Parenting while atheist: Discovering the questions, and religious education in schools


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Recently, my kid asked “Who MADE the seeds?”

The vexed issue of spirituality and parenting is discussed in all parenting forums. Which religion, if any, do you “teach” a child? Do you teach religion as doctrine, or comparative religion as social science? Should you send your child to a religious school or a Sunday school? What role does religious education or indoctrination have in public schools? How does one manage as a parent with strong beliefs (atheist, theist, or otherwise) in a world which seems determined to undermine them?

But I think we may be only looking at one aspect of the question. With all the concentration on answers, we’ve forgotten the process of discovering the questions.

I’ve previously mentioned what I provocatively labelled “reality-based parenting”, in relation to the Santa fib. After much discussion, my partner and I have decided to try to let our lad, currently aged five, discover metaphysics for himself as much as possible.

Unsurprisingly for two science-educated parents, we do have a leaning towards scientific exploration. We read science books and talk about biology, astronomy, tectonics, chemistry, evolution … all that amazing stuff. One of my fonder memories is the lad as a baby on his dad’s hip, his dad baking, and explaining in a soothing voice, “We add sodium bicarbonate, which is a base, to tartaric acid. You can see that the reaction takes place in the presence of moisture, and bubbles of carbon dioxide are produced, which provide the leavening…”

But these are the hows, not the whys.

Instead of didacticism on the whys, we’re working on letting him think, imagine, wonder, and construct and explore his own questions.

Having said this, I confess to planting seeds of sceptical thinking. For example, when he asks a question that pins me down, like his question on creation in “Who made the seeds?”, I will subsume the “some-people-believe” supernatural explanations under the catch-all of “magic”. I’m comfortable with that, as it is semantically correct, and “magic” isn’t necessarily an inherently negative way of looking at things. Far from it, in fact, with a preschooler who adores stories about wizards and dragons and adventure.

I also give an honest answer if he asks me point blank what I think.

So far, I’ve been fascinated by the questions he does come up with. We’re still at the very start of this journey of exploration, and the issue of creation, of how the Earth got the way it is, has come up a number of times. I guess this shouldn’t come as any surprise – every culture and tradition has a creation story.

Here is one of his previous creation story inventions, age four (which I posted in my personal blog at the time):

The lad decided to “read” me a book at bedtime. Choosing Jungle Drums by Graeme Base, he wove a meandering tale about “the little waterhog” and his drum-wishes. His narrative did bear a passing relation to the written story, spiced up by him occasionally punctuating a pageturn with, “And here: here is the next chapter of instructions.”

But what struck me is that it began with his own creation mythology. (There isn’t a creation story in the book.)

“This. is how EVERYTHING beginned. At the beginning there were giraffes, and elephants, and rhinoceros. es. And cassowaries, and zebras. And houses, and people, and dinosaurs. And DRAGONS! And the dragons breathed, they breathed the fire. *HHHHHAAAA!* And they breathed LOTS of water, and lots and lots, and made a biiiig dragon sea. And that is how it beginned.”

This isn’t anything I can recall reading him in a book – the closest I can think of is the story of Tiddalik the Frog. Is it a synthesis of things he has picked up elsewhere? Perhaps. Or is the drive to a creation story so compelling that he has invented one for himself?

The lad is starting full-time pre-primary school this year. So I’ve been poking around looking into the issue of “special religious education” (SRE) in WA government primary schools, after the debacle of the NSW SRE debate, with a secular ethics option knocked back, as the government will only accept specified “religious persuasions” for SRE time. Schools are forbidden from offering programmed activities in SRE time. Not a huge drama for an upper primary school child who may enjoy going off and reading alone, but potentially a big deal for a younger child, who may be the only opted-out child, removed from a classroom and sent off elsewhere while the rest of the children are spoon-fed their dogma. I have talked with and read information from quite a few parents who sent their children along to SRE purely so that they “wouldn’t feel left out”, so clearly this is a significant concern.

Do we really want to be saying “Christianity or GTFO” to five-year-olds in public school?

I’ve poked around the Western Australian legislation (excerpts appended), and it seems that we are forced into the same questionable situation here: children are indoctrinated by default, unless parents opt out in writing. I use the strong word “indoctrinated” with forethought. I have researched published Christian K-2 syllabi in Australia, and they are doctrine through and through, teaching creed as fact and urging teachers to do everything in their power to make children believe.

I’ve sent a list of questions on WA practice to my local MP and the Education Minister. I shall see what eventuates.


WA School Education Act 1999[PDF] sections 68-70

68. Curriculum not to promote certain subject-matter

(1) The curriculum and teaching in government schools is not to promote —

(a) any particular religious practice, denomination or sect;

(b) any particular political party;

(c) any commercial goods, product or service; or

(d) the case of a party to an industrial dispute.

(2) Subsection (1)(a) is not to be read as preventing —

(a) the inclusion of general religious education in the curriculum of a school; or

(b) prayers, songs and other material based on religious, spiritual or moral values being used in a school activity as part of general religious education.

69. Special religious education

(1) Special religious education may be provided to students in government schools in accordance with provisions made by the regulations.

(2) Subject to the regulations, the principal of a government school may allow time for the special religious education of students in the school, but the total number of hours so allowed in a school year is not to exceed 40.

(3) Provision made by the regulations for the purposes of this section may authorise the chief executive officer to approve persons as being authorised to give special religious education in government schools.

