Where did they go wrong?

There was an interesting article in the Guardian newspaper about a couple, mother an atheist and father atheistic but leaning towards agnostic, who were taken aback when their eight-year old daughter told them that she believed in god and wanted to be baptized in the Catholic church.

How did that happen? Because when they moved to a new area and wanted a school for their child, a friend recommended a Catholic school because of its reputation for providing a good education. But it also had a weekly catechism class and their daughter attended it and apparently became enchanted with the whole business of religion and its rituals.

The parents don’t quite understand why religion appeals to their child since their home life is secular but they are supporting her in her decision to take classes leading to baptism.

I think they are right, as long as they do not pretend to belief. You cannot force beliefs on people and it is especially wrong to do so on young children. Where the parents went wrong was in not realizing that one of the functions of religious schools is religious indoctrination, because religions need to do so on young impressionable minds in order to get them to believe all the absurdities that being religious involves. They should have been alert to indoctrination and not have unthinkingly allowed her to enroll in the catechism classes.

But now that it has happened, you cannot counter it by decree. If your child, for whatever reason, arrives at a belief about something you disagree with, you cannot demand that they reject it. You just have to let the children figure things out for themselves by providing alternative ways of understanding the world and hope that they eventually grow out of it.


  1. says

    I would also suggest the possibility that they have been failing to teach her good thinking skills. On that, I would slightly disagree with the idea that “you just have to let the children figure things out for themselves by providing alternative ways of understanding the world.” The better thing that can be done is to give the child the tools they need to understand the world. Providing alternative ways, to me, sounds like a path that could lead toward relativism.

  2. says

    Indeed. In the same regard, despite (or maybe because of?) being raised by lesbian atheists, my youngest daughter has recently decided she is Muslim, and is now affecting the black-sack look so chic among the pious set.

    We are letting her get on with it, though not letting her indoctrinate the child she bore, and whom my ex now has full custody of with monthly visitation to daughter (she has numerous issues which make her an unsafe mother).

    I confess we make the occasional joke, when she’s not around, about her getting about on a winged horse, or being very confused about the whole “where’s Mecca” thing, but if she wants to get her Allah on, it’s not my problem. She doesn’t get to criticize me for spending time playing video games, I don’t get to criticize her (an adult, after all, even!) for chatting with her imaginary friend. *shrug* As long as she stays out of proselytizing with the wee fella, I don’t much care. If it keeps her from getting pregnant again, it’s probably a net good.

  3. Rob Grigjanis says

    @1: I’m curious as to how you would teach good thinking skills to a sub-eight-year-old.

  4. maudell says

    I come from the exact same family model (mother is anti-theist/atheist and father is a soft atheist). I really wanted to be baptized between age 8 and 11. My reasons were purely social; all my friends were catholics. I think that’s plausible in this situation as well.

  5. says

    Rob Grigjanis@3: You could try reading this book to them I suppose … though it’s been so long since I spent any time with 8-year-olds that I don’t really know how far outside of its age range they fall.

  6. Rob Grigjanis says

    David Hart @5: I’m trying to picture reading about ‘No True Scotsman’ and ‘Genetic Fallacy’ to a kid of 6-8. At that age, they’re sponges, taking everything in and asking scattershot questions. Their brains are still developing. I’m definitely no expert, but I’m guessing age 10-12 for the beginning of critical thinking.

  7. Matt G says

    Hopeful she is just part intrigued and part victim of peer pressure. I bet she grows out if it.

    I was raised in a UU church, and my father is a minister. He grew up a theist and became non-theist after his first philosophy class in college. I never was expected to pray, growing up, except by my grandmothers. When, at the age of seven or eight, I told one grandmother that I didn’t believe in God, she responded: “Yes you do!”. The thing is, I was raised by my parents to think for myself – they never pushed anything on me as far as religion was concerned (except going to church…). In fact, I didn’t know what they believed until I was in my teens and actually asked them!

    One of my nephews is seven, and he said something about religion to me recently that made me think he sees how silly it is. Did he get it from his parents, or come to that realization himself? I’ll ask him someday.

  8. mnb0 says

    The problem is that baptizing is irrevocable. Eight year old kids are not capable of making such decisions. That’s why they don’t participate in elections.
    My son went to religious schools as well. He was free to believe what he wanted (and became an atheist as soon as he started thinking for himself). But no way I would have allowed him to get baptized.
    If the kid is serious about it he/she can wait until say 16.

