Sunday, March 18, 2007

Reader mail...

Nick's e-mail was long. But, I'm going to try and distill it down to what, I believe, was his question (and relevant information). Nick, if you read this, please fill-in gaps that you feel are important or give more detail if you need. I think that other readers might have more, or better, advice. And, Nick, I will respond, via e-mail, to some of your more personal feelings and thoughts.

Nick J writes: My brother and his wife do not go to church, their marriage was a civil ceremony in a driveway, and they have shown no predilection for passing Catholic guilt along to their daughter. She had a baptism scheduled before her birth, but that was called off. (though I can’t confirm whether my mother hasn’t secretly baptized her. She’s a registered nurse, and she told me she used to secretly baptize infants when she worked in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. So my niece has had little, if any exposure to religion. It hasn’t been an issue, especially since my intelligent parents consider the fundagelical worldview of creationists and hatemongers laughable. On St. Paddy’s day, we have my Paternal Grandmother and Aunt over for corned beef and cabbage, Irish soda bread, and potatoes. Before dinner, my ‘rents said grace, and they involved my niece. Towards the end, my dad held his granddaughter’s hand and playfully guided her hand through the sign of the cross. I felt sick to my stomach. Ending grace, the entire table clasped their hands together trying to teach her to say “Amen”. And I was as sickened then as I was any moment while watching “Jesus Camp” and mumbling child abuse to myself. I felt sick because my brother may not be an out-and-out atheist, but I don’t know if he wants his daughter exposed to the guilt that we were burdened with as children. I love my parents and I respect their instincts as intelligent parenting adults more than I do my younger brother, but this was a line in the sand. This wasn’t about responsible parenting to me, it was about a possible break in the chain of needless religious indoctrination. I don’t know what I’m looking for from you, but I’ve always been more than confident in my positions, and I feel I’m in the right here. I don’t know if I am morally justified in being offended, or this is possibly some latent form of rebellion.

I think I would've felt a bit "sick" as well. I don't see your feelings as a "latent rebellion". I think that, as atheists/agnostics/non-believers, when we see religious indoctrination, we cringe at a very deep, visceral level. Especially if we've once been "that child". It's not rebellion: It's EMPATHY! It's calling out the fact that some parents value their child, an independent creature, so little. Really. When I read your story, I was reminded of a puppet master, controlling the strings of a puppet. Your father didn't even hesitate to consider that the child might have instincts or thoughts of her own. He made her into a puppet...and worse, she's not made of wood and string. She's a human being. Recognizing your father's action as bullshit isn't a short-coming on your part! It is, however, a testimony to just how arrogant some people can be about religion. However, it exposes a flaw in their philosophy. When theists pantomime acts of piety in children, they're merely reiterating the fact that they don't believe a rational, fully capable adult would buy it. They have to indoctrinate young in order for their belief to survive. Of course, they don't see it that way. But, it is what it is. It's grooming. It's binding up the limbs of a tree so that they can only grow in one direction.

As for staging a dinner table revolution,...I don't think it's necessary. Could be FUN! But, it would ultimately only serve as an example of, in the theist mind, why children should be protected from their "evil atheist" aunts/uncles/family. I know the temptation to loudly ask, "WHAT THE FUCK!?" is large. I've been in that position and it *is* nauseating. I've found, however, that the best way to negotiate this delicate issue (and families are always a delicate issue) is to plant little time bombs of rationality/reason in the heads of all present. What might I have said at your table (after swallowing the bile that would've surely risen in my throat)? "Gee Dad, it's interesting, to me, that you would use an intensely symbolic and sacred ritual in pantomime for the entertainment of the table. Is the "sign on the cross" no more sacred than learning to use a napkin or a fork, properly?"

I hope that makes some sense.


Taylor said...

My husband's family is the same way Nick's family is. Well, with the notable exception that they are fundamentalist Southern Baptists. We have begun to be on the watch for the infringements of their religious predilictions on our daughter's life - and they are everywhere. Last week, "My First Bible" the board book popped up at my mother-in-law's house. I think it is important to note that she did not show it to us, nor offer to send it home with the little one. So that says to me she is fully aware we do not want her to read it. As for how we are going to deal with the head on issue of our non-belief, we aren't sure yet. But we know that we are headed for one of those knock down, drag out, horrible catastrophes. Because they are of the mindset that anything other than their own truth is wrong, and you will burn in hell for it. So they are already on a mission to lead us to Christ, save our souls - whatever. It is so ridiculous. There is no reasoning with them!

AlisonM said...

You know, I think this situation bears some similarity to a child discipline one - when a child does or says something wrong in front of company, and you take the child aside (immediately or later, depending on the degree of offense) and explain the offense and consequence out of earshot of everyone else. Explaining to grandpa that the child is not going to get religious training should be done by the mother or father, in private, so that the issue doesn't become a giant blowup right then and there. It's a lot easier to defuse that if it starts off as a one-on-one and slowly becomes family gossip when nobody's feeding off a frenzy of family anger. The other thing to do, if you can handle it, is just wait. One day, the child (who has been taught that these rituals are things particular to certain relatives and she should just humor them) will come out with some absolutely precious retort, and it's not likely that the relatives who hear it will take off in a huff, because after all, kids just say the darndest things!

