by Derek K Miller

Back in the mid-1970s when I grew up in Vancouver, almost all the stores were closed on Sundays, because of a piece of legislation called the Lord’s Day Act. Every day before class in elementary school, we said the Lord’s Prayer. These were vestiges of a general assumption, made since British Columbia was colonized a century earlier: even if everyone in B.C. wasn’t Christian, the province would still run as if they were.

But Metro Vancouver has become remarkably secular in the three decades since then. In the 2001 Census, 40% of the population identified itself as having “no religious affiliation,” and the proportion is probably even bigger now. (That’s two and a half times the average across Canada.) My wife and I fit the trend: we have raised our two daughters, ages 9 and 11, in a non-religious household. Like us, few of our friends attend a mosque, temple, or church.

Buzz asked me to write this post because he saw that I just joined the Facebook group for Parenting Beyond Belief, a website run by Dale McGowan from Atlanta, Georgia. I signed up not because I needed much advice about raising children without religion (something many of us now do, especially in Vancouver), but to note publicly that it’s been the approach in my family since our kids were born.

Changing times

Until the 1970s, fewer than 1% of Canadians declared no religious affiliation—but it’s likely that social pressure simply kept the number of families who admitted no religion much smaller than the number who actually lacked it. As the numbers of non-religious have grown, so has our comfort with saying so.

Still, while non-religious families are common in Metro Vancouver today, that’s a relatively new development, one that mirrors the growing diversity of religious and non-religious philosophies among our region’s families:

  • In Surrey, for instance, there are more Sikhs than Catholics.
  • In Richmond, more Buddhists than Anglicans.
  • Celebrations of Diwali, Ramadan, and the Lunar New Year—not to mention the ubiquitous car flags if the Canucks reach the playoffs—overshadow what, decades ago, would have been far higher-profile Christian events, such as Easter or Lent.
  • The Christmas season has (for better and worse) become a catch-all celebration, encompassing not only the Christian holiday, but also the winter solstice, various other cultural and spiritual traditions, and a lot of shopping.

Yet raising children without religion is still something few people talk about. I think that is, in part, because many of us who do it don’t have a particular approach or philosophy about it. Non-religious families are unlikely to be militant atheists. Instead, here are some things we don’t do:

  • Pray.
  • Belong to churches, mosques, or temples.
  • Study religious texts.
  • Observe holidays as religious events.

…and so on. Indeed, we may dip in and out of the religious parts of society at our convenience. Just as I went to Sunday School as a child without it having much impact on my thinking about the world, my daughters attended a local preschool run by a church. There they not only played and learned to share, but heard Bible stories and said grace—along with other children whose families held a wide varieties of beliefs and non-beliefs.

By the time they were in a church-run after-school care program, our girls began to find the prayers a little annoying, which was one reason that, once they got older, they asked not to go anymore. Decades earlier, I’d become bored of Sunday School too, and decided it wasn’t for me. I haven’t been to a church service in many years.

Thinking critically

We’re not a dogmatic family, but when my kids ask me what I believe, I answer honestly. That is, I’m an atheist, and I see no reason to believe in gods, demons, or spirits of any kind. I also have cancer, so talk of death is unavoidable. They know that I expect no afterlife once I die—that anything that remains of me will be in their memories. More importantly, they know that doesn’t scare me.

That raises a key point. My wife and I have tried to raise our daughters to think critically and reasonably. We didn’t restrict their television viewing much, but one of the first things we taught them is that every commercial is trying to sell you something. We want them to extend that awareness to the rest of the world too.

People—including me—make all sorts of claims, but I hope my daughters learn to evaluate those claims on their merits, and on the evidence. Many claims in politics, business, religion, or even love might be unjustified, or might hide an agenda, just like TV commercials.

Of course my daughters are different from me, and they might develop or adopt spiritual beliefs as they grow up. I want them to make decisions about how they view themselves in the universe, rather than having a viewpoint imposed on them. I hope they do so as free-thinking individuals, with as much knowledge as they can accumulate. And I want them to understand why I’ve come to hold the views I have.

I joined the Facebook group in part to raise my hand and say, again, “Yes, good people can raise good kids without religion.” And I also wanted to support Dale McGowan’s attempts to communicate that message, without being malicious or offensive, to the many religious and spiritual people with whom we godless parents share the world every day.

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