  9. says

    We introduced our kids to critical thinking as soon as I joined the family. My daughter was 7, and my son 10. We started out by the most simple method: problem-solving. When they would present us with a problem they wanted solved, we’d sit down and work out a method of coming to a solution: lay out the goal, the resources, and the method for using the resources to achieve the goal.

    Once that kind of discipline in thinking is available, the steps to critical thinking are evolutionary, not revolutionary, and it sells it in a way that is very personal to kids: “How can I use this to improve my daily life?”

    We used it, for instance, to induce our son to start showering daily at 11. He began to notice girls, and wondered to us how he might go around attracting their attention. We suggested problem-solving it: the goal is to find a girl who will like you. What can you do to make that more likely? You can try to change her or her opinion, or you can try to change yourself in a way you think might be attractive to her. What do girls like? Things that smell nice. How can a boy in puberty smell nice? Through constant use of shower and deodorant.

    He applied the solution, and found it got him enough interest that he could then finish the rest of the job by being a decent person and so on. But he reasoned his way into how to go about achieving his goal.

    Our natural path onward was through media and consumerist critique: “Why do you want that toy? We’re not saying you can’t have it, but explain why you want it? Oh, because your friends have it. Is it fun to play with? Not much. But all your friends have it. Is a toy you won’t enjoy worth having because everyone else has one, or would you rather have something you would actually enjoy?”

    Fallacies are a natural part of that process, and if you simply encourage the process of critical thinking, many of the fallacies will be introduced or encountered on the path, each presenting a learning opportunity.

    My son even came home one day, having had an encounter with a bully, and one of the things he was maddest about was the stupidity of the bully’s arguments: “That’s TOTALLY an appeal to authority! That’s just stupid! Can’t he REASON?” It did get him to laugh when we spent some time cataloguing the bully’s failures in logic. And eventually, luckily for him, growth put an end to bullying (he was 190cm by the time he was 15).

    But I think it’s perfectly reasonable (LOL) to teach critical thinking to younger kids. Sesame Street does it all the time (One of these things is not like the others!). It just takes some creativity, and a bit of remembering of what things are important to a small person’s world, to know how to frame the issues in ways that make critical thinking a useful tool for them.

  10. says

    mnb0, I’m not sure where you’re speaking of, but in what way is baptism “irrevocable”? The only place I can think of that it matters later might be Germany, with the church taxes and the churches’ notorious unwillingness to remove people from their rolls, but otherwise – if you’re not a believer, who cares? It’s not like anyone, believer or not, can tell whether you’ve been baptised. To my great disappointment, my feet didn’t leave smoking prints on carpet of the Catholic church I went into once.

    The reversability part is simple: stop going to the church. Bingo, baptism means no more than it did that you washed your hands last time you went to the doctor’s. Am I missing something?

  11. moarscienceplz says

    I have never been a parent, so if any parents out there want to say this post is full of crap, feel free.

    ISTM that the way to make sure this child wasn’t getting brainwashed at the Catholic school would have been to make it a habit to ask her what she learned today in school EVERY DAY. Not in am inquisitional way, of course, but just as a regular part of dinner conversation. I particularly would want to head off any attempt to convince her that she is filled to the brim with Original Sin or any of the other lovely shaming tricks that the god squad so loves to employ.
    In addition to watching out for crap like that, I also suspect that if all parents habitually discussed school with their kids it could reduce a lot of the anti-school feelings kids often develop.

  12. Aaroninmelbourne says

    I’m not surprised that an eight year old in a Catholic (or any religious) school would pick up on the surface-level attractions of a religion. Religion has a lot to offer a child: it reinforces the egocentric notion that the child is indeed the center of the universe without any of the responsibility of being the ruler of one’s own life “because God has a plan for me”; it anthromorphizes everything including unfairness allowing easily played blame games thanks to “demons in the air told me there’s monsters under the bed”; it provides easy social bonds based around exclusionary group bonding “and anyway she’s not part of our religion so she’s wrong and not one of us”; and it promises no-effort knowledge and success if you “just clasp your hands together and pray really hard, dear”. In other words, it promises to make a child’s life easier by providing easy answers on what’s right and wrong, a fast track to being right, a “get out of jail free” for mistakes and quick friendships.

