Ask Richard: Should I Keep My Son In Catholic School? May 13, 2010

Ask Richard: Should I Keep My Son In Catholic School?

Dear Richard,

I am an atheist and have been open about my atheism for about 2 years now. Although I have been met with some resistance from family, who are Orthodox Christians, overall my atheism hasn’t caused too much turmoil in my or their lives. My wife is a Christian, but she’s fairly open-minded to my thoughts and discussions about religion.

I have two kids, 6 and 2½. My 6-year-old is in a Catholic school down the street from our home. The reason we put my son in the Catholic school down the road (versus either of the public school’s approx. 1km away; one is to the east, one to the west) is primarily because of geography. Also, I am guilty to say that I originally had a misconception that the school would teach some moral values to my son (I realize home is the best place to teach it and I assumed the school would be a good ‘supporting’ structure).

I am starting to get more and more troubled by the literature my son brings home and the religious statements he is making (e.g. he brings home pamphlets that tell how much ‘Jesus loves you’, and how god’s grace is high, etc. etc.) For example, one time he told me “Daddy, God made everything we see around us”, to which I replied that “Most of what you see around us is made by people (buildings, cars, shopping malls), and everything else (nature) came to be over millions of years.”

These pamphlets have excerpts from the Bible that are quite toned down from the original message (they seem cherry picked), and have quite the sugar coating applied to them (in essence, the quotes look much more benign than the actual bible passage).

To me, changing the original message doesn’t convey the RIGHT message. I want my son to know that the bible isn’t as positive as this literature or the school is making it out to be. This is immoral in that it is hiding the truth of the bible, which I have read and can quite honestly say is the FURTHEST from any morality we have today.

I am regretting my part in the decision to put him in the Catholic school. During this year’s Ash Wednesday, he came out with ashes on his forehead. That didn’t sit well with me. Although I didn’t say or do anything to speak out against it (I washed the ashes off when we arrived home), I didn’t feel RIGHT about it.

I need some advice…should I take him out of that school and put him in a public one? Should I leave him in there and help him understand that what he is learning about religion is simply metaphorical and not to be taken seriously? I do hope that one day he realizes things like I have and takes the same approach to religion (that it is useless, that there is no God, that this is the only life we will EVER have).


Perplexed and troubled

Dear Perplexed and troubled,

You say that the main reason you opted for the Catholic school is the difference between one kilometer and down the street. You are putting up with what seems like a lot of inner conflict just to save a drive or even a walk that is perhaps 700 meters farther than the Catholic school.

So I’m wondering if avoiding a different conflict is actually what is behind your indecision. I assume that your wife also has a say in where the kids go to school. Although you describe her as a Christian who is “fairly open minded” to your thoughts about religion, I wonder if you are worried that expressing your concerns to her and suggesting a transfer to either of the public schools will provoke discord between the two of you.

So far, you have not had to face much resistance and turmoil in your family about your atheism. Take a look to see if you have helped that in part by perhaps not asserting yourself on some important issues. I cannot know for certain from your letter, and please forgive me if I am off target, but if that is behind even part of your hesitation, then you need to discuss it with your wife frankly, openly and respectfully right away. Sending your kid to a school that you find so objectionable just to keep a temporary peace with her is not a good way to handle things. On the other hand, if it is not part of your hesitation, and/or she does not have a strong opinion about it, then you should discuss it with her right away anyway.

Some atheist parents send their children to Catholic schools because the quality of the education is significantly superior to their local public schools, and they have to put forth quite a lot of effort to wash the dogmatic indoctrination off their kids each day, just as you washed the ashes off your son’s forehead. However, you have not mentioned academic quality as a reason, only the convenient location and your assumption that he’d be taught moral values.

Whether or not he is formally taught a set of moral values at that school, he is definitely going to pick up the school’s underlying beliefs about doing the right thing. People generally don’t disagree much about what are the right things to do, but they can have enormous disagreements over the reasons why they do the right thing.

