Shades of Black Atheism #10: Raising Children as Christians, Justin Bonaparte

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Justin Bonaparte, a 39-year-old Charlotte resident told me that he “was raised in a nominally Christian household.” He, along with his older brother, attended a K-8 Catholic school, but he feels that was because private school offered them a better education not because his parents sought to further indoctrinate them. He doesn’t remember a time when he would have referred to himself as a believer or Christian, but what he does remember are persistent doubts and questions about the religious rituals and the Bible as a whole. Justin’s family knows that he is an atheist and he believes his mother and brother are, too, although they’ve not had an in-depth conversation about it. I’ve noticed that those who were raised “nominally Christian” tend to not have spoken at length about their lack of belief with their families. I suppose because my childhood was completely saturated with all things Jehovah’s Witness it’s hard for me to imagine having not discussed these issues in-depth. I’m jealous of people who can maintain a relationship with their family without religion becoming a pervasive issue.

That being said, Justin’s wife is a Christian and was raised in a very religious household. He said:

… her family was heavily involved with church activities and her father is now a pastor of his own church. My wife and I have decided to raise our children in the Christian tradition (Christening, Christmas, etc); however, my children know that I am not a believer and I express my own opinion on religious/spiritual matters whenever possible. Our children attend church with my wife, as a social outlet, and they have bible study/children’s church regularly. We discuss things that they have been told or have heard in church openly, and as a skeptic, I usually challenge them as to how a particular event or story could have happened (though at 5 and 8, there are limits to their understanding of biblical stories).

Justin is the first atheist I have interviewed who has chosen to raise his children as Christians, but I know this is commonplace. When I married my husband, who is and was an atheist, he agreed to allow me to raise any children we might have as Christians. Fortunately, I was able to shrug off my theism so it never became an issue. I do have a biased negative opinion of raising children as Christian because, as an adult, I can point to specific detriments that belief in Christianity had on me. That being said, I was a happy Christian child and it made me feel secure at the time. I didn’t have a skeptical parent either, so no doubt Justin’s children’s experience will lead to a healthier outcome than mine. Justin did say that the black community is “more heavily invested in the church/religious matters than other races” and perhaps that factors into his choice to raise his children as believers.

On a personal note, he doesn’t feel that he has experienced much stigma as an atheist and doesn’t think the already small atheist movement should focus on subgroups. Rather, we should “concentrate our efforts on things that affect us all.” He is a member of a couple of Meetup groups in his area and is a member of American Atheists. He donates to the Secular Coalition for AmericaRichard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science, and other national groups. He ensures he is abreast of events in the atheist movement by following sites such as Freethought Blogs and this one.

I asked him if he had any advice for closeted black atheists and he said:

“There are people in situations where it would be potentially detrimental if they were to ‘come out of the closet’, in terms of their family relationships, job, social community, etc. I would urge closeted atheists to examine their situation and if possible, to be upfront and positive about their atheism.”

I fully agree. That’s part of the reason I promote smaller, more focused groups. Certain subsets of atheists like, for example, ex-Muslims face death when they choose to live honestly and I don’t believe the larger “atheist movement” is set up to address those special needs. He recommends reading Godless by Dan Barker and 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God by Guy P. Harrison.

Previous entries in this series include:

About Bridget R. Gaudette

Bridget R. Gaudette is the Executive Director of the Humanists of Florida Association and the Marketing & Grants Manager for Foundation Beyond Belief. Bridget was a contributor to the book, BlackNones, a book highlighting black atheist conversion stories and is currently writing a book, Grieving for the Living: Effects of Disownment in Adulthood.

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  • Art_Vandelay

    I have no problem with my wife taking the kids to church but we’ve agreed that I get to tell them two things:

    1. That person standing in front of the room, regardless of how pious they act or what they are wearing, is just a person. They have no authority over you or any other human being. Evaluate what they say based on whether it sounds reasonable to you, not because you think they have any more insight into questions that are impossible to answer than you. They don’t.

    2. There is no Hell. Anyone that tells you there is and that you’ll go there simply for not thinking the same thing as them is trying to control you and should not be trusted.

    This tends to make the indoctrination process quite challenging while still being exposed to religious ideas.

  • Anna

    Our children attend church with my wife, as a social outlet, and they have bible study/children’s church regularly.

