Ask Richard: My Little Nephew is Being Brainwashed As a Christian December 11, 2009

Ask Richard: My Little Nephew is Being Brainwashed As a Christian

Note: When letter writers sign with their first names instead of a pseudonym or nickname, I randomly change their name for added anonymity.


Let me start by saying I have truly enjoyed your column. You give a lot of good advice I find myself agreeing with, and you provide a lot of food for thought. That said, I’ve got a problem and could use some help. I’ve delayed in writing this as the situation has become a bit fluid of late, but it’s still a “problem” and I still don’t know what to do.

Alright, the problem is this. I have been an atheist for years now. It’s no secret, I wear my “out” pin and shirt constantly and can regularly be seen reading the works of Dawkins or Hitchens or whomever. The problem, though is that (until I get married next year) I’m living with my mother, sister, and 4 year old nephew and the adults have (rather suddenly) decided they’re all about church. Can’t miss a week, have to read The Shack and the books about The Shack etc. They’ve only started since my nephew was born and drag him to church every week and enroll him in church sports (for which he earns rewards for parroting scripture he doesn’t even almost understand).

Now, I love my family, but I have a serious problem with what I can only see as indoctrination. The same was done to me as a kid and it’s only through critical thinking, actually reading the entire bible, and comparing it with other things and other thoughts that I went from agnostic to atheist to “strong atheist”. I now look back on the time I was forced into church at a young age, forced into baptism when I clearly did not want to, made to participate in choirs and parrot scripture, as some of the worst parts of my young life. It all feels false and…well abuse is too far but it certainly wasn’t good for me.

I’d been planning to wait until the kid was old enough to understand the way the world works and the idea of gods/no gods critically and sit him down and have a talk with him, but he’s now in church so often that (so clearly doing it to please) he initiates grace at dinner at times and (again, to please) mentions god doing this, god doing that (god made it rain!). It hurts me to see this. I agree with Dawkins that the idea of labeling a child that age “Christian” makes about as much sense as labeling them “Democrat”.

I guess what I’m asking is, what can I do? When can I sit him down and talk to him about this? Am I overreacting to the whole thing? Is it even my place? I love him like a son, but he’s still a nephew. It’s worse when I add in that I’m moving not down the street, but out of the country, as soon as possible, making that talk that much harder. I know I can’t sit him down and tell him what I think about all of this now. At best he’d have no idea what I’m saying and at worst he’d just parrot what I say and get himself into some kind of trouble.

I need advice on how to handle this. From you, and from anyone else (who has been in the same boat especially),


Dear ct,

Imagine if you were a very religious evangelist, and you had a young nephew who was being raised by atheists. You might really want to “save” him, to influence him against his parent’s views as much as possible in the little time you have before you move away. You would probably only confuse or frighten the four year-old, and you might end up being banned by his parents from ever being alone with him, or perhaps from ever even seeing him.

Be careful not to fall into a similar way of thinking that he must be “saved” from Christianity.

You have serious limitations to your influence, and it could be taken away completely if you over play your hand. You’re his uncle or aunt, not his parent. In principle, I agree with you that the kind of mindless indoctrination you’ve described is repugnant, but the law of the land permits it, and could be used to forbid you from interfering if you tried. You might try to argue with your sister and your mother that such programming of the boy is wrong, but I doubt you’d get anywhere. They’d more likely become suspicious of anything you do with him.

When you remember your own childhood you tap into your own pain, and it’s very understandable that you’d want to spare him that. But he may not end up suffering as you did. There are so many variables that it is impossible to predict how he will respond to his religious upbringing.

You went through similar brainwashing, but somehow you emerged with your brain still intact. It doesn’t sound like anyone overtly “saved” you from religion. Your own intelligence and courage did that, along with what sounds like a natural independence. Your young nephew may have those qualities as strongly as you, or he may not.

However, he doesn’t have to be left entirely on his own in this.

