Positive Atheism Forum:
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The Neighbor's Kids:
What To Say?
Carey Sherrill
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I am looking for that third person perspective again.

My next door neighbors to one side are Catholic. I learned this only recently because they don't flaunt their faith or evangelize or even talk about it other than to say things like, "We just got back from church." They have a nine year old son with special educational needs. He comes over to my yard after school most days to help me work in the garden. As we work, I teach him things such as the names of the plants, the different types of rocks, and the like. It was through him that I learned they are Catholic.

He has apparently just gone through Communion. I don't know what Communion is other than a passage of the Catholic faith. He came over the other day dressed up. After several failed attempts on my part to answer "Guess where I've been!" he told me about his experience. He ended his retelling by excitedly exclaiming, "He's real. Jesus is real." While ordinarily I would ask how, specifically, this knowledge came to be acquired, it seemed inappropriate in this case. He is not my child, and if his family wants him to have faith who am I to yank it out from under him? On the other hand, I don't want to be dishonest with him either. I told him to go change his clothes, he probably shouldn't work in the garden in his good shoes.

I'd like to explain the situation to his parents and ask how they would prefer I respond, but I am reluctant to bring up my atheism because I can't be certain how they will react and we get along well as things are. If I just go ahead and answer any difficult questions about his fledgling faith and this information is repeated to his family, I'm afraid he may be exiled from my garden.

Any thoughts?

-- Carey

 

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You forgot to mention how old the child is, but I will assume that this is at least an age that the Roman Catholic Church considers to be one of accountability.

Your two most important questions revolve around your personal integrity and your relationship with the child.

If you highly value your friendship with the kid, then by all means act as you would were this an adult whose friendship you value, and whose friendship you stand to lose or compromise if you challenge their religion (even if such challenge is as innocuous as revealing your atheism). Many people are skittish about atheism. This is usually not that person's fault, but rather is the result of institutionalized bigotry inherent in many expressions of monotheistic religion.

Nevertheless, when dealing with someone who is not overtly open-minded, we do well to handle the God question with kid gloves -- not for our own sake, but for the sake of the others involved as well as the relationship between the two individuals. I'm sorry things are this way, but this is a cold, hard fact of life; this problem is one that Positive Atheism Magazine seeks specifically to solve.

This is particularly urgent when dealing with the less-stable among us. Children and teenagers, who have not had a chance to fully develop their skills at critical thinking, are especially prone to coming under the influence of certain remarks made at certain moments, and having those remarks change that kid's outlook forever. I can remember several such "learning experiences," including some that I now think I might have been better off not experiencing.

So, for the sake of the child (first) and your relationship (second), I would be tempted to make excuses, as you have done. The "euphoria" of a religious experience usually wears off and it'll probably be business as usual before you know it. Of course, since this was probably touted for him as a life-shaking experience, it is natural for him to expect you (and the birds and the waterfalls) to be fully aware that he just went though this ordeal. Turning out to have been unaware of it (an innocent non-act, on your part) could send a more powerful message than anything you might say.

But this brings up grave issues regarding personal integrity and the bond of trust implicit in a family allowing their child to become close friends with a trusted friend, neighbor, or member of the extended family. I grew up atheist, but almost all the neighbor kids had religious families. To most of us, it was not an important topic. For the few of us where it did become a topic of discussion, it was the kids, mainly, who talked to the other kids. I remember one kid being Roman Catholic and another being into ESP and ouija boards and the like. I cannot specifically remember one of the parents saying something about religion to one of the kids, but I know enough about the integrity of those parents that I can today be assured that the most that was ever said was, "Go see what your father has to say about that." It's one thing for a kid to tell another kid -- as kids we quickly learn to take what our friends say with a lot of salt. But children tend to take what adults say with all seriousness and sobriety (often but not always). This is the main reason I think private religious views (and religion itself) need to be kept out of the public school curricula and ceremony. This is a matter that is rightly between the parents and the child.

Unfortunately, I can remember several specific instances of adults, enjoying private, unsupervised access to me, inflicting their religious views on me. The fourth-grade teacher made us pray in school. My grandmother, an atheistic Unitarian, made me say the "Now I lay me down to sleep" prayer when I visited her. The gardener at my Uncle's house once taught me how to "accept" Jesus, teaching me