Anxiety Alert: My Secular Son Is Starting First Grade in a Christian Town

For atheists and other nonreligious people, raising your children without the influence of religion sounds pretty easy on paper. Don’t bring them to church. Don’t send them to Sunday School. Don’t pray before meals. In a nutshell, don’t expose them to religious indoctrination. That sounds pretty easy… if you’re not living in a tiny rural-suburban village with more church pews than people.

cvilleI live in a small village in upstate NY called Churchville. If you haven’t figured it out by the name, it’s a conservative Christian nook with a couple traffic lights, a quaint Main Street made up of mom-and-pop restaurants and services, what seems to be an alarmingly high concentration of homeschooled children, and a nearby Christian college that nearly everyone I encounter has some affiliation with, including the local public schools (from what I hear). Despite its tiny size, Churchville hosts a number of Christian churches and even has a Christian food pantry. Religious references are difficult to escape in this area. There’s even a Bible verse on the wall in the karate dojo my 6-year-old son Ryan attends classes in.

As most of my readers are aware, I’ve previously been active in fighting back against religious overreach in Churchville by challenging the local Good News Club and launching Young Skeptics.  Tomorrow, I begin a different kind of involvement in Churchville public schools when Ryan starts first grade. Now it gets real.

With this milestone comes an intense feeling of anxiety for me. Ryan is leaving the purely secular private Montessori school he attended for preschool and kindergarten, and he’s entering public school in a district that hosts a Good News Club and whose residents are overwhelmingly Christian conservatives. That means his classmates will also be Christian, and he’s lost his “secularism buffer,” being me and my wife. Although we’ve had some conversations about God and religion, the topic will undoubtedly come up in school with his friends (and hopefully not his teachers) in a way that presupposes God’s existence as fact. Being a protective atheist parent, I want to be there to cut off those conversations and help Ryan understand what those other kids are talking about. I know I can’t be, and that’s where my anxiety is coming from.

It’s my goal to prevent my children from being indoctrinated into any particular religious ideology, whether it’s by family, teachers, or peers. And no, I’m not convincing them to be atheists either. I’ve told Ryan, and I’ll explain to Grayson when he understands, that he and his brother will be able to choose or reject religious belief when they’re old enough to understand what it means, and that me and his mom feel that such decisions aren’t appropriate for children to consider or make. When he has questions about the universe, I answer them in scientific ways, passing on the facts and knowledge that humanity has discovered so far, and telling him “no one really knows” or asking what he thinks when he has a question about the unexplained.

So for now, I’ll be vigilant. I’ll be involved in the parents’ association, attend curriculum nights and other events, and do what I can to stay informed of what Ryan encounters in his day. I can’t do much about the conversations Ryan will have with his classmates, but I can keep a watchful eye on the interactions he has with teachers, staff, and outside groups. Hopefully, his school has a good understanding of the First Amendment, equal access, and what they’re allowed and prohibited to do or say. And you can be certain I’ll be keeping the predatory and abusive Good News Club far away from my kids. I think I’ve done what I can to prepare him for this, and I hope I’m getting worked up over nothing. For now, I’m fighting off my anxiety by focusing on Ryan’s excitement about his new “big school” and sharing in that as much as I can.

Have you been in a similar situation? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!


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Kevin Davis

Kevin Davis is the head writer and editor for SecularVoices, co-founder of Young Skeptics, and author of Understanding an Atheist. He is known for local and national secular activism and has spoken at conferences and events such as Reason Rally 2016 and the Ark Encounter Protest and Rally.

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124 thoughts on “Anxiety Alert: My Secular Son Is Starting First Grade in a Christian Town

  1. I’ve raised two secular daughters, and they encountered all kinds of reactions. One of the biggest things I can think of is to warn your son that the word “atheist” is best avoided until he is older. (Once my oldest daughter decided to openly call herself an atheist, she got some harassment about it, both from students, and even a few teachers.) You can tell him that a lot of kids have been told that an “atheist” is a bad person, so it’s often better to say his family is “not religious” to keep his friends from getting the wrong idea. “My family says I can make up my mind when I’m older” might work, but it leaves the door open for preaching he might not want. If you’ve ever done anything with the UU’s, he could call himself a “Unitarian Universalist” which might help since the other kids will probably have no idea what that is. (Some UU’s have really good RE programs, and I recommend checking them out.)

