Ask Mommy: How Do I Help My Pre-Teen Examine His Religious Beliefs?

Ask Mommy: How Do I Help My Pre-Teen Examine His Religious Beliefs? October 24, 2018

Teenagers know everything. It starts pretty early, too. I’d say maybe around the age of 10 or 11, kids are graced with the knowledge of everything. It doesn’t matter how many years you have on them, or how much experience you have with general life-living, they know more than you do. This gift is given to them by some sort of wisdom fairy or the like, and it slips from their grasp sometime in their early twenties. But there can be no denying, from 10 or 11 to age twenty-two, they know everything there is to know about everything, ever in the history of everdom, so help me god, no holy.

That’s why it’s so much more difficult to create doubt in older kids who’ve been indoctrinated. They are more stubborn than a mule with the man-flu.

I got this question the other day,


I wish I’d been able to read your advice for dating religious people a long time ago. I have a son with my increasingly religious ex. He’s 12 years old now and his mother and I live apart. He lives with her most of the time and I see him on weekends. Anyway, she puts a lot of religious lies in his head and I was wondering if you had any suggestions for counteracting that. I don’t want him to struggle with the same fear of hell I struggled with as a teen. Looking forward to your reply. Thanks.

I do not envy this father’s position. He wants to save his son from the indoctrination he experienced as a child, but his son is already 12. If he was five or six, this would be so much easier because their minds are so open to new ideas and concepts, but at 12, well, at 12, they already know everything and Dad couldn’t possibly teach him something new, right?

Of course, that’s what kiddo believes but that’s not the truth. We can still get through to our teens and pre-teens, we just need to take a less direct approach.

Here are the steps I would take to helping my little dude see reason, or at least have a little healthy doubt:

1. Don’t confront the ideas head-on. Nothing makes a teen or near-teen hang onto something more than mom or dad disapproving of it. Treat them as though they are no big deal.

2. Talk to your child often about everything, so it’s not so strange when you start talking to them about religious ideas. If you’re already in a rut where you don’t talk much, change that part first before you try to tackle specific subjects. Make conversation a regular, normal thing.

3. Always make a point of answering your child’s questions, no matter what they are about or how important or awkward they may appear to be. Do not judge them. Do not get angry, don’t crack jokes. Stop what you’re doing, look your kid in the eye and answer the question as best you can. If you don’t have answers, look them up on Google together or ask a professional. The idea here is to create an atmosphere between you and your child in which he or she feels that you will always, always take the time to answer their questions and take those questions seriously no matter what you’re doing or how busy you are. When your kids feel this way about you, there really isn’t much they won’t come to you with.

4. Once you’re talking to your kid on a regular basis and you’ve created an atmosphere between the two of you that is safe for asking questions, that’s when you can start to pepper the conversations with questions about what they might believe about god, the Bible, Jesus, etc. Don’t become hyper-focused on this topic. Be mindful of how often you bring it up. Overdoing it can shut the whole thing down. Maybe start by asking questions after you know he’s been to church. “What did you learn?” “What do you think about that?”, etc. No judgment. Just ask questions and let them answer.

5. This is where you start to employ the Socratic method. Ask why. Ask why they believe what they believe. Don’t ask with judgment, do it with curiosity. Some of the best videos to learn how to do this come from Anthony Magnabosco practising what he calltreet Epistemology. You’ll see in his conversations, there is no confrontation, no judgment and the conversation is mutually respectful. The idea here is not to change minds, but to have people closely examine their beliefs so they truly understand why they hold them. For ideas, here’s a great video from Anthony

6. Talk to your child about other creation myths and other religious beliefs but ensure you do so casually. For instance, if your son comes home from church talking about how god created the world in 7 days, tell him that’s interesting, ask him questions about it and when the time is right, pipe up with something like, “Ahh, that reminds me of the Australian Aboriginal creation myth. They believe the rainbow serpent created the world. Have you heard of that?”. You want to make this conversation fun, not confrontational or awkward or hostile in any way. This is just a fun exploration of beliefs all over the world between a father and a son.

7. Find a way to get your child to watch Cosmos with you.

8. Expose your kids to scientific thinking. Take them to observatories and museums. Go to IMAX movies related to space and time and geology and evolution. In Vancouver, we have this amazing place called Science World and they have so many intriguing exhibitions that would make it really difficult to keep believing that a god did all of this. If you have a place like this, take your kids there.

