My wife and I have been devoting a lot of mental energy into how to approach religion with my children (One three years old and the other 8 months). I, like other Atheists I have met, have wished my sons to decide for themselves which path to take by educating them as they grow in the different religions of the world, as well as the secular studies of math and the Sciences. As a step toward this, I have no expressed my view to my three-year-old concerning religion or gods. Honestly I had not intended to for some time, hoping to approach the subject when he was older and more able to understand these concepts. I am at odds however, since a recent trip to grandma's house was complete with a trip to church. Her mother and father know our views. (Not fully to the extent of Anti-theists, but they recognize us as Atheists) My wife's sister even spoke up and mentioned that it was not ethical to bring him to church considering our views. It was done regardless. I also found out that she has been praying with him and they were saying prayers over meals resplendent with signs of the cross.

Since that time, he has been asking about god and making comments like "Jesus is alive." Talking about Baby Jesus, God and nativity.

I find my objectivity being forced. He doesn't understand the concepts of god, and to tell him my view removes my sincerely caring decision to let him decide his path. How do you tell a 3 year old boy that "that is just what grandma believes." I equate that with "grandma is lying;" which isn't the case. She believes in Catholicism fundamentally, devotedly, and fanatically. (A source of constant tongue-biting and restraint for myself and my wife in order to keep the peace)
I feel, however that I cannot remain passive anymore when it involves my son. My wife and I have decided to not allow, for the time being, to leave our son with her parents unsupervised. My wife brought up the idea and it is her parents we're talking about, after all. We have also decided to abstain from prayer with her family. Normally, we don't mind that they pray before dinner and what not. It has not harmed me, though it makes me sad to see such supplication and grovelling. Now, however, I'm starting to view it in direct light as a threat to my son's inability to be objective due to his age.

Their religion and self-assured superiority of moral fiber have been a constant thickness to the air for the last decade. I know our abstaining from their prayer this year will be an insult to them, to say nothing about our likely keeping them from watching him unsupervised again until he is older. I had never thought I'd be in this position before, and am uncertain how to progress. There are, of course, other considerations I have not even described that complicate the issue further, but I want to stick to the core of what is going on.

I have discussed this on a blog I created linked to my facebook and am getting angry outcries. Everything from "You are using your kids to hurt their grandparents, to direct finger shaking at my reprehensible harshness.

I am a man. I am by no means a moral compass for anyone. I have faults and feelings that I regret. But by no means do I feel that I am using my children. A breech of protocol is a light infraction. This elongated act is subversiveness and violates the right of a moral couple who wish to raise their child as they see fit.

Let me put this in perspective. Take any devoutly (or even mildly) religious person you know. Say they let their 3 year old come over to my house. At supper that child begins to pray, but before he can, what if I stopped them and said "God is a myth and does not exist." Then perhaps, after our meal, say I took him over to meet some of my other atheist friends and we indoctrinated him in all our beliefs. That religion is harmful to humanity, a relic of human infancy.

Would that be ethical? Would that make you a little upset?

If you are a believer in free thinking, you would most likely be quite upset at the blatant disregard for a parents right to raise their child as they deem moral.
View this in the light of my morality, wherein religion is poisonous, immoral, corrupt, violent, sadistic and dehumanizing. Consider that my child went to church to learn how to be a good little Christian. I am quite livid, and protecting my child's developing morality and intellectual freedom are as significant as their physical well-being

I would like to add, that if my child does decide to become a Christian, Jew, Muslim or Hindu, I will support their right to believe. I would take them to church or synagogue or mosque if that is what they wished (And have even entertained ideas of doing that when they were older as part of their education). But it will be a decision they must make, free from the sinister manipulations and predations of moral police at the ripe old age of 3.

