Ask Richard: Teaching My Kids Religious Tolerance and Science at the Same Time

Note: Letter writers’ names are changed for their privacy.

Richard,

My non-religious (as of yet) kids (ages eleven and eight) go to my in-law’s church occasionally when they stay over Saturday night. They then attend the Sunday school portion with their rather religious cousins. When they get home, we discuss what they talked about and they are welcome to ask me or my husband questions about it. I figure it is a good way to get them exposed directly to other ways of thinking and to what the majority of our community thinks about life.

In the past, the kids were told about hell and god’s wrath and such like, not really a big deal for our kids since they have no belief in an afterlife at this point, making hell impossible.

But last week, they were told that evolution is a lie. Straight out, a lie. I was horrified. My gut reaction was, “They are never going there again.” But, then my eleven-year-old son said the youth leader had been talking about the 10 commandments and about how you can’t lie and said he thought it was funny that the group leader then lied to all the kids about evolution not having any fossils to back it up. So I think my son caught on pretty quickly that what they are hearing is not necessarily the truth. But my eight-year-old daughter is less likely to confront the words of an authority figure in such a blatant manner. I personally draw the religious tolerance line at direct lies and misrepresentation of basic scientific tools, especially when it comes to life sciences.

I am having a really, really hard time balancing my worldview with that of my in-laws without insulting the one they hear in this church. I don’t want my kids to think less of these people, but how do I do that when the man stands up there and spouts ignorance at them?

We ended up talking about all the evidence that does back up evolution and why the Sunday school leader might have gotten the impression that it doesn’t. Then we also talked about how a person in authority does not necessarily have the correct answers and that you can’t trust someone based solely on the fact that they are in a position of authority. And that same statement goes for science as well. Every statement should be questioned if it seems out of place with the natural world.

So the lesson they learned at Sunday school was to not blindly accept what they are told, not even from their teachers or their parents. Not really the lesson I wanted them to get at such a young age, but I am not sure what else I could have said.

I still think going to church with their grandparents is a good idea, but how am I supposed to teach my kids religious tolerance when the religious make such untenable statements? How do I keep my kids (or myself for that matter) from feeling superior and likely set aside from the rest of our community?

Thanks for you time,
Laurie

Dear Laurie,

Your kids are going to be fine. They have a superb teacher.

I think that you’ve been handling things very well. The discussions you have been having about what they heard at the church have been excellent. You are teaching them good habits of critical thinking, including being willing to question a claim by science just as closely as a claim by religion. Good for you.

Don’t worry too much about their learning to even question your knowledge. You are building a relationship with them based on respect and honesty. In the long run, that will give you much more credibility in their eyes than a relationship based on the authority of force.

I printed your entire letter because so much of it is good advice for parents in a similar situation. The only parts where I see you’re uncomfortable are in these two statements:

I am having a really, really hard time balancing my worldview with that of my in-laws without insulting the one they hear in this church. I don’t want my kids to think less of these people, but how do I do that when the man stands up there and spouts ignorance at them?

…but how am I supposed to teach my kids religious tolerance when the religious make such untenable statements? How do I keep my kids (or myself for that matter) from feeling superior and likely set aside from the rest of our community?

By watching you as well as listening to you, this is what I think your children are learning at their own levels:

There is what you think of a person’s beliefs, and then there’s how you treat that person. You can consider their beliefs to be ridiculous, yet you don’t have to put effort into openly ridiculing the person. You can lack respect for their beliefs, yet you can still treat the person respectfully.

The kind of religious tolerance I think you want your kids to practice consists of three things:

  • Supporting civil rights: Refraining from interfering with the free belief and practice of someone else’s religion, as long as that practice does not violate civil law.
  • General respectful conduct: Refraining from unnecessary, out-of-context, cruel or humiliating ridicule or derision of someone’s religious beliefs.
  • Discretion: Knowing when to challenge a religious claim and when to disregard it; who to confront, and who to quietly abide; knowing when to call something a lie, when to call it ignorance, and whether or not either course is worth it; knowing how to balance principles, prudence and pragmatics in each case. Discretion is an on-going, lifelong lesson. We learn it from wise teachers and from painful mistakes.

Religious tolerance does not require making concessions to, or allowing lower standards for claims and practices that are either absurd or harmful. It does not require pretending agreement. Those are optional behaviors that are about dealing with the social situation at hand. The skill of discretion helps us find our way through the ambiguous, never cut-and-dry complexities of delicate relationships.