9. Finally, travel with your kids. I know that many of you can’t afford it, but if you can, do it. Take them to places where people have very different beliefs. For instance, you could go to Bali and enjoy a tropical beach vacation while visiting Hindu temples. You could do the same in Thailand with Buddhist Temples. India, I imagine, would be just as eye-opening with the bonus of having daily access to the best cuisine in the world. There’s really no way a god belief survives meaningful travel through developing countries, either. The poverty alone is enough to make anyone question god.

These are my suggestions, of course, and I am no parenting expert. I’d love to know what you would do in this situation. Let me know in the comments below!

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  • Raging Bee

    Another step to add here: if the kid expresses a belief that sounds like it could lead to some sort of serious harm, or one that caused you pain when you were younger, ask about that, and maybe, gently, suggest that could be a problem, based on your own past experiences. That should at least get his attention, especially if you aren’t normally that negative or confrontational. The less confrontational about such things you normally are, the more it will mean to him when you do show real concern or disapproval. Just be sure to give a specific reason that will mean something in his real life.

  • Jim Jones

    Here is a donation from me. These are some questions to ask the religious. It’s a good idea to ask them one at a time, and wait until the question is answered or until the other person admits they have no answer. Then move on.

    1. Name one person who met Jesus, spoke to him, saw him or heard him who wrote about the event, has a name and is documented outside of the bible (or any other gospels).

    2. If a member of a religion other than Christianity prays and their prayer is granted, who granted their prayer?

    3. How do you know all other gods except Yahweh are false?

    4. How do you counter Eric The God-Eating Magic Penguin (Link)?

    5. Is it fair that Jesus died on the cross so that Adolf Hitler could go to heaven and Anne Frank would go to hell? Is it just that Jesus rose from the dead so that Jeffrey Dahmer could go to heaven and Carl Sagan would go to hell?

    6. Why didn’t Paul write a gospel?

    7. Why didn’t Jesus write anything at all?

    8. Why do so few Christians emulate the example of Fred Rogers?

    9. How do you determine if what someone is telling you comes from genuine religious experience or if they are simply delusional? How do you prevent your personal biases from affecting your judgement of this?

    10. What is an example of religion being wrong about something, anything, and religion (and not science) finding this out? What is the proof that religion is correct now?

    11. If the Latter Day Saints are wrong, what is the proof? Why are Joseph Smith’s visions and revelations false but the anonymous ones of the bible are not? And what about Scientology?

    12. What happens when different people pray to different gods for something only one of them can get?

    13. Why didn’t Philo of Alexandria write about Jesus or Christianity?

    14. Why does ‘god’ seem like an abusive partner?

    15. What if there is no heaven?

    16. What if there is no hell?

    17. Why does the concept of heaven and hell match exactly what we expect from conmen, pimps and blackmailers?

    18. Would you still be a Christian if you were born in a predominantly Muslim country to Muslim parents, and were brought up Muslim?

    19. If you don’t take the whole bible literally, how do you decide which parts are to be taken literally? How do you decide which rules must be followed and which not? If some parts are not literal how do you know the ‘god’ part is literal?

    20. If god talked to me I would believe it existed (presumably). But god doesn’t talk to me, other people do. What is fair about sending people to hell because they do not believe other people? Many other people have lied to me in the past. None have performed miracles, except via science.

    21. If Christianity wasn’t true, what would be different about it?

    22. When you ask Christians about slavery in the bible they say, ‘It was a different time!’ Asked about homosexuality in the bible they say ‘It’s still evil!’ Why is this?

    23. If it’s a very good thing for someone to leave their sect or religion and join yours, why don’t they have the right to leave yours for something else – or for nothing?

    24 Why do Christians argue about science? They always lose

    – Finally, why do Yahweh’s actions, words, needs and desires differ so little from those of any North Korean dictator?

    Some from Bob Seidensticker:

    26. Suppose Jesus came back today. How could you tell him from an impostor?

    27. Why does science have an excellent (though admittedly not perfect) record of teaching us new things about reality, while religion hasn’t taught us anything?

    28. What sense does it make to ask for things in prayer when (1) God already knows about whatever you want, and (2) God already knows what’s best for you?

