Ask Richard: My Non-Religious Relatives Want to Attend Church for Their Future Children

Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.

Dear Richard,

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.

Nicole

Dear Nicole,

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.

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.

About Richard Wade

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

  • momtarkle

    Good job, Richard. You have done all you can.

  • Librepensadora

    Will the sister’s lack of belief lead to an estrangement once the family is part of a congregation/denomination? Will the sister fear the bad influence of an unbelieving relative and set down rules for interaction? Or perhaps exclude aunt and uncle from the family circle?

  • Jacqui H

    I would suggest finding a UU congregation near them. Unitarian Universalist “churchs” provide the sort of comparative religious upbringing in a community setting that your non-religious sister and brother-in-law might actually enjoy. They definitely need to re-examine their reasons though.

    • http://empiricalpierce.wordpress.com/ EmpiricalPierce

      Ninja’d. >_<

    • Amor DeCosmos

      I came to post the same reply. UU churches are perfect for people like this. We started attending just before our first baby was born. Now my wife is a Sunday school teacher! I’m atheist ex-Protestant, she’s agnostic ex-Catholic. I am trying to raise my kids as humanists. We have all the benefits of a regular church, minus supernatural horseshit.

      • Jacqui H

        This is why I’ve been looking into them. I’m an atheist and my husband is a won’t-pin-himself-down agnostic ex-catholic who feels at least some of the “What do you do if you don’t go to church to teach your children morals?” guilt that ex-catholics seem to always feel. It’s still way too churchy for me, but when we have kids I’m willing to meet him halfway as long as it’s a UU congregation, because I can see the benefit of the social interaction in a way… But I’ve also told him he’s going to have to be the one to initiate trips, so I’m willing to bet it won’t happen.

        Plus, Sundays are when I wake up early and watch Star Trek… isn’t that enough of a Humanist upbringing? ;)

        • Wren

          The churchiness of it varies HUGELY. He might have to try a couple different groups to find one that makes you both comfortable.

        • Matt D

          Heh, Star Trek (TNG) certainly helped me with humanism. :)

    • newavocation

      An Ethical Society could be a better choice if one is in your area

    • Amber Brown

      I can here to say the same thing. We’re an atheist family but we take our kids to religious educaiton at the local UU church. They’re wonderfully respectful of our beliefs and the only dogma is one of love and respect.

    • ElRay

      Whoops. I ment to reply to this post instead of creating a new sub-thread. Please see my other comment (I couldn’t find a way to delete the post.). Basically, I’ll add another checkmark in the UU Column. They should get what they’re looking for from a Church, plus their potential kids would get an almost-all-of-them religious education and be able to choose “none” if desired. The congregation we attend “as often as convenient” recently had their “coming of age” ceremony and three of the kids were flat-out-atheist.

      • Amor DeCosmos

        The coming of age ceremony is exactly why we joined. It was about the third time we had attended, and to hear those kids stand up in front of everyone and how they think the possibility of a god is very unlikely… well I knew I had found a good community to help raise my kids.

    • http://boldquestions.wordpress.com/ Ubi Dubium

      Agreed. My first thought on reading the letter from “Nicole” was to recommend UU. Lots of education, social justice projects, community and potlucks, and no dogma. Sounds perfect.

    • Aureliano_Buendia

      This is a pretty good suggestion. An atheist myself, I didn’t much care for the UU (as one of my friends said, “it felt like a church where you can’t say god”), but I appreciated how they provide a good community group, diverse backgrounds and views, and strong morals without relying on some random god figure. It may be just what the writer is looking for.

  • http://empiricalpierce.wordpress.com/ EmpiricalPierce

    I’d recommend googling to see if any Unitarian Universalist congregations are in the area. If they insist on going to church, at least see if you can urge them towards one that is significantly less crazy.

    • ElRay

      Also, there are atheist UU’s. And even those that align with a major religion favor rational action/beliefs — I’ve never met a UU Creationist. Our experience with UU’s is that they’re a loosely coordinated group of people that have similar views of how people should build a society and may or may not believe, more or less, in none, a generic, or one or more supreme beings.

  • C Peterson

    If these people are open and responsive to reason, I’d ask them to consider in what way they think being raised with a “religious foundation” and the total freedom to abandon religion as an adult differs from being raised without religion at all, but with the total freedom to adopt any religion they choose later in life. Why do they feel the former is a better choice, when it appears to be more restrictive of free thought?

    • AxeGrrl

      Yes! Man, you’ve just nailed one of my big pet peeves here,

  • Erp

    I’m assuming the letter writer’s sister isn’t in England/Wales where religious
    attendance can determine whether a child gets into a state supported
    faith school (some of which are considered better [probably because they
    can discriminate in admitting students even if only, officially, on the grounds of
    having dedicated parents]).

