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The Awkward Irony of the Atheist Sunday School!

Posted by Scott on November 29, 2007

Dr. Mohler’s Blog


Incongruous as it sounds, atheists are now organizing Sunday Schools. TIME magazine reports that many non-believing parents are concerned that their children are not adequately grounded in secular thought and feel left out of experiences like Sunday School that are common among their friends.

Reporter Jeninne Lee-St. John understands that the idea seems a bit strange. “On Sunday mornings, most parents who don’t believe in the Christian God, or any god at all, are probably making brunch or cheering at their kids’ soccer game, or running errands or, with luck, sleeping in. Without religion, there’s no need for church, right?”

Well, not exactly. Lee-St. John explains this new development:

But some nonbelievers are beginning to think they might need something for their children. “When you have kids,” says Julie Willey, a design engineer, “you start to notice that your co-workers or friends have church groups to help teach their kids values and to be able to lean on.” So every week, Willey, who was raised Buddhist and says she has never believed in God, and her husband pack their four kids into their blue minivan and head to the Humanist Community Center in Palo Alto, Calif., for atheist Sunday school.

Packing the kids in the minivan for atheist Sunday School is likely to sound more than a little strange to those accustomed to more traditional Sunday Schools (that teach children about God) but it is fascinating that atheists are concerned that their children need secular instruction.

It seems that many atheist parents are concerned that their children should learn at an early age how to deal with the challenge of living among Christian believers. Furthermore, these parents want to ensure that their children and teenagers learn their own secular values.

The report explains that the growing number of atheists and non-believers in the nation are becoming more concerned about their children, and are establishing both Sunday Schools and atheist youth camps in order to inculcate secular beliefs and morality within the next generation.

The magazine offers a very interesting description of what goes on at a model atheist Sunday School:

The Palo Alto Sunday family program uses music, art and discussion to encourage personal expression, intellectual curiosity and collaboration. One Sunday this fall found a dozen children up to age 6 and several parents playing percussion instruments and singing empowering anthems like I’m Unique and Unrepeatable, set to the tune of Ten Little Indians, instead of traditional Sunday-school songs like Jesus Loves Me. Rather than listen to a Bible story, the class read Stone Soup, a secular parable of a traveler who feeds a village by making a stew using one ingredient from each home.

Down the hall in the kitchen, older kids engaged in a Socratic conversation with class leader Bishop about the role persuasion plays in decision-making. He tried to get them to see that people who are coerced into renouncing their beliefs might not actually change their minds but could be acting out of self-preservation–an important lesson for young atheists who may feel pressure to say they believe in God.

My guess is that these atheist Sunday Schools will not be as successful as these parents hope. “I’m Unique and Unrepeatable” just can’t really compete with “Jesus Loves Me.” Children have not yet developed cynicism and, in general, are quite eager to believe in God. Children taught from the Bible in Sunday School learn that they were made by a loving God who cares for them — and then move on to learn much more about what the Bible teaches. No “secular parable” can compete with that.

In a strange way, the rise of atheist Sunday Schools illustrates the central dilemma of atheism itself. Try as they may, atheists cannot avoid talking about God — even if only to insist that they do not believe in Him. Now, atheist parents are organizing Sunday Schools as a parallel to the Christian practice. In effect, atheists are organizing themselves in a way similar to a local church. At least some of them must sense the awkward irony in that.

By Dr. Mohler Jr.

-Scott Bailey 2007


14 Responses to “The Awkward Irony of the Atheist Sunday School!”

  1. […] Awkward Irony of the Atheist Sunday School! qbaileys added an interesting post today on The Awkward Irony of the Atheist Sunday School!Here’s a […]

  2. […] Check it out! While looking through the blogosphere we stumbled on an interesting post today.Here’s a quick excerptThe Time Magazine offers a very interesting description of what goes on at a model atheist Sunday School:. The Palo Alto Sunday family program uses music, art and discussion to encourage personal expression, intellectual curiosity and … […]

  3. Dan said

    “Try as they may, atheists cannot avoid talking about God — even if only to insist that they do not believe in Him. Now, atheist parents are organizing Sunday Schools as a parallel to the Christian practice. In effect, atheists are organizing themselves in a way similar to a local church.”

    Organizing in a manner similar to a church doesn’t necessarily have to be about any god. The use of the word ‘church’ in this situation is unfortunate, in fact, because what’s being described sounds a lot more like any community center. Similarly, while the term ‘Sunday school’ has an association with a church-type activity, why can’t it simply mean ‘school on Sunday’ with different subjects than those faced during the rest of the week.

    Atheists don’t believe in god(s). Simply stated. As one myself, I’m every bit as much a social entity – regularly meeting with friends, interested in helping my community, etc. – as theist friends of mine.

