Ask Richard: Mother Lets Son Attend Church, Gets Flak from Fellow Atheists March 28, 2011

Ask Richard: Mother Lets Son Attend Church, Gets Flak from Fellow Atheists

Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.

Dear Richard,

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.


Dear Charlotte,

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.


Related post: Ask Richard: Atheists’ Freethinking Children Are Considering Religion

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  • SamG

    I have only recently begun to self-identify as an atheist.

    My son (who is 15) has started attending youth group. It is religious based, but I’m not stopping him. He hasn’t asked to go to church, but if he did I’d let him. I’ve told him I’ll not be joining him if he does though.

    I don’t see a parent letting their children decide for themselves as being hypocritical.


  • Charlotte,

    I agree with Richard that an “us versus them” mentality isn’t good since we live in a pluralistic society and it is important to learn to coexist. I would, though, let your kids know that going to church is optional and always provide them an easy way out. In the ideal situation, you wouldn’t let them go at all until they were a bit older (perhaps around 9 or 10) so they won’t be as susceptible to early childhood indoctrination (even if it is unconscious). Good luck and remember that a skeptical free-thinking mom always trumps an incredulous Sunday-school teacher.

  • Patrick

    I don’t think she’s necessarily doing anything wrong. But…

    Look, the thing about taking a hands off approach and letting your kid decide for himself is that it doesn’t happen unless everyone involved complies. For example, in a religiously mixed marriage, if one spouse takes the hands off, my kid can decide for himself approach while the other parent indoctrinates as best they can… it falls apart.

    That’s my only reservation here. You may be taking a hands off approach, and that’s fine, even though I’m not 100% sure four years old is when these things should be happening. But you should also make sure that the church isn’t engaged in pressure tactics… and you should be forewarned that even if they aren’t engaged in them now, its the sort of thing that can change on a dime.

  • Barbara

    I have 3 boys. All of them attended church. The oldest is agnostic/atheist, middle atheist, youngest loves Jesus and Buddah and attends church sporadically when he feels like it. All I ever ask is that they ask questions, read what the words say, and listen to what people are telling them and why. Think it what I tell them. And most of all, don’t believe everything you hear is true. BTW, my youngest is studying evolution with me. Now he is starting to think about what it means from a ‘biblical’ perspective.

  • Josh Evolved

    The only hypocrites here are the atheists giving her flak for letting her son make his own decisions. Indoctrination doesn’t ONLY apply to religious people, you can be atheistically indoctrinated.

    To me it really comes down to the mother knowing her son. Some children can be quite logical. In fact all are, they just usually have faulty premises, but their logic is somewhat sound. My fiance has this cousin, who when his mom was pregnant with his little sister asked, “How did it get in her belly? Did she eat it?”

    I think people don’t give children enough credit and talk down to them and pander to them. If you teach them to think critically, that will stick, and being around other children, regardless of religion, can be good for socialization.

    In my opinion, she is a great mother for letting her son make his own choices. Kudos to her.

  • Nancy

    How can a parent who claims to be a rational person possibly say she doesn’t care if her child grows up to be religious, i.e. irrational? That’s like not caring if your child grows up to be psychologically unhealthy! This parent’s “tolerance” sounds a bit loopy to me.

    I think it extremely unwise to chance religious indoctrination on such a young child, no matter how smart. If a child expresses strong desires to attend church regularly, at least wait until he/she can truly reason…

  • JD

    That’s a lot more open than Christian parents would be if they knew their child was going to an atheist gathering.

    Just saying “no” creates a “forbidden fruit” enticement, they’ll go just for the sake of rebelling. Being open to talk about it and ask about the reasons is probably a lot more productive and better in the long run.

  • My husband and I are both firm atheists, but not only does our daughter go to synagogue a few times a month with her grandparents, she goes to Hebrew school.

    Gasp! She’ll never turn out to be an atheist now! I mean, her parents (who went to synagogue and Hebrew school) didn’t–waitaminute…

    Yeah, I have some problems with synagogue and Hebrew school. Some enormous ones, even. But it’s important to me that she learn Jewish customs and traditions and I explain clearly that some people believe in this god person and some don’t.

    It’s not a perfect system by any means, but it’s the one I’ve got.

  • JenniferT

    You embrace the principle of freethinking by giving an institution whose entire purpose is to crush freethinking out of people, access to your son? Really, don’t.

  • “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. ”

    –I cannot fully agree with this sentence. If a son really wants to go to church, of course it is wrong to not allowing him to go to church.

    However, I don’t think that it is a problem of only exposing my son to my world view. There are many different sorts of world views, including those are very wrong. I don’t think I need to expose my son to all those crazy stuff.

    Moreover, I think the mother is only a disbeliever, not an atheist.

    For me, an atheist, I know (not believe) religion is wrong, so I will not volunteerly send my son to listen to those stuff. I can lead him to spend good quality time much much better than those. That would be hypocrite for me to send my son to church, when I already know (not believe) there are many wrong lectures in there. I don’t need to pretend to be “open-minded”. Of course I will EDUCATE my son. Education can never be fully free choice. Will you let your son try Neo-Nazism?

