Tonight on Maury: “Suddenly Atheist in a Strict Jewish Family!”

Question from Josh:
Hey Guys,

Firstly, thanks for wasting hours of my time and robbing me of any sort of productivity 🙂

I’m 30 years old and grew up in an ultra-orthodox, Jewish home. While I always had my doubts and skepticism, I did not make the leap to accepting there is no God till the past few months.

My wife is of course religious, and there are a ton of things we gotta work through now. My question to you is: Is there anything redeeming you can find in raising your kids to be religious?

Of course we will make sure they have a great education, and view everyone as equals, but is it morally or ethically wrong to raise your child with the burden of religious dogmas and beliefs you know to be false? (when I write out the question, it kind of answers itself. I guess I’m asking you to throw me a bone.)


Answer by SmartLX:
Think of it in more general terms: as a parenting team, what do you teach your kids about a subject where you disagree with each other? You hold off on the subject until it’s settled between you, if possible, but if it’s unavoidable then you’re honest about it at an age when you think they’ll understand the truth – “This is what Mum thinks, and this is what Dad thinks.” It’s a perfect introduction to critical thinking, and in the case of religion it often ends up favouring irreligion. I speak from experience, because the discovery of the mere fact of my father’s disbelief drove home to me that I had some investigating to do. There’s a good reason why many dogmatic religions have specific instructions against questioning them.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that you don’t go ahead and raise them in the Jewish tradition. For many branches of Judaism belief is one of the less important aspects of the Jewish identity, and simply teaching all the rituals, customs, Israeli history and so on will suffice. A “secular Jew” is a common thing, whereas you’d be hard-pressed to find a self-proclaimed “secular Christian”. Maybe it’s different in your family, but you can work with that: “This is what Mum and Grandma think, and it’s very very important to them so make sure you remember it, okay?”

As you can tell, I’m not okay with indoctrinating children into faith at the best of times, let alone when you don’t share that faith. If every voice they trust either tells them a thing is true or says nothing, they may believe it for the rest of their lives, or else have a very hard time shedding it later in life. That said, learning in my teens that my father was an atheist had a huge impact over time, so even if you do stay silent for years it may ultimately be for nothing in your family’s eyes once your real position slips out. Better to be straight with them at the start, and teach them to do what the family requires of them while knowing the truth of the situation.

I’ve got the same situation coming up in a couple of years when my son’s old enough to understand the concept of God, but it won’t be so difficult compared to your situation. My wife’s religious but liberal, and both sides of the family are a patchwork in terms of religiosity, so Junior will be exposed to a variety of viewpoints regardless of what I tell him, and therefore there’s no point pretending I agree with his mother.

Religious Education and Religious Schools

Question from Dean:
Brief background:
I am a Christian. When I was raising my Children we went to Church occasionally and my kids went to Summer Camp (religious one) every year until their early teens. (I know, very brief but it should do)
My Son is now in his 30’s with two beautiful children and I am a proud Grampa!

My Daughter in law wants to enrol the kids in a religious based school as opposed to the public system…mainly due that she feels they offer a higher quality education, I agree. And NO…the school is not a wacko young earth type group…and yes…they teach evolution and proper science.
Anyway….my Son flat out refuses and has informed me that he thinks religion is nothing but bullshit.

I respect his choice but I have explained to him that his children should have some religious education like he did, after all, he was free to make his choice and I love him just as much regardless.

I have always felt that exposure to religion is part of a well rounded education.
Free will is a very important part of my Faith, but to have free will and the freedom to choose you should also have exposure to your choices.

Am I wrong?

Answer by SmartLX:
I completely agree with you that exposure to religion is important, because it’s a huge part of everyday life even if you’re not religious, but religious education in a religious school usually goes beyond exposure and is seldom comprehensive.

The issue from your son’s perspective is likely that even a moderate Christian school will not only expose his children to Christianity but actively indoctrinate them into it to some extent at least, and it will not expose them to other religions (that is, other choices) as well. For both your sakes, it’s worth finding out what the RE curriculum is at this particular school, if only to confirm that you have something to fight about.