Paul said...

My sister and her husband are very evangelical baptists. I have no compunction about sending my son to spend a week with his cousins in the summers. I know full well that he is being exposed to religious ideas while he is there. Probably even a few mild attempts at indoctrination. It doesn't worry me because religion is not a disease. You can't "catch" it from limited exposure. My son will spend a week with his cousins, saying grace at dinner, attending church and Sunday School, being talked to about God at every turn. And then he will come home and spend 51 weeks with me and my wife. I do not preach atheism at him, just reason and rationality. And he can make his own decisions about God.

Rachel said...

Nick, I can understand why you feel the way you do, but I don't think it's your place to decide what's best for your niece. That should be left to her parents. Hopefully they're as rational and reasonable as you and will take Grandpa aside and let him know his actions weren't appropriate.

Aerik said...

When I'm helping babysit my 2 nephews and somebody mentions how my sister's gonna put them in cub scouts or when the second's baptism is going to be I point out the bullshit of their childhood indoctrination and the anti-atheist and anti-homosexual bigotry of the boy scouts (both of which apply to me personally, and therefore to them personally) and how I feel we should stop being so fucking passive about it.

Paul said...

[silentsanta, nz]

Wouldn't a lot would depend on the age of your niece, Nick? Although you have given the impression she's pretty young, so that does make it worse.

And also it's largely about how it was done, I mean, non-religious children are going to spend a great deal of their life around religious people, especially in the 'States. Obviously, setting up boundaries is on your mind, which is fair enough. However, the kid isn't being whisked away to some concentration camp for lessons in piety and being made to memorize the 12 stations, it's just grace; and as I understand it, common practice for many different religions. I guess what I am trying to say is, there is a difference in presentation between "This is how we do it" and "This is how it must be done". From your description, it didn't sound like a serious thing.

Hugo said...

Well, I was never "that child" but reading Nick's mail made me cringe none the less because it is something that could happen to my 9month old daughter. I love your suggestion that their actions actually make the sign a 'common' habbit and not (according to them) something deeper.

I hope to be more prepared for these kind of situations by reading these blogs (agnostic mom is good too), any more suggestions? ;-)

My wife (and her family) is a church going catholic, I've always been an open atheist so she has no problems with it but I feel that with the arrival of our daughter she wants to become "more religious", my reaction is just the opposite, she's the most wonderful person all on her own, no magic involved ;-)

Anonymous said...

My wife (and her family) is a church going catholic, I've always been an open atheist so she has no problems with it but I feel that with the arrival of our daughter she wants to become "more religious", my reaction is just the opposite, she's the most wonderful person all on her own, no magic involved ;-)

Hello there, Hugo! Nine months is a great age. :) They're so expressive and observant at that stage. The smiles melt your heart. *sigh*

I've found that children often are the impetus for people taking one of two approaches to their religion: dive in or get out. I know that, despite my budding feelings of atheism, I had Possum#3 baptized in the Catholic Church because, at that point, it was really important to my husband's family. But, when our fourth came along...I actually had a really strong reaction to the other extreme.

I have a friend, Gabi, who is in a similar situation as yours. She's a Catholic and her husband is an atheist. She, like you, has a small baby (seven months). I'll try and get her to sneak on here and get in touch with you (via this blog). It's always nice to know someone with the same situation going through the same phases.

Toni said...


I think I would put this in the same category as parents who don't want their children to eat certain foods, like sugar. If the parents find out that the grandparents give the kids candy then they need to address the fact that it is not allowed. Same with religion. It isn't the grandparents business why they might not want religion, but they need to respect the parents choices and wishes.

That being said, as an atheist since I don't believe in any of that crap I don't think it would harm a child to have occasional exposure. I also don't think baptising the child has any effect one way or another. Letting the child read the bible could be a very positive thing, as long as the parents explain their beliefs as to what the stories really are. The more children read and are exposed to the world the more likely they are to be secular, in my belief.

Nance said...

On St. Paddy’s day, we have my Paternal Grandmother and Aunt over for corned beef and cabbage, Irish soda bread, and potatoes.
Think about what this family was doing. It wasn't just a family dinner. The family was celebrating a (quasi) religious holiday. Maybe less so for most but still. . .

And that's OK. That doesn't constitute a threat to this child's mental health.

She will, I'd guess, learn the legend of St. Patrick and the snakes and all about shamrocks and leprechauns and the joys (?) of corned beef and cabbage and remain a rational person.

Just like she will be exposed to all sorts of fairy tales.

As long as her family is explaining all along the way, and it sounds like her parents (and her uncle :)) would be likely to, what these various holidays are about and how some people invest them with whatever their religion is but you still get yummy food (on some holidays if not this one!) and it's more of a family thing than a religious one for some of the participants. . . as long as the truth is being reinforced (with talks about the way different members of even your own family think about these things -- over years and years) Granddad's bad manners (and, yes, he shouldn't have playfully or otherwise caused his granddaughter to participate in the religious part of the day (that I assume someone has had the good grace to tell him is not welcome)) can be taken in stride.

