Parenting without a Manual:

What's a father to do when he's the only one in the family who no longer buys the Christian story? How do you bridge the gap?

Reading Time: 9 minutes

Most fathers enjoy the luxury of sharing their beliefs with their own children unguarded, without fear of reprisal. It’s the kind of entitlement you hardly even notice until it is taken away. Back in the charmed early days of parenting each of my four beautiful daughters, I enjoyed that luxury myself. But our family dynamic eventually changed, and now I find myself separated from them by a deep ideological chasm. I myself am no longer a Christian, while virtually everyone else whom I love still is, including my own children.

Over the years, I’ve tested the waters to see if there is room in my girls’ mental worlds for the kind of skepticism that now characterizes my own, but I have found that even the tiniest movement in that direction meets with visceral opposition. See, the brand of Christianity into which their mother and I introduced them doesn’t countenance competing moral or philosophical viewpoints. Their world is not the wide, tolerant ocean of liberal religion, it is the landlocked lake of evangelical Christianity.

In my precarious situation, I find myself torn between two opposing instincts: On the one hand, as their father I want to expose them to an exciting, adventure-filled world much larger than the cultural enclave they currently inhabit. But on the other, I am painfully aware that their programming predisposes them to recoil from anything resembling one of many forbidden fruits.

With each attempt to introduce another verboten idea, I run the risk of teaching them to be afraid of their own father. The Good Book warns them that the Devil himself masquerades as an angel of light. Why couldn’t he just as easily come to them disguised as their own poor misguided father?

Given the complexity of my current situation, I am forced to walk a fine line.  As the only atheist in their limited social world, I cannot come right out with my views without damaging our relationships. I’ve seen that happen again and again with every other relationship I once had, and I have lost them all, one way or another. I can’t bear to see that happen with them as well.

But my girls remain immersed in a reality alternative to my own, enclosed within an epistemic bubble that I am cursed to both fully understand and yet despise for all its anti-humanistic distortions. I want to connect with them inside that bubble, showing them another way to view themselves and the world, but I must do it in such a way that I do not alarm them for all of our differences. I cannot be both “the other” and “one of them” at the same time.

Through trial and error, I’ve discovered for myself what I think is the way forward to get me through this challenge. To explain what I feel I have learned, I will share the story of a conversation I had with one of my girls because it illustrates the intricate dance I must do. In the end I’ll summarize what moments like this have taught me about how to be a father to a family who believes I am destined for destruction.

“Why Are You Crying?”

My youngest daughter “got saved” a couple of years ago, making her profession of faith and then getting baptized the way our tradition prescribes. I baptized two of the other three myself years ago, so I knew all too well the series of events which would soon follow. I knew that her grandparents, aunts, uncles, and Sunday School teachers would all congratulate her for her “new birth,” reinforcing for her that her own eternal destiny was now secure. Because she had put her trust in Jesus, when her life is finally through she can look forward to being reunited again with all her deceased loved ones in the life hereafter.

Except not her father. Because he’s not a Christian anymore, the poor sap.

Of course, I present a confounding problem for Baptist theology because anyone who knows me can attest to the authenticity of my Christian zeal throughout the twenty years that I was a committed believer. I was as sincere as any other person I knew, so my departure upset a great many people.  Baptists believe that once you’re saved, you stay that way.  So when someone truly devout leaves, you’re not left with much choice but to conclude that the one who left must not have ever been a true believer. The cognitive dissonance has to be rough.

Because I know what children are told about people who don’t trust in Jesus, I didn’t have to guess why one night before bed, just a few short days after her baptism, my seven-year-old was at my side, weeping. It did take me a while to get the reason for her tears out of her, but a few pointed questions revealed that the eleven-year-old had encouraged her to start praying for the restoration of my condemned soul.

“It’s just that…I want you to be…to be with me in…in heaven!” she cried, sobbing uncontrollably.  It took me nearly ten minutes to calm her down.  I picked her up and held her for a while, sitting with her on her bed. When she regained her composure enough to speak intelligible sentences, she recounted for me how she had learned that everyone who believes in Jesus will go to heaven when they die, but the people who don’t will not be allowed in.

She never mentioned Hell, interestingly enough. I think some things are too horrific for first graders to wrap their little heads around, or at least it was for her. Instead her anguish stemmed from the idea that we would be separated from one another for all eternity.  The thought of it terrified her and broke her heart.

What would you say to your child in this situation? How would you react? Would you sit her down and tell her the whole thing is made up? Do you confront the foundation of her entire belief system and tell her that there’s nothing after you die, so all of this is simply a fairy tale?  Would there be any use in doing that if you are the only person in her life who believes that, knowing that you are going up against an enveloping community which univocally tells her the opposite of what you are saying? Remember, I live in the Deep South, in Jesus Land.

What would you do?

Walking a Fine Line

I’ll tell you what I did. I talked to her as calmly and as gently as I could, and I began to ask her some questions, encouraging her to think about things from a slightly different perspective.
I told her, “Listen, honey. You know that adults can be wrong, right? I mean, clearly we disagree on belief in God, and we can’t all be right about that, right?”  She nodded, still frowning and one breath away from crying again.

I continued, “Well, another thing even Christians disagree with each other about is what gets people into heaven. Not everybody thinks that people will be kept out just because they don’t believe the right things. So isn’t it possible that people can be wrong about that?” She shrugged, and then nodded. “I guess,” she said, still clearly unconvinced.

I nudged a little further. “Now let me ask you another question. As your father, don’t you think I would do whatever it took to keep you safe? Even if it meant keeping you from doing things to hurt yourself?” She nodded again, still listening.