  • Phoebe

    I’ve had to “un-indoctrinate” my youngest child several times…just because he goes to public school and we live in the south!

    You can’t avoid religious nuts! All you can do is tell your kids the truth and teach them science and logic. Religious nuts are everywhere: schools, other kids’ homes, the gov’t…what’s the difference if they go to church with their grandmother.

  • Nicoline

    OK, let me try this again. I think you’re doing your son a favor by being open-minded about his attending church. Of course there’s some risk that church could indoctrinate him, but I think you’d pick up on that pretty easily. For instance, if he were to have nightmares about some of the stuff they teach in Sunday school. The gods know, there’s plenty of scary stuff in the bible.
    Going to church is also a good way of attaining some degree of literacy in what has been (and continues to be) an important aspect of our culture. I tried to do that by reading the bible to my kids, but they didn’t take to it. My oldest son dated a christian girl for a while and went to church with her, but it cured him of both christianity and the girl in pretty short order. “Mom, you wouldn’t believe the BS they tell people there!”

    So I think it’s great that you’re being open-minded, but I do think you want to keep a pretty close eye on your son in this respect, because he’s too young to understand the import of religion. And to heck with all those narrow-minded agnostics/atheists who give you a hard time about it!

  • Roxane

    I let my kids go to church with their friends when they got curious about what it was all about. After one such outing to a fundie church, I asked my youngest what she learned, and she replied, “God loves everybody except gays and uppity women.” She was a lot older than 4, though.

    I remember being dragged to church at about that age. It was terribly boring, I didn’t pay a lot of attention, and instead drew with the paper and pencils my aunt thoughtfully provided–plus, I got to chew gum, which I usually wasn’t allowed to do.

    As clever as Charlotte’s little boy no doubt is, I would bet dollars to donuts that he’s only picking up bits and pieces, like the “daily bread” thing, and that he isn’t “getting it” in any systematic or meaningful way. After all, the natural response, unless somebody really sets you down and makes an effort to get you to buy in, is to say, “This makes no sense.” And if the parents aren’t pushing it, it will take more than the dreary, disconnected ramblings of a preacher to convert this little guy.

  • migrainegirl

    I sent my son to a Baptist Parents’ Day Out program. It was a way for him to socialize with other children. Living in the South, I felt it was important that he learn the stories of the bible – if only to not feel left out. He is now 18 years old and an athiest. I asked him when he was 12 or 13 why he doesn’t believe. His response made great sense: “There’s no such thing as perfect.” I felt he was given all the information and made up his own mind to be rational and realistic.
    I fell that even if he chose to believe, I taught him to be considerate and accepting of others and, most importantly, “judge not lest ye be judged!”

  • Rieux

    I think calling this woman a hypocrite is ridiculous, but what she’s doing seems like an awfully bad idea to me. Indoctrination is very serious business, the church her son is going to survives almost entirely because of it (which means they’re necessarily serious about indoctrination), and thus the respect she holds for her son’s freedom of thought is extremely unlikely to be reciprocated by the institution she’s entrusting him to. And goodness, this is a four-year-old. Is he really cognitively capable of making a free and informed choice about what he believes?

    I hope the kid hangs onto his skepticism, because it appears that’s all the protection he’s got: his mother is exposing him to an institution and members thereof who have no interest whatsoever in his freedom of conscience; their purpose is to shape his beliefs to meet their needs. It seems to me that the mother has a duty (as does the father, if he’s in the picture) to protect the poor kid from assaults like those, but she’s shirking it.

    I suppose I could hand my son over, a few days per month, to a group of thugs who enjoy working him over with brass knuckles. Going along with that plan wouldn’t make me a hypocrite, I think—but it would sure make me something.

  • I recently had this discussion @

    …Our children were first introduced to various religious mythologies through story time. As they grew, numerous visits to museums gave them their first physical connection to some of the stories they had read to them. Their education proceeds at a pace set by them. My boys like to visit places of worship; a few historic big city Catholic churches, a couple of evangelical churches, the Bahai temple in Wilmette, the Chicago Mandir and even the Bridgeview mosque.

    I say, let each child experience what they seem prepared to handle. It will benefit them in the long run.

  • Parse

    It’s interesting to compare this letter with this one from last year.
    I’d assume that, if it’s not prejudice on the fellow atheists’ parts, that they know (or have heard of) enough stories like the linked letter’s, that they want to stop it before it starts.

    For myself, the problem isn’t that you’re presenting your son with all the facts. The problem is that you’re presenting your son with facts, and churches don’t limit themselves to that. Emotional appeals, half-baked logic, opinions presented as facts – just because you play by the Marquess of Queensberry, doesn’t mean the church they’re visiting will.

  • I don’t think attending church is a bad thing, but if you are too apathetic about it, it might be interpreted as a sign of endorsement, despite your comments. It is just difficult to know how he is actually perceiving the information both you and the church are presenting to him.

