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How to Handle Religion with Your Children When You Don’t Believe in the Religion
by Jeff Lewis
The following is an e-mail exchange I had with someone concerning how to handle religion with our children. I considered revising this into an essay, partly to change those portions where my views have changed, and partly to better express certain thoughts, but I think the e-mail format helps reveal part of the struggle I went through in abandoning Christianity.
For anonymity, my correspondent will be referred to as John Doe.
My Original E-Mail, from 6 April 2006:
I thought I'd ask your viewpoint on this, since I think you're in a somewhat similar situation as me. I don't know if you ever read my website, but I've basically come to the conclusion that I no longer accept Christianity. I'm not atheist, maybe more of a deist. I still think we have some type of soul (whatever that is), so I'm not anti-religious. I just doubt Christianity in particular, and question the existence of some divine being in general. Anyway, I've come to all that on my own and that's not the real point of this e-mail. The real reason for it is, being in this position, how do you handle religion with your kids?
To put this in context, yesterday and a few other times, Alex went along with one of her friends to "Sunday" school (on a Wednesday, I know). That makes me a little uneasy, but at the same time, I don't want to force my beliefs on her. Usually, it's nothing more than daycare, but yesterday she came back with some worksheets, with things written on them like "I love Jesus," "Jesus loves me," "The Word is truth." So, me and Irma had a bit of a discussion on this, but I usually do better on these types of things by writing them out - it makes me organize my thoughts better. So, I wrote her an e-mail this morning about it. Then I figured, hell, as long as I've already got it written down, maybe I could get your thoughts on it, too. How do you handle this type of thing?
Okay, I said I was going to write you an e-mail about this, so here goes.
Here's where I'm coming from. I was raised as a Catholic, and taught all that stuff as being true. So, I accepted it for a long time. It's not that I didn't have any doubts, but religion gives you a huge incentive to not doubt it, what with the reward of heaven and the punishment of spending eternity in hell [not to mention the fact that as an impressionable kid, you're told it's true by authorities that you generally trust, and the social stigma that goes along with doubting religion  ]. So, it took me until just recently to get past that and actually look critically at my religion, including the Bible and Christian religious concepts in general. And then, I was finally able to say that, you know what, I don't buy into Christianity.
My concern for Alex is that I don't want her to be indoctrinated into it like I was. If, as she gets older and can do more thinking for herself, she decides that she wants to become religious, whether Christian or something else, well, I can't stop her. But, I want it to be her decision, not some belief that's instilled in her as a child, that she's afraid to question because of a fear of being punished in the afterlife. And with as impressionable as kids are, she is likely to accept a lot of what she hears from adults. I mean, that's just the way it is. We tell her to listen to and respect adults, and to pay attention to and learn from her teachers. When she goes to places like Sunday school, she's not listening to arguments and weighing the pros and cons to decide if she accepts it. She hears an adult in a position of authority tell her something, so she believes that it's true.
Now that I've had a chance to really look at my religion critically, it's made me realize that religion somehow gets automatic respect, especially Christianity in this country, as opposed to other superstitious ideas. Here's a good analogy known as Russel's teapot (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russell's_teapot), named after the philosopher Bertrand Russell who wrote it:
I don't know whether or not there's some divine being in this universe (though I don't think it's a necessity). I'm also pretty sure that we do have souls, so I'm not going to rule out religion in its entirety. But, I'm nearly positive that the Bible is not the divine word of God, and that it's not a good guide to live your life by or base your morality on (you ought to read that essay I wrote on that some time so you can see why I'm so sure), and I'm also pretty certain that Christianity in general isn't true, even if you allow for the Bible being the work of humans. So, I'm a little torn as to how to approach religion with Alex. On the one hand, I don't want to force her to have my beliefs. On the other hand, if someone told her that there was a teapot in orbit between Earth and Mars, would I be doing the right thing to tell her, "Well, you know, people have different beliefs. Some people believe in the teapot, and some people don't, and you'll have to decide for yourself," or would it be better to tell her that, "No, there really is no teapot in orbit between Earth and Mars, and the people that do believe that are just holding on to an old superstition." Why should I willfully allow her to accept ideas that I know are wrong?