I think your two kids are already picking up on these distinctions by simply watching you interact with their grandparents, and then having those excellent discussions later at home. They’re realizing that disagreeing with their grandparents’ beliefs is not the same as “insulting” their grandparents. They can see that finding the ever-shifting balance of truthfulness and kindness is important to you, and so it will be important to them as well.

You don’t want them to “think less of these people.” Well, it’s inevitable that they’re going to think less of their opinions, but they don’t have to think less of them as persons.

You want to keep them from feeling superior and likely set aside from the rest of your community. Well, their method of thinking is superior, and they’re already different from the community. You just don’t want them to act like snobs, or to think that they are intrinsically superior beings in every way. As they grow and interact with the community, they will try out different stances, and some may be a bit over the top. Because of your respect-based relationship with them, you will be able to gently admonish them if they get too big for their britches, and they will make a correction.

There will come a time when the difference between what you are teaching them and what they’re hearing at church will be stretched to its limit, and then I think it will be time to let them stay home. They’ll probably tell you when they’ve reached that point. You will have exposed them enough to religious ideas and that way of thinking, and as they grow to teens and then adults, they will have valuable skills for constructively dealing with the religious people around them.

As I said, you are a superb teacher for them. The best teachers want their students to surpass them. Be open and ready for learning lessons of wisdom from them. Of the many joys of parenting, that is one of the best.

Richard

You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. There is a very large number of letters. I am sorry if I am unable to respond in a timely manner.

About Richard Wade

Richard Wade is a retired Marriage and Family Therapist living in California.

  • Lambert

    Sunday School is certainly not the place for your kids to see “what the majority of our community thinks about life”. That should happen in your home.

    Sunday School is the number 1 indoctrination center where they can say anything they like and as you are not there, nor do you have the ability to check the “curriculum” in advance, you are simple leaving your children to the full force of adult authority figures spouting rubbish, and peer pressure from the unfortunate kids who have already been sold on the X-tian message.

  • Liz

    I don’t see why the writer is so worried about “evolution is a lie” but doesn’t care that these people are telling her kids about heaven and hell and all that other shit. How isn’t everything else they’re telling her kids a ‘straight out lie’?

    It’s not like the church/sunday school is saying ‘this is what we believe..’ or ‘this might be true’. They are telling these children that this IS the truth, so how is that any different?

    Is it because evolution being fake is easier to believe in than God or Jesus? I think the writer is being absolutely ridiculous in finding this teaching horrific while being okay with whatever the hell else they’re brainwashing her children with. If it bothers you, don’t let them go to the church. Teach them about other beliefs at home. At home you can add the words, “this is what some people think…” to the beginning of your sentences and you won’t have to worry about your 8 year old being confused when people are telling her contradicting statements.

  • Luther

    Just an idea/suggestion.

    It might be useful if an opportunity comes along for your children to visit some other faiths and see some different fact free views.

    What they are learning seems quite evangelical. It might be interesting if they had to opportunity to do an equivalent visit to services/indoctrination in more liberal protestant, Jewish, Islamic, or Hindi traditions.

    Maybe you and they could listen to some Christian radio or TV. Here in CT we have a weird evangelical congregation that rents 1/2 hour each week on a major channel for their leader to debate (and manage the debate) with college students.

    My Catholic wife can’t stand it. But I think its quite entertaining.

  • Siamang

    Maybe it’s the age of my child (7), or it’s my attitude, but my take on it is this: My child is still getting the hang of school. We’re trying to instill the notion that teachers are trustworthy, that learning is an awesome adventure, etc.

    I absolutely would put my foot down against this sort of thing. This is an emotionally strong reaction for me, the notion that some stranger would be lying to my child and exploiting the situation to ape the classroom experience. I owe my child honesty. I owe her the best education she can get. I cannot abide lies being told to children. Though I cannot protect other children, I can protect mine.

    Lie to my child under color of authority and you’ll hear from me. I’ll invite you, the pastor, and the entire congregation to the local Natural History Museum, where we’ll all have a little chat with visual aids.

    I’d have a frank talk with the in-laws about them going to Sunday School. I’d lay it out straight: we’re trying to raise your grandchildren to have respect for you and your beliefs. But I cannot help them have that respect if they themselves see your Sunday School teachers lie to the children. They have lost some measure of respect for your beliefs though the actions of your church. I suggest you either refrain from bringing them to Sunday school, or else find a church that doesn’t teach scientific falsehoods to children.

    I’m sorry, but there’s no respect from me for disrespectable behavior. I’d feel the exact same way if a church was teaching my daughter that her grandmothers were hellbound for being gay.

