“Are You Teaching Her About Jesus?”

A letter from a relative recently asked me this question with regards to my daughter: “Are you teaching her about Jesus?” The trouble is, this is an older relative that I love deeply. She has never been anything but kind to me. I really don’t want to hurt her. But when I eventually answer that question, and truthfully – I don’t feel I can lie – I know that I will hurt her, a lot.

Now for the moment, I am planning to just not answer her question. It was one line in a newsy letter, and I don’t see this relative that often anyway (or talk to her on the phone). So I’m just going to let it go by unanswered. But the thing is, I’m starting to see my daughter as a ticking time bomb.

Eventually, it will be come obvious that my daughter is not being raised a Christian. I don’t know when this will become impossible to hide, but it will. She’ll make some comment, or she’ll be ignorant of some fact, or there will be a question I can’t dodge. If I weren’t raising children, I could probably keep my atheism under wraps around my extended family long term. With children…I don’t see that happening.

My relative asked the question in a letter. But what if one of my parents, or some other relative, asks me to my face? I can’t lie. I mean, I could, but I don’t feel like that’s a good idea – or a good precedent. I could hedge of course, or give an answer that is technically true but doesn’t really answer the question asked (“I am teaching her about Jesus” does not have to mean that I am doing so in a devotional sense). But eventually there will come a day when hedging and avoiding will be impossible.

Or, of course, my extended family could learn from my daughter herself, when she makes some comment on accident. But is that really what I want? I look at my lovely, curious, courageous little girl and I don’t want her to get hurt. I don’t want her to have to see my relatives’ shock or find herself the subject of sudden questioning. I don’t want to make her the front soldier in my battle.

When I was a kid, I thought grown ups knew everything. Well, we don’t. I thought grown ups knew how to handle everything, deal with every circumstance, and keep everyone safe from getting hurt. But we don’t. There is no right move in this chess game that is my life. I can’t see what’s coming up. I can only deal with what I have now and hope for the best. I can only put one foot in front of the other and hope that when the time comes I find the right thing to say, the best choice to make, and a way to walk in love despite spite of pain and division and misunderstanding.

I said in the beginning of this post that I don’t want to cause this dear older relative pain, that I don’t want to hurt her, but that ultimately I don’t know how I can avoid that. I think it’s important for me to remember that the pain I will cause by choosing to live my life differently from so many in my extended family is not necessarily my fault. The pain is a result of beliefs – the result of the fear that my daughter will end up in hell or will lead a joyless and meaningless life without Jesus. I didn’t create these beliefs. I can’t make them go away. And the conflict between these beliefs and the life I lead is such that those I love will be hurt regardless of what I do. And knowing that hurts me too.

One of the things I find most problematic about so much of religion is its ability to divide families and cause this kind of pain. And this is one of the things that makes me resolve once again that I will not do this to my children. Their beliefs are up to them, and I am not going to create a situation where they feel they must hide what they believe from me. Because, quite simply, family is more important than all that.

Anonymous Tip: In Which Gwen Lies to Casey
Convention on the Rights of the Child, Articles 6-10: The Child’s Right to Know and Be Cared for by Their Parents
Sometimes All I Can Say Is UGH
The Radical Notion that Children Can Have Anxiety Too
About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Gordon

    I don’t envy you this situation Libby Anne. I’m guessing that as soon as it comes out that you are not recruiting your daughter for Jesus, the rest of the family will see it as their job to recruit her.

    But, given your upbringing, and the fact you are not “out” to your family, it seems a bizarre question. Would they not just *assume* you were raising your daughter christian?

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism Libby Anne

      I think they’re noticing my lack of Jesusy talk. I mean they hear cute stories about my daughter all the time, etc, but never about the cute thing she said about Jesus, or about God making the trees, or anything like that. When you expect Jesus to pervade everything, the dearth of that can speak for itself.

      • Gordon

        So it could be that they are starting to suspect about you then?

      • http://deird1.dreamwidth.org Deird

        That’s… kinda bizarre to me.