    Of course it’s also a spider’s web, which traps the child into not being able to leave it without risking all those things. Once inside that web long enough, the outside is a frightening place of moral grey areas, loneliness by breaking away from exclusion-based friendships and where new friendships require more work than turning up to a church, and where knowledge comes without the Theistic Truthiness Guarantee of Absolute Certainty (as known from Godly Heart Feelsies and of course, Common Sense).

    Children that age can learn rudimentary critical thinking skills and already have (children asking if Santa’s really real is an example of critical thought at work). They often require concrete examples and a starter’s “No True Scotsman” might go like this: “Joe decided that all people with blue eyes are mean. Someone in class with blue eyes was Pat. One day Joe forgot to bring lunch to school. On that day, Pat offered Joe half of Pat’s lunch so that Joe would not be hungry. Joe decided that, because Pat was being nice, that Pat did not really have blue eyes because blue-eyed people are mean and Pat was nice. Was Joe right that Pat’s eye color was not blue?”

    A starter’s genetic fallacy might be something like this “Pat was in Joe’s class, and Joe didn’t like Pat. But Joe did like Grandma. Joe told Pat that the sky is blue. But then, Grandma told Joe that the sky is really purple. Grandma told Joe that she knew the sky was purple, because that’s what her Great Grandmother said it was, because she read about it in this book. Was grandma right, is the sky not blue?” and an addition you could do a switch where either Joe decided Pat was nice or Grandma was mean and “did the color of the sky change? Why or why not?”

    Think about it like math: an eight year old isn’t going to get advanced algebra, but they still can learn the times tables and basic arithmetic. Same with logic: they won’t necessarily get the complex or sophisticated arguments but that’s no reason to avoid teaching the basics already.

  13. AnotherAnonymouse says

    My sprout came home from kindergarten very upset because one of his classmates told him he was going to hell for not attending the bully’s church. Every day after that was a religious persecution. When I spoke to the teacher, she just shrugged. I escalated it to the principal, her response was “Maybe you should change churches so your child will fit in.” Consequently, the sprout wanted intensely to believe in a god, to fit in with the other kids. That lasted about 3 years, then his self-esteem caught up and he felt strong enough to believe (or not-believe) because that’s what he felt.

  14. raven says

    Watch out!!! The xians are coming for your kids!!!

    I say this often as a Public Service Announcement. They really are coming for your kids. Parents, watch out, without eternal vigilance, your kids are in danger.

    They know that if they don’t get them young, it gets harder and harder with age. There are whole organizations devoted to chasing your kids i.e. The truly horrible Child Evangelism Fellowship which operates in thousands of elementary schools. Look them up on Wikipedia.

  15. raven says

    1. What were the parents thinking? The whole purpose of Catholic schools is to indoctrinate Catholics.

    2. The girl might grow out of it. Right now it is likely a social conformity thing. She is surrounded by a peer group of Catholic kids. I was a xian myself for most of my life until I ran into the fundie xian version.

    3. Teaching young kids critical thinking skills is like teaching them anything else. Entirely possible and worthwhile. They aren’t going to get it at once and you will have to repeat it and broaden it over and over. Like everything else.

    It’s one of the most useful skills I got out of high school. One teacher took it upon himself to teach us that for a whole hour. His examples were political propaganda and advertising. Do you really believe that if you drive a Mustang car or drink Tree Frog beer, you will have lots of boy or girl friends? Or that the psychic in a storefront in a rundown neighborhood knows more about the future than the family cat?

  16. M can help you with that. says

    In addition to what Another Anonymouse says @13, there’s the ugly reality of the “religious education” classes: adults in a position of authority have been threatening this child with torture if she doesn’t convert. Of course, the adults in question will insist (publicly) that these threats were never literal; but an 8-year-old can’t be expected to understand the four-way hair-splitting of Sophistimacated Theology (which, in a Catholic school, wasn’t even being taught in the first place). So it’s a simple process: parents tell kid to listen to teachers, teachers tell kid she’ll suffer horribly forever unless she converts. Why would we be surprised?

