The question often sounds like a mic drop—or at least the questioner often thinks it is. Someone learns that I’m a nonreligious parent, and asks, “What if one of your kids becomes religious?”

One of the many problems with the question is the implication that religious identification is a single point of arrival, like the day a young adult’s daemon takes a fixed form in The Golden Compass or palms begin flashing red in Logan’s Run if you’re old enough to – you know, just stick with The Golden Compass. Did it work that way for you—you were religious, then boom, you were not—or did you pass through a number of stages and try on a number of hats along the way? I thought so. And see what a lovely person you turned out to be.

A close relative of mine went through a period of experimentation with different worldviews. After being a fairly conventional New Testament Christian for a while, she became something of a Manichaean dualist, believing the world was divided into good and evil, darkness and light. She eventually went through a sort of Einsteinian-pantheist phase before adopting a benevolent, utilitarian humanism.

And then she turned six.

That was my youngest daughter. Among my three, she was the real experimenter. But I always encouraged my kids to try on as many beliefs as they wanted and to switch back and forth whenever they felt drawn to a different hat, confident that in the long run they’d be better informed not only of the identity they choose, but of those they declined. If I disowned my kids each time they passed through a religious identity, I’d have had to keep a lawyer on retainer.

Now let’s get specific. My child has become “religious,” you say. Is it “Love-your-neighbor” religious…or “God-hates-f*gs” religious? “Four Chaplains” religious…or “9/11 hijackers” religious? Dalai Lama…or Jerry Falwell?

Adding to the difficulties is the almost comic range of meaning for the word “religion.” Case in point: A friend of mine has verses from the Book of Psalms scrolling around the walls of her living room and believes that Jesus Christ is the son of God and the sole path to salvation—yet describes herself as “not at all religious, really.” Then you have the Unitarians—the majority of whom are nontheistic—who tend to insist that they are religious.

It’s also silly to think I’d applaud all nonreligious outcomes. If you’ve managed to get to 2019 without discovering a toxic atheist online, well uh…congratulations I guess.

So the question, “What if your child becomes religious?” is about as vague and meaningless as, “What if your child becomes political?”

I have three compassionate, socially conscientious, smart, ethical young adult kids, with every indication of remaining so. If they end up choosing a religious expression at some point, it’s likely to be one that expresses those values. They might be liberal Quakers, or UUs, or progressive Episcopalians, or Buddhists, framing their worldview in a way different from but entirely respectable to my own way of seeing things. We could do far worse than a world of liberal Quakers.

If instead one of my kids were to identify with a more malignant religion, I’d certainly express my concerns. But the consequences of the belief would be the main point, not the fact that it is “religious.” And my love for my child, it goes without saying, would be reduced by not so much as a hair on a flea on a neutrino’s butt.

Influence vs. indoctrination

Despite this approach being plastered all over my books, I often have to defend against the charge that I am indoctrinating my kids.

Indoctrination is “any teaching that demands unquestioning acceptance.” It’s the opposite of little-f freethought.

And anybody can do it. I’ve run across atheist parents who are determined to indoctrinate their children into atheism. I once read an online comment by an atheist mother who said she would never “let” her child develop religious belief. She won’t let them? I’m not even sure what that means.

At the heart of indoctrination is the distrust of reason. The indoctrinator simply can’t entrust something as important as [insert doctrine here] to the process of independent reasoning. But freethought parenting should have confidence in reason at its foundation. Teach kids to think independently and well, then trust them to do so. And part of that education is encouraging them to resist indoctrination of all kinds — even if it’s coming from Mom and Dad.

Years ago a columnist at the Sydney Morning Herald wrote a column about Parenting Beyond Belief and said he liked the book just fine. But McGowan is fooling himself, he said, if he thinks he isn’t indoctrinating his kids. Parents can’t avoid indoctrinating their kids. “The child of an atheist is being just as indoctrinated as the child of a devoutly religious person.”

Now if he had said the child of an atheist is at no less risk of being indoctrinated, I’d agree. What matters is not the belief system, but whether there’s an explicit invitation to question and challenge, and ultimately, to disagree.

His statement struck me as incredibly cynical. Does he really believe that indoctrination is our only option?

What he’s doing is mixing up the words “indoctrination” and “influence.” All parents can and should influence their children, and that influence is bound to be huge. Influence becomes indoctrination only when you forbid them to question what they receive from you. For extra insurance, you should explicitly invite them to do so.

Ridiculous, some people say. Young children are not in a position to critically evaluate what they hear! When they’re young, they accept things uncritically whether we like it or not, so influence IS indoctrination whether we like it or not.

