The Ethical Dilemma: When in Rome… or Mecca

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When In Rome, or Mecca: My son is five and his father is Muslim. We divorced when my son was seven months old. Although the contact between them has been limited, it seems to have left an impression on my child. We now live in a Middle Eastern country, with almost no contact from his father, but my son keeps telling me he can’t wait to start going to the mosque.

As an atheist, those are horrible words to me, but I tell him that these are not decisions for a child to make, and he can decide when he is a grown-up. I don’t want to force my child into atheism, but it would indeed be a sad day if he chose religion over clarity of thought. How do I nudge him away from this?

—Concerned Mom

Dear Mom,

When I was a Jewish child in an almost entirely Christian neighborhood, I wanted a Christmas tree and Santa Claus and to go to church instead of synagogue. Kids love to conform to those around them, and probably all the kids he sees go to the mosque. In all likelihood it has nothing to do with the Muslim father who left when your son was an infant, and nothing to do with Islam specifically, but everything to do with his environment, which happens to be Muslim. If he were in a Buddhist community, he’d probably want to go to a Buddhist temple.

So your immediate best bet is to try to surround him with other kinds of kids (and adults). Are there any humanist, atheist, or secular organizations in your area you and he could join? Can he attend a secular, multifaith, or international school? Can you get him into any neutral or diverse youth programs, where he can join other children in arts or music or sports that aren’t particularly oriented toward Islam? Anything that helps him recognize that not everyone goes to the mosque may help ease his craving to participate in that lifestyle while stimulating his appreciation of and identification with other lifestyles.

But if you live in a theocratic country or one dominated by a single religion that is not tolerant of other worldviews, particularly the secular/atheist one, you might put your child and yourself in danger by pursuing such things. If that’s the case, for his own protection, it might be wise to allow him to accompany friends to the mosque now and then, if that’s a realistic possibility. Do your best to explain, in the privacy of your home, what exists in other parts of the world, and encourage him to question and evaluate what he sees. There’s no guarantee he won’t choose the Muslim world he’s currently immersed in (and where he’s spent critical formative years), or even condemn and reject you for your atheism.

You don’t say why you are still living in a Middle Eastern country after the demise of your marriage, but if you have to leave the country in order to be in a more diverse environment, for the sake of your son, do so ASAP. The sooner you can relocate to a more diverse neighborhood, the better your chances are to redirect your child’s development. In the meantime, keep nudging him to be aware of different worldviews, and do what you can to change your environs—either by bringing more secular and multi-faith influences into his sphere or by getting yourselves out. Just as religious parents can’t always keep their kids tethered to their faith when they are raised in a secular or diverse society, your secular perspective may not prevail if your son is immersed in a deeply religious society.