  • I let my oldest two be taken to church with Gran and a friend’s mother now and again. Didn’t say I was an atheist until I was asked by one of them when she was 12. They are now 19 and 17 and atheist. I ‘came out’ to my boy sooner but he was reading Bill Bryson, Life, Universe, Everything… when he was six.

    If the indoctrination isn’t there and there are aternative viewpoints, children will make sense of it all.

  • FunnierOnPaper

    I’m having the same issue with my 4yo son, only I know he doesn’t have the same discernment Charlotte’s son has expressed. I originally allowed him to go because I’m a Stay At Home Mom and dad works 13 hour days, so that leaves me with my son…a lot. NO free time at all! I don’t even get the luxury to drive down the street without my son. Showers? Potty breaks for mom? Almost always interrupted.

    My in laws live a block away. Unless there’s an emergency it’s rare that they’ll watch my son. They’re finally experiencing “empty nest syndrome” and loving it! Up until a week ago, their 26 year old daughter and 6 year old granddaughter lived with them.

    I had to start to draw a line, though. My son tried to tell me I “NEEDED” to believe in God. Um… no. Mr. 4yo, you don’t tell mom what she needs to believe. Before this, I thought it was no big deal. He was playing with other kids his age (his birthday is at the end of September, so it’ll be another year before he can start school and we don’t qualify for Head Start).

    My personal compromise has been that I now take him to a Unitarian church for morning service, and he can go to his Grandmother’s church in the evening. I feel this is honestly the only way he’ll get a diversified religious education that’s quality enough for him to honestly choose for himself. I get a bonus of attending a church that’s extremely open minded and I can be open about my non-belief. Second bonus is I now have a social group that my life has been severely lacking.

  • Gillie

    I am an atheist and I take my five year old son to a Unitarian Universalist Sunday school so that he hears about different religions in the context of this is what some people believe. I would have a big problem sending him with someone else without knowing they were taking this approach. My own experience with any other church is that they’ll tell him their view is the truth. NOT OK with me. I would guess that this is the problem your atheist friends have too. The indoctrination that happens most of the time is not the same as education. May I suggest you read Parenting Beyond Belief? Dale McGowan has some wonderful ideas around all of this. Good luck!

  • Secular Stu

    Is Charlotte also shuttling him off to the local mosque, Hindu temple, and Scientology center? If not, that’s “no different than a Christian mother making church attendance and Bible reading mandatory”, right?

    Despite the indoctrination that is surely going on, my son remains the four-year-old equivalent of a skeptic.

    I am at a loss as to how someone can type those words and still consider themselves a good parent. “Yeah, he’s undoubtably being brainwashed. NO BIGGIE!”

  • Kristi

    I think you are doing the right thing as a mother. I myself am a mother of 3 small kids… 3, 6 and 8. My oldest knows that I do not believe in god and that other people do. She does not know all the ins and outs of theism vs. atheism, however, she knows I will love her no matter what she believes. This is an important part of a child’s life and I feel exposure to all sides in necessary for them to make in informed unbiased decision later in life. Your son will see things from both sides. He will see that the church is full of shit when they attempt to tell people that non-believers are bad or intolerant people… he will learn exactly the opposite because of you allowing this. You are letting him make his own choices on spirituality and there are merits in that alone. Most parents would loathe and forbid their child for wanting to see the grass on the other side. Religion is such a touchy subject to people ~ especially when it comes to children ~ and most want nothing more than for their child to believe the same as they do. You are doing your son a great favor by letting him explore. When my kids get to that point, I too will allow them to think freely.

    One of the biggest traits of being an atheist is promoting free thinking, being open minded and trying to stop the hypocrisy that is going on in this world concerning religion. You are right along track with that. You would be hypocritical if you told your son he could only believe what you tell him to. This is what “they” do to their children. We promote freedom of choice and are against childhood indoctrination, both of which you are right in tune with. Good job Mom.

  • Kristi

    By the way, I should have added that along with allowing him to go to a Christian church, you also need to expose him to the other places of worship. He needs to be exposed to Hindu’s, Muslims, Buddhists, Jews etc. This too is an important part of his decision making. Do not limit his education to just you and Gramma. Let him see ALL sides of it if you are going to continue to allow him to be present for religious sermons.

  • Jesus

    Since I consider all religious people to be cult members, I’m on the side that says that this could definitely backfire. I’m all for teaching them about what religious people believe, but not for allowing those same religious people to teach it. This seems like something a rational mind should be teaching him.

    Unless you want your 4 year old to become a 24 year old that believes in the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus… sending him into that environment, where all manner of crazy people are practically begging to indoctrinate him, seems like a bad call to me.

  • As a single mom of a now 21-year-old daughter, I have to say that I see some excellent points on both sides of this issue. When my daughter was growing up, she periodically attended a variety of different religious services. I even sent her to a Baptist summer camp because it was the best in the area (horse riding, swimming, etc). They had a short chapel service every morning. It bored her and she preferred to be fashionably late most days.

    When she asked the inevitable questions, I told her that most people throughout history have believed in some sort of gods, but that a lot of people don’t. I tended to stay extremely neutral about myself, though. Partly because I was still “in the closet” and partly because I think that is a choice/realization each person needs to come to on their own without being brainwashed by the parents either way. In hindsight, though, I think I would have used those moments to emphasize mythology vs critical thinking a bit more.

