I received a question from a reader recently. She asked,
I have a question for any and all atheist moms. I have two children one who is at the age of asking about jesus and what he is or about the bible. My parents brainwashed me as a child and they are doing it to my kids now. I would like to know what you mothers say to your children or if you just let them think what they want.
There were so many things this prompted me to want to say, so I thought I’d write it out here, for the benefit of you lovely, beautiful infidels.
I think the biggest concern I have in this situation is this part, “My parents brainwashed me as a child and they are doing it to my kids now." This should not be happening. As your children’s parents, it is your obligation to protect them from brainwashing of any kind. I get that you want to have a good relationship with your own parents, though, so we have to deal with this reasonably. That means you have to give them the opportunity to correct the behaviour that bothers you.
I’ve written about this very problem several times before but I’ll say it again: You have to communicate very clearly that you don’t want your parents to push their religion on your kids. You have to be so clear about it that a four-year-old would not misunderstand you. Then you wait. You wait to see if they respect your wishes as the parent. If they continue with their holy roller shenanigans, you give them an ultimatum. Tell them that if they don’t stop, they will not be allowed to see your children any longer (or see them unsupervised, or see them near as often). This is absolutely fair. They are your children. The dynamic has changed, and your parents are no longer the ones who know what’s best. You are. Have faith in yourself and your ability to know what is right for your children, and don’t let your parents bully you into parenting how they want you to. Lay the ultimatum out as clear as you possibly can. Make that uncrossable line as obvious as O.J.’s guilt. Then, if they cross it, follow through with the consequences you made absolutely clear would happen. Don’t look back. Just do it. Your parents had every opportunity to respect your wishes as the parent, and they defied you repeatedly anyway. It is all their choice. Not yours.
The bottom line here is: shut that shit down. Like, yesterday.
Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with your parents explaining what they believe to your children. There’s nothing wrong with Grams taking them to the odd church service or talking to your kids about what Jesus means to them. As long as it’s presented as subjective; this is their belief and no one else needs to share it. Further, expect from your parents to be told any time they talk to your kids about religion, and to be filled in fully on what was said. That way, you can follow up with your own conversation on the subject and pose questions that may expose the holes in the Jesus myth.
This brings us to how to do that. How do we pose questions to our children that will teach them how to have a healthy skepticism? How do we talk to our kids about Jesus? How do we explain what church is, or what God is or what the Bible is?
The way I approach it is by telling my kids the truth. I explain to them that there was a time, long before we embraced the scientific method and all the tech we have now, in which people didn’t really understand anything about our world, or us, or how we got here. I tell my kids about sun worshippers and how they, at one point, thought the sun was hauled across the sky by a giant. I tell them about how we used to believe the world was flat and that it was the center of the universe. I use these as examples of human ignorance and tell my kids that, despite being ignorant of the truth, humans have always had a need to explain things, so they make up stories about what they don’t understand. The Bible is a story, just like that, I elaborate. It’s a way to explain how we got here, what the world is, and so many more things we didn’t understand back then. Further, I say,
“Since the Bible has been written, we have come to understand more about the world and our part in it, and a lot of our new knowledge has disproven the stories in the Bible. That doesn’t stop lots of people from still believing it, though. The Bible says a magic man that we can’t see made us all, and made the earth, too. The Bible also says he sent his son to us, to die for us. That man and his son are God and Jesus. Many people still believe this to be true.”
And then I pose the question,
“But if we know now that many of the stories in the Bible are not true, should we believe anything written in it without further investigation?”
To which your brilliant kids will undoubtedly say, “no.”
To explain church, which is actually pretty difficult, I tell them that some people go to church to pay respects to the God and his son whom they cannot see. That these people think they are doing something very good and might become very hurt or very angry if you suggest none of it is true.
I’ve said to my son on many occasions when explaining these things to him that should he end up believing in this stuff, it is his choice and I will love him all the same. I have also told him that if he doesn’t believe it, best to keep it to himself unless the topic is being forced, to avoid the anger and hurt. At least until he’s older, anyway.
In short, I absolutely let my kids think what they want, but I do promote healthy skepticism in my house. It’s not just about being skeptical of religion. It’s also about protecting my kids from people who might want to harm them, or scam them or lure them into something bad. A skeptical kid is less likely to believe a man has a puppy in his van or that trying hard drugs just once can’t hurt. Skepticism reaches far beyond religion and protects your kids from predators.
I hope this answers your question, and I invite other atheist moms to leave their answers in the comments below!
If you want to send me a question, click here.