Generation Gaps: Advice for an Atheist Granny

Question from Niki:
A very strong atheist granny here.

My son was an atheist before he got caught in the religious net of this backwards, in the backyard of Europe, society and his overly religious wife, or he pretends he has become religious.
He and his wife have two children and the wife is in charge of everything religious. Disgustingly so. He just lets her do whatever she wants to do, for the sake of his peace, or else…

My question is, what will I say when one day one of my grand children asks me why I do not go to church?
I was thinking of ‘I DO NOT LIKE IT IN THERE, TOO DARK,’ or something to this effect. But this can work only until the kids are small.
Have you got any other, better idea, something that will not cause the little one to report to his mum what granny says, but still something which would satisfy me more as an answer near to my the essence. Something like

Answer by SmartLX:
You assume, correctly I think, a strong chance that your daughter-in-law will not want your grandchildren exposed to the simple idea that there are people who do not believe in God. She would be right to fear this. It means the difference between never even thinking to question the idea of God and eventually realising that no one has the answers for sure. (I think it’s ultimately responsible for my own deconversion.) They will be exposed in the end of course, but the question is how strongly indoctrinated they will be by then.

Taking your scenario at face value, you could say something like, “I don’t think it’s necessary to go to church.” This is true, but they are free to assume that you mean you don’t think God takes church attendance as seriously as their mother and the church think He does. One variation could be, “I think I’ve gone to church enough already.”

Consider, though, that if the kids register that you’re not going to church it will probably happen at church, or in the car going to or from church, and you won’t be there. In this case they’ll probably ask their parents about you first. So if I were you I would go talk to your son about what he will, and what his wife might, say about you. You’re doing your best to protect the family from a rift, and that’s best handled as a family.

Whatever happens (and do let us know in a comment), good luck.

Childhood Religion When Parents Disagree

Question from Michael:
I’ve been in a relationship with my girlfriend for about 2 years now. Everything has been great for the most part. We often like to discuss things early on before they erupt later when we’re married. When we first got together I was an agnostic, then converted to Islam (which she was very happy about). My girlfriend is Jewish, but isn’t very strict in practice. She prays every night, goes to temple whenever she can, and prays before eating. That’s about the extent of it. After about a year of being Muslim I decided it was all a load of crap and became atheist (that story is much longer, but I don’t want to get off topic). She was very upset at this initially, but after I explained my reasoning she seemed to accept it.

The only issue that comes up for me is CHILDREN. I want to marry this woman, but I’m very afraid of raising religious kids. She’s VERY insistent on the children being raised under Judaism. I was raised Christian, and I know it differs a bit from Reformed Judaism, but I know how much pressure a child can have when introduced to a religious life. I really do not want my kids going through this. Just to end the argument I decided to let her win and allow the kids to be raised Jewish, but deep down inside it still bothers me. What should I do? I don’t want to break up with her over some silly superstition, but shes not going to see it done any other way.

(Also, her mother always wanted to raise her more religiously, so that’s why she feels the need to raise our kids that way.)

Answer by SmartLX:
I have a fairly devout Catholic mother who raised me and my sisters as Catholics. My father’s an atheist, and mentioned it a grand total of twice. Two out of us three kids turned out atheist, and the other believes but is hardly religious at all. While of course kids’ upbringing has an influence, you never can tell.

You could do a lot worse than Reform Judaism. Jews have no solid concept of (or at least no emphasis on) Hell, so the kids will be spared that particular trauma. Reform Judaism is one of the more liberal branches, going so far as to say that it’s up to the individual whether to subscribe to its practices and even its beliefs (outside of a few central ones, like God of course).

A big reason why your girlfriend wants to raise your kids as Jews is because Reform Judaism doesn’t consider them to be Jews even in the hereditary sense unless they’ve been raised that way. This means that their hypothetical Jewish upbringing will likely concentrate on all the things Jews ought to know (for demonstrating to family and other Jews), not what they ought to believe. This might actually be good for the kids to some extent, because they’ll be very culturally aware. Even secular Jews keep up this kind of education.

As for eventually bringing them out of it, the number one thing I can suggest is to make them aware of other religions early on. The simple fact that there are people out there who believe completely different things or have no equivalent belief is very powerful, and every bit of religious doctrine has to be seen in that light afterwards. Just the idea that religions can be compared, and therefore individually evaluated, can plant seeds of doubt.

All this is assuming that your girlfriend will stay as religious as she is now, which isn’t a given. We can go into the reasons for her belief if you’d like to comment, but speaking generally most of the atheists in the Western world were once religious, so there’s always a chance for a voluntary deconversion.

Religious Education

Do atheists want religious education to be removed from schools, especially public and other secular schools?

