Godless mom strikes a chord with parents
A CNN iReport essay on raising kids without God draws record-breaking number of comments.
January 18th, 2013
06:32 PM ET

Godless mom strikes a chord with parents

By Daphne Sashin, CNN

Deborah Mitchell remembers the time, when her boys were younger, and another mom asked her about her religious beliefs.

Mitchell was raised Catholic but moved away from religion in her early 20s. She told the other mother that she didn’t go to church and didn’t even really believe in God.

Then, she says, the recruiting started.

“She used to call my house and tell me she was praying for me. She’d leave me messages and leave cards in my mailbox with scripture,” Mitchell says. “I do realize that she meant well, but at the same time, I know my views were seen as wrong. I needed to be ‘saved.’”

Mitchell, a mother of two teenagers in Texas who feels “immersed in Christianity,” started a blog about raising her children without religion because she felt frustrated and marginalized. She didn’t want to feel so alone, she says.

This week, she gained a whole new audience and the reassurance that she's not alone. Her essay on CNN iReport, “Why I Raise My Children Without God,” drew 650,000 page views, the second highest for an iReport, and the most comments of any submission on the citizen journalism platform.

It starts:

When my son was around 3 years old, he used to ask me a lot of questions about heaven. Where is it? How do people walk without a body? How will I find you? You know the questions that kids ask.

For over a year, I lied to him and made up stories that I didn’t believe about heaven. Like most parents, I love my child so much that I didn’t want him to be scared. I wanted him to feel safe and loved and full of hope. But the trade-off was that I would have to make stuff up, and I would have to brainwash him into believing stories that didn’t make sense, stories that I didn’t believe either.

Mitchell posted the essay detailing her seven reasons for raising her children without God on CNN iReport because she felt there wasn’t anyone else speaking for women or moms like her. As she sees it, children should learn to do the right things because they will feel better about themselves, not because God is watching. She asks questions like: If there was a good, all-knowing, all-powerful God, why would he allow murders, child abuse and torture?

Lots of people disagreed with her. Tons. They flagged her iReport as inappropriate and criticized CNN for linking to her essay on the CNN.com homepage. But there were plenty of others who wrote thoughtful rebuttals, respectfully disagreeing with Mitchell while not foisting their own beliefs on her. Take, for instance, a Methodist dad, who said faith can be hard to nail down, but “not to avail ourselves of the power of something we don't completely understand is silly.”

Others said Mitchell presented a simplistic view of religion.

“Presentations such as these seem to ignore a substantial percentage of believers - well-educated, compassionate, liberal folk, Christian and non-Christian alike - who, I feel, are able to worship without being blind to the realities of the world, or without lying to their children about their understanding of these complexities,” wrote commenter RMooradian. “I'll be raising my children with God, but I understand those who cannot!”

But Mitchell’s essay also struck a chord with hundreds of like-minded parents raising children in a world where lack of belief puts them in the minority, often even in their own family.

“Thank you for writing this. I agree with everything you say, but I’m not brave enough to tell everyone I know this is how I feel,” a woman who called herself an “agnostic mommy of two in Alabama” posted in the comments. “Thank you for your bravery and letting me know I’m not alone.”

It’s a growing group. One in five Americans is not affiliated with any religion, and that number has grown by 25% in the past five years, according to a survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Of that group, 88% said they were not looking for religion, although 68% of the unaffiliated said they believe in God. 

Brittany Branyon, an American graduate student and substitute teacher living in Germany, was also compelled to express her thanks to Mitchell. Branyon was raised Southern Baptist in Georgia and Alabama. In high school, when she began to question the theory of creation and befriended gay and lesbian students, she says her mother tried to perform an exorcism.

“She opened all the windows and doors in the house, brought me to the door, held my shoulders and shook me while screaming, ‘Satan, get out of this child!’, ‘Satan, leave this child alone!’.”

After moving away from the South, she and her husband “became more comfortable in our secular ways,” but still take criticism from family members. They are now expecting their first child.

“Though we are elated to welcome our child into the world, we can’t help but dread the religious uproar that is to come from our families,” she wrote in an e-mail.

Such an uproar is familiar to Carol Phillips, a stay-at-home mother in northern Virginia. When she gave birth to her first child, she said her family was shocked that the baby wasn’t baptized. She said her mother-in-law cried and told her the little girl’s soul would not go to heaven.

Then there are the comments from strangers. Last year, Phillips said she and her daughter were at a birthday party when a tornado warning sounded.