The assumption in Christianity is that people are intrinsically no damn good, that the only way they can know what is moral is to learn it from God, and the only reason they will adhere to God’s moral rules is because he’ll punish them if they don’t. This is the most rudimentary level of moral development as delineated by Lawrence Kohlberg, sadly the most childish level at which a large percentage of adults remain stuck. Any ideas about people being good for the betterment of the whole society, or following universal, human-invented ethical principles, or just being good for goodness’ sake, are not just ignored by many Christian schools, they are often denounced as heresy.

Your son will also be unconsciously learning how to learn. Will he be taught to learn by listening to authority figures, who themselves learned by listening to authority figures, and so on back into the past? Or will he be encouraged to go out into the world and look with his own eyes, to think for himself about what he sees, and even challenge what he has been told by authority figures? In most religious schools, the shut-up-and-listen method is heavily emphasized, and the go-see-for-yourself approach is seriously discouraged.

The Catholic school faculty are not going concede or compromise anything and teach your boy as you see fit. They’re going to mold him as best they can to fit their ancient view of the world, and their attitude is if you don’t like it, you can go, uh, elsewhere.

Do you want your son to be absorbing all those implicit but powerful assumptions and attitudes? That’s what six-year-olds are really good at doing. He’s already soaking it up like a sponge, not just from the literature and the teachers, but also from his peers. Do you think you can successfully keep deconstructing all that every day, to give him what you think will help him to grow up with eyes that really look and a mind that really questions?

If you have two public schools so close to you from which to choose, and if this won’t trigger a divorce, and if there aren’t very significant differences in the quality of the education he’ll receive, then I don’t understand why you would want to have to work so hard to counteract the kinds of influences that you find so unacceptable.

Perplexed and troubled, your kids are lucky to have a father who cares about the quality of their education, and who is aware of the complex issues that you have described. Now it’s time to take action on that awareness. Action without mindfulness is reckless, and mindfulness without action is useless.


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  • Sarah

    I attended Catholic school for 12 years. I was a child that questioned everything, not aloud but to myself. At a very young age I had doubts about the existence of god. Even though I had my doubts, I still had the religious guilt. I thought I was doing something wrong because I wasn’t believing what other people believed. Thankfully I don’t have a family where they condemn you for not believing in god. It wasn’t till I was about 18 when I “came out” as an atheist.

    I don’t remember anything I was taught when I was 6 so hopefully your son won’t remember either. It is great that he has a father that will show him the truth.

  • Amy

    I wouldn’t recommend religious schooling. I didn’t go to a Catholic school, but I did go to a Christian school that, even after I lost my religion, contributes to my low self-esteem, and in particular makes me ashamed to be who I am, embarrassed and repressed about my sexuality (and taught me a lot of really dangerous things about sex/ contraception). I judge myself (although no one else) by their standards (who it’s immoral for me to sleep with, how I screw up all the time, etc etc etc) and I hate it (though notably I don’t judge others like that).

    Not everyone will have it as bad as me, but some will have it worse.

  • Phoena

    I went to Catholic High School even though my family was not Catholic, and I was lucky, it was actually a fairly liberal Catholic school (shocking, I know), and I was old enough to not believe everything I heard. I know that since then, that catholic school system has moved well to the right in their teachings, but it’s also shrunk considerably in size. I don’t know if it’s due to the economy or their shift to the right.

    So I realize it is possible for some Catholic or other religious schools to be somewhat liberal and I think each should be judged individually. Regardless, as an atheist I would never send a small child to a religious school because they aren’t old enough to filter out the religious muck shoveled at them.

  • Siamang

    Richard hit the target right off.

    The first question that popped into my mind was “what does your wife think about it?”

  • Miko

    Let’s not forget the question “what does your son think about it?”. He won’t have a well-formed opinion on the religious content, of course, but he will have friends at the school. Unless there’s a good reason to make a change, it’s probably best not to make one.

  • Mel

    My parents sent me to Catholic school because we lived in a terrible school district (public school). They didn’t send me for the religious education, but because they felt the quality of academics would be better. My parents are agnostic I guess, they really don’t care about religion in general. I was into it as a child I admit, I liked the sense of community and belonging, but still ended up a well rounded atheist as teenager/adult and questioned religion when I was even younger. I think that the home environment/support system is the most important, children really reflect their parents.

