It’s been a few months since I wrote about atheist parenting. In response to that post, I think one concern stands out more clearly than everything else. I’ll introduce it with excerpts from more emails we got recently:
I’d like to hear about how atheist parents combat attempts at faith indoctrination on their children from family and community. I know that eventually my son will have to decide for himself what he believes, but I’d like to give him the best chance at landing on a reality based on logic and evidence.
This next one is from a young woman who thought she was pregnant at the time, but it turned out later that she wasn’t; however, she may have kids someday and her concerns still stand.
I have a large family; they are a big part of my life, and I want them to be a part of my child’s life. I don’t want them to try to indoctrinate my children, but I don’t know how to explain that to them without causing a huge rift. My cousin recently had a baby with his wife. At the baby shower one of the gifts given was a child’s Bible story book (for which they were not registered) and he jokingly said, “I don’t think this is appropriate reading material, it looks pretty violent. We’ll just wait until she’s older to teach her anything about this,” to which my grandmother replied,”If you don’t teach it to her, we will.” Even though it was a light hearted exchange, I still felt that it was incredibly disrespectful for them to give a children’s book that wasn’t on the registry and then insist that they teach it to their child.
I also feel like I would be easily “bullied” or manipulated by my family, particularly my mother, when I have this discussion with them. She has a way of making my thoughts get all jumbled up. I love my mother, I have tremendous respect for her and everything she has accomplished, and she’s the person who taught me to think critically and not accept every claim at face-value, but when it comes to religion she can be very manipulative. Toby told me that he would go with me and would even speak for me if I wanted him to. For me, this conversation will not only tell my parents that I’m pregnant and an atheist, it will also be telling them that I don’t want them to teach my child the values they hold most dear. It just seems to be a lot to drop on them all at once.
When it comes to dealing with your own parents interfering with your ability to raise kids, this is partly an issue for your own atheist parenting, but it is also a look at the problem of dealing with family members in the other direction.
Your parents have in the past been authority figures over you. When young kids and teenagers write to us asking how they should deal with their religious parents, our usual answer is very carefully. Your parents have both legal and monetary authority over you. Not only can they legally force you to do things you don’t want to, but if you anger them then you might find your home and/or your college fund disappearing. That’s not a pleasant situation to be in.
On the other hand, if you’re grown up, (probably) married, and have a kid, the situation is most likely very different. As an adult, you have the autonomy to have only as much contact with your parents as you desire; and it’s important that you establish boundaries that they will respect.
As atheists, we’re already working with a certain moral stigma. When people say “Atheists have no reason to be moral” — for some, that’s an abstract philosophical argument, but for others it is very definitely a personal attack. Different atheists handle that different ways. Some of them take it to heart. It’s not uncommon for a newly-out atheist to say to herself, “Well, I’ve already hurt my parents so much by telling them I don’t believe in God, and they think I have no morals. I had better go out of my way to show them what a dutiful daughter I am by respecting what they want me to do. If that means letting them take my child to church, then so be it.”
Stop it. Right now.
We know you’re not a bad person because you stopped believing in God. You know you’re not a bad person. If you’re afraid that your parents or other family members will be mad at you, then you’re looking at the issue from the wrong angle. It is their responsibility to respect your wishes as a parent. If they can’t do that, the danger is not them disowning you so much as you disowning them.
As an adult, you have a lot more rights than you did as a kid. You’ve got your own bank account, you’ve got a job and some cars, you can darn well eat nothing but Froot Loops at every meal if you feel like it (but you won’t feel like it because you have to pay your own doctor bills). And, no one else but you has a say over how you raise your kids, unless you let them.
As an adult, you’re entitled to some recognition of those facts, and people who do not give you that recognition are not a positive influence in your life. Learning to manage controlling parents is a skill all by itself, quite apart from what your religious beliefs are, but it’s something that becomes a lot more important when there is some religious conflict.
In the previous post, I advised parents not to try too hard to shelter their kids from religion. On the contrary, I recommend that you make sure to get there first, explaining the Bible and the fact that reasonable people disagree about the nature of reality, while you’re still able to do it on your own terms. If you want the kids to know what church is like, first tell them what church is like, then go to church so they see you’re not spinning stories, then talk about the experience.
Needless to say, this approach is not without some risk. There’s a chance that the influence of the church will win out over your parenting, and they’ll believe in God. Could be a phase that lasts a year or two; or it could be a legitimate break from your philosophy for life. But the thing is, you’re most likely kidding yourself if you think you can stop that from happening just because you hid that stuff from them until a particular age.
If grandma and grandpa politely and respectfully ask you and the kid attend their church, you are certainly free to honor that request — if and only if you feel like it. You are also free to escort your kid to the church, and brief and debrief them.
What is not okay is if grandma and grandpa demand that they be allowed to influence the kid’s religious upbringing without your interference, or worse, if they start working on the kid behind your back. That’s not just an issue of religious disagreement. That’s an issue of overriding and undermining your parental authority, and that’s not something you should tolerate from your family no matter what the circumstance.
If there’s a lack of respect and trust between you and the rest of your family where your kids are concerned, you need to first approach them openly and tell them that they are stepping over your boundaries. And if they can’t improve, then it may be time to start threatening to cut them off.
That’s about all I feel a pressing need to say on at the moment. As always, continue posting in comments or write to firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like some more — I won’t call it advice, but let’s say brainstorming — about parenting issues as an atheist.