Religious counter-programming for dummies
December 30, 2007 11:46 PM   Subscribe

My in-laws are Catholics. My husband and I are not raising our daughter in a religious household. How can we effectively counter-program my in-laws' religious activities?

What are some good techniques for religious counter-programming? I need some help figuring out how to explain to a toddler or preschooler why her (nuclear) family is not religious when her extended family is. I would also like to help her see the value in a non-religious lifestyle.

My in-laws are devout Catholics. No birth control, hordes of children, all kinds church activities, crosses and Jesus all over the house, etc. My mother-in-law spends a lot of time with my one year old daughter. My husband has many, many siblings, some of whom have many, many children, so my daughter is regularly exposed to a Catholic lifestyle.

We are atheist/agnostic. We do not plan to teach our daughter to follow any religion. In a perfect world, we wouldn't do too much religious education.

However, my in-laws have started my daughter's religious education early. On a regular basis, my MIL drives quite some distance to stay overnight at our house to watch our daughter for us. MIL likes to attend morning mass. Sometimes, when MIL is visiting, I have enough time before work to tend to my daughter so that MIL can attend mass by herself and return before I go to work. Other times, this is not possible and MIL takes my daughter to mass with her. At this point in time, I am ok with my daughter attending mass. At her age, it's a mash of strange faces with singing and talking. I also don't like to knock the free help.

As she gets older, church attendance will become problematic. We definitely don't want our daughter to have a Catholic education. We would prefer that she spends her childhood atheist/agnostic like us. However, I do not see how to restrict my in-laws from taking her to church while my daughter is in their care for the day and the entire family is going to church.

I need to think seriously about how to counter-program against this experience. I will probably face questions about why we will never take her to church like grandma does, why she won't have 10 siblings, why we aren't all going to hell, why we don't believe in Jesus, etc. I am also paranoid about stealth baptismals and other nonsense.

I would like to avoid alienating my in-laws in the process of counter-programming. We like the free child care.

As I said, we are atheist/agnostic, so we don't have any handy texts or propaganda to help us counter-program. We don't have any rituals to substitute.

Here is as far as I have gotten in this thought process: I wait until my daughter starts asking questions. I would start with "everybody believes different things". Also, "we think that Jesus is make-believe, but not everybody else does". Also, "some people like going to church, we don't. We don't think it's important." As to why she would be forced to attend church while not in our care, "each house has its own rules and traditions and children must abide by the rules of the house that they are in". This all seems kinda wishy-washy to me. "Grandma is crazy" is the kind of explanation I would like to avoid.

Somebody else must have helped their kids through this before. Please help me figure out something convincing to say or do before my daughter is old enough to ask questions. Thanks.
posted by crazycanuck to Religion & Philosophy (53 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
i'm sorry that this doesn't necessarily answer the question but have you thought about what you might do if your daughter is curious and/or interested in religion? i was brought up in a household in which my brother and i were encouraged to explore different religions/beliefs (or whether we chose not to believe) and as a result i was exposed to a number of different denominations and services. we were brought to church by relatives or friends of a particular religion but were never forced to believe any one was better than any other, nor were we told that we had to choose one or any. the result has been that my mother was and still is a buddhist, my brother is agnostic, and i consider myself a very liberal generally-non-church-going christian.
posted by violetk at 12:14 AM on December 31, 2007

I think you've pretty much got it already.

I will probably face questions about why we will never take her to church like grandma does, why she won't have 10 siblings, why we aren't all going to hell, why we don't believe in Jesus, etc.

"Different people have different ideas about religion. Catholics, like grandma, believe/do X. But your dad and I aren't Catholic, so we don't believe/do that. What about you? Do you believe X/like doing X?"
posted by lemuria at 12:20 AM on December 31, 2007

What do you think the parents of your nieces and nephews tell their kids about your family's beliefs? Or more importantly, what would you like for them to tell their kids about your beliefs? Do that, with appropriate modifications, for your kids.

You're worrying way too much about this. A little exposure to other people's religion, even your in-laws, isn't going to make your kid the next Fred Phelps.
posted by the christopher hundreds at 12:23 AM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'm no parent, but I'll offer up a quote I quite liked from the book Underground by the Australian author, Andrew McGahan:
My mind went back to a conversation I'd had years ago with an old friend. He was a long-lapsed Catholic, but he had decided to send his son to a Catholic school. When I asked him why, he said one word: "Inoculation." His theory was this -- all religions and cults were dangerous, and he did not want his son involved in any of them. The problem was, if he raised his son with no religion at all, then the boy might well fall prey to the first religion or cult that he came across later, just out of curiosity and naivety. If he were raised Catholic, on the other hand, he would at least know a religion from the inside. And in my friend's opinion, Catholicism was the laziest and most stagnant of the western religions, and hence the simplest for his son to rebel against while growing up. And having seen through the nonsense of one religion, he would never then fall prey to another. He would have had his inoculation shot, and would now be immune.
posted by barnacles at 12:28 AM on December 31, 2007 [49 favorites]

I was raised in a non religious household yet attended church when visiting relatives, and I turned out just fine (non-religious). Neither side ever talked religion with me and I certainly wasn't pressured by the church-goers, other than having to go, which wasn't a big deal (just boring).

Churchgoing alone shouldn't have much of an effect on a child, (imo) it's what is said at home that does. As long as the grandparents don't overstep their boundaries (forced bible reading, prayer, religious conversations with the child), you daughter should turn out okay.
posted by Sufi at 12:28 AM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]

I went to church with my babysitter's family, I went to synagogue with my barely religious mom, the headmaster of my private Jr HS was an episcopal priest complete with dog collar and morning prayers at school...Home was different, we didn't have anything around except for the great grandparents menorah and when I started asking questions about the bible, mom showed me the stuff that showed the geologic explanations for the flood and all and told me they were myths, just like the Greek and Roman myths about Zeus and the rest of the various Pantheons.