“Well, God is supposed to be a father, right?  And he’s supposed to be a good one, right?”  Again she nodded. “And do you suppose I am a better father than God is?”  For the first time she cracked a half smile and said, “No,” with just a touch of nervous laughter.

“And do you think that God loves you and the rest of the family more than he loves me?” She rejected that thought right away. It didn’t sit well with her at all.

“Well then, don’t you suppose that if God is a father, and a good one, and that I’m not any better at it than he is, then he will not let anything as bad as that happen to me? Because that’s what good fathers do?”  Her nods were getting bigger, and now I could even see her little body relaxing before my eyes, her breaths growing a little deeper.

I reassured her in the end that I know how scary all of this is, and that I understand why she was upset. But I also reiterated once more for her that adults don’t always agree with each other, even about really important things like this. She will have to decide for herself what she thinks about all of it, and what makes the most sense to her.

I scooped her up from her bed and held her for a long time, letting her relax even more into my arms until she was comfortable enough to fall asleep. I got her a kleenex and made sure she was past this scary conversation, then got her ready for bed. In a matter of minutes, she was fast asleep.

Next I had a conversation with the eleven-year-old. That was a fun one, as well. I’ll spare the details of that one, but I ran her through the same logical breakdown that I presented for the seven-year-old, asking her to please stop scaring her younger sister because it wasn’t really helping anything. She apologized for freaking her out, and agreed to think harder about which religious conversations were constructive to have with someone that young. I also encouraged her to bring her issues to me in the future so that we could talk about them face-to-face, and thankfully she has.

“You’re Doing It Wrong”

One of the fun things about being a writer is how putting my personal life on display entitles complete strangers to tell me how to talk to my own children. Upon publishing stories like the one I just recounted, I can become inundated with self-appointed child development experts who insist that I’m going about this all wrong. They reprimand me for accommodating my children’s theism, telling me instead that I should sweep the legs of their faith, exposing the whole system for the fairy tale that it is.

These people have no idea what they are talking about.

First of all, they don’t know my children in particular. They don’t know my life situation as well as I do, and I guarantee the people who offer this slash-and-burn approach don’t understand how utterly entrenched these beliefs are in the social world in which my children live.  People who tell me to “cut the crap” with my girls have no idea what it takes to maintain a good relationship with them amidst a culture that speaks with one voice about Jesus and sin and salvation.

But more than that, as an educator I can assure you that this is no way to teach children something new. Experienced teachers understand that when introducing novel ideas—especially those with far-reaching consequences—you must start by engaging the prior understandings of the young minds you want to influence. You cannot invalidate everything they believe they know about the world and expect them to just absorb that. You have to find a point of contact with what they already believe and build on that, offering them an alternative way of looking at what they see.

That is what I did for my youngest daughter that emotional night, and in a way it is what everyone has to do who wants to influence others into a more skeptical direction. Our goal as freethinkers should not be telling others what they should believe. We should be helping people come to appreciate the value of thinking for themselves.  We are teaching people critical thinking skills, not merely alternate beliefs, and our conversations with them should reflect that difference.

This requires that you yourself must first labor to understand the other person’s way of thinking. You cannot engage what they believe if you do not accurately understand it in the first place. If you don’t understand their mental world, you will misrepresent what they believe and they will turn you off. Nothing is learned.

This is why I love Daniel Dennett‘s advice about conversing with people who believe differently from you. He charged that you should first learn to state the other person’s beliefs so clearly and accurately that even she will have to admit she couldn’t have said it better herself. Now her defenses will be lowered and she will be ready to listen to what you have to say. You’ve just eliminated 90% of what consumes conversations like this, namely that each person has to feel that his own view isn’t being misrepresented. Once you’ve gotten past that moment, real conversation can then begin.

Making It Up As I Go

Finding my voice in my own religious family is not an easy task. Before I left my faith (or rather it left me) I could speak my mind without encountering much opposition. Things are different now, and I have to pick my battles. Not every matter is a cause for a fight, and people in my situation have to walk circumspectly, choosing carefully which matters are important enough to disturb the peace. Personally, I remain as supportive as I can be toward my children’s participation in religious activities, not because I am happy about what they are being told, but because I don’t really have many options. Other people may find themselves in a different situation, but mine is precarious, so I have to be careful.

When I hear them regurgitating self-talk that is negative, I counter that by telling them I don’t think that is healthy. When I hear them rehearsing condemnation toward the choices and lifestyles of other people, I try to speak up when I feel they aren’t treating others with the same compassion they would want others to show toward them. My next great challenge as my girls wade even deeper into their teenage years is to counter the body shame their religion subtly instills in them through the pernicious and pervasive purity obsession that’s become an institution in evangelical youth culture.

I’ve really got my work cut out for me, and I will be the first to tell you that I don’t have this all figured out. But I trust that if I continue to love my children to the best of my ability, never holding back from them anything that they need, in time they will come to see that their infidel father loves them just as passionately as anyone else in their lives. They will see that good people come in all kinds, and that their religious sect doesn’t have the corner on the market of ideas or values in the world. In the end, a life well-lived is the best argument I have.

This article was my contribution to the 10th anniversary edition of Dale McGowan‘s Parenting Beyond Belief, which I would highly recommend you purchase and read if you haven’t yet added it to your library. It is full of stellar contributions from some of my favorite humanist writers and thinkers today.

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Neil Carter is a high school teacher, a father of four, and a skeptic living in the Bible Belt. A former church elder with a seminary education, Neil now writes mostly about the struggles of former evangelicals...