70. Consultation with Council

If a school has a Council the principal is to consult the Council on —

(a) a general policy concerning the use in school activities of prayers, songs and material referred to in section 68(2)

(b); and

(b) the implementation of section 69(2).

71. Parent may withdraw child from special religious instruction etc.

(1) A parent of a child at a government school may notify the principal in writing that the child is not to —

(a) receive any special religious education; or

(b) attend that part of a school activity at which material referred to in section 68(2)(b) is used.

(2) A principal to whom such a notice is given must take all reasonable steps to see that the parent’s wishes are complied with.


WA Education Department policy on religious education


a) Schools must provide information to a parent/guardian, as appropriate, to assist in selecting SRE courses or programs.

b) Where the school has a School Council, the principal must consult the Council on:

i) The implementation of SRE; and

ii) A general policy concerning the use of prayers, songs and other material based on religious, spiritual or moral values to be used in a school activity as part of GRE.


a) A parent or guardian is to notify the principal in writing that their child is not to receive special religious education or attend that part of a school activity which uses prayers, songs or other materials based on religious, spiritual or moral values as part of GRE.

b) Schools must provide appropriate learning programmes for students withdrawn from religious education classes or activities.

c) Schools will keep a record of all notifications from parents.

d) Advice of notifications is to be provided to all staff associated with the student.

Categories: education, religion


11 replies

  1. It’s sad how religion is still so influential. Recent Gallup polls both here and in the U.S. said that less than 50% of those polled would vote for an open atheist as PM/President.

  2. The SRE system in NSW schools is a disgrace. That there is no secular option – or comparative religious education – makes a mockery of the notion of a separation between church and state.
    Parents who do not feel comfortable having their five-year-olds indoctrinated in one faith or another have no option but to tick the ‘none of the above’ box, which means their children are shunted off to spend an hour doing nothing.
    I have yet to see any rational reason why our PUBLIC schools cannot offer an alternative – secular humanism or great philosophers or belief systems.
    Why is there not more anger about this system??

  3. SNAP! One of my younger daughters asked “How do seeds get here?” at dinner a few nights ago.
    My husband has always told our daughters a bedtime creation story that starts with the big bang, carries on to the formation of the Milky Way and our solar system, then the start of life on earth and the evolutionary process which has resulted, for the time being at least, in us. They love it.
    Deborah’s last blog post..Constitution is a verb

  4. As much as I support the notion of “reality based parenting”, I can’t help find value in the lesson the Santa story could teach kids. That everyone, even their parents, are capable of telling fibs and that they should question everything and come to a decision for themselves.

  5. Fascinating post. We are atheists too and my partner is a very passionate atheist and concerned about our daughter’s education, I will definitely recommend your post to him.
    blue milk’s last blog post..Co-sleeping, breastfeeding, and losing your mind

  6. “Why is there not more anger about this system??”
    Jim – This, I have no hypothesis on, but I’d sure like to know! Most people I’ve talked to seem to find this issue a big *shrug*.
    Deborah, I like the idea of the bedtime story. This reminds me a bit of the Montessori idea of the Great Lessons/Cosmic Education. Montessori was Catholic, but theistic creation ideas are a very minor part of the Lessons, and can readily be snipped off.
    I rather like this idea of demonstrating some of the basic principles with concrete demonstrations.
    Lauredhel’s last blog post..?You?re such a buzzkill, snopes.?

  7. The religion classes in public schools was one of the things about Australia that surprised and confused me most when I lived there. I mean . . . I’m American. And even we — us!!! — don’t do that. The closest it ever came was a social studies class where we had to get a basic overview of all world religions. I know that some schools in some states teach “intelligent design,” but I’m not personally aware of any public school in the US that provides religious education, and particularly not unless a parent opts out.
    There really should be outrage. I think it’s fine to teach kids ABOUT religion. I think that even serves atheists well, with society being so damn religious. But to actually teach religion?
    On a slightly related note, I was recently reading an article in Time about a US movement of Sunday School for kids of atheists. Instead of teaching religion, they teach about things like how you should treat other people, ethics, etc. It sounded really interesting.
    Cara’s last blog post..Misogynist Excuses For Killing Women Now Extend to 7-Year-Olds

  8. I can still remember “Scripture” classes at school as being somewhat annoying. When I first started primary school, the only ones who had specific Religious Education classes were the Roman Catholic kids, who got taken out of class for an hour. However, by the time I was in Year Six (the year I turned 11) there were regular, weekly “Scripture” classes which I had to sit through. This wouldn’t have ordinarily been a problem, except my father at that time was a minister in the Churches of Christ, and I’d already heard all the Bible stories the Scripture teacher was telling us – Dad looked after us on the weeekends, so I went to church every Sunday until I was about twelve. I took a leaf out of my mother’s book (she was raised Christadelphian, and can still out-argue Dad on biblical readings) and read books in scripture class instead.
    I turned out pagan pantheist, with my main core belief being if one god exists, so do all the others (ie all gods are equally likely, or equally unlikely).
    Meg Thornton’s last blog post..And they’ve done it *again*

  9. I’d suggest people in Australia check this out:

  10. The really outrageous aspect is, that while they’re willing to impose religious dogma on children, they don’t teach feminist theory or women’s history, because that’s considered too extreme.

  11. My kid just came home with this:

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