Sunday, December 30, 2007

Raising a free-thinker in a Christian environment

Because my son is only six months old, I didn't think I would have to confront this issue for at least a few years. But a couple weeks with my immediate and extended family has made me realize that I need to figure out my game plan quickly. I'll explain the urgency a bit later, but first let me set up the dilemma.

The issue I speak of is how to raise a child to be a free-thinker. And by that, I mean equip him to make his own decisions about religion (and everything else). This was brought to the front of my mind by Greta Christina, one of my favorite bloggers.

The first question raised is how to teach a child critical thinking--assuming that you view this as a necessary tool, which I do--without teaching them to be non-religious. To an atheist like myself this seems impossible, because I see critical thinking as necessarily leading to atheism. In fact, if your decision-making process is purely rational, you cannot come to the conclusion that god exists. Belief in any god requires a leap of faith, something I absolutely do not understand, but understand that it exists for other people.

So then I have to ask myself whether I should provide faith as a legitimate alternative to rational thinking. My basic instinct screams no, and I don't really see a reason to ignore that instinct. If I teach my son to think critically and he chooses blind faith instead, I can live with that. But I cannot bring myself to teach him that faith is a legitimate way of forming beliefs. For one, I wouldn't know how to teach faith. I plan on writing a more detailed post about this, but basically, I have never had faith and cannot even conceive it.

Even if I did, how do you teach faith? Even religious parents don't teach faith, they teach that God created the universe, Jesus died for our sins, etc. They teach these things as fact. It is only after children have learned these things as fact that they are asked to "believe" that they are true.

And herein lies the twist of my personal situation. In an ideal world, I would teach my son to think critically with no reference to religion at all. Once he possessed the ability to think critically and make at least semi-independant decisions, I would introduce him to all the religions of the world, explain why people believe in them, and explain why I do not believe in any of them. I would not "preach" atheism, but I sure wouldn't hide my beliefs.

The problem is that my world is anything but ideal. I realized this when I went home for the holidays. The children in my family are indoctrinated with Christian teachings early and frequently. It disturbs me and kind of sickens me, to be honest. But I'm not the type to interfere with how my aunts, uncles and cousins raise their children except when a relative makes a blatant anti-gay or homophobic remark, which I cannot sit by quietly and ignore. For the most part though, I just stay out of it.

What really troubles me is that they don't keep these teachings within their own family. They pray aloud for my son to "develop a personal relationship with Jesus Christ," give him Christian-themed toys, and preach Christianity to all the children in the family as soon as they understand language (even before they understand language in a lot of cases). This is highly disturbing to me, but it does not anger me because I understand where they're coming from. They sincerely believe that all non-Christians will burn in Hell for eternity. In fact, I'm pretty sure that most of them are completely unaware that I am an atheist, since they don't talk to me about religion at all. My parents hide that fact, and I don't flaunt it, mostly because I don't want them trying to convert me. I know they do it out of love, but that doesn't make it any less troublesome.

So while I would like to completely shelter my son from religion until he is old enough to make his own decisions and think critically, this will most likely be impossible. My family is very important to me, so I'm not going to run away from them. I will ask family members to refrain from teaching my son religion (at the risk of being alienated by some of them) but I don't know if even that will keep them away. Remember, in their eyes, eternal torture in Hell is at stake.

Thus I will inevitabely face a two-year-old asking me something along the lines of "Daddy, why don't we go to church?" or even scarier, "Daddy, did Jesus die on the cross because I'm bad?"

How do I respond to these questions without attacking Christianity? Especially if my family continues to pound doctrine into his mind any time I turn my head. Of course, he will take his father's word over his aunt's, or grandma's, or anyone else's. But one of my biggest problems with religion is that it takes advantage of childrens' tendency to take adults' word as unquestionable fact. I do not want to do the same thing with the opposite message. That said, I have a responsibility to protect my son from other peoples' doctrine. So the more my family teaches him Christianity, the more I am really forced to counter it, and the more my son will become ingrained with godlessness.

Of course, I will not flatly say "Sorry, God doesn't exist. Grandma's wrong." I will try my best to explain the reasoning behind my answer, but children that young don't understand reason. To protect my son from being indoctrinated while he is too young to know any better, I will be forced to tell him the truth, rather than let him discover it on his own. As a result, I will be indoctrinating him when he is too young to know any better. This makes me uneasy, but I feel like I am left with no other option.

This is my dilemma.


mobessers said...

while researching for an essay I need to write, i came across this entry and found it to relate extremely close to my personal situation with myself and my son, and i just wanted to thank you. i don't feel so alone.

Anonymous said...

Your child will still have contact with people who have differing views to you. You aren't endoctrinating anyone.

Songs Of Worship, Joy & Praise said...

I think you worry too much...put your child in Gods hands....and enjoy life the best you can.
Life is full of twists and turns...there's no road in life without a few bumps.
But Jesus can carry you and your child past those bumps !!

Thanks GW Williams

Hey if you get time..drop by and say hello at my new blog site....C ya Songs Of Worship,Joy and Praise

Anonymous said...

I am pregnant. I am an athiest. My partner is not an athiest or a passionate christian... But as for everyone else in our families and small southern town, they are devout Christians. I already lose sleep over this dilemma, The desire to shield my child from endoctrination. Not sure what to do, but I am glad I am not alone.

Anonymous said...

I have the same dilemma! I have considered cutting off my relatives until such a time that my kids can respond and ask questions instead of just accept everything they hear. I am now considering writing a letter to our relatives and your letter has truly helped me in formulating mine, you do recognize that Christians do this out of love and fear! I often forget that and just get angry. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Wow, and I thought I was alone in all this. I don't even have kids yet, both my husband and I are agnostics (although he's got a Muslim background) living in a Muslim-majority country (so we can't be too open about our lack of beliefs).

I lose sleep over it all the time, but he doesn't seem too concerned and says everything's going to be fine. I'd like to read more experiences.

Anonymous said...

My wife has alway been a beliver and now has turned into a "new born christian", I have a daughter, she's 9 now, It really distrurbes me that my wife gives a strong indoctrination to my child, and that indirectly paint me as a bad person that will go to hell. I would say that what conforts me more is that in our family my wife is "the bad" while I'm "the good", my daughter loves me more and she sees that my acts correspond to my toughts, and that is not the case in mi wife.