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Replies to This Discussion

i personally feel this kind of situation is too common, and think its great that you posted this.
first off, people and families aside, religion has a record worse than any of the great wars fought on this earth and is responsible for most of todays corruption and war.
you know this, i know this, atheists know this.
however today's churchgoers do not for some reason. christians tend to overlook their horrible history due to the fact that church is now associated with social aspects and "togetherness." so when people want to pray, refer to their christ or invite others to their church it is because they have absolutely no clue what exactly they are involved in.
as i tell people all the time, this is fine as long as it is kept to themselves, as it is something personal and ONLY helps them.
that being said, if someone is aware of your beliefs and how they differ (if you ask me, surpass) theirs, they have absolutely no right to expose your child to their dogma.
the best thing one can do is to convey that
1) this child is far too young to even attempt to perceive a god's purpose.
2) it is incredibly disrespectful to disregard the way you are raising and nurturing your child simply because they feel they need to thank an invisible provider for the man-made meals on the dinner table.
3) this is YOUR child. YOU decide what he is exposed to.
i taught karate for 5 years and have much experience with this age group. so i, like you, know that their minds are like giant sponges willing to soak up anything without considering its significance. this can lead to the development of habits that will shape their mentality for the rest of their life.
it is not the same as if you were to expose the child to atheism since atheism teaches that we are all human beings and should work together as a species to prosper and live what we would call happier lives...versus the teachings of the bible that says women are inferior, bats are birds, the earth is flat, slavery and rape of virgins are acceptable and endorsed by god, people who work on sunday are to be put to death, etc...
just because they dont know their own doctrine does not mean they can impose their views on your child.
you and your spouse are doing the right thing by waiting for your child to mature before exposing him to the debates between science and mythology, and should continue to do so.
Hi Jason,

Like you, I would be livid in the same situation. My husband and I are atheists and my husband's mother, and my father, are both devout christians...anglican and greek orthodox respectively. I have made it clear to my parents that I do not want my daughter exposed to my father's faith and I trust my father not to cross a line there as he is actually a theological academic amongst other things. However, my husband's mother is more evangelical than my father, and my husband is less outspoken in his atheism than I am....and as the daughter-in-law I'm not in a position of authority at all with his parents. My daughter is not left with them often but I do know she has been read to from the collection of children's bible stories in the house. I'm fine with her hearing the story of Noah's ark or Jonah and the whale, Daniel in the Lion's Den, but I'm not so keen on the unavoidable emphasis these (obviously) Christian published kids books place on the role of God, and I'm also not keen that it's a devout Christian who is there reading the stories and ready to answer any questions my inquisitive daughter may ask about the "God" character aspect of the narrative. I haven't said anything about it to date, I'm hoping she just gets the message telepathically by me making a point of looking through the books with a thoughtful look on my face when we come to pick her up. I don't believe, and sincerely hope, that she would ever take my daughter to church, and luckily for us my father-in-law is not a theist so I think he would quietly squash any suggestion of that happening. I wish you had some such safeguard in your situation. My only concerns are the books and the happy clappy music she plays with yet more "Jesus lives, Jesus Loves us, etc" lyrics repeated over and over and over and over and over. If she had my daughter for significant periods of time I don't think she could resist some indoctrination because, like your mother-in-law she truly believes, joyously, in her faith and sharing it is like breathing to her.

I tell you all this to let you know that you are not alone in your situation or concerns, though in your situation your in-laws went way beyond the realms of what could be termed a "grey area". They overtly went against your wishes and I agree with you that, sadly, they can't be trusted to abstain from indoctrination of your child if left unsupervised, even if they make and keep a promise to keep him out of church (they might have him baptised next time!). You don't say how you reacted with them when you discovered what they had done, did you keep your cool and fume in private or did you make your feelings fully known? If you implement a "not unsupervised" rule will you tell them you are doing it and explain why or will that just quietly be the way you arrange visits in future? It's a VERY uncomfortable thing to have to navigate and I truly feel for you. I guess the bottom line is are you, and importantly your wife, willing to spell out for them that they will have to promise to abstain from involving your child in religious activities in order to spend any time alone with him, and equally importantly if they do actually promise would you believe them? I wish you the best of luck with this annoying situation.

I wonder what massive percentage of family dramas globally are caused in some way by religion. It's so frustrating.

ps: I liked your example of the parallel of blatantly telling a Christian child that God is a myth and introducing it to your atheist friends. So true!
I have 2 boys now 17 and 18 years of age. It was actually my eldest that truly turned me Atheist, despite him going to church occasionally when he was young. He was always a thinker and figured out at a very young age that Santa, Tooth Fairy, etc. couldn't be real. The thing is, when he figured it out, we didn't contradict him. We still did the Santa presents and money under the pillow thing, but he (and his brother) knew the truth. It was just a fun make believe thing to do and yes, most kids understand make believe. Realizing god was a fantasy like those characters and TV followed about the same time. I think he was around 4 or 5.

I guess I would have been considered an agnostic at the time and raised as a Christian when young. My wife did (and still does) go to the local country Lutheran church mainly for the socializing and she likes to sing. I guess she's agnostic? Really she just doesn't care about that stuff. My youngest is somewhat like my wife in not caring, but is an Atheist. My eldest is more vocal. I know my father would like them to believe in god, but when he tries to bring up, my eldest just lets him know it's all BS and my youngest makes jokes about it, showing how ridiculous it is (he even does a hilarious preacher voice).