    Or, if he really wants to shut down the religion conversation, he can say that his family considers religion a private thing, and that they don’t talk about it outside the family, and especially not at school. I’ve even used that tactic on door-knocking preachers, and it gets rid of them pretty quickly.

    Another issue we’ve dealt with is the pledge, which is a daily ritual in our area. I told my kids that if they want to go along with the crowd and say it, that’s OK. If they decided they wanted to sit it out, I’d back them up with any problems they got from teachers on it. Both my kids just went along with it until high school. Then my oldest decided to sit it out, but she wasn’t the only one doing that. Apparently other kids caught on that you could opt out, so they picked up the habit too. My youngest said that she would just stand and vaguely mumble some nonsense, and nobody ever bothered her about it.

    On another note, we “vaccinated” our kids against religion, and it worked really well. We exposed them to careful small doses of lots of different religions and religious ideas all through their childhoods, and also included a good dose of ancient mythology for perspective. We never told them there wasn’t a god, but they figured it out for themselves at the same time they figured out about Santa and the Tooth Fairy.

  2. 1) “That’s not our belief system”

    2) “We’re not allowed to talk about it”

    3) “We’re not allowed to say the name”

  3. Have you considered living in a town that is a little less Christian, one where he can go to the type of school you wish? One where he will make friends with other atheists? It just seems he will be facing an additional amount of rejection in order to satisfy his parents beliefs?

      1. But it is how democracy works . . . there is a tension between having an odd view (see the Amish) that the majority rejects (for good reason in the case of atheism) and living in society. We should tolerate your views . . . and let you live your life in peace. You are going to have to live with us living our life and practicing in the public square we created.

          1. We do not live in a “secular” democracy in the sense that religion is chased from the public square. Read the words of the “Battle Hymn” if you doubt our religious nature. We are “secular” in the sense of “not having a state church.” Your neighbors are abiding by the law and the law allows them to form clubs. Make your own secular club and let the marketplace of ideas compete.

          2. Well there’s where you show you haven’t done your diligence. I’m the Executive Director of Young Skeptics, a critical thinking-focused after school program. But hell, I’m just an “internet atheist.” If that’s true, then you’re just an internet troll.

          3. No. I am a secularly trained philosopher with a blog on Patheos (like you!) writing on philosophy of religion. What are your academic credentials in education, philosophy, or theology? I don’t see any. Great. We need lay volunteers. Go for it. Hurrah!

          4. Dude, if I recall correctly, YOU don’t even allow comments on your blog here at Patheos, due to the MANY times you’ve had your worthless floppy a** handed to you by the commentariat.

          5. I’ve read your stuff.

            You’d flunk out of any freshman philosophy course if you DARED to submit any of your writings, due to their lack of rigor and unsupported assumptions.

          6. Religion is “chased” from the public square when it’s there illegally. Yes, there are religious references throughout our history, but that doesn’t in any way make us a Christian nation. We are a nation of (mostly) Christians. There’s a difference.

          7. Take it to court. The courts haven’t agree. The clubs have a right to exist. They would not even think I am a Christian! We agree. We are not a “Christian” nation, but our history makes no sense without Christianity. Atheism and agnosticism have contributed essentially nothing to the big story (though we appreciate our atheist citizens). That’s just the way it is. Even YOUR atheism is different than atheism from non-mostly Christian nations. . . a kind of godless American Christianity . . . as sociologists note.

          8. Pop culture vs. predatory evangelical groups who tell kids they’re sinners worthy of death. Yeah, great analogy. Any more weak apologetics? Read The Good News Club by Katherine Stewart and you might get a glimpse of what I’m referring to.

          9. I describe predatory practices as predatory. You might want to refrain from making the assumption that I only describe them that way because I disagree with them. I disagree with a lot of groups I don’t describe as predatory. Stop trolling.

