February 25, 2016

Atheist Mama: Is religious neutrality an impossibility?

I ran across a piece by Bob Russell over at Church Central that I think is really instructive to both believers and nonbelievers. Russell is sharing a dialogue he recently had with a man about a situation that, I think, we'll see more often as the number of "nones" grows. Here's the basic premise:

The writer told of his wife being a Christian, while he is an atheist. Though very much in love, they just had their first child and were trying to come to grips with how to “religiously” raise their child. Just as she wouldn’t want her child indoctrinated into Islam, Hinduism, or Buddhism, he wouldn’t want their son indoctrinated into Christianity.

The writer voiced a view that I strongly agree with:

I want him to make his own choice about religion (or lack thereof) when he’s of the age to weigh the evidence, look at the facts, and make his own decision,” he wrote. “I think this is a reasonable desire.”

 I'm going to commend Russell for presumably trying his best, but as an atheist parent, I find his arguments and advice lacking. Here's why.

Can There Be Neutral Ground?

Not long after I started this column, I talked about my own struggle with maintaining neutrality when discussing religion with my children. Here's how I explained my predicament:

I have trouble keeping my feelings on religion in check while talking to my children about religion. 
I know, I know--angry atheist, blah blah blah. 
I'm relatively new to nonbelief. My feelings are still running high--I feel like I was deceived, like religion had a negative impact on my life, and like I would have been better off without its influences. These are my personal perceptions--I fully understand that many people have positive experiences with faith, and they are more than welcome to them. 
Balanced against this tendency, however, is my belief that my children should have the right to choose their own path. I was indoctrinated; I do not want, in my fervor to get away from religion, to inadvertently indoctrinate my children.

I've balanced out a good bit since then, because the initial rush is over. I've settled into my nonbelief, and I'm secure in it in a way that I wasn't initially when everything was brand new ground.

Even as a born-again atheist, though, I believed that neutrality was a goal, and I went with what for lack of a better term was an anthropological mindset about religious instruction. We read books and looked at videos and talked about it. We still do this. It gives my children a look at a wide variety of traditions.

This is not Russell's advice, though. Here's what he said:

“I commend your desire to train your child to think for himself so he can make a decision on his own someday,” I said. “As fathers we instinctively feel a heavy responsibility to raise our children to be able to function without us in the world… 
“(However), I don’t think your expressed desire for neutrality in religious matters is a reasonable request because it’s an impossibility. One either believes or doesn’t believe…there is no neutral ground. Jesus said, ‘Whoever is not with me is against me.’”

This is a wholly theistic point of view. Every religion is vulnerable to it, but monotheistic traditions in particular seem to be prone to falling into this idea that you cannot reasonably study all traditions. It's understandable for the very reason that Russell discusses here: they believe that their god is the one true god, and no other tradition is equivalent.

This would make approaching religious instruction from a pluralistic view very difficult. How do you allow your child to explore various options when you believe that there's only one correct choice?

I know I've shared it before, but I think it really speaks to this point, so I will again: When I was in high school, I wanted to take a yoga class. My mother forbid it because she said yoga was part of a different religion and thus violated our faith. This view literally is the anti-thesis of pluralism.

The simple answer is to expose the child to a wide variety of faiths and philosophies, without discrimination, but to allow room for the child to grow and reason before experiencing more indoctrinating aspects of any particular faith--but to some theists like Russell, this is an "impossibility."

Is It Right to Ask a Believing Parent Not to Teach a Child About God?

I have personally struggled with this because my entire family believes in God, and they are concerned about my children's spiritual wellbeing.

Here's how Russell explains the theist's predicament:

Since the God of the Bible claims to be the one true God—which his wife believes is true—to ask her not to teach her son about God is asking her to disobey the command in God’s Word to teach her children the truth. That places her in a difficult position of making a choice between yielding to the desire of her husband or God’s instruction. 

This is--as I've explained to my own family--a strawman.

Nowhere does the father indicate that he doesn't want his wife to teach their child about God. What he wants is to expose the child to a range of viewpoints and allow the child room to make the decision for his or herself.

This would mean not indoctrinating the child, but you can teach children about God and religion without indoctrination.

Will a Child be Automatically Indoctrinated by an Atheist Parent?

I'm going to hold off on my personal feelings on this one for a moment and instead direct your attention to Russell's comments:

I told him his child would automatically be indoctrinated to atheism by his example and attitude, and the unbelief of many in entertainment and education. To refuse his wife the privilege of countering that seems grossly unfair and imbalanced. How can his child make a reasoned choice for or against Christianity without exposure to faith?