“We were all in the basement keeping safe. A little girl was saying baby Jesus will keep us safe. My daughter asked who Jesus was. The rest of the time was spent hearing ‘I'll pray for you sweetie, we can take you to church with us if you want,’” Phillips told CNN.

Commenting on Mitchell’s iReport, Phillips said, “To live out loud and to speak freely about my beliefs brings many clucking tongues. I would think it’s easier to come out as gay than atheist.”

Mitchell said she spent years studying the history of religion and does believe it has “an important place in our community.” She has told her children that she’ll be fine if they decide to join a church when they are older.

She ended her essay:

I understand why people need God. I understand why people need heaven. It is terrifying to think that we are all alone in this universe, that one day we—along with the children we love so much—will cease to exist. The idea of God and an afterlife gives many of us structure, community and hope.

I do not want religion to go away. I only want religion to be kept at home or in church where it belongs. It’s a personal effect, like a toothbrush or a pair of shoes. It’s not something to be used or worn by strangers. I want my children to be free not to believe and to know that our schools and our government will make decisions based on what is logical, just and fair—not on what they believe an imaginary God wants.

After her post ran on CNN, Mitchell said she was encouraged by the number of people who agreed with her, or who disagreed but wanted to have a respectful discussion.

“I’m not saying that everybody should think how I do. I’m saying the people that do should have a place in our society and have acceptance and respect,” she said. “I just want to have children grow up and be able to not be afraid to say ‘I don’t believe that,’ or ‘I’m not part of that.’” 

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Atheism • Belief • Christianity • iReport

soundoff (15,081 Responses)
  1. hal 9001

    If I had a child, I would simply instruct it to let X = X. I would also instruct it to strike as many different chords as necessary to achieve maximum harmony and coefficiency with its administrators and subscribers.

    January 19, 2013 at 2:31 am |
  2. TANK!!!!

    Religion: because Alzheimer's can't get here fast enough.

    January 19, 2013 at 2:19 am |
  3. Roger that

    Take your Bible and change the cover to read Quran. Read it as though you are reading the quran and then get back to us.

    January 19, 2013 at 2:12 am |
    • Roger that

      Crap...that was for Phazon

      January 19, 2013 at 2:15 am |
  4. Mlink56

    Forcing religion on a child is just another form of child abuse.

    January 19, 2013 at 2:09 am |
    • Ronnie Harper

      It is child abuse, pure and simple. Religion is a pox on humanity, a disease of the mind.

      January 19, 2013 at 2:30 am |
  5. akmac65

    It is not necessary to mock others to have your own faith. As the article pointed out, faith is an individual decision, not a requirement. Values and faith may or may not be linked, note the number of both religious and non-religious who have done both good and bad.

    January 19, 2013 at 2:06 am |
  6. Mike

    I love Jesus! He cuts my lawn every other Thursday. Why all the fuss??

    January 19, 2013 at 2:06 am |
  7. Just say no

    Notice the majority of the intolerant statements are from people mocking people who choose religion.

    Not everyone makes you a special case leaving postcards in your mailbox.

    humm... what this world needs to today is snarky idi 0ts that ridicule people and feel they have the right to force their beliefs as many athiest comments here are saying, versus people who leave postcards inviting you to church in your mailbox.

    tough choice.

    January 19, 2013 at 2:06 am |
    • akmac65

      Atheists have never come to my door trying to convert me. Neither have they mounted campaigns to discriminate against law-abiding citizens based on to whom they are attracted.

      January 19, 2013 at 2:09 am |
    • Akira

      akmac65: absolutely correct!

      January 19, 2013 at 2:16 am |
    • TANK!!!!

      Nonsense. Getting invited to church is like receiving a coupon for a free lobotomy.

      January 19, 2013 at 2:22 am |
    • Julie Johnson

      I'm sure that we could do a count and see what side is being the most snarky. Given the subjective nature of this, I don't see the point. I can only relate my personal experiences, which are that as a person who wants American to stand by its values of being religiously tolerant, I find it very demoralizing and insensitive to find a lot of people who seem to believe that "religious freedom" only applies to Christianity. I have watched repeatedly as people have said that this nation was founded on Christian principles and that we need to stand firm on protecting only those principles and pushing out everything else. That runs counter to our history, which shows that we were founded by people seeking to flee religious persecution because what they believed was different than what others believed. And our First and Fourteenth Amendments protect the ability to find God in any way we see fit - Christianity, Judism, Wicca, Muslim, etc. The path to God - or to decide there is no God - is a highly personal one. It's great for you that you don't leave postcards for people, but the ones who do outnumber you, if what I have seen is any indication.

