I am an atheist. My husband and I come from the same strongly Catholic ethnic community, and my in-laws assumed I am Catholic. I never disabused them of the notion, because my husband said they would never accept me. He is not religious but believes in God. We were married in a church but now attend only on holidays and special occasions. His parents are extremely religious and disapprove of our non-attendance. Now we have a two-year-old, whom his grandparents adore and see often. The problem is, they teach him to pray and kiss religious idols. Now he often talks about Jesus. It makes me very uncomfortable, but my husband is fine with it, so he won’t intervene. Is there anything I can do to stop the religious brainwashing of my toddler without causing a rift in the family?
Great question, and a tough one, because there are a number of interrelated, thorny/ticklish issues involved, including the teaching of kids versus indoctrination, and the rights of parents versus the rights of grandparents.
Thorny issue No. 1: religious indoctrination, which is a serious matter. We know kids are impressionable, but forget sometimes just how impressionable. I have some experience in this arena. When my oldest son was about 10, he went to Bible camp with his best friend, and came back, after a single weekend, indoctrinated to the eye teeth. “I have accepted Jesus into my heart,” he told his mother on the way home in the car. After that he prayed every night, wore a cross, talked about God a lot (many of my atheist friends were aghast: “You sent your kid to Jesus camp?”).
Thing is, I liked his newfound devoutness. Like your husband, although I almost never go to church, I do believe in God (it’s not something I can prove or disprove, I just feel it) and, really, is believing in an ordered universe where good is rewarded and evil punished by a just and all-seeing Being so bad for a kid? (It did eventually wear off in my son’s case.)
Ticklish issue No. 2: the rights of parents versus the rights of grandparents. Of course you have the ultimate say in how your child is raised. But I have long felt the very important role grandparents play in a family is not honoured enough in our society, and unfortunately see and hear of a lot of cases where young parents circle the wagons and shut out the grandparents when there’s conflict.
Don’t do that. Whatever you decide to do, execute it in a spirit of respect for the wisdom and life experience of the couple who raised the lad who is now helping you raise your boy.
Respect, but not fear. I don’t think you have anything to be afraid of here – in fact, I think you’re in the best of all possible worlds. Why? You know the saying, “It’s easier to get forgiveness than permission”? Totally applies here.
If you had revealed your atheism earlier, your in-laws might have become all huffy and shirty and caused problems for the nascent relationship between you and your hubby. But now? I predict they are much more tractable and malleable – precisely because they adore your child and are powerfully motivated to have a relationship with him, which perforce entails a good relationship with you.
Therefore, and bearing in mind all the above caveats and codicils, just blurt out the truth. Something like: “Listen, I should have mentioned this before, and I’m sorry I didn’t – I was afraid of how you might react – but the truth is, I actually don’t believe in God.” Wait for the shock to die down. Then: “So can we talk about the atmosphere we want to raise [your boy’s name here] in?”
They might freak out. They might stomp out. But they’ll be back, I give you my Dave Eddie Absofreakinlute Guaranfriggintee. If nothing else, the powerful pull of your toddler’s cuteness rays will pull them back like a tractor beam.
At which point, open the negotiations. In good faith and a spirit of mutual co-operation. A good place for those negotiations to land, I would say, is if his grandparents agreed to explain to your son that they believe in God, but not everyone does; and you explain that you’re one of those who don’t.
You could even let them take him to church once in a while, to see other believers in action. What’s so bad? (P.S., stealth babysitting). Because the good news is, eventually your son will grow up, as kids are wont to do, and will make up his own mind as to what he believes.
What am I supposed to do now?
Are you in a sticky situation? Send your dilemmas to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please keep your submissions to 150 words and include a daytime contact number so we can follow up with any queries.