How to voice my thoughts on religion
January 4, 2017 3:14 PM   Subscribe

I was raised in a very religious household, and, over time, came to realize that I did not believe in God or that if I believed in God he was not worthy of worship. I'd now describe myself as an atheist. Extracting myself from my religious community and my religion were some of the hardest things I had to deal with as a kid. It has led me to believe that, while a person can be religious and that's fine, I think practicing religion with your children is not fine, since it sets them up, if they ever want to leave the religion, for a very painful process, and possibly the loss of a relationship with their parents.

I guess this has led me to be straight anti-religion in all it's forms, while still understanding that it can work for people in their lives. I don't know how to voice this in a productive way, especially in online conversations.
posted by durandal to Religion & Philosophy (20 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
You say that "practicing religion with your children" is a problem because those children could be pained by leaving said religion and losing their relationship with their parents. If the kids don't want the religion they wont be pained by leaving, and if the parents aren't dogmatic jerks about their kids non-belief it need not ruin their relationship.

As a thought exercise - would you say that parents shouldn't discuss sexuality with their kids because if the kids sexuality differed from their parents' it could be deleterious to their relationship? No, you would probably say that parents should be accepting and open with their kids (while discussing, to whatever degree they are comfortable, both parents and kids sexuality.)

I think that what you are saying is that your issue with religion is the number of people who let their personal beliefs get in the way of productive and loving relationships with others who don't share those belief systems. This is certainly a very valid critique of many religions and many religious folks.
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 3:19 PM on January 4, 2017 [2 favorites]

I think that, in general, people tend to get really defensive when you criticize their parenting. Therefore, I think that voicing this particular belief, that it's wrong to raise children in a religion, is probably not going to go over well with a lot of people. (I also think it's maybe a little illogical: wouldn't it be equally true that it's wrong to raise children without religion, because they could end up becoming religious and cause a rupture with their atheist parents?) What you can do, I think, is to talk about your experience without talking about how other people should raise their kids. I think it might also be useful to listen to other people's discussions of their own experience, which might be different from yours and might help you put your painful experience into a broader context.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 3:34 PM on January 4, 2017 [7 favorites]

How to voice my thoughts on religion

You might find it useful to start a free blog somewhere. When you run into things in online discussions that make you want to talk this out, but you don't feel it will be well received, use that as a jumping off point for blog posts.

You might also look for different forums and test the waters. Some forums are just way easier to have such discussions in than others.

It might also help to try to connect with some folks who aren't openly hostile to your basic idea. Many people just will not engage you on this in good faith because it is really personal and yadda. Parenting and religion are both super sensitive issues.

I also eventually learned that explicitly spelling out that "I am not saying X" can help me get better heard in some circumstances. In your case, you might find it helpful to cultivate the use of phrases like 'I am not saying religion is inherently bad" (assuming, of course, that you genuinely are not saying that religion is inherently bad).

posted by Michele in California at 3:40 PM on January 4, 2017

It's hard to be straight anti-religion in all its forms in conversations with real people. Such an approach would be like fighting a never-ending battle on all fronts simultaneously. What I advise is to decide what you *do* believe in regards to the big questions of life and then focus on the inevitable common ground. And unless you are a fundamentally selfish misanthropic heel, you will likely have plenty of common ground to work with.

I am a devoted Catholic and I still find plenty in common with agnostics, atheists, freethinkers, and humanists. The good people I know believe in sacrificing self-interest to help others, respecting human life, and protecting vulnerable people wherever possible. I often hear from non-believers some variation of, "I don't need a God to bribe/threaten me into being Good." To which I say, "Great! So let's get out there and be Good!"

There are so many needy people out there -- lonely elders, desperately tired caregivers, children who feel abandoned and unprotected. People whose lives need to be touched by real acts of caring and charity by people who will be truly present to them. Way too many needs out there to waste time fussing over whose motivating philosophical framework is the one true one.

So the strategy I suggest is to shift any theological debates to the topic of real moral actions. Then shift the actions conversation from differences (e.g. variations in social moral norms, especially regarding sex) to common ground.