    This part worries me. The children are so young, and they’re being exposed to consistent and organized indoctrination. Their father will no doubt have some influence, but it sounds like he’s the only person holding up the banner for skepticism. If every other family member and adult in their lives promotes Christianity, it sounds like those other people will have a much stronger impact.

    I wonder if Justin is exposing his children to other points of view on a regular basis. Not just questioning them about Bible stories, but introducing them to information about other traditions. There are children’s books about atheism, about other gods and goddesses, about ancient mythology, etc. It seems like a lot of atheist parents agree to let their spouses indoctrinate their children, yet they don’t insist on making sure they have regular exposure to objective information and dissenting opinions.

  • Marella

    I simply do not understand how anyone who knows the sort of lies and threats that churches trade in, would be prepared to hand their children over to them for indoctrination. To call it a “social outlet” is simply to whitewash child abuse. And in the Catholic church physical child abuse appears to be a common part of the liturgy as well. I think this is simply an attempt to hold his marriage together, a laudable aim, but he should acknowledge to himself what he is doing. If you want a social outlet find one that won’t do its best to fuck your kids up.

  • Dezzydez

    I understand where he is coming from. The black community is tightly bond to the church. The connection goes back to the civil rights era and farther in which blacks needed a safe place to gather to discuss civil rights issue without the fear of harassment or death. To keep his kids away from the church would be keeping them out of the black community also. It sucks and it needs to change.

  • J-Rex

    Well it’s good that they can have someone around that isn’t a believer. That encourages skepticism by itself, whether or not he actively promotes his disbelief. It’s so important just to understand that there are other options out there and people aren’t evil just for believing differently.

  • Sindigo

    Very sensible ideas.

  • Bridget Gaudette

    I think a lot of people do not realize the damage that Christianity does. I hope he’s instilling critical thinking skills within them.

  • Bridget Gaudette

    The black church is more than just a place for sermons. It is a community center. It’s why it’s that much harder for black atheists. Everything is very much church-centered, even when it’s non-religious activities.

  • Bridget Gaudette

    Yes. That^

  • Bridget Gaudette

    I’m sure Justin has similar rules.

  • Anna

    Sensible advice for anyone! I can never get over theists’ willingness to believe that one particular book or organization has special authority or knowledge that they don’t (and can’t) have. What makes them consider those people authorities? Just because they claim to have a supernatural connection doesn’t make it so.

  • Justin Bonaparte

    Wow, hadn’t kept up with my newsfeeds in a bit, and just saw my pic and the story, lol! Thanks for the writeup!

  • Justin Bonaparte

    Indeed we do. We haven’t gotten to hell yet, but we will certainly be having some conversations about it ;)

  • Justin Bonaparte

    I was exposed to the same thing, for a much longer time and in a more concentrated manner, and I was never a true believer. Yes, we talk about other cultures, even other god beliefs and myths. My 8 year old has said that she doesn’t believe, but she is very much a daddy’s girl, and my voice has a strong sway on her opinion, so it’s hard to tell if she’s just parroting me to ‘be like daddy’, or if her non-belief is sincere. My 6 year old…well, she’s 6. I’m not even sure you can really call it belief at that age. The bottom line is that I don’t know if you can ‘stop’ someone from coming to believe something, I think that people are either more or less likely to believe something based mainly on their makeup. Not sure how much environmental influence has to do with it. We shall see…

  • Justin Bonaparte

    I hope so too. ;)

  • Justin Bonaparte

    We all indoctrinate our children, some with religion, some with bigotry, racism, elitism, etc. I’m not prepared to call all churches centers of child abuse. The church is a place where they can meet with friends, play in (relative) safety, learn responsibilities, play music, sing, dance, etc. The adults who want to read them mythical stories are (almost) an afterthought, and those are things we can discuss and mull over at home. I can’t replace the experiences they’ll have making friends there. The social outlet is for them, not me (I’m a happy loner, for the most part :D).

    As for my wife and I, sure, there have been issues, even heated arguments, but what marriage doesn’t have those? I have come to a place of peace with the realization that I love my wife because of who she is, not because of what she thinks happens after we die, and she has done the same.

  • cipher

    What makes them consider those people authorities?

    That’s just it; they’re authoritarians:

  • Anna

    Some of them, but I wasn’t thinking of right-wing fundamentalists. I was thinking of theists in general, the “normal” ones who nevertheless believe that a particular book, person, or organization possesses special authority or knowledge. They are willing to give them undue respect and deference simply because a claim has been made that there is some supernatural connection.