        My nephews are all being raised in Christian households: going to church every week, praying every night, saying grace at every meal, reading Bible stories… And yet, I have no cute stories about Nephews & Jesus – nor would I expect to.

  • http://amandajustice.blogspot.com Amanda

    I’m sorry you’re having to deal with this, Libby :( I noticed how my parents (my mother, specifically) would give lip-service to all Christianity being fine, but then when I was engaged to a nice, Baptist boy, my mother pitched a hissy fit that any children we had wouldn’t be baptized as infants! That came completely out of left field.

    The years when I was dating the rabbi’s son don’t bear talking about.

    Finally, we seem to have reached a detente in the holy wars. She’ll still give them Bibles or take them to Bible School in the summer, and I just present religion as one more facet of our society. Note: I do consider myself a Christian. But I want my children to find their own way, rather than dictate one to them. Being told what I believe never really worked well for me.

    My point is, families and religion can get insane, and that’s even outside of fundamentalism. All you can do is play it by ear. I just kind of smile and nod and let things slide (the hedging and avoiding). By this time, my mother has learned it’s best not to push. Well, most days.

    • http://amandajustice.blogspot.com Amanda

      Oops — okay, editing: by “them” in paragraph 3, sentence 1, I mean “my children”.

  • Ash

    “One of the things I find most problematic about so much of religion is its ability to divide families and cause this kind of pain.”

    I agree wholeheartedly. Once, when my wife was still in the military, her commander said something to the effect of “God, family, country. Those are my priorities, in that order.”. I have never understood that mindset, and I doubt I ever will. Every time I read about a son or daughter who has been shunned by their parents over religious disagreements, I think of that man and wonder about his family. I remind myself how lucky I was to be raised by Catholic parents whose main concern was getting out the door first when Mass ended so we could beat the crowds to the Chinese buffet.

  • http://Love,Joy,Feminism Northstar

    Libby Anne,
    How I am handling it, in my similar situation, is just to say “She is learning all the Biblical stories because I think it’s absolutely important to know them as a background to Western literature and culture, but we haven’t covered everything yet.” Honest, yet evasive at the same time. :-) (We are also secular homeschoolers among religious ones, so it makes more sense in that context.) So, this Easter, my kids may have learned about the Biblical stories of the resurrection and assumption for background purposes, but I don’t tell others the part about their father’s off-hand comment about the possibility of the corporeal Jesus and Mary being in geosynchronous orbit over Rome. :-D

  • longpete

    “or she’ll be ignorant of some fact”
    Please don’t bring her up ignorant of all the things that theists believe in. You can’t beat ignorance with more ignorance. I brought my ardently atheist children up to know as much as I could teach about the different religions I know about – mostly protestant christian. As long as you teach them about the stupidity of it all, there’s no problem.
    It’s like they don’t say ‘fuck’ despite having had “Billy Elliot” (where it’s used every other word) as their favorite film from the age of 6. They were taught that “other people do, we don’t”! Religion’s the same – “other people believe this garbage. We don’t”

    • Rosa

      You can have a good grasp of religion and still not have all the “facts” specific to one religious person’s expectations.

      Like, my son’s grandma said over breakfast one morning said “Do you know how to tell if a dream is prophetic or false?” I was raised quite Christian and I could only gape. Luckily it was a rhetorical question – she just wanted to tell me. But even if Libby’s education her child *about* Christianity, someone can easily expect her to know that some things are from Satan and I’m sure Libby’s not teaching her that.

    • kisekileia

      I really don’t like the idea of you telling your kids religion is “garbage”. How are they going to feel if they end up as believers? Will they be afraid to “come out” to you about it?

  • ArachneS

    Wow, I feel the same way. It seems to me that I really began noticing how prevalent all of the religious ideas were in my family’s everyday conversation when my daughter reached age 3 and 4(I always knew, but I mean it always seemed normal before I guess). However, I had started my journey out of religion when she was 2, and had left by the time she was 4, so part of that might be how I am becoming aware of the problems of religion integrated into everything.