          10. Psychological torment to cripple a person from being able to escape IS predatory, by definition.

          11. Let’s see pop culture frequently and proudly tells kids to refer to women as … well you get it… and celebrated harm to women. You are right: the reach of such misogynistic culture is nothing like a low budget voluntary club nobody must attend that describes religious beliefs nobody must believe.

          12. If you think CEF/GNC is low-budget you’re a fool. Come back when you know what you’re talking about. Until then, piss off. You’re speaking from ignorance again and looking like an idiot. I’m not interested in continuing a conversation with you and frankly I’ve given you too much of my valuable time already.

          13. So your local club spends how much? As far as I can tell as nonprofits go CEF is small, lean, and pretty local (gifts go to support local program). If the program is “predatory” call the police as this is illegal.

            The kind of black-white thinking found here is why so many atheist kids leave atheism.

          14. Hey, LaughingBoy….MOST of the lovely dosh is no doubt run through *churches*, which don’t have to and generally DON’T report their financials.

          15. WHICH one is backed up with terrorizing children with everlasting torment before their reasoning faculties can rightly reject the claim as nonsense?

          16. The courts HAVE largely agreed.

            Xtian theocrats have been pushing the envelope, but MOSTLY losing.

          17. Religion isn’t chased from the public square, BUT it’s a TOTALLY closed or TOTALLY open forum.

            If you want religion, ALL RELIGIONS have to be allowed equal access, no matter how much they’d hurt YOUR religion’s fee-fees.

          18. We live in a SECULAR democracy, protected by the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the US Constitution.

            If you don’t like that, find yourself a theocracy.

            ETA: 13% in 2017, FWIW, for Nones.

        1. Nope. And the US isn’t a democracy anyway, as right-wingers are so quick to tell us; it’s a Constitutional Republic.

          Ben Franklin described it thus, allegedly: “Democracy is 2 wolves and a sheep discussing what’s for lunch. A republic is a well-armed sheep contesting the vote.”

          That “well-armed” part is SECULAR LAWS. “We are a country of *laws*, not of *men*”, as a famous person said.

    1. Imagine a public school system where Christians don’t assume that it is normal and acceptable for a non-Christian 6-year old to be rejected or even bullied by classmates in order to satisfy their own parents’ beliefs. Many Christian parents teach their children that rude behavior is “loving” and “spreading the good word.” When your kid comes home crying because another kid told him he is a terrible person, solely based on a parent’s belief system, you will have to tell them the same thing I told my kids. I told them that the other little boy was unfortunately taught by his parents that people who don’t agree with them are “bad.” I taught them instead to be loving, accepting, and forgiving because the little boy doesn’t understand that he was being mean. (TLDR version: Imagine a public school where your beliefs don’t lead your kids to be assholes.)

    1. While there’s nothing wrong with online learning per se, I would hesitate to isolate them that way. School gives kids lots of opportunities to learn to deal with people they don’t like or don’t agree with, which they desperately need in order to be functioning adults. This is why homeschooling is so questionable in my mind.

  4. Saying “We’ll talk about it later” isn’t going to work out, IMHO. My kids went to Catholic grade school, my youngest still is. I was religious when they started, and basically Catholic Fundamentalism drove me out of it. We have talked about religion, a LOT, about why we don’t believe claims, what we do believe, and why. Your 6 yr old needs to hear from you, right now, in a 6 yr old appropriate way, what you believe and why you believe it. Otherwise, they’re not going to have the tools to understand why NOT to believe what the other little demons are pushing.

      1. “It’s my goal to prevent my children from being indoctrinated into any particular religious ideology, whether it’s by family, teachers, or peers. And no, I’m not convincing them to be atheists either. I’ve told Ryan, and I’ll explain to Grayson when he understands, that he and his brother will be able to choose or reject religious belief when they’re old enough to understand what it means, “

        1. That doesn’t say I’ll talk about it later. It says I don’t want them to be indoctrinated and that they can choose their worldview when they understand what that means. Grayson hasn’t had the discussion yet because he’s 2. I also say after the line you quoted, “When he has questions about the universe, I answer them in scientific ways, passing on the facts and knowledge that humanity has discovered so far, and telling him “no one really knows” or asking what he thinks when he has a question about the unexplained.”

