Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Dealing with religion in your family

Like I've said before, I don't really come from a religious family. While both of my parents went to church as children, they're both now pretty atheistic/agnostic. Both of my half-brothers were also forced to go to church by my dad's first wife, to the chagrin of my dad, but they're also not very religious now. The problem started once my brother (the younger of the two) got married.

Now, I love my in-laws - they're honestly great people. I still don't think they're very religious, as they never really bring anything up. I think they're more traditional than anything. My brother and his wife got married in a chapel, had a fairly liberal wishy-washy Christian ceremony, some of the extended in-laws go to church every Sunday, my twin nephews were baptized but no one seemed to take it super seriously...etc.

However, there is religion sneaking in, and this is where I'm concerned.

Now, my sister-in-law's Grandma is wonderfully nice, don't get me wrong. But Great-Grandma is definitely the most religious one of the bunch. At their baptism, she got them two little stuffed lambs that said the Lord's prayer when you poked their bellies. Christmas had some vaguely religious toy that I forget. This Easter the twins got "My First Bible," a shiny picture book. I tried to keep my eyes from bugging out too much when I saw it. My sister-in-law's aunt snatched it up gleefully and turned to a 4-year old girl there (daughter of a family friend):

Aunt: Ooooo, so have you heard the story of Adam and Eve?
Girl: (completely uninterested) No. (continues to play with her toy)
Aunt: ...Oh (horrified look at how a four year old could not have been exposed to this by now)

While they're not my kids, they are my nephews. I still feel mildly responsible for them, and I'd hate to see them indoctrinated into religion. I'm not sure what I can really do, though. I don't feel comfortable outing myself as an atheist to that part of my family, especially since I'm the boy's Godmother. I lied in a church (along with my oldest brother) that I was a good Christian and would raise the boys in a good Christian manner, because that was the better alternative than coming out (and I really didn't have much of a choice, long story). My brother and sister-in-law would probably be fine with it, since I don't think they're that religious, but I'm afraid the knowledge would spread past them.

I so want to buy them "Parenting Beyond Belief" for Christmas, but I can't without other family members seeing them opening it. Should I just be the geeky aunt who buys the boys dinosaur toys and chemistry sets and Legos? Nature documentaries and Bill Nye and stuff about the Big Bang? His Dark Materials to counteract the Chronicles of Narnia? Maybe I can try to instill scientific thinking and hope that does the trick. I don't want to indoctrinate them into atheism or anything - I just hate to see them indoctrinated at all, because children can be so impressionable.

Maybe I should worry about all of this once they're actually able to, you know, talk. And of course, who knows. Maybe by the time they can read, Richard Dawkins will come out with his long awaited sequel to the God Delusion:
You can tell I made this a while ago, because Hillary Duff is old news. Hannah Montana is the shiznit now. Or so I'm told.


  1. Hey, I was indoctrinated since my baptism as an infant. I went to church every week (sometimes more, i.e. Easter weekends) for 18 years of my life. I went to Youth Group from like 2nd grade to 11th grade. And when I was young, I was all into it, thinking that it was what I was supposed to do because God wanted me to. Then when I got older, I realized that was stupid, and I cursed my parents for bringing me up that way, but realized they were only doing it because they thought it was right.

    Anyway, my point is, if they're smart, they'll also realize that the religion they grew up on is not necessarily correct. They don't need anyone to tell them so, they just need time to figure it out. Just give them Legos and hope everything works out =)

  2. Unfortunately I have witnessed this from both sides without a real clear resolution. For the most part I feel that exposing children to religious ideas is immoral and a bit like exposing them to pornography or violence in a deliberate attempt to influence their thinking. But I have also seen kids raised without any structure, not by intelligent thoughtful caring atheist parents but by lazy loser apathetic atheist parents. (And honestly how they turn out has nothing to do with the parents being atheist and entirely to do with the lazy loser apathetic part). But the young mind (IMO) looks for patterns and when no clear patterns are given they can rush to assumptions that can be difficult to outgrow.
    As Dawkins pointed out religion is a virus of thought, one that the scientific method can cure in my opinion. But there are other viruses of thought that can take root in the place of religion that might be harder to dislodge, (or at least take longer to dislodge). Sometimes I wonder if it is better to allow religion to take root in a child’s mind so that they can mentally disassemble it later when they have matured enough to rebuild their world view rationally. I’m probably wrong but it’s a thought. Let their parents fill their heads with simple meme’s, I on occasion play along and over-encourage on some things, “Did you know that Jesus was DEAD? And then he woke up three days later and started eating the apostles’ brains?” (Sorry wrong story). And as they get older help them re-build their world view using the scientific method.

  3. Yep you are in a tough spot. While it is horrible to see any child brain washed. They are the parents, and it is their call. I feel it would be better to be the nerdy aunt and buy those dinosaurs that existed 100+million years ago. Bill Nye the science guy is great. Anything of interest that teaches them the truth. When they find out the parents think the world is 6k old and believe noahs ark held all the animals as God drowned the people they will quit believing. Then the kid will be smarter than old mum -n- dad.

  4. Definitely going for the geeky aunt stuff, especially go for Legos(combine those legos with some Sci-Fi and let the fun begin). I think I might have to do some of the geeky stuff when I become an uncle later this year..

