How to welcome atheist kids home for the holidays (COMMENTARY)

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(RNS) As students return home for the holidays, there’s a mounting source of tension: They’re less and less likely to believe in God. And their religious parents may want to get used to it.

Although the majority of Americans describe themselves as Christian, the proportion has been falling for years. Nowhere is the trend more pronounced than among millennials, with each younger generation showing greater skepticism and less faith. The result is a widening gulf within families on what to believe and how to live life.

For many parents, that’s not a problem — they want their sons and daughters to form their own beliefs and will love them no matter what.

But not everyone has that attitude, and it’s more important than ever for parents to appreciate that their atheist children are still good people who deserve their support.

Fully 20 percent of Americans aged 18-25 report not believing in a god. Compare that to the 8 percent of the baby boomers and you get a recipe for holiday conflict.

Even the holiday itself is a point of contention. Pew Research Center released a survey showing more millennials now consider Christmas a cultural holiday rather than a religious one. Boomers, on the other hand, are more than twice as likely to consider it religious instead of cultural.

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People have tried to dismiss the trends. “It’s just a phase” has been the common argument. “They’ll come back to the fold once they get married and have kids of their own.”

But the data finds the opposite happening. Older millennials (born between 1981 and 1989) are hitting their 30s, and over the past seven years they’ve become 6 percent more likely to say religion is “not” or “not at all” important in their lives.

The secularizing trend is going to continue, and we’ll need to address ways for generations to continue loving and supporting each other.

One important step for parents is to understand what their children actually believe. Although the stigma is lessening every day, there are still plenty of bad associations and misconceptions about atheists.

Opening up about a lack of belief can be difficult. It’s common for young people to feel anxious, guilty or alienated. How parents respond matters.

Openly Secular, a project started in 2014, designed a variety of resources to help parents, including “Opening Minds, Changing Hearts: A Guide to Being Openly Secular” and “Your Child Is Secular … Now What?: A Guide for Religious Parents of Secular Children.”

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The conversation can sometimes be difficult, but it can also bring you closer together.

If your children tell you they’re atheist, take the time to ask them about their beliefs. And then listen. Instead of hearing that they hate God or have no values, I expect you’ll be impressed at how thoughtful and considerate they are.

Not believing in God doesn’t mean that your son is immoral; it means he helps others simply because he cares about them as fellow human beings. Not believing in an afterlife doesn’t make life meaningless for your daughter; it makes her consider this life all the more important to cherish.

Hundreds of Secular Student Alliance communities are thriving on high school and college campuses, providing a place for students to explore and live their secular values.  Whether it’s by volunteering for food banks or raising money for charity, they’re doing what they think is right.

Coming together as a family is one of the great joys of the holidays. It should be an occasion of love and togetherness. Your children have become adults, forging their own beliefs, their own identities and their own lives. They should be celebrated and respected for who they are.

Even as a staunch atheist, I find that this biblical passage resonates with me: “Love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (1 Corinthians 13:7).

Parents: Love your children, whether they share your faith or have left it.

(August Brunsman is executive director of the Secular Student Alliance)

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  • Ian Cooper

    Good to see a religious website that doesn’t demonize atheists and that recognizes that we’re good people too. Sadly, I haven’t seen that attitude on other websites so far this Christmas. Hopefully that will change.

  • RJ

    You don’t know what you are talking about.

  • Pierre Savoie

    Really, can’t you give more information than that? There is a whole section on Atheism on about-dot-com, with a myth-busting section to remove misconceptions about Atheists.

    The trend is so real that a little irresponsible news-blogger called the British Broadcasting Corporation said that religion will go extinct in 9 countries, and gives the reasons why.

  • DN


    One only need read a few sentences of Leviticus and compare that with the teachings of preachers and their followers to observe how the faithful also subjectively apply morality.

    The differences, I would say, are that God-followers adopt the views of their religious leaders — many of whom have ulterior motives — and use the name of God to justify their subjective choices, whereas atheists are skeptical of the ulterior motives of religious leaders, and for this and many other very good reasons, try to figure it out on their own. Objectivity of the religious moral perspective is a self-delusion. God thinks like you! How quaint.

  • Ben in oakland

    If men committed the same kind of immoralities that your God commits, we would rightfully call them monsters.

    Oh, Wait! They do, and in the name of God. God told those religious people to murder Jews for 1900 years, fly those airplanes into buildings, execute gay people, burn witches and heretics, and commit every atrocity we have witnessed of man committing against other men. God is simply what you use to justify what cannot be justified by any other means.

    Your pretense that atheists have no moral standards is simply another story you tell yourself to justify your completely unwarranted faith in your wholly imaginary superiority as a “person of faith.”

    I suspect My moral standards are far more rigid than any God botherer’s. But morality for me is not in doing what somebody says god’s will is without reference to standards. My morality says don’t hurt people, and mind my own business. Yours says hurt people if God says so, and mind everyone else’s business.

  • TheGodless

    At best, a religious person can say that their deity can say that killing and slavery is good and they must agree that they are good too. Divine command morality is riddled with more issues that secular morality. We are reasonable is saying that everything comes from natural sources by the fact that everything we have ever observed has come from natural origins. No gods needed for morality. By the way, if you looked into the actual evidence for morality being superstition-free, you would realize how ignorant your statements are.

  • Richard Rush


    “. . . look up any apologetics site for rebuttals, they usually refute all atheists rebuttals, it’s not hard.

    Apologetics: The sleazy art of deceiving people into believing that fallacies are facts.

  • Phil Pearson

    I’m with Ian. I find the attitude and tone of this publication refreshing and completely consistent with true American values: Live and let live and respect others. That’s a holiday message we should all support.

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  • Davis

    The article advocates for religious parents to have tolerance for nonreligious children. Then the non-religious children fill the comments section with vitriol for the religious. Pot, meet the kettle.

  • Here here. I agree with you. The violent tones we so often hear and read online due to the divisiveness of religion is quite worrisome. So it’s nice to read a piece that supports respect for one another.

  • Larry

    All the article needed was 4 words to answer its title question, “Don’t be a jerk”.


    It is great to hear that the author of this article is still going strong after so many years. This is an excellent and thoughtful piece.