I think what helped was that they never made a big deal one way or the other but gave me the tools to figure things out for myself.
posted by legotech at 12:39 AM on December 31, 2007

Talk it out. Keep talking. This is going to be a long process which will eventually find a common ground. I'd layout what you want from your in-laws. Let them know that you are certain they are going to respect your choices in regards to religion and raising your children. There will be boundaries set slowly, on a case-by-case basis. Think of it as process rather than a goal-oriented thing.
posted by Ironmouth at 12:46 AM on December 31, 2007

Well, your relationship with your in-laws is important, so I'd pedal easy. I think you are probably underestimating your child's ability to think through the big questions of existence for herself. When? Before age 10, maybe much earlier. And you are probably underestimating the weight that your child will put on the opinions of her mother and father as opposed to her grandparents. In a not dissimilar situation (not involving, I should say, daily mass, but involving a wonderful MIL who is also, as it happens, an officer of the church), I found that discussions of evolution led my children naturally to thinking about the Origin of Everything and to a scepticism about the biblical Creation and what flows from it. They now attend Church from time to time with their in-laws, but also profess not to believe in God. In other words, if you provide your daughter with the intellectual tools, encourage in her a capacity for logical thought, then I think that 'indoctrination' (which seems to be what you fear) will not be a problem. But don't throw the baby out with the bathwater: the Christian Church has a huge role in our society; it has shaped behaviour, art, the movement of armies: familiarity with its history, rituals and texts will not do your daughter any harm. Your MIL may well be satisfied with her observance of rituals from time to time. Having said which, you will probably have to make your position clear to your MIL at some point. I drew the line at Sunday-school attendance, where my children were taught that God made the bees and flowers etc. If your MIL comes to understand that similar sentiments expressed at the lunch table, say, are likely to be used as the basis for an exploration of the Theory of Evolution, she will likely find something else to talk about.
posted by londongeezer at 12:46 AM on December 31, 2007

The "innoculation" theory works quite well; so does just kindly laughter at the more absurd aspects of her grandparents' religious practice. There's no harm whatever in being taken to church. Catholics aren't literal creationists, so she wouldn't get a whole load of organised lies about the Bible. "We don't believe, but lots of good people do" should be enough.

In any case, the period when religious (or atheistic) mania hits people is normally the early teens. Should it strike, there is nothing much to do but wait it out, letting it be known that you think it is mildly ridiculous. Teasing works much better than reasoned argument.
posted by alloneword at 1:09 AM on December 31, 2007

You might want to also consider, once your daughter is older, hiring a babysitter for those mornings you're not available instead of letting grandma take her to church with her. Or make it a ground rule that grandma not take the kid to church. Many churches offer several different mass times, and grandma could be flexible about it.

I'm an atheist who never quite felt right being sent to religious education classes and church as a child. It just never felt 'right', never clicked, and felt pointless. I firmly concluded that I didn't believe around the age of 11 (and had doubted somewhat earlier , 9-10), so your daughter has time yet before she's able to let you know how she feels.

Just reinforce between your husband and yourself the idea that sometimes people feel like they need to believe in myths in order to feel better about themselves and their lives. That they tell themselves make-believe stories. As has been mentioned, supplement with tales of the Greeks, Romans, and even Egyptians (one of my favorite groups of myths) and how those are all mere stories meant to explain things about the world and human nature. Heck, I studied the Bible in college for a foundations of society type of class. Temper the discussions as she grows up.

Both of my parents are still quite Catholic, and several other family members attend church regularly. I'm my family's only atheist, and my S.O. is one as well, but raised in another religious tradition entirely (Judaism). This is something I'll have to face in the future as well, so I'm very interested in the answers you'll get and speak from a place of thought I've already given to the subject.
posted by cmgonzalez at 1:10 AM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]

Make sure you explain that hell does not exist, that being "bad" isn't going to lead to pain and suffering in the after life, that there's no old man in the sky watching and judging your little girl. It's quite astonishing how kids can pick up religious stuff that result in fear and anxiety. After all, for many people, religion is just one long guilt trip that begins during their childhood.

You should definitely talk about the greatness of evolution and the cosmos as she gets older. These topics tend to be very inspiring to talk about and can fill a void that some atheists feel. The same thing goes for poverty, suffering, wars, etc. Give sound explanations to why these things happen and how they can be solved without having to put your faith in faith.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 1:56 AM on December 31, 2007

You said counter-programming a bunch, but I think you're just talking about programming.
posted by apetpsychic at 2:03 AM on December 31, 2007 [5 favorites]

Sorry, didn't mean to send that without this: Basically you describe that your mother-in-law takes her to Sunday mass when you aren't available to watch your daughter. I would make sure to have time on Sunday mornings or find a new babysitter.

You also said:

I need to think seriously about how to counter-program against this experience. I will probably face questions about why we will never take her to church like grandma does, why she won't have 10 siblings, why we aren't all going to hell, why we don't believe in Jesus, etc. I am also paranoid about stealth baptismals and other nonsense.

Do you believe all religious couples have 10 children? Do you realize that her being baptised doesn't actually mean anything if you don't believe in it?

By overreacting you might actually make her curious. Don't turn your daughter into a future born again.
posted by apetpsychic at 2:11 AM on December 31, 2007

And not to nitpick, but you can't be both atheist and agnostic.
posted by apetpsychic at 2:13 AM on December 31, 2007

apetpsychic: And not to nitpick, but you can't be both atheist and agnostic.

Sure they can, one is an atheist and the other an agnostic.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 2:19 AM on December 31, 2007

And not to nitpick, but you can't be both atheist and agnostic

I think she was referring to herself being one and her husband being the other.
posted by cmgonzalez at 2:20 AM on December 31, 2007

Also, "we think that Jesus is make-believe, but not everybody else does".

Are you going to teach your kid that Santa is make-believe?

Also, "some people like going to church, we don't. We don't think it's important." As to why she would be forced to attend church while not in our care, "each house has its own rules and traditions and children must abide by the rules of the house that they are in". This all seems kinda wishy-washy to me. "Grandma is crazy" is the kind of explanation I would like to avoid.