I guess what I'm saying is, unless the grandparents are really "driving" it in their brains and spend excessive time with them, I wouldn't worry about it yet. You are their parents after all and most likely will be their biggest influence (as they yours). If you want you can discuss the religious stories they hear and treat them as such, in the same line as Goldilocks or Pokemon...that's how our boys viewed it (and got me to view it as such) and again, I didn't contradict it.
The fact that you will allow your children to still go around these people (albeit with supervision) proves you are a much better, more tolerant person than I. How dare they?!?

I understand you don't want to paint Grandma as a liar (although she's proven she's extremely manipulative with no regard for you or her own daughter). I'm sure your MIL is sincere in her belief in her God. I'm also sure some sincerely believe spinach is the very best tasting vegetable in the world. Sincere belief just doesn't necessarily make it so. I know it's simplistic, but perhaps you could point out some of your son's favorite (and least favorite) things and draw a corollary to MIL's God in that manner.

Although I attended a Catholic girl's school (for academic not religious reasons) I was very fortunate that the Nuns felt the need to expose us to a variety of religions. Of course they weren't so accepting of my lack of belief in any religion - but how much can you expect of Nuns?

I applaud your and your wife's intentions to honor your children's freedom of choice. While I can commiserate with your desire to keep the peace, MIL obviously could care less about reciprocating. Please don't allow your In-laws to subvert your efforts to raise intelligent, well rounded, moral children.

All the best to you and your family.
That is a very difficult situation. : ( I myself have some near-fanatical Catholic relatives, so I feel your pain. I think you are going to have to take the reins on the subject of religion with your kids, because if their grandparents are fanatically Catholic then I doubt you'll get much help from them. Rather than you using the kids to hurt their grandparents, as the people on your blog say, it sounds much more like the grandparents are using your kids to hurt you. I think you might need to revise your plan and start teaching him about religion now--you may have wanted to wait until your son is older, but apparently your in-laws have other ideas.

I think letting a child learn about religions and decide for themselves is the most honest decision a parent can possibly make, so I admire your decision. But, I think you are doing your son a disservice by not telling him anything about your own beliefs--not so much because you are an atheist, but because you are his parent. Right now he's learning about Christianity (and by extension, atheism) from his grandmother. Like Lightfoot said, children are little sponges and they begin learning from the moment they are born; I have a feeling the impression your son is getting now is that Jesus loves him, and Mommy and Daddy never say anything nice about Jesus. Even at three, I think you should be straight and honest with him. If your mother-in-law is indeed fanatically religious, than I would pay close attention to what she tells him about you and your beliefs. (I.e., "Does Grandma ever talk about me and Mommy when she talks about Jesus?" "What does she say?") Then I would tell him about your beliefs. "Grandma and a lot of people belief Jesus was a good person. I think some of the things Jesus said were good, and some of the things Jesus said were unfair." ...or what have you. Remember the most overarching message of religion is that not believing makes him a bad person, so stress that it's okay if he doesn't believe everything Grandma says, and that you will always love him.

You mentioned math and science;Those are vitally important, but I would also include philosphy, which I believe has a profound and extremely underrated influence on us. So I would not hesitate to include Humansim along with Hindu and Buddhism and all the other religions.
What parent doesn't want their child to believe as they do? Of course I'd be disappointed if he became a Christian or such. I only said I would support them if that is what they decided to do. It will, I know, in all honesty be difficult for the child to adopt a religion in our household, as my wife and I have planned to teach them of religion, yet not from a religionists view. My son is being exposed to philosophy even now in our everyday discussions.

For instance, yesterday I worked on my sons ability to determine fact from fiction. I held a blue block before him and said: "Hey Issac, do you want this red block?"
He smiled cheesily and said that the block wasn't red, it was blue.
"But what if I said this block was red?" I replied
Again he said it was blue, not red.
"What if I say it's red what do you think about that?"
Again the big cheesy smile. "Nooooo, it's not red, it's blue because it's a block and it's blue."
We went a few rounds with this until he picked up a little Sully (from Monster's Inc.) kidsmeal toy and said "That is blue like this is blue!"
"Are you sure?" I asked.
Isaac went to my wife. "Mama this is blue like this is blue," he told her eagerly, holding both the blue toys before her.
He ran back to me with the toys. "Papa! Mama said this is blue and this is blue."

