How to Raise an Atheist Family

Magician and Entertainer
It can be tough, especially with young kids, because people understand atheism so poorly.
  • Transcript


Question:  As an atheist, how do you raise a family in a society that seems to condemn atheism?

Penn Jillette: Well with the kids it's really tough. Just the other day my daughter just turned five, you know, she was playing with her cousins and one of the cousins came to my wife and said, "Moxie said God is mean." Moxie.... that's my daughter did not say "God is mean." She said, "There is not God." One of the older children said, "Oh my God." And she said, "You shouldn't say that because there is no God." She's cobbled together "You shouldn't say that" from school with "There is no God" from us. And it's really hard. I think it's really tough because people understand atheism so poorly.

I mean, the number of people that say is atheism Satanism still is remarkable. I mean, atheism is as far from Satanism as you can get. Christianity is close to Satanism. At least they, some of them think they're Satan. Atheism couldn't be further away.

It's a little hard and I think that I am very sympathetic to people who are surrounded by Christian people - religious people, I'm sorry, surrounded by religious people, theists, and have to be a little more closeted. You know, I don't believe in... I mean, I believe the parallel to gay rights is exactly the same. I don't want to out anyone, you know, against their will. I don't even think it's immoral to be quiet about it. It's just not in my makeup to be quiet about it but my sympathy.

I just spent—I'm not going to go into it too much because it's very personal—but I just spent a wonderful dinner with there men who were Hasidic Jews, payos, the clothes, English was not their first language, although they were born in Brooklyn. Never read a book in English until they were 25 years old. And completely within this religious community—their wives, their children, the extended families. And they had become atheists, and were talking to me about how they were losing their whole community and their whole families. And I think they expected me to say, I think maybe they even wanted me to say, "Well suck it up there's no God, do what's right." And that was as far from my feelings as possible.

I said, "Oh man, you love your children. You love your family, you've got to keep loving 'em. And you got to make a lot of concessions for 'em. And I'm just glad I'm not going through it." And I think that's my answer to someone who says they're having a hard time. "I'm glad I'm not going through it." You know, my mom was an atheist at the end of her life. My dad died a Christian and I loved him with every part of my heart and I would never have let religion get in the way. Fortunately he felt the same way.

Recorded on June 8, 2010
Interviewed by Paul Hoffman