I have very seldom heard apostates describe having had important figures in their young lives who directly and deliberately pulled them out of their religiosity, but they often remember people who subtly influenced them by example. These people encouraged the youngsters to think freely, boldly and skeptically simply by modeling it. Usually there are more than one of these influences in the young persons’ lives, so no one represents their “only chance.”

Kids might have parents who stress blind faith, tradition and unquestioning obedience, but the lucky ones may also have a free-thinking relative, perhaps an aunt or uncle who loves them just for who they are, rather than for how well they can mimic dogma. The kids respond well to that kind of love, and look forward to their times together. “My aunt/uncle likes me just for me, and I don’t feel stupid or bad around her/him. She/He’s fun and interesting.”

So be his fun uncle or aunt. Love him profusely, and have as much fun with him as you can in the limited time you have before you leave. Praise him when he shows curiosity or clear thinking, but most importantly, without being contrived or obvious, just be your own curious and clear-thinking self in front of him. Not about religion per se, but all sorts of things.

Give him a two lens folding pocket jeweler’s loupe, one with plenty of magnification, and set him loose in the back yard. The saw tooth edge of a blade of grass looking like the teeth of a T-Rex can be far more astonishing, and in the long run more compelling than any fantasies of scripture. When he’s older and you’re far away, send him a modest Dobsonian telescope. They’re very easy to use. Tell him that even though you’re on the other side of the world, you’ll meet him on the Sea of Tranquility when you and he observe the moon on the same night.

When you move out of the country, establish a regular habit of phoning, writing, e-mailing, face-booking, instant messaging or video chatting with him. Make it very regular, something he’ll look forward to. Tell him about your adventures in the faraway land, and listen, listen, listen to all his stories as he grows from little boy, to youth, to teen, to young man. As long as you don’t alarm his mother or grandmother about doing any “indoctrinating” of your own, the relationship of trust, love and respect that you will have built will permit the two of you to gradually speak more frankly and candidly about many matters, including religion.

But in the end, he must make his own choices. He may choose to follow the way his early indoctrination started, or he may find a new path. It might resemble yours, or it might be utterly different from both yours and his parents’. If he ever does come to doubt his beliefs, it will probably be a troubling time for him, and you can offer him solace and encouragement, while still respecting his need to make his own decisions. At the very least, he will have had an excellent example of a free-thinking person who is good and who loves him.

The point is that you will have always remained true to loving him for himself, not for his agreeing with your opinions. That faithfulness to him will be a treasure that will bring both of you wonderful benefits, regardless of what he does with his beliefs.

He’s a lucky nephew. I wish both of you a wonderful journey.


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  • DeafAtheist

    That was really good advice. Seems the difference between atheists and theists is that atheists don’t raise their children to be atheists, we don’t shove our nonbelief down their throat and force them to read atheistic materials…etc. We simply teach them to think critically and rationally. We tell them honestly that some family members or friends might believe in this or that religion, but we ourselves have chosen not to follow any religion and don’t believe their claims. We leave it up to our children to choose their own paths.

    As an atheist parent I hope my child chooses not to believe in theological nonsense, but even if he grows up to be a Catholic priest or Buddhist monk, I wouldn’t care as long as he came to those terms on his own and chose his own path. I may prefer that he chooses the same path as me, but I don’t expect him to.

    Theists on the other hand raise their children to be little god botherers and expect them to follow the same beliefs they do. They get angry or even estrange themselves from older children who decide to follow a different path than was predestined by their parents.

  • Peregrine

    Religious ‘indoctrination’ isn’t always the unpleasant experience many of us remember. Some people take naturally to their religious upbringing, and others don’t.

    But there will come a day when he will choose for himself to stay with the religion his parents gave him, or find his own way. What’s important is that when that day comes, he is given that freedom.

    I can tell you from personal experience, forcing an adolescent or teenager to go to church against their will is a pretty good way to make them an atheist.