    In spite of her somewhat regular exposure to religious teachings and my wishy-washy counter-point, she still remained unindoctrinated. At one point she did think we were Catholic, but when I questioned why she believed that it was obvious that she thought “Catholic” was similar to saying she is an American or a Floridian. She had zero concept of the religion itself, but since all of her friends said they were Catholic, she assumed that we must be too.

    As of today, my daughter is still a non-believer as to deities. She has, however, developed a belief in some sort of cognizant after-life. She developed this conviction after she witnessed the violent death of her BFF, and then some weird unexplained “ghost” type stuff happened. Emotionally, she needs to believe that her best friend is somehow still *alive.*

    I understand that and leave it alone for now. But I wonder if I’d been a little bit more forceful about skepticism when she was growing up, if she would be clinging to this belief now. I also wonder if holding that belief is no big deal, or opening the door for a religious conversion at some point.

    Being a parent is hard. Being an atheist parent is doubly so, imo.

  • Kristi,

    I tried to cover that point, “you also need to expose him to the other places of worship. He needs to be exposed to Hindu’s, Muslims, Buddhists, Jews etc.,” well enough in my first post and in our opinion, it has worked quite well.

  • Annie

    I wish the grandparents in this scenario would offer to take the child to events other than church. Yes, all mothers would like a few free minutes, but I don’t think I’d take mine by sending my child off to church… especially with people who might think this is a necessary thing, since the parents aren’t providing it. My child was also very precocious when young… she was a self-described atheist at age 5. But, she still believed in the tooth fairy and Santa… so the idea of rational thought goes out the window. Children are children. And yes, I would still love mine even if she was in prison for some heinous crime… but I certainly hope that will never happen. Although I admire the mother’s openness, I worry about what the child is being exposed to that she doesn’t know. But I hope she knows she is certainly not being a hypocrite. Just because I wouldn’t do it this way, doesn’t mean her way is wrong.

  • Never Had to Go to Church

    I agree with Annie. You are certainly not a hypocrite, but the question you should be asking yourself is why is your four year old going to Church in the first place. While he may very well enjoy it, he’s there because your mother wants to take him to Church and you are glad to hand him off for a few hours. As other posters have pointed out, he is not being exposed to several different religions, he is being indoctrinated in one. Secular Stu is rather rude calling you a bad parent, but when I read the following portion of your letter:

    Despite the indoctrination that is surely going on, my son remains the four-year-old equivalent of a skeptic.

    I make the same translation: “Yeah, he’s undoubtedly being brainwashed. NO BIGGIE!” Religion is fundamentally a lie. It commands people to believe in something for which there is a complete lack of evidence. It teaches people to have faith rather than to think critically. And it propagates itself by telling said lie to children at a very young age. While I absolutely adore your four year-old’s interpretation of the Lord’s Prayer, I cannot agree with your decision to let your mother take him to Church. If he were older and had started attending different religious services of his own volition, then I think you would be right to support him in said endeavor. But he’s a four year old who is there because your mother wants to take him to one particular kind of religious service. As is, this is not educational, a child at a very impressionable age is being told the same lie every Sunday.

  • jolly

    I guess a parent could also allow their 4 year old to shoot guns without supervision or watch pornography. I wouldn’t let a child in a church without proper supervision and I would take him to lots of different religions so he could see they are all wrong.

  • Ibis

    A four year old is too young to voluntarily subject themselves to a brainwashing cult. Teach him rationally about different religions, mythologies (along with the history), and rituals that people have. When he’s 10 or 12 and he wants to check out the local church or mosque to see for himself what it’s all about, that’s the time to encourage exploration. A four year old often has a tough time distinguishing authorities he should trust and those he shouldn’t (especially if grandma and grandpa hold a different view than mum). What this woman is allowing to happen is child abuse.

  • Stephanie

    Eh, I grew up attending what I always referred to as the neighborhood church, By that I mean my parents’ attitude was; “We’re not going to take you, but if you want to go with one of the neighbors we’ll get you up and ready to go.” I also went to two or three summer Bible camps a year because my parents appreciated having somewhere safe to send me while they worked all day. Far from indoctrinating me, all the different sects contradicted one another. I consider it a great advantage that on my path from idle belief to atheism I got to pick and choose from a lot of different viewpoints and lay my own ethical bedrock. I also trace back a healthy amount of my skepticism and ability to look past authority from these different churches.

    So, no, I don’t see anything wrong with sending a child off to church, but I think it’s actually better to send them off to many and let them decide for themselves how to see the world. Knowledge is power.

  • Claudia

    In what may be a first, I think Richard may have interpreted the intentions of Charlotte’s fellow atheists a little too harshly. I’m not going to outright reject the notion that it may come from pure prejudice, because I have sadly seen that from atheists before. However I think at least some of it is likely to come from sincere concern for the psychological wellbeing of her very young son.

