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Nonreligious Parents: How to Answer Kids' Questions

07/14/2010 01:55 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Andrew Park and his wife were nonbelievers, but when their three-year-old son started asking questions about God, that got Andrew thinking.

Park, a former correspondent for BusinessWeek, focused his trained journalistic eye on the problem. The result? His debut book, entitled Between a Church and a Hard Place: One Faith-Free Dad's Struggle to Understand What It Means to Be Religious (or Not).

He comes from interesting lineage. His bother is a committed evangelical Christian, and his great-grandfather, Julius Culbreth, was a founding member of the International Pentecostal Holiness Church.

I caught up with Park to ask him about his new book, his beliefs, and what he thinks about religions who indoctrinate their children.

2010-07-08-parksbk.jpgWhy did you decide to write this book?

Because my son came home from pre-school one day talking about God. I had actually never heard him utter the word before then. Granted, his pre-school was run by a church, as seemingly most of the pre-schools in the Bible Belt are, but it was a mainline Methodist church that reserved the Jesus talk for a 30-minute-a-week lesson. And his impression of the divine was actually quite crude. He thought that God "screws on our head and pops in our eyeballs."

But religion was a topic that I had steadfastly avoided talking about with my children. Seeing how easily it took hold with my son, at the age of three, sent me into a panic. I realized that not only was he going to have questions that I needed to be able to answer, I was going to have to ask some of myself. I was 35 and I really hadn't ever come to terms with belief or non-belief. The Presbyterianism my parents were raised in, the secular humanism I grew up with, the Evangelicalism my older brother embraced as a teenager, my great-grandfather's Pentecostalism - these were just abstract concepts to me, and I liked it that way.

So the book was really an attempt to figure out whether religion was going to have a place in my life, and whether it should have a place in my parenting, too. It was a revelation, so to speak, that I couldn't ignore the topic of God forever, no matter how uncomfortable it made me. As I guess it often does, having children forced me to confront a key assumption about life, in my case, my suspicion, disinterest, and at times, disdain for belief of any kind.

You consider yourself a "none" - someone who replies "none" when asked their religion. Some stats show that "nones" are the fastest-growing segment in American religion. Why do you think that is?

Certainly the loosening of social norms in American culture and weakening of churches as institutions have something to do with it, as does the increasing diversity in our society. But I think it has just as much to do with the resurgence of Evangelicalism and its fusion with conservative politics. The religious right's strident rhetoric on homosexuality, for instance, made a lot of people say, "If that's what it means to be religious, I don't want any part of it." Instead of continuing to identify themselves as Catholics or Methodists or Presbyterians, which you can obviously do even if you don't go to church, they opted out entirely. And so you have this polarization which has only increased in the years since, as evidenced by the success of authors like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. While the percentage of atheists and agnostics is still small, there are fewer and fewer people willing to claim a community of faith.

Now, I'm a none, but a quiet one. It's not so much because I don't have the courage to be open about it, but because I tend to think polarization is bad for us. It does a disservice to both sides. It's too easy to paint the other in repellent caricature, when in actuality believers and non-believers have plenty of common ground. That's not to say that we should pretend to agree on everything and then join arms and sing Kumbayah. But we can coexist peacefully in this country, even lovingly, despite our different worldviews. That seemed to be possible when I was a kid, but I think we have lost touch with that sentiment, and there's fault on both sides of the religious divide.

Orthodox Jews make their children eat kosher. Evangelical Christians have children accept Jesus and get baptized at early ages. What are your thoughts on religion being force-fed to children?

I'm against force-feeding anything to children, even, er, food. What's really remarkable is the parents I encounter who are intent on force-feeding atheism to their children instead of encouraging free thought. But there is definitely a difference in bringing your children up in a religious tradition, which I have no problem with, and indoctrinating them. We can't dictate what our children will ultimately believe or disbelieve. Our responsibility is to be honest about our own beliefs and show the courage to let them make up their own minds. If they ultimately reject the theism or atheism in which they are raised, that doesn't mean that their exposure to it damaged them. I want my children to learn the open-mindedness required to consider the full spectrum of religious ideas as well as the critical thinking skills that will enable them to make their own judgments.

What one lesson would you hope people take away from your book?

Religion shouldn't be a taboo subject for non-believers, and vice-versa. Christians aren't all moralizing prudes intent on bringing the rest of the world to Jesus. And atheists aren't all dour, unimaginative jerks determined to argue the rest of the world out of their faith. Too often, we're so busy trying to protect kids from dangerous ideas that we fail to model the charity and openness to one another that we purport to value. Children of non-believers need to see that their parents take religion seriously -- its historical impact, its cultural influence, its importance in the lives of so many people on this planet.

Of course, that doesn't mean we have to give credence to beliefs that we find repugnant. But I don't know that our kids can understand the human condition without at least trying to understand other people's faith, and we as parents shouldn't be afraid to let them. And we might learn something ourselves in the process. For many families, religion is a source of community and identity and social support. For the most part, non-believing families don't have institutions that do the same thing. We need to be about more than just not going to church.