Atheist Mom Talks 'Losing' Her Religion While Raising 7 Kids

sarah morehead recovering from religionThirteen years ago, Sarah Morehead was a practicing evangelical Southern Baptist, following in the footsteps of her family by attempting to meet the requirements of being a good Christian wife and mother. But when a series of events caused her to question her beliefs and upbringing, Sarah ended up letting go of religion altogether. Now a 38-year-old mom of seven living in Arvada, Colorado, she is the Executive Director of Recovering from Religion, an organization for people who have decided that religion no longer has a place in their life, but are still dealing with the after-effects in some way or another.

She's also parenting her brood -- aged 24, 21, 18, 13, 6, 4, and 18 months -- in a completely different way than she did over a decade ago.

Sarah spoke with The Stir today about what caused her to change her beliefs, the lessons she now teaches her kids, and what she advises other atheist moms ...

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What was your own upbringing like, and how did it lead to your current beliefs?
I grew up evangelical Southern Baptist. In our church, we believe that any encounter we have, God put people in front of us to lead them to Christ. As I got older, my first marriage, my husband was a Promise Keeper, and we were Sunday school teachers, volunteered heavily in the church. All of those things you're supposed to do. There were a lot of times that I had questions that people didn't seem to have clear answers for. Even things as small as logistics, miracles in the bibles, and things like that. Those aren't questions people are really fond of [in the church]. The questions were always there, but you're always taught that when you ask too many questions, and you doubt too heavily, that's Satan pulling you away from God. So I always had that in the back of my mind, that if I was a better Christian, I wouldn't have those questions in the first place. I would just accept it. My husband at the time was very violent and abusive, which was condoned by our church leaders. They don't overtly say it's okay to hit your wife, but they do a lot of preaching how to maintain head of household status. [But] I grew up believing that divorce was wrong. Eventually, our oldest daughter was about 11 and she was mouthing off, and he picked her up and he threw her into the wall. And for whatever reason, that was it for me. That crossed the line for me. So I told him to leave, and I ended up going to our church's benevolence committee. I explained what had happened. It was very focused on what had gone wrong and what I needed to do to save this marriage. And in that conversation, I had asked for about $600 to help pay bills and get some food, and they said they had to pray about it, and Jesus had apparently told them not to do it. So I left the meeting very upset, mortified, ashamed, heartbroken. I couldn't figure out why God would torture our family this way, and as I pushed out of the door to leave the building, I accidentally pushed into someone who was working on the door, and they were putting on glass etching art, decorating the glass. I had this kind of surreal moment, going, "That had to cost a hell of a lot more than $600!" It was one of the first microscopic moments of me thinking, "This really doesn't make sense."

How did your parenting change as you started to change your beliefs?
My first "set," as I like to call them, [my ex-husband and I] parented from a very authoritative viewpoint. It was everything that their father said goes, regardless of whether it's right or wrong, and my job is to make sure that they're obedient, and do all of these things that make them good little soldiers for Christ. I remarried, and my younger kids, we have a completely different parenting style. We firmly believe in respectful parenting. We are very intentionally parenting in a way that makes sure our children know they have the right to be respected, and we demonstrate that by respecting them. My husband and I grew up fundamentalist, and it's tough to parent from a perspective you've never experienced -- literally, such a blind spot you don't understand the concept. We don't want to swing the other way and go to totally permissive parenting. We're very big on boundaries, which is another thing that religion teaches people to ignore. When you think of the concept of God, God is in your heart, in your mind. I remember that, as I child, I was consoled when my grandmother died that she is able to hear all of my thoughts and see inside my heart like Jesus. A few days later, I was going to the bathroom, and I was horrified thinking my grandmother was watching me pee. I remember saying a prayer and asking God to please turn that feature off for just a little bit, so I could go to the bathroom with some privacy. You're not allowed to have private thoughts. So we are very intentional about teaching personal respect and recognizing other people's limits and your own limits. It's a lot of work now!

How did the conversations with your kids go when you started to change your beliefs?
With my oldest kids, it was definitely a process. We have homeschooled for upteen million years, so I'm a big fan of learning as an experience, not a planned out 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. thing. So as I was learning all of this, and we would talk about it. As I started moving away from my religious beliefs, I really did struggle with thinking, "I don't think what I taught them is right. I think I made a mistake." But how do convey what you're learning, and how different it might be from what you have always taught them to believe in such a black and white way? It's not easy.

