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Dear Richard,
I am an atheist and have been open about my atheism for about 2 years now. Although I have been met with some resistance from family, who are Orthodox Christians, overall my atheism hasn’t caused too much turmoil in my or their lives. My wife is a Christian, but she’s fairly open-minded to my thoughts and discussions about religion.
I have two kids, 6 and 2½. My 6-year-old is in a Catholic school down the street from our home. The reason we put my son in the Catholic school down the road (versus either of the public school’s approx. 1km away; one is to the east, one to the west) is primarily because of geography. Also, I am guilty to say that I originally had a misconception that the school would teach some moral values to my son (I realize home is the best place to teach it and I assumed the school would be a good ‘supporting’ structure).
I am starting to get more and more troubled by the literature my son brings home and the religious statements he is making (e.g. he brings home pamphlets that tell how much ‘Jesus loves you’, and how god’s grace is high, etc. etc.) For example, one time he told me “Daddy, God made everything we see around us”, to which I replied that “Most of what you see around us is made by people (buildings, cars, shopping malls), and everything else (nature) came to be over millions of years.”
These pamphlets have excerpts from the Bible that are quite toned down from the original message (they seem cherry picked), and have quite the sugar coating applied to them (in essence, the quotes look much more benign than the actual bible passage).
To me, changing the original message doesn’t convey the RIGHT message. I want my son to know that the bible isn’t as positive as this literature or the school is making it out to be. This is immoral in that it is hiding the truth of the bible, which I have read and can quite honestly say is the FURTHEST from any morality we have today.
I am regretting my part in the decision to put him in the Catholic school. During this year’s Ash Wednesday, he came out with ashes on his forehead. That didn’t sit well with me. Although I didn’t say or do anything to speak out against it (I washed the ashes off when we arrived home), I didn’t feel RIGHT about it.
I need some advice…should I take him out of that school and put him in a public one? Should I leave him in there and help him understand that what he is learning about religion is simply metaphorical and not to be taken seriously? I do hope that one day he realizes things like I have and takes the same approach to religion (that it is useless, that there is no God, that this is the only life we will EVER have).
Perplexed and troubled

Dear Perplexed and troubled,
You say that the main reason you opted for the Catholic school is the difference between one kilometer and down the street. You are putting up with what seems like a lot of inner conflict just to save a drive or even a walk that is perhaps 700 meters farther than the Catholic school.
So I’m wondering if avoiding a different conflict is actually what is behind your indecision. I assume that your wife also has a say in where the kids go to school. Although you describe her as a Christian who is “fairly open minded” to your thoughts about religion, I wonder if you are worried that expressing your concerns to her and suggesting a transfer to either of the public schools will provoke discord between the two of you.
So far, you have not had to face much resistance and turmoil in your family about your atheism. Take a look to see if you have helped that in part by perhaps not asserting yourself on some important issues. I cannot know for certain from your letter, and please forgive me if I am off target, but if that is behind even part of your hesitation, then you need to discuss it with your wife frankly, openly and respectfully right away. Sending your kid to a school that you find so objectionable just to keep a temporary peace with her is not a good way to handle things. On the other hand, if it is not part of your hesitation, and/or she does not have a strong opinion about it, then you should discuss it with her right away anyway.
Some atheist parents send their children to Catholic schools because the quality of the education is significantly superior to their local public schools, and they have to put forth quite a lot of effort to wash the dogmatic indoctrination off their kids each day, just as you washed the ashes off your son’s forehead. However, you have not mentioned academic quality as a reason, only the convenient location and your assumption that he’d be taught moral values.
Whether or not he is formally taught a set of moral values at that school, he is definitely going to pick up the school’s underlying beliefs about doing the right thing. People generally don’t disagree much about what are the right things to do, but they can have enormous disagreements over the reasons why they do the right thing.
The assumption in Christianity is that people are intrinsically no damn good, that the only way they can know what is moral is to learn it from God, and the only reason they will adhere to God’s moral rules is because he’ll punish them if they don’t. This is the most rudimentary level of moral development as delineated by Lawrence Kohlberg, sadly the most childish level at which a large percentage of adults remain stuck. Any ideas about people being good for the betterment of the whole society, or following universal, human-invented ethical principles, or just being good for goodness’ sake, are not just ignored by many Christian schools, they are often denounced as heresy.
Your son will also be unconsciously learning how to learn. Will he be taught to learn by listening to authority figures, who themselves learned by listening to authority figures, and so on back into the past? Or will he be encouraged to go out into the world and look with his own eyes, to think for himself about what he sees, and even challenge what he has been told by authority figures? In most religious schools, the shut-up-and-listen method is heavily emphasized, and the go-see-for-yourself approach is seriously discouraged.
The Catholic school faculty are not going concede or compromise anything and teach your boy as you see fit. They’re going to mold him as best they can to fit their ancient view of the world, and their attitude is if you don’t like it, you can go, uh, elsewhere.
Do you want your son to be absorbing all those implicit but powerful assumptions and attitudes? That’s what six-year-olds are really good at doing. He’s already soaking it up like a sponge, not just from the literature and the teachers, but also from his peers. Do you think you can successfully keep deconstructing all that every day, to give him what you think will help him to grow up with eyes that really look and a mind that really questions?
If you have two public schools so close to you from which to choose, and if this won’t trigger a divorce, and if there aren’t very significant differences in the quality of the education he’ll receive, then I don’t understand why you would want to have to work so hard to counteract the kinds of influences that you find so unacceptable.
Perplexed and troubled, your kids are lucky to have a father who cares about the quality of their education, and who is aware of the complex issues that you have described. Now it’s time to take action on that awareness. Action without mindfulness is reckless, and mindfulness without action is useless.
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