        2. For my kids “You don’t have to make up your mind about this yet” doesn’t mean that it didn’t get discussed. Religion and beliefs were an open topic, especially when my fundie brother-in-law would send them religious stuff. (VeggieTales can be a good jumping-off point for some interesting discussions!) But when my kids would ask “Is god real?” my answer was “What do YOU think?” And then, regardless of their answer, the more important follow-up question was “OK, and why do you think that?” (Same strategy with Santa and the Tooth Fairy.) Because critical thinking was one of the most important things I wanted my kids to learn.

  5. I’ve found that the exposure they get from classmates allows for some wonderful teachable moments. They come home asking about something someone said or did, and I am able to talk with them about it in a rational, logical way. No judgement or avoiding it because I think they’re too young. Give your kids some credit – kids are remarkably logical little beings and able to handle more than we think.

      1. they will end up religious as the adult child of my logic professor did

        […]

        It is what most non-religious kids do as far as we can tell

        The GSS data indicates that that hasn’t been true for some decades. You can see this for yourself at the Berkeley SDA interface. Those who were irreligious as youth can be approximately identified by a recode on RELIG16 — “4” indicating those who were “None of the above” at age 16, and otherwise being religious. Either RELIG or RELITEN can be used for measuring current religiosity. While you can examine the results by YEAR of survey, the generational COHORT variable sheds considerable light; those born in the 1950s onward who were irreligious in their youth tend more likely than not to stay irreligious. (This is not merely an effect of the older cohorts having had more time to find religion. You can control on generational cohort, and see that cohorts overall tend to shift minimally over time and without pronounced trend, especially compared to the cross-cohort shifts.)

      2. The stats say that, as my beloved mother used to say, YOU are “full of prunes”.

        People are leaving religion in the US alone at the rate of 3000 people / day…do you REALLY think kids, who have better bulls**t filters than ever before, are going to fall for your nonsense unless you poison their psyches before they reach the age of reason?

    1. You might want to consult actual studies on that rather than rely on your anecdotal “evidence.” Presenting supernatural ideas to adults who haven’t been indoctrinated with them as children is usually not very effective. That’s why evangelicals rely on the “4-14 window” — the time between ages 4 and 14 when they are most effective. Adults typically don’t believe in magic anymore, so presenting these ideas to rational adults is pretty futile.

      1. Teach Socratically… see adults change their minds all the time. “Magic” “4-14” window… lol… scratch an internet atheist and you get juvenile insults and an obsession with American evangelicalism as if it was most of Christianity.

        1. I’m a bit more than an “internet atheist.” If you bothered to do your due diligence, you’d know that. Nice attempt of your own to insult me. My reference to the 4-14 window is not based on obsession. It’s based on my personal dealings with CEF and the Good News Club — an organization that is very real and exists in over 5,000 US public schools, including in the district my 6-year-old attends. They are the face of Christianity in public schools. Don’t like that? Do something about it.

          1. They are the “face of Christianity in public schools” if one does not count the vast majority of teachers who are Christian, the vast majority of students who are Christians, and every other religious organization in town. As for “internet atheist” your Amazon page shows no particular training in philosophy, religion, or any area about which you are opining. Did I miss it? There is a place for the skilled amateuer. I am just pointing out that in the USA one can be in the Bible Belt and have little or no involvement with CEF or the Good News Club.

          2. Except that those teachers aren’t legally allowed to proselytize to students. So no, they’re not the face of Christianity in schools. Outside evangelical groups are, because they’ve bullied their way into schools in a calculated effort to convince children their science books are wrong while preaching between school walls, where kids are taught to believe their teachers. They’re perfectly aware their methodology is underhanded and are fine with it, because somehow lying for Jesus is ok, as the ends justify the dishonest means.