    But there definitely is a ticking clock raising children in a non-religious family. In my own situation I know exactly the point of no return. Catholic families(especially very traditional ones like I came from) are expected to start teaching their kids the catechism as soon as they are old enough to learn how to read, in order to prepare them for their 1st communion. My sister, who has a child the same age as mine, has already started to give religion lessons to her. It is just a matter of time before someone in the family asks about my daughter. I could wait until someone else asks about her 1st communion, but I don’t really want to be defensive about it.

    So for me, I am going to bring it up to the closest siblings to me first, and when I am one on one with them if I can. I know that it is a bit easier for me that all of my siblings are adults and out of my parents house. I have already told one sister, although it was least hard to tell her because she is married to an atheist/agnostic, and I knew she wouldn’t judge me for it. Hopefully it gets easier each time. My parents will be the hardest. I don’t think they will listen to anything after I tell them. :(

  • Marie

    Amen. My parents are both ministers and are liberal, accepting people who are willing to question many aspects of their beliefs, but I know my mother has been bothered for decades by what will happen to her parents (both agnostic) in the afterlife. She doesn’t necessarily believe in hell anymore, but she also can’t quite believe that they will be in heaven. The idea that they won’t be with her in the afterlife or that they won’t know the joys of heaven causes her pain.

    My parent have been accepting of my agnostic long-term boyfriend, but I haven’t told them (or any of my extended family) that I no longer consider myself Christian. My parents know I don’t go to church, but the reasons I gave them (which were true at the time) had nothing to do with belief. I’m pretty sure I can keep the agnostic thing under wraps until my religious 87-year-old grandmother passes away, but I don’t know if I can keep it a secret from my parents, who I’m close to, for another 20-30 years. I dread the day when they ask me directly about my beliefs, or when something comes up that makes it clear.

  • Ron

    Not to derail the thread, but I recently found my self in a sort of similiar situation but the circumstances were very different — my Mother-in-law was on her deathbed and she desperately put me in the situation of “Would I promise to her that I would find Jesus.?”

    In this case, she knew I was an atheist, we were not alone and I loved this woman a great deal. So, what did I do? Well, I lied, of course and told her that, yes, I would (find Jesus) when I knew that no, I absolutely would not. In the end, I don’t feel any doubt that I made the wrong choice because my answer made a dying woman VERY happy.

    This is in contrast to my nineteen year old son who, after hearing my story, refused to go to see his grandmother ( whom he had previously visted and also loves very much) because he did not want to cause her grief by denying her wish (which he knew was going to be requested of him the next time they were together).

    In the end, a dying woman was happy, peace was maintained in the family, and I broke a personal preference and told a lie. It’s very hard to hurt those you love and I am lucky that my lie will never come back to haunt me.
    Dealing with the living is not so easy. Good luck.

    • Ron

      Correction para 2 … I don’t have any doubt that I made the RIGHT choice …

  • http://tanitisis.wordpress.com Tanit-Isis

    I can’t help but think that, for you and your daughter, it’s probably important that she know *about* Jesus, just in a context of “this is what Grandma and Grandpa etc. believe” or, more generally, “there’s this myth, it goes like this…”. I think it could help her (and you) avoid that painful scene where someone realizes she has no idea what, oh, the resurrection is and brings down the house. (Or, alternatively, says something about unbelievers going to hell and terrifying her.) I know it’s a pretty disturbing story, and I’m not saying she should know it *now*, but it would probably be helpful in the long run for her to hear it from you, and understand both why her relatives believe it, and why you don’t.

    I didn’t know who Jesus was (or any of that story) until I was ten or twelve, despite being taken to church occasionally by extended family as a child, and given a rather disturbing Easter book when I was six or seven. This wasn’t ever a problem for me, but my extended family are luke-warm Christians at best, and my mom was very open about leaving the church, and frank about refusing to return, so there was no expectation that I would know any of it.

    That being said, I think you’re entirely fair in ignoring that line of your Aunt’s letter. Good luck—it’s a fine and tricky balance you’re seeking, but I know you’ll manage it.