    Of course they could get lucky like I did. While my parents attempted to indoctrinate me into their religionious literal interpretation of all things Mormonism, it still never clashed with science.

  5. I think it's a great idea to teach them about science. There are lots of things that kids would find interesting which could immunize them against indoctrination. For instance, dinosaurs, astronomy, animals, math, etc.

    The bible specifies that Pi is equal to 3. Not 3.14, or any other varying degree of precision. Just plain old 3. Even the most dogmatic fundamentalist refuses to believe that Pi equals 3.

    Stars are also a great example. You can say something like, "Stars are billions of years old, and it takes the light millions of years to get here. What we see when we look at a star is like a picture taken millions of years ago."

    Then some day, when someone tells them that the universe is less than 10,000 years old, they'll wonder why we can see light from stars since there hasn't been enough time for the light to reach us yet.

    As for animals, I think you're the perfect person to explain evolution to them. I'm sure you could explain it far better than most people could. I dare say that the biggest thing going for religion is that most people think they understand evolution, but most of them are completely wrong.

    As for animal related information, you can give examples like the following:

    *It's believed that there are 8 million species of beetle. If Noah had a male and female of each species, that would be 16 million beetles. If you put 16 million beetles thorax to antenae, you would have a line of beetles over 252 miles long. That's almost long enough to cross Indiana twice (Wikipedia lists Indiana as being 140 miles wide)!

    *If you stacked them on top of each-other, they would be over 300,000 feet tall, which is roughly ten times higher than a commercial jetliner flies.

    *If you stacked them up 500 beetles high, 250 beetles wide, and 125 deep, they'd be 10 and a half feet in each direction (Point to someone who's 5 foot 3 and say, "That's twice as tall as Tim!"). At that size, the beetles on the bottom would be crushed to death. Not to mention, many beetles are omnivores, meaning that some of the beetles would try to eat the others. Many of them would need to be stored in separate areas, which would make them take up even more space.

    *Let alone what you'd need to do to feed 16 million beetles for 40 days, and that's just what Noah would have to do for the beetles!

    I think that little bits of information like this will be of great value to them later in life. I grew up an atheist, like you. So it's a little difficult for me to understand what really deconverts a person.

    However, Dan Barker said that a strong interest in science and a general intellectual curiosity were what really pushed him away from religion. In fact, I think he said Scientific American had an article that really shook his beliefs many years ago.

    Also, the Everything Else Atheist (another female atheist blogger who's also a biological sciences student -Do you have a lost twin?-) said that her intellectual curiosity played a similar role in her deconversion. She was frequently bothered by the anti-scientific things that her religious friends said. Years later she said that she became a deist, an eventually an atheist.

    I think it's very important to instill a strong sense of curiosity in a child. Teach them that it's always okay to ask questions, and that no question is off limits.

    Teach them to recognize circular logic, and refuse to accept it as a valid explanation. You can easily do this by playing logic games with them where you make some outlandish claim and they have to disprove you. Use nothing but circular logic to prove your point. Teach them how to spot your circular logic and call you on it.

    Hopefully they'll be able to use those skills later in life when presented with "proof" of god's existence. Games like this have the added benefit of seeming completely harmless, even to the religious, due to the context switch.

    Ultimately, curiosity and a willingness to use one's brain are the only defenses against illogical belief, and they're things that too many people lack.

  6. Pleeeeease be the geeky aunt? Get them some of the more science-y Klutz books. I can pretty much blame Explorabook (http://www.klutz.com/catalog/product/3100) for getting me started on science.

    Also, further the velociraptor meme into the next generation! Kids know dinosaurs are awesome.

  7. Here is a compelling (and hilarious if it were not such a funny subject) cartoon about conversations between god and some angels as he is about to come to earth to create Jesus. You will find a lot of good ideas here:

  8. Teach them to recognize circular logic, and refuse to accept it as a valid explanation.You do realise that all scientific theories are based on circular logic, namely the problem of induction? (Sorry, I couldn't resist the snark - induction does work, the problem is we can't prove it does)

    The bible specifies that Pi is equal to 3. Not 3.14, or any other varying degree of precision. Just plain old 3. Even the most dogmatic fundamentalist refuses to believe that Pi equals 3.Please don't use this example - it's a false example. The Bible does not ever say that the ratio between a circle's diameter and circumference is 1:3; what it does do is describe a circular bowl and give approximate figures for its diameter and circumference, that just happen to be in the ratio of 1:3. A number of different explanations have been proposed for this, ranging from simple measurement error to comparing unlike figures (there are textual indications that the circumference was measured around the outside edge of the bowl, whereas the diameter was measured from inside lip to inside lip).

    Incidentally, I'm a very scientifically-minded person and also a theist. Make of that what you will.

    From my own experience as people tried to indoctrinate me (it didn't take, I converted from atheism to Christianity later in life), the reason I rejected them was because the things they said about the way the world worked (miracles and such) just didn't match up against what I could see with my own eyes.

    So my advice would be the same as others' - encourage your young relatives to question everything (for example, "God made it rain" - "how did God make it rain?" etc) It may not be enough to make them atheist, but at least if they choose to become theists, they will know why they are choosing that path, and have the tools to spot the large amount of BS that too many indoctrinators use.