It’s always a dilemma for non-religious parents when the private, religious schools are the ones with the resources to offer the best education, which happens a lot. I was in exactly the same position myself, but as the child; my Catholic mother won out over my atheist father and I went to a liberal Catholic primary school. It didn’t stop me from questioning Christian doctrine at about age 11, and fading to agnosticism before I reached high school. Based on that alone I can assure you and your son that his kids’ ultimate positions are not foregone conclusions based on the choice of school, especially if it isn’t “wacko”.

I and a lot of other atheists see “comparative religion” as the ideal religious education: “This is what Christians believe, and how they worship. Now this is Hinduism…” and so on. It lays out the undisputed facts and the known history of the major world religions, without endorsing any particular view. That’s the kind of course that gives kids the most information, the most understanding and the widest choice. Sadly, only religious schools tend to be seriously interested in religious education at all, and they have a vested interest in not being impartial. (It’s certainly not the kind of class I had. I had to find it all out later.) This need not be a guaranteed deal-breaker for non-religious parents, but they do feel the need to take it into account.

My regards to you and your family. Good luck with sorting this out.

Dreaming of Hell

Question from Huzur:
Hello. I’m a twenty five years old male. I don’t believe in god anymore. Not until 15 at least. However sometimes my mind scares me, such as going to hell for eternity. So my question is: Do other atheists also ever get any christian themed nightmares?

Answer by SmartLX:
I don’t, but many atheists who were raised as Christians certainly do. Here’s a bunch of them talking about it.

I can honestly say that I don’t remember ever dreaming of Hell or the equivalent. I consider myself lucky that my old Catholic primary school and church were light on the fire and brimstone, and my separation from them was not charged with emotion. While I believed, I was very serious about sin and punishment, but now I just get the odd pang of unexplained guilt.

Depending on the severity of your religious upbringing, the fear you suffered as a child may qualify as clinically defined psychological trauma, and you could now be suffering post-traumatic stress. You don’t need to have been to Vietnam to get this, anything which scares or horrifies a person enough can trigger it. Regardless, if the nightmares and the fear keep up you might want to try counselling.

Richard Dawkins talks about this kind of thing a lot. He goes so far as to label scaring kids with hellfire as child abuse, and suggests that it can in some cases be worse than sexual abuse. That sounds extreme, but there is some terrible indoctrination out there (Nate Phelps, formerly of the Westboro Baptist Church, has a harrowing story) and some very mild and ineffectual sexual abuse (Dawkins himself was fondled by a priest as a child, and merely thought it was “yucky”). His detractors have claimed that he wants to have children removed from religious parents, but of course he’s never suggested anything like this.

Although your experience is not universal, you are far from alone. Take comfort in that, and in the fact that it can get better over time. Maybe you could use some help, maybe you’re fine, but I really feel for you.

Undoing Brainwashing

Question from Scott:
A bit about myself first.
I’ve been an atheist for a short time now, about a year now, to be honest i don’t even really call myself an atheist, as i am not really worried about belonging to a “group” or religion, it’s just Christians ask me If you don’t belong to a group you must lead an empty existence. So just to keep them quiet i just answer atheist, as it’s the closest group l would belong to.

I used to be Christian, but i also think very scientifically, but for some reason l never really questioned that religion, even though l always had a gut feeling something was very wrong, but l never questioned it. Until one day i took a step back and realized i was just part of a brainwashed group of people, so l left that religion, started asking questions, i didn’t get any answers, only riddles and only more questions.

My question is, since religion has been around a very long time and has been drilled into our brains since birth, even though i’ve left the religion, the religion has yet to leave me, how do we undo all those years of brain washing and lies?? I still find myself thinking like a Christian, don’t get me wrong, i’m still a nice person, very friendly, i wouldn’t hurt a fly (and that’s not because of Christianity, it was that’s how l was brought up) i just find my Christian brain washing is still holding me back from being a better person.

Sorry for the long email.

Answer by Andrea:
Hi Scott,
Thank you for your email. It’s an important question, since one of the basic instincts of human nature is the tendency to form groups.