The definition of "indoctrinate" is "teach (a person or group) to accept a set of beliefs uncritically." This is literally the opposite of what this father has suggested doing.

I think it makes a good point about these types of discussions, though. There's a very different view between theists who share Russell's line of thinking and the way that atheists use the term "indoctrinate." Unless this father is ramming Dawkins and Hitchens and Harris and other atheists writers down this child's throat without allowing him or her to think critically about it, this father is not indoctrinating the child into atheism. That's not a thing.

There's another misconception here too: "the unbelief of many in entertainment and education". This is a manifestation of the common Persecution Complex. There's this idea that Christians are somehow a minority, and this idea flies in the face of every credible source of information about religious belief in the United States.

In the Pew Center's United States Religious Landscape Survey, 70.6% of respondents identified as Christians. If you walk down the street, and randomly stop someone and ask if they are a Christian, there's a 7 in 10 chance that they will say, "Yes, I am a Christian, so nice of you to ask."

In any regular school setting, there's a 7 in 10 chance that your child's teacher is a Christian. That their principle is. That their cafeteria workers and bus drivers and janitors are Christian. That's the truth.

There are prominent Christians in entertainment, and this shows. Movies like 'The Passion of the Christ" maintain a popularity that is widespread and classic, and this shows in the making of new movies, like the current "Risen", and television events like the live musical "Passion" which is upcoming.

The majority of US politicians continue to be Christian. Throughout American history, only two presidents have contested religious beliefs--Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. All of the others have been openly Christian. Consider the make up of congressional legislators from various regions:

  • In the Northeast, 91% of Congressional representatives are Christian.
  • In the South, 96% of Congressional representatives are Christian.
  • In the Midwest, 92% of Congressional representatives are Christian.
  • In the West, 86% of Congressional representatives are Christian.
In our current presidential campaign, there's only one non-Christian candidate in the major parties--Bernie Sanders, who is Jewish.

I honestly don't know what it is going to take to kill this myth that Christians are a persecuted minority in the United States, but I really hope we figure it out soon.

Russell's Prescription

Russell makes the following point:

“For the sake of harmony in the home, and peace with relatives and friends, why not just give your wife freedom in this area?” I asked. “Your son will soon reach the age where he will challenge all teaching from his childhood. He will then make a choice.”

I am really disturbed by how he brushes off this man's concerns in favor of "harmony in the home." Does he truly think there can be harmony if this man represses his own feelings and convictions in favor of his spouse's?

I doubt that there could be. From the tone of his comments, this gentleman seems like a concerned and involved parent, and I applaud him for reaching out at all to better understand the situation from his spouse's perspective.

My Prescription

I'd like to start this segment by saying I am not an expert on this subject. Neither my spouse nor I are believers, and the closest we come to having this conflict is with my stepdaughters' mother and my extended family.

Still, I think there are some common sense guidelines that jump out at me.

Nonbelieving partners should state their goal clearly. The majority of atheist parents that I know and interact with actually don't care if their child becomes an atheist--they want the child to have enough information to make their own decision. This is pluralism, not atheism.

For me, it makes sense to allow the teaching of the bare bones of faiths at early ages. You can say, "Mommy believes that the world was created by God but Daddy doesn't. Different people believe different things." What I would avoid is the teaching of hell and other aspects that can be terrifying to small children--until the child is older and able to understand these concepts.

The believing and nonbelieving parents should be equally able to express their beliefs. If the believing parent talks about hell, the nonbelieving parent should be able to talk about how the concept of hell evolved and what faiths don't believe in it at all.

Overall, the anthropological approach that I talked about earlier is a really safe bet, in my opinion. It allows for the respectful discussion of everyone's views.


I'm really taken aback by how this is portrayed as a moderate response by the author. It isn't. He also gleefully shares that he resists his urge to convert...but recommends the Case for Christ, in an attempt to convert.

It's frustrating because this topic has been really fairly covered by various nonbelievers and progressive believers alike. It's also frustrating that this parent took the time to reach out and get advice from someone who would understand his spouse's point of view, only to be essentially told that his convictions don't matter and his spouse's should take precedence.

It's really difficult to compromise when your parenting strategy differs significantly from your partner's strategy, but it is not by any means impossible. This can be managed in a way that allows your family the peace and harmony that Russell purports to want.

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