    A church congregation is so similar in this respect to an atheist meet-up group. We just meet in a different building, and talk about what makes our lives worthwhile – just sans god(s). It could be awkward for some, but then again, contemplating doing anything new feels awkward.

  4. qbaileys said

    You stated here that you talk about what makes your lives worthwhile….what is it that athiest believe makes their lives worthwhile? That is simply a curiosity question since you put it there. As far as meeting like as a church, what do you do in church as far as speakers…who is the “preacher” so to speak? Do you sing songs and such. I have never been around many athiest and just have wondered from your eyes about these things. Thanks for any further comments in advance.


  5. Dan said

    “…what is it that athiest believe makes their lives worthwhile?”

    The same things you do. Love, happiness, friendship, etc. Where in “I don’t believe in gods” do you see “I’m cold and heartless”??

    “…who is the “preacher” so to speak?”

    Whoever is most motivated to speak, speaks. There can be other ways of doing it too, but regardless, what does it matter? We don’t act any different towards each other, we just don’t follow dogmatic doctrine. Instead, we emphasize the role of emotional perspectives, which may be wrong in a physical sense, but spiritually they’re always correct for the person who feels them. In other words, we don’t reject subjective experiences, we revel in them as defining who we are as people.

    Songs? There’s nothing saying that we can’t sing songs. For myself, I can’t say that songs or rituals of the routine sort have much significance. We still have rites of passage though (marriage, funeral, welcoming children and adolescents to the community, etc.), but the covenant is not to any god or gods, it is to each other.

    Hope that helps.
    Best Regards,

  6. qbaileys said

    Interesting Dan. Not sure where the question about me thinking “you are cold and heartless” comes from. I have never said that…some others may say stuff like that. If the article appears that way I apologize for that, but personally I do not judge people that way…my Christ did not judge people that way either. You may be referring to the way many “Christians” treat people that do not believe the same way. This is not right, but I have encountered a few non-believers that were very cold and heartless…but then again, I run into many a “Christian” that have been cold and heartless, very judgemental and legalistic as well…however, just because they call themselves a Christian does not mean they are….one statistic I heard a few years back stated that only about 5% of any congregation are true believers while the rest are pretenders…that could explain alot about peoples view of Christianity or the church today.

    Anyway, your comments help me gather my thoughts when looking into the life of an athiest to help understand your world. I have found an interesting book written by someone (cannot remember hsi name at the moment) that was an athiest and is now a believer…called “A Case for Christ”. If you read that I would be interested in your thoughts on it.

    Very good to carry on this conversation with you. Come back and read and comment anytime.


  7. frank burns said

    “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so” is just putting a lie into the mouth of little kids. They DON’T know that. And neither do their parents. At most, their parents choose to pretend to believe it, or actually believe it, but they do not KNOW it. We talk about physical rape, but the rape of a mind in this way is much more intimate, much worse. Brainwashing through coercive singing (the kids have no real choice but to mouth those words. Pretty transparent tactic.

  8. frank burns said

    I just noticed that my comment is “awaiting moderation” what a joke. That means, simply that your fear of the truth is so great, you just aren’t going to print it. Have a great day, and I wish you the best in your “career.” Make a living, and feel pious, and get plenty of respect from the “sheep.” And push lies. And hide form the truth. How do you sleep nights? Shame on you for what you said about the ready, rapable minds of kids. Shame, shame.

  9. qbaileys said


    Here you go, buddy. You had only been in moderation 5 minutes…truth is not the issue as to who gets in, but vile language is…that is why I moderate, plus anyone that gets absolutely over the top in their name calling or just words that make no sense and such I will NOT allow on my site. People can go to another site if they want to spew their vile garbage.

    I have no fear of the truth…I have trusted in the real truth my entire life. By the way…the article you are referencing here, if you noticed was written in Time magazine not by me. Furthermore, I am not a pastor or preacher..whatever would make you think that? However, I am a true believer in Christ Jesus. I am not ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ as many so called “believers” might be. One thing for sure one day we each will know the truth absolutely and if your refusal to believe in Christ as Lord or you find out that God does exist, that puts you in a very bad position. I certainly hope that you find a true peace in your life someday…I am not speaking of a happy moment, but real peace that surpasses all understanding. That undescribable peace that when life is falling apart yet you do not fall apart.