    Raising in a particular religion in case they want to marry a person of that religion doesn’t really make sense. What if they want to marry someone of another religion in that religion’s ceremonies? I agree it is probably more about what they want now, perhaps a sense of community and a support system. Also religions vary, the Unitarian Universalists tend to be broad in acceptable beliefs and their formal Sunday school alternates a year of learning about UU with a year learning about other religions (often involving the Sunday school class attending services at other places of worship). For children I would also recommend a non-religious specific scouting like program instead of Sunday school but check the local units as some might be quite religious; parents should expect to help out.

  • Achron Timeless

    Oddly I have some friends who are doing pretty much the same thing, though with a few minor and annoying differences. One’s father is a preacher, and when their child has stayed with his grandparents he has had religion forced upon him to the point that he kept asking why his parents never took him to church.

    They’re both atheists leaning towards deist if anything, but not religious per se. Yet, because of the grandparents meddling, they’re in church every sunday because they don’t want to make things difficult for their son.

    That’s not a great situation to put someone in, but personally I think they’re betraying their own position on the issue by going along with it.

  • Jeffrey Crook

    Besides a UU congregation, they could also check out an Ethical Society if there is one in their area.

  • advancedatheist

    In the coming social reset I foresee which will try to reassert control over women’s destructive sexual freedom, men could take religion or leave it, but they might want cynically to encourage religiosity in their womenfolk to discourage female promiscuity. So, yeah, I could see godless men marrying religious women and taking their children to church, only I think the men will have talks about religion with their sons that they wouldn’t have with their daughters.

    • FaithIsGlorifiedDelusion

      What the hell are you talking about?

    • Persephone

      This reads like fan fiction, the sort which is awkward and uncomfortable to read because as a reader, I cannot escape the creeping feeling that the author was typing the story one-handed with his pants around his ankles.

      • http://rolltodisbelieve.wordpress.com/ Captain Cassidy

        Most of the really misogynistic stuff reads like Neuroses on Parade to me; when you get a weirdo with bizarrely-detailed fantasies of oppressing and hurting other human beings like “advancedatheist” frequently spouts on here, it says a lot more about that person’s poverty of spirit than might be desirable.

    • David Kopp

      Those are all words I’m familiar with, but when you put them together like that, I can’t make heads or tails of it.

    • guest

      I don’t see how sexual freedom is destructive. I also don’t think women “belong” to anyone (see phrase “their womenfolk”).

    • RobMcCune

      That will probably come true at about the same time a future society finally recognizes your true worth and reanimates your frozen head to serve as their emperor. Both of those fantasies of yours are equally probable.

    • Mario Strada

      Not only this fantasy of yours has as many chances of coming true as Byzantium has to become the capital of the new Roman Empire, but I don’t understand how it relates to this woman’s letter.

      Tell the truth, you wrote this in an index card and waited for something even remotely close to it so you can post it here.
      I think it would be a lot of fun to deconstruct this heap of shit sentence by sentence. Too bad it’s late and I need to go to sleep.
      I am almost tempted to tell my wife that she is my “womenfolk” and see how she reacts.

    • RedGreenInBlue

      I’m afraid my only printable response to this is, “Oooh, someone needs to get laid!”

    • PrimateZero

      Please tell me you haven’t reproduced…cause I can tell you’re a real hit with the ladies.

    • Baby_Raptor

      Oh, look. FA’s resident sexist pig is back.

  • eric

    If it were my friend, I wouldn’t really worry too much about it. People who have not yet had kids tend to have somewhat unrealistic expectations about how they will raise their kids. I give “will attend church” about the same chance of coming true as “no TV” or “no junk food.”

  • Bruce Martin

    In addition to trying some UU churches, they could also seek out some humanist gatherings if any are near. Maybe offer to go with them some, if they start by alternating with various UU groups and similar. If needed, the letter writer might drive a greater distance to go to a Humanist event and then come back and tell the two others about it. Make the conversation about the good community atmosphere of whitch ever group is most friendly to Freethinking and not too far away. Even some atheist Meetup groups can provide some community and some training for kids.

  • Anna

    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.

    This is exactly why I think atheist churches are a bad idea. They help contribute to a culture in which churchgoing is normalized. In this type of atmosphere, even nonbelievers start to think of church as normal, routine, and expected. They think it makes people better, gives them a “foundation” they wouldn’t otherwise have. I think we seriously need a campaign targeting the assumption that people need church, that children need a religious identity, and that such communities are a good way to meet social needs.

    • IDP

      You know, I’ve actually heard this same argument from Wiccans, essentially, why model their religious groups/gatherings after churches, when most church symbolism differs greatly from what they do and believe? That said, while I dislike church and particularly the singing, I have enjoyed some UU services I’ve gone to.