      January 19, 2013 at 2:37 am |
  8. Michael John Anthony

    I think a lot of parents are in this situation. There is a lot of pressure to conform to religious norms. I have felt that pressure personally. The hardest part was disappointing my religious parents. Ultimately I realized that it was not my fault they were disappointed, and it was not their fault either. The problem is that believers are taught that non belief is sinful. But I am no more a sinner than the next person. I reject the dogma of hell and salvation. I reject the notion that a loving creator would use such tactics on human beings. My soul is not a chess piece in some cosmic game played by angels and demons.

    January 19, 2013 at 1:59 am |
  9. brown

    We you die, you simple do not exist anymore. Your body lay stinking and rotting until it stink no more. You become part of the
    Earth again for all eternity.

    January 19, 2013 at 1:58 am |
    • The_Pacifist

      Here, here... You become part of the Earth again until it is consumed by the Sun in about 4-5 billion years, then we will be stardust again... Which is where the atoms of our bodies came from... stardust.

      January 19, 2013 at 2:02 am |
    • TANK!!!!

      You just created a storm of cognitive dissonance in the empty head of some religionist somewhere. Congratulations.

      January 19, 2013 at 2:04 am |
  10. Sheldon Whitman

    Thanks for describing the way you want to teach your children. My wife is a strong believer in the Christian religion, while I do not believe in a supreme creature. Our children listened to both of us. They learned the fundamental of the Christian philosophy "Be good and Do good". I insisted each of them grow to respect everyone elses beliefs. In time they would settle on what they found as a base they wanted their lives to stand firmly on. They are both married now and are great people. I think your children are very lucky to have someone who believes holding firm to a set of personal beliefs is best.

    January 19, 2013 at 1:55 am |
    • akmac65

      Well put.

      January 19, 2013 at 1:58 am |
    • SLoRider

      The fundament of Christian doctrine is NOT "Be good and Do good". Unless I'm wrong, please show that in the bible. The fundament of Christian doctrine is that it is impossible for any person to be good and the only salvation (from hell) possible is grace through Jesus Christ. For someone married to a devout Christian you seem to know little about it.

      January 19, 2013 at 2:08 am |
    • Akira

      That would probably be because he doesn't believe in God, probably doesn't know or care about this...and lets his wife teach that portion of his children's education.
      It sounds to me as if his children did just fine regardless.
      My husband is an avid fisherman, and I'm not; nor do I care to learn...thusly, it was up to my husband to teach my kids how to fish.

      January 19, 2013 at 2:31 am |
    • akmac65

      Slorider....The meaning of Christianity varies with what gospel or letter you are reading, not to mention which church. Jesus certainly had a lot to say about leading a good life. The stuff about grace and salvation was added long after his reported lifetime.

      January 19, 2013 at 2:34 am |
  11. Lizard Lance

    I respect those who don't believe in God. I also respect those who insist the world is flat. I respect the fact that they are wrong. I respect the right the possess to be wrong.

    January 19, 2013 at 1:52 am |
    • akmac65

      I do not respect your dishonest use of the language. Your judgement of right and wrong gives the lie to your words.

      January 19, 2013 at 1:59 am |
  12. bribarian

    These Atheist Attention Wh0res and their articles are getting quite old and boring.

    January 19, 2013 at 1:48 am |
    • Athy

      Then don't read them. Did you ever think of that?

      January 19, 2013 at 1:50 am |
    • AverageBowler

      Maybe he had a moment of insanity where he thought something new and intelligent might be said. Obviously a ridiculous thought.

      January 19, 2013 at 1:52 am |
    • TANK!!!!

      We've been waiting for the religious loonies to say something "new and intelligent" for millenia!

      January 19, 2013 at 2:01 am |
  13. myatheistlife

    For anyone that says religion has a historical and significant place in our history as if that is a good thing, I'd like to remind them that these same things can be said of the KKK, Civil War, violence, drugs and so on. It is not a valid reason to continue doing something or foster more of the same. In Germany, the Nazi party can be described the same way. Some things just need to be change, abandoned, but not forgotten. Religion is one of them.

    January 19, 2013 at 1:47 am |
    • AverageBowler

      I think you're on to something. Really starting a movement here in the intellectual circle of the CNN comments section!

