The Ethical Dilemma: My Sister-In-Law Takes My Daughter to Church!

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Indoctrinated Daughter: My husband and I had some rough spots in the beginning of our marriage. We were financially broke and couldn’t afford day care for our two-year-old daughter. My sister-in-law lived thirty minutes away and offered to watch her during the day for the whole year to help us out. It helped us out tremendously. But during that time she would take our daughter to church with her along with her family. I know going to church is something that my sister-in-law enjoys and is part of her life, but I am a little uneasy about letting my daughter go with them.

My daughter is six now, and even though she hasn’t gone to church with them in over six months, it is still all she seems to want to do. Whenever I mention her cousins, all my child says is, “Oh, can I spend the night with them and then go to church with them in the morning?” How do I explain to my sister-in-law that Jesus doesn’t come to our house? And how do I explain to my child that her 16-year-old cousin, someone she looks up to immensely, believes in a fairy tale?

—Troubled Mama

Dear Mama,

Seems like your daughter was literally blessed under the care of your sister-in-law—and she liked it. That’s much better than having a miserable time with the relatives, so you should certainly be grateful about that part.

As for your daughter’s ongoing enthusiasm for church, no need to be overly concerned. It sounds as though your daughter may be an only child, and in any case she may simply be craving the companionship and routines she enjoyed with the relatives. Now that she’s of school age, probably the only time for overnight visits is on weekends, and she knows if she spends Saturday night, the next morning is church, which she also enjoys—again, most likely because of the company and community, as well as the rituals that tend to be especially appealing to young children.

Perhaps you could arrange for her to visit with a Friday-to-Saturday overnight, picking her up before bedtime Saturday, instead of a Saturday overnight leading into Sunday morning. Or maybe you could have the cousins come to your home. If the parents wouldn’t allow them to miss church, make that a Friday-to-Saturday overnighter as well.

You need to gently share with your sister-in-law that you are not religious, don’t go to church and are not raising your daughter with a faith—but never dis her beliefs or stop expressing your appreciation of all she has done for your family. Meanwhile, do what you can to fulfill your daughter’s yearnings, but with secular relationships and activities. Perhaps there’s an Ethical Culture or Sunday Assembly or other group she (and you) could make part of your weekly routine for companionship, connection, and “soul food.” Maybe she can spend time with other cousins or friends who aren’t so religious, so she’ll understand that some of her buddies go to church and others don’t.

But don’t discourage her relationship with these faithful relatives. Continue to explain your views while allowing your daughter to enjoy the cousins’ company and their practices. Steer clear of saying anything along the lines of “Jesus doesn’t come to our house,” since that makes Jesus sound like something your home is lacking (like when I felt bereft that Santa didn’t bring gifts to Jewish kids). Instead, share with her your view that religion is fairy tales—comforting and often with useful lessons—but for some reason many people never outgrow those fables even after they’ve stopped believing in Santa and the Tooth Fairy. Encourage her to come to her own conclusions as she matures—and don’t be distressed if she hangs on to the religious inclination for a long time. Good people are good people, no matter how they get to their goodness.

Should I Protect My Atheist Child? My husband and I are atheists, and our daughter, who is six, has decided she doesn’t believe in god either. She claims it “just doesn’t make sense.” Being six, she isn’t ashamed of her beliefs and isn’t afraid to share her beliefs with her friends at school.

While I don’t want her to feel ashamed of what she believes in, I also don’t want her friends at school to abandon her because she doesn’t believe in their god. We are all aware of how passionate “believers” can be and their children sometimes even more so.

My dilemma is trying to figure out how to explain all of this to a six-year-old without making her think that what she believes or doesn’t believe is somehow wrong or something to be ashamed of. As an adult, I don’t typically talk about religion with most people. I realize I am in the minority being an atheist. I can choose to who I want to disclose that information. She doesn’t yet understand that some kids will refuse to be her friend if they find out she doesn’t believe in their god. And if their parents find out…you see where I’m going with this. Any help you can offer would be greatly appreciated.

—Hide Her In The Closet?

Dear Closet,

What an interesting dilemma. Never heard that one before, but I’m hoping we have readers who have dealt with this and can report their results.

It’s wonderful that you are raising such a free freethinker. And I would think that if her friends were going to abandon her because of it, it would have happened already (prejudice starts very young). So it’s very likely you live in a community where people are not that strictly focused on their beliefs (or others’ lack of them). Maybe her school has children with a variety of beliefs and they are taught to be fine with all of them.

Which leads to another way of looking at this: Let’s say your daughter went to a religious school, and she practiced a different religion. Religious schools that admit children of other faiths tend to treat those children with deference, allowing them to opt out of certain religious lessons and functions, and teaching the other children that some people have different beliefs and that’s OK. So you daughter’s school, whether it’s religious or secular, should treat her atheism with the same respect that would be accorded to minority faiths. And if that’s not the case, you need to have a meeting with the principal.

Although it sounds like you don’t currently have a problem and you may not in the immediate future, sooner or later—hopefully later—your daughter will encounter people who assert their religion is right and her atheism is wrong. It’s better to prepare her than allow her to be taken by surprise.

Begin by talking about religion in America. Explain that most people believe in a god and belong to a religious organization, and many believers believe that everyone should believe what they believe. But they’re wrong. Also tell her that the U.S.A. is founded on the principle that people are free to practice whatever religion they want—including no religion. That’s why there can be so many people with so many different beliefs living alongside each other here. At some point, mention that in many other nations, including most of Europe, the majority of people are atheists and it’s the religious people who are the minorities.

Start with little doses and tell her more as she seems receptive, or if she asks, or if she seems to be encountering any of the problems you anticipate. Do your best not to give her any reason to think her atheism is in any way negative or inferior, even when noting that some people feel that way. Just because most people feel that their religion is the best one, and many religious people think some—any—religion is better than no religion doesn’t make it true.

If she does begin to run into problems, she has a choice: keep her views to herself, which even a six-year-old can handle; or continue to express them freely and deal with the consequences, whether that means getting shut out, or opening minds, or some of each. While it would be great to have her stand up as a little ambassador for atheism, she should feel absolutely free to do whatever she chooses, which may vary from one situation to another and from one age to the next. Most kids have a strong need to conform; others enjoy the attention that comes with being different. Send her out into the world armed with information and your support, and let her find her own way.