Can You Atheist-Proof Your Kids?

In short, no. There is no full-proof spiritual vaccine against unbelief.

Sorry, I know that’s not the answer you want to hear. But that’s life in a fallen world. You can be the wisest, most loving, most faithful parent on the planet, and there’s still no guarantee your children won’t walk away from God.

And the temptation to walk away will come.

A few weeks back, Our Sunday Visitor asked me to take a look at the emerging trend of young atheists. Which I did.

On one level, what I found was disheartening. From the story:

“Nationwide, young people are leaving the Church and religion altogether at a record-breaking pace, with the Pew Forum’s most recent study on religious affiliation finding that 16 percent of young people now subscribe to atheism, agnosticism, or no organized religion at all, the highest percentage of any demographic group.”

So, that’s the depressing part.

There is, however, a not depressing part: Young people have an innate desire to believe in something greater than themselves, and if parents approach questions of belief rightly, there’s much they can do to channel that desire in the right direction.

Because of word count limitations (the bane of my existence), I didn’t have room in the OSV story to share all that I learned on that point. But that’s the glory of blogging—more room, no editors.

So, what do the experts say you, as parents, can do to strengthen your child’s spiritual immune system?

1.  Love Jesus.

That’s where it starts. If you know Jesus as your God and Savior, if he’s your greatest love and closest confident, it shows. It makes your witness more credible and your catechesis more effective. And if you don’t? Well, that shows too.

 2.  Know why the Church teaches what she does.

You can’t hand on what you don’t know, and you can’t answer the questions about God and Heaven, good and evil, truth and suffering that your children bring to you if you’ve never looked into those questions yourself. The Catholic Faith is suffused with mystery, mysteries that go beyond reasons. But those mysteries don’t go against reason. They don’t contradict it. There are good answers for why Catholics believe what we do, answers that have satisfied some of the greatest minds the world has known. Learn them now…before the questions start.

3.  Live the Faith in your home.

The Catholic Faith isn’t an ideology. It’s a way of life. It’s a way of seeing the world and living within it. It’s a way of being and loving, working and praying, eating and dressing, playing and dancing. It’s also a beautiful way. When done rightly, nothing else compares. So, strive to do it rightly. Bring the rhythms of your work life and your home life more and more into accord with the rhythms of the Church’s life. As a family, volunteer at a food pantry; pray outside an abortion clinic; say those rosaries; love your spouse; be open to life; invite the lonely and the suffering into your home; look for little ways you can serve one another daily. Truly be Catholic, every day in every way, and, odds are, your children will be too.

4.  Build a trusting relationship with your children.

Listen to them. Look at them. Be interested in who they are and what they think. Honor your promises and commitments to them. Be there when you say you will. Say you’re sorry when you fail. When they fail, be just but merciful. Be firm but gentle. Create a climate where they know they can bring any trouble, any struggle, any mistake to you and find help and forgiveness. Have a monthly Jubilee Day, where any confession of wrongdoing will be met with a hug and not a punishment. In essence, strive to model the Fatherhood of God as you experience it every time you go to Confession.

5.  Don’t dismiss their questions about the Faith.

Or condemn them. Doubt is a normal stage of adolescence. It’s often the first step in owning one’s faith as an adult. So, when the questions come, tell your child those are good questions that others of deep faith have also asked. Answer the questions if you can. If not, tell them you’ll find the answers. Then find them. Maybe suggest reading books that address those questions together, as a family. Whatever you do, just show your child that you take him and his opinions seriously.

6.  Don’t compromise on Sunday Mass.

If your child announced he no longer believed in good hygiene, you wouldn’t allow him to stop bathing. If he announced he no longer believed in education, you wouldn’t allow him to drop out of school. And if he announces he no longer believes in God or the Church, you shouldn’t allow him to stop going to Mass. A parents’ job is to lead and guide—calmly, wisely, firmly. So, for as long as they live under your roof, you need to lead and guide your children to Mass every Sunday. There is grace to be had there, grace that can’t be had any other way. Getting them to Mass doesn’t have to be a battle. In fact, it shouldn’t be. Some things in family life just aren’t optional, and when that’s made clear, kids know it and don’t fight it (much). Make sure Mass is one of those things.

7.  Don’t panic.

God loves your children far, far more than you ever will. He wants them for himself far, far more that you ever can. And he will spend every day of your children’s lives moving heaven and earth to accomplish that. Which is why so very many of those who wander from the faith of their childhood eventually return. Know that. Trust that. Have faith in that. Pray without ceasing for your children as they struggle and fall. But never panic. It’s not over until it’s over…for anyone.