      January 19, 2013 at 1:48 am |
    • Moby Schtick

      It seems like something has gotten under the skin of Average Bowler.

      January 19, 2013 at 2:08 am |
  14. AverageBowler

    I wonder if all "massive amounts of comments" on her blog post were the same as on this article about her blog post...

    i.e. the same five people posting over and over and over and over again...

    No.. I'm sure the country is really dominated by atheists and people who are "raising their kids without god." I'm so ashamed of my religion now! I wish I could be like the five commenters on CNN who literally comment about hating god all day and all night desperately trying to add purpose to their existences. The even more ludicrous thought is that I bet most of them have more than one screen name. Talk about sad.

    January 19, 2013 at 1:45 am |
    • Akira

      How many names do you post under?
      Oh, and what's your average?

      January 19, 2013 at 1:59 am |
    • akmac65

      What is sad is your exaggeration and lack of honesty.

      January 19, 2013 at 2:02 am |
  15. Johhnystop

    Tolerance please! No one has ever made an issue about my atheism nor would I with someone's religion.

    January 19, 2013 at 1:43 am |
    • TANK!!!!!

      The time for tolerating stupidity (especially the kind based on garish myths from the Bronze Age) is over. Thousands of dutiful Americans are defeating religious reasoning in the courtroom and on national television. We must do our own small part by ridiculing them and inducing hissy fits, which could in turn induce a much-needed carthasis that will purge the stupid of their stupidity. Or, it could just be lots of fun.

      January 19, 2013 at 1:51 am |
  16. TANK!!!!!

    Baseless faith: because a nail gun to the occipital wouldn't get the job done.

    January 19, 2013 at 1:42 am |
  17. David

    Thanks to Ms. Mitchell for her thoughtful essay and for expressing the views of many of us who share the longing for a public acceptance and respect of our non-believer status. Thank you to CNN for providing a space for such an exchange.

    January 19, 2013 at 1:39 am |
  18. joe


    get over yourself lady. People have been living without the mythical Christian or Islamic or any other God for 1000s of years. You're hardly an earth mover.

    January 19, 2013 at 1:34 am |
    • Clint

      Maybe no earth mover, but she has the guts to be open about it. Many people don't and live in fear because of it their whole lives.

      I fear losing my job because of it, because prayer and invokation are part of every official ceremony in the place where I work, and not participating can lead to being courtmarshaled.

      January 19, 2013 at 3:02 am |
    • O.o

      I'm sorry to hear that Clint. I mean the lack of belief you carry should not be punished. I am very open about my atheism, but am now working on my degree and am not sure if I should be so open about it anymore. The people that will be depending on me will be of all types. I wish it weren't so but this is a complicated world. People believing so critically in something they do not know and putting it into everyday scenarios makes it even harder.

      January 21, 2013 at 8:35 pm |
  19. albie

    I greatly respect and admire this woman for her bravery. I greatly respect and admire CNN for fostering free speech. One of the more egregious crimes of organized religion is the brain washing of children - it is unacceptable and should no longer be tolerated..

    January 19, 2013 at 1:23 am |
    • End Religion

      3 cheers for Deborah Mitchell!
      Hip hip hooray!
      Hip hip hooray!
      Hip hip hooray!

      January 19, 2013 at 1:26 am |
    • The_Pacifist

      Yes, good for Deborah Mitchell. Some of my friends are Christian and they raise their children as Christians. It is their choice. As an Atheist, I respect it and do not interfere. It is not my business. Perhaps people need to focus more on their own personal religious beliefs instead of worrying about the beliefs of others...

      January 19, 2013 at 2:07 am |
  20. mk

    So, shouldn't the Hubble Telescope have picked up on Jesus as he ascended into heaven at some point? He should be out there by Pluto by now. If not Hubble, then at least Voyager should have picked up on his progress. Oh wait, you want me to suspend my facilities for logic and critical thinking in regards to this? You can't have it both ways. You can't pick and choose what lines of *BS# you'll believe in. Either you believe it all or you see the cracks in the foundation and see the fairy tale for what it is – a metaphor for a sublime concept of existence. To realize the fragility of our being, to take joy in the moment, to understand what it means to be cognizant – that in of itself is enough to " blow one's mind". Please don't add the "Angry Dad in the sky" to ruin it.

    January 19, 2013 at 1:17 am |
    • TANK!!!!!

      The questions you are asking are beyond these loonies. You'll get the same "u need moar phaith" responses that everyone else has.

      January 19, 2013 at 1:41 am |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.