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There’s a laugh line in my seminar that isn’t meant to be a laugh line. It’s entirely serious, but they always chuckle.

In the section on extended family issues, I recommend letting your kids go to church once in a while with trusted relatives — and they chuckle at the word “trusted,” just a bit. It’s a knowing chuckle, of course. There are both trustworthy and untrustworthy religious folks, and many of us have both in our extended families. The untrustworthy are the sneaky proselytizers, the ones who tell our kids in whispers that Jesus loves them, that “I’m praying for your mama and daddy,” or even drop little hints of hellfire — not as a threat, of course, but as the thing they’re working so hard to save mama and daddy from.

The trustworthy are those who preface their input to my children with “I believe” statements instead of presenting everything as…well, gospel, and respect our decision to let the kids work it out for themselves in the long run.

It is my very good fortune to have a mother-in-law in Category #2.

The daughter of a Southern Baptist minister, graduate of a Baptist college, and devout churchgoer, she nonetheless has been absolutely fabulous about respecting our choices with the kids. I am quite certain she’d rather her grandchildren were being raised in the church, but she’s never pushed the point. When our kids do attend, perhaps 3-4 times a year, it’s always with her.

Her stock has begun rising even further with me lately. A few weeks ago I heard (secondhand) that a member of her church asked if it bothered her that neither of her sons-in-law is a Christian.

“Pfft,” she said. “You listen here. Those two boys treat my girls like queens. I can’t ask for more than that.”

She’s also been known to suggest that I’m more Christian than many Christians she knows. Considering the source, that’s a compliment I’m very pleased to take.

As I talk to nonreligious parents around the country, I encourage them not to assume too much about their religious relatives. Even those who are very serious about their own faith are often more willing to bend than we sometimes think. It’s not always the case, of course. Some will do their level best to put you in hell well before you’re dead, and once you’ve seen that in action, it’s more than an assumption. But I’m convinced that we jump to that conclusion too often. And I’m glad to hold up my own mother-in-law as an example.

Happy Mother’s Day, Babs!

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Dale McGowan is chief content officer of OnlySky, author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies, and founder of Foundation Beyond Belief (now GO Humanity). He holds a...