    Until that day, your role is clear. Not to stand by quietly, but to simply be present. Unless for some reason you’re granted legal guardianship, it’s not your place to tell your sister, or anyone else how to raise their child. You can help her raise him, offer advice, suggestions, guidance, and she must be free decide for herself whether to take that advice or not.

    If your nephew asks you if there is a god, don’t say “No”. Instead, ask him “well, what do you think?” Give him the opportunity to think for himself, and stand by his decision. Let him know that he’s free to decide for himself.

    Having the freedom to decide for yourself is paramount to living with or without religion. And when the time comes, he will find his own way, if you let him. Whatever way that is, both you, and your sister must be willing to accept it. That’s what’s important.

  • CybrgnX

    I was ‘programmed’ into the church to the point of almost being a priest. But I managed to throw it all out to be rational. The two things that helped was studying science, reading scifi books, and later hearing Campbell. These all lead to thinking about stuff.
    I plan on doing the same for my G’kids. No preaching atheism but teaching science & thinking, science based toys, and honest answers to their questions.

  • Tracy

    Another thing you could do is help teach him about cool science stuff. For example, when he says, “God made it rain!” you can use that as a segue to teach why it actually rains.

  • Becky

    I love that telescope idea, Richard; it’s so lovely, it made me tear up. This problem seemed vast to me, but you gave perfect advice.

  • David D.G.

    Richard, this is top-notch advice — AGAIN. So far, every one of your advice posts that I have seen is not just good, but superlative. Keep up the great work!

    ~David D.G.

  • Damian

    One of the most important things that any of us can do with a child is to encourage them to ask questions about anything and everything, and to subtly teach them that easy answers are usually wrong answers.

    And there is absolutely no need to do this overtly, or even consciously. Simply by first teaching a child about a natural phenomena — a bee pollinating a flower, say — and then by asking them, “Now, how do we know this?”, you can instill in them a natural curiosity about the world, as well as a love of learning.

    And that is the right thing to do, regardless of the child’s beliefs.

  • Almond

    Richard is spot on (again)!

    As a parent, I can tell you that any attempts to “parent” my child against my wishes would not be looked upon favorably.

    My mom is into all kinds of supernatural beliefs that she presents as scientific fact to anyone who will listen, and she has no problem with getting to my kids in any way she can if she thinks she’s justified.

    This is a digression, but one of my favorite examples of this was when she told my boys that faith was an effective means of birth control. As one of eight siblings, I recommended condoms, but she kept insisting that faith works just as well, citing the three-year gap between me and my first brother as an example of its effectiveness (never mind all the others who followed in quick succession).

    Her apparent attitude that she knows best how to raise my kids soured my husband’s and my relationship with her. It also meant that my kids were never alone with her until we decided they were old enough (and informed enough) to make up their own minds.

  • Jeff Dale

    Well, to be sure, there are atheists who follow a dogmatic line and raise their children accordingly, and there are theists who don’t bully or shun their older children who choose different paths.

    But the point can be made as a generality: atheists are more likely to encourage reason (in part because placing a value on reason makes one tend to find more appeal in atheism) and theists are more likely to extort conformity (because theism, at least in its Abrahamic varieties, upholds conformity as a virtue). Even theists would have a hard time arguing with the point when expressed this way.

    Perhaps it’d be easier for atheists if they could simply indoctrinate their children, proselytize everyone else, and threaten the loss of community (not to mention hellfire) for the “sin” of nonconformity. But the best we can do is to lead by example, and to be honest and outspoken, but compassionate, advocates for our viewpoints.

    Great advice, Hemant! Keep up the good work.

  • Jeff Dale

    For example, when he says, “God made it rain!” you can use that as a segue to teach why it actually rains.

    Tempting, yes, but it’d have to be handled with great care in a case like this, or else (perhaps better) resist the temptation altogether.