I have to admit I was a proud papa. He was problem solving, trying to define was was factual and provable in face of authoritative pressure to the contrary. The whole time of course he knew I was being silly, the then again, aren't they all?

Our philosophy is taught in our everyday actions. I love my sons so much, it's hard to know what is always best for them all the time, but I think our thoughts on this are similar. I'm really not as passive in this as I seem.
If your son had happened to be/remain Christian would you be kicking yourself now that you did not give your own atheism equal time with him alongside the Christianity his grandmother and her church exposed him to?

Your story turns out fine but it's a risky strategy and I really don't understand any reason for not sharing ones own outlook on life with your own child. The theists certainly do!
This is emphatically not a religious issue. This is an issue of personal respect. As you so aptly pointed out, it would be inappropriate for you to take a child of a Christian aside and attempt to deprogram that child, not because religion is good, bad, or indifferent, but because the child's parents are entitled to a certain amount of respect. It isn't fair to extend your crusade to trying to convert children, unless you're willing to have your children subjected to the same thing.

Your in-laws clearly have no respect for the views of your wife and you. I suggest you sit down with them and explain, very clearly, what they are doing, how offensive this is to you, and what the consequences of their continued refusal to respect your child rearing methods will be. You must make it clear that you are firm in exercising your parental prerogatives. It should be as clear as possible (although I'd be surprised if they ever get it) that they are the ones who will decide when and under what conditions they may see their grandchildren.

This is important. You cannot prevent your in-laws from accusing you of holding your children hostage. Nobody can do that. But you can and should have a clearly thought out explanation for close friends and family, at least insofar as you care about what they think of you in matters such as this.

The key concept is this: You are not demanding that the in-laws engage in any practices that might be anathema to them. All you are asking is that they not actively undermine your parental decisions as to how you're raising your children. When you say, "[h]er mother and father know our views," that's not good enough. THAT'S WHY A FACE TO FACE MEETING IN WHICH YOU EXPRESS YOUR VIEWS BEYOND AND AMBIGUITY OR MISUNDERSTANDING will make the issue clear and draw the lines precisely.

Good luck.
Yes Alec, quite right.
Also note that in any face-to-face meeting “they” will sometimes emit ‘sad’ feelings of pity for you and your lack of belief in their god—if they get the opportunity.

My approach might well differ from that of others caught in this dilemma,
but I would hope to pre-empt any attempt at offering bogus compassion towards the honest atheist by 'getting in first'.

Example: One can say, “You have a right to believe whatever you want so long as it does not harm others; but to which of the thousands of different Christian factions or cults have you chosen to adhere?”

“So why that one, and not some other one . . . . . .seeing that they are all variations of the same mythology!”

“Moreover, just because a million people believe any particular mythology does not make it any truer, because they can all be wrong . . . . like lemmings and sheep can all be wrong . . . . . . .
It is so sad . . . . . ” . . . and so on

They may try arrogance. I never need to do that.
I say that "if you believe in creationism, or miracles, or angels, etc., you are believing something for which there is no proof. . . . whereas I have the support and results of a hundred million experiments made by millions of scientists over the last two centuries on my side. If you dispute that, and think that you are cleverer than them, then you are being arrogant."
Religious people feel a responsibility to indoctrinate the young into their cults. They feel they are acting with a "higher power" in mind, and that this will get them closer to heaven, or whatever lingo their breed of religion calls it.I think this is a carefully planned part of their brainwashing to be sure the cult remains active, and plays upon the basic instinct of survival.
I am struggling with this situation myself, and it is with my own parents. I have only recently been introducing my 6 yo to my views, and haven't yet let my parents know where I stand. I am also recently divorced and am having the additional problem of my ex (who had no belief prior), telling my daughter that my boyfriend and I are bad people because we do not believe. He has even mentioned atheism in court as a reason I shouldn't be able to have custody. I like Vicki's post, as I feel that my family consists of good, intelligent people. I don't want to bash them because of their beliefs, but I want to let them know how I feel and that I want the best for my daughter, as I know they do as well.
Isn't this sad! We have to be nice to christians in our own families and not "bash" them (much); although they don't mind trying to "bash" us to bits. And that is because they have a long history of belief on their side---and they outnumber us as well.

And yet they are the ones who are wrong with their crazy unsupportable beliefs about non-existent gods in an ancient book; while we atheists are the ones who are right and fully supported and backed by stacks of encyclopedias of scientific truths. So in these personal family situations we have to take care and just be patient for the time-being. In the long run time is on our side. Meanwhile we have to educate the next generation where and when we can, as Jaime is doing with her daughter.




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