  • Beijingrrl

    Catholic guilt is the worst. And I was lucky enough not to attend Catholic school. It made me hide things from my parents I probably had no need to hide. Talk to your wife and send your kid to public school. It’ll only get harder as he gets older and makes more friends and becomes more indoctrinated.

  • Margy

    I went to Catholic schools for 12 years and was heavily indoctrinated. I was also strongly discouraged from questioning authority figures and developing critical thinking skills. While the schools, academically, were good to excellent, the brainwashing I received is a source of anger, frustration, and resentment to this day. I was taught to feel ashamed of and guilty about normal human desires and behavior, and I’ve spent the better part of my life being apologetic and fearful. In the strongest possible terms, I encourage P&T to tranfer his children to public school–with his wife’s consent, of course. Little kids have no defenses against an onslaught of religious dogma, and the Catholic Church specializes in making people feel ashamed of themselves.

  • I went to Catholic school in the northeast, which I think makes a big difference as most in the northeast are pretty liberally religious.

  • Heidi

    So… you’re paying to have your child indoctrinated, rather than sending him to free public school? Because of a difference in distance that amounts to a 15 – 20 minute walk? How does that make sense? Unless he’s still in Kindergarten he wouldn’t even qualify for a bus at that distance where I live.

    Family conference time.

  • While I can hardly condone sending any child to an environment that is detrimental to his mental health, I do feel obligated to point out that everyone I know who went to our local catholic school came out as free thinking atheists.

    Nevertheless, I think that Richard’s advice is sound; All other things being equal, the secular school would be far healthier.


  • Scootah

    I went to a catholic school for five years. Their curriculum was impressive and I was a gifted/troubled kid who needed something a little out of the ordinary.

    I decided the christmas before starting at that Catholic school that I was an atheist and this god shit was just another scam from adults, like Santa and the Easter Bunny – who I’d already debunked, but continued to verbally support to keep the remuneration for belief deal rolling in my favour.

    I spent my time in weekly religious education classes for five years arguing with my teachers, shooting down their constructs, raising the teachings of buddhism, islam, their own primary texts, moral atheism and spiritual humanism.

    I got an award at graduation for religious studies, as the only vocal athiest in the diocese for my graduating year (about 5000 kids).

    I guess my point is that Catholic school can just serve to reinforce atheistic beliefs iof your kids approach it right. The question really should be, is the curriculum right, or at least better for your kid than the alternative? What your kid learns and how they learn is vastly more important than an extra few minutes travel each way. And the faith of the teachers might influence your kid some – but the faith of the parents and the kids personality will be far more relevant to what they believe later in life.


  • It seems a transfer should be seriously considered unless there are other non-stated issues. Talk it over with your wife. If you do transfer him, be sure to spend some effort to get to know some other families at the other school to get him hooked up and playing with some other kids there.

  • Jim H

    12 years of Catholic school for me too. High school was better, but in the lower grades, it was high indoctrination and low education.

    My biggest lingering resentment:

    Me: Sister, why is the sky blue?
    Nun: (folds hands, looks skyward) It’s a mystery. (conversation over)

    Teaching is OK, learning, not so much. “I don’t know” must never be uttered by anyone taller than a third-grader, but “mystery” is allowed, because that’s god’s realm, and it is not meant to be understood, so shut up.

    This doesn’t even cover the other danger of catholic school. Perplexed and troubled, get your kid out soon!

  • As a recovering Catholic, I think it is easier to address any academic shortcomings from public school than it is undo Catholic brainwashing.

  • Trace

    My sister went to Catholic school….she does not recommend it.

    If public school in your area is good or even decent I would consider it (provided it is OK with the wife and child).

    We homeschool. Some families considering homeschooling bring their children to co-op and group activities after school so their children can better integrate when and if they decide to hs.

    If you decide to change from parochial to public school, perhaps you and your family could do something similar (after-school or summer programs/activities) to make the transition easier for your son?

    I wish you good luck.