Matthew 25 has a great account of the final judgement, separating the "saved" from the "damned." It provides an answer key to the question of what merits Christian Salvation in Jesus' own words. If you read the list, there's clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, caring for the sick and homeless, welcoming strangers (e.g. immigrants). Nothing about attending services, praying, tithing, and other pious acts. My faith says piety disposes the soul to charity as a means, not an end. I know in my heart that, by Jesus' measure in Matthew 25, may of my non-believer friends will be, at considerable astonishment to them most likely, as "saved" as us tithing pew-sitters.
posted by cross_impact at 3:48 PM on January 4, 2017 [11 favorites]

It has led me to believe that, while a person can be religious and that's fine, I think practicing religion with your children is not fine, since it sets them up, if they ever want to leave the religion, for a very painful process, and possibly the loss of a relationship with their parents.

This wildly varies. My dad is a devout Catholic, raised all of us kids in the faith, and he has a good relationship with all of us and our varying levels of faith/ non-faith. And as the one who's an atheist, there was never any discomfort.

But my dad always encouraged questions. I always felt like he took those questions seriously, and that disagreement is ok.

So I think it may be best to describe the problem directly rather than attributing it to religion. Something along the lines that requiring unquestioning adherence to any kind of doctrine or belief in your children is unfair and unhealthy.

It may be fair to say that religious parents* should be especially thoughtful about this, as a child may fear a parent's reaction even if the parent would actually have no problem.

I'm also assuming these are abstract conversations rather than directly telling a person they they're parenting wrong (that really doesn't ever go well).

*A militant atheist as a parent could also leave a child with the same impression, of course.
posted by ghost phoneme at 3:49 PM on January 4, 2017 [16 favorites]

Maybe sharing your own experience with religion and how it did/did not help you will allow you to share your voice without inciting other people in the process.
posted by strelitzia at 4:00 PM on January 4, 2017 [13 favorites]

I think that you need to be able to distinguish between religion, on the one hand, and ethics/morality on the other. There are many people who believe that raising children in a religion is the only way to teach morality, and so it's important to be able to affirm that giving children a strong ethical model is a good thing, even though it's pretty clear that you don't need to be religious to be ethical. And, of course, all the things said above about not telling strangers that they're bad parents and then expecting them to listen any further.
posted by janey47 at 4:04 PM on January 4, 2017

I feel like you run the same risk if you raise your kids as atheists and then they find religion - living in opposition to your parents' worldview is always difficult. Imagine believing that everyone you grew up with was going to hell because they hadn't accepted Jesus - that would also suck. Everybody has beliefs. Not everyone's beliefs are the same as their parents.

Dogmatism is probably more dangerous in parenting than religion per se. (FWIW I'm a casual atheist who was raised casually mainline Protestant. My relationship to religion is largely angst-free.)
posted by mskyle at 4:20 PM on January 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

I happen to agree with you-- I think it's wrong to raise children with religion. I think introducing children to religion as if it were a settled fact is closing off their options later in life.

At the same time, I think it's wrong to abridge the freedom of religion. There is no way to tell people how to raise their kids without taking away their freedom; the best we can do is draw a hard line against clear cases of abuse. I think taking away this degree of freedom of religion is wronger than giving kids a religious upbringing, and in most cases, I think kids brought up with religion turn out fine-- lots of parents have reasonable and compassionate interpretations of religion and learn to cope with their children's differences, and that's what I'll call close enough. The actual problem is an abusive household (abuse is abuse, whether it comes from religion or not) and parents who can't accept that their children have a different path/different ideas/are people and not property.

I also recognize that my experiences being the only atheist I know for a long time might have left me with prejudice against religious people, and I feel strongly about making an effort not to be a prejudiced jerk. So maybe consider how your own intense feelings about this might be making it harder for you to be objective. You may need to excuse yourself from conversations about it-- I know I have. Also, arguing on Facebook is useless. I have literally never won a Facebook or online argument. People do that just to argue. Don't engage. Let people be wrong. (I also argue with imaginary people in the shower, and that helps.)

