Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.
Recently my sister called to tell me that despite neither she nor my brother-in-law being religious people, and despite the fact that they both reject the idea of Jesus as a supernatural figure, she and my brother-in-law have decided to attend church regularly. Obviously, if that’s what they want to do with their Sunday mornings, that’s their business. My concern has to do with one reason my sister gave for wanting to attend church: they are planning to have children soon, and she wants to raise her children with a religion.
She said she wouldn’t care if they chose to leave the church when they got older, but seems to think that some sort of religious foundation is necessary. The other, somewhat more baffling reason is that she wants to make it easier for any of her children who would want to have a religious wedding in the future, since a friend of hers had to attend a lot of classes before getting married to a Catholic man, as this friend had not grown up Christian and was never baptized.
I realize the ultimate decision is theirs, but as a concerned sister and aunt-to-be, what can I do in this situation to help mitigate the harm I my sister will be doing to her children by allowing them to be indoctrinated this way? This seems as irresponsible to me as if she’d told me that she was anti-vax.
This requires patience, humility, and a delicate touch. The primary thing to focus on is to preserve your good relationship with your sister and her husband. As long as you and they can talk amicably, you will have a chance to have input and influence about this issue, but far more importantly, you will still have love flowing freely between you.
Religion is the most divisive thing ever invented. Even with people who have only nominal convictions toward religion, religious controversy between loved ones can stir powerful and irrational feelings of threat. This can give rise to defensive anger, which sometimes spirals into a complete collapse of the relationship. Do not underestimate the volatility of this relationship bomb when you tinker with it.
Of course, you know the strengths and limits of your relationship with them better than anyone, but I don’t think it is an overstatement to say that in general, situations like this are risky. Even if the entire relationship were not to break down, they might forbid any further discussion about the subject of religion. This would handicap your loving bond with them in general, and it would end any chance for you to have input and influence about religion with them or their future children.
I seldom venture to guess what people’s unexpressed inner motives are, but I think going to church might be more about them than about their potential offspring. Their hypothetical kids don’t even exist yet, but they want to start attending church now. That suggests to me that they are looking to fulfill a need of their own.
So when you approach your sister and brother-in-law on this topic, consider the possibility that their motivations for wanting to start going to church might be more about themselves than they are telling you, or more than they even realize. Tread lightly at first until you get a sense of how much room you have to be frank, and how challenging a question you can risk asking.
Start with a tone of good-natured curiosity rather than worried concern. Worried concern would make you come across as being condescending. Keep your curiosity light and casual at first, and don’t let the conversations get too long. Begin to ask them if they have their own feelings or needs that attract them to church rather than the needs of their if-and-when children. If they confirm that they do have their own reasons, be respectfully curious about those, and learn more. You might find that one of them is more interested in religion, and the other is more or less going along with it to preserve their harmony. Be very careful to not inadvertently become a wedge between them on this issue. They will quickly close ranks to preserve their bond, and you will be shut out.
If however they maintain that they don’t have any personal convictions about religion, but really only want to establish a “religious foundation” for their kids, then you might be able to be a little more incisive. Still, take your time and be tactful, curious, and not disdainful. The following suggestions are increasingly challenging, so only consider following them if you have reasonable confidence that they will be well received.
Ask them what exactly a “religious foundation” is, and what exactly it is supposed to do for their children.
They might be thinking of this “religious foundation” as more like cultural education rather than indoctrination. If so, suggest to them that parents who are not particularly invested in religion and who don’t go to any services can and should educate their children about religions in a “comparative religion” sort of way. This way the kids are exposed to the ideas of religions, but are not necessarily expected to adhere to any particular one. As they get older they will be able to make more free and well-considered decisions about their own beliefs. Even if they become secular, this will still be useful education. Although every new generation will probably be less religious than the previous one, religion will probably influence their world for a few more generations but with diminishing power.
Your sister and her husband might have bought into the widespread myth that only through religion can a child develop morals. Familiarize yourself with Dale McGowan’s books, Parenting Beyond Belief and its companion, Raising Freethinkers. They will help you give reassurance that kids who are raised outside of religious beliefs can and do grow up to be fine, upstanding, compassionate, and moral adults.
The idea that their kids will be better able to have a religious wedding if they so choose doesn’t make much sense. If they’re not brought up to be religious in the first place, then they probably won’t want a religious wedding anyway. The scenario that they’ll want to marry a religious person but be unprepared for it is highly speculative, and as time passes in this increasingly nonreligious world, less likely. Even in that event, they will be capable of learning whatever particular religious customs and principles they need to.
Nicole, if you carefully preserve your loving and respectful relationship with your sister and brother-in-law, you can still be a valuable asset to their yet-to-be-born kids, even if they’re raised with religious beliefs. You can be their rational, intelligent aunt who loves them and cares about them without any condition of believing or not believing things. You can encourage them in subtle but powerful ways to keep thinking critically and to be unafraid to question. If in their far more secular world they start to feel their indoctrination slipping, you can be there to reassure them that if their faith falls away, they’ll still be good people, and you’ll still love them, and they will not only survive that transition, they will thrive.