There’s an Atheist in the House


Photo illustration by Dale Klaus

Parents sometimes struggle when a child is a non-believer.

By Susan Passi-Klaus, contributor for 

My 24-year-old daughter loves staring at the stars, growing roses (which I water) and dreaming about attending art school in England. She is crazy about dogs. Crazy about drawing. And will always remain crazy about Harry Potter.

But the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible? Well, she is not too crazy about this “God thing.”

When she was 15, she told me she was an atheist. I was not shocked. I was not emotional. I just rolled my eyes and smugly said, “Well, God isn’t finished with you yet.” I was certain that her “lapse” in faith would not last long. She would “get over it” just as she had gotten over Beanie Babies, alternative rock bands and her nasty obsession with wearing all black.

Turned out that the whole ordeal was indeed a growing pain, but mine, not hers.

Ten years later, my persistent daughter continues to stand her earthly ground. God does not exist. Science rules. Carl Sagan is cool.

“I can remember being wary of organized religion, even when I was quite young,” she said. “Something felt ‘off.’ When I was a bit older, I’d notice that everyone around me was clearly feeling something that I could not. They had a tangible relationship with God. They could hear his voice; they could feel his presence. I felt nothing. I thought I was broken. But I kept praying because I thought it was what I was supposed to do.

“Accepting my beliefs — or nonbelief — took me a long time because I was scared of disappointing my parents, and I was scared there was something wrong with me. I felt ashamed.”

So what are parents to do? Her dad and I debated with her. Preached to her. Reasoned with her. We used everything from theological documentation and Scriptural assurance to Sunday school lessons and counseling with the youth director — all to “prove” our point. There is never a “winner.” In the end, if there is an end, we simply decided to love her and support her life journey into herself.

Fight temptation to debate and preach

Some would say we failed not only God, but also our child. The Rev. Kenda Creasy Dean, United Methodist pastor, author and professor of youth, church and culture at Princeton Theological Seminary, understands the frustrations both parents and children face when their religious worldviews do not match.

“I’ve fallen into all the traps,” Dean said. “The feeling of failure is real. So is embarrassment. So is fear and the temptation to debate and preach.”

“Bringing kids to church helps sometimes, but not always,” she said. “If I were an honest teenager, there are times I wouldn’t have wanted to be there either. And as an honest adult, there are times I'm embarrassed by the witness of our church. And there are times I’m embarrassed by my lame witness as a parent.”

Dean’s experience with research reveals that during high school, kids are most likely to mirror their parents’ faith. However, what many young people see in that mirror is that their parents “don’t give a hoot about faith.” They do not make it a priority.

“A majority of young people hold to a benign ‘whatever-ism’ when it comes to religion,’” she said. “They believe that religion helps them to be nice and helps them feel good about themselves, but that God pretty much stays out of the way.” Much has been made of the increasing numbers of young adults — about one in three — who are religiously unaffiliated.


Rose City Park United Methodist Church in Portland, Ore., posted a church sign that quickly went viral: “God prefers atheists over hateful Christians.”

The goal was to start a conversation, explained church administrator Kay Pettygrove. “We wanted to share our message, ‘Kindness is better than hatred.’” The church has received both compliments and criticism.

The atheist community is grateful. “I've been told many times,” Pettygrove said, ‘even though I'm an atheist, I would still come to your church.’”

“Most of them aren’t atheists,” noted Dean. “They are ‘nothing in particular’ — they’re not against religion, but they can’t find a reason to claim one for themselves.”

Study after study shows Americans are not very open-minded when it comes to atheists. In fact, they “strongly distrust and fear” — even using the word “threatened” to describe nonreligious people.

Dan Arel, author of Parenting without God, is “one of them.” Raised in an evangelical church, heavily involved in his church growth and nurtured by a deeply religious mother and churchgoing father, Arel began to explore beyond church pews.

‘This is your journey’

He asked many of the questions young adults are asking today: Is anybody listening? Where is the person who should be helping us? What happens when we die?

He expects his own son, now 3, to have many of the same questions. Arel will give him the unconditional freedom his parents offered: to explore and find his own way to whatever he chooses to believe.

“I know far too many atheists who have been shunned by their families,” he said. “[The parents] feel shame for what their kids believe.”

Christian parents, Arel has found, seem most afraid of what their children will not have if God is absent from their life — comfort, endurance and a place in heaven.

“It's very scary for a parent to think their child will go to hell,” the journalist has learned. “They worry people will think their child is ‘lost,’ their social status will be tarnished or others will be judgmental about what is going on in their house.”

They especially worry their children will not have a purpose in life. However, “life has the meaning you bring to it,” he said.

Dean, a Christian, and Arel an atheist, share a philosophy: It is not a parent's job to make their children over into their own image religiously. Parents cannot teach their children what to think, just how to think.

The parent/child bond should not be broken because they have different worldviews,” said Arel.

Consider this advice if you and your child are struggling with faith and non-faith.

  • Always be supportive of your teenage children, even if you do not support everything they believe or do. Unless their beliefs harm others or themselves — which calls for immediate action — do not overreact or become confrontational. Share mutual questions, experiences and points of view.
  • Don’t tell adolescents their beliefs are wrong. Support their exploration without fearing or discounting their discoveries and share the ways you explore your own faith.
  • Ask yourself questions. Evaluate your beliefs. What kind of role model are you?
  • Forgive yourself if you find that you and your young adult children are on different pages about faith.
  • Do your best as a parent and let God do the converting. Just because some young people reject God doesn’t mean God has rejected them.