The Humanist Dilemma: When Does Sharing One’s Religious Experiences Become an Attempt to Convert?

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Take Me to Church: Growing up, my family wasn’t religious at all; my parents never tried to impart any type of spiritual doctrine on us, we never attended church, etc. However, my older sister began going to this modern, New-Age church that her co-worker introduced her to. My sister enjoys the community aspect to it and she’s not really changed in any worse way for going. Everyone in my family is supportive of her decisions and choices. Upon her request, I’ve accompanied her to a couple of services just to see a new part of my sister’s life.

My sister is a preschool teacher who loves children, and she frequently watches kids at her church’s nursery. In the same vein as asking me to attend church with her, she asked my brother if our young nieces and nephews (oldest is eight, youngest is two) would want to come to the church nursery with her. I view this as her simply wanting to incorporate the people she loves into something she’s committed to without the expectation of us converting or anything like that. However, my brother was not too pleased about this as he’d had bad experiences with religion growing up. I wanted to get your thoughts about this.

—Reaching Out or Over-Reaching?


Dear Reach,

This is an interesting twist on the usual questions about attending religious functions. Normally, someone who is really into their faith tradition is trying to coerce someone who’s not. But in this case, we have someone who apparently just enjoys the scene and wants to share it with others, with no underlying agenda—we think.

There is a question about what’s really going on with your sister. Is she just enjoying the community, or is she on a slope toward greater commitment to the church’s doctrine? And then there’s the question of what the nursery is all about. Yes, it’s probably a way to keep restless kiddies from disturbing the adult congregation, but it’s also the gateway to future pillars of the church community. Although it may serve religion-lite along with the juice boxes and animal crackers, rest assured some religion is embedded in the stories that are told, the songs that are sung, the games that are played, and the beliefs of the other children whose parents are active in the church.

Your brother is the father of his children. He and his wife are the ones to decide what their children do, particularly at their young ages. If he wants no part of this, that should be the end of it. The kids might be missing out on some fun and friendship, but there are other non-religious places they can get that.

Houses of worship needn’t be treated like kryptonite. Many people attend faith-sponsored social events without being believers, and even without being members of that religion. They have a fine time without anything rubbing off on them beyond fellowship. If your brother were willing, perhaps he could bring the kids one time and stick around to see what was going on. But it’s also not unreasonable for him to go with his gut, just say no, and encourage your sister to engage with the nieces and nephews in other purely secular ways. Very young children are the most susceptible to indoctrination (or, as may be the case with a New Age church, flighty or otherwise illogical thinking), and I don’t blame him for preferring to steer clear.