Hug the Shrug


Last week my oldest son, Jack, had a high school project that involved making text/graphic description of himself and his life. Among the many points of identity and culture in the project, there was a section in which he was supposed to talk about his religion. My wife told me that Jack had simply put himself down as an atheist. That’s not surprising, as he has been pretty open about being non-religious among his friends. In this case, however, he included two graphical illustrations to go along. One was an internet meme about believing in “one god fewer,” and the other was my infamous Easter Infographic. Jack didn’t mention it to me, of course, because Jack strides a mellow sort of cadence through life that doesn’t usually dip a toe in dramatic waters.

I will let the reader imagine the possible range of outcomes for such a declaration in a Texas public school. But I don’t want to hold you in too much tension. By this point, we have become accustomed to the absence of drama that follows. At least here in the Austin schools, things tend to go OK.

Nevertheless, it got me thinking all over again about how the costs of unbelief are changing, and how our kids pay less, and how their kids likely won’t pay anything at all. And that makes me very glad.

Market Price of Apostasy

My fellow apostates will share my acute sense of the excessive costs of leaving religion behind. The burden does not shrug off easily. We had a lot invested. The mounting expenses drained multiple accounts, and most relationships (for me) wound up closed for good. The pelting rains of social and psychological consequence kept us cold and huddling for a while. Cloud breaks played hide and peek for quite some time, but they did eventually spread to reveal bluer skies.

In the rear view mirror, the difficulty of leaving begins to look flatter. One wonders how on earth it was actually so difficult. The subject seems trivial, even comical in simplicity. A mythical melodrama, extortion by eccentricity.

Psychological Costs

When we left the faith, we took different approaches with our older and younger kids. They came in pairs — boy-girl, boy-girl — with a five year gap between. We disclosed rather a lot to the older kids, since they had by that time been deeply indoctrinated. I owed them a larger explanation of the historical and evidential realities. And I felt the need to confess my own sins of misinformation. As with all people of faith, their minds had been outfitted with a full panel of fictional fears, social taboos, and questions rendered implicitly off-limits. The fears needed daylight; the taboos needed killing; and good questions really deserved to be jail-broken.

So I laid it all out. There were a lot of long walks, and a lot of long talks, to and from our local Starbucks. The psychological price for them was much lower than it was for my wife and me. Difficult, yes. But honestly, for them it seemed to be over before we knew it. The new information actually answered unspoken questions for them.

So Noah’s flood never happened?

Based on the evidence, I don’t think it did.

I knew it! I just knew that couldn’t have happened!

They were OK with letting faith go. I think at bottom they were both relieved. Kids can be burdened by carrying weight of absurdity. Perhaps the hardest long-term dimension for the older kids was watching my wife and I languish and struggle for the next year or two.

With the younger kids, we didn’t spell it out. They were young enough that lots of questions would still come on their own. They lacked the deep imprint of taboo and the standard raft of false answers. So we let their curiosity drive the ship. A few months ago, my littlest one grilled me sternly about the reality of the Tooth Fairy. She had more or less figured it out, but wanted verification. I eventually conceded that she wasn’t real. Similar questions arose around Santa. The God question eventually came up too. My younger son has started to figure that one out. The question of god’s location came up. While Heisenberg gives us reason to say it can never be known with certainty, I think it is possible to bracket an answer:

Where’s Jesus?

Maybe he lives with Santa.

At bottom, curiosity finds the way, provided we stop administering the anesthetic of mythology when it shows itself. All in all, the younger the kids, the lower the psychological costs.

I’m really glad to say that they are all very well adjusted at this point. Good students, good kids, and they get along with each other now better than when we were religious. The end of false strictures and the sudden death of religious shaming will do that. They don’t profess themselves sinners every week any more. Its amazing how much that does for a person’s mental well-being.


Social Costs

I chuckle when I muse at the Ben Folds humor of “being male, middle class, and white,” yet finding myself in the oft-despised minority of atheism. My wife and I shared some anxiety over our kids and their social fate. They had rejoined the human race, after all, when we stopped homeschooling them and trundled them off to public school. Texas remains pretty Christian.

When the dust had settled, we told our older kids that they could decide how they wanted to approach their own social lives. On the question of religion, they could be vocal or silent, closed or open. They certainly didn’t have to set about deconverting anyone. Quite the other way, we talked about the potential costs of openness. We talked about prejudice. We helped them understand that we had all landed in an actual minority group, and that a lot of people really, really didn’t like this group.

We gave them dance instruction for the standard jigs. They could avoid the topic. If it came up, they could tell other kids that we just “didn’t go to church.” They could describe themselves as non-religious. They could say it many ways. And yes, if and only if they really wanted to, they could say they didn’t believe in god. It was up to them to use the “A” word.

My wife and I did our share of breath holding.

Long forethought and preparation gave us excellent footing for the drama that never came. Our kids made friends of various kinds. They found their little tribes. Some of their friends go to church and some don’t. The question of religion has come up at different times. But their generation basically shrugs at the question. Don’t go to church? Not religious? Whatever. Check out this app. Or at least, that’s how it has gone in a semi-liberal place like Austin.