What can we do? Most parents are doing their best, which might not be optimal. Raising kids is hard, and nobody is properly prepared. My parents raised me without religion, but they also did a bunch of stuff that was not helpful or optimal even though they were trying. I mainly wished someone had clued them in or given them other options, and while I get angry about that, I also get tired of being angry and have to move on with my life. If you want to do something about it, try these:

1) Be a person children and young people can come to with the expectation that they will not receive judgement or abuse. Be a good listener.

2) Work for a society that helps parents succeed-- many people make poor choices or default to the poor example of their parents because of stress or lack of options. Help them have options. Sometimes strict religion or treating children harshly at home is someone looking to feel like they have power over their lives. Help people feel like that without taking it out on their kids.

3) Advocate for secular after-school options for children and insist on a generally secular and multicultural civic environment. Religion is not the problem! My-way-or-the-highway jerks are the problem. If you're like me, you don't get it, but lots of people find community-building and personal fulfillment in religion. Again, the problem is dogmatic, judgemental people and a lack of options for young people to explore and go out on their own. More options for religious and other activities can only help; seeing other people be moral and happy despite radically different life paths can make it clear to a kid that their parents are the problem, not them.

4) Work for a society that helps young people succeed without their families. If they have to leave, help them make it work.

5) Give and show up to secular or multi-faith charities, and make it clear the money/time is coming from an atheist who chooses to do good. Sometimes the best revenge is living well and being the better person.

6) Share your story and think of ways to help kids who need to get out. What helped you? What would have made it easier?
posted by blnkfrnk at 5:05 PM on January 4, 2017 [5 favorites]

Thanks to all for their very thoughtful answers so far!

I think perhaps I could have phrased my original thoughts a bit better, and pointed more toward something like what ghost phoneme said:

Something along the lines that requiring unquestioning adherence to any kind of doctrine or belief in your children is unfair and unhealthy. And I think this is especially prevalent in the parent-child relationship among very religious people, though not limited to them of course. Personally I have no intention of raising anyone with any kind of dogmatism towards any of my personal beliefs.

I think I need some more time to think about this, and you all have given me some good starting points. Thanks again.
posted by durandal at 5:14 PM on January 4, 2017 [2 favorites]

I could have written much of your post. I grew up in a very religious family and ultimately realized I was an atheist. Leaving the church was difficult and sad, though I maintained my relationships with family members when I did.

I now go to a UU church which has a lot of religious education for kids, with the idea being that kids can learn about world religions and philosophies and be equipped to make their own decisions about what they believe. Some of them grow up and decide they are UU, some don't, and that's okay. People can practice religion with their kids without locking them in to that religion.

IMO, if I wanted to try to make the point I think you're trying to make to someone else, I'd probably say something like: "It's really painful to be a kid who doesn't share your parents' religion and fear that your parents value the religion more than they value you. That they might disown you or stop loving you or force you to do things you don't believe in. I'm glad for you that you have a faith that obviously has great meaning to you, and I hope that you allow your children to follow their beliefs as devoutly as you do yours, even if it differs from your own."

Though it didn't come up in your post, I think telling kids they are going to hell (or implying it) is horrible, so here's my favorite argument on that: "Imagine your kid has does something terrible and needs to be punished. How long would you punish them and how? Would you punish them forever? Would you burn them with fire? No? Then how could god, who is supposed to be far more loving and gracious than we are, send them to hell?"
posted by bunderful at 6:02 PM on January 4, 2017 [2 favorites]

My father is a pastor in a more liberal sect of Protestantism and religion was a huge part of my life growing up. But, my exposure to religion and my father's explanation of it always, always explicitly acknowledged that faith exists alongside doubt. I can't conceive of explaining religion to children -- particularly older children -- without saying that doubt is normal. My dad is sad that some of his kids no longer share his faith, but he still gets to share this important part of himself with me. He's the one who taught me to question in the first place -- to think about religious ideas and ethics and to engage in those ideas -- and if the outcome is that I am now agnostic, then I still believe he thinks that would be better than my feeling I can't have a relationship with him because our belief systems are different. So, I don't agree that raising kids religious is wrong -- it gave me a wonderful community of other children and adults as a kid to belong to and taught me important principles of morality and social responsibility and tolerance -- but I do feel like having a faith where questions and doubt are allowed is much healthier than rigid dogmatism.
posted by megancita at 6:09 PM on January 4, 2017 [4 favorites]

To whom are you trying to voice your thoughts? Are you on parenting forums, religious forums, Reddit? Are people soliciting your advice or are you hoping that through articulateness you will be able to change opinions?