    If this poor child hears the aunt/uncle directly contradict one of his “God”-centered utterances, there’s very likely to be trouble, and the aunt/uncle might find opportunities for interaction with the child severely limited thereafter.

    And in many such cases, a direct contradiction would probably do little or no good even if it didn’t cause trouble. For example, if the child says “God” causes it to rain, and the aunt/uncle explains about the natural workings of the weather, the child can simply say (or be caused to say) that “God” causes those natural workings. This is, of course, ultimately a bad argument, but explaining why it’s bad is probably beyond the scope of a friendly conversation with a child and would fly over the head of the child anyway.

    I like Hemant’s approach of setting the example and doing small things to encourage the development of reason (without setting off the parents’ alarm bells). Just imagine the power of example the aunt/uncle would wield if allowed to spend a little time alone with the kid. At dinnertime, the child would ask to say grace, and the aunt/uncle would say something like, “Go ahead, if you like,” then afterward the aunt/uncle could say something like “I’m thankful to all the people who grew this food and delivered it to the stores.” No contradiction, just a reasonable alternative expression that the child can evaluate on his own, and nothing to report home about. The aunt/uncle could take the kid to open land and talk about nature, or to paleontological exhibits and talk about natural selection, or to an observatory to talk about the vast inhospitable spaces outside the human realm, all while being very circumspect with “God” beliefs. Did “God” put all the stars up there? Answer “We don’t know for sure.” Even just an expression of not knowing is powerful against a theology that compels its adherents to pretend to absolute knowledge. Much better, I think, to keep even a chance at a few encounters like this than to risk losing it all by directly challenging the kid on dogma.

  • Erp

    I would also give books about nature and other cultures aimed at his age and that he would like (e.g., dinosaurs, picture books about far away places).

  • With my own children (myself being an atheist and my wife being a “soft” Christian) I don’t try to persuade my children in what to believe. I do, though, let them know what I believe (or don’t believe). I just put that out there so they know it is an option. Then I let them learn and form their own opinions.

    You could do the same with your nephew. Just let him know where you stand on religious matters. Let him know that your thought process is “out there” and an option in life. You might plant the seeds for him for later in life even though he is now wrapped up in church with his mother…

  • JulietEcho

    DeafAtheist said:

    Seems the difference between atheists and theists is that atheists don’t raise their children to be atheists, we don’t shove our nonbelief down their throat and force them to read atheistic materials…etc.

    Not true – there are atheists who brainwash their children into accepting the same worldview, politics, etc. as them, and there are plenty of liberal theists who don’t feel it necessary to indoctrinate their children. There are also various levels of “indoctrination” and someone who makes their kids go to church is a far cry from someone who constantly tells them that they’re a sinner and only God can save them from Hell.

    Anyway, good answer, Richard, and it’s one that could equally apply to a concerned liberal theist family member in the same situation.

  • Claudia

    Possibly one of the best advice by Richard I’ve seen yet.

    I do wonder however how a supportive atheist relative should handle god-talk from a child not directly under their care. What is the appropriate response when the child inevitably parrots to you “Isn’t Jesus great uncle ct?” or “God loves kids doesn’t he?”. Eventually if he is in regular contact with the child and the child is being strongly indoctrinated, he will be cornered in such a way as to have to give a response of some kind. I hope “ct” is good at thinking on his feet.

    Still, even though the family may be “all about church” now, it doesn’t sound like it’s a deeply fundie family. He is accepted despite his open atheism, and apparently this new zeal is due to the birth of the child. Not altogether uncommon that people who drift away from a church feel a sudden desire to reconnect out of a feeling that the child have a solid moral education (and an ignorance that leads them to believe this can only be obtained in a church).

  • Jeff Dale

    Eventually if he is in regular contact with the child and the child is being strongly indoctrinated, he will be cornered in such a way as to have to give a response of some kind.