  • Smiles

    Show your sister “Jesus Camp” and illustrate the damage this does to a child…

  • Chris Harmon

    Religion does make for a volatile family chemistry. We were fine as an atheist family until my brother married into a christian family, who greatly appreciated “what a good man” my (atheist) mother had raised.. and who then prodded him into disowning us.

    • Itarion

      Ouch. You have my sympathies.

  • http://rolltodisbelieve.wordpress.com/ Captain Cassidy

    That’s good advice for a lot of similar situations, too. Thank you, Richard.

  • Mario Strada

    The excuse of “what if they need to marry a religious person” is preposterous. Since they are not my sister and my brother in law, I’ll be less tactful than she should be, but in one word: BULLSHIT.

    For starters, giving those poor kids 20 odd years of religious indoctrination to spare them 6 months of Catholic instruction is preposterous. It assumes that when a couple gets married, one spouse gets to impose their beliefs on the other without recourse. My attitude is that if my daughter, raised as a humanist, really wants to marry someone that’s religious and needs converting, she should think about it twice. Why doesn’t he deconvert instead? Not only they will save a lot of money, but he would not have to be baptized, get a communion, study catechism, etc.

    Where the hell is it written that religion always wins anyway? Maybe he is not the right guy for her.

    But let’s say that the kids are raised in a faith (which sounds a lot like RC here). What if their future spouse is protestant? As far as the Church is concerned they will be damned for all eternity.
    Lets say the spouse is Muslim. Even worse. They’ll be taken to the square and stoned. Well, maybe not.
    Mormon? They have their own procedures and conversions. Buddhist? I have no idea.

    The bottom line is that they are making the assumption that this future spouse is going to be of the same religious persuasion as the religion they, as non believers, choose to impose on their kids. This would have been absurd at any time, but today it is even more absurd. Bordering on the insane.

    It should not be difficult to persuade them that this excuse is holding no water.

    Another thing. Again I am making the assumption they intend to go to Catholic Church, but it sounds like they themselves grew up without religion. Are they baptized in any faith?

    I met more than one person that decided one day to try this newfangled religion thing and started attending Roman Catholic services. Even became good friends with a lot of people, including the priest.
    They were never even baptized in the faith and they were taking communion every week. They didn’t even know you had to first be baptized, then receive communion to have the “privilege” of Communion. They thought the RC church was like one of those congregations were you are born again and that’s that. Not so.

    They may be operating under the same delusion. In fact, if the RC church is their choice (or any number of protestant denominations , they may have to take classes and go through religious booth camp just to have their kids baptized.

    At least, that was the way to do things in my own religion and my “home church” was St. Peter in Rome.

    Do whatever you can to dissuade them. It sounds like your sister may be imposing religion to her kids the same way someone else would impose any other fashionable object or belief. Just to keep up with the Joneses.

    • ZeldasCrown

      When your children are still hypothetical, thinking about a specific characteristic of their future (possibly also yet to be born) spouse is even more hypothetical. How about they have a child first, then they can start thinking about what they hope for their child’s life.

      I agree that there’s no guarantee that their child will a-marry somebody religious (what if this child marries an atheist who wants them to give up religion-all this will be for naught) b-that person will be the same faith these parents decide to join (as Mario mentioned, there’s a lot out there, several of which don’t really mesh together) c-that their child will even ever get married. It just seems like the sort of hurdle to be crossed once it arises, rather than trying to guess the right religion 25 years earlier before the child is even born. I don’t think it’s a bad idea to learn about a lot of different religions in a comparative religions way-I think that’s something that could really help a person understand other people’s motivations and cultural norms etc. But, that doesn’t seem like what this couple wants to do-they want to pick one particular Christian denomination, as though they are interchangeable, as though a Catholic church wouldn’t make a Protestant person undergo the same classes as an atheist, Muslim, etc person would.

      I think there’s a way the sister can gently point this out. I suspect that this isn’t really the reason the couple wants to start attending church, and if the couple doesn’t know themselves why (or why they feel the need to hide their true motivations), it would probably be a good idea for them to explore the idea and find out.

    • Heidi McClure

      I think I would gently suggest that joining a religion for herself, and for her own reasons is fine. But just signing up in case her future kids happen to marry someone from the religion she happens to choose is disingenuous. And if their chosen god is real, I feel like he or she would be unimpressed by being used as a convenience for her kids to avoid a few classes in the future.

  • Donaving

    “Nicole” should call Child Protective Services IMMEDIATELY.
    (Or, since the child or children aren’t born yet, she should dial the first nine digits, and then keep her finger poised over that last button. For the next twenty or so years. Just in case.)

    Mr. Wade gave a great answer but, reading between the lines, there might be another scenario playing out here. It’s possible that she might be a little–evangelical–in her Atheism. (Yes, it happens.)