          3. So if you think they are not influencing students . . . well they are. I know Upstate and they are powerful voices for what they believe true. As for other groups, is “bullying” the new term for using the Constitutional system? Lying for Jesus is not ok, but neither is slandering for atheism.

          4. You’re really torturing that strawman.

            There are a LOT of ways to psychologically bully somebody that don’t involve anything that can be legally fought.

          5. Using the power of SECULAR government to promote religion IS bullying. Why, what would YOU call it if your putative child was being evangelized into Islam, or Scientology, or Mormonism, or Shinto?

          6. So a person who doesn’t proselytize, but is passively a member of your group, is suddenly the face of xtianity so you don’t have to feel bad about the abuses committed by the overly zealous?

        2. They’re called *facts*.

          Learn to deal with them, because kids have GOOD bulls**t filters these days, and religion is losing people because it’s COMPOSED of bulls**t.

          1. Uh, saying we don’t want to believe religious nonsense is a single view on a single subject.

            Most of us are skeptics and humanists as well, which provide more than ample counter to the vile doctrines of xtianity in particular.

          2. So, you claim “Don’t believe nonsense without evidence” is *indoctrination*?

            Time to recalibrate your mind, dude.

      2. Presenting supernatural ideas to adults who haven’t been indoctrinated with them as children is usually not very effective.

        Contrariwise, it can be under certain circumstances, as demonstrated by the occasional adult conversion. And more importantly, given present environment it seems statistically absurd to think that your child will completely avoid exposure to such ideas until adulthood.

        I would recommend for your reading Altemeyer and Hunsberger’s Amazing Conversions: Why Some Turn to Faith and Others Abandon Religion — which includes both accounts of why children raised irreligiously may end religious, and while those raised religiously may end irreligious.

        You might also find Ebaugh’s Becoming an Ex of interest; while her focus is more on leaving religion, the framework she describes can also apply to shifts into it.

        1. My thought was to do what I’ve heard of many None parents doing: Taking kids to ALL KINDS of churches/synagogues /mosques on field trips, to see how the people there think.

          1. I think the A&H “Atheists” study indicated that as a moderately common approach among nontheist parents. I think the other two works give more of a theoretical framework for suggesting when that approach would and would not tend effective.

          1. Its relevance; particularly in regard to high-consequence events that would be considered unfavorable (although admittedly this is probably a bias instilled from my old nuclear engineering training), and where it relies on predicate preconditions that are themselves statistically absurd to expect.

            Kids USUALLY cross the street without being hit by a car, but most parents tend to teach the little weasels to look both ways anyway.

          2. I think you will find that the Green Cross man and the like came about because kids were USUALLY being killed crossing the road every day.

          3. I think you will find that the Green Cross man and the like came about because kids were USUALLY being killed crossing the road every day.

            While the stats aren’t easily found on line, it seems entirely plausible that prior to the Green Cross and predecessor campaigns it may have been usual in the UK per day to have a child pedestrian fatality. (It may even still be the case; I’ve not been able to turn up contemporary age distribution for UK pedestrian fatalities.) However, it was and is highly unusual in per child terms.

            This seems to leave you with a poor analogy; while children usually crossed the street safely, those exceptions were considered sufficiently important and undesirable as to induce taking of steps to further reduce the numbers.

    2. I wouldn’t trust you if you said water was wet.

      I’ve read your writings, and they’re a tissue of nonsense mixed with a personal sense of grandiosity.

  6. Like all other cults churches prey on those who feel alone.
    ‘Fellowship’ is dangled as a lure. Fucking ‘fishers of men’.

    Like other cults churches sent out their most attractive to ‘befriend’ and ‘invite’ the targeted alienated kids. Adults isolated by mental illness (often combined with addiction) are drawn in – sometimes literally – then given free hugs and hand-holding – longed-for visceral connection. So too the elderly. And immigrants who are desperate for inclusion.

    All these are offered ‘no strings attached’. There is no need for churches to supply string or hook – those desperate circumstances provide aplenty.

