Myth: Atheists Can't Teach Right & Wrong to Kids, Can't Raise Moral Children

Are Atheists Poor Parents? Are Atheists Unable to Teach Morality?

Atheists can't teach right and wrong to their children.

There is a popular but mistaken perception among religious theists that irreligious atheists have no good reason to be moral and, therefore, cannot be as moral as religious theists. Usually this misunderstanding is expressed as an abstract principle, removed from practical consequences; here, however, we have a myth that is just such a practical application of that misunderstanding.

It's also completely untrue: atheists do not have trouble teaching morality to their children.

On the face of it at least, the idea that there is something about atheism that prevents atheist parents from teaching right and wrong to their children will appear odd because it seems to come out of nowhere. To understand and thus to refute this myth, we must examine the premises and show how they themselves are not accurate; once they are dispensed with, the conclusion should naturally fall away as well.

The foundation for this myth is the common assumption that morality is inseparable from religion and theism. Many religious theists sincerely believe that unless a person is a theist and involved in some religion, it isn't possible for them to have a properly grounded morality. If people don't have a properly grounded morality, then it follows that they will not be able to teach a child how to be moral and the difference between right and wrong.

This makes the myth easier to understand, but how do we get people who hold this myth to understand that it's founded on errors? Getting people to realize that atheism is not incompatible with a consistent and coherent morality is not only key to having them abandon the above and many other misconceptions, but it is also important in getting people to accept the reasonableness of atheism generally.

The fear that people have of atheism being an immoral position is one of the things which causes fear and distrust of atheists.

One approach is to explain and argue on behalf of an atheistic system of ethics, like utilitarianism. This can require a very complex argument that not everyone will be prepared to defend — and even if it is a very good argument, you may not get anywhere with a believer who thinks that the only ultimate source of value is God. If you argue poorly, then you may end up doing your cause more harm than good.

Another approach is to argue that neither theism nor religion can themselves be regarded as adequate foundations for morality. The arguments here can be a bit simpler — for example, noting that for morality to be anything other than an arbitrary command of God, then moral standards must exist independently of God. However, the fact that an argument is simple and sound doesn't mean that someone will actually accept it.

One final and potentially more effective approach eschews arguments entirely. Instead of debating the matter, one can also demonstrate the compatibility of atheism and morality through example. This requires illustrating, through word and deed, that you as an atheist are a very ethical person with strong values and principles.

Many atheists have had the experience of others being surprised that they were atheists simply because they were so kind and ethical all of the time. Others' prejudices and experiences were brought into sharp conflict: whereas an argument may not have been able to get them to rethink their assumptions, strong experiences may often accomplish exactly that. Drawbacks to this approach include the amount of time it takes and that it requires extensive personal contact with the person in question — something that may not be possible or, in fact, desirable. There is also the fact that, in the end, many people have a habit of paying more attention to their own prejudices than to the evidence in front of their faces.