Yeah, because it isn't true. Let's say the roles were reversed and your brother/sister's daughter asked why she doesn't go to church when she stays with you on a Sunday. "Because Aunt Thelma is sinful and going to hell." is probably not the answer you would want her to be giving your niece.

It sounds to me, and maybe I'm being overly sensitive here, that you have about the same level of disregard for those who are religious as ultra conservatives have towards you; here both parties imagine the other group is behaving the way they are purely out of some kind of psychological delusion. I guess I expect better from atheists/agnostics.

In my perfect world, everyone acts sort of like the Unitarians are supposed to: believing that there are a lot of different religious paths and perspectives, and not trying to impose their beliefs on others.

Look, for kids, religion can be a lot of fun. There's singing, sometimes dancing, potlucks, and fun social interaction with a group of people that are generally about as decent as anyone else. Why are you so afraid of your daughter being influenced by Catholicism? Are you worried she will become illogical? Teach her to think logically. Are you worried she will pick up bad practices re: having lots of kids/birth control? Tell her about responsible ways to protect herself, and the problems of overpopulation (when she is older, of course).

Sorry, I guess I am too sensitive about this sort of thing but it feels like you are head priest of the Church of Not Believing, and think that all non-practitioners are going to Non-existent Hell.

Make sure you explain that hell does not exist, that being "bad" isn't going to lead to pain and suffering in the after life, that there's no old man in the sky watching and judging your little girl.

Yeah, this is the only thing I'd really make an effort to counter. Threats of hell can be really, really scary for kids. You can just tell her that hell is a story that was made up to make people behave better, that she is a wonderful little girl and that she won't be punished by anything, real or imaginary, for doing thing differently than her religious relatives.
posted by Deathalicious at 2:32 AM on December 31, 2007 [11 favorites]

I should add that my mom was Buddhist and my dad practically secular when I was growing up and we had a sort of "spiritual" rather than religious household, but nothing was ever really taught (although I do remember reading picture books talking about incarnations of the Buddha, which I think gives me a bit of different perspective on the idea of mythology as some people have mentioned above). I kinda took the initiative when I was 9 or so, asking my mom about religion and belief and trying to get more involved in religious practices. I have wavered between being more and less religious, more and less spiritual, and more and less believing-in-a-higher-power over the years, but for whatever reason when I was 9 religion became very important to me. I would hope, atheist or not, that you respect whatever path your daughter takes even if it is different from your own.
posted by Deathalicious at 2:39 AM on December 31, 2007

Ok. Here goes. First of all, I was raised a Catholic in a very large Catholic family on all sides. I attended Mass regularly, was baptised, made my first communion and confirmation. This was pushed from all sides (with the exception of my father, himself an altar boy as a youngster, who later dismissed it all as bollocks). We went on religious retreats at school and a large part of the school year focussed around religious festivals (such as Lent).

Despite being surrounded by all the people and culture of the Catholic church, by the age of 14, I had dismissed it all as nonsense. I did this myself, based on thinking of the illogicality of theological concepts such as transubstantiation and what I also saw as the backwardness of some of the behaviours (for example, in school we were not allowed to raise money for Comic Relief as they promoted the use of condoms in sub-Saharan Africa).

I could go on and on. The point is, I don't think your daughter needs any reprogramming. Although you want to raise her a certain way (which is absolutely fine) you will have no say on what she decides to do as she grows. She will decide what she wants to believe. She will also have the faculties to dismiss anything that she has been told but thinks it is nonsense.

However, my in-laws have started my daughter's religious education early. On a regular basis, my MIL drives quite some distance to stay overnight at our house to watch our daughter for us. MIL likes to attend morning mass.

Your MIL wants to attend Mass. She also wants to look after her granddaughter. I wouldn't read this as some great attempt to indoctrinate your daughter in the ways of the Catholic church, more like someone prepared to drive a long way to help you out and see her grand-daughter.

I honestly think you are being very defensive. I am not trying to be rude (if I had kids I would be bringing them up athieist in the same way as you) but I think it is more important to have a large, extended family who are prepared to support you (whatever their religious beliefs may be) and offer excitement and stimulation to a growing child than continually set up tensions between the family over something that she will probably dismiss when she is old enough anyway.
posted by ClanvidHorse at 2:57 AM on December 31, 2007 [2 favorites]

If I were you I'd just tell her, "Different people believe different things. Grandma thinks it's good for her to go to church, but we don't think it's necessary," is about right.

I think it's important to strike a neutral tone. The tone of your post is sort of like, "We're just putting up with this stupidity to get free child care." Placing value judgments on religious practices will only confuse the kid, because obviously you'll value one thing and your in-laws will value another. This creates a conflict, which it sounds like you're trying to avoid. If you stay even-handed, neutral, and just tell her that there are lots of different beliefs out there it'll be easier for her to accept.

You might also want to emphasize the values you do want her to hold. You could phrase it like, "Catholics believe that you need to attend church every Sunday to be a good person. But we believe that if you respect others/act responsibly/etc., that's enough." This is how my parents explained religious differences to me when I was young.
posted by christinetheslp at 3:34 AM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]

The tricky part is that mass, especially Catholic masses, are aesthetically overloading ritual ceremonies. And humans in general love ritual, cf some other recent postings. It's hard to supplant that.

I was raised half-assed Catholic and mostly went to the occasional mass with my grandparents. And every once in a while I'll confide in people a secret: I wanted to be a priest so badly. I wanted to be in the middle of all the stuff and things and have lots of costumes. Being told I couldn't, because I was a girl, was step one towards leaving.

I am emphatically not a Christian now; for all effects and purposes my lot's in with the atheists. Effectively countering Christianity was a few things: exposure to many mythologies, including European ones which Catholicism syncretised with (and learning about syncretization, also known as 'what they stole to make the locals like them better', was a major turning point when I was moving from agnostic-pagan to atheism) and exposure to a LOT of science, as mom does medicine, dad's in physics, plus I learned about archaeology pretty young.

