Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.
My wife and I are atheists, and so is my daughter. She is a graduate of a prestigious university and she is now working as a teacher. I think her students range from very young to pre-teen. Last night, she asked me a question: What should she say when her kids ask her “Do you believe in God?” or “What church do you go to?” It’s important to note that in her school there are parents attending almost every class, so she needs an answer that will satisfy adults as well.
The first thing I told her is that in my opinion it is not worth it to jeopardize her career for the sake of being “pure” to her beliefs. It would be wonderful if she could say: “I don’t believe in God,” but I suspect that the kids would be at the least very curious about it, making it an even bigger deal and I’ll bet money the parents would make a stink.
Yet, she and I also do not believe in lying. Especially to the kids (Both of us can really care less about the parents).
The way she is approaching it right now is to divert the question, which is rather easy to do with young kids, attracted as they are to shiny objects, balls and toys. But I am pretty sure that eventually someone is going to put her in a situation where she is going to have to choose between her principles and her job safety.
Are there any elegant answers she can use without lying outright? When I have been caught in similar situations the best I could come up with was: “I was born Catholic”. Not a lie. But not the whole truth.
She doesn’t even have that fallback. The best she could say is: “my family is Catholic”. Technically, that’s true as both my wife and I were baptized in the Church of Rome, but we never had her baptized.
Anyway, I would love to hear your opinion.
All questions asked of you exist in a context. A big part of that context is the relationship between you and the questioner, and the roles that you and they are supposed to be playing when you are interacting. So when someone asks you an intrusive question that is not suitable for your respective roles, you don’t necessarily have to answer it truthfully, and you don’t have to lie either. You can politely decline to answer, explaining briefly that the context makes it an inappropriate question to ask or to answer.
With a friendly tone and using age-appropriate language, your daughter can say all or part of something like this:
“For me, such things are very personal, so I don’t talk about them at school. When I’m here, I want to be the very best teacher I can be for you, so that is all I think about and all I talk about. My job is to teach you things like reading, math, and grammar, and your job is to learn them.
A response such as this is completely honest and is, in my opinion, more appropriate for that context than either discussing her atheism, or lying, or equivocating with something such as, “My family is Catholic.” It reinforces the boundaries that should be very clear between her role as teacher, the kids’ role as students, and the overhearing adults’ role as parents of the students. Hopefully, that will be sufficient to put the matter to rest. If the student or even the parent were to persist with the question, then the teacher still should not give in and answer it truthfully or otherwise. Keeping a polite tone, she should confront the person’s persistence as being out of line.
I’m assuming that your daughter teaches in a public, secular, nonsectarian school. If she were at a parochial school, things would be much dicier. In that situation, her ability to give a both honest and appropriate response would depend on whether or not she had an honest and appropriate understanding with her employer about her role. If she was expected to include teaching religious ideas in her classes as a believer herself, then the response I suggested would probably not be satisfactory.
I agree with your pragmatism that it is not worth it to jeopardize her career for the sake of being “pure” to her beliefs. At the same time, I also agree with your principle of not lying. We have to constantly search for the best balance between protecting our own self interests and preserving our integrity in an often hostile environment. Our solutions are seldom perfect; we have to keep sincerely trying our best.
Yes, it would be wonderful if she could matter-of-factly say “I don’t believe in God” without having to fear unfair repercussions, but American society is not at that level of maturity and fair-mindedness yet, and it will be a while. We try to challenge and change the injustices that we can, but in the meantime we must also survive.
Sometimes rather than taking a stand in an answer to a question, it’s better to take a stand on the asking of the question.