    Which brings me to the other troubling aspect of this church Laurie mentions. I know your kids aren’t frightened by the hell talk (or you seem to think they aren’t… kids aren’t always honest about their fears), but who else is on that “going to Hell list”?

    Are they teaching that you and your husband are going to Hell? Are gays? Are Muslims?

    At what point does this cease to be about learning what your community believes, and it starts to be a lesson in how not to speak up when someone says something bigoted?

    “Be quiet, be polite, fold your hands and listen” isn’t the appropriate response to bigotry, lies, etc.

    How do I keep my kids (or myself for that matter) from feeling superior and likely set aside from the rest of our community?

    You don’t. Going to Sunday School is actually causing you and your kids to respect their grandparents less. It’s simple cause and effect, and inserting yourself to “explain things” doesn’t put the toothpaste back in the tube.

    It may help you feel better, but it doesn’t change the simple cause/effect dynamic at work here. If you want your kids to respect your in-laws religion, don’t let them see it for what it is.

  • http://nojesusnopeas.blogspot.com James Sweet

    It sounds like Laurie is doing a fine job of managing this situation, and if it is of course her decision to allow her in-laws to take her kids to church — I have no way of knowing her situation, and those types of familial conflicts are so deeply personal where I would not deign to criticize another’s decision.

    However, just for me and my family, I don’t consider Sunday School to be age-appropriate entertainment :) Seriously, I am pretty sure I would feel the same way about my son attending church at age 9 as many parents would about their kids listening to Eminem or watching an R-rated movie or whatnot. That’s just my personal take on it :)

  • Claudia

    I have to admit I raised an eyebrow at “Well it was one thing when he told them about hellfire, but evolution being a lie is too much!” I can think of few things less appropriate to teach young children about than eternal torture chambers for people who don’t believe the same way.

    I guess it seems like less of a big deal because they simply dismissed the notion of hell, while evolution is a central part of science and therefore I assume something you want them to value. I think you handled it exactly right.
    In any event I’d think long and hard about allowing them to go back. Teaching kids about hell and creationism. What do you suppose your kids are going to hear about homosexuality, or even the role of women, at this place? It’s admirable that you want to expose them to different schools of thought, but maybe you should opt for some home taught comparative religion, or taking kids to different churches and other places of worship. There are ways of exposing your children to the religiosity of the world without submitting them to this nonesense.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff P

    I hope your kids truly don’t believe in all the afterlife mumbo-jumbo. In my opinion, the rest can be easily dealt with. If you are looking for some way to explain evolution and the fossil record, perhaps the following analogy might help.

    First of all, let your kids know that fossils are only left if conditions are “just right”. Most plants and animals decay without leaving any fossil trace (except for peat or fossil fuels). The fossils that are preserved are a bit like seeing certain numbers of the number line. We don’t see all of them, but we see enough to recognize patterns and to scientifically trace developments over time. Your kids can probably recognize the numbers 1-20 with only seeing a few of them.

    1, 2, , , , 6, , 8, , , 11, 12, , 14, , 16, , , 19, 20

    They can be reasonably confident that these numbers represent 1-20 without seeing the missing ones.

    Let your kids know that the Sunday school teachers are trying to defend a position that all the plants and animals were created at the same time and merely point to the fact that not all the fossils are in view as proof that they were all created at the same time. They are simply disregarding human reason and jumping to a false conclusion due to missing data.

  • Jim H

    A few commentors are worried about Laurie’s kids hearing lies about hellfire. I dissent; it sounds like she has done a pretty good job of inoculating the kids against that.

    As to questioning authority, well, that’s one of the best things a kid can ever learn. I’m glad my (Catholic) parents taught me that, as it was the basis of my deconversion.

  • Pensnest

    I think Laurie’s family is going to be fine. The children are learning the most important of skills—to think for themselves and to evaluate evidence, instead of believing Authority. And they report back to their parents and have sensible discussions afterwards. Really, I think applause is in order.

    I wouldn’t worry that much about the fact that the teacher claimed evolution is a lie. If the children think less of the teacher, and others like him/her, well… those people are ignorant, aren’t they? Do they actually deserve respect equal to that given to, well, people who aren’t ignorant?

    Of course, the grandparents may end up less than happy once they realise that the Sunday school lessons aren’t ‘taking’ as they’d expected them to, but that’s just tough. They can’t deny that their religion has been given a chance.