The hardest part is supplementing the pretty. If she leans towards liking the look and sound of mass, the only thing I can suggest is finding theater classes or a non-religious Scout troop (some are more and some are less; mine was less and when we visited more religious ones we all felt weird and awkward).
posted by cobaltnine at 3:51 AM on December 31, 2007 [2 favorites]

Ah, the stealth baptismal! My Catholic mom was obsessed with dunking my boy. She never got her chance (although I'm pretty sure she did douse him with Holy Water while I was shopping at Ralph's- I can still smell the burning) (I kid!) The thing is, her desire to have him baptized meant nothing to me other than a perceived power play and I jumped right into the fray, fool that I am. But it never meant a thing to my son; the whole baptismal drama belonged entirely to my mom and me, and it was more about our strained relationship than any religious doctrine. I suspect your daughter will be fine as long as you don't ask her take sides. And don't underestimate the importance of religious inoculation.
posted by maryh at 4:00 AM on December 31, 2007

I'm atheist and I actually do send my children to Catholic School (because it is provincially funded it is not very religious). I expect when they are teenagers they will make up their own minds about religion. They have been exposed to a lot of different non-Christian religions as well as ancient myths and I like the historical grounding they are getting by being exposed to Catholicism, really, you can't understand western history and literature without knowing the myths of the bible. I am not sure what you mean by "a Catholic Lifestyle" because the only example you come up with (repeatedly) is the large family.

If you haven't been to Mass you might want to go sometime so you can see what she experiences. I very rarely go but there is no mention of hell or massive guilt tripping "God is watching all you do". At her age Church=being with family, it also teaches her good socialisation skills like how to sit still and appearing to listen politely to while thinking her own thoughts. Catholicism can actually be pretty fun for children, children seem to have a need for ritual and she is going to notice she misses an opportunity to dress up for her first communion but I don't think you have to worry about her praying by her bed to save your heathen souls. Catholics are not taught to convert others.

There are several books out there that you can read to your daughter that approach religion at a child's level. One I really like because it can be taken as atheist/non-denominational is Because Nothing Looks Like God. Mostly I made sure my children had a strong grasps of myths from around the world so they could see the same themes repeated and look at the story of Jesus as just another myth.

I do think you are overthinking this a bit, children will ask all sorts of questions but will ultimately make up their own minds. You sound so anti-Catholic that you may actually end up making Catholicism attrative to your daughter as a way to rebel against you. I completey agree with the "innoculation" theory up-thread, if I were in your shoes and my children were going to fundamentalist church with the in-laws I would stop it but modern-day Catholicism is pretty watered down (unfortunately, in the case of the critical thinking taught by the Jesuits). It is great your daughter has such a large extended family to be a part of, birthday parties must be a blast with all those cousins!
posted by saucysault at 4:20 AM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]

You don't want to lose the free baby sitter? Get over it. Every baby sitter is going to have some religious beliefs. If you have a problem with a Catholic mass, then ask Grandma not to take your child or PAY for someone to sit for you. Have you spoken to your husband's family about your intentions to raise your child without any religious affiliation? If your inlaws total disregard your husband's and your intentions, then you have a different problem and it has nothing to do with Catholicism.

Your child is going to interact with people with different beliefs and ideas throughout life. Why can't you teach your child about religion and systems of belief in America and the rest of the world? It does not have to be about who has the CORRECT belief. Since when are the atheists 100% SURE that they have the answer? At least the agnostics leave room for other possibilities. RESPECT everyone and realize that religion is a matter of OPINION. Last time I checked, NO ONE has definitive proof of anything or THE answer. The great thing about America is that everyone can practice religion and believe as he/she wishes - regardless if you believe in Catholicism or in a Chocolate planet with nymphomaniacs.
posted by suzeQ at 4:34 AM on December 31, 2007

i think you have to stick with "we do it one way, and your grandparents/cousins do it another way." this is what my folks did--we were jewish, but my entire extended family is catholic. however, we received extensive jewish education.

if you're raising your child to be agnostic, then you need to be actively agnostic, not just passively nonreligious. you might want to hook up with atheist families in your area, or even attend a unitarian church service. religion is a part of the cultural dialogue--you have an advantage because you had that education and rejected it, which is fine. but she won't have that kind of exposure as a child, so her experience of religion will be very different. and if everyone else is talking about it, she will eventually need to understand it and, because she'll want to belong to something (even if it is no more meaningful than a soccer league, she'll still want to be on one team or another) she may be more open to evangelism, having nothing to fill that hole. so you've got to give her something.

otherwise she's going to see it as a choice between catholicism or nothing. catholicism has signing and clubs and pretty shiny things on the altar. nothing has, well, nothing. so i wouldn't be surprised if she finds a lot of appeal in catholicism as an impressionable little one and wants to learn more about it.

finally, you have to get yourself ready for the possibility that she may choose it no matter what you do. she'll have to learn about catholicism in order to understand her family, and you'll have to teach it respectfully so she won't grow up a) thinking the rest of her family is insane, or b) telling THEM that YOU believe the rest of th family is insane.
posted by thinkingwoman at 4:35 AM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]

I think the fact that you're her parents will go a long way toward showing her what you'd like to. Beyond that, explain that people believe different things: that Grandma is Catholic, other people are Protestant, other Christian denominations, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, etc. You don't have to give her a whole history of religion, but do emphasize that there are many faiths. When she's older, let them explore different traditions if she's curious. Making religion taboo will only increase the thrill; negatively judging religiously observant people will make you look narrow-minded and, well, judgmental. Instead, I second christinetheslp's advice:

You might also want to emphasize the values you do want her to hold. You could phrase it like, "Catholics believe that you need to attend church every Sunday to be a good person. But we believe that if you respect others/act responsibly/etc., that's enough."

posted by bassjump at 4:36 AM on December 31, 2007

I was baptized as a request from my grandmother (she died a few days before I was born), grew up in Italy, which is, um, as catholic as it gets (ok, maybe a bit less than Spain and Ireland), in a non religious family. I wasn't communicated neither confirmed (out of my choice, but if I wanted to, no doubt my parents would have let me).

