The Separation of Church and Family

We have all heard of the separation of church and state. In the United States, it is the law, and to many of us, it is obvious why. Having a country that is open to citizens of any faith, or lack thereof, is important, and in order to do that, there cannot be one implemented religion. This is, after all, central to our very freedom.

But the Constitution can only practically do so much. You should be free from having a certain religion forcefully imposed on you in a country like this, but often this is unavoidable. This is because the state can’t, and shouldn’t, tell parents or guardians what they can and cannot teach to their children, or how they should run their families at all.

A very central tenet of most religions is the idea of family. Many religions arose from ancient tribes and communities where the family unit was the basis. Since then, religious beliefs have typically been passed down from parents to children; parents feel that it is their responsibility to teach their religion to their children, and are even pressured to do so because they are often looked down upon by friends or other family members if they don’t raise their children in a church and pass on religious values. Even atheists and other freethinkers often like to take their children to non-theistic churches such as Unitarian Universalist Humanist churches.

Many of my readers can surely recall several examples of parents who tried to pass on their religion to their children, only for the children to grow up and reject the beliefs they were taught. (I’m an example of this, if you couldn’t think of any others.) More often than not, this can strain relationships, and it is not uncommon to see religious differences causing a familial relationship to disintegrate entirely.

The most severe examples of this that I have ever seen hail from the Jehovah’s Witnesses and their apostates. Telltale Atheist has shared his fear that if he were to allow his daughter to stay with his mother, his mother would indoctrinate his daughter against either of their wills. Even more tragic, though, is the story of Taylor Bjorndahl. She grew up in the Jehovah’s Witnesses along with her sister, and both of them were horribly abused by their father who was an Elder in the church. As an adult, Taylor has, understandably, left the religion behind to live freely, but her sister is still a Witness. This would not be so bad, but the sad truth is that thanks to her religion, Taylor’s sister is not allowed to contact her at all, after being each other’s only refuges through so many years of abuse.

Thankfully, my story is not so tragic, but after being the first atheist in a family of Lutherans and having rocky relationships after coming out about it, I have seen firsthand that religion is an extreme point of contention for families where everyone does not completely agree theologically. And like the above, I’ve heard far worse stories than my own of what happened when the unconvinced and hellbound came out to religious family members.

Religion is supposed to bring people peace, comfort, and happiness. So why does it so often tear apart families that it is supposed to unite?

I know that parents who pass their divine beliefs to their children do it with the best of intentions. If you thought that you had the power to keep your child from burning in hell forever, you would probably send them to Sunday School, too. I think that the fervor that parents and guardians have in teaching their truth to their children leads to why they are so broken if and when a child “turns their back on God” later in life.

I can better speak to how it feels to be the apostate, or what Christians often refer to as “prodigals” after the story of the Prodigal Son (although the word “prodigal” really doesn’t mean what they probably think it means).

You learned something new today. You’re welcome.

When you are in the midst of coming out as atheist to your religious family, it’s terrifying. I think that this is because your family has always loved you and accepted you, as they should, but they’ve also always done this with the understanding that you are part of their family in Christ and not just by blood. You can’t know until you officially come out how they will react to having an other in the family. You wonder if they will still accept you, if they will act like themselves or treat you completely differently.

On the other hand, I have an outsider’s perspective on what it must be like to do your very best to teach your child your religion, only for them to end up leaving it. It must be insulting, and I know that parents who go through this often feel as though they have failed both their child and their church in some way. They can be mad at their child, but they are usually also mad at both themselves and God. Does anyone truly want to be in either of these positions?

Here, I want to propose an alternative to this. I think that this shock at having a child become an apostate is the result of too-high expectations that they will turn out just like you, and that with hard work and time you can control how they turn out when in the end, you just can’t.

My idea is not to dissolve churches altogether, and it’s not even that you “should keep religion to yourself and not impose it on others.” I do believe that you shouldn’t indoctrinate your kids, but I think we see by now that it’s because this often ends up hurting everyone. I think that the central unit of churches should be groups of friends and not families. Who says that an adult’s church-going group has to be her husband and her kids? Why not go with your three closest girlfriends that are already part of the religion? Why not go to church on your own, and make friends with the people in your pew who you then sit and worship with once a week? Perhaps parents can hire babysitters for Sunday mornings and share their precious kid-free worship time with a significant other or friend. When their children grow older, they may ask, “Where do you always go on Sundays?” and decide to visit or even join. Maybe they won’t, or they will seek out a church that aligns better with their own beliefs. It’ll be up to them.

I think it would take away much of the sting of “losing a child to the devil,” if there isn’t such a high expectation to keep them singing the same hymns as you forever.

12 Replies to “The Separation of Church and Family”

  1. Many good points. I like your way of writing by not making people who see things differently feel devalued or put on the defensive. I have always believed no one should try to force their religious views on others. Even as a follower of God, I do not believe it is my job to convert or change anyone. We are free to choose for ourselves and we should be loved and accepted no matter what we choose. I believe Jesus told us to love God and love one another. Whether christian or atheist or neither, there is no reason why we cannot accept, respect and love one another without the underlying motive to change one another to our way of thinking.

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  2. I grew up religious (U.S. southern state), moved away, joined Mensa, promptly identified as an atheist. As I grew older and continued to think about the topics (especially auditing the world’s collection of religions and reading many books) I came to a conclusion. For some, this may be an upsetting thought but it goes like this:

    Assume that there are aliens (intelligent life from planets other than Earth).
    Assume that they, like ourselves, in some cases are nice and in other cases are selfish.
    Assume that our planet is about 4.5 billion years old, as suggested by science. Further assume that our written history isn’t adequate enough to tell the entire story.
    The “good guy” aliens fly around our planet in saucers (throughout our history and now) and the seemingly “bad guy” aliens live deep underground and mine gold, copper and other useful metals.
    Ask any religious person where God lives and they point up. Ask them where the devils/demons live and they point down.
    Assume that telepathy is real science and that we all have the potential for transmitting/receiving ideas like this.
    Assume that the “good guy” aliens hope to inspire us by sending thoughts in first-person perspective mimicking our own voice; Freud would have called this our “super-ego” (conscience). Likewise, assume that a “bad guy” alien could mess with us by sending thoughts to us as well; Freud would have called this our “id”. If an alien broke with protocol and communicated to us in second-person perspective the individual would know that they’re talking to someone else and in many cases ends up being that homeless person who talks to themself and is considered crazy.

    So, am I religious if I might think this way? Perhaps all religions are somewhat correct from their own perspective if you include an alien presence.

    If you read only the first verse from the Bible it tells this truth: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Okay, so God couldn’t have been an Earthling if He created it. And the word we give someone who’s not an Earthling is “alien” or “extraterrestrial”.

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  3. It is shocking to me how many people are completely ill at ease about talking to an atheist. Many can not even conceive of a world without a god, let alone drop their own faith. My late wife was already an atheist and I had been studying/researching the compiling of the Bible, Hebrew & Christian, and was beginning to see the light when our children were born. At that point in time, we attended a Unitarian Universalist Church which, in all honesty, difficult to even call a “church.” We thought that was good exposure for our children where they learned about all faiths in the world, their traditions, etc. and our “minister” was himself, and atheist. Our eldest, a daughter, is now an atheist, where our son remains agnostic. They are both grateful that we didn’t brainwash them with a religion and have told me so a number of times.

    But your point of the difficulty of “coming out” is well taken. Their faith does not allow them to accept it easily or with any amount of grace, per se. It is almost as if you have done something to them personally. Although I have never regretted it for a moment and continue to fight the good fight.

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  4. Huh–never occurred to me that the prodigal son thing wasn’t what it sounded like…actually makes the story stupid now. I mean, it’s such a well known thing that anywhere somebody says “the prodigal son returns” or something like that.

    And so it really means a wastrel and spendthrift…hmm… kinda makes the story more trite than ever. The son “went back home” because he had nowhere else to go, probably not because he wanted to–sheesh!

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  5. I’m obviously against Christian parents indoctrinating kids, but if you’re a Christian parent then avoiding that is easier said than done. If the parents go to church every Sunday without the kids, then somebody else has to look after them. If you can solve that issue, then great. Otherwise it’s hard. Alternatively the kids could ‘hang’ around Church with other kids, with participation optional, but then that’s still exposing them to indoctrination and they might not want to actually be there.

    Church was forced on me as a kid, but once I became a teenager everything was optional for us. For me that meant going to different churches (no church now of course), and my other siblings ended up hardly ever doing church. In each case our parents didn’t whine or try to change us, which is how it should be I think. My dad ended up leaving Christianity, so that may have something to do with it though.

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  6. I agree with you about this, “We have all heard of the separation of church and state. In the United States, it is the law….” I wish it was more clearly stated.
    Since I seem to be the family old man, I really do not have problems (and most of them are at least borderline atheists anyway). My wife’s friends are more of a nuisance than our family, since they may reject her for my atheism (if they knew). IMO, most of them think me to still be Catholic or aren’t sure. Oh, well. All they have to do is ask, and they do not.

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  7. I was raised by church going Catholic parents. Went to Catholic High School. Then drifted without religion from 19 until now, 68. I’ve explored a few religions through the years. I’ve read some books, gone to sermons and spent years in Buddhism. I dabbled in Christian Science, Jehovah Witness and some others. I’m a dabbler. None of them captured my interest enough to stick. However, I’m glad my parents forced some background in Catholicism on me. It taught me basic rules and disciplines for living, but somehow I kept an open mind and am uncritical of what others believe. I didn’t raise my two kids in any religion and I beat myself up for being lackadaisical in this area. They’ve turned out fine without the religious disciplines, so, maybe it’s not that important. They seem to have found their way in spite of my negligence. Hopefully what I taught them is to keep a curious and open mind.

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  8. Daddy and mommy used their freewill to take my freewill away. Now I am saddled with thinking in Christian the rest of my life. Not so much these days, but I still catch myself now and then. That is what religion does to otherwise healthy people—it particularly made my mother militant about keeping commandments.

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  9. I love the idea, fanciful as it might be. I agree that parent’s often have a doctrinal incentive to “save” their children. They also have a genetic urge to make them a lasting part of the clan. I have guilt about having helped indoctrinate my children before my personal enlightenment–most of whom are continuing the tradition by passing on that disfavor to their own kids. Mythic stories have incredible power to bind people. To bind people together, and to bind them to the various churches that can tragically become more important than family. I wish parents could let their kids develop their own beliefs. I’m not sure indoctrinated parents can do that. Cursed be the ties that bind.

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  10. Thanks for sharing your perspective. At the age of 63, I have yet to reveal to my devout parents that I am an atheist. Knowing how it would hurt them, it’s something I’ve been able to avoid. A few of my other family members are aware and are OK with it. I just don’t feel it’s worth the emotional trauma that it will arise from my coming out.

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