Thursday, June 14, 2012

Why my boys go to church

I take my boys down to my parents' church nearly every Sunday morning. The little one stays in the nursery, while the older one sits with his grandparents for part of the ceremony, and attends Sunday School for the other part of the ceremony. I park myself over in the other building - the one with the classrooms and the big meeting hall, and usually do a bit of writing on the laptop.

I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, it hardly seems fair to lock the boys into something I'm unwilling to do myself. But, well, they aren't really locked in; the first time one of them expresses a clear desire to stop attending, I'll pull him out. It'll mean giving up one of the few stretches of reliable writing time that I have, and it'll make the grandparents sad, but I'm not keeping them in there if they really object.

And, secondarily, I really do want them to be exposed to Christianity. Which I suspect sounds extraordinarily odd coming from me, so let me try to explain.

It's not about God. As far as I can tell, God doesn't exist; and if He does, I seriously doubt that Christianity presents an accurate picture of Him. Nor is this anything to do with Pascal's Wager. I could be wrong about the existence of God, but if so I'm at least honestly mistaken, and I stand by my conclusions.

No, it really comes down to two things. The first is something that I'm going to call "cultural fluency". (There's probably a better or more formal term for it.) Basically, Christianity is ubiquitous in the modern United States. Attending church will, I hope, give the boys some understanding of the dominant world-view, along with its language and its references - even if they come to disagree with that world-view later on.

The second reason is basically a matter of inoculation. Not against Christianity itself; the boys are going to have to draw their own conclusions there, though I'll be happy enough to share my own views if they want to ask questions. No, here's the thing: religious beliefs can be very compelling, especially if they're presented by the right person at the right time. And some religious beliefs can be very destructive. So I hope that by exposing the boys to what I'd consider "Christianity done right" -- heavy on the grace, light on the guilt -- it will help to inoculate them against the more destructive, authoritarian, manipulative version of religion.

(That's how it works for me, at least; I haven't considered myself a Christian since my teens, but every time I run into someone whose presentation of Christianity focuses on the idea that we are all worthless and evil, I still reflexively think, Wow, you have completely missed the point of the Gospel. So I'm hoping to build a similar response in the boys.)

* * *

Last Sunday, one of the church members was passing by in the hallway, and stopped to compliment me on how sweet and well-behaved the boys are. She was about the sixth person to do this, over the last couple of years. So clearly, a fair chunk of the congregation knows who I am (in fact, quite a few of them remember me from when I was a kid there). Of those people who have stopped to make contact, not one has asked why I don't attend the service myself. Either they genuinely aren't concerned about it, or they figure that it isn't any of their business. Either way, I appreciate it.

That's my parents' church. The church my wife's parents attend is a different denomination, and the congregation is a little more... "aggressively friendly," I guess I'd call it... but it's a similarly laid-back theology, and we've taken the boys there too, from time to time. In both cases, while I don't share the core belief, I can feel secure that I also won't hear anything hateful or judgemental.


  1. You are so right about the "cultural fluency" thing. My husband was raised Unitarian, and he was apparently never taught anything about the Bible--which means that we regularly run into plots/phrases/characters in Shakespeare, Agatha Christie, et al where he has no idea there's an allusion to something in the Bible, so he is missing context that the author expected the reader to have.

