The Ethical Dilemma: Landlady Without the Lord

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Landlady Without the Lord: Several years ago, a lovely family moved into the multifamily house that I own. The mother and older children are atheists, as I am. The father, who had a rough childhood, does not attend church or read the Bible but considers himself Pentecostal. The youngest child, whom I love as if she were my own grandchild, is in the first grade, and until recently, had no religious exposure. She is a smart, inquisitive child who states that she wants to be an astrophysicist when she grows up.

A few months ago, her father started to indoctrinate her. I don’t proselytize, but I refuse to lie to the child. When she asked if I believe in God, I told her that I do not. I think it troubled her that I would not be “saved” like her and her father. To further complicate matters, she requested that I read the Bible to her. Since she has a logical mind, I think that reading the Bible to her would be the surest way to make her an atheist, even without providing any interpretation of my own. She doesn’t believe in Santa, the Tooth Fairy (“It’s Daddy! Duh!”), or the Easter Bunny, and she understands the difference between truth and fiction when watching TV or movies, so I have high hopes for her when it comes to her eventual understanding of biblical mythology.

I see her almost every day, sometimes spending hours with her and her family, usually while her dad is at work. What can I do to at least be the most positive influence on her possible, and what should I tell her regarding dealing with her dad, relatives, classmates, and others if she is hassled about unbelief?

—Baffled in the Boroughs

Dear Baffled,

You’re already doing fine. You just need to feel a little more confident about your totally appropriate behavior with this impressionable sponge of a girl. Remember, she has a mother and older siblings who are openly atheist, so it’s not as though you are the one introducing her to doubts about faith. It’s actually odd that her father waited so long to begin and then focused on indoctrinating only his youngest child. I wonder what kept him from working on all of them from birth and what got him started on this one now, at such a late stage when it comes to staking a claim on the soul.

It seems more likely this child would be hassled by those around her about the religious beliefs she’s trying on rather than any lack of them. As you note, the biggest “danger” associated with reading the Bible is that it often leads to questioning everything it says and every directive ostensibly supported by it. So feel free to read it to her upon request as well as to suggest other things you’d like to read to her. I’m thinking more Dr. Seuss, Maurice Sendak, myths and fairy tales than Christopher Hitchens, but there are some excellent books for children about religion from a secular perspective, if you don’t think the dad would object. One, recommended by a reader of this column, is The Belief Book by David G. McAfee and Chuck Harrison.

Keep being honest and open about your own views without directly denigrating what the father is promoting. You don’t want the father to forbid his family to associate with you. If you simply continue to be a wonderful friend, this child will grow up remembering the lovely person who was so kind and caring and so good without god. That’s the most powerful and resonant lesson by example you can possibly convey.