    I don’t think it’s a wild overreaction to be concerned that a four year old boy does not have the mental capacity to properly defend his mind from the very sophisticated machinery of emotional manipulation that religious institutions have spent thousands of years perfecting, even if he is a very bright boy. Though Charlotte is being open with her son about her beliefs I think maybe a more “active” stance is needed, being such a young child. After all, he is not being given a “neutral” upbringing at present. Charlotte may be being strictly neutral, but you can bet all the gold crucifixes in the world the church he’s going to isn’t. It’s working hard to ingrain religious thought into your 4 year old. Unless he is being given the counterweight of skeptical thought his upbringing is nominally religious. What is the stance of that church on homosexuality? Do you want to take the risk that your child is gay and is told that he is a lesser, bad person for who he is, or that you are?

    I think that going to various faith-houses with children of around 9-12 can be very healthy and educational. Children that old have mostly past the phase of “anything the Big People say is True” and can greatly benefit from religious literacy. Letting your 4 year old be indoctrinated without a good counter-weight? I’d call that risky, myself.

  • Nico

    I went to church with my grandmother until she passed away when I was ten. Neither my grandfather nor any of her four children would go with her. I am happy I did, I have good memories of those times.
    Of course, I was young and I did not really understand what church was all about. The service was long and boring; however what I enjoyed were the walks to and from the church together.
    Now I see it as an activity I shared with my grandmother, memories I wouldn’t have otherwise.

    Don’t deny the chance to your son to spend time with his grandmother because of what other people might say.

    In time he will understand more about religion and will be able to make up his mind all on his own.

  • Aimee

    I let my 2 year old go to Sunday School with my mother-in-law. She is a bit odd, perhaps with a slight learning disability and had no capacity to be taught religious messages at that age. Even at 3.5 she doesn’t have a god concept or much of an ability to comprehend dogmatic morality.
    I wouldn’t let her go to that church now because she is old enough to emotionally manipulate. She is old enough for gender roles and expectations to be foisted on her.

    I may start going to a UU church with my kids so they get religious instruction without dogmatic indoctrination. Otherwise they get a wide variety of mythological stories and encouraging critical thinking skills.

  • Nick Andrew

    I’ll echo a lot of what was said above – it’s risky; a 4yo has little capacity for critical thought; the environment at the church is not a level playing field: it’s not an honest environment as one might expect if your child instead spent time visiting museums or science centres or other activities aimed at a (moderately bright) 4 year old level. Sunday School is for indoctrinating children, even if there are games and lollies.

    Religion is such an insidious poison to rationality that I’m not about to give it an even break; not with impressionable minds. I’ve raised my kids with an atheist, skeptical viewpoint from the start. Religion will have to come up with some evidence for the truth of their claims if they want to number my kids among their believers. Fat chance of that ever happening.

  • I have to wonder about Charlotte’s motivation. Is allowing her son to go to church with his grandparents about HER or about her son?

    Sometimes it can be hard to take a stand against grandparents’ “good” intentions, especially when a little necessary alone time can be gained from them.

    The easy way out would be to say, “my son is super smart. He knows better.” The hard way would be to actually attend with the child, or to say no to the grandparents.

    My first reaction is to assume Charlotte is writing this letter to Richard to look for justification for her actions and for ammunition to use with her friends.

  • Silent Service

    My son went to Sunday school and spent two years in AWANA. He’s 14 now and though not nearly the rabid Atheist his dad is, he knows and understands that religion is just culture and myth. Most of us started out learning about the religion of our families. What’s important is that you teach them to think critically and to never simply accept as facts the information provided to them. Teach them to be skeptical and more than likely they will deside on their own to be atheists.

  • Lisa

    This is precisely why I take my 4-year-old to a local UU church about once or twice a month. (I can’t handle more than that, lol) This way, she is exposed to many different beliefs, as well as non-believers like me, and also, church is not some mysterious thing that others do, so it won’t be some forbidden fruit. Besides, my parents are uber Catholic, so she hears plenty of God talk from them, so I think the bases are covered.

  • walkamungus

    I second Rieux’s question that this kid, smart though he may be, does not have the cognitive machinery at this point to make any sort of decision that qualifies as a free and informed choice. He likes his friends; he likes doing something with Grandma; he likes the cookies.

    On the other hand, if he’s only getting religious woo pitched at him a couple of hours (at most) a week, he probably doesn’t retain it long enough to integrate it into everything else he’s learning.

  • This reminds me of a previous Ask Richard column: Atheist Parent Sends Children to Religious Preschool. As I mentioned in the comment section on that thread, I can’t imagine sending an innocent four-year-old into the lion’s den. It’s her child and ultimately her choice, but in my opinion, the child is simply too young to make an informed decision. No doubt he is being familiarized with a wide variety of religious rituals, which may stick in his mind and continue to seem normal and natural as he grows to adulthood. Why an atheist parent would put their child in an environment where he or she is taught how to pray and taught to believe in the major god of our culture is beyond me. I know it’s possible to defuse the situation at home, but I don’t understand why any atheist would willingly expose their child to indoctrination. I do believe there’s a time and a place for children to learn about religion, but a four-year-old attending church isn’t it.

