Thursday, June 14, 2012

Atheists Bringing Their Kids To Church

Atheists taking their kids to church.
 What's going on here?

I was looking through the list of blogs that I try to keep up with, and I saw this post Why my boys go to church on Mock Ramblings. And let me start off with saying that I have no doubt that the writer of the blog, Michael Mock, is probably smarter than I am as well as probably being a better father to his kids. He writes consistently and well (a difficult combination to have) about his adventures as a parent.

But he's dead wrong on this.

I take my boys down to my parents' church nearly every Sunday morning. The little one stays in the nursery, while the older one sits with his grandparents for part of the ceremony, and attends Sunday School for the other part of the ceremony. I park myself over in the other building - the one with the classrooms and the big meeting hall, and usually do a bit of writing on the laptop.

It isn't like he doesn't have mixed feelings about this -- he does. His main reasons for bringing his young kids to church are common amongst atheist parents.

The first is something that I'm going to call "cultural fluency". (There's probably a better or more formal term for it.) Basically, Christianity is ubiquitous in the modern United States. Attending church will, I hope, give the boys some understanding of the dominant world-view, along with its language and its references - even if they come to disagree with that world-view later on.

The second reason is basically a matter of inoculation. Not against Christianity itself; the boys are going to have to draw their own conclusions there, though I'll be happy enough to share my own views if they want to ask questions. No, here's the thing: religious beliefs can be very compelling, especially if they're presented by the right person at the right time. And some religious beliefs can be very destructive. So I hope that by exposing the boys to what I'd consider "Christianity done right" -- heavy on the grace, light on the guilt -- it will help to inoculate them against the more destructive, authoritarian, manipulative version of religion.
Here is my comment.

Well, you knew that I'd have to reply to respectfully say that you're wrong. Cultural literacy is important, and this is a common refrain amongst the more liberal and well intentioned atheists. However, taking your children to church is a problematic way for them to obtain cultural literacy for a few reasons. One, what your kids are learning about Christianity is a very limited view of the faith. If you wanted cultural literacy take them to a variety of churches. In fact, you should take them to a variety of different services of different faiths (Judaism, Islam etc). However, you may say that will simply confuse them, which leads me to my second point. The nature of the relationship between the adherent and religion is irrational. For children the bond of faith is similar to going to McDonald's. Is McDonald's bad for you? Sure, but they have that lovely clown and toys! Even when a kid gets older they will have warm and fuzzy feelings about that place. It's the same for faith. Young children do not have the cognitive machinery to understand that they are being manipulated. They will carry those feelings with them for the rest of their lives. Those feelings affect judgement. Why else are there so many religious people when none of it makes sense? Third, if you want your kids to learn about religion, don't have them learn about it at church. That's like going to a car dealership and thinking you're going to get objective information about cars from a car salesperson. Talk to them around the kitchen table about religion when the topic comes up. Religion comes up a lot -- holidays, literary references, etc. Finally, when kids acquire the cognitive machinery to take a skeptical view on faith, let them go to church. *My guess is the early teens is the right time for them. They will also have an opportunity to ask you specific questions. What you don't want is for them never to have been exposed to the Sky Fairy and then go to college where the faithful prey on unsuspecting minds. When I was a young adult it seemed liked every cult was focused on separating me from rationality. [BTW I may use your post and my answer on Purgatory]

As an aside, I like to warn people if one of our communications is going to end up on the blog.

*I also want to point out that the "right" time to expose children to faith varies on the maturity of the child.




  1. I'm not sure about the "smarter" or "better father" parts - there's nothing quite like trying to be a responsible parent to make you feel unbelievably stupid and inadequate - but thanks for the kind words.

    And, for that matter, thanks for the well-stated disagreement. I knew when I posted that, that people were going to disagree, perhaps vehemently; so I appreciate both the lack of vehemence and the cogent counterpoints.

  2. I don't buy the "cultural literacy" excuse. My wife was raised without ever going to church except for weddings or funerals. She doesn't know the stories from the bible, but outside of missing entire Jeopardy categories, it hasn't really affected her in any way. (Interestingly, her non-churchgoing family prays before meals, while my every Sunday Roman Catholic parents gave that up years ago.)

    I also wonder if people have their kids attend other harmful events, e.g; "I want my kids to make up their own mind about civil rights, so I take them to KKK meetings."

  3. I would do it, like, once. Props to dude and you, Andy.


  4. Great post. I find myself in agreement with you on this Andy. I think the argument for cultural fluency is a good one. However, I believe strongly that there are better ways to educate our children other than by attending religious services.

    I also want to applaud both you and Michael for handling your disagreement so well. (That is something that I have failed to do once on my blog and regretted it).

    1. There are some bloggers who strive to create drama out of any disagreement (not the blogs I frequent, however). I try to run drama free.

  5. Well, my paternal grandfather was an atheist, but he was also from a small town, so my father and aunt were sent to Sunday school. In 1930's-40's small-town middle-America, I suppose they were an atheist family "passing" as Christian, not that that's at all as big a deal as "passing as white." But eventually grandpa got a job in the big city... In that small town there were only two churches; a Baptist church and a Lutheran church. Naturally the Lutheran church was the lesser evil. Grandpa told me once that the Baptist pastor once denounced a movie projector acquired by the local school district as some kind of instrument of the Devil, or something. I would think previous generations of atheists would not take for granted the relative freedom of the present time.

  6. This is like taking your child to a professional pedophile so that he can experience the "right" kind of pedophilia.

    Cultural literacy in religion would be reading the myths of the Hebrew and Christian tradition along with other myths and analyzing and discussing them.


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