    So. What’s wrong with offering company and (usually) sincere compassion to those who feel at rope’s end? None at all. Unless. Unless – unlike that Samaritan – these boons are extended with the barb of an agenda secreted away in the offered bait. The Good Samaritan gave without expectation – making it chrystal clear to his beneficiary his only expectation was the hope they’d recover and be able to complete their own journey. The Christian perversion of a Samaritan’s act of selfless compassion abuses kindness to further its own agenda. The Salvation Army makes that agenda so clear few take it seriously: “Christian soldiers marching
    as to war”

    Few over the millennia have followed those twin metaphors: ‘shepherds’ and ‘fishers of men’ to their logical conclusions. Shepherds shear, then eventually skin, butcher, roast turning on a spit and then eat their flock.

    And the biblical fishers of men? They aren’t into ‘catch and release’.

    1. I had figured out the ‘sheep’ analogy, but hadn’t remembered the old ‘fishers of men’ slogan. Your comment puts it all into a new perspective!

  7. I wouldn’t worry overmuch about possible indoctrination. I was indoctrinated, by my mother’s wish, in Catholic school, starting in 1st grade. My father was a quiet atheist and never made any fuss about the religious upbringing my mother gave her children. He just explained things scientifically at any opportunity. If you provide your child with a steady example of rationalism and scientific thought, my guess is that indoctrination will not work, or not for long if it gains any traction. Of course, do all you can to keep the church out of public schools. Insist wherever and whenever you can that they *not* be indoctrinated and not participate in overtly religious activities. But if you have a good relationship with your child and give them a strong sense of identity so that they don’t need to go looking for one, religion is unlikely to hold much allure for them. I rejected the Catholic faith I had formerly devoutly believed in around puberty, and I never went back. I spent my late teens exploring other world religions out of a sense of curiosity, without any interest in adopting a new faith. I assume that kind of exploration would be fine with you. So maybe even encourage that sort of breadth officially in your home, at appropriate ages.

    1. My grandfather was a bible-thumping baptist minister and believe me when I tell you that his hypocritical ways taught me FAST that I did not “believe”. It just depends upon who you talk to and what THEY believe….so buckle up and listen to the many different stories of FACT.

    2. My Catholic school carried “The Plain Truth” in it’s library, and taught the Reformation and Wars of Religion heavily. If they regarded teaching the faith highly, I rather missed seeing it; and they certainly defeated their own object if they did.

  8. I fear that it is likely that the best plan is moving to a larger town. If the family wants to stay in Churchville and have a response to shut up religious people, everyone in the family could train to say: “we follow the advice of Jesus in Matthew chapter 6 verses 5-6, where Jesus said NOT to pray in public. So we can’t talk about religion with you people at all, because that would make Jesus mad.” Certainly, most families would figure out what was going on and that you all had decided to switch to being jerks (what else could quoting Jesus mean?). But they would have a hard time to respond, and give the family a way to deflect all such conversations. Plus, that line shuts up the common response that you just need preaching to, because you obviously have never heard the good snooze.

    1. I disagree 100%. Running away doesn’t affect change, promote equality, or educate people on the laws of our secular government. And lying to Christians by telling them we “follow the advice of Jesus” is disingenuous. That’s a terrible lesson to teach kids re: standing up for themselves and what’s right.

  9. You’re making him part of your crusade. That’s very unfair. He will be ostracized. You should move to another town with a secular school.

    1. Making him part of my crusade? How exactly? By being vigilant that my local schools are following the US Constitution? News flash: ALL public schools are secular schools. So because I live in a town full of religious people who may or may not want to subvert the Constitution, I should allow them to, and pack my shit and move? No, that’s not how the Constitution works, that’s not how freedom works, and that’s not how equality works.

      1. If anything, it’s the religious fanatics that are on a “holy crusade” (literally). History shows just how effective jihads and crusades have been in the past. Verbum sapienti sat est, no? -_^

    2. I doubt you’d say that if your child was going to a school that was majority-{ReligionYouDon’tLike}.

      1A says the school has to keep it secular…and woe betide the administrators who try to stuff ANY religious proselytizing into the mix.