  • littlejohn

    What astonished me was your apparent perception that one kilometer is a long way to go to school. That’s about one walk around the block.
    I walked to school every day from 1st through 12th grades. Several miles. In hilly West Virginia.
    I know this sounds hackneyed. Some wise-ass is going to add “uphill – both ways.” Even carrying books, any healthy kid should have no trouble walking one click. In bad weather, you can drive him. It will take about two minutes.

  • gwen

    I sent both of my children to catholic schools–for 12 years, it has made them the atheists they are today!LOL! I wanted to make sure they knew what the religion was–thoroughly. I countered the dogma in everyday conversation. Their dad is a ‘liberal’ christian too, but he was not aware of my agenda. It was also an excellent school system where they got a top notch education. It was the only school system that did a great job of teach both evolution and sex education, something they would not have gotten from the local public school system.

  • Perplexed and Troubled

    Thank you all for your feedback.

    I have decided that it would be best to leave him where he is for a couple of reasons:

    1. to avoid any major conflict with my wife.

    My wife knows my views, we have discussed moving him out of the school. We have agreed that if something major happens at the school which we find unacceptable (still trying to determine what that ‘something’ is), then we will move him out.

    2. to have him learn about religion (as gwen said, “I wanted to make sure they knew what the religion was–thoroughly”.

    I didn’t start to really learn about religion until AFTER I became an Atheist. I always point out interesting facts about the world and stress either the scientific reasoning behind it or the sheer randomness of nature’s beauty. I also try my best to educate him on reason, logic, rational thinking at home.

    As Mel pointed out, “I think that the home environment/support system is the most important, children really reflect their parents.” I am really stressing this focus as I hope both my sons follow my example.

    Thanks again, everyone. Keep the comments coming as they are all very useful and appreciated! 🙂

  • Bob

    My mother was a public school teacher. She sent us to Catholic school because she didn’t want us getting bussed (there was a perfectly good school a block away).

    The strange thing is, for me, the faith part of the equation quickly became an exercise in rote memory. I didn’t feel ‘connected’ to my faith until high school, when I participated in a Christian group. And then, when I was in college, practicing my faith – the getting up to go to Sunday mass – ran smack into the reality of working a job until midnight Saturday and having to be back at work Sunday at 10AM. Faith lost. If preferring eight hours of sleep over going to church damns me to hell, so be it. I’ll at least be well-rested.

    However, I continue to benefit from my Jesuit high school education. I had teachers that encouraged my love of science and reading. Hell, they didn’t even bat an eye when I began doing tarot card readings for other students on Friday morning (mass was optional, since it was a small chapel).

    There was one time I was discussing an issue with my mother, and she said, “You sound like a Jesuit.”

  • Xena

    I had a unique experience with my lack of childhood indoctrination. In a nutshell, my gran’s Belfast relatives disowned her for marrying a protestant. (Yes. THOSE Irish Catholics) She accepted him, Anglican, Metis resident of Canadian tundra, and everything else she had to put up with to get out of post-blitz London. The situation worked well. At least as well as a relationship between a hard-drinking stoic WWII vet and a kooky Catholic lady can work in Inuit territory.

    My mom was the groovy hippie. Not so much radical as hedonistic. Dad was a full-out Chomskyite anarchist that sheltered American draft dodgers by the dozen, after they moved to southern Ontario. She took some weird leftist Xtian teachings, and kinda called herself a “non-denominational protestant”

    The best thing this whole weird mix did for me was to prevent Mom from trying to indoctrinate me. She said that any religion I chose would be my choice, and she wouldn’t get involved. So when the church ladies came recruiting with candy in our ghetto (ok, it was one built by the same crew that built the Canadian ghetto in Bowling For Colombine–same little town–not such a bad ghetto) she said it was ok if I checked it out.

    I was 8, and had already been well looked after by liberal humanist secular Canadianisms from birth. The church I went to check out was freaking Pentecostal. I went home in tears and had nightmares for a week. Mom got involved then. As in no more of those fanatics for you.I still occasionally get questioned for growling during philosophy lectures where the focus is on religious tenets that lead to hate propaganda. Xtianity has an ugly track record and much of it still makes my stress vein pop.

