March 24, 2016

Atheist Mama: Raising secular children in a religious world

When I was younger, I remember being terrified of being a Christian. I was told over and over again in church how persecuted we were, how it wasn't okay to be a Christian, how there were so many nonbelievers out there to get us.

And by my church's definition, in all fairness, there were a lot of nonbelievers: Catholics, Pentecostals, Episcopalians, Lutherans...the list goes on. Methodists and Presbyterians were okay, but were going to have to answer to God one day for their denomination's indiscretions.

So needless to say, it was a bit surprising when I grew away from the more conservative tenets of my faith and began to see just how many people around me were Christian. No joke: I think my high school years would have been so much easier had my church been like, "Listen, nearly 80% of people in the US are Christian,'re good, hon."

One of the biggest challenges of secular parenting is walking the line between what's best for my children and what my principles dictate.

Last year, we moved, and in the fall, my oldest kid started school in a new district. In our old district, we'd made it through three grades and had received one Good News Club letter. Church/state separation wasn't a thing I even thought about, I'm sorry to say. In principle, it was one of my values, but in practice, it didn't really affect my life or my family day to day.

In our new district, we receive flyers from churches every week. We've received two notes about the Good News Club (in addition to being encouraged to sign up when we registered him for school), we've received messages about Christmas events, we regularly have school events hosted at churches in our area, just recently we received not one, but two, notices for Easter events at churches in our area.

And if I'm being honest: It's frustrating. It really underscores that our family is different, and I'm left wondering if we're the only family out there that isn't participating in these events. Every flyer is a reminder that to my kiddo that his upbringing is really dissimilar from most of his friends.

It's also disturbing to think of the time spent by school personnel--including my child's teacher--to sort and distribute these materials in folders every week. It seems like quite a waste when churches often have their own distribution networks and methods.

I also find myself wondering if they would do the same for a synagogue or mosque that wanted to distribute materials. What about a Buddhist, Hindu or Shinto congregation? Would they be afforded the same privilege?

I've considered whether it would be worthwhile to contact our district or attempt to bring in an organization that specializes in church/state separation issues, and with that comes a whole host of other issues.

What if we can't stay anonymous? What if it backfires on my family? What if my son is bullied for my nonbelief (he still identifies as Christian himself)? What if...what if...what if....?

The subject of sending home flyers isn't settled case law. It's an iffy subject, which makes it all the more troubling to consider actually taking steps to stand up for our rights as secular citizens. There's no clear cut answer, and that makes me all the more hesitant to wade in.

It's a distinct reminder of why I continue to believe that a secular public sphere is best for everyone. It protects the interest of all children, allowing each student to engage with their coursework without the unnecessary pressure of various religious backgrounds.

Isn't that what we really want anyway?

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