Ask Richard: Should I Help My Parents with the Church Christmas Pageant? December 19, 2011

Ask Richard: Should I Help My Parents with the Church Christmas Pageant?

Dear Richard,

I was raised Catholic, wandered away in my mid-teens, became emphatically atheist toward the end of college. To do my parents justice, they’ve never tried to make me feel bad about it, though Mom does turn on the guilt a bit once in a while. Dad’s usually even interested in honest debate! So I’m a lucky one. We’re a very Christmas-centered family, and I never have any compunctions about enjoying the holiday. I don’t really care what I call my midwinter festivities, and the cheerful gutted paganism of lights and trees and an old bearded man who comes out of the snow to pass judgment has all the fun of Dr. Who enthusiasm or a Renfaire, only everyone else is excited too. I have no issues enjoying the old Christmas carols for the pretty music and archaic language. I lack the confidence in sympathetic magic that’d make me afraid to invoke imaginary beings. And I’ll set up the Christmas decorations for my dad, whose heart problems make it hard on him, including all his nativities. He collects them. Whatever, they’re little statues.

So all in all, I’m happily reconciled to Christmas and have no objection to doing my part when it comes to the mish-mashed cultural trappings, whether it’s a six-month-old baby in a plastic manger or bedecking an evergreen with lights to coax the sun back again. However, my parents have traditionally been in charge of the Christmas pageant at a church kid’s event, and they want me to help. I don’t want any part of proselytizing to children as a matter of course. However, my parents enjoy their tradition and the social clout it gives them, no kid who’s been brought to the event won’t already be steeped in the Catholic thing, and they’ll do it anyway. If I help they’ll just have a less stressful time of it. I’ve always found the Christmas narrative the least intrinsically yucky part of the Jesus story. When I was in high school I wrote skits and took parts for this performance, so I even have a personal history with it.

Do I concede that the whole thing is mostly harmless and give my folks a hand? Or does the simple fact that I’d be taking part in indoctrinating kids, whatever else the circumstances, render this a concession I can’t make?

Christmas Elf, Not Nativity Shepherd

Dear Elf,

The principle you’re trying to follow is to avoid causing harm or hurt, and you’re trying to assess which path is the least likely to do harm or hurt, and if there must be some, which path will do the least harm or hurt.

Life constantly puts us in situations where we have to balance our principles with pragmatics, and there is no set place where they always balance. We cannot rely upon a prescribed answer. We must use our judgment case by case by case. There is never any perfect solution; we make our best guess, and take our chances. Even with our good intentions, we must accept responsibility for the outcome.

I think you have presented a strong case for helping your parents, because they enjoy running the pageant, but it’s a stress on them, and you can reduce their stress and possible risk to their health. You will also be showing them a similar acceptance and respect that they have shown you in your disbelief.

You are being very conscientious to consider the principle side of the question by wanting to avoid indirectly contributing to the indoctrination of young people by helping with the pageant. However, it sounds like the actual effect that you would have on them would be extremely minimal if any at all, and as you point out, they have already been repeatedly exposed to it.

So I suggest that in this case helping your parents is the option that is least likely to cause harm and hurt, and the most likely to help two specific people. It also has a very small likelihood of indirectly and tangentially causing an arguably negligible amount of harm to unspecified people.

You have a limited number of Christmases to spend with your parents. You’ll have the rest of each year and the rest of your life to follow your own convictions more meticulously. You’ll also have opportunities to help young people who are beginning to question the indoctrination that you mentioned. There are more and more of them each year. Having mindfully dealt with several dilemmas like this one will give you compassion and patience for them. When they’re in that very uncomfortable place of doubt, someone showing them compassion and patience is what they will need the most.

Enjoy the time you have with your mom and dad, and fill it with as much love as you can. I agree that you are a lucky one to have parents who have responded to your atheism with such equanimity. They also are lucky to have you, with both a mind that wants to be precise in principles, and a heart that wants to be generous in love.

I hope that you and your parents enjoy a very happy time together in this season of natural cold and dark, and human warmth and light.


You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. There is a very large number of letters. I am sorry if I am unable to respond in a timely manner.

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  • Anonymous

    “You have a limited number of Christmases to spend with your parents.”

    Such truth!  I used to get cranky with my mother on Christmas, because she’d get maudlin, remembering the death of her own father many years before.  Christmas was supposed to be a happy time!  For awhile, it got to where I didn’t want to spend Christmas with my parents… but I did anyway.

    After awhile I grew up,  mellowed out, and asked for stories about this grandfather I’d never met.  That brightened the holiday up considerably.