  • Kristi,

    By the way, I should have added that along with allowing him to go to a Christian church, you also need to expose him to the other places of worship. He needs to be exposed to Hindu’s, Muslims, Buddhists, Jews etc. This too is an important part of his decision making. Do not limit his education to just you and Gramma. Let him see ALL sides of it if you are going to continue to allow him to be present for religious sermons.

    I totally agree. Even though I don’t think sending a four-year-old to worship services is a good idea, if the parent is choosing to do that, it seems rather fundamental that the child is exposed to as many different religions as possible. Otherwise, the little boy could easily come away with the belief that Christianity is the only important religion in the world and that it’s more likely to be true than any of the others. I don’t know where Charlotte lives, but I do hope that there are synagogues, mosques, temples, and gurdwaras for the child to visit. In addition, I hope she considers getting a wide variety of books about different religions and reading them with her son, so he knows that his grandmother’s god isn’t the only god out there. Some Listmania lists that may be helpful: Comparative Religion for Young Readers and Gods and Goddesses: Picture Books for Young Readers.

  • Anonymous

    Kids gather assumptions about the world by the bucket, taking tiny samples, believing most of what they hear or see, spinning huge generalizations, and moving on.

  • I very rarely disagree with Richard, but this time, I do so strongly enough to forego my usual lurker status and actually comment.

    First, being an atheist does not — and I cannot say this strongly enough — does not mean that you should just let your children believe what they want to believe. We know that religion and gods are myths, i.e. they are not true. You have an obligation to ensure that your children learn things that are true and dismiss notions that are false.

    The idea of letting them make up their own mind just smacks of the same “teach the controversy” nonsense that we hear in relation to evolution. Why are atheists against letting children make up their own mind in that scenario? Why do we insist that such falsehoods as intelligent design should not even be presented to our children? Because we don’t want myths with no basis in fact being presented as truth. The indoctrination at church is no different.

    I think the general acceptance of the practice, as expressed in comments here, is a product of the long standing deference and special treatment accorded to religion. Would people here be so willing to allow their children to spend time in any other environment where they knew that absolute falsehoods were being presented as truth? I’m quite certain the answer is no.

    Also, to one of Richard’s specific comments: comparing this to a choice not to allow socialization with those of different skin color. This is very wrong, and I am surprised you said this. Skin color is an innate trait over which the individual has no control and which cannot be transmitted from one person to another. Religious belief, on the other hand, is held by choice and is definitely communicable. I would not allow my children to socialize with others who do not regularly bathe, and that is not impermissible bias.

    Finally, there are other ways to expose your children to religion. It should be done so academically, an explanation of what others believe. Having someone else present religion to children as something that should be believed is unacceptable.

  • Taryn

    This article hit me very close to home. I’m 16 and am being raised in an agnostic household. As a child, what I knew about christianity came from Christmas specials. I did go to pre-school at a Methodist church, but the only religious activities I remember is not paying attention to the prayer before snack time, I remember the animal crackers more than the words.
    As time went on, I learned very little about christianity or my mother’s religious views. I would pray before bedtime on and off, and my mother told me that she just believed that good things happened to good people, not reliant on a god. In fifth grade, I went to a baptist church camp with my friend. It terrified me.
    I was in fear for my parents souls, but I just KNEW that no god could EVER condemn people as faultless as my parents. This led to a questioning of my new found “faith”, and was the best thing that happened to me. I got into an argument with a know-it-all boy (that I was smarter than) that obviously God would be above such a stupid human thing like gender. Later I just plain stopped believing, and in 6th grade I even cried because the history book was written as if there was absolutely no question that a Jesus of Nazareth lived in the Middle East in the first century and founded christianity.
    I’ve taught my parents more about atheism than they ever talked to me about, and they were the reason that I left a religion based on fear.

  • Secular Stu

    A lot of the statements in support of Charlotte sound familiar. The idea that a young child will be presented with nonsense but will be allowed to make up his own mind. The kid’s smart and skeptical enough to see through BS. Teach them both sides and let them decide for themselves, you know…

    …”teach the controversy”?

    Because really kids should be exposed to all sides, all voices, right? Let’s concentrate on how, after you deliberately place him in a creationist training course, you’ll love your kid even if he becomes a creationist.

  • JustAGuy

    Have to admit that many of the comments have made me think past my first instinct. Honestly, it didn’t seem like a big deal to me. Why? I was raised in a Christian household, went to church every Sunday, and was confirmed. The minister even came over for dinner at our house from time to time. And yet, my brother and I both emerged as Atheists.

    I know this is a stupid thing to think/say. I know it is. But it just seems like evolution in action. Kid can’t figure out that religion is bunk? “Meh. We lost one.”

    Of course, maybe I’m just defensive because my 6 year old is in a religious kindergarten.

    And, I’m a hypocrite, because I’m also fighting with my theist wife to move him to a secular school next year. No one wants to see an innocent devoured by religion. 🙂

  • Laurance

    Hypocrite? No. I think not. But the idea of allowing a child to go to church gives me the heebie-jeebies! My atheist mother allowed me to go to Presbyterian Sunday School at age 7 with my little friend. I wish, oh how I wish she had said NO!