I was brought up in a Mennonite type of sect, and it took me quite a long time to overcome the Christian brainwashing I was subjected to even after I decided I was an atheist (high school). My advice is to question everything that automatically pops into your mind in that Christian vein since much of thinking is habitual, which means it may be a knee-jerk reaction rather than reality. This particularly applies to Christianity, since there is no evidence of a Jesus, 12 disciples or most of the stories of the stories found in the Bible. What the evidence does show is that the Christian mythology was “plagiarized” from earlier religions, Horus (the Krst), Buddha, Krishna (Christ-na), Prometheus… many comparative mythologists and historical scholars say these “saviors” of the history found in the Middle East and Europe have hundreds of similarities in common with that of the Christ story, one of the later religions. Most of them had 12 disciples as well, and walked on water, healed the sick including lepers, preached “the truth,” came from above to “save” mankind, featured a talking serpent, were born of a virgin on Dec. 25, dying in April only to be resurrected three days later.

One reason religions are so successful is not that they hold “the truth,” which each of them hold claim to, but the feeling of community that they provide. Fortunately, there are at least 20 different groups of atheists, and all you have to do is choose one that best fits your needs or views. Try running an internet search on each of the following secular groups and take a look at their mission statements (many will have such groups in your area):

atheists, agnostics, brights, empiricists, freethinkers, materialists, naturalists, objectivists, rationalists, secular humanists, scientific humanists, skeptics and Zen Buddhists.

You didn’t say where you live, but also has a plethora of different secular groups that may hold meet-ups in your area.

You sound like a very caring, intellectual person. There are so many ways you can help. You may also want to check out my website, I don’t accept cash, but do furnish information on helping to fix this planet, which seems to be messed up in so many ways.

Best to you and thank you again for your email.


A Wife’s Changing Beliefs

“As a public school teacher now and having attended both Catholic and public schools, I can tell you there are just as many drugs and druggies floating around Catholic school.”

Question from Aaron:
My wife, who I’d say comes from a more than average religious family, has become more and more involved in religion lately. This includes attending church and listening to Christian bands, things which she had no interest in doing the first 10 years of our marriage. Asked why she is doing it now, she simply tells me it makes her happy. I don’t have any problem with that, besides the fact that I wished she had the same beliefs as me as an Agnostic/Atheist. But coupled with this, our young daughter is now being indoctrinated with these beliefs as we are having her attend a Christian school. We figured this would be the best choice for her overall education since the public schools in the area are far subpar. I try to get her to think about and question the things taught to her about religion and the bible, but I’m finding it difficult.

Answer by Andrea:
It can be heartbreaking when spouses grow apart but it’s also quite normal judging from the US divorce rate, which hovers at around 50%. With regard to your marriage, maybe it’s just a phase your wife is going through. If it’s not a phase, you might want to do a “Ben Franklin” sheet on the situation in the future, and see if the cons override the pros of staying together. I am a firm believer in divorce if one or both of the parties are suffering in the marriage because 1) I see it as a man-made institution created by other people to instill social control, not a “divine bond” as some theists assert; 2) Life is far too short and there are far too many good people out there to be miserable, and you can bet there are quite a few people looking for someone just like you; and 3) The Internet makes dating in mid-life or old age so much easier these days, especially with all the secular sites out there.

Regarding your child, I subscribe to free emails from a number of nontheistic sites, and what I hear more and more about is parents complaining about the indoctrination of their offspring into religion by well-meaning, but misguided, family members. There are a couple of books out there to help you as a freethinking parent in what seems like a world of theists. Try running a search at for Dale McGowen, I believe his name is, he have two such books out.

I would be careful about keeping my kid in a religious school if I were you. As a public school teacher now and having attended both Catholic and public schools, I can tell you there are just as many drugs and druggies floating around Catholic school. The nuns were also typically mean and nasty, from my experience. Also, in studies dating back at least the last 100 years, Catholics are overrepresented in the prison system, followed closely by people of other Christian denominations, like Protestants. In contrast, atheists, agnostics and those labeling themselves non-religious have the lowest per capita rates of imprisonment. Atheists also have the lowest divorce rates and the highest educational levels. And when it comes to education, you’ll be lucky if the kids even hear the word “evolution,” which no mainstream scientist denies. Unlike the American public and other than finer points, scientists haven’t debated evolution for the last half century. Perhaps this is the reason why a NASA scientist I know, who regularly judges high school science fairs, says the children from the religious schools always have the lowest quality science projects.