  • Aj

    I don’t understand why the line should be drawn at denial of science, when Christianity makes so many other ignorant claims like those about an afterlife. The claim to know something without justification or reason, completely unreliable and ridiculous, is just as untrue as the denial of science. The likelihood that we could be wrong about evolution, and the likelihood that they could be right about extraordinary claims supported by nothing are equivalent. All their claims are untenable, not just creationism, they’re all as intellectually shallow and dishonest.

    Rationalism, freethinking, humanism, or skepticism, whatever you call it, is not a “worldview”, at least it’s not like religions, or “belief systems”. Knowledge based on evidence and reason is superior to superstition and gullibility. If you want to teach children humility, it should not be by a false equivalence of things. Teaching them their fallibility, and that it’s extremely likely they would believe if their parents indoctrinated them would be my suggestion. The people saying “evolution is a lie” are more often than not victims of their religion.

    It’s pretty brave sending your children to be indoctrinated, within a system that’s refined and successful in doing so, so that they can be exposed to alternative views. If that’s the goal then whether they hear the afterlife is real or that evolution is a lie shouldn’t make a difference. I don’t think many people are actually committed to this idea, because they wouldn’t send their children to racists or the people who think the government is infiltrated by lizard aliens, for instance.

  • Sarah

    take the children out of Sunday School as soon as possible.

  • http://everydayatheist.wordpress.com Everyday Atheist

    Sounds like Laurie’s doing a sporting job of raising clear-thinking kids. Kudos to her for being so present and involved.

    Her letter and the comments do raise a valid question, though – how young is too young to be placed in a situation where indoctrination is the goal? She’s managing the Sunday School issue admirably IMHO, but I wonder if it might be better to wait until the kids are a tad older (I dunno-12?) before sending them into that type of situation. Let them develop their critical thinking skills and maturity a bit further before sending them into the lion’s den, as it were. If you want to expose them at that point, they’ll be more ready for it. Just a thought. Certainly can’t cast stones at a mom with her head on very straight.

  • A.T.

    I think this family has struck a good balance. I was raised by atheist parents and often went to church with my Christian friends. As I was growing up, I had to wrestle with competing ideas about religion–I think that is healthy and normal. We don’t want our kids to parrot back our beliefs without exploring other ways of thinking about the world. Because my parents taught me how to think critically I was able to sift through the information I was given, analyze the literature and embrace atheism as my own view–not one that was simply given to me. I do think you have to be careful about exposing young children to fire and brimstone rhetoric–it’s a matter of knowing your child, their reasoning level and what they can and cannot handle.

    I think it is important that Atheists lead the way in being tolerant toward people with differing religious beliefs. Your not going to win peoples respect or entice them to listen to your views, if you act superior to them (think about how you as an Atheist react to Evangelicals that claim to know God’s plan).

  • LaurenF

    When I get home, I am going to save this entire letter and response somewhere, so I can pull it out in the future as a reference for my own child-raising!

  • anne

    Great letter, thoughtful and constructive comments. I love this blog! But I think you are all making a questionable assumption. Where I come from, Laurie is also a man’s name.

  • http://www.correntewire.com chicago dyke

    grandparents are funny. the truth is, all one has to say is, “i’m raising these kids, not you. if you don’t like it, you don’t ever have to see them again.” it always works; grandparents back down.

    sorry to be so blunt, but my atheist best friend is married to an agnostic with hard core fundie parents. she’s almost as hardcore as i am in her atheism, and she made it clear when she was pregnant: i will shape my child’s beliefs, not you. she doesn’t want her kids confused with “competing” ideologies born of religious nonsense, and that’s not limited to religious nonsense about evolution. she also doesn’t want them to fear “hell” or hate homosexuality or any of the other teachings that creep into even sunday “school.”

    i will never understand atheist parents who let their kids regularly attend indoctrination sessions. it’s one thing to take your kid to temple/church/mosque/whatever once or twice to show them “this is what some believe.” it’s a totally different thing to give that experience the force and authority of family.

    kids are vulnerable. suppose one of her kids best friends is a hardcore fundie? and pressures her kids to accept that belief? kids tend to listen to what other kids say they should, and being a minority in a fundie environment is tough, and it’s easy to be pressured into at the very least outward acceptance. that’s why we protect kids from drugs, pedophilia and other harms like violence. religious belief is violence to the mind, the raping of the developing intellect, and opiate of the masses. if i had kids, they’d never go to a house of religious indoctrination without me, and then only very infrequently.

    the grandparents need to respect the mom here. they can easily find other things to do when it’s “grandma time.” take the grandkids to the waterpark or zoo, not church.