    As Mama got older, I took her to church, stood in line for her at the confessional (she was Catholic; she had trouble standing for more than a few minutes at a time, but refused to ask a priest for an appointment to hear her confession — that was a Special Privilege!) and even occasionally attended services with her.  It troubled her that I no longer would partake of the sacraments, but I just shrugged and said I didn’t really consider myself Catholic anymore.  I never told her I was an atheist; it would have eaten away at her like a cancer of the mind.

    Mama died in ’03 and Daddy died in ’06.  What I wouldn’t give to spend another Christmas with them…

  • nice answer, I like that. Do the least harm.

  • Matto the Hun

    But you could take the opportunity to swap out baby Jesus with Baby FSM… put some thoughts behind it! 😉

  • Anonymous

    This is the part of Richard’s answer that I fall back on with my own mother:  “You have a limited number of Christmases to spend with your parents. You’ll have the rest of each year and the rest of your life to follow your own convictions more meticulously.” 

    The pageant will most likely go on without you in which case the kids will be exposed to it either way.  Helping your parents is important, especially if they are up in years.  You’re quite fortunate to have parents who accept you regardless of your beliefs but either way, helping them is the right thing to do.

    When my father died in 2005, I sat with my mother at the diningroom table while her priest blessed it (making it into a pseudo “altar”) and even read a verse from the bible as a family member of the deceased.  What purpose would abstaining from these activities have achieved?  Sure, I would have stood by my principles but I also would have seriously hurt my only remaining and loving parent.  (At the time, I had told her once that I was an atheist, but she conveniently blocked it out, so it would have caused further issue to come out, once again, as atheist AND deny her a participant in the grieving process… and I’m an only child as well, so the full burden of participation falls solely to me.)

  • Bronwynm23

    The suspicious part of me wonders if this isn’t a ploy by one parent or both to get Elf back into church and proselytize to him.  I would add a caveat that if this becomes the case, he should feel free to tell his parents “No” the next time they ask him to help with their church commitments. 

  • Erik Cameron

    You’re more likely to harm a child by driving to this pageant than by participating in it.

  • Perhaps help your parents with the pageant but as a friendly but unapologetic atheist. Treat it like you are helping put on a Harry Potter play. If people ask, just tell them that you view the characters in the bible as fictional characters just like the characters in the Harry Potter novels but you can still do a good job of keeping to the script and put on the play. Your comments to other adults may make some of them think a bit about things.

    As others have said, enjoy the time with your parents.

  • Trace

    What are you waiting for? Go help them and enjoy your time together! 🙂

  • Anonymous

    i’d take it as an opportunity to work with kids and get them to think about what they’re doing. not in a rude way, but you know, explaining the pagan roots of many xmas traditions. kids love stories. and the parents can’t really complain about you talking about that, as it’s just fact. 

  • Anonymous

    I wouldn’t make anything but friendly conversation… no comments on believing or not believing.  That would hurt the parents as well and there’s no point in that.  Just forget about belief and treat it like helping them with any civic event they’d ask you to help with.

  • Sven

    I’m non-religious (my parents and the church pastor know), and I have accepted several requests by the church to help set-up and run the sound equipment for various functions of theirs.  It’s a tiny church attended by good people, and I personally see nothing hypocritical about helping folks I care about.

  • Anonymous

    Agreed. You don’t have to come out yelling, “I’m an atheist!!” while you drop kick the baby Jesus doll…..but if someone asks, I see nothing wrong with being honest. If one of the kids ask something like, “Is Jesus real?” you can give an open ended answer like, “Some people think that he was a real person a long time ago. Some other people think it’s just a story. What do you think?” Asking children what THEY think is the best way to get them to be skeptics, rather than giving them a dogmatic answer one way or the other. You’re less likely to piss off parents (in a way, you’re a guest at the church so I think you ought to avoid fist fights) while still getting kids to think. “What do you think?” is probably one of the best gifts you can give a child.

  • Come out yelling, “I’m an atheist!!” while you drop kick the baby Jesus doll.

  • T-Rex

    Just wear a Darwin or evolution t-shirt while you’re setting up. That’ll start some conversations. If they get rude, pis in the punch bowl. No, I kid. I kid. Enjoy the time withyour parents and make the whole experience as pagan/secular as you can in your mind, as tough as that may be to do in house of superstition. Maybe put a little barbecue sauce on the baby Jesus doll and make “nom nom” sounds when you’re around it. I kid! It’s just too easy to make fun this time of year.   