Nance -- yep, my kids have survived a couple of graces at dinner and lived to tell the tale :)

Janet said...

Both my husband and I are non-religious (he's an atheist, I was born into a cult but escaped), but my mil is very into her church, and always says blessing/grace at the dinner table. So, in teaching our 3 1/2 year old good manners, we've started saying 'blessing' at our dinner table.

Of course, we thank science and research, not god, but it gets him used to the practice so he's quiet when the 'god' blessing is said.

Hugo said...

Thanks atheist in a mini van I'd like that.

David W. said...

Hugo, I'm in exactly the same spot, except that my wife and her family is Baptist. (my wife describes herself as a "born-again Christian" and is very active with church) I'm glad to hear I'm not alone in this position.

In fact, Nick's story is eerily familiar because my wife has recently started pushing a 'grace' before dinner now that the kids are older (almost 1.5 and almost 3). Instead of a standard grace, she found a little song. This somehow makes it worse, because it's taking advantage of my elder's love of singing. It feels very manipulative. I'm very non-confrontational, but the more and more I understand how damaging indoctrination is, the closer I am to bringing it up. It's not going to be pretty.

Anonymous said...

PMomma and Company

William Edelen has an essay online addressing this very topic. It's called HOAXES AND PALM SUNDAY and it's for his April 1, 2007 symposium.

Find it at

It starts out,

"April Fools Day...a day of tricks and hoaxes. A perfect day for the archaic legend of Palm Sunday. It is a day when people are fooled,"

and the last paragraph is,

"Delete infections of the mind in this season and present to your children the magic and wonder of just being alive in this glorious spring time. 'To breathe is a beatitude.'"


Cogito said...

Ugh, I will probably be blogging on this myself, especially as Tot enters preschool at the YMCA (hint, hint, Hugo :)).

But for now let me say I'm of two minds. On the one hand, obviously we enrolled Tot in a preschool at a Christian establishment. After some research, I'm confident that the Christian content is dilute and non-proselytizing, so our influence will more than counter it, as Paul says.

On the other hand, I empathize with the visceral reaction. Waiting for a table for brunch, I noticed a little girl nearby had her CCD books and was studying "forgiveness." From my spying, it seemed this included teaching the kids about original sin, i.e., why they are inherently vile and needed someone to be tortured to death to earn forgiveness for their sin. I don't even know the kid, and it made me want to vomit. I can roll with adults around me having wacky ideas, but when I see in person some poor child being taught that basically they are worthless, I have a very strong reaction.

Unfortunately, when it's someone else's child, there's not much you can do. The best I can suggest is to be open with our atheism, perhaps ask some questions, and be available for the kid to talk to.

Vincent said...

The short answer is: she's not your child.

The important question is really how will the real parents explain this to the girl when everyone else is gone?

If the child is taught that people sometimes do things out of tradition and that harmless traditions are permissible, then the sign of the cross will be something akin to a game of patty-cake which she does with grampa out of respect for tradition.

Erp said...

Not much that Nick can do directly in this situation since it is up to his brother and sister-in-law. However he might want to gently broach the subject with his brother and offer support if the grandparents did something the parents did not want (but also didn't want to make a scene at the dinner table).

Personally I find the secret baptism more disturbing as a bit under a 150 years ago in Italy there was an infamous case where a Jewish child was secretly baptized by a servant and then taken away from the parents on the grounds they weren't going to raise him Christian (google for Edgardo Mortara). You will find some sites that try to justify that.

Joe said...

I'm with Vincent. She's not your child. Its not your direct business.
That said, there's no reason that later in life, if you're asked by your niece what your position is, that you can't express yourself. But, as sick as you are, its just not your place.
What wasn't mentioned was what the parents reaction, if any , was. It just may not have been worth it at the time.

Nick said...

I appreciate the comments and there are a few points I want to make very clear.
One, as far as my niece's age, she is 20 months, just developing language skills. She can walk(like a drunk, motor skills haven't completely perfected as of yet) and play, and babble. She's bonded to us, and can even recognize labels "grandma, doggie, mama" but can't verbalize them yet, at least not inteligibly.

Two, and this is the point I really want to slam home. My brother and his wife are good people. They are evolving parents. My parents are good people, and quite adept at parenting. A few people have commented something to the effect that it's not my place to say anything since she is not my child. I am the first one to grant that premise, I am NOT a parent. I know my brother though, and with his family's lack of religious conviction, I would attribute it more to laziness and apathy as opposed my experiences, which are grounded in rationality.
My beef isn't that I think my parents are bad role model's for their granddaughter. I have an issue with them ONLY on this topic because I don't think they have a right to be teaching her the sign of the cross, and prayers to Jesus, anymore than I have a right to pull her aside afterwards and tell her that Jesus never existed.

I am not her father, my parents are not her parents. My brother and his wife are the only people I would think appropriate to be teaching/informing their daughter on anything like this at her very vulnerable age.

They shouldn't be teaching her about Jesus.
I shouldn't bring up doubts about Jesus.

That job is solely Mom and Dad's.

That is all.
Thank you.