Here's a similar way to look at that above argument. Suppose it wasn't a Christian Sunday school that she was going to. Suppose her friend was of the old school Geek/Roman religion. You know, Zeus and Hercules and Aphrodite and the whole pantheon of Gods. Suppose she came home with worksheets from Sunday school where she had written, "I love Zeus," "Zeus loves me," "Apollo is the path to knowledge." How then, would you feel about her going to religious classes with one of her friends? And that's another point. If we're going to expose her to religion at such a young, impressionable age, why Christianity? Wouldn't it be more fair to expose her to multiple religions?
I guess to wrap it up, you may be asking, well, if she does become a Christian, what harm could come of it? I'll steer clear from the more abstracts like blind faith versus free thought & evidence based critical thinking, and issues where science contradicts the Bible, and I'll discuss just one morality argument in particular - homosexuality. The Bible says it's wrong. Most Christians accept that it's wrong. For the larger part of my life before I started questioning Christianity, I went along and said that it was wrong. Now, other than saying, "the Bible says so," I can't see any reason why homosexuality is morally wrong. It's just something that two people do. But look at all the prejudice towards gay people in this country because of it. Look at how the gay marriage vote turned out . That's an actual, concrete result of the way people currently interpret Christianity. How much do we want Alex to be morally/ideologically influenced by people with prejudices like that? And homosexuality isn't the only moral problem I have with Christianity. There are plenty of others (like the Bible condoning slavery, how women are treated, etc.), but I figured one good, concrete example would be enough for this discussion.
Anyway, those are my thoughts on the whole thing. I could probably go on a lot more, but I don't know that I'd really be adding much other than details. So there you go.
-Jeff Lewis [remaining signature removed]
[John Doe’s] Reply from 7 April 2006:
I have to say I have wrestled with how to handle religion with the kids. I pretty much agree with almost everything that you said but actually go a little further in believe that existence of a soul falls into the same realm as an existence of a god. There is no evidence for either and no reason why one would need to exist. I understand that science does not yet have explanation for everything and has not identified everything, so I accept that new things that currently appear to be supernatural will be supported by future science. However, currently I have no reason to believe in the existence of a god or a soul.
Anyway, what to do about the kids. I think it is important for my children to understand religion and how it controls so many people. How can you even begin to understand the mid-east conflicts without including religion? I am also worried that my kids will be discriminated against in school if they are not religious. It still seems acceptable in society to belittle atheists. If they understand it and they will be less likely to put themselves in a situation where they would be discriminated against.
When [my wife] was pregnant with [our daughter], I felt like I needed to come up with some answer to this. My old boss at [my university] was atheist, but he used to go to a Universal Unitarian Church on occasion. Apparently they more talk about religions than worship and teach about multiple religions in Sunday school. I thought this might be useful, but in reality, is it really worth spending an hour a week to teach about ancient myths just because many people believe them. I think a weekly lesson would be excessive. Actually, my old boss said they went for a while, but quit going. I think that at some point I am going to have to try and explain the whole religious thing to the kids, but they are probably still a little young. Currently, [our daughter] is enrolled in a religious nursery school and they talk about god and jesus. The first day they were saying good morning to god. [Our daughter] was looking around to figure out which of the people was god. She also knows that Jesus's mother and father are Mary and Joseph, but I don’t think that she understands there significance any more that sponge bob and patrick. They are just characters in stories. I have a friend here who is atheist, and his daughter also goes to a religious nursery school. They say a prayer before eating dinner every night. He doesn't think its worth making an issue of it at this young age.
You have a bigger issue to deal with because Alex is getting old enough to start to understand. She is probably a little too young to understand the scientific process, but I think that teaching how to think in that way is really important. I don't think I will send my kids to "Sunday" school, even if there friends go. A slight complication in this is that [my wife] is still uncertain about religion and I think she would like them to learn about religion, so they can "make the decision themselves." I don't mind them hearing about religion, but I don't want them to hear about it in a way that states it as the only truth. Occasionally I ask [our daughter] about what she learns in school to see if she is think about it in a supernatural way. Until she does, I will just let it go. When she does, I will have to have a discussion with her and also decide how often I want to sender her to places that lie to her.