What do the older kids believe?
My 21-year-old is an atheist. He pretty much has been for a long time, and I don't think I had anything to do with that. He has autism and has some special needs, so he approaches the world a lot more clinically than a lot of us, so that may play a part in it. He always did very well in Sunday School, so he could absolutely do it, but apparently, he just decided it didn't make much sense. My oldest -- who is adopted, as well as my 21-year-old -- she came to us when she was 9 years old. So she had her own stuff from her own experiences, and she wasn't really religious when she came to us. I don't think she cares a lot. I wouldn't care if they decided they wanted to go to church. I just want them to think for themselves and find what works for them in a way that respects everyone's boundaries. My biggest problem with religion is not religion in and of itself. It's evangelical. The idea that you have the right answer, and you have to convince everyone else of it.

What questions about religion do you field from the younger ones?
We take the children seriously, so when they ask questions, we answer the best that we can with the information they need. We were in Salt Lake City for the American Atheist Convention, and we went to the Temple Square, because it's beautiful and historic. While we were there, my 6-year-old gasped, and said, "I need to go see the castle!" I said, "That's not a castle, it's a temple. We can't actually go inside, because you have to have permission from the people who own it. It's a special club." See, my younger kids have no real concept of religion. How do you explain supernatural beliefs to people who don't hold it? They have no idea. Trying to explain religion without using the words church and God and in a way that doesn't demonize other people. Because we don't say, "There are people who believe really crazy things!" never in a million years. So, she says, "I need to join that club, cuz I need to go in that castle." But we came to a mutual understanding, there was a model of the castle -- like a big dollhouse -- and that was the closest we were going to get to it, because we weren't going to be able to take the time to become a part of that club. As they get older, we talk about it more. My 13-year-old is getting really interested in visiting churches, because she wants to see what this whole religion thing is all about. We're going to do that. I see nothing wrong with that. The more we can expose our kids to what the many varieties of religion are, the less it seems like one has a monopoly on everything. I would have no problem taking her to a synagogue or a mosque. We've been to an Indian temple.

How do you handle holidays?
We have fun with them! We do Christmas, and Santa Claus is one of our favorite things to do, because it teaches critical thinking. My 6-year-old said, "I think I know who Santa Claus is!" She said, "I'm going to ask you." I said, "Okay, so when you ask me, do you want me to tell you the truth or the story?" So she is mulling it over, and she asks, "What happens if you tell me the truth?" I said, "Nothing happens. Then, you get to grow up with us and start helping with Santa Claus. And if you want me to tell you the story, you still get to be surprised by Santa Claus." So there is no risk to finding out! Finding out the truth becomes this sort of graduating into adulthood milestone. The kids who know about Santa Claus are the ones who get to stay up with us and arrange everything. That to me is such a good way of teaching how to approach the world. If you boil everything down, and take away all the differences in religious beliefs, and look at just the positives, what do we have left? We have what are essentially humanist values, which is we're going to love one another, respect each other, take care of one another, look out for one another, all those things. That's what I want to teach my kids, and I don't need religion to do that. In fact, taking religion away takes away the fear, guilt, and shame.

What do you advise other parents who want to follow in your footsteps?
What I recommend is reading everything about all of these religions, about figuring out what are your family's values? We were at a friend's house recently, and their kid gets to play Grand Theft Auto, and our kids don't. While we were there, my kids played, which was okay, and when we left, my kid said, "He gets to play Grand Theft Auto, so we're going to get it, right?" And I said, "No, because in our house we don't do that." It was a fantastic example of how every family has to do what works for them. That family is not wrong. I made it clear that it is not wrong that she's doing that. We just have our reasons, and they have theirs. You have to find what meets your family's needs, and that may be in a religious community, but there are plenty of options for it to not be, as well.

 

If you're interested in more information about Sarah's organization or parenting style, check out the Recovering From Religion site.

How do you handle religion -- or the lack of it -- with your kids?


Image via Sarah Morehead

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