  • http://omnivorousintellectual.blogspot.com/ Southern Geologist

    I’m sorry that you’re in this position. Good luck with this. I can’t speak directly to it as I have no children (yet) and my family isn’t quite as religious as yours, but I know that such things can be very rough. I wish you the best.

  • Azura

    I come from a very different perspective. I’m a pagan who had to come out to my religious grandmother when I was 14. And I’m goth. She’s complained about what I wear and what I believe for years now, but I handle it alright. Most of my other religious family don’t really care since I explained it and made it clear I won’t be changed. I’ve lost friends over it, and while it hurt, I feel standing my ground was the better choice than lying. However, I know family is different than friends. Keep in mind though, it’s not the religion entirely. Your aunt can choose to put family first if she wants. My religious grandmother is dying now, and she no longer seems to care what I wear or what gods I have. Her priorities have changed now, I think because she doesn’t want a fight to be our last conversation. I’ve read your whole blog, and I know you don’t want to blame your family entirely for things since their religion influenced them, but in the end, it’s up to them to decide whether Jesus or their daughter/niece/etc. comes first.

  • Aimee

    I think I am fortunate that my parents split from the specific Christianity they were each raised with, albeit to a very conservative church. But later my mom left that church as well so at least my family is not at all a united front on matters of religion. It makes it less something that is talked about directly because feelings were hurt too much in the past when my parents joined their church (Church of Christ, so they believed my grandparents and aunts and uncles etc were all going to hell). My dad’s family is very Catholic so they were also concerned about us not being raised Catholic but had to learn not to press about it. Now I’m pagan and my husband is an atheist but I don’t know if it will be a huge issue because my family is so used to not talking about religion now. They know enough to know that they don’t want to know.

    Its funny, since although I was brought up in a very religious and conservative christian house, it is weird for me to think about my family discussing religion even in agreement. Guess we were always more private about it than most. Church of Christ isn’t particularly evangelical though, so that could be part of it.

    • Rosa

      That’s funny, because I came back to ask if Libby can blame any lacks of religious instruction on her husband.

      I think it’s kind of cowardly but my mom isn’t really religious anymore and she knew before I had a baby that I wasn’t Christian. My partner…his parents are devout and he just never mentioned his beliefs to them. So on big issue questions like having the baby christened or enrolling him in religious education, he just says “well you know his mom was raised Protestant…” and they let it go. They’re so Catholic we probably could have invited them to the pagan baby blessing and they would have assumed it was some Protestant ceremony.

      • http://blauthor.blogspot.com PlumJo

        I assure you that you could have. I’m an atheist that was raised Catholic and when my nephew was being baptized Presbyterian (or Christened? I forget which one you use where– again, raised Catholic, haha) the ceremony sounded so strange! They were blessing the “sea creatures” and “creeping things” and plants and animals– 6 years later and my parents still bring it up as “that weird Protestant thing with the sea creatures.”

  • http://elliha.blogspot.com Elin

    I feel for you Libby Anne, it is a situation that is hard to give advice about and one that will be problematic for you at some point.

    I grew up in a very mixed family with atheists, agnostics and different types of Christians and thankfully my parent’s main dogma was acceptance, not any specific faith. My grandmother was a for most of her life a rather strict pentacostal Christian who disliked most other forms of Christianity and the fact that my mother decided that we all should be baptized into a lutheran church (the one I belong to myself nowadays) as well as the fact that all her sons (my father included) were atheists. Still, we all had a healthy relationship with her, I just don’t know how my parents did it. Still, it was a bit hard for me to ‘come out’ as a Christian when I for many years had seen myself as an atheist or agnostic. I did it piece by piece and I knew my sister had accepted the fact that I had changed when she causally told me on Christmas that the closest church to were she lives had a midnight service and that her daughter could take me there. I didn’t say anything or demanded to go to church, she just showed me that she wanted me to be comfortable.

  • Tsu Dho Nimh

    “Are you teaching her about Jesus?”
    There is teaching “about” and there is teaching “to blindly believe in”.
    You can probably truthfully say yes … because if you want to raise an atheist, you have to teach them about other people’s beliefs so they will understand what’s going on. And especially to understand literature and the arts where references to classic mythology and Christianity are so prevalent.