    I can’t say I shifted to my current view right away. I had to try a few things to really decide that none of them were workable.

    What I’m trying to say with all of this is to be careful with your son’s views of legitimate and self-proclaimed authority, and his concepts of truth, lies, victimhood and hypocrisy. Little ones need consistent rules for a reason, because before a certain stage of development, their views of “right” and “wrong” are narrow. They develop the flexibility to grasp concepts like “the wrong thing for the right reason” in late elementary school. This is the reason for so much of the self-hatred and resentment stated by other commenters here. No child wants to know that he or she is too little to decide or talk back when he or she is at the mercy of people who tell cruel and blatant lies when they’re supposed to be supportive and sincere.

    The most important thing to give him is hands-on, indisputable proof that there is no hell. Take him to some mining operations, and show him pictures of the inside of the earth and other planets. Give him Copernicus. Lots and lots of him. Evolution is a little sophisticated for a 6 year old, but they all love planetariums at that age. Show him that everything doesn’t revolve around a bunch of angry impotent men in dresses.

    And if, at the mention of hell, he looks terrified, make sure you stress to him that he’s learning from victims of victims. They’re so terrified of the lie, that they can’t even look at it to see if it’s there or not. Pull out the flashlight and point it at every creepy corner, like the monster under the bed fear. Let him know that by being crippled with fear, we become the monsters. Some of those people are scary, yes. But most of them are really just scared and sad, themselves. Let him know that it’s ok to keep asking questions about why we’re here. But no loving father would ever throw his children in a pit of fire. Do the right thing because people need to trust each other so they can live together, etc., etc…

    With that said, if your wife has a problem with taking him out of that school, your son will likely convince her within a year or 2 that he wants to leave it.

  • HP

    Off-topic, but I nearly had an “Ask Richard” moment today. I had stopped off at the grocery store after work, and there was a young woman (18-20?) at the entrance to the store selling handmade WWJD bracelets “to finance her missionary trip to Uganda.” She was projecting this wholesome image, but all I could see was that video Hemant posted some time ago of a witch-burning in Africa. You know, they didn’t start burning “witches” in sub-Saharan Africa until the evangelicals showed up. It’s not ancient tradition, and it’s not something they learned from the Catholics and the Anglicans. They learned it from American evangelicals.

    Evangelical missions to Africa are, IMO, one of greatest human evils of the early 21st century. I looked at that girl, and I swear I could smell burning human flesh. And then I stared straight ahead and said nothing. What would I have accomplished among these ignorant Midwestern brutes but to cause a scene and frighten a young woman? I don’t think I could have been rational at that moment. I was tired, and all I wanted was to pick up some cat food and Listerine. But I wonder if I should have spoken out.

  • If the school is better, keep him there. Seriously, it’ll be worth it.

  • Darlene

    12+ years of Catholic school, with a freethinking father. It was awesome, because I could argue with theteachers and my dad backed me as long as my arguements were correct and presented in a proper manner. Honed my debate and critical thinking skills, gave me a way better education then the public schools would have, and helped me become the atheist I currently am.

    Yeah, I got the ashes and the communion and even wanted to be a nun (5th grade) and my dad ignored all of it, taught me to think and question everything, and I got to see religion from the inside with someone sane to help me question it and discover for myself what I thought was off or wrong. Priceless, really.

    And I actually learned about evolution in Catholic school–something most public schools barely touch on anymore.

  • gwen

    Darlene, that’s what I’m saying. They also started teaching sex education (starting with good touch/bad touch) in the second grade. By the time they were in the 7th grade, they had a thorough grounding on sex education. I made sure they knew about all forms of birth control. The school did a great job of teaching everything else. They also taught an anatomy class that made my college professor proud, in the seventh grade. If my children had asked a teacher why the sky was blue, they would have gotten a correct answer, not the ‘goddidit’ answer.

