The Complexities of a Mixed Religion Family

Neil Carter has a blog post that really resonated with me because of my own background growing up in a mixed-religion family. Neil is an atheist, his ex-wife is a Christian and all four of their daughters (all still young enough to live at home) are Christian as well. That leads to all manner of interesting conversations and delicate situations to navigate. His 11-year old daughter has now begun evangelizing him. His reaction:

I’m being evangelized by my own preteen daughter.

So How Do I Feel About This?

Honestly, I’m proud of my daughter. All my girls are sharp as tacks, if I do say so myself, and this one continues to amaze me with how much she loves to think and learn. She absorbs everything like a sponge, and always wants to know more (and boy does she love to talk about it while she’s doing it). Naturally, her approach to her faith is similarly passionate and curious, and it’s only natural that she would want her Daddy to share her faith along with everyone else she loves. She’s evangelizing me because she loves me and she believes this is something I need.

I fully expect this process may last for years. My girls are pretty thoroughly immersed in Baptist youth culture, and they have already internalized the evangelical Christian message just as I did during my teen years. Now that I’m on the outside of that culture, I have plenty of objections to things they are being taught, but I am greatly outnumbered so I have to be very careful and pick my battles. Maintaining a good and comfortable relationship with my girls is of the utmost importance to me, so unlike many of my other atheist friends, I will not be burning all my bridges any time soon if there’s anything I can do to prevent it.

Most of the time we don’t discuss our differences. My girls don’t like conflict (it’s a family trait), so they don’t ask very many questions about this. I almost have to initiate any conversations about our differences myself, and frankly I’m not too keen on doing that much myself because I’m not interested in drawing much attention to what separates us. What matters most to me is enjoying each other’s company and watching them grow into the little women they are becoming. I’ve often said that I’m far less concerned about what they believe and much more concerned about the kind of women they become. So far I’m immensely pleased with how they’re turning out, and I have hopes that we will be able to work around this ideological and cultural difference that has come between us.

Obviously it is problematic that I write about my atheism for public consumption. We live on opposite sides of a culture war. This may one day prove a hurdle for my girls to get over. But this is who I am, and part of our family’s life involves learning to navigate these rocky paths with as much empathy and mutual consideration as we can manage. So far my girls and I seem to be making it alright. I would be lying if I said I don’t have plenty of fears that one day they will decide they can no longer trust me because I don’t agree with their other sources of authority. But we all love each other very much and that seems to be making things work out just fine.

Interestingly, he’s written many letters to his daughters that they can read later if they’re interested. Those letters explain why he believes what he believes. I think back to my own experience. I was raised by an atheist father and a Pentecostal stepmother, and as a teenager I became a devout Christian. I was one of the leaders of the local Youth for Christ group.

Not once in those years did my father ever try to talk me out of it. In fact, he never mentioned it at all. That was fairly unusual, because we would talk very honestly about everything else. He was always challenging me to think for myself and to question what I’d been taught. But on religion, he never really said much once I became a Christian. I asked him as an adult why he didn’t say anything about it and he said, “I knew I’d raised you to think for yourself and I knew you’d figure it out on your own.” He was right. One more thing I love about my dad.

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  • eric

    He was always challenging me to think for myself and to question what I’d been taught. But on religion, he never really said much once I became a Christian

    Obviously that was intentional. Its a good approach: use easy, non-emotional examples and problems to teach critical thinking until the student is so good at it that doing it becomes secondhand. They start to use that mental lever on everything, without having to be prompted to do so. Then let the student figure out for themselves that they can apply those same thought processes to the internal beliefs that have a high emotional or personal investment for them. Sure, it won’t work every time. Nothing does. But its probably going to work more often than trying to force an immediate discussion of the high-emotion beliefs before they trust and believe in critical thinking methods.

  • Modusoperandi

    “Trust”? “Critical thinking”? “Not burning bridges”? “Talking about Athiesm”?

    No wonder America is in such bad shape now!!!*


    * Thanks, Obama!

  • Doc Bill

    My kids never showed any interest in church and the seem to have gotten along with their church-going friends in school. Now they’re all grown up.

    When my daughter was in grade school she had a Mormon friend who invited her to church every Sunday, and she started going. One day, I think she was in the third grade at the time, she came home and raved about much fun it was going to church. When I asked her why she looked at me and said very seriously, “Well, cookies! Duh!”

  • paul

    I wonder what sort of science education his “sharp as tacks” daughters are getting.

  • otrame

    I didn’t know my dad was an atheist until I was an adult. I knew he wasn’t much interested in religion, but as my mother insisted we go to Sunday school he took us without the slightest hint that he did not approve. The Sunday school thing stopped the day my sister came home in tears because her Sunday school teacher had gone off on a hell fire and brimstone sermon and scared her half to death. This in a very non-denominational church on an Air Force Base. My mom went down there and read the chaplain the riot act and we never went to Sunday school again.

    He says he decided it was all bunk before he was 10 years old. I was 16 when I read the Bible and became an atheist.

    When my son, at age 14 came home and told me he had been saved, I was neither concerned nor surprised. All his closest friends were religious. I told him okay, that was his choice and told him I would be happy to take him to church or other activities. A few months later, after going to church every Sunday with a friend, he said, “Mom, those people are crazy.” I’m not sure when he decided he was an atheist, but he is now married to a woman of faith who has raised her child in her parents’ church. We all get along fine. As I have said before, I don’t care what you believe. I only care about what you do.

  • doublereed

    That sounds really awkward and uncomfortable. My household is secular jewish. I didn’t even get into anything ‘atheist’ until after I left for college, and even that can be kind of awkward.

    One of the reasons I think religion is awful is because I don’t think people actually like it. It divides people almost immediately and makes things filled with awkward silences or strong declarations of belief. Talking about religion in many contexts is a faux pas (if not a red flag). Even very religious people many times want to date someone who is less religious than they are. Hell, I think that’s part of the reason why people don’t like atheists and anti-religionists: because they actually talk about religion.

  • Sastra

    doublereed #6 wrote:

    Hell, I think that’s part of the reason why people don’t like atheists and anti-religionists: because they actually talk about religion.

    I think you’re right, at least in part. It’s hard to underestimate how much many people hate thinking about religion, let alone talking about it. And yet it’s the most important truth and the meaning of life — or so they will say. I suspect this disconnect is part of the reason they are uncomfortable in the first place.

  • ashleybell

    if only religious parents could be as awesome regarding their atheist kids

  • my2cents

    This is perfect for me. My wife is Christian but more like a diet version. She has never once gone to church since we’ve met but is a believer and prays nightly before bed. I’m not strongly opposed to my son going to church but I’d rather he not unless he specifically asks to. I will say if he ever does go to church and tries to evangelize me I will probably be furious. Yet I realize if one is divorced and only see their children once and and every other weekend or something like that, they will take extra care not to burn any bridges.