Note: When letter writers sign with their first names instead of a pseudonym or nickname, I randomly change their name for added anonymity.
Let me start by saying I have truly enjoyed your column. You give a lot of good advice I find myself agreeing with, and you provide a lot of food for thought. That said, I’ve got a problem and could use some help. I’ve delayed in writing this as the situation has become a bit fluid of late, but it’s still a “problem” and I still don’t know what to do.
Alright, the problem is this. I have been an atheist for years now. It’s no secret, I wear my “out” pin and shirt constantly and can regularly be seen reading the works of Dawkins or Hitchens or whomever. The problem, though is that (until I get married next year) I’m living with my mother, sister, and 4 year old nephew and the adults have (rather suddenly) decided they’re all about church. Can’t miss a week, have to read The Shack and the books about The Shack etc. They’ve only started since my nephew was born and drag him to church every week and enroll him in church sports (for which he earns rewards for parroting scripture he doesn’t even almost understand).
Now, I love my family, but I have a serious problem with what I can only see as indoctrination. The same was done to me as a kid and it’s only through critical thinking, actually reading the entire bible, and comparing it with other things and other thoughts that I went from agnostic to atheist to “strong atheist”. I now look back on the time I was forced into church at a young age, forced into baptism when I clearly did not want to, made to participate in choirs and parrot scripture, as some of the worst parts of my young life. It all feels false and…well abuse is too far but it certainly wasn’t good for me.
I’d been planning to wait until the kid was old enough to understand the way the world works and the idea of gods/no gods critically and sit him down and have a talk with him, but he’s now in church so often that (so clearly doing it to please) he initiates grace at dinner at times and (again, to please) mentions god doing this, god doing that (god made it rain!). It hurts me to see this. I agree with Dawkins that the idea of labeling a child that age “Christian” makes about as much sense as labeling them “Democrat”.
I guess what I’m asking is, what can I do? When can I sit him down and talk to him about this? Am I overreacting to the whole thing? Is it even my place? I love him like a son, but he’s still a nephew. It’s worse when I add in that I’m moving not down the street, but out of the country, as soon as possible, making that talk that much harder. I know I can’t sit him down and tell him what I think about all of this now. At best he’d have no idea what I’m saying and at worst he’d just parrot what I say and get himself into some kind of trouble.
I need advice on how to handle this. From you, and from anyone else (who has been in the same boat especially),
Imagine if you were a very religious evangelist, and you had a young nephew who was being raised by atheists. You might really want to “save” him, to influence him against his parent’s views as much as possible in the little time you have before you move away. You would probably only confuse or frighten the four year-old, and you might end up being banned by his parents from ever being alone with him, or perhaps from ever even seeing him.
Be careful not to fall into a similar way of thinking that he must be “saved” from Christianity.
You have serious limitations to your influence, and it could be taken away completely if you over play your hand. You’re his uncle or aunt, not his parent. In principle, I agree with you that the kind of mindless indoctrination you’ve described is repugnant, but the law of the land permits it, and could be used to forbid you from interfering if you tried. You might try to argue with your sister and your mother that such programming of the boy is wrong, but I doubt you’d get anywhere. They’d more likely become suspicious of anything you do with him.
When you remember your own childhood you tap into your own pain, and it’s very understandable that you’d want to spare him that. But he may not end up suffering as you did. There are so many variables that it is impossible to predict how he will respond to his religious upbringing.
You went through similar brainwashing, but somehow you emerged with your brain still intact. It doesn’t sound like anyone overtly “saved” you from religion. Your own intelligence and courage did that, along with what sounds like a natural independence. Your young nephew may have those qualities as strongly as you, or he may not.
However, he doesn’t have to be left entirely on his own in this.
I have very seldom heard apostates describe having had important figures in their young lives who directly and deliberately pulled them out of their religiosity, but they often remember people who subtly influenced them by example. These people encouraged the youngsters to think freely, boldly and skeptically simply by modeling it. Usually there are more than one of these influences in the young persons’ lives, so no one represents their “only chance.”
Kids might have parents who stress blind faith, tradition and unquestioning obedience, but the lucky ones may also have a free-thinking relative, perhaps an aunt or uncle who loves them just for who they are, rather than for how well they can mimic dogma. The kids respond well to that kind of love, and look forward to their times together. “My aunt/uncle likes me just for me, and I don’t feel stupid or bad around her/him. She/He’s fun and interesting.”
So be his fun uncle or aunt. Love him profusely, and have as much fun with him as you can in the limited time you have before you leave. Praise him when he shows curiosity or clear thinking, but most importantly, without being contrived or obvious, just be your own curious and clear-thinking self in front of him. Not about religion per se, but all sorts of things.
Give him a two lens folding pocket jeweler’s loupe, one with plenty of magnification, and set him loose in the back yard. The saw tooth edge of a blade of grass looking like the teeth of a T-Rex can be far more astonishing, and in the long run more compelling than any fantasies of scripture. When he’s older and you’re far away, send him a modest Dobsonian telescope. They’re very easy to use. Tell him that even though you’re on the other side of the world, you’ll meet him on the Sea of Tranquility when you and he observe the moon on the same night.
When you move out of the country, establish a regular habit of phoning, writing, e-mailing, face-booking, instant messaging or video chatting with him. Make it very regular, something he’ll look forward to. Tell him about your adventures in the faraway land, and listen, listen, listen to all his stories as he grows from little boy, to youth, to teen, to young man. As long as you don’t alarm his mother or grandmother about doing any “indoctrinating” of your own, the relationship of trust, love and respect that you will have built will permit the two of you to gradually speak more frankly and candidly about many matters, including religion.
But in the end, he must make his own choices. He may choose to follow the way his early indoctrination started, or he may find a new path. It might resemble yours, or it might be utterly different from both yours and his parents’. If he ever does come to doubt his beliefs, it will probably be a troubling time for him, and you can offer him solace and encouragement, while still respecting his need to make his own decisions. At the very least, he will have had an excellent example of a free-thinking person who is good and who loves him.
The point is that you will have always remained true to loving him for himself, not for his agreeing with your opinions. That faithfulness to him will be a treasure that will bring both of you wonderful benefits, regardless of what he does with his beliefs.
He’s a lucky nephew. I wish both of you a wonderful journey.