My son’s teachers have made affirming sidebar comments about his openness, just to make sure he knows that transparency is a good thing. I would hazard that non-belief is fairly common in the Austin schools, but that blunt disclosures may still be infrequent. So the affirmation is good. Yet I suspect Jack would still be himself with or without it.

For every generation, there’s a gap. The political landscape shows just how much a new generation can drive changes in national perspective. Likewise, politics shows the sturdy belligerence of older generations. The turnover provides the opportunity for substantial change. This has proven true for gay marriage, gender identity, racism, etc. Likewise, the costs of unbelief diminish with time, with distance, and with the turning of this new generation. That’s good, since the whole caboodle has been overpriced for much too long.

Hug the Shrug?


And yet. For us apostates, the diminishing costs can turn an ironic blade. There’s just something about that shoulder-shrug response.

For religion to be shruggable benefits our kids and reflects the shrinking costs of unbelief. But for me, if I’m honest, religion still matters. It matters to me that it’s a fraud, that it’s false, and that real answers really are out there. Ironically, the truth about this fiction will never mean as much to my kids as it does to me. It cannot mean as much to them, precisely because they will never pay as much to learn it. Move forward a generation further, and it may not matter to my grand-kids a jot. Heck, they may never know what a jot actually is.

We who have bled on this battlefield can regard the great war as a hallowed thing. But we’d also admit that the war was tragic and empty, a damn waste of bloodletting that never should have been. It feels desperately important to make sure everyone understands how entirely worthless the whole drama always was. Irony. So the old battlefield remains a hallowed, pitiable thing. Mixed feelings follow, when you start to see a housing development erected where once you lay so unnecessarily bleeding.

I’ll ask my kids to be patient with me as the years wind forward, and as I try to learn to hug the shrug. 🙂


  1. Your last lines put me in particular mind of the last remaining WWII Veterans(or the veterans of any war, really). They talk of the bloodshed, the tears, the torn relationships, the price that was paid. The generation that comes behind them can hear the stories, know of the nail-biting, the fear(abject horror), and pain but never be able to fully understand it, while at the same time being well enough educated about it not to have a redo.

    The generation after that…well, it’s ancient history. Knowing about it and experiencing it are two entirely different things. Would I ever hope that my children, if I had any, would experience it? Hell no! But I fear that sets history up to repeat itself because the intricate details, the painstaking searching, the agony of believing the fiction was real are all but forgotten. I just hope it doesn’t become nonchalant unbelief that makes the harvest ripe for the picking.

    Yes, in some ways it makes it better for future generations of unbelievers to be unbelievers. But in some ways I think it might also make it easier for future generations of believers as well.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Yep, exactly. The half-life of experience is a generation or so. 🙂


      • archaeopteryx1 says:

        Sadly, the same is true of memories. My grandfather was a great man and for me, a co-role model with my Dad, but my son never knew him, and my grandson knows only stories I’ve told about him, which he quite likely will never think to repeat to his own children. In a few generations, everything my grandfather ever was, will be erased from memory.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. archaeopteryx1 says:

    My grandson in Oklahoma asked my son (who has never shared his atheistic beliefs for fear of his wife) if, when he grew up, it would be OK to be an atheist.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. Good on Jack! And i thoroughly agree, I use the shrug an awful lot around here. It has great power.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Just beautiful. I can see almost the same things happening in our own home. My oldest daughter is a pretty vocal atheist and my oldest son has started to work his own way out of the indoctrination that I so very much wish we had never put him through. The rest are shrugs, too.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. In my case, my de-conversion came after my kids were adults and had their own families. Since they had been thoroughly indoctrinated in their early years, they now look askance at my non-believing posture. Fortunately, we live many miles apart, so “religious” discussions are pretty much nil.

    The grandkids are now adults and “almost” adults, so hopefully they will learn the “shrug” as their journey through life progresses.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. It often seems like the transition to non-belief is easier for non-church-attending believers. My social life was never built around my religion when I was a believer, so when I lost that belief, nothing much changed socially (despite living in the deep south). I could definitely see it being traumatic for someone whose church formed a large part of their social network.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Love it.

    It’s the first time I’ve seen you use so much understrike. And yes I get it was intentionally hyperbolic.

    Fun note. My wife is still a Christian as I’m sure you remember. She rarely goes to church, but took some kids this weekend. I’ve got to do some compromising you know. Well, my 9-yr old refused communion saying he didn’t believe in God. She was handcuffed, and had to go out of her way to tell him he is not a bad person for it. That would put her in quite the position when it comes to his atheist dad.

    Glad you are not dealing with the unnecessary tension in your home!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Wow, that’s pretty dicey. 9 years old — sounds like an opinionated sort of girl(?)

      Yes, I’m in a fortunate position to be on the same page with J, and I know not everybody who walks away has the same.

      Liked by 2 people

  8. Dropping God says:

    It’s been months since I’ve seen the Easter diagram. LOVE IT! I wondered if you had thought about a way to make it a poster, maybe laminated and suitable for framing. I would buy one!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Ah well, glad you like it. Took some time to make for sure. I’ve thought about a frame-able version, if only for myself. Never got around to it though. Maybe one day. Especially if I ever make my Christmas infographic. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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