  17. rq says

    I don’t see how it’s necessarily a negative thing, especially if the parents don’t unquestioningly support their daughter. Support, yes – unquestioningly? No. She wants the religious experience, sure. They should always be asking her about her new-found religion, with the same sort of simple, to-the-point questions that children ask. Anything to make her think about why catholicism is suddenly so important to her, that will make her think about alternatives, that will make sure she never stops thinking and applying logic and critical thinking.
    As for baptism being irrevocable, well – she’ll have some water poured over her head and some strong-smelling oil smeared on her forehead. Definitely irrevocable, but nothing that won’t dry up or be washed away. I’m sure she’ll be fine.
    Also, while it’s not that difficult to teach critical thinking to a child (don’t need to use big words, just ask questions that help them think things through), at the age of 8, there’s a lot of other stuff that seems important, too – like fitting in with friends. Sometimes their logic fails a bit, too, so it’s not that surprising that this child would decide in favour of religion. But that isn’t irrevocable, either.

    I’m wondering about the notion of catholic schools, though – I went to both a catholic elementary and high schools, and I recall an extreme minimum of religion in the classroom. We had the occasional liturgy at school (mostly reading from the bible) but no actual class-time about the religion (in elementary school). In high school, ‘religion’ was a lot of stuff about sex ed., ethics, morality (but not in an eternal-fire kind of way), mental illness, abusive relationships (how to recognise) and world religions. Oh, I lied – in grade 2 we had prep courses for first communion and in grade 6 we had a few courses in preparation for confirmation, but they were both about an hour a week where we had to fill in blanks in a notebook. Probably some catholic doctrine in the whole mix, but it was all presented so quietly and without fanfare that I don’t even remember what we were taught. Then again, I went to school in Ontario (Canada).
    (Then again, I don’t like the idea that they’ve lowered the age of communion and confirmation, so kids get that stuff in grades 2 and 3 – considering they’re both supposed to be rites you agree to as an informed choice (technically), then… yeah, they’re trying to get them younger.)

  18. ealloc says

    I did a something similar as a child. My parents are mostly secular (although my mother is a little bit Catholic) and I was not raised with any religion. But, at school I saw that all the other kids and friends were going to Mass and Sunday school, and they were learning something which seemed important which I wasn’t being taught, and I felt left out. So I asked my parents to send me to Sunday school, and because the school director insisted, I was baptized. (she was not very pleasant – she seriously chewed out my parents for not baptizing me and my sister in my presence, and she almost refused to allow me to attend unless my sister was also baptized. She relented eventually though.)

    Once I was exposed to the bible I found it pretty silly and never really believed any of it, but I decided to go through with sunday school/church until confirmation, just to prove to the world that I had followed to the end and no special revalations had occurred. My confirmation was ironically the moment I became totally atheist, as I am today.

  19. brucegee1962 says

    Re: #3, “how you would teach good thinking skills to a sub-eight-year-old?”

    I assume you’re asking this question seriously, and not being snarky.

    As young as five, kids are masters of the first and most important part of skeptical thinking: they love to ask questions. Lots of adults hate this, because sometimes the questions are pretty hard. But skeptical parents will want to encourage their childrens’ natural curiosity like a precious flower.

    The religious figures will probably want to discourage too much question-asking, so the child will hopefully notice that one worldview promotes thinking and the other promotes blind acceptance. Eight is by no means too young for them to figure this out.

  20. Vote for Pedro says


    Perhaps they were thinking it was indeed one of the better schools in the area. Where I grew up, this was certainly true about at least some of the schools (although at least one other Catholic school was, shall we say, not known for its academic rigor, so it’s no guarantee). Yes, they do include Catholic stuff, but some places that is indeed the best academic choice.

    Also of note: my understanding was that Catholic schools in the US are so common partly because it was common practice to have Protestant recruitment and suppression of Catholics in public schools as de facto policy, which naturally didn’t sit well. Can’t say I’ve ever seen evidence or done much research, but I’ve spent plenty of time in Catholic schools and that idea was in circulation anyway.

    (As an aside, we read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man at my Catholic high school, which is largely about leaving the Catholic church [as much as stream of consciousness is about anything]. And several of my classmates took that as inspiration to sever ties at the time; I look back in amusement/amazement now, and turned out not Catholic in the end anyhow. So this, too, can pass.)

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