That first statement is true. When they are young, kids will tend to absorb and reflect the values and beliefs of their parents uncritically. My kids were the most rabid Obama supporters on the block, and I doubt that would have been the case had my wife and I been McCain supporters. But there’s a good evolutionary reason for the suggestibility of kids. Children have the daunting task of changing from helpless newborns into fully functioning adults in about 7,000 days. That’s why kids are so credulous. They are believing machines.

And that’s good in one way. When we’re children, the tendency to believe it when we’re told that fire is dangerous, that two and two are four, that cliffs are not to be dangled from, and so on, helps us, in the words of Richard Dawkins, “to pack, with extraordinary rapidity, our skulls full of the wisdom of our parents and our ancestors” in order to accomplish the unthinkably complex feat of becoming adults. If kids were to examine and question everything they were told, they’d never make it to adulthood. There’s simply too much.

So unquestioning acceptance really does have its place in childhood. The trick is to keep it in its place, because there’s another process taking place in those 7000 days. Alongside the years of imitation and attachment is a process of separation, during which the child does the equally important work of forging an independent identity. Uncritical acceptance is gradually replaced by seemingly constant challenge. And the best thing we can do to avoid indoctrination in the imitation phase is to prepare our kids and ourselves for the separation process right from the start.

Imitatation and separation

Both imitation and separation happen, and both are important. The best way to nurture our kid’s development is to understand, once and for all, that they will imitate us and they will separate from us. The key all through that imitation phase of childhood is to constantly invite them toward the separation phase—to make sure that even as they imitate us, they are constantly developing the skills and hearing the invitation to set off on their own.

My kids have always known my religious views, and they’ve certainly been influenced by them. But I’ve worked hard to counter that undue influence so they wouldn’t be set in cement before they could make up their adult minds: When my daughter asked ifJesus really came back to life after he was dead,I said, “I don’t think so. I think that’s a story so we feel better about death. But talk to Grandma Barbara. I know she thinks it really happened. And then you can make up your own mind and even change your mind back and forth a thousand times if you want.”

To call this indoctrination is to be in urgent need of a dictionary. It is influence without indoctrination. It is freethought with a microscopic f.

Freethought is the heart and foundation of my parenting—freethought, not atheism. Be completely honest about your point of view, but then make it clear to your kids that you are inviting them to differ from you, inviting them to ask questions about what you believe and why, and inviting them to actively explore other beliefs and ultimately to choose their own.

One of the best ways to avoid indoctrination and embrace freethought in the lower case, is by avoiding restrictive labels.

Labels color the way we see the world. Even adults have to watch out for this, but it’s even more important for a developing child. It’s a very different process to reach adulthood and choose your identity yourself versus looking down to see the word CATHOLIC or ATHEIST hanging around your neck, knowing that the first thing you have to do is deal with the label that your loving parents, usually with the best of intentions, placed on you without your informed consent. Such a moment is fraught with a hundred unhelpful emotions, including, of course, guilt.

Richard Dawkins noted that referring to a child as “a Catholic child” or “a Muslim child” or “an atheist child” is as ridiculous as saying “a Marxist child” or “Republican child.” These labels represent complex worldviews that they cannot yet claim to have examined and chosen freely. Until they can, there’s no need to force the issue.

My kids went in and out of different beliefs all the time, which is exactly what they should have been doing. But it’s one thing to believe or disbelieve in God this week, and quite another to call yourself a Christian or an atheist.

Same with politics. During the 2012 election, my then-ten-year-old daughter said, “We’re Democrats, right?” I said no, Mom and Dad are Democrats. You seem to like Barack Obama. In the next election you might like somebody from another party. You get to choose a party when you are old enough to vote, if you want, and even then you can change your mind a thousand times.

My family went to church when I was a kid, but I never felt that I’d been claimed by a certain religious identity. As a result, I came to my current views on my own. It’s the thing I value most about my worldview. It’s really mine. Why would I deprive my kids of that feeling of authenticity?

That’s all I would ever ask of a religious parent—that they share the experience of their faith, but then say, “Here’s what I believe with all my heart, it’s very important to me and I think it’s true, but these are things each person has to decide for herself, and I want you to talk to people who have different beliefs so you can make up your own mind. You can change your mind a thousand times. There’s no penalty for getting it wrong, and I will love you no less if you end up believing differently from me.” Imagine if that was the norm. Imagine kids growing up with an invitation to engage these profound questions freely and without fear.

If a child in a religious family were to hear those same invitations from parents, from the pulpit, and in the Sunday School, that would be religion without indoctrination, and I would stand in the back of the church and applaud. I don’t need a world free of religion—I’ll gladly settle for a world free of indoctrination. And I’m doing my best to achieve that world by raising freethinkers.

Listen to ‘What if your child becomes religious?’ on the Raising Freethinkers podcast

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...

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