    This wasn’t some crazy fringe cult, it was the nice mainstream Presbyterian church on the corner. Somehow I never came to believe in God or Jesus, but the FEAR that lies under god-belief went in like a hot knife through butter. I don’t know quite how it happened. This was a nice Sunday School, not some screaming hellfire and damnation fanatical bunch. But I was terrified. The kindly Sunday School teacher with her pretty Bible stories and songs somehow managed to leave me feeling frightened to death. There was a terrible threat behind all the pretty assertions about God’s love. Something was happening to me, and I didn’t know what, nor could I evaluate what was going on and resist the feeling of fear.

    One day the Sunday School teacher said, “Soon you will be confirmed. The minister will ask you if you believe Jesus is the son of God, and you will say ‘Yes.'”

    I felt queasy and sick. I knew I couldn’t do it. By now I was nine.

    I said to my Dad, “I don’t want to go to Sunday School any more.” He said, “You don’t have to go.” And that was the end of going to Sunday School.

    But then the terrors began. I had nightmares. I was afraid to walk down the street, believing that a car would pull up alongside me, and the Sunday School teacher would reach out and grab me and drag me back to Sunday School. I had sick anxiety that somehow by not going back to Sunday School I was doing something outrageously wrong. I was confused and didn’t know what was right.

    I’ve since come to realize that I was having the same reactions that people have upon leaving a cult. Jeepers criminy! At age nine!

    I was determined that when I had a child, I would not allow that child to go to church or Sunday School until she was into her late teens and old enough to know what she was hearing. I did not want my daughter traumatized like I was.

    I had all the terrors of hell without really believing in hell – but I was terrified nevertheless. OTOH, there was no Jesus to save me, no God. That sickening fear poisoned me, I never quite got rid of it. I’m 69 now, and finally beginning to get rid of it, to clean my head out.

    I wish my mother had said No, no church, no Sunday School! Letting me go was, I think, the worst mistake she made with me, as it has had lasting repercussions and has done lasting damage. I feel very strongly about this.

    I hope Charlotte’s 4-year-old will not absorb the underlying fear while resisting the God and Jesus indoctrination.

    I understand how people want to be tolerant and want their children to be tolerant. We don’t want to be bigots.

    But IMHO religion is NOT for children, and they should NOT be exposed to it. They should not be exposed till their late teens, till they have reached an age where they can make informed decisions. I don’t think it’s bigotry and intolerance to keep a child out of a dangerous place till s/he is old enough to think and evaluate.

  • martha

    I agree with those who say this is a bad idea. I would not let a young child of mine go to church because church teaches things that contradict with my values and teaches things that are not true. I did not want my children to make the kinds of choices that would lead them to Christianity. Choice in the abstract isn’t something I value. I value informed and reasoned choices and you do not get informed by going to church as a four year old. Maybe you might as a teenager with good critical thinking skills. But not a young child. The issue isn’t whether the letter writer is a hypocrite, but whether she is careless about her child’s education.

  • Richard Wade

    Thomas Paine,

    The ongoing dispute about how deeply early exposure to religious materials and activities affects small children will continue to rage, because it is fueled by pure speculation on one hand and anecdotal evidence on the other, just as we see here in the comments. So far, all the people here who say that it will hurt the boy are speculating without citing any experiences or data, and with only one exception so far, all those offering their personal anecdotal evidence are saying that the boy will probably be fine. None of that is reliable evidence, so we just don’t really know either way.

    That whole thing is an issue separate from the one I wish to address with you. You say:

    First, being an atheist does not — and I cannot say this strongly enough — does not mean that you should just let your children believe what they want to believe. We know that religion and gods are myths, i.e. they are not true. You have an obligation to ensure that your children learn things that are true and dismiss notions that are false.

    If you mean nothing more than being an atheist does not require Charlotte to be neutral and hands-off about her children’s beliefs, then I agree with you. If that’s what you meant, I’m simply adding, because I think it needs to be said, that being an atheist ALSO does not require her to protect her kids from exposure to religious ideas according to some kind of formula that spells out the type of material, or the appropriate age, or the duration, or what she must do to counteract its effects, if any.

    She seems to be focusing on a principle she has adopted, promoting freethinking in her children. She could apply that regardless of her belief or lack of belief in deities. From her letter, it is clear that she’s expressing her opinions to him about what she thinks is true, but with a delicate touch that allows him the experience of thinking it out rather than just complying with Mommy’s implied wishes.

    Is he too young for that? For some four-year-olds definitely. For a few, maybe not. I’ve met a couple of amazing four-year-olds, but that’s just another anecdote. The fact remains that no one here knows Charlotte’s kid as well as she does. She owes her best judgment to her children, and on that you and I agree, but the details are not up to either of us. The wisdom of her judgment is always disputable, because it hinges on what, if any, effect the “god stuff” will have on her kid. But we don’t actually know, and we shouldn’t pretend that we do.

