Tonight on Maury: “Suddenly Atheist in a Strict Jewish Family!”

Question from Josh:
Hey Guys,

Firstly, thanks for wasting hours of my time and robbing me of any sort of productivity 🙂

I’m 30 years old and grew up in an ultra-orthodox, Jewish home. While I always had my doubts and skepticism, I did not make the leap to accepting there is no God till the past few months.

My wife is of course religious, and there are a ton of things we gotta work through now. My question to you is: Is there anything redeeming you can find in raising your kids to be religious?

Of course we will make sure they have a great education, and view everyone as equals, but is it morally or ethically wrong to raise your child with the burden of religious dogmas and beliefs you know to be false? (when I write out the question, it kind of answers itself. I guess I’m asking you to throw me a bone.)

Thanks.

Answer by SmartLX:
Think of it in more general terms: as a parenting team, what do you teach your kids about a subject where you disagree with each other? You hold off on the subject until it’s settled between you, if possible, but if it’s unavoidable then you’re honest about it at an age when you think they’ll understand the truth – “This is what Mum thinks, and this is what Dad thinks.” It’s a perfect introduction to critical thinking, and in the case of religion it often ends up favouring irreligion. I speak from experience, because the discovery of the mere fact of my father’s disbelief drove home to me that I had some investigating to do. There’s a good reason why many dogmatic religions have specific instructions against questioning them.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that you don’t go ahead and raise them in the Jewish tradition. For many branches of Judaism belief is one of the less important aspects of the Jewish identity, and simply teaching all the rituals, customs, Israeli history and so on will suffice. A “secular Jew” is a common thing, whereas you’d be hard-pressed to find a self-proclaimed “secular Christian”. Maybe it’s different in your family, but you can work with that: “This is what Mum and Grandma think, and it’s very very important to them so make sure you remember it, okay?”

As you can tell, I’m not okay with indoctrinating children into faith at the best of times, let alone when you don’t share that faith. If every voice they trust either tells them a thing is true or says nothing, they may believe it for the rest of their lives, or else have a very hard time shedding it later in life. That said, learning in my teens that my father was an atheist had a huge impact over time, so even if you do stay silent for years it may ultimately be for nothing in your family’s eyes once your real position slips out. Better to be straight with them at the start, and teach them to do what the family requires of them while knowing the truth of the situation.


I’ve got the same situation coming up in a couple of years when my son’s old enough to understand the concept of God, but it won’t be so difficult compared to your situation. My wife’s religious but liberal, and both sides of the family are a patchwork in terms of religiosity, so Junior will be exposed to a variety of viewpoints regardless of what I tell him, and therefore there’s no point pretending I agree with his mother.

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.