I occasionally went with my grandparents to mass, from time to time I visit churches for the art, I go to masses for funerals or weddings, obviouly not taking "active" part, and -you know what?- it didn't kill me: I grew up an happy, rational atheist who respects other people's views about faith, kindly asking the same in return.

Trust me: your superstition belief of choice, however organized, is not mortal, and most importantly, it is not contagious. The problem will be the zealot, but it's you and your husband, not your MIL, who will eventually shape your daughter's views on the matter. You might have to answer those questions, and you will, with the same honesty you and your husband will have taught her, but don't overthink that, and, most importantly, agnosticism is not a religion, so don't be a zealot yourself!

Ok, I admit I WOULD definitely freak out for the stealth baptism.
posted by _dario at 4:49 AM on December 31, 2007

When your daughter becomes old enough to see the differences between your familys' religious practice and your own, be certain that you or your husband are the ones she chooses to ask those questions of. Be good parents, in other words; that's the more difficult part.

Also, be prepared to answer those questions. Become familiar enough with the Catholic liturgy and scriptures to point out the inconsistencies and inconvenient truths. Your husband, if I understand correctly, was raised Catholic but became agnostic. For many, the decision to put one's faith aside comes before conscious enumeration of the reasons. Be sure that he's ready to explain the reason he's not Catholic in terms that his daughter will understand.

That's how you deal with exposure to religion, but you'll need to take different steps to prevent indoctrination.

Can you trust your relatives to respect the parents' right to stewardship of their children? Will they just bring her to Mass, or will they fast-track her for Confirmation? If for some reason your daughter asks them about your irreligiosity, will they refer her question to you, or use the opportunity to denigrate your disbelief? Your husband may be more inclined to trust his family on this point than yourself; just make sure that he understands saving a favored grandchild from an imagined lake of fire could make an otherwise reasonable person believe that the end justifies the means.
posted by The Confessor at 5:25 AM on December 31, 2007

Give her books. My parents gave me fantasy and mythology books as a child. When it's explained that the mythology books are just fantasy from long ago that some people believed, the next step to "Just like Jesus?" is pretty natural. It also makes you lifelong more understanding of star wars nerds. It's nice if you have people of other religions around to demonstrate. FWIW, my parents sent me to church for the free day care and socialization. If you want a truly harmless religion, just look for anglicans and unitarians.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 5:58 AM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]

Coming from a family that is Southern Baptist on one side and Catholic on the other, I am really grateful that I got to experience both types of religion. I honestly don't think you should worry about this so much, as she will grow older and reach her own conclusions.

The alternative is actively stepping in, discussing your beliefs, and preventing exposure as much as possible, which can backfire or cause resentment if it is overly controlling. At a certain point you should let her go to experience these things and form her own conclusions with the facts at to speak).

Even though I'm grateful now for the experience, as a kid I dreaded going to church (as most do) so for now you can use that to your advantage and come out to be the good guy.

As we grow older though, these things change...and the future is never as expected. This is exactly why you shouldn't put too much emphasis on restricting exposure, but rather be a positive reinforcement and role model for your beliefs (not exactly the answer you're looking for...but could be worth a thought).
posted by samsara at 6:00 AM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]

Ok, I was raised Roman Catholic (altar boy, catholic school and all) and eventually settled on being agnostic. My wife was raised in pretty non religious household and grew up to be practicing Christian. I was debating whether God exists in second grade while wife was joining Church choirs at young age. This is mentioned only to point out that at some point your kids make up their own minds.

I think you should question your child about religious beliefs, repeatedly and over the years as she grows up. Don't do this from the stance of religion is crap, but rather from a natural questioning, which all religions have. This also allows you to explain your point of view and who you are as a person to your kid, which allows them to know and love you for who are, further increasing the bond between the two of you. You should also expose her to other religious (specifically eastern religions) and non-religious ideas to counter any Catholic programming. We did all of these things with our child and while she still identifies herself as Christian (as my wife gleefully gloats) and a believer, she doesn't follow the Church (or anyone) blindly and cheerfully calls bullshit on the more idiotic Christian rituals (to which I gleefully gloat).

So don't push the kid to be agnostic at this age. Expose her to many different things and let form her own path. You're there to guide her, not mold her into this specific thing. Let her breathe and she'll respect your point of view much more when the questions start.

Your post also hints at possible conflicts between you and the extended family about how your child is raised. If that's the case, I strongly suggest you figure out where you're going to lay down the law and where you're going to be more flexible and be willing to back up your beliefs. Free daycare is nice, but if she's undermining your authority, purposefully or not, you need to deal with and now, before she hits the rebellious stage and then you'll really have something to worry about.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:02 AM on December 31, 2007

I grew up surrounded by all sorts of religions. My parents were Muslims (alternating between lax and traditional), and I had friends of almost every religion imaginable. I had my super-pious-Muslim craze at my early teens, then I was really into Wicca and Paganism, and now I'm somewhat non-descript. I was taught in a Muslim school (well, technically a secular government school, but they're all being Islamized), which accounted for the super-pious stage, but I also had my big switch in school too.

Allow your children to experience any religion they wish. I went on a world tour and was brought to all sorts of religious places (one week they had an excursion specifically for Life Philosophies, but most others were due to my host parents. And you can't escape temples in Japan.). Myself and another (Sikh) friend became multi-religious on that trip; we would pay our respects wherever we went, learnt about the religion, even spend a few moments in prayer. It was actually very relaxing and a good chance to reconnect during a very busy and packed schedule. My personal philosophy is that everyone's beliefs are valid and all are the same at the core, so the form and actions don't matter as much.

Also, do take note that no matter how you raise your children, eventually they're going to at least experiment with a faith you won't agree or understand. Let them be. They're trying to figure out their world the best way they can.
posted by divabat at 6:16 AM on December 31, 2007

Why shouldn't your child be able to make her own decisions?

