Julie Drizin, (left) her wife Ellen Kahn (right) and their daughter Jasper… (Marvin Joseph/THE WASHINGTON…)
For Julie Drizin, being an atheist parent means being deliberate. She rewrote the words to “Silent Night” when her daughters were babies to remove words like “holy,” found a secular Sunday school where the children light candles “of understanding,” and selects gifts carefully to promote science, art and wonder at nature.
So when she pulled her 9- and 13-year-olds together this week in their Takoma Park home to tell them about the slaughter of 20 elementary school students in Newtown, Conn., her words were plain: Something horrible happened, and we feel sad about it, and you are safe.
And that was it.
“I’ve explained to them [in the past] that some people believe God is waiting for them, but I don’t believe that. I believe when you die, it’s over and you live on in the memory of people you love and who love you,” she said this week. “I can’t offer them the comfort of a better place. Despite all the evils and problems in the world, this is the heaven — we’re living in the heaven and it’s the one we work to make. It’s not a paradise.”
This is what facing death and suffering looks like in an atheist home.
As so many millions of Americans turn to clergy and prayers to help their children sort out the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, parents like Drizin do not. They don’t agonize over interpreting God’s will or message in the event. They don’t seek to explain what kind of God allows suffering, and they don’t fudge it when children ask what happens to people who die, be they Grandma or the young victims of Newtown.
But that doesn’t mean atheist parents are alike in what they say, believe or do.
As the number of Americans rises who say they don’t believe in a supernatural God, atheists have become more public and confident, spurring a boomlet of church-like Sunday schools for children where secular ethics are taught, and parenting groups where people meet to discuss things like the overbearing religious grandparent, how to teach world religions in the home and ways to help children navigate conversations with religious friends.
Such institutions and groups reveal a range of child-rearing views among atheist parents.
Many want their children to have regular rituals tied to traditional religion, like attending a house of worship, lighting Hanukkah candles or decorating Christmas trees. Some began giving thanks before meals when their children were born, directing their gratitude to the people who grew and made the food. Others say a pre-meal thanks to “God,” a non-supernatural concept they have shaped. Polls show 11 percent of atheists say they pray occasionally (6 percent say daily) and many consider themselves highly spiritual, experiencing transcendence in the wonder of space, nature and connections with other human beings.
Some say they want their children to be open-minded and that convincing their children of atheism is not important. Others feel it’s dangerous to unbiasedly present children with world views that aren’t based on scientifically provable facts.
Atheist parents describe talking about death with their children in a straightforward way, without anxiety.
“We are a science-based family. When we don’t know the answer, we say, ‘We don’t know.’ We don’t say ‘Jesus did it,’” said Jamila Bey, a 36-year-old D.C. radio host who attended Catholic churches and schools through college. Her son is 4.
Bey’s son was too young to hear about the Newtown shootings, but she said she was confronted unexpectedly with the topic of death a few months ago when he saw an episode of “Babar” in which a hunter shoots and kills the fictional elephant’s mother.
“He said, ‘Little boys shouldn’t be without their mommies, is she ever coming back?’ ”
I had to explain, ‘Honey, life is very long, but sometimes bad things happen. Not often and they hurt.’
“I said, ‘When people die, it’s just like before they were ever born. They’re not scared, they’re not hungry, they’re not cold. But the people left behind miss them.’ I didn’t fill him with ideas of celestial kingdoms where you get wings and [expletive].”
When Matthieu Guibert’s mother-in-law passed away this summer, his 10-year-old son heard a pastor at the grave mention a possible afterlife.
“He said it sounded weird to him, she was gone; how would we meet her again? It’s hard to grasp for a 10-year-old. I tried to tell him, ‘When you die some people think it’s part of another life, but we don’t believe it because there is no proof. We’d rather focus on this life.’ ”
His boys, 10 and 5, are too young to hear about Newtown, Guibert said, but if they did ask, he’d tell them the shootings were done by a young person who was mentally unstable.
“It’s hard to explain that to children. Even I can’t believe a human being can do that. I am in awe,” he said.