  • Anna

    I attended Catholic schools for twelve years, as a member of a family who went to church every Sunday. Although I didn’t always have the best experience, I’d advise to look closely at the quality of the academics and the type of religious education students receive there. If the academics themselves are good, and religion is taught in a way that emphasizes the positivity that can be found in some bits of Catholicism as well as in a way that encourages deep thought about God and religion, then personally I’m okay with Catholic schools.

  • prospera

    I got to see religion from the inside with someone sane to help me question it and discover for myself what I thought was off or wrong. Priceless, really.

    That is awesome, Darlene. I’ve always believed that the best way to understand another perspective is to be given a chance to be in their midst without losing yourself.

  • MaryLynne

    P&T – that was my decision too. I lost faith when my oldest was six or so, younger daughter age 2. Even before that I had doubts – my daughter never heard me say “This is the truth.” I said “Catholics believe . . . some people believe . . .people have different beliefs and that’s OK.”

    It was quality of education and avoiding conflict that had me agree to continue Catholic education. I justified by thinking that I developed reason after 30 years of being Catholic, and they were growing up in a way more skeptical home than I did. I never pushed it because that was the deal I made with my husband, but I shared a general skepticism and demonstrated critical thinking skills and equated all systems of beliefs. My older daughter at 12 lost faith. It was hard and disappointing for my husband at first, but he agreed that after confirmation time (she will have a point to choose whether to be confirmed) she is an adult in the church and can choose for herself.

    It sounds like your journey away from faith is pretty new – you said out 2 years. Do mentions of god and the rituals feel like nails on a blackboard? It gets easier, because it gets less meaningful to you as time passes. Keep phrasing as “people believe” in stead of the truth, teach skepticism and critical thinking in other areas. I bet it will all work out. It helped in my family that I was respectful of my husband’s views and not outspoken against the church – he didn’t get defensive and think I was actively trying to take their faith, so he could be more accepting of our daughter’s changing views.

  • I fought with my mom tooth and nail when she wanted me to go to the Catholic Highschool that was down the street, rather than the public school I’d have to take the city bus to (Ontario funds the Catholic School Board, a travesty I know). I didn’t identify myself as an atheist yet but I told her in no uncertain terms, loudly, at the meet the teacher thing that I was NOT going to religion classes. I had the tenacity and wherewithal to get my way; your son does not. Unless you can sit down with him every night and challenge the shit he is told, if your wife doesn’t blow a gasket, get him out. You owe it to him.

  • Brock

    As a student in my 11th year of Catholic schooling, i believe that Catholic elementary school is not the best option if you wish your child not be affected by the teaching. The schools, in my experience, don’t try to convert the children of non-Catholic parents, but being in that environment, children tend to gain beliefs passively. Catholic high school has, thus far (I’m a sophomore), been a positive thing.

  • Erin

    Hi, I just wanted to address the assertion that the Christian perception of Man is that he is no good and will only do good if threatened by punishment. That may be the belief of some individual Christians, but that is not the true Christian stance. Christianity teaches that Man is intrinsically good but that he has been warped, so to speak, by sin, so that he finds it difficult to do good and tempting to do evil. Evil is not just “what God says it is,” but is evil because of the damage it does to Man and to his relationship of love with God. Everything that is called a sin (murder, theft, contraception, etc) is so called because it hurts Man, not just because God higgledy-piggledy said it was evil. I just do not want you to have an untrue view of what is at the heart of Christianity, which is the nature of Man and his God and the relationship of growing love between them.

    Also, on a side note, evolution, which seems to be pretty obviously a true account of how the world and its creatures, including Man, developed, still cannot point to the first Cause, that is, how evolution itself started and how matter came to be, a question well worth considering.

    Thank you for reading and I appreciate all your comments!

  • chanceofrainne

    Probably best you didn’t. As you said, you might not have been rational, and the only thing that would accomplish would be to cause a scene and alienate people. Choose your battles wisely.

  • chanceofrainne

    It’s not hard for Catholic school to turn a kid first questioning and then atheist. It happened to me in 3rd grade when the nun told us that infant baptism was necessary because babies who cry only for attention are committing a sin and thus would be damned to hell. Try to convince a moderately intelligent 8 year old that a baby should burn in hell forever. That’ll make an atheist out of almost anybody.

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