Educate her about religion, and about the alternatives. Give her books so she knows what is out there. Ask her what she thinks about mass, if she thinks it's boring and dull or interesting for some reason. The best counter-programming is an open-minded education. If you tell her that God is a stupid made-up floaty thing in the sky, that is just as forceful and indoctrinating as telling her that she's going straight to hell if she doesn't believe in God.

As she gets older and more cognizant of religion and its intent, she will be more capable of doing as she chooses. And as far as her own faith goes, she's the only one who gets to choose.
posted by that girl at 6:21 AM on December 31, 2007

i'm sorry that this doesn't necessarily answer the question but have you thought about what you might do if your daughter is curious and/or interested in religion?

I dunno.. Some kids are curious about smoking, but that's not really a good reason to let them smoke. Things like smoking, religion, and having sex should be controlled by the parent until such an age where the child is considered mature enough to deal with the potential dangers (usually mid teens).
posted by wackybrit at 6:22 AM on December 31, 2007

As an atheist I had considered fighting church with church. I considered sparingly attending the UU church I really like in my town. They are a great community and seemed very like minded to me ( I guess secular humanist ?).

I think religious people respect ANY religion over no religion and I thought it would be way more fun than Roman catholic church.

This way I could have told relatives I didnt want them to take my kids to a different church, not just don't take them to church.

I also thought it would be a nice way for the kids to have community - and a very diverse one at that.

It's been a none issue so far (we just had baby and nobody said a word when no baptism came up).
posted by beccaj at 6:29 AM on December 31, 2007

The more you try to push your point of view, the more your child will rebel against it.

Instead of trying to indoctrinate your child into an a-religious life, why don't you just keep an open mind and open lines of communication with your kid. That way, when your kid comes to you and asks you why Grandma says everyone is going to hell, you can have a mature discussion about your beliefs and your willingness to help her find her own beliefs. But given the latent hostility in your question, I don't think that is your goal.

Meanwhile, I'd suggest that you do some research yourself and find out more about the religions that you want to protect your children from. You can't have an enlightened conversation if you maintain your hostile attitude.
posted by greekphilosophy at 6:56 AM on December 31, 2007

I hear a lot of people mentioning "I made up my own mind when I was X. Your kid can too so don't overdo it." But has anybody actually brought up the point that many kids DO follow their parents footsteps, no matter what?

Having said that, I'm in a bit of the same situation. My ex-wife harps on me (deist) and my current wife (lapsed Catholic) about not raising my and her daughter Catholic. She insists that because I got her baptised (like I had a choice, right?) I promised God I would raise her Catholic.

As a result, when she goes to her mom's house to visit she goes to vacation bible school over the summer, for instance. When she gets home I have to deprogram her every year. It starts with her coming home with DVDs and CDs and art projects emphasizing religion, and we just put them away and don't talk about it, thereby de-emphasizing them. She'll wanna listen to the CD for a few weeks but then interest tapers off (She's 6, after all).

For a few weeks she'll talk about Jesus a bunch. I mostly counter with "Well, Jesus loves everybody" if it's a bit prejudicial (ah, Arkansas) or a plain "God doesn't think like that" when she asks weird detail-oriented questions. I talk about my own beliefs as a replacement for hers (God is everything, God doesn't think like people do, God doesn't care whether you go to church, etc.). want to raise her with "no" beliefs. I think raising her with a sense of an absent but real God would be better than raising her with no beliefs OR raising her in a religious environment as a form of inoculation.

Remember, most inoculations are a dead/altered form of the disease. Going without is bad, just as going with the live disease you're targeting is ludicrous. Replace the programming with a deist God, or with science facts, or with Buddhism...SOMETHING.

My 2 cents.
posted by taumeson at 7:09 AM on December 31, 2007

My parents just took from whatever religion they liked aesthetically, though nominally Catholic both, so the house was littered with icons of conflicting religions. My grade school included activities like making paper Dradles, and telling stories from Greek mythology, without providing any context. Frankly, without the hard indoctrination, I didn't know what my religion was, nor did I care. My kid brain said of priests, "Why is this man talking so much?" and "Says who?" about mythology. Just confuse her with world religions so the mythology will move to the abstract, and watch out for smarmy religious leaders that try to target her with smooth talk about Adam and Eve riding around on velociraptors.

Quote: And not to nitpick, but you can't be both atheist and agnostic.
Agnostic Atheist [Wikipedia, but the distinction is established.]

posted by evil holiday magic at 7:10 AM on December 31, 2007

Most children find church achingly dull, so this problem will most likely work itself out.
posted by electroboy at 7:15 AM on December 31, 2007

"We don't believe, but lots of good people do" should be enough.

I agree with this approach.

Another data point: I was raised Lutheran but sent to Catholic school because it was the best available (I know a devout Shi'ite Muslim who sent his daughter to Catholic school for the same reason). I can still say the Lord's Prayer and Hail Mary in Latin (great party trick!), but I was never tempted to sign on with the Roman team, and right after I was confirmed as a Lutheran (age 13) my faith fell away from me painlessly and permanently. Teach your daughter to think rationally and don't worry if she seems attracted to Catholicism or anything else—you can't do anything about it, and if she's got a good head on her shoulders she'll get over it.

And as others have said, thinking about it in terms of "counter-programming" probably isn't helpful. Unless there's imminent danger of abduction and forcible enrollment in Opus Dei, there's no point running the risk of alienating the in-laws. Taking her to mass is not doing her harm.
posted by languagehat at 7:16 AM on December 31, 2007

I had an interesting experience with my step-son in his formative years, with a Muslim grandfather and a Muslim cultural background. It was really important to me, as I see it is for you, crazycanuck, that he not be just sucked into the faith by default, and that he have the opportunity to make his own decisions from an informed perspective.

This might sound a bit creepy, but in the end religion is all about the finite nature of life, and about death.

"When you're dead, you're dead, and that's it."