  • Jon

    “no kid who’s been brought to the event won’t already be steeped in the Catholic thing, and they’ll do it anyway.”Although overall I agree with the do-the-least-harm-and-participate course of action the attitude espoused by this line makes me think that perhaps that Elf doesn’t take his atheism as seriously as he should. Atheism and Christianity are far more incompatible than say, Christianity and Islam and I really don’t think you would find Christians and Muslims actively participating in each others traditions especially to the level of celebrating the birth of the central figure of either religion. So for Elf to even participate in a religious activity in which he has no foundation of belief at all would be completely disingenuous. Even the Muslims acknowledge Jesus as a prophet but I can guarantee you, you won’t find them helping at all in setting up a nativity scene. Just a few posts up, there is an entry about Jessica Ahlquist, a  young teenager fighting to banish the school prayer banner from her school. She has endured taunts, threats, and has become a pariah for standing up for what she believed in. There was no question in Mrs. Ahlquist’s mind as to what she should do, and she did it. Unfortunately, she’s had to suffer for her beliefs.This guy, Elf, a poor excuse for an atheist, has to ask if it’s alright to NOT participate in helping in a Christmas celebration. Because well, “they’ll do it anyway”. Do you get this? It’s almost like he’s asking for permission not to do something.And listen, I understand the whole not wanting to break up your family or cause grief because of your beliefs. But if you live the truth, or what you believe to be the truth, you have to live it out to the fullest extent, and sometimes that means division. Even Jesus said that because of him, families would be divided and turn against each other and there would be NOT peace but division because of him.

  • Siobhan Duffey

    Ahem. Female. (Well, gender-fluid, but comfortable with my biological assignment for everyday purposes and curvy enough that dressing to genderfuck requires a lot of tape.) I know English defaults to the masculine, but you’re a freethinker. Assumptions are to be avoided.

    And apparently my knowledge that the pageant will happen as it’s happened for fifteen years with or without me makes me a bad atheist? One year when I was twelve or thirteen I wrote the script. For the years surrounding college I wasn’t even in the same state. I’m not super relevant to its existence, just to giving my dad (a heart patient) a break.

  • Siobhan Duffey

    Thanks for the input, everyone. The exciting conclusion is that I was sick the day of the pageant (awfully anticlimactic), but I did help out with preparations beforehand and my equally unbelieving sister stood in for me. We just got the tree and assorted decorations up, and its shaping up to be an excellent Christmas in this pretty evenly split atheist/Christian household.

  • Jon

    I didn’t say your knowledge that it will happen makes you a bad atheist…the fact that you have to even question whether or not you have to participate makes you a bad atheist.

    You have no foundation for belief in Christianity, being an atheist, so participation would, like I said, be completely disingenuous. I’ll reiterate my points (and add some new ones) of saying that:

    1) Even Muslims have more beliefs in common with Christians than you  do (a common belief in a god and acknowledgement of Jesus, you don’t even have a belief in either). But you don’t really see cross-celebration or cross-participation with anything. This makes you participating in the pageant even more completely out of line with your beliefs than if a Muslim helped set up a Nativity scene or if a Christian served food to a Muslim after sunset during Ramadan.

    2) You writing the script is irrelevant at this point in time. You are no longer a believer, if you ever were one.

    3) You respond under the premise of wanting to give your dad (who is a heart patient) a break.  I’d say if you really, truly did not believe in a god, the very act of participating, even though it is out of compassion and love would STILL not be living the truth. Thus placing compassion and love above truth. Which is more important? This is probably the most important question.

     4) Whether you believe in a god or not, living the truth can be a saddening, disheartening, uncomfortable existence that can create division. Jessica Ahlquist, several posts above this one on the main page, experienced this first hand, being taunted and probably losing many friends and perhaps even some family. But as you can see, she is still living out what she believes to be the truth to the detriment of many of her relationships. Even Jesus, believing himself to be the truth said that he did not come to bring peace but a sword and that whole families would be divided against each other because of him. Living the truth is not always supposed to be pleasant. You might lose or negatively affect your relationship with your dad, but on both sides of the coin, Christian or atheist, the truth can result in such things.

    5) I assumed you were a male, you assumed I was a freethinker.

    I hope that you read my post and really contemplate your participation in the pageant.

  • Siobhan Duffey

    1. Yes, they do have more in common in terms of belief, and yes, you do see. Interfaith groups do all kinds of things together, and most moderate religious people make a point of understanding and visiting each other. My younger sister’s Catholic school just sent a group to visit a couple of different temples and a mosque, for example, and haven’t you ever been to a holiday party with a lot of groups represented? My gradeschool held a seder (for mainly educational purposes, I’m sure, but nonetheless).