Answer by SmartLX:
Generally not, though it depends on the type of religious education.

Like it or not, participate in it or not, religion is a huge part of modern life. Kids need to learn about it so they can understand where people are coming from, and of course keep the multitude of religious literary references whizzing around from going right over their heads.

Atheists tend to object to religious education only when it becomes religious indoctrination, particularly indoctrination of young children. The difference in a nutshell:
– Religious education is, “This is what people of this religion believe.”
– Religious indoctrination is, “This religious doctrine is the truth.”

There’s nothing wrong in principle with proclaiming what you believe to be true, but the reason why a lot of people believe in religious doctrine is that it was taught to them as fact before they developed the faculties to judge it on its merit. That makes it very difficult to examine objectively, even later on.

An approach which would make most atheists happy would be for schools to teach comparative religion: the beliefs, practices and known histories of all major religions (and as many minor ones as possible). Then it’s all in the open for the kids, and when they’re ready they can make their own decisions about what faith to identify with, if any.

One issue with comparative religion is impartiality. The person teaching it has to be very aware of his or her own bias in the matter. This also applies to the texts; there are plenty of books comparing religions, and some of them are better in this respect than others.
The Universe Next Door by James Sire is heavily biased towards Christianity and theism in general, which is why it’s used in a lot of Christian courses.
The Heathen’s Guide to World Religions by William Hopper is basically an atheist’s irreverent view of the different faiths. The difference from the above book is that this one doesn’t bother to claim impartiality. (It’s really very funny, so I can recommend this book for your own recreational reading.)
Our Religions takes an excellent approach from an educational perspective: the section on each religion is written by a scholar and adherent of that religion, so every faith featured can represent and defend itself.

Most atheists learn about religion, and in fact many of us were indoctrinated into various religions and denominations as children (including me – I sometimes refer to myself as a “cultural Catholic”). There’s no reason why the genuinely educational part of this shouldn’t continue into the foreseeable future, for as long as religion is so prominent in our daily lives. It would simply be nice to see religions compete with each other and with non-belief on a level playing field, letting people come to them with their eyes wide open.

Ask from the Past: Religion, Family and Children

“Given how hesitant you are to come out of the closet, are you certain you’re the only one in there?”

(When the archived ATA site was restored, a short list of unanswered questions were found in the approval queue. I’ll be answering them here in Ask from the Past.)

Question from Watcher:
I’m a deconverted ex-theist who lives in the Bible Belt. I was raised Southern Baptist and, as far as I know, all of my family is religious. I have young daughters and my mother has approached me saying that she is ‘dissapointed’ that I am not indoctrinating her grandchildren with religion. The main problem is that I have found myself unable to tell her that I am now an “atheist”.

Knowing that she does this out of love, and truly believes that they will go to Hell if I do not take steps to make them accept Jesus as their Saviour I find myself in a quandry. I’m still rather bitter at religion myself and at first thought would rather raise them to question theological claims.

This situation has the potential to create a serious rift in my family. Heck it would have been better if I was just gay. That wouldn’t create near the controversy. But now I don’t know what to do. She would probably go into a mental ward if she knew the truth about me. I work with people that don’t believe in evolution and believe in a young earth. I have no idea where to find advice for my situation where I live.

I think you’re dead right about the potential impact of declaring yourself “atheist” in a staunch Southern Baptist family. In some places and communities the word has a really disproportionate stigma.

However, give your mother more credit. That you’re not Bible-thumping your girls and that you probably don’t go to church much will have at least made her realise that you’re not very religious anymore. (I find “not religious” to be a great euphemism for “atheist” if I don’t want a conversation to suddenly be about that.) That you no longer believe might not be such a big shock.

If you capitulated but only at a surface level, you wouldn’t be the first parent teaching your kids family traditions for the sake of their grandparents. You haven’t said how old the girls are, but what if they were in on it, so to speak? What if your stance toward them were like this? “Listen, it’s really important to Grandma that you learn this stuff, and can say it when you’re asked, but whether you believe any of it is up to you.” Even better, if your daughters are going to learn prayers and catechism anyway, why not grab some library books and make a comparative religion class out of it? They might find it fascinating to learn about Zeus and Buddha as well as Jesus.

If you’re not willing to go that far, then you probably will have an unpleasant confrontation or two on your hands. For your daughters’ sake, of course you’ll leave them well out of it until you and your family reach an understanding. Look on the bright side: you might get lucky and find kindred spirits within the family. Given how hesitant you are to come out of the closet, are you certain you’re the only one in there?

Given that this is an Ask from the Past, I hope you get this and it’s still of some use to you, and things have gone well in the meantime.