Uh-oh, this looks like trouble!
I suppose it had to happen eventually. I thought I would have a bit longer to prepare for it, but it’s rolled around pretty quickly – last Sunday, elder son decided that he wanted to stay at home with Daddy.
This is where everything goes Bizarro World, through the looking glass and into the Twilight Zone, to mix a few metaphors. My wife doesn’t want to end up dragging him off to church when he doesn’t want to go, and she was prepared to let him stay with me. One week off, if he was feeling like it, wouldn’t be the end of the world, and was less of a risk than turning Sunday mornings into a battleground.
I, on the other hand, was horrified. The very last thing I want is to have my family blaming me for my boys growing up as heathens. This would complicate everything by making me look like a bad influence, leading him astray by holding out the possibility of an alternative on Sundays. That sounds as if my main concern is personal and selfish. I hope it isn’t, and I don’t think it is, but that was the first thing that popped into my head at the time.
Here’s where it gets a bit sticky. Obviously, I don’t mind if he eventually decides on a position that’s more or less the same as mine (whatever it might be that week), but I want him to do it the right way, not on a whim or out of convenience. I wouldn’t be comfortable with him declaring himself an atheist just so that he can have a lie in, for example. Fortunately, he’s still at the age where he’s the one trying to drag us out of bed in the mornings.
But why should church be the default? Why shouldn’t he expect to stay at home and need a good reason to go out and be taught strange things? Because like it or not, it is the default for him now. It’s what he’s always done, and it seems reasonable (if not entirely logical) that he should need a decent reason not to go.
At the heart of all this, once again, is the awkwardness that comes from me having different ideas from my wife. We always used to think the same way, give or take, and there’s no disguising the fact that our growing differences are going to cause some problems. They’re also going to require a whole lot more pragmatic compromises between us.
Image courtesy of nicci, used with permission
Elder son’s at it again, trying to determine whether certain people and characters are real or not. This time, he’s been set off by a book he brought home from school, called Were They Real?, which gives potted descriptions of various figures, and then asks the reader to say whether they’re fact or fiction.
He loved the process of discovery, and we talked a lot about the people and where the stories come from. He was particularly intrigued by the page on King Arthur, which slightly hedged its bets by saying that although the stories about him aren’t true, they were probably based on a real warrior king from around that time.
Taking my cue from that, when Robin Hood came up and was described as “not real”, I explained that there were many theories about possible inspirations for the stories, and that they probably originated with a genuine person or people before being augmented, adapted and mythologised into the well-established, almost archetypal stories we know today. Later, I also pointed out that even real people were often associated with events that were exaggerated or occasionally completely made up.
And shortly afterwards, I felt guilty.
It’s not that I think I did anything wrong, but I realise that my actions could be interpreted that way, from a certain perspective. I’ve previously heard comparisons between Jesus and Robin Hood, specifically relating to the nexus between people, the stories that are told about them and the problems of determining what (if anything) has a historical basis. I never mentioned Jesus, but there was a sort of connection in my mind, which made it feel awkward.
I wasn’t trying to make any sort of clever oblique point about religion. I was just discussing his book and some obviously related issues, even observing that supposedly “not real” people could have a basis in reality. And I doubt it will make any difference to his future beliefs, but after The Magic Incident, I’m quite wary of anything that could be interpreted as directing his thinking in any way.
It’s still my intention to allow my boys to make their own decisions, whatever I conclude, but this has shown me both how careful I must be to avoid misinterpretation, and also how easily my preferred factual approach can turn into something that could only be described as covert indoctrination.
Facts may be pretty unremarkable (although they’re rarely quite as settled and uncontroversial as that suggests), but used in the right way, at the right time, they can be every bit as one-sided as any campaign of indoctrination or propaganda. Context is all, and the same discussion could look very different if anything might have caused him to have religion in his thoughts at the time.
I’m feeling a little scared and depressed at how easily I can imagine this sort of situation fuelling arguments and breeding resentment between me and my wife. We’re both trying our best, but sometimes I wonder if that will be good enough.
It’s a few months now since I walked away from the church, and it’s generally been quite an easy time. I’ve found that I’m more relaxed at weekends, because I’m not dreading Sunday mornings, and we’ve settled into a routine that works pretty well. But my boys aren’t prepared to make it all that easy.
Initially, they didn’t seem to be bothered that I was staying at home when they went to church, and for quite a while, they were surprisingly unquestioning of it. That suited me, as I wasn’t really sure how I wanted to explain it to them. That changed recently. First it was “Daddy, are you coming to church this week?” Then it was “You never come with us any more!” Finally, it was “Please come with us, please!” I couldn’t put it off any longer.
Explaining things like this to small children is hard enough, even if I didn’t want to avoid criticising their entire family’s beliefs. I don’t want to be the bad guy, and I certainly don’t want to mane my sons into any sort of battleground, so there’s no question of telling them (or even implying) that I think they’re being taught a load of rubbish.
I settled for saying that it was complicated, but that I was unhappy because the people who run the church aren’t being very kind to some people, while making it clear that these are people we don’t know, and the actual local church are lovely. I was very careful to emphasise that, because I had visions of son#1 marching up to the vicar and telling him in a very loud voice not to be so nasty to people.