    The bit about marriage is a bit of a stretch. It almost sounds like the sister and the brother-in-law want to check out church and they’re “candy-coating” it a bit.

    It can be a hard pill to swallow.

    • badgerchild

      I agree that the sister and BIL are looking at church membership for themselves. If all they wanted church for was the kids, there’s plenty of time once the first baby is born to look for a church to raise it in.

      There are a few kind of understandable reasons for someone to join a church as an unbeliever. Maybe they don’t have very much social support in their area who can help them when Sis is pregnant and in need of experienced moms to hang with. Maybe, like my father did, they just think that it’s a disservice to themselves as a family not to tattoo themselves the same as the rest of the tribe, if you know what I mean; my father was a lifelong agnostic and also a respected Presbyterian church elder, and his pastor told me she was perfectly fine with him being that way

  • God’s Starship

    It sounds like her sister is a bit flakey and will probably get over this whole church idea on her own eventually.

  • ElRay

    I’ll add another checkmark in the UU column. We attend a UU Congregation for the social, similar views of how life should be lead, etc. that keep many folks tied to their “religious” churches. The “religious education” for the kids is board based and tends to be focused on how to live a good life as a member of society and how different religions fit into that goal. The local UU Congregation has atheists, wicans, ex-christians (all the major flavors) and ex-Muslims.

  • atheismFTW

    So let me get this straight. This couple doesn’t care if their future kids are religious or not when they’re older, but they’re planning on raising them in a religion that teaches there’s an everlasting hell for nonbelievers. Not a fair playing field.

  • Janice Anderson

    i was raised this way. My parents were non-religious but my brother and I were raised in a church that was the same faith as my father’s family. My parents felt that the choice to be religious or not was ours to make. They just wanted us to have a firm understanding of what we were rejecting. My brother has chosen to raise his kids without faith.

    My parents also taught me to mind my own business. Baring abuse, how Nicole’s sister chooses to raise her children isn’t Nicole’s concern.

  • S Cruise

    Being a Brit, and coming from a long-line of token Christians and atheists, I don’t really get the whole “religious foundation” thing. All of my family are a kind, caring and tolerance bunch – and none of us go out of our way to cause trouble or harm others. Our religious education, if you can call it that, only went so far as singing hymns in praise of god during school assembly. None of us took religion seriously and we all pretty much hold the view that religion, in general, is the bane of humanity. So it irks me when people believe that religious education is needed to be a decent and good human being. I just don’t understand it.

    • Anna

      Color me equally confused. American public schools don’t even have that vague element of Christianity, so I was raised completely secular. I never even saw the inside of a church until I was 12 years old, and that was while sightseeing on vacation.

      The claim that children need religion to have a moral foundation is just bizarre. As far as I know, there have never been any studies showing that children raised with supernatural beliefs are better behaved than those raised without them, or that children in religious schools are better behaved than those in secular schools.

      Why do people persist in believing that children need a religious community or a religious identity? I never had one, and my childhood was full to the brim with social activities, and practically everything produced for kids is didactic to one extent or another. There were little moral lessons at the end of every He-Man episode, for goodness’ sake. Why do people think Bible stories are instructive when a secular book would actually teach better moral lessons?

      • allein

        I don’t understand a non-religious parent thinking kids somehow need religion to be good people, either. Presumably they believe themselves to be good people without religion, so why do they think they aren’t capable of raising a good person without religion?

  • LutherW

    I wonder how they will choose the religion: Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Moslem, Jain, Hindi, FSM?

    Any religion will do if the do not believe in any one.

  • princess

    I have the same scenario with my SIL. The catechism classes began in earnest this year for her two children, coinciding with the children of others in her circle getting their first communions. She was very concerned about them not having their paperwork in the event of a future marriage. She also mentioned not wanting to miss the “window,” by which she admitted she meant the window when kids will believe anything someone in a position of authority tells them, and if she waits too long their ability to think rationally will have formed. (It seems as though it’s extremely important to her that they believe in a god.) There was also talk about her own fond memories of the Catholic community she was raised in (by her own, non-attending parents); nevermind that there is community to be found in all sorts of more intellectually honest ways. All of the explanations sounded so lazy to me, like the appeal was more about finding a pre-packaged approach to spirituality that would eliminate the need to consider the underlying questions of life and humanity. I know, I sound bitter, but I find this so confusing. I applaud those in these comments who can approach their friends and relatives with a more open mind.

  • SeekerLancer

    I am just being presumptuous here but is there any pressure being applied by her brother-in-law’s parents to raise the kids in the church?

    Families might not care that their kids don’t go to church anymore but they can get crazy when grandkids are brought into the equation.

    • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

      Yes, that is often the case.


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