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I need help

By Colin ~

This morning, I was driving my three year-old-daughter to school. All of a sudden, I was asked "Do you love Jesus?"

A little background: I am an atheist. Yes, I was a fundamentalist Christian once, but deconverted ages ago. I have even submitted my testimony on your site (September 2007) so you have heard my story before, but I am not a regular contributor: I find that to give a meaningful contribution, one needs to spend a lot of time on this site, time which I do not have. I have a very demanding job and work long hours, and what little free time I have is taken up by my family, especially my daughter. Even just reading all the posts that I want to read here is just not possible, let alone getting involved in discussions. I have posted comments occasionally, but inevitably I cannot follow up. I guess some might see me as a troll, but I do not post to elicit an emotional response or stir trouble: I simply do so because I have something to say. My apologies to your members and contributors if it irritated them at times.

Back to my daughter's question (her name is Megan, by the way): I have never told her a lie, not even a little fib to get her to go and bath or eat her vegetables. The only exception I make is to pretend that Santa Claus exists - I simply do not have the heart to deny her the magic of Christmas (even though there is absolutely no religious connotation to our Christmas - she sees it as a time when the whole family, cousins, aunts, uncles, friends and grandmother gets together, give each other presents and generally try and spread the loving feeling as far as we possibly can. Yes, my wife's entire family are Christian - the non-fundamentalist type - but they know that I am an atheist and they respect my position on religion: as long as I do not try and deconvert them, they do not try and convert me or my daughter: we just don't discuss religion).

I always try and give her the facts, but I must confess that I sometimes simplify my statements and answers to her questions so that a three-year old can relate to it. She is an intelligent child, with a vocabulary that astonishes her teachers at school and she is very likely to skip a grade this year. You can therefore imagine my surprise at the question this morning: do I love Jesus?

My answer was as honest as it was automatic: it was a simple "no". To my great surprise, she got extremely upset. She repeated the question several times, but I would not change my answer.

The school she goes to is the best that I can afford: it is a private institution, with a superb academic record. It is called Trinity House, but despite the name, it is not a Christian school: it is supported and attended by a significant minority of Muslim and Jewish parents and children, and while the values they teach can be seen as 'traditionally Christian' (especially by Christians), it is sufficiently toned down that the Muslim and Jewish parents that I have come to know do not feel uncomfortable leaving their children in its care. On inspecting the classrooms, I found that there are lots of decorations, but very, very little of it is Christian in nature: you really have to look for it to see that it is there. And of what little there is, no reference is made to Christ, only to God - I suspect this is specifically to not offend the Muslim and Jewish sensibilities. I therefore feel (felt?) quite comfortable in entrusting her education in their care.

As Megan was getting downright rude to her daddy about him not loving Jesus, I scolded her, and she immediately took a more respectful and friendly tone. But when I was about to leave her in class, she loudly told everyone including her teacher that daddy does not love Jesus. I merely shrugged, made a few joking remarks to her teacher, gave her a hug and took my leave.

I cannot tell you how upset I was. Even as I type this, I feel as if my heart is breaking, along with an irrational rage that some person, whether a teacher or even a fellow scholar, would try and manipulate my three-year old daughter into 'loving' some imaginary piece of shit who will only accept followers who hate their fathers and their mothers! Hebrew idiom, anyone?

Don't get me wrong, I am not a raving atheist missionary (at least not until today). I do not hate Christians or any other religious people - among my frieds I count a dedicated Muslim (who happens to be one of the most gentle, considerate people I know), and another who is working towards her doctorate of divinity at a local Baptist campus, and yet another who is a Pagan! At worst, I consider most religious people to be misguided souls who have not taken the trouble to think critically about what they believe (and unfortunately this seems to include 80% of the world's population). However, if I get preached at, I respond: like most ex-Christians, I have a deep understanding of religious thought and a comprehensive knowledge of the Bible and the Quran - any Christian or Muslim who approaches me with intentions of conversion or proselytizing is in for a very rough time!

I discussed the matter with my wife. My major concern was: has the brainwashing started? My wife told me not to worry: though Megan is mostly a well behaved child who is an absolute pleasure to be with, she is going through a somewhat difficult phase, where she forgets herself at times (as most three-year olds do). She can become very vocal when she hears things she does not like (such as "No! you cannot have more candy!" or even "Bathtime!"). My wife seems to believe that there is no religious brainwashing going on: Megan getting upset about my non-love of Jesus is merely more of the same, she merely did not like me saying that I do not love Jesus, and she reacted as a normal three-year old would when she does not get her way. And when I got home earlier tonight, my wife and a friend of hers (also an atheist, whose daughter is in the same school) explained to her that it is OK not to love Jesus, and she seemed to accept that. But I am still very worried.

I need advice. I am not planning on storming into the headmistress's office and taking her head off (as I believe this would be counter-productive, not to mention illegal), but I do feel I need to do something. Again, don't get me wrong: I would prefer that Megan becomes an atheist like her daddy (simply because life is so much easier and understandable), but if she wants to become a Christian or Muslim or whatever when she grows up, this is fine with me. But I would like her to choose her religion (or preferably lack of religion) based on her own free will, after careful thought, and not based on undue influence presented to her when she is at this most susceptible age.

I have seen some books on atheist parenting advertised on this very website and all of them look good, and I certainly intend purchasing some of them. But I would also like to hear from you and your contributors about their parenting experiences. Living in South Africa, I am fortunate that fundamentalist Christianity is not as widespread as it is in the US. I therefore imagine that you and your contributors have had a much harder time keeping your children away from its harmful effects than I am likely to have, so I would consider your experience invaluable. I would also be grateful if you can recommend some of these available books, relating to my specific situation? As such, I will have no objection if you publish my plea on your website - in fact, I would very much appreciate it if you would.

I am taking my family out of the city to a game lodge for some family time this weekend - it is the first weekend in a long time that I will not be working, and I fully intend to introduce Megan to some zebra, giraffes and perhaps the occasional rhino - no big cats like lions and leopards at this lodge, fortunately! So please don't expect to hear from me until Monday night. I promise to be a bit more diligent in answering any questions or responding to comments when I get back.

Yours sincerely,
Colin


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