My Response from 7 April 2006:
Thanks for the reply. It gives me a little more to think about. I think it might be about time to have a discussion with Alex about people's religious beliefs. Let her know that lots of people believe lots of things, from hinduism to Christianity to tribal religions, and plenty of people that don't believe any of it. Getting her to think critically for herself is really the ultimate goal, but it's a whole lot tougher to teach thinking than to just teach facts.
The daycare problem's a tough one. She's enrolled at one of the church daycares down here. All of the best ones are run by churches. I really don't know of any good ones that aren't. (I actually had to bite my tongue this morning. Today's a snow makeup day, so I took her to daycare instead of school. The sign on the door of her class said "Friends of Jesus Class." I almost said, "Oh, you're all friends with a hispanic kid," but I didn't.) They really don't do a whole lot of religious education in those classes, but I'm starting to notice it more. I don't know if it's because I'm more sensitive to it, or because Alex is getting older to where she'll start to understand these things, so now's the age where they really start to teach it.
At least you're in the northeast. I'm down in the middle of the Bible Belt. There's still some discrimination between Baptists and Catholics down here - just imagine how they'd treat atheists. That's one of the things that really worries me about having this talk with Alex. Imagine the reaction she'd get from people if she blurted out, "My daddy says that Christianity isn't true." (And she will argue with kids - at a birthday party I heard her arguing with a kid a couple years older than her who said that if you let a balloon go outside, it would go all the way up to space, and maybe even the moon. Alex told him that it couldn't because the balloon needed the air from the atmosphere to float on. Boy was I proud.)
There was an interesting story that made it around the blogosphere the other day about how distrusted atheists actually are. Here's a link to the ABC News story ([see footnote 4]), and another to the news release from the university that did the study ([see footnote 5]). Here are two paragraphs from the ABC article that sum it all up pretty nicely:
Knowing how a lot of Americans feel about Muslims, blacks, and gay people really makes it clear how deeply they dislike atheists. And that's why I'm worried about Alex saying the wrong thing to the wrong person once I go through and have this talk with her.
-Jeff Lewis [remaining signature removed]
[John Doe’s] Response from 7 April 2006:
I hadn't seen this study, but I do believe it. It affirms my concerns about possible discrimination if the girls aren't careful. I should point out that Western Maryland is actually extremely religious. The high pregnancy rate in Washington County is a direct reflection of the parents refusal to allow sex ed in school. I believe that the number of atheist state in the article is probably a little low. I saw a CNN survey that 30% of the respondents didn't believe in god. Thought this is "respondents" to an extremely liberal news channel. I think that there is also a very large number of people who don't "really" believe, but haven't done anything about it. They still go to church and fit into society. For some, I suspect that the fear of eternal damnation prevents them from making the break that they believe in their heart.
Take heart, I think that close to 20% of the people I work with don't believe in organized religion. Though probably only half of them would call themselves atheist. The others believe in some sort of spirituality or possible a higher power though not really in the same sense that the major religions describe. On the other hand, a communal, christian prayer was said before the christmas party 2 years ago. I think that many people who are devout christians just assume that it is the norm and that all around them agree. I don't think that everyone I work with realizes how many non-believers they work with. Many of the atheist that I work with, including myself, are very careful about who knows about it. I should point out that division of who is or isn't falls heavily across the scientist / non-scientist divide.
Got to go.
 This bracketed note was included in the forward to John Doe, but not the original e-mail to my wife.
 The essay referred to in this sentence is not included in this collection. It can be found on my website at:
 Proposition 2 from the 2005 Texas general election, which was a referendum that passed, adding a new provision to the state constitution that “Marriage in this state shall consist only of the union of one man and one woman,” and prohibiting the state from recognizing same sex marriages performed in other states.