  • http://raisinghellions.wordpress.com/ blotzphoto

    Whenever someone asks me that question I tell them no, my kids aren’t old enough to watch The Big Lebowski yet…
    Seriously, I’m lucky to have gotten zero pressure in that regard from my religious family members, it helps that all of the close relatives are at least lapsed catholics. I may someday teach my kids about Jesus Christ: Vampire

  • Gordon

    I think you need to warn your kids that some of the family are pretty sensitive about their beliefs and that if they get cross the kids are not to let it worry them too much.

  • Sarah

    You say you don’t want your daughter to be made a soldier in your battle–and I think that’s smart, and will be important when she’s a teen, assuming she doesn’t somehow become a Christian on her own. However, I think another, perhaps more pressing concern is misguided efforts by religious relatives to “correct” your parenting by teaching her about Jesus themselves. I have a mix of very conservative Christians and nonreligious people in my family, and I’ve heard about older (well-meaning) Christians teaching very young grandchildren or nieces/nephews (whose parents are not religious) about Jesus and salvation in a way that must be very confusing to those kids. If Grandma says it, it must be true–but why doesn’t mommy believe it?

    Not to tell you that you should be terrified of this, or that you should keep your child segregated from religious relatives. I just wanted to add a thought about how religious relatives might react to a young child being raised in an atheist home.

    • Rosa

      This happened with our son, so he was a pantheist for a while, based on our mythological readings and Grandma’s assurance that God is real and angels watch over him. If one, then all, right?

      I’ve found that kind of targeted religious instruction less of a problem than more casual stuff – people tell him about religious concepts (like the guardian angel, or that dead people watch us from heaven, or that djinns can take over your body and make you do superhuman feats) in a very casual way that mimics the way people tell little kids about how traffic lights work or how many nickels are in a dollar, and he finds that really confusing in a way specific religious instruction doesn’t.

  • Michael

    There’s a possibly useful gap between what your relative asked, and what she means. I can’t imagine bringing up a child and not having the subject of Jesus come up sometime. Of course you’re teaching your children about Jesus.

    But you can say that you’ve had several acquaintances and relatives try to get into arguments about doctrine, and you’re not prepared to discuss or defend your choice of theology; whatever it is, sometone will think it’s wrong, and people feel too passionately about it to let it lie.

    This is the “I know you’d never be so inconsiderate, but some people are, so I’ve had to make a rule” ploy.

  • http://funnyplacetofindafoot.blogspot.com Meyrin

    Delurking to say thank you so much. Your entire blog is great, but this post in particular really touched me. I am having similar (but a million times easier, because I don’t have children) problems. I really, really don’t want to hurt my family, but I also want to live my life with integrity — it doesn’t seem like both is an option. Especially now that I’m going to get married to a fellow atheist, avoiding questions like “Does he believe x,y,z?”, or “have you thought about ministers?” is becoming increasingly hard.

    • kisekileia

      I’m a very conflicted liberal agnostic-leaning Christian who finds church a major PTSD trigger. I moved in with my boyfriend not long ago. We haven’t talked about marriage yet, but I’m already picturing the kerfuffle that will happen when my parents and sister find out I don’t want a church wedding. It’s especially complicated given that I’ll probably be expected to have my sister as the maid of honour, but I think she’ll probably back my parents rather than me on the church wedding issue.

  • kisekileia

    Also, personally, I think the root of a lot of the problems that mixed Christian/non-Christian families have with religious conflict is the belief in hell. Believing that non-Christians (or even certain types of Christians) will go to hell is highly conducive to being very desperate to keep family members from abandoning one’s faith. I know that even though I don’t intellectually believe in hell anymore, I’m still afraid of going there, and I’m still really worried about the pain and fear my family (and some friends) will experience if I abandon Christianity because they believe in hell.

  • Skjaere

    I think it’s interesting that your dear older relative is even asking this question, and not just assuming that you are raising your daughter to be Christian. Sounds like an opportunity for dialogue to me. Best of luck with it.