  • Richard Wade

    anne,
    I love this blog too. While you are correct that all the things that Laurie describes could be done by a male, she mentions that the kids discuss things with either her or her husband.

  • Revyloution

    There are quite a few people here aghast at the thought of children of atheists being in Sunday school. Some have advocated pulling the kids out of the classes altogether. I must really have a goofy world view.

    Most people die in the same religion/philosophy of their parents. I have no fear of Laurie’s children growing up to be evolution denying fundies. I see this as a win win situation. There are kids there who will be exposed to atheism, or at the very least skepticism just by being around her kids. Isolationism is the only thing keeping religion alive. When we embrace our neighbors as friends, only then can we work on eroding the cancer that is faith from our society.

  • Vicenta

    As a mother of two boys in catholic Spain, I am a bit appauled by the writer of this letter.

    Religion is very persuasive, and children’s brains are particularly susceptible to influence from authority.
    Give your children a break and protect them from religious indoctrination until they are older.

    My sons are the ONLY children in the whole school that don’t attend the catholic education. The law (thankfully) allows parents to opt out. Sadly, in this school I seem to be the only parent who does this.

    When Religious Education starts, at an older age, they will attend. As that class is about all religions from a historical persepective. That is necessary knowledge and will make them smarter people.

    Learning to pray and sing psalms at an early age teaches them NOTHING.

  • muggle

    What Siamung said. And all the others appalled at allowing your children to go to church with the grandparents.

    My daughter’s 27 now and I never hesitated to answer any questions what people believe or to let her ask theist friends who were open to being asked but to sit in church with the hellfire and damnation bullshit (screw evolution, this is much worse) but there’s no way in hell, I’d have let her attend church except weddings and funerals.

    So far, she hasn’t let the grandson either. While that’s her decision, I’m glad.

    And, yeah, those of us grandparents who respect our grandchildren’s parents don’t tend to worry about that point Chicago Dyke made above.

  • Halogenape

    I found this blog while searching for information about this very topic, which I’m considering in my family: My in-laws have requested to bring my young daughter to vacation bible school and after much debate, we’ve decided to allow it.  My partner and I are both atheists who were raised christian.  I’m a little saddened by all those who are angry at the writer for letting her children attend church with their grandparents…especially “chicago dyke” who suggested the writer threaten grandma and grandpa with not being able to see the children.  I sense the same angry intolerance emanating from those comments that I think we all abhor from the religious right.  While we don’t want our daughter to grow up thinking that what is taught at her grandparents church is factual; christianity is such a pervasive cultural influence that I think she should know what it is all about, and I’m certainly not teaching her much.  I feel that this is a way to open up a conversation about religion with her, but I am concerned about her being confused by the conflicting information she will receive.  I agree with “Revyloution” and have not doubt that my own influence will have more of an impact on what she believes than Sunday School twice a year and this week long camp.  I think the fears about about indoctrination come from those who felt indoctrinated themselves as children; however, that is only possible when your parents are encouraging the unquestioning belief, which is clearly not the case here.  At least, that’s what I hope.  This letter is a great start, but I am looking for resources about how to talk to my daughter about these issues, and expose her to information about religions other than Christianity (which are not in abundance in our neighborhood).  Good literature aimed at preschoolers would be a start.

  • Halogenape

    I found this blog while searching for information about this very topic, which I’m considering in my family: My in-laws have requested to bring my young daughter to vacation bible school and after much debate, we’ve decided to allow it.  My partner and I are both atheists who were raised christian.  I’m a little saddened by all those who are angry at the writer for letting her children attend church with their grandparents…especially “chicago dyke” who suggested the writer threaten grandma and grandpa with not being able to see the children.  I sense the same angry intolerance emanating from those comments that I think we all abhor from the religious right.  While we don’t want our daughter to grow up thinking that what is taught at her grandparents church is factual; christianity is such a pervasive cultural influence that I think she should know what it is all about, and I’m certainly not teaching her much.  I feel that this is a way to open up a conversation about religion with her, but I am concerned about her being confused by the conflicting information she will receive.  I agree with “Revyloution” and have not doubt that my own influence will have more of an impact on what she believes than Sunday School twice a year and this week long camp.  I think the fears about about indoctrination come from those who felt indoctrinated themselves as children; however, that is only possible when your parents are encouraging the unquestioning belief, which is clearly not the case here.  At least, that’s what I hope.  This letter is a great start, but I am looking for resources about how to talk to my daughter about these issues, and expose her to information about religions other than Christianity (which are not in abundance in our neighborhood).  Good literature aimed at preschoolers would be a start.


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