    Finally, you have no idea what I have been through in my life. Piousness is not in me…nor do I make a living by this as the assumptions you have made indicate….I sacrifice alot of my income monthly in order to serve my Lord. I do not lead “sheep”. I do have the respect of many men that I mentor, that you have no idea what they have been through nor the right to make assumptions as though you do. I do not “push” anything…I merely share the truth and let the word fall where it may and those that hear can reject it or accept it. My job is to share it, not push it. As far as kids go…what harm, can you find in these songs. Had you rather them sing about raping some girl down the street or maybe how to kill a cop or even better what drug is the best one to use to get high on this week so I can do stupid things or maybe even kill themselves with? Or maybe sing meaningless songs about lollypops and purple bears…I guess that would be better. Songs of hope that we firmly believe is true is not brainwashing anyone….these kids will someday be adults and believe me they will make decisions one way or another. They can accept or reject that which they have been taught. What about “Santa Claus is coming to town”? Do you think that has a brainwasing effect on a child that believes the big red jolly man is real? In any case, I posted your comments. The truth that God is real and Jesus Christ is Lord remains…just because someone might comment otherwise does not make it any less true.


  10. Dan said

    Sorry, I didn’t mean to suggest that you thought I was ‘cold and heartless.’ It’s just that I have this impression that some religionists falsely think that atheism is synonymous with nihilism.

    Hope I’m not developing a chip on my shoulder. 😉

    Thanks for the book reference, I will try to check that out.

    I tend to agree with you on the issue of indoctrination, but getting angry with SB will only put up his defenses.

  11. 4given said

    Lee Strobel wrote “A Case for Christ” just in case you are looking for it.

  12. 4given said

    As a believer, I think it is really cool that you guys (Dan & Frank) are reading & commenting on a Believer in Christs’ blog. No matter what you believe it is vital that you not just know what you believe, but why you believe it. That way when you are challenged in your beliefs you can defend them. That is the problem with many Christians today. They are following their traditions and rituals, not really knowing why. They know the Bible stories they were told as a child (could this be called brainwashing?) but never really search on their own for why those things happened or if they really believe that they happened. I grew up in a christian family. The Bible was read everyday & we even memorized it (more brainwashing techniques?). My parents even taught me songs about God like; “Jesus Loves Me” When I got married & moved out I was then left to my own beliefs. It wasn’t until then did I really begin to question the validity of what I had been taught as a child. Did God really exist & could he really do all that the Bible claims he could? I went through a time in my life when I tried to put God out of my mind and life for myself. That was the worst time of my life. It almost destroyed me, my marriage & family. The more I questioned this God I had heard about all my life, the more I dug into the Bible to see for myself what I believed. And when I knew what I believed I wanted to know why I believed it. Even if I tried now, I couldn’t deny my Creator. I have no peace, I’m miserable and feel as though I have no purpose in this life when I don’t trust God for direction. Society is so backwards in the belief that you are only strong when you rely on no one but yourself.

    When atheists comment on a believers blog it is good, because you keep us on our toes & challenge us to be confidant in why we believe so strongly in God. We can become very relaxed in our beliefs and that can lead us to our own destruction.

    Keep posting with kindness!!!

  13. qbaileys said

    Dan, no problem…I just wanted to make sure nothing I wrote came across like that. In addressing Frank’s little spat…that is alright. We as Christians expect to suffer and be scorned for Christ sake. My main point with him was he needed his facts straight rather than using assumptions about me.

    We all may believe totally different things, but we need the opportunity to believe them with all of might. I know the cause for most of the issues that the world views about Christianity and that is sham that many churches have put out in front of the world for 60 plus years and many of the church leaders of those churches and their actions have not been a good image booster for Christianity. If I had to look to many of the churches, their actions, and their leaders today and determine my belief’s based on that I might not believe either, however, I settled my belief in Christ 30 years ago and have never waivered about that. I understand that many who do work in the name of Christ are still not believers and will be rejected. True believers do not judge others nor do they come down on anyone of a different belief or race or sex. Ever how you believe is your business and how I believe and raise my family to believe is my business. If someone that is not a believer becomes interested in the things of God then I will certainly be glad to share it with them.

    Have a great week to all.

    Pressing on in Him,


  14. qbaileys said


    I appreciate the comments. It is so very true that unbelievers or even athiest really do keep our skills sharp. I have never believed more in my life about the God I serve than I do now. All the trials and turmoil I have been through has done nothing but draw me deeper into my relationship with Christ. How big is your God? He is sovereign, all knowing, everywhere, and in full control of our lives. Even the lives of those that may not believe, God is still using them for His purposes to accomplish His plan. Nothing on this earth will change the course the time or the events that will take place. Nothing that this world can deliver shocks my God in the least. He is, always has been and always will be. With confidence I can say I serve an awesome God that loves me so much He gave up the life of His Son on this earth.

    Thanks to all the comments that have utterly reinvigorated my ministry to those that are lost, wayward, troubled, insane, and so on.

    Pressing on in Him,

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