    2. No, it’s not really relevant to the current situation. Which is the context in which I mentioned it. The amount of participation I put in has no effect on the end result was my point.

    3. There’s a lot of unpack here, but a.) There are times when compassion trumps truth, in my opinion, and those are the times when compassion has more to do with the situation. You don’t explain to a child who lost a grandparent how much pain their loved one was in before they died. You don’t show a class full of first graders a diagram of what a musket shell does to a human body the first time they study the American Revolution. Truth is valuable; brutality has its place. b.) Are you accusing me of being a secret Christian? Who are you, Bill Donahue? Is that a thing?

    4. Ahlquist campaigned against an egregious violation of the establishment clause and the ensuing bullying of a hegemony threatened. To my knowledge, she did not storm a church breakfast, rip the candy-cane reindeer from children’s hands, and declaim P.Z. Meyers posts to the rafters. I do see your point, but under the circumstances the comparison isn’t what I’d call apt. There’d be no revelation for anyone and no stand taken. My parents know I’m an atheist, I wouldn’t have claimed otherwise, and a couple dozen kids would have seen the same kind of skit they always have. When their parents sent them to an event called “Breakfast With Jesus,” I might add.

    5. You’re right. I did. My evidence was that you were upbraiding me for being an insufficiently hardline atheist while on an atheist site. What was your evidence? (I’m honestly curious.)

  • Jon

    1) The examples you give, and the context these cross participation activities have taken place are for educational purposes. I should have been more clear in stating that the context of your personal pageant participation would haven even further deepened the indoctrination of children, not simply for educational purposes but for the purpose or religion.

    2) Ok.

    3)  My point is still valid here. Even your parents know that you are an atheist, and if it so happened that you did participate (under the circumstances it seemed you couldn’t), perhaps the compassionate thing to do would be to not even have considered participation in the first place, saving your parents the displeasure of viewing you participating without putting your full heart into it.  You are also setting up a sort of weird strawman argument here. You don’t have to show a class of first graders what a musket shell does to the human body, that’s not truth, that’s fact. Fact of the matter is that your parents have no choice when it comes to actually seeing your participation or non-participation. It’s wide out in the open for everyone to see you participate in what you don’t believe in. So why not live out the truth openly? It can’t even be hidden in the first place because they know; unlike telling a child how much pain their grandparent was in when they died (and that’s assuming that they did not witness it firsthand); that can be hidden, your atheism cannot be hidden since you already told your parents. The situation and question remain the same since your parents have pre-knowledge of your atheism. Using the logic in your argument, you still have the open choice of living out the truth since the compassion and love you could have exhibited is no longer possible, and should have been exhibited in a situation if your parents had no knowledge of your atheism (akin to telling a child that their grandparents experienced no pain upon a painful death).

    4) Nothing more.

    5) My evidence is that you said that you were atheist (empathetically so). I’m not accusing you of being insufficiently hardline, I’m accusing you of being insufficiently atheist in the first place by virtue of participating in a religious event that is out of line with your non-belief. Even your parents know of your atheism and though disheartening for them to hear that, it is probably even more sad that they could have potentially had to witness you participating in an event that you can’t even put your heart and belief into. So why not just metaphorically rip the bandaid off, tell them no and leave it at that? Why put your father through the displeasure of having to witness a loved one go against their true self. That could have potentially caused more heartache for him to see that than for you not to participate at all. You even admit that participation is a concession, so it seems like you’re set in your beliefs and this was a non-question at all.


  • Jon

    I know this is a personal thing, but it seems you could have saved some time, some typing, and a bit of your parents heart by just saying flat out no. You know why they want you to participate, even I know. They want you to believe. It’s given away by the fact that your mom still gives you a guilt trip and you want to give your dad a break, especially since he’s a heart patient.

    I don’t want to go back and forth on this, but I think the best way to love your parents is to tell them you can’t participate in any of these events any more. A Christmas gathering? Sure, harmless, and a time for family; a pageant program for other peoples kids to participate in for religious and indoctrinational purposes that goes against your beliefs? No.

  • Sware

    I think this is a great example of the ultimate freedom of atheists.  You have a choice, plain and simple.   Religion typically has no room for such choices.  Personally, if I were in your shoes, I’d not have participated.  I get horribly uncomfortable when people pray around me so I cannot imagine enduring and helping to put on an entire pageant.  But that is me.  Atheist means only one thing, no belief in invisible supreme beings controlling everything.  That’s it.  Dogma free!  I embrace that each of us would likely have a differing or varied response to your situation because there is no end all be all inspired word of FSM telling us how to be atheists.  Embrace the one life you have the best way YOU know how.

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