These questions really boil down to know your audience. There is no universal way that you can approach this that will speak to all of those segments equally well. Your own personal story is probably the best tool that you have, but it's still just an anecdote. Knowing what your audience is looking for and communicating the salient parts of your story is probably the best bet that you have for gaining agreement, but I would caution you that changing people's minds, online, regarding their parenting or their religious beliefs (which literally have to do with life or death) best...a fool's errand.

I happen to agree with you on a number of points (was also raised religious, also left religion in a painful and protracted way, currently raising my children emphatically without religion). The blog Kids Without Religion is a fairly good resource, I think, for drawing out larger themes while using personal stories for the basis, and starting to form a community around this concept. They don't post much anymore, so I think there is room for new voices. One of the things I really loved about their posts was the way they had suggestions and solutions for the common problems you run into when raising little atheists, rather than focusing on how bad and damaging religion is to kids. They were preaching to the choir, as it were, and I didn't want to sit around and listen to someone else's rants but focus on what to do going forward. Perhaps that would give you fodder for developing things to say - thinking of ways to replace the things that religion does as a means for changing the default approach to religion in a family.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 7:04 PM on January 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

Honestly, I think discussing religion online is basically impossible. People might grouse about echo chambers when you seek online communities full of people who already agree with you, but I strongly urge you to hone your beliefs with other atheists. People who have done the legwork for you. And then...don't bother discussing it online with religious people. It's not that you aren't expressing yourself in the best way possible. You sound perfectly articulate on the matter to me, because I am an atheist and I agree with you about the damage religion can impart. But look at the defensive or contrary answers you're getting here—when you express doubts about religion, other people can't help be respond as though you've passed judgement on them.

I guess this comes across as flippant, but truly, online is not a good format for this kind of discussion and I find it to be a waste of time. When someone lives their life informed by the word of their God and I don't think that God exists, there's no where to go from there. And I say this as someone who respects and loves to discuss religion with friends in person — it's the "online" that's the issue here.
posted by the thorn bushes have roses at 7:13 PM on January 4, 2017 [2 favorites]

[Question is not about how to parent but how to present the OP's views fruitfully in discussion.]
posted by Eyebrows McGee (staff) at 7:53 PM on January 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

You might enjoy reading this essay, which explores the ethics of teaching children religion, from somewhat of an aetheist perspective.
posted by nml at 8:43 PM on January 4, 2017

I think the real issue is who do you see as your target audience. I doubt there is anyway to have a fruitful conversation with someone with sincere religious beliefs about the idea that indoctrinating their children is wrong. However, I think it is a good conversation to have publicly because other non-believers are listening. And, at some point, hopefully, the majority of non-believers will see that indoctrinating children is harmful. And, again, hopefully, as non-believers continue to grow, this idea will become a mainstream value.

Almost everyone agrees that brainwashing children into being part of a destructive cult is wrong. Most people just do not see their particular religious tradition as a destructive cult. Focus your conversation on this topic on other non-believers.
posted by hworth at 10:19 PM on January 4, 2017

I am endlessly annoyed that people use the word "religion" when they mean "Christianity." As a devout Pagan with now-adult children who were raised in the religion, I don't see any problems with "teaching children your religion," any more than I see problems with teaching them your politics, your ethics, or your ideas about relationships. A child isn't born knowing any of those, and they need to be taught; teaching them how you relate to the sacred, however you find it, is not inherently warping to young minds.

Teaching them that other people are doing it wrong, can warp their minds. Teaching them that one method brings True Enlightenment and Good Personhood and that all other methods result in Evil People, hits cognitive dissonance pretty quickly, and the ways that kids find to cover for that dissonance can be bad for them.

For ways to discuss religion with other people: first, don't assume "religion" means "Christianity." And if you do that when talking with Christians, they will often be annoyed or offended enough to leave you alone about it. Other than that, you can get out of most conversations with a simple, "I think spirituality is a very personal thing and I don't like talking about it."