    Charlotte describes the flak she gets from the atheists she knows as calling her a “hypocrite or worse.” That does not sound like “Gee, maybe you should consider that the boy might be absorbing more negative stuff than you think.” That has been the respectful tone of many, (but not all) of the commenters here who disagree with her decision. By contrast, what she has faced from her atheist associates sounds more like blanket denunciation for associating with the “enemy.”

    That is why I used the analogy of parents condemning other parents for letting their kids play with kids of a different color. The issue is not about the trait being chosen or natural, nor is it about being “contagious.” By using that analogy I’m objecting to what sounds like their summary condemnation for her not living up to someone else’s ideology without any regard to the effect, good, bad or neutral, on the child in question.

  • Richard Wade

    The following is addressed to no one in particular and is about no one in particular. (Stands up on soap box)

    Once in a while I hear an undertone in some comments in discussions like this that sounds to me as if people are drawing upon the authority some kind of set of doctrines that are officially declared under some kind of cohesive collection of thoughts called “atheism.” If atheism is an ideology for some atheists, that’s fine for them, but not necessarily for others.

    Calling oneself an atheist does not bring with it any obligation to follow some kind of atheist creed, dogma or precepts written by… who? No one owes any allegiance to such a creed, or ideology, or to any “cause,” just because they don’t believe in spooks in the sky.

    There are plenty of atheists who might not let their kids do what Charlotte is doing, and they’ll have their own personal reasons. I’m sure that many of them would also strongly object to any other atheist telling them with a tone of authority what they should or should not do “as an atheist.”

    In my opinion (said without any authority at all), the worst thing we could do is to struggle so hard to be free of dogma only to imprison ourselves again by building an atheist dogma around ourselves, and then expecting each other to live up to it.

  • Rieux


    Calling oneself an atheist does not bring with it any obligation to follow some kind of atheist creed, dogma or precepts written by… who? No one owes any allegiance to such a creed, or ideology, or to any “cause,” just because they don’t believe in spooks in the sky.

    No, but plenty of us believe—whether “as an atheist” or otherwise—that religious indoctrination of children is a serious ethical wrong, and handing an innocent kid over for such indoctrination is a violation of one’s ethical duty to one’s children.

    That idea is based on the human right of freedom of conscience; it certainly does not require or presuppose atheism. As a result, there’s no “as an atheist” dogma required.

  • Phil Moon

    Having raised a daughter in an atheist household I’ll voice my opinion on this one.

    My parents and sister would on occasion take her to church. Often they would talk about religion. My father never hesitated to bring up the subject. This from the time she was born.

    Her friends were often (mostly) religious. She would go to church with them when invited.

    When she got home, she would usually ask questions about what she heard. I remember more that one occasion when we would be shopping and she would ask questions about what other family believed. Her mother and I would answer the questions as best as we could.

    She is now in her thirties, and is a mother of a nearly four year old. She is an atheist. We never told her what she had to believe. Just answered all questions with honesty.

  • All three of my children attended church. The Sunday school was so pathetic that I even asked the minister if I could lead singing once a month, in hopes of inspiring others to do better (I told him I was an atheist). All three of my children became atheists. Without some exposure, I figure they become atheists in a vacuum; it’s better, in my opinion, to become atheists for a reason.

  • @Ricahrd,

    First, when you say:

    If you mean nothing more than being an atheist does not require Charlotte to be neutral and hands-off about her children’s beliefs, then I agree with you.

    Yes, that is exactly what I meant. Many of the comments here appeared to convey the opinion that being freethinkers requires us to let our children decide their beliefs without any influence from us. That is an abrogation of parental responsibility.

    But you also said that:

    being an atheist ALSO does not require her to protect her kids from exposure to religious ideas according to some kind of formula that spells out the type of material, or the appropriate age, or the duration, or what she must do to counteract its effects, if any.

    I did not suggest there was a single, specific formula. Rather, I insisted that exposure to religion — which is a good thing — should be from an academic and objective perspective. That does not imply a single method, but rather proscribes allowing anyone to present known falsehoods to my child as if they were truths.

    And thus we return the the false equivalency and special privilege for religion that I believe are undergirding your (albeit lukewarm) approval. I ask you directly: would you allow a teacher to present Intelligent Design as truth to your child? I am going to assume (and correct me if I am wrong) that the answer is no. So why would you allow a pastor to present religious belief as truth to your child?

    The only possible reason is that somehow churches are still accorded special privilege; their version of spreading lies is still acceptable.

    And that’s what it is: lies. Belief in gods and non-belief in gods are not equivalent positions, and we should not present them as such to our children. It’s like saying belief in 2 plus 2 equaling 4 is equivalent to belief that it equals 5. I cannot understand why anyone would want their child being told that 5 is the true and correct answer, trusting that the child will someday figure out that is wrong.

  • Joe Bigliogo

    Imposing ones belief on others by an measure of compulsion is the very thing I detest most about religion. To see this behavior demonstrated by individuals claiming to advocates of free thinking is saddening. Let’s not forget the very basis the right to an atheist position depends on.

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