In other words, there are many good private schools that are secular. If you worry about your daughter attending a religious school, you might want to check into them.

Good luck to you.

Ask from the Past: Religion, Family and Children

“Given how hesitant you are to come out of the closet, are you certain you’re the only one in there?”

(When the archived ATA site was restored, a short list of unanswered questions were found in the approval queue. I’ll be answering them here in Ask from the Past.)

Question from Watcher:
I’m a deconverted ex-theist who lives in the Bible Belt. I was raised Southern Baptist and, as far as I know, all of my family is religious. I have young daughters and my mother has approached me saying that she is ‘dissapointed’ that I am not indoctrinating her grandchildren with religion. The main problem is that I have found myself unable to tell her that I am now an “atheist”.

Knowing that she does this out of love, and truly believes that they will go to Hell if I do not take steps to make them accept Jesus as their Saviour I find myself in a quandry. I’m still rather bitter at religion myself and at first thought would rather raise them to question theological claims.

This situation has the potential to create a serious rift in my family. Heck it would have been better if I was just gay. That wouldn’t create near the controversy. But now I don’t know what to do. She would probably go into a mental ward if she knew the truth about me. I work with people that don’t believe in evolution and believe in a young earth. I have no idea where to find advice for my situation where I live.

I think you’re dead right about the potential impact of declaring yourself “atheist” in a staunch Southern Baptist family. In some places and communities the word has a really disproportionate stigma.

However, give your mother more credit. That you’re not Bible-thumping your girls and that you probably don’t go to church much will have at least made her realise that you’re not very religious anymore. (I find “not religious” to be a great euphemism for “atheist” if I don’t want a conversation to suddenly be about that.) That you no longer believe might not be such a big shock.

If you capitulated but only at a surface level, you wouldn’t be the first parent teaching your kids family traditions for the sake of their grandparents. You haven’t said how old the girls are, but what if they were in on it, so to speak? What if your stance toward them were like this? “Listen, it’s really important to Grandma that you learn this stuff, and can say it when you’re asked, but whether you believe any of it is up to you.” Even better, if your daughters are going to learn prayers and catechism anyway, why not grab some library books and make a comparative religion class out of it? They might find it fascinating to learn about Zeus and Buddha as well as Jesus.

If you’re not willing to go that far, then you probably will have an unpleasant confrontation or two on your hands. For your daughters’ sake, of course you’ll leave them well out of it until you and your family reach an understanding. Look on the bright side: you might get lucky and find kindred spirits within the family. Given how hesitant you are to come out of the closet, are you certain you’re the only one in there?

Given that this is an Ask from the Past, I hope you get this and it’s still of some use to you, and things have gone well in the meantime.


Reading the Bible to Kids

“There’s a common joke along the lines of declaring the Bible to be the single greatest advertisement for atheism.”

Question from Rick:
I was listening to a podcast a few days ago when the host made a comment about parents who read the bible to their kids. He made a good point when he said that he would love to tell the parents to let him read the bible and pick his own verses to read to the kids. Its funny because people who “read” the bible, don’t really read it at all. They just jump around from chapter to chapter. I would love to see a parents face as you explain Sodom and Gomorrah. And what goes on in gen. 38. What do you think?

There’s a common joke along the lines of declaring the Bible to be the single greatest advertisement for atheism. I don’t know about that, because there are ways to spin even the Old Testament’s most violent stories in God’s favour. This is regularly done in the name of Biblical exegesis. How a given kid will interpret these stories is anyone’s guess.

The podcaster’s point is a fun way to upturn the idea of reading the Bible to kids, but we both know it’s not going to happen that way. Parents read the Bible to their kids so that their kids will believe in God. They choose whichever parts of it they think will achieve that. Maybe it’s to make them behave, maybe it’s the ultimate goal in itself, but either way the Bible achieves its original goal and the kids are indoctrinated.