Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.
I am a life-long atheist and a stay-at-home-mother of two most excellent kids. My oldest, a super smart four-year-old boy, goes to church with my mother most Sundays. He enjoys playing with the other kids and the after-service cookies. Some Sundays he doesn’t want to go, so he stays home, his attendance is voluntary.
I am very frank with him, explaining that I don’t go to church because I don’t believe in God. I answer his questions honestly. Despite the indoctrination that is surely going on, my son remains the four-year-old equivalent of a skeptic. For example, he came home one Sunday with a copy of the Lord’s Prayer, so I asked him what it was for. “Daily bread,” he replied, “but I think its easier to just buy some at the store.”
I’m writing you this because I catch a lot of flack from fellow atheists about his attendance. It seems to me that not allowing my son to go to church and only exposing him to my world view is no different than a Christian mother making church attendance and Bible reading mandatory. Many atheists seem to think this makes me a hypocrite or worse.
My feelings are, I present him with the facts, and let him make his own choices about what to believe. I wouldn’t love him any less if he chose to a Christian or a Jew or a pagan. But I can’t help thinking that maybe I am a hypocrite, and by my sending him to church he may come to believe that I am an evil person destined to suffer eternity in Hell for not believing in God.
I’m very interested in what you and the readers think of this.
From that remark about buying the bread at the store, I immediately like your boy.
I don’t see how you are a hypocrite in this. You are living by your stated principles, practicing what you preach, if you’ll excuse the expression. If you are confident that your super smart four-year-old has demonstrated the self-awareness to be his own mind’s gatekeeper, that he already has the ability to choose or refuse ideas according to their merit, then letting him attend the church so he can enjoy the other kids and the cookies remains consistent with your principle of nurturing in him the freedom of informed choice about his beliefs.
Other four-year-olds might not yet have developed that level of discernment, that gatekeeper, and so would be more vulnerable to indoctrination getting in and taking root without their having a choice. So in their case, church attendance might not be promoting their free thinking. Letting your younger child attend might be too soon for his or her present development, and so might not be a good idea.
There seems to be an ongoing dispute about the effect that church attendance and religious activities have on very young children. Some people say that if little ones don’t attend for too long, they’ll soon forget all that “god stuff,” while others say that the younger they are, the more deeply and subconsciously ingrained will be the social attitudes, responses to authority, and view of themselves that the church wants to inject.
I tend to think that very small children can absorb many ideas, attitudes and expectations even before they can understand them in words, or express them in words. That might mean those ideas remain implanted on an unconscious level. For generations, religious material for children has been refined to be very attractive to their emotions and to take advantage of their susceptibility. So I would exercise caution and careful judgment in exposing them to religious ideas, especially when reinforced by fun and cookies, before they can differentiate those ideas, as apparently your older son can.
Things will get more complicated when he reaches an age where his peers at the church begin to discuss and compare their beliefs with each other. Then peer pressure to conform might come into conflict with his attending merely to have playmates. That will be an early challenge to both his freethinking and to your desire to respect his informed decisions. If his skeptical nature prevails, he might become uncomfortable there, so help him to develop an alternative source of friends and playmates before that happens.
Going by your letter, being called a hypocrite by some of your fellow atheists makes no sense; it sounds more like they consider you to be disloyal to their group. But you’re not trying to follow a group, you’re trying to follow the principle of freedom of thought.
I’m sad to have to wonder if their disapproval might be from simple prejudice. Perhaps they dislike Christians and churches in general to such a degree that they frown on you for allowing your boy to “fraternize with the enemy,” regardless of any effect it is having or not having on him. Perhaps it’s more about their hostility toward Christians than about concern for him.
I’m reminded of the times I’ve seen parents discouraging other parents from letting their kids play with kids who have a different shade of skin. I hope that kind of mentality is not the case here, but we all have our preferences, and we’re all susceptible to our preferences becoming bias, and our bias becoming bigotry.
Charlotte, you’re not just teaching your children freethinking, you’re honoring their freethinking by accepting wherever it might go. Because you have the courage of your convictions, I think they will have a better ability than many to recognize their own biases as they emerge, and to consciously use reason to clear those biases away before they become bigotry. Just as they’ll be able to choose or refuse ideas and attitudes coming from outside of them, they’ll also be able to choose or refuse ideas and attitudes that come from within them. That, I think, is a good description of freethinking.