This past weekend I did the same thing I do about this time every year: I took two of my four daughters over to the megachurch they belong to so they could participate in Disciple Now!, which is a weekend retreat that meets in the homes of church members around town. At one point in the weekend they gather back at the church for a big concert that pumps them up for Jesus, and then they return home recharged and excited about their faith like they do after every big youth retreat. This was a part of my upbringing, and now it’s a part of theirs as well. And yes, I know how it sounds to hear that an atheist writer takes his kids to church events but what can I say? I share them with their mother, who is very much into these things, so my life is complicated, as are my parenting decisions.
After dropping the older girls off at the church, my younger two elected to go skating at the only skating rink on our side of town. It’s a Christian skating rink. What’s a Christian skating rink, you ask? Well, it’s a rink with Bible verses written all over the floor, inspirational quotes and memes projected onto the wall, and it almost exclusively plays Christian music while you skate (of course they still have to throw in the occasional “What Does the Fox Say?” and some Taylor Swift songs). As you skate around the rink you get to see brilliant things like this on the wall to inspire your faith:
Don’t get me started.
On the way home my eleven year-old, who is the most outspoken of all my girls on pretty much any subject, decided to take another shot at “witnessing” to me. See, just a few short weeks ago I finally told my girls after much deliberation and nearly five years of secrecy that I am no longer a Christian. They already knew I stopped going to church, but up until that night a few weeks ago I hadn’t told them point blank that I’m now completely outside the faith.
Each of them responded in characteristic ways, with the very introverted older two girls keeping their responses to themselves, while the younger two had several questions. The most curious and extroverted of all my girls is the third, who may be only eleven but who thinks about things more deeply than most teenagers I know. Much to my chagrin, she has for the past two years been under the tutelage of a Sunday School teacher who fancies himself a brilliant defender of the faith. He’s a hack apologist who, bless his heart, doesn’t really grasp the arguments he uses in the first place. So you can imagine how difficult it is to have a coherent conversation with him about these things. Frankly, at eleven she is a better apologist than he is. And on this night, she decided to begin a line of questioning I’ve heard a thousand times by now.
[Completely out of the blue]
Her: So, Dad…Do you believe there’s such a thing as good and bad?
Me: Yes. [suppressing hard eyeroll because I know what’s coming]
Her: Well, how do you know what’s good and what’s bad?
Me: Generally what hurts people, brings harm, is bad, and what helps them is good.
Her: But what makes hurting people bad? How do you determine that’s wrong?
Me: Well, I’d say it comes from what benefits our species. Helping each other and taking care of each other has helped us survive and thrive as a species, so life and nature reinforce that.
[Long pause. Processing]
Her: But sometimes you have to do things that don’t feel right because they ARE right, and how do you know what to do then?
Me: Seems to me in those moments you have to think things through because these decisions aren’t always simple.
Her: I just think that sometimes you have to continue to believe the things you know are true even when they don’t seem to be.
Me: Yeah, I know where this is going, and I know what you’re saying. But since you’re pushing this a bit, let me ask you a question. Would you say that it’s wrong to kill a whole village of people just to take over their land?
Her: Of course that’s wrong.
Me: Well, in the Bible it says that God told his people to do that. So when you read something like that you have to decide for yourself if it’s really right or wrong, and sometimes you have to decide that what someone else has told you is right really isn’t.
Her: My response to that is that sometimes what is right is hard to understand, and sometimes you just have to trust that what is right is right even if it doesn’t seem to be at the time.
Me: I would say that Jesus is a good example of someone who wasn’t okay with that. He openly questioned if what the authorities told him was right, and at times he intentionally broke their rules to make a point. I think he shows what it looks like to have to think for yourself and question what you’ve been told. You should always be willing to question what you think you know because people can be wrong.
Her: Right. People CAN be wrong. Just like you can be wrong to throw away things that are precious at the first sight of a problem, or the first time you have the slightest question about whether or not it’s true.Me: [Turning to look her in the eye] I trust you know me better than that. Do you think I am the kind of person who changes his mind on anything important that easily? That I would throw away valuable things without thinking about them and questioning them for a very very long period of time?
Me: Good. Please don’t do that to me. That’s not fair.
[Another long pause, more processing]
Her: Can we listen to the Britt Nicole music for a while? [popular Christian singer]
At the end of the night we did our usual bedtime routine and at the end when I said goodnight and I love you she said I love you, too, and then grabbed my arm and looked me in the eye with the most grave and sincere expression and said, “And God does, too.” I smiled and thanked her and said good night and turned out the light.
I’m being evangelized by my own preteen daughter.
So How Do I Feel About This?
Honestly, I’m proud of my daughter. All my girls are sharp as tacks, if I do say so myself, and this one continues to amaze me with how much she loves to think and learn. She absorbs everything like a sponge, and always wants to know more (and boy does she love to talk about it while she’s doing it). Naturally, her approach to her faith is similarly passionate and curious, and it’s only natural that she would want her Daddy to share her faith along with everyone else she loves. She’s evangelizing me because she loves me and she believes this is something I need.
I fully expect this process may last for years. My girls are pretty thoroughly immersed in Baptist youth culture, and they have already internalized the evangelical Christian message just as I did during my teen years. Now that I’m on the outside of that culture, I have plenty of objections to things they are being taught, but I am greatly outnumbered so I have to be very careful and pick my battles. Maintaining a good and comfortable relationship with my girls is of the utmost importance to me, so unlike many of my other atheist friends, I will not be burning all my bridges any time soon if there’s anything I can do to prevent it.
Most of the time we don’t discuss our differences. My girls don’t like conflict (it’s a family trait), so they don’t ask very many questions about this. I almost have to initiate any conversations about our differences myself, and frankly I’m not too keen on doing that much myself because I’m not interested in drawing much attention to what separates us. What matters most to me is enjoying each other’s company and watching them grow into the little women they are becoming. I’ve often said that I’m far less concerned about what they believe and much more concerned about the kind of women they become. So far I’m immensely pleased with how they’re turning out, and I have hopes that we will be able to work around this ideological and cultural difference that has come between us.
Obviously it is problematic that I write about my atheism for public consumption. We live on opposite sides of a culture war. This may one day prove a hurdle for my girls to get over. But this is who I am, and part of our family’s life involves learning to navigate these rocky paths with as much empathy and mutual consideration as we can manage. So far my girls and I seem to be making it alright. I would be lying if I said I don’t have plenty of fears that one day they will decide they can no longer trust me because I don’t agree with their other sources of authority. But we all love each other very much and that seems to be making things work out just fine.
I’ve begun writing letters for them to read whenever they decide they want to know more about what I think. You can read them here if you’re interested. There should be more in time, but for now, that’s what I’ve been able to put into words. It’s not easy finding that balance between expressing who I am while not minimizing or militating against things they were taught to hold as sacred. But that’s my goal. I know many others who have left their faith but who still have devout loved ones, and they are facing this same harrowing challenge. I offer these thoughts today as a testimony that you are not alone, and that many of us know exactly what it’s like to become a project for re-evangelism by our loved ones. Hang in there!