  2. Well, you knew that I'd have to reply to respectfully say that you're wrong. Cultural literacy is important, and this is a common refrain amongst the more liberal and well intentioned atheists. However, taking your children to church is a problematic way for them to obtain cultural literacy for a few reasons. One, what your kids are learning about Christianity is a very limited view of the faith. If you wanted cultural literacy take them to a variety of churches. In fact, you should take them to a variety of different services of different faiths (Judaism, Islam etc). However, you may say that will simply confuse them, which leads me to my second point. The nature of the relationship between the adherent and religion is irrational. For children the bond of faith is similar to going to McDonald's. Is McDonald's bad for you? Sure, but they have that lovely clown and toys! Even when a kid gets older they will have warm and fuzzy feelings about that place. It's the same for faith. Young children do not have the cognitive machinery to understand that they are being manipulated. They will carry those feelings with them for the rest of their lives. Those feelings affect judgement. Why else are there so many religious people when none of it makes sense? Third, if you want your kids to learn about religion, don't have them learn about it at church. That's like going to a car dealership and thinking you're going to get objective information about cars from a car salesperson. Talk to them around the kitchen table about religion when the topic comes up. Religion comes up a lot -- holidays, literary references, etc. Finally, when kids acquire the cognitive machinery to take a skeptical view on faith, let them go to church. My guess is the early teens is the right time for them. They will also have an opportunity to ask you specific questions. What you don't want is for them never to have been exposed to the Sky Fairy and then go to college where the faithful prey on unsuspecting minds. When I was a young adult it seemed liked every cult was focused on seperating me from rationality. [BTW I may use your post and my answer on Purgatory]

  3. Very interesting post! I'm not sure I agree with you (but I could be wrong of course). In my own situation, I view my children's minds as sort of blank slates. My wife and I put forth a reasonable amount of effort to not influence them, nor allow them to be influenced concerning metaphysical subjects. I just don't feel like they should have terms like "eternal", God, Jesus, Grace, etc written on those blank slates yet. All humans have bias and we process our world and our interactions through a filter where bias gets to apply some weight. I can understand your inoculation point of view, in my own case though, I'm just afraid a little live virus might sneak in there and wreak havoc after lying dormant or something. At the minimum, I think it will cause Christianity to get a easier pass than say Islam, or even atheism when the time does come to answer those questions.

    I just don't want my children growing up thinking that talk of eternity, deities, and salvation from something is just normal everyday thinking. Those things are the non-provable and metaphysical category and are not proven to be true, no matter how much the authority figures choose to pretend that they are... When I was a child, I placed teachers on very high pedestals, giving them far more credence than they really needed, that's great for math and geography, but not so great for the metaphysical...

  4. Your point about visiting a variety of services definitely bears further consideration.

    I'm not sure about the "bond of faith" part, though; I mean, my experience of Christianity was about as positive as it's possible to get -- way better than my experience with the Boy Scouts, for example -- and I still can't embrace the belief, nor do I feel any urge to attend the services.

    The kitchen table approach to learning about religion... we're doing some of that, sure; but it's a very secondhand way of learning about it. Yes, the... distance... makes it easier to discuss, but I think that actually attending services will help make the experience less overwhelming (if, say, they happen to attend an Evangelical church with a friend later on).

    Regardless, please do feel free to grab the post and reproduce your response over in Purgatory.

  5. @ Twin-Daddy (Your post apparently appeared between when I started to answer Andy, and when I hit "publish", so sorry for any confusion.)

    Here's the thing. Talk of eternity, deities, and salvation from something is just normal everyday thinking. That doesn't mean it's correct, or that it should be proof against criticism, or anything like that; but it's a very common mindset that the boys are going to have to interact with, and I'd like them to be familiar enough to recognize it and understand it. I'd like them to be able to speak the language, if that makes any sense.

    I don't know; it's certainly possible that early exposure will give those beliefs too much weight -- that, to stick with the language metaphor, they might actually "go native". And it's certainly possible that I'm being naive about this, simply because (as far as I can tell) Christianity didn't do me any real harm.

  6. Eh, it makes sense to me, but I'm looking at it from a culturally Christian perspective so I admittedly have my own biases.

    That said, I don't send my kids to church. There is no way for me to do it that doesn't require me to attend and I don't do even the friendly interest in "Gosh Amanda, why aren't you going to the service? There's the contemporary worship if you'd rather..." thing well at all. I just can't sit through a service, sorry! It literally makes me ill. And trying to explain that to the folks I grew up with? It ain't happening.

    So, the atheist sends his kids to church and the Christian doesn't -- quelle horreur! ;)


Feel free to leave comments; it lets me know that people are actually reading my blog. Interesting tangents and topic drift just add flavor. Linking to your own stuff is fine, as long as it's at least loosely relevant. Be civil, and have fun!