    Some ideas to consider:

    Obliqueness: “God loves me, doesn’t he?” “You certainly have a lot to be grateful for. Be sure to thank your parents when you see them tonight. They’ll love it!”

    Subtlety: “Good thing God held the rain back until we got here.” “I wonder what the people out there getting wet are thinking.”

    Gentle humor: “Isn’t Jesus great?” “What did he do this time?”

    He is accepted despite his open atheism…

    Presumably, this means he won’t be expected to lie about or hide his beliefs, if directly asked. Thus, we have one more:

    Agnosticism: “Do you think God is real?” “I don’t think so, but nobody really knows for sure.”

  • I agree. I think ct can largely sidestep the question of religion — while still teaching his nephew critical thinking skills, the love of reality and the mind, etc. And I think he/she can be a model for happy, functioning atheism without interfering in his sister’s right to rear her child as she sees best.

  • Chakolate

    I think the uncle/aunt should also make sure the child knows that not everybody believes in God. He may already have done so, but it’s not clear from the letter that he has. Giving the child the information that the uncle/aunt he loves very much doesn’t believe will help him keep his mind open.

  • J B Tait

    You could encourage him to read the whole Bible (even read it along with him) and expect him to ask questions.
    My experience with indoctrinated religionists is that they never did read the book (just saw the trailers and heard the reviews) for themselves and they are only familiar with the snippets pulled out by some leader to support the Point of the Day.
    Thus, when he encounters the Bible thumpers, he will figure out that the text is being cherry-picked for ulterior motives and he will become aware of the Man Behind the Curtain. Help him scrutinize the whole of it, and he will also see the contradictory and selfish applications of what it says for what they are. For instance, if Leviticus directs Maine to be hard on non-hetero couples, then it also commands them to give up lobster.

    You get bonus points from his parents for encouraging Bible study, and the kid gets an opportunity for critical thought.

  • ddr

    Very good advice.

    One thing I would like to point out is that kids of a very young age often like the safety and security that religion offers. The world is a frightening place and things happen for reasons they don’t understand. They are just not ready for the truth that we live in an uncaring, dangerous world. They feel safer knowing that there is a father figure up there in the sky that is watching over them and who loves them. If something bad happens to them, they go on living in a safe and wonderful place.

    Even out side of the parent’s objections, it may not be the best idea to shatter this safe world view at this age. Be the fun uncle and don’t turn just everything into a teaching opportunity. But sneak it in when you can make it fun. Teach him a few magic tricks. Because magic teaches that not everything is really the way it looks. Plant the seeds, but don’t try and force them to grow too fast.

    I would not try and shatter his world at this age. Build up trust and love and later, like the age of rebellion at 13 or so, you can have the god talk.

  • muggle

    The only thing I’ll add is that when a kid corners me on “God”, I shrug (trying to make it as casual as possible) and say, “I don’t believe in God. Some people do, some people don’t and some don’t know. The main thing is that we be good to one another.”

    I haven’t run across the kid yet who hasn’t said, “Oh, okay,” even when they were very religious. Some have added, “Oh, that’s bad. You’ll go to hell.” I just smile and say, “Well, that’s up to God to decide, isn’t it?” They always laugh or grin and say yeah and then aren’t particularly worried that I’m not particularly worried.

    Of course, I admit that while I have religious friends, they’re liberals. If I said this to some fundy nut’s kid, there could be hell (on earth, pun intended) to pay.

  • DeafAtheist


    You’re right there are always exceptions. It wasn’t my intention to blanket all atheists or all theists, but rather the majority. Most theist parents teach their children to follow the same religion. I don’t think most atheist parents do that. I think most simply teach their children to think logically and critically and hope they apply those lessons to every aspect of their lives.

    But yes there are exceptions, and even atheist parents who don’t intentionally raise their children to be atheists, there’s still the likelihood of the parent’s beliefs rubbing off unintentionally. Same goes for theist parents who don’t intend to indoctrinate their children with their own beliefs.

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