This, to me, is the crux of the matter, and it is something that young kids are interested in, can relate to, and can be made to understand. When kitty died we went and buried him. This is very much a "teachable moment", and you know what they'd teach in a religious family. I taught Nursultan that that was it. Kitty was gone, forever, and that now he was just dead meat and we had to bury him because it would be icky to see his dead meat becasue we loved him when he was alive.

It might seem pretty simplistic, but once you get them to understand this key thing, religion is easy to explain. The other people don't like to think you're just dead. They think blah blah blah... We don't agree, because that was the story some guy told a long long time ago before they had good schools like we do now, etc. etc.

Good luck with it! My boy is nine now, and he has a much more skeptical attitude than most of the rest of his family.
posted by Meatbomb at 7:19 AM on December 31, 2007

So don't push the kid to be agnostic at this age. Expose her to many different things and let form her own path. You're there to guide her, not mold her into this specific thing. Let her breathe and she'll respect your point of view much more when the questions start.

posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:02 AM on December 31 [+] [!]

Replace "agnostic" with artistic, creative, logical, athletic, funny, social, smart, skinny or any of a million other things we want our children to be or not be, and you have the definition of parenting.

Parenting is all about figuring out what is important to your kid and what makes your kid unique.

My daughter, age 12, raised in almost exactly the same situation as you, OP (including Grandma taking her to mass occasionally), has only just now started asking questions about religion. Other kids I know asked questions about religion as soon as they were aware of it. In other words, don't anticipate battles and long, drawn-out explanations when there may not be any to deal with. Your kid may be one who just doesn't care one way or the other.

And as hard as it will be, don't dis your family's religion to your child. After all, they are her relatives too, and presumably you want her to have some respect for them. Let her figure out on her own whether or not their religious beliefs affect her feelings about them.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 7:35 AM on December 31, 2007

I think some other posters may be overstating the appeal of going to mass when you're a child. My memories of mass are not shiny things and singing, although some rare Sunday masses are like that; they're of a cold, dark building with uncomfortable seating, the nasty incense smell, lots of mumbling old people and empty pews, not understanding the long words, and being shushed repeatedly. And this would go double for weekday morning masses, which it sounds like your mother in law attends with your kid. The good masses from a kids POV are Christmas and weddings and communions and such, but those are few and far between. This is not unique to me - I'm from Ireland, so like me pretty much everyone I know is a lapsed Catholic and we all have similar memories. As you can probably tell, I'm a big subscriber to the innoculation theory too.
posted by jamesonandwater at 8:02 AM on December 31, 2007

Like everyone said, you can explain your worldview to your children, and that should be fine. But keep in mind that they're going to believe what they want to believe in the end- after all, your husband was raised Catholic, and look at him now. Be sure not to get too wrapped up in your children living their lives exactly the way you want, because they'll be bound to disappoint you.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 8:14 AM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]

Did you say how old your daughter is? (If so I missed it.)
How enticing do you think being a catholic truly is to a child...?

And I imagine you'll explain it much the same way you will every single other thing that her family does differently to other peoples. To show respect but always feel free to exercise intelligence and independent thoughts. Why should that change?
posted by mu~ha~ha~ha~har at 8:16 AM on December 31, 2007

How can we effectively counter-program my in-laws' religious activities?

Regular exposure to a Catholic environment is its own counter-programming. Seriously. I've commented about inoculation on the green before, and I can't think of a better environment in which to develop a healthy scepticism towards organised religion and hierarchies in general.
posted by holgate at 8:37 AM on December 31, 2007

I think about this a lot, preparing for when I have kids. I think the best way to teach children about religion might be to teach them about all religions- not just the major ones, but the different things people have believed in throughout history. (When I was in my early teens, for instance, Christianity was washed out of me once and for all when I read about how Zeus used to visit towns throughout Greece and impregnate virgins, who would then give birth to a hero...)
The more she knows the more likely she is to understand what creates religion, and the desire for religion.

I haven't read it yet, but I've heard very good things about the book Parenting Beyond Belief

I wasn't thrilled with the book What About Gods, but it might give you some ideas about talking about god to a young child.

Dan Barker has several 'books for young skeptics' that I thought were pretty good.

I also like this open letter Richard Dawkins wrote to his daughter about faith.

I found the book Clear Thinking by Hy Ruchlis to be a wonderful guide for developing clear, cogent explanations of what you believe and why.

My not-particularly-religious mom had a born-again Southern Baptist brother, and she let us know that she loved him for all his great qualities, while believing what he believed was hogwash. You can teach your daughter to love and respect her relatives, while also understanding why you do not agree with them. You can also ask your relatives to respect the way you're raising her.

Remember that she is going to learn about religion no matter what, growing up in this world. The best thing you can give her is the tools to analyze and understand what she chooses to think.
posted by smoakes at 9:22 AM on December 31, 2007

Make sure you explain that hell does not exist, that being "bad" isn't going to lead to pain and suffering in the after life, that there's no old man in the sky watching and judging your little girl. It's quite astonishing how kids can pick up religious stuff that result in fear and anxiety. After all, for many people, religion is just one long guilt trip that begins during their childhood.

Just repeating this one. And teach them that religion is not the way to "be good." One friend got temporarily sucked in to her neighbor's religion because she was raised to always be "good" (however the current adult / authority figure defined it). When she found someone telling her the true way to be most good was to follow Jesus, she began to think her parents had left something out. So, I'd be sure to teach ethics / morals in a way that gives them the tools to resist this. What is being good, how does a kid know how to behave, if it's not whatever rule someone else gives them at the time?
posted by salvia at 10:26 AM on December 31, 2007

I think you (or, quite possibly, your spouse) should at some point have a conversation with your in-laws. Lay down some guidelines as to what is and is not acceptable for them to tell and/or do with your daughter.