I’m sure I’ll have to explain it all again in different forms as they grow up and want more detail, and each time I’ll have to find a suitable way of honestly addressing the situation without causing trouble or telling them what to think. Still, that’s all part of the territory – I have the same problem with Santa.
Photo by lincoln-log, used under Creative Commons Generic Attribution License 2.0
Older son’s at an age where he’s realised that some things aren’t real, but he doesn’t know which ones, or how to tell the difference. He’ll be watching TV and ask me if Mister Maker is actually real, and then I’ll have to explain that there’s a real man who really makes things, but he’s not really called Mister Maker, he doesn’t really live in a cardboard box, and no, he doesn’t live in the TV either, which then usually leads to a long discussion about how TVs work.
He can get confused by the strangest things – I once had to explain how I knew the Octonauts aren’t real:
Well, animals don’t talk, and they don’t wear clothes, do they? And they don’t live in huge motorised underwater mobile homes, and polar bears aren’t really the same size as cats and penguins, and there’s definitely no such thing as vegimals, and above all, it’s a cartoon.
It’s not that he’s stupid – in fact, he’s very bright. But he gets confused because things that are real are mixed up with things that aren’t. He knows that Octonauts teaches him about all sorts of really amazing sea creatures (and does it very well – you should hear him on the subject of Snapping Shrimps or Vampire Squid). So he expects everything else about the programme to be real as well, even the walking, talking vegetables.
And this is the boy we pack off to Sunday school to be told all sorts of implausible stories by real people out of a real book. How’s he meant to know what to do in a situation like that?
He isn’t, of course – that’s the point. He’s meant to accept that the stories are true, because they’re being told by a nice person he knows. And he knows that you learn true things at school, so Sunday school must be just the same, but on a different day. Deliberate or not, and regardless of whether Christians are right, this is indoctrination. He’s being taught “facts” which are highly questionable at best, at an age where he isn’t able to rationally assess them for himself. That makes me sad.
More than that, though, I feel guilty. I know this is going on, and I’m not doing anything about it. He enjoys Sunday school, there aren’t really any easy alternatives, and to be honest, I just don’t want to take on my whole family over this. I’ll keep trying to help him to think about things and not believing things just because someone he heard them from someone he trusts.
I just wish I didn’t have to face choices like this.
This is something I was trying to write a while back, before putting it aside for a while because I got distracted by an idea for a silly parody which seemed more fun to write. I’ve been thinking a lot about children, and how best to bring them up. No doubt I’ll post more on this subject in time.
It’s often assumed that children are naive conversion fodder who’ll believe anything they’re told. It’s true that young children haven’t developed the tools to evaluate claims for themselves, they believe lots of things before coming to realise they’re untrue as they grow up, and plenty of people have stories of how they were brought up with particular beliefs before finally rejecting their faith as an adult. But even so, I think this assumption might be an oversimplification of a rather more complex reality.
I was brought up in the church, and was familiar with the stories and ideas from an early age. But despite that, I remember my confusion on being taught about the feeding of the five thousand at school, aged probably seven or eight. I understood the story, but maybe there was a spirit of scientific enquiry already developing somewhere, because I wanted to know how it worked, and I wouldn’t let it lie. Did the bread and fish grow back every time a bit was broken off, I asked. “I suppose so” was the closest I got to an answer.
The irony is that in a complete reversal of the popular view, I stopped asking difficult questions like that as I grew up and became more “intelligent” and “sophisticated”. That’s not the sort of question you ask, you see, because it’s inexplicable. Asking such a stupid question is like passing wind in front of the Queen. It’s just not the done thing. So I learnt to accept that there were times when I couldn’t ask the obvious questions, because it’s a mystery.
I was reminded of this recently by something my five-year-old son said. “I don’t think God exists,” he said to me out of the blue. That caught me off balance a little, so I asked why he said that. “Because I talk to Him, but He never says anything.” A basic argument, but pretty good for his age, I think, and a specific rejection of what he’s being taught on Sundays. Even as he said it, it occurred to me that in a few more years he’d have learnt The Rules, been told that God talks in a special way that’s not like talking at all, and this incipient curiosity and scepticism would have been suffocated with a pillow of imagery and nuance.
That’s partly why I worry about him going to Sunday School. It’s hardly pushing fundie dogma, and even if I left the church I still can’t see any likely alternative while my wife’s still going, but every week’s likely to weaken that instinctive rebellion just a little bit more, drip by drip, until it’s gone completely, replaced by an identikit Christianity. Maybe I’m overreacting – I’d hope and expect that he’d develop beyond his current rather facile line of thought anyway – but it seems symbolic of the way his thoughts are being directed, and it saddens me.
Children may not simply believe everything they’re told (which is something of a relief, all things considered), but there’s clearly a lot of truth in the cliché: “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.” The ideas we’re brought up with don’t completely determine our views as adults, but they frame our thoughts, putting us in a mental straitjacket from which many struggle to ever escape. How many people find that they still live with various church-related hangups many years after deconversion? I think that worries me more than children being taught any particular belief or doctrine.
I don’t want my children to grow up thinking someone else’s thoughts, even my own. They should grow up to think for themselves, and thinking about this has increased my resolve to do what I can to ensure that they have the information and freedom to do that. I may not be able to provide a completely neutral environment, but at least I can offer some thoughts and a listening ear, making them aware that people believe all sorts of strange things for one reason or another, and that they need to make their own minds up. After that, it’s up to them.