    3. I actually like that a few of the believer kids at my son’s school tried to ostracize him. It let him know early on what believers are like and why, if he wants to be a good person, he shouldn’t listen to them or emulate them. Granted, though they tried it, they just don’t have the weight to pull off a full social pressure at my kid’s school in the area we live, so he only got a taste of what believers are capable of when they have the numbers, but I’m glad he did get that taste and all signs point to he learned the lesson about them loud and clear.

      1. That’s the best way to handle the situation IMHO. Just like how our immune systems learn to deal with different diseases by being exposed to them in reasonable doses and develop resistance to different germs, letting your kids be exposed to fanatics in small doses will better prepare them for dealing with the Cult of the Crucified God-Man and its zombie cultists as adults.

    4. You can’t shelter children from everything. Compare hothouse flowers to common weeds–hothouse flowers spend most of their lives in specially climate-controlled environments, never once having to face hardship, and they die within hours of being removed from their protected environment. The common weed is exposed to everything from droughts to floods, from freezing cold to searing heat, and it learns to survive pretty much anything that Nature throws at it. Better to be exposed to bad things, and develop a resistance to them, than to be protected from everything and be vulnerable to anything.

  10. When he has questions about the universe, I answer them in scientific ways, passing on the facts and knowledge that humanity has discovered so far, and telling him “no one really knows” or asking what he thinks when he has a question about the unexplained.

    When he has a question about the unexplained, you might also try asking how he would recognize an answer as correct, or distinguish between correct or incorrect answers. (I’m not sure a first grader would have the neurocognitive development for this sort of introspection, but I don’t think priming the pump would hurt.)

    So for now, I’ll be vigilant. I’ll be involved in the parents’ association, attend curriculum nights and other events, and do what I can to stay informed of what Ryan encounters in his day. I can’t do much about the conversations Ryan will have with his classmates, but I can keep a watchful eye on the interactions he has with teachers, staff, and outside groups.

    You may also want to try to find means to convey the notion that social acceptance tends to be overvalued, while also working very hard on finding an accepting peer group for him to socialize with. Social pressures seems one of the major factor types for religious conversion of those raised irreligious. (He’s probably too young for Feynman’s autobiographies, but having copies of Surely You’re Joking, Mister Feynman and What Do YOU Care What Other People Think to lurk about the house might not be a bad preparatory investment for when he unexpectedly isn’t.)

    1. My kindergartener asked me if Max, another 5 year old, really had a black belt in karate like he claimed. I asked “what do you think” and son decided it was unlikely. I told him he had a good brain, he should trust his brain, and when anything sounded wrong, it was worth further investigation. Once he got into questioning things, there was no stopping him.

      1. I asked “what do you think” and son decided it was unlikely.

        A good start. I’d suggest the followup of “why do you think that”, but again I’m not sure about the neurocognitive developmental appropriateness for a five-year old.

        1. I just wanted him to learn to question what he was told, especially when it conflicts with reality. It was the first step toward critical thinking. We got to the whys later on.

        2. Also, for my 5 year old, the question was less can he handle the conversation mentally and more how long can I keep him engaged before he’s focused on something else. Conversations were short because butterflies.

          1. Carl Sagan pointed out in the original Cosmos that little kids make the best scientists because they want to know how and why everything works the way it does. The best thing a parent can ever do is to try and tell them the truth, even if it means saying “I don’t know–let’s both go find out!” because then you and your kid(s) can learn something new together!

  11. Whether it’s “optimism” or “pessimism” seems a matter of perspective; regardless, the survey data over the last several decades doesn’t support the expectation for a trend to religiosity.

  12. Just FYI, when my son’s school crossed the line, as they did a time or two, I asked son if he wanted me to push back or let it go. He invariably wanted me to let it go. He didn’t want to cause a fuss. So, we found work-arounds. He said the Pledge of Allegiance, but said “under laws” instead of “under God”. He meditated during moments of silence. He refused to talk about religion with the other kids and always steered the conversation to something else. Until high school, he didn’t tell any other kid he was not Christian, although he told me he was atheist in 7th grade. He never wanted me to make a big deal out of anything religion-wise, and I let him take the lead on how to handle that because he was the one that would have to deal with the fallout.