If that's not going well, you can always say, kidding-on-the-square, "If you turn my daughter into a Catholic, I'm going to make one of yours an atheist."
posted by callmejay at 11:36 AM on December 31, 2007

I dunno.. Some kids are curious about smoking, but that's not really a good reason to let them smoke. Things like smoking, religion, and having sex should be controlled by the parent until such an age where the child is considered mature enough to deal with the potential dangers (usually mid teens).

sure, if you approach it from the viewpoint that all religion is evil and dangerous…which makes you as blind as religious zealots.

religion doesn't necessarily have to be dangerous. i learned a lot from going to different churches. and the people i met at those churches, or the ppl that i met who identify themselves as religious have been, for the most part, kind, generous, and not interested in pushing their religion on ppl. sure there are crazy ones out there, but i think that they are more the vocal minority than your average church-goer is.
posted by violetk at 12:02 PM on December 31, 2007 [1 favorite]

You are describing my childhood exactly. I suffered no ill effects from the relative's efforts to rescue my brother and me from the godless communists (i.e. my parents) and in fact I am grateful to them for giving me insight and knowledge about catholicism that help me put my parents' issues into some kind of perspective. My grandmother in particular would tell us kids directly that our parents were wrong and godless and were going to go to hell, and I just remember being somewhat bemused by it all. Church was cool, because it was exotic and different and I didn't usually have to go, plus going to church was a guaranteed great way to drive my parents crazy. So instead of resorting to drugs or sex when I was a teen, I could rebel by going to church. You see the irony here. Joke's kind of on me, and my parents must have just busted a gut.

At any rate, I'm not at all religious now, my parents gave me the ability to view religion critically and openly, and my grandparents gave me an understanding of the forms and rituals. Kind of the best of both worlds.

When your child is an adult (or even an older child) she's going to make her own decision as is her right. Just tell her honestly why you don't attend a place of worship or follow any religion. Do not, please, tell her that religious people are wrong or misguided or bad or stupid or any other pejoritive (she will surely figure this out for herself), as this is disrepectful of her grandparents. You can tell her that you view things differently, and you can ask your parents not to take her to church or give her specific religious instructions. But they also have a right to let the child know that religion is important in their lives, and why.
posted by nax at 6:29 PM on January 1, 2008

Since you say that ideally you would not do any religious education at all, this may not be a good option for you. But growing up as a daughter of agnostic parents and Catholic extended family, I found the Unitarian Universalist (UU) religious education classes that I attended on Sundays to be very valuable. We were taught that different people around the world observe many different religions or none at all, and it was up to us to figure out over time what we believed ("a free and responsible search for truth and meaning," as UUs put it.) We learned a lot about the various religions' teachings, rituals, etc, in a way that did not try to convince us that any of it was true but did encourage respect for the beliefs of others-- this would probably be good for your daughter's relationship with her relatives, but may not jive well with you if you two do not have that level of respect for religion and don't want her to be taught in that way. It can also be beneficial in a social/community way-- she'll be around other kids whose parents are not religious (UU congregations usually get a mix of beliefs but usually there's a very large agnostic contingent and some who are atheist), and have a church to go to on Sundays.

For me, it was especially useful in reinforcing the notion that while my grandmother felt very strongly about her Catholic beliefs, there were other people who had completely different and contradictory beliefs who felt just as strongly, so why should I believe hers over something else because of the randomness of being her granddaughter? Which was really powerful to me and shored up my agnosticism quite nicely.

In fact, I think that's a really important lesson, whether you get her involved with the UUs or not-- making sure your daughter understands that there are lots of different religions that people feel very devoutly about will help her have a better context than only comparing her relatives' genuine and devout belief with her parents' "well, we just don't believe any of that is true." I'd suggest even bringing her to other religions' observances once or twice if you can (or maybe finding some on DVD?), especially if she's going to Mass on a regular basis and is asking questions about it, so she's getting the message ("Some people like Grandma go to Mass and do X because they think that's what God wants, and some people go to a synagogue and do Y because they think that's what God wants, and some people go to a mosque and do Z because they think that's what God wants, and some people like Mommy and Daddy don't do any of those things because we don't think there is a God.")
posted by EmilyClimbs at 7:20 PM on January 1, 2008

I just recently experienced something like this and it floored me. My daughter and I were at the toy store listing things out for Christmas and since she loves the whole Harry Potter craze, we went to a little wizard section of the store and she saw a guy with a long beard and robe and said "That's God." Imagine those crazy movies when everything gets slow and all you hear is your blood rushing and your heart beating, that was me. I asked her where she heard that word and she said it was from her grandma, my mom, when we went to Church. I had only allowed my daughter to be taken to Church, with my husband and myself present, for midnight mass last year and I remember my mother had about 10 minutes alone with her. So I was definitely surprised that my daughter remembered, at the age of 5, a conversation a year ago. Granted, my husband and I only went to appease my parents.

Either way, sorry to get sidetracked, my husband and I had the religion talk with her. We told her that religion was similar to stories she reads in books. Some people believe in different stories and we even went as far to tell her that some people even fight about it. We told her what her father and I believed, pure atheists, and we explained to her why we did. I told her that she, once she became older and found out about these stories for herself, could pick which one she wanted to believe in. The important factor was, and this is something I truly hope you stress with your child, tolerance. My husband and I have always told our daughter that being different does not, in any way, mean being bad. When kids are young and they see things different from what they have at home, there is the mass hysteria in their head and they automatically have an aversion to it (something which, unfortunately, most adults have not grown out of).

Tell her that grandma believes in something you do not. This does not mean you do not love grandma or think grandma is stupid, but people like different things, just like some people like chocolate and others vanilla. I know, religion is much more complicated than that, but as young as she is, we have to simplify things as parents. Tell her that growing up means thinking for yourself. It does not mean believing in everything everyone tells you just to make them happy or to get along with everyone, that she needs to remember all that she is learning and while she grows up, she can decide what she wants to believe and what activities she wants to do.

Keep your religion relationship with her open. Otherwise, if you restrict her, she is going to rebel and be curious about what she is prohibited from and you will be creating a rift with your in laws. But do make a strong point and continuous message about what you and her father and your household believes in. She needs to learn both sides of everything, which is a good lesson to teach a child anyway.
posted by dnthomps at 11:23 PM on January 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

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