my lack of faith. the relationship is one of mutual respect and so far no one has provided any reason to behave otherwise.

    My kids are getting a Jewish education but I also teach them the things I believe about the universe. It was always important to me that I don’t just indoctrinate them to my way of thinking, IMO that’s as wrong as when someone else does it. They have to decide for themselves what they are going to believe.

    But definitely discuss this with your BF. I’m lucky to have in-laws and a temple that are respectful of my ideas and patient enough to realize that fundamentally we really all want the same things for my kids. But I consider myself very lucky in that respect, not everyone has that.

  7. I feel right at home here. All of the above comments pretty much encompass what I was going to respond with: Life can be a series of messy situations, each of which must be dealt with actively, and objectively. Talking the issue through thoroughly is a great start that can lead to excellent, creative compromises.

    Of course my personal favorite way of dealing with the holiday complexities is skipping Xmas (and the consumerism it pressures us all into) and other holidays by going on vacation. New experiences are a great way to recharge and gain new life perspective.

    1. We live just south of the Canadian border and an amazing number of incredible Asian restaurants in the Vancouver area. Every other year we spend Thanksgiving feasting on Dim Sum or Malaysian in Canada and going to a movie; and when we get home we have pumpkin pie and smile at the clean kitchen!

  8. I’m really interested in this. I’m an atheist and don’t plan on having kids for at least another five years or so, but I’ve given a lot of thought to how I might want to raise them. I generally think that if I do have a partner, they will also be an atheist. The big issue that has been on my mind recently is what to tell kids about Santa Claus. Even many of my atheist friends think that it would be a shame to deprive kids of the *magic* of Christmas through the jolly old elf, but I really don’t want to encourage my future kids to believe in any kind of supernatural force. I don’t know if that’s a reasonable line to draw, given our culture, and how to deal with that should my partner want to do the Santa thing.

    I definitely agree with Amy that it’s something that should be discussed before having kinds (if possible), and hopefully you get it all figured out! :)

    1. My dad was an Atheist and way against the idea of lying to his kids. Santa was presented to us as a pretend game and it was plenty of fun. When other kids spoke about Santa, I thought they were just pretending too.

      I had a vague idea that kids “believed” in Santa, but I didn’t realise they actually _believed_ in Santa until Atheists started using it as an analogy. How odd.

    2. I don’t get the fear of Santa among Atheists. Yes Santa is fantasy but it’s also the first opportunity for kids to learn to change their minds based on evidence. I the ideal of never tricking your kids with things like Santa reminds me too much of the hippy parents I grew up around in the 70’s that never told their kids no. That didn’t work and I don’t see how this will either.

      Kids need to learn about things like limits and deception, better they learn it from a kind, fun source than a harsh cruel one.

    3. I figured out there was no santa when I was 4 and it did me no harm. I still loved christmas and enjoyed everything about it.

      1. I totally love Christmas without Santa, and I don’t think that learning he wasn’t real traumatized me or anything in any way. I know, too, that plenty of people are raised without Santa (or Christmas, for that matter) and are totally fine.

        I’ve also considered the possibility that letting go of the belief in Santa is great practice for kids’ letting go of other false beliefs and practicing their critical thinking skills. I’m just not sure how true or relevant that is. I’ve been doing a bit of casual reading on child development re: false belief recently, but still haven’t arrived at any decisions. It’s lovely to hear that other people have given it some thought, too, and what experiences they’ve had.

        Thanks! :)

  9. I’m actually surprised no one has mentioned Tim Minchin’s “White Wine in the Sun”, yet… about being non-religious but pro-Christmas.

    I like most of the holidays. Growing up religious, they have a lot of positive connotations for me. But, then, I don’t have kids.

  10. I’m atheist and my family (parents & children) celebrate all the religious holidays. I find that most “Christians” may at most want to go to church, but it’s mainly just a motion. Other than that, I think most Christians are effectively agnostic.

  11. I am more observant than my wife, even though she grew up with more than I did in regards to a religious education. For example on Shabbat I make a choice to walk to synagogue. My wife will often drive, especially if the weather sucks. To me walking is a cultural connection that resonates with me more than it does for her. We explain it to ours kids from the place of choice. This is the choice mommy makes and this is the choice I make…

    But even if you have some religion you can still find balance and teach critical thought. We have decided to give our kids a religious education. My oldest came home with a creation book he made in school. Each time he has asked me to read it to him, its turned into a discussion. I explain to him, that is maybe what the teach, but it is a story and allegory. They we talk about the real science.

  12. I miss the edit function of the old site…

    I am more observant than my wife, even though she grew up with more than I did in regards to a religious education. For example on Shabbat I make a choice to walk to synagogue. My wife will often drive, especially if the weather sucks. To me walking is a cultural connection that resonates with me more than it does for her. We explain it to ours kids from the place of choice. This is the choice mommy makes and this is the choice I make…

    But even if you have some religion you can still find balance and teach critical thought. We have decided to give our kids a religious education. My oldest came home with a creation book he made in school. Each time he has asked me to read it to him, it has turned into a discussion. I read it to him and then explain that it is a story and allegory. Then we talk about the real science. He loves the story and the science.

  13. Hey, letter writer here. thanks Amy, Dale, and everyone in the comments for your thoughts & ideas. Also the book recommendations, thank you! :)
    I’m an overthinker, so I basically assume that the solution has to be something insanely complicated. Probably involving spreadsheets. But you know, the idea that “this is what Mum believes, and this is what Dad believes” might be sufficient for many things – that’s awesome! With the wonderful added benefit of implying that you have to ask questions and figure out your own way.

    My BF and I have briefly talked about it, and his position is basically that we both want a baby and philosophical differences can’t be a dealbreaker that stops us. (I told you he was smart and lovely!) So I am probably overly worried for nothing, but like some of you have said, we might want to hammer out some ideas before we’re both sleepless and stressed.

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