  13. I wouldn’t worry too much about your child “catching religion.” Religious people have to worry about their kids “catching atheism” because it makes so much sense and is less work. But even with one religious parent, if they have one atheist parent they will usually grow up atheist.

    I was so confident about this that I agreed to raise our kids Catholic, since my husband wanted to. And we have, but I’ve gotten little bits in there like “of course no one knows for SURE, because no one has ever seen God” or “there are other religions out there that believe xyz, this one is what our family believes, but you can’t know for sure that someone else’s is wrong.” Partly I do this to keep my kids from being judgmental pricks, but partly to sow seeds for the day I admit to them I don’t believe in God. (Why have I hidden it so far? Mainly because they will TELL EVERYONE and I’m closeted to most people.)

    Well, after one of our comparative religion conversations, I happened to say “Christian is the one that you are.” And my son got really awkward for a bit and finally managed to say, “I don’t know that I am, I think there’s a God but I’m not sure about Jesus.” And I told him that this is totally fine, he doesn’t have to be a Christian if he doesn’t want to. As he gets older, he can keep thinking about it and change his mind as many times as he wants about what he believes.

    Unfortunately this doesn’t solve my worry that he will be bullied for his beliefs. But no kid is immune from bullying. I just have to ensure the adults around are protecting him, and help him find allies.

  14. I grew up the depths of the evangelical belt- with classmates and nearly all adults immersed in “the end times” and afraid of demons. About a third of the extended family were followers of Joe Smith or spend their days in the Watchtower. Still, my father still had his college history books (which were great into to the “biblical” world) and would read to me from the Greek myths. Sure, my nature was skeptical, but I never found my environment than a lurid curiosity. I have no issue with christian ethics, not no use for dogma. value thinking in your life, examine assumptions, and set a good ethical secular examples. your child won’t feel the urge to convert unless they have other issues that make religion a port in the storm. as long as religions make claims that can’t be verified and are contrary to observed evidence they are at a disadvantage over reason.

  15. My sister has worked in nurseries and kindergartens thirty-odd years. She concludes children are not anywhere as daft as adults generally. Your son will be fine.

  16. Just keep doing what you’re doing–teach your children the truth (that Xtianity is made up, that the Bible was written by mere mortals, as was the Koran and other religious texts, and that morality comes from the fact that society has to have rules or it’ll fall apart, not from some god or gods that may or may not exist. Also, have them check out books like The Dark Side of Christian History by Helen Ellerbe so that they see what organized religion is REALLY about (power over others, mind control, etc.). Also expose them to the other mythologies of the world, such as classical Greek mythology or the Shinto Nihongi and Kojiki, but teach them that all mythologies are just that–myths and legends, stories to explain away things that are poorly understood, but we have learned so much more about the world and that no single religion has a monopoly on the truth. Even though I’m neopagan, I freely admit that my beliefs are just that–beliefs, not facts, and that I chose to believe what I believe after leaving the Xtian cult decades ago. If you raise your children with the truth–the REAL truth, that all religions are based on beliefs and were created by people–then even if they choose later in life to become “spiritual”, it’s very unlikely at best that they’ll ever become the sorts of fanatics that would cram their beliefs down the throats of others and insist that their beliefs are absolute truths regardless of what reality says to the contrary. I know this because I was raised a “holy roller” evangelical Xtian as a kid, and when I became a teenager I saw that organized religion was a scam and a form of mind control and left. I know that there are more than a few atheists who would say that when I left the Xtian cult I didn’t go far enough, that I should have left all religions behind me, but I say that if my belief system doesn’t hurt anyone (in fact, it’s the only “commandment” of what passes for a religion in my POV) and I’m not cramming it down other people’s throats (which I’m vehemently against, because I feel that people should have the right to choose what to believe as long as they don’t force their beliefs on others or use those beliefs as an excuse to cause harm), then why worry about it?

  17. Only because Moslems tend to hunt down and murder apostates and convert people by force. Giordano Bruno, thou art avenged!

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