If, however, you don't want to avoid conversations about religion, but rather use them as a way to say, "I think the way you're doing religion is bad for your kids and bad for society"... that's a whole different matter. There are atheist groups that have all sorts of advice for how to deal with those conversations, ranging from polite to verbally abusive.''

Are you looking for ways/places to argue that your understanding of religion is correct and other people's is wrong? Or ways to convince people of that? (Spoiler: there aren't any. At best, you can convince yourself & onlookers that you "won" the argument. People are not convinced to give up their spirituality because someone on the internet does logic better than they do.) Or ways to politely extricate yourself from religious discussions without agreeing with them?
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 1:30 AM on January 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

So, you can think of "religious people" in two camps:
1. Rock-solid, no doubt, true believers. You will never convince these people of anything. Neither will anyone else. Ever.
2. People whose faith has taken at least a few twists and turns. Lots of people who grow up in churches wander off when they grow up; a bunch more wind up in a different denomination or faith from when they started. Either way, they decided at some point to pick up the religion they have now, for some reason. They perceive some benefit from this. If they have kids, they bring the kids along, both so the kids can get whatever the benefit is, and because religious communities are largely welcoming of families with children in a way few other organizations are. Anyway, camp #2 are in their religious faith because they want to be, and want their kids to be exposed to it for the same reason. Many of them understand if the kids wander off later.

There are also practical matters. If you have kids, Mom and Dad aren't leaving the kids at home to go to church. I can take a preschooler to church; I can't take one to the atheist meetup at the bar.

You will never, ever, convince anyone that (1) their deeply-held religious faith is Wrong, and/or that (2) their parenting decisions are Wrong on the Internet. You especially won't convince someone to [e.g.] risk their kids' eternal souls to make you feel better.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 5:27 AM on January 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

Hi Durandal

I'm not sure whether it'll be helpful for you, but these are things that philosophers (specifically: people who work in the philosophy of education, applied philosophy, moral philosophy, political philosophy, the philosophy of law) have talked about. It might be that you find something useful in reading about the kinds of ways that they discuss the issues.

Here's an article which discusses whether there needs to be more attention paid to the 'right to exit' a religion. Since children don't choose their religious upbringing, and since we tend to treat children in most cases as being incapable of (legally-efficacious) consent, it might follow that a liberal or tolerant society (one which allows parents to bring up their children in all sorts of different ways) needs to ensure that children are able to 'get out of' those religions when they want to.

Paula McAvoy: “There Are No Housewives on Star Trek ”: A Reexamination of Exit Rights for the Children of Insular Fundamentalist Parents
(if you have difficulty accessing the paper by following that link, you could try cut & pasting it into )

The tension is with parental rights to be able to raise children as they see fit, and that means being allowed to raise them in whatever form of religious education/upbringing that is (legally) permissible. This is supposed to result in a sort of tension: the child's right to exit vs. the parent's right to get on with inculcating the kinds of principles they value. Here's a paper by Ben Spiecker, Doret de Ruyter and Jan Steutel called 'Taking the right to exit seriously'.
(again, sci-hub might help)

There's a useful book called The Moral and Political Status of Children edited by D Archard and C Macleod, and Dave Archard has a chapter in it called 'Children, Multiculturalism and Education' which addresses this range of issues. Mark C Vorpat has a book called Children's Rights and Moral Parenting, and chapters 4 ('Parental Rights') and 5 ('Religion and Education') are about these topics.

Exploring the academic work that's being done in an area is not something that's useful for everyone – sometimes reading too much about something just gets in the way of being able to think carefully through the things that are most important to us. But if you suspect that your concerns are about whether there might be moral problems associated with parents raising their children in strict religious communities, then there are certainly other people out there who are thinking about the same questions (and trying to work out what the range of answers might look like), and it could help or be reassuring to find that you're not alone in thinking that this is interesting and important. I don't know whether it'll help you to find a way to say what you want to say – as others have pointed out, there are very few places where a discussion of parenting & religion won't instantly get people at each other's throats, but perhaps you can be reassured to see that at least in some parts of academia it's still something that can happen.
posted by Joeruckus at 7:29 AM on January 9, 2017 [2 favorites]

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