Last year, a friend of mine received a cry for help email from a home schooled child (let’s call them Frankie). It was the kind of thing you read over and over again at Homeschoolers Anonymous. Frankie had a physically abusive drunk for a father. They were frequently left alone to study their PACEs (Accelerated Christian Education workbooks), and they were bored out of their mind. They couldn’t understand the maths PACEs and had no one to help them. Although an inspector from ACE had visited the family, he had just spent most of the visit praying with them, and then left. Frankie had not felt able to confide in him about the situation.
Frankie loved creative writing, but they had to do it in secret because it wasn’t encouraged in their family. They included a list of things they wanted to be able to do, which included, most heartbreakingly of all, “have a friend”.
Even sending the cry for help email had been a risk. The children did not have access to the internet, but Frankie had found where their dad hid the password.
I think about Frankie every couple of weeks and wonder what happened. My friend passed on the email to relevant authorities. I have no way of contacting Frankie. I don’t expect I will ever know what happened to them.
My first feeling, and the one that’s stayed with me, is just the feeling of impotence in the face of injustice. There was nothing I could do to help Frankie. Even if I had their email address, which I don’t, trying to contact them would only increase their risk of punishment.
Later, I had another thought: why had Frankie emailed my friend, and not me? My blog is ranked far higher on search engines than my friend’s (which, last time I looked, was no longer online). I don’t know of any search term Frankie might realistically have used which would not have resulted in their having to scroll past several of my posts before finding my friend’s.
The clue lies near the end of Frankie’s email. They wrote: “I don’t believe God wants me to live this way”.
Frankie, despite expressing their loathing of their church and their Christian education, still believed in God. Given their near-total isolation from the outside world, their only knowledge of atheists would come from what their church and family said, and what ACE says about atheists. Which isn’t nice. Quite understandably, Frankie wouldn’t have felt comfortable reaching out to me for help. My friend, however, is a Christian, and I suspect that’s what made the difference.
On this blog, I’ve generally been accommodating toward progressive Christians. Readers of some other Patheos Atheist blogs probably think I’m a spineless apologist. Lately, I’ve been trying to rethink my position, and work out exactly where I stand in the debate between accommodationists and anti-theists. I’m still making up my mind, but every time I try to think about it, I just think of Frankie.
Children’s welfare matters a lot more than whether people believe in God or not. Where people’s religious faith threatens children’s welfare (as Frankie’s mother’s faith clearly does), it must be fought. But we can’t forget the reality that some children have more immediate problems than debating the divinity of Christ. Some children, because of their religious upbringing, will not talk to an atheist, but they might talk to a Christian.
Of course, this cuts the other way as well. There are people who will talk to me but not to a Christian. That just means that all of us need to be sensitive to what those people need. We need Christian allies so people like Frankie have places to turn.
But my experiences with Christians have left me somewhat ambivalent about working with them. I have come across some Christians who seem wholly progressive and inclusive, but they hold their faith so dear that they just have to defend Christianity against criticism. If a Christian kid came to me and said “My ACE schooling is suffocating me”, I would not stop to encourage them to consider accepting our Lord and Saviour Christopher Hitchens. But similarly, if a Christian is approached by a kid who says “My school is telling me I’m evil and broken for not believing”, it is not helpful for the Christian to respond “Not all Christians are like that. I pray that you’ll discover the joy of a real relationship with Jesus!”
I cannot overemphasise how unhelpful responses like that are. If Christianity has been the source of your oppression for your entire childhood, it really sucks to have someone say you haven’t given it a fair crack of the whip. If “the love of Christ” has only ever been used as a pretext for telling you to change who you are (to stop being gay, to believe something that makes no sense to you, to stop hanging out with your best friends), it is a profound violence to hear it from the person you are asking for help. If a teenager needs to reject Christianity to get over their suffering and be who they are, a Christian whose first response is to defend their religion is not an ally.
Fortunately, I know quite a lot of Christians who understand this. I know a lot more who don’t.
So two things, really:
- In the UK, we urgently need more Christian allies who understand the harms caused by conservative Christian schooling and home-schooling. In the US, Homeschoolers Anonymous, HARO, and CRHE are largely run by Christians who get it. Britain has a gap. There need to be resources for people who would not feel comfortable reading this blog or approaching me.
- Christians, when you feel the urge to say “Not all Christians!” or “It’s so sad that a few bad people have driven you away from Christ” or “I’ll pray for you” just… please pause first.