Categories:Culture Youth

  • MLeigh

    Excellent article! My parents successfully raised 6 kids, 4 of us now married with kids of our own, and all of us are in love with our Catholic faith. None of us ever left, either. Sure, we may not have attended Mass every Sunday during college, but none of us ever abandoned our faith. We all attend Mass each Sunday (if not more). Some of us are lectors, others EM’s, and others were altar servers or catechists. We have led Bible studies and women’s spirituality groups, acted as Grand Knight in the local council, prayed in front of abortion clinics and strip clubs, and attended King’s Men retreats. I could go on and on, but my point is that I can say from experience that your suggestions are solid ones, and I enjoyed reading them, reminiscing about my own upbringing, and being reminded of how my husband and I plan to raise our son. Thank you for this article!

  • Cathy Harrell

    I agree that you can’t completely athiest proof your kids, but you can provide them with enough of a foundation to encourage them to always seek the truth. We talk often about individuals in the Church and The Truth. Christ himself was betrayed by Judas. What makes people think His Church won’t be betrayed again and again. For centuries we have struggled against individual greed and corruption, but the Truth – that Christ founded this Church to carry on His mission, remains unchanged. The intelligent person reads and studies the teaching of the Church and works toward its true goal, the salvation of souls and love of Christ Jesus. No I am not naive, nor have I been sheltered. In fact I have been searching and through that search have come back to the Church because what it teaches is the Way, the Truth and the Light.

  • JohnE

    Good advice Emily. I can say that I didn’t really learn and embrace the faith until after college — and I even went to a Catholic college. Our family didn’t really discuss the faith too much growing up. With my sons I am trying to be a little more proactive. The allures of the culture and the emotional and irrational anti-Catholic attitudes that are out there are strong forces that we need to prepare and equip our children to resist. jgbech highlights the problem that happens when we allow those who DON’T practice the faith to represent the faith. We’ll always have bad apples in the priesthood (ex. Judas), but luckily they are few, and far less than 1/12. The path is narrow and those who find it are few.

  • Greg

    ” If he announced he no longer believed in education, you wouldn’t allow him to drop out of school. ”

    In school he learns truth and facts. In church he learns lies and mythology. Suggesting that the latter is on par with the former is absurd.

    • Jonathon

      Wow – you come to a Catholic blog to argue against the Church. Yep – we call those people trolls.

      • Tyler

        Unfortunately today I would say in school he learns myths and lies and propaganda and in church he is lucky if he learns about the faith…
        I have to disagree with the other commenter above who said it is 1/12 or less who are bad priests…
        I am not trying to criticize anyone ordained, and I will be the first to admit I am a sinner.
        But many, many priests have regrettably had poor formation and are not very good priests.
        They don’t seem to have an understanding of the sacrificial nature of the priesthood or of the Mass, don’t encourage frequenting the sacraments especially not confession…it’s very sad.
        Maybe it’s just in my diocese. But I think it’s actually pretty bad globally.

        “The most evident mark of God’s anger, and the most terrible castigation He can inflict upon the world are manifested when he permits his people to fall into the hands of clergy who are priests more in name than in deed. When God permits such things, it is a very positive PROOF that He is thoroughly angry with his people and is visiting His most dreadful anger upon them. That is why He cries out unceasingly to Christians, ‘Return on ye rebellious children and I will give you pastors according to My own mark.'” – St. John Eudes

  • jgbech

    I have not lost faith in Jesus, but I have lost faith and trust in the church and its’ leaders. The horror stories about priest child abuse is overwhelming. And, they continue. The Bishops have not dealt with the criminals in their own ranks.

    Until I became an altar boy I resited my mother on attending Mass. She was strong, so strong that my right ear is larger than my left. She encouraged my becoming an altar boy. Then I became a lecture. Being on the altar with the priest was special. Even the Latin became second nature.

    I wish I could tithe with some degree of confidence. I don’t think I want last rights because I don’t trust the priest. I am one among many Catholics in recovery.

    • Jonathon

      Have you also lost faith in school teachers? Politicians? Police officers? Protestant pastors? Children are more likely to be mistreated by one of these than by a priest. To lose faith in the entire institution based on the actions of a few does not say very much about your loyalty.

      And please don’t think that I am trying to take away from what happened – it was horrible and should never have happened. I pray that it will never happen again. However, to continue to hold this against the entire Church is pretty petty. Hold the ones responsible to the fire – but you should not five up on the entire Church.

      • JackB

        Jonathon, If you accept the idea that some bishops in the church hierarchy are guilty of crimes then you must agree with my assessment. Arch Bishop Bevilacqua, of Philadelphia, now deceased, forced Monsignor William Lynn to cover up child abuse, Cardinal Mahoney of LA was let off the hook and even attended the conclave in the Vatican, and Cardinal Law from Boston resigned in disgrace after the Fr. Shanley case and many more. Law was exonerated and was given a high position in the Vatican

        Do you recall how much the church has spent on the priest scandal? It is now more than $1 billion. Where did that money come from? And, do you recall the local churches constantly asking for money? What about Peter’s Pence? I repeat, how does one tithe given this scenario?

  • Dutchman



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