    29. It must be tempting to use the Bible as a sock puppet. There are so many verses with subtly different meanings (and grossly different meanings), that you can make it say just about whatever you want. How do you avoid this and stay honest to the Bible’s (or God’s) message? I’m looking for a simple algorithm that anyone can use.

  • Jenn H

    On number 6. Yeah, definitely bring up other religions when the conversation goes that way. Especially other Near Eastern religions; Judaism, Zoroastrianism, ancient Canaanite and Sumerian religions were the basis of most Christian beliefs. Samaritanism and Mandaeism are very relevant as well. Yazidism is fascinating, and a sad reminder of the consequences of religious extremism. And of course Islam.
    Also bring up other Christian sects, fundamentalists tend to want to present their religion as a monolith and if you disagree with them your aren’t a Real True Christian. The diversity of belief among Christians should help blunt that idea. If he is a teenager that thinks he has all the answers, giving him everybody else’s answers may help him at least moderate his beliefs. Wikipedia is your friend.

    As he gets older I would also make sure he knows that you are a safe person to talk to regarding topics such as sex, sexuality, alcohol, drugs etc. Teenagers need to know that there is an adult in their lives they talk to about difficult topics without them blowing up at them. You may have to be the adult that picks him and his mates up from a party when they are too drunk to drive home and other situations like that.

  • wannabe

    Sadly, I would have to suggest that before your correspondent makes any attempt to influence his son’s religious thinking, he should first consult an attorney. In these matters, family courts often favor the parent having primary custody, not to mention favoring religion or especially Christianity, over irreligion. Your correspondent might lose what visitation rights he currently possesses. (Note I am not a lawyer.)

  • slatyb

    1. Don’t say anything negative about his mother.
    2. Don’t worry about this. Lots of kids go through a phase of wanting to join with their peers. He’ll probably get over this in a couple of years. Or not. Whatever. Just be supportive. If he wants to attend services when he’s with you, take him.
    3. Listen to him without judging. Make it safe for him to tell you anything. Don’t give him the third degree, just make the typical small talk and accept whatever he says. Spend some time with him away from other distractions. Go for a hike, or just sit in a hot tub. If you sit quietly for a while he will start talking.
    4. Answer his questions, but don’t question his beliefs.

  • wolfypuppy

    I love this! Yes, they know everything. 😀 And your advice is spot-on. I would also recommend reading the Percy Jackson series or watching the movies together. It’s an introduction to Greek and Roman mythology in a way that’s full of action and appeal to pre-teens. If Dad can get him hooked, Rick Riordan has written a lesser known series about Egyptian mythology and is writing another series on Norse mythology. When my kids were into these books (daughter)/movies (son) we would have conversations about who their favorite god was. If they were to choose a god, which one would it be? This is a great way to introduce the concepts of “other gods” and “choice.” The son has a choice about whether to believe in his mother’s god. There are other options out there for him to choose from. Another tactic I recommend is to ask “why” people believe in gods. Instead of looking for lack of evidence, ask what do religious people get from religion? That reframes religion as a need (perceived or otherwise) and opens the door to other options for meeting those needs. Community? Ritual? Belonging? Security? Answers? Awe? What can Dad do to provide those things for his son in ways that aren’t religious–and don’t come with the baggage of Hell and Damnation?

  • These are all great suggestions, and I think they would be an excellent resource for parents in this situation. My husband and kids and I talk with our nephews who are raised very religiously – when they bring up a topic, we ask them why they think that, what do they think about someone who doesn’t believe as they do, etc. We do it in a way that is conversational but never confrontational and without revealing our thoughts on the subject particularly – more just asking questions and asking them to examine the idea.

    Wannabe’s comment regarding custodial arrangements is important – my brother-in-law and sister-in-law have clauses in their custodial agreement that participation in religion (religious education, attendance of worship services, etc.) must be communicated to the other parent. So my brother-in-law communicates to his ex-wife that he is taking the kids Catholic mass, and she is supposed to communicate to him that she is taking the kids to synagogue.

    Jenn H’s comment about being a safe person for your child to talk with about sex, alcohol, drugs, etc., is very very important. I have always communicated to my kids that they can talk with me about any topic without judgment, and now that my daughter is in her first year of college, she has called me several times to discuss sex, sexually transmitted diseases, alcohol overuse, and issues that she has had interpersonally with friends and fears she has for her roommate who is dating a teaching assistant (not a TA for one of her classes, fortunately).