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).
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.