In October I attended the Texas Freethought Convention in Houston, featuring luminaries like Richard Dawkins, the now late Christopher Hitchens, and Michael Shermer, among many others. The session I enjoyed the most was a panel on parenting, hosted by the somewhat lesser-known Dale McGowan, author of Parenting Beyond Belief and founder of the charity clearinghouse Foundation Beyond Belief. Several of the parents, when given the opportunity to ask questions of the panel, expressed concern about the possibility that their children might be exposed to harmful religious teachings like hell by well-meaning visiting relatives and other acquaintances. It was surreal to be in a room full of parents whose fear of contamination by religion was the mirror opposite of the fears I’ve heard expressed by evangelical Christian parents all my life--parents who wish to shield their children from evolution, humanism, and moral relativism. One freethinking couple asked whether and to what extent they should allow their children to be left in the care of their Christian relatives. I was left with the impression they feared even one unguarded moment with the “other side,” since it could lead to traumatic indoctrination into hurtful, guilt-inducing nightmares.
Perhaps these fears are not entirely unfounded. I have a freethinking friend whose father grew up in a strong evangelical family and was a fervent believer in his youth but later left the faith, bringing up his family without religion. My friend looks back at a visit by his believing grandparents when he was about ten years old. They took him to the side and shared the gospel with him, cajoling him to accept Jesus as his savior and detailing the eternal consequences if he refused to do so. The memory of that day still brings him great pain.
And yet there are a great many children who grew up in exclusively Christian families, having learned the Bible inside and out, having attended daily devotions and several-times-a-week church meetings, having listened faithfully to Christian radio, and having attended Christian colleges and Bible schools, who nonetheless arrive at the conclusion that what they were taught and what they embraced all their lives has no grounding in reality, and they managed to pull away from it all. They were exposed to perhaps a thousand times the amount of Christian teaching than that to which the children of freethinking parents are typically exposed through occasional encounters by Christian relatives, and yet they found their way out.
This is not to suggest that secular parents should take a laissez-faire approach to parenting, refraining from offering any opinions on religion and letting religion have its way on the impressionable minds of their children, then hoping they’ll grow up to discover on their own that it’s no more real than Santa Clause or the Easter Bunny. The social and existential draw of religion--what humanist Paul Kurtz calls “the transcendental temptation”--is ever present in society, even if its power is waning to a certain extent in the West. Some children may indeed grow up and realize religion is untrue all on their own, but it’s simply misguided for a freethinking parent to withhold from presenting various perspectives, both religious and nonreligious, to her children, merely in the name of letting the children make up their own minds or out of a timid deference to the prevailing religion of the family or culture. It would be ideal to let children make up their own minds as adults, not having been previously swayed in any direction by partisan adult authority figures. But alas, a parent who says nothing almost certainly guarantees that the only perspective her children will hear will be that of the other side.
For those voluntarily living in happy mixed marriages--especially for those of us who left the faith after marriage and children--deciding how much of our own perspective to impart to a children is tricky business. In a sense, I’m the one who left the status quo, so on the one hand I feel as though I need to tread lightly because I’m the betrayer and don’t wish to upset the applecart any further than I’ve already done, but on the other hand, I can’t bear the thought that my children--my own flesh and blood--could imagine I’m hellbound. So I’ve ended up groping my way through this experience. I certainly haven’t exposed our children to my views to the extent to which they’ve been exposed to Christian teachings (they attend church twice a week), but every now and then I’ve read them some troubling passages from the Bible--to which their response has been, “That’s in the Bible?!” And I’ve encouraged them to watch science programs on public television, including those that offer evidence for evolution, and on occasion I’ve let them know frankly why I believe what I do. Finally, I’ve taken a hard line on one Christian doctrine, the doctrine of hell. I’ve told them in no uncertain terms that hell does not exist and that they have no need to worry about my ever ending up in such a place. I’ve been fortunate that my wife has not stood in the way of the occasional discussions I’ve had with our children about these matters; I can imagine some believers would not tolerate it in the least. This is not the place to detail where each of our children currently falls on the spectrum between faith and unbelief. Yet no matter where they end up, my love for them will remain unconditional and unchanged.
Each mixed marriage is made up of different personalities and backgrounds, so there’s no cookie-cutter approach to working through these issues, but it requires respect, not a steamroller approach. Teach them about various religions and their tenets and practices. Encourage them to do their own investigation and to come to their own conclusions when they reach adulthood, not accepting Mom or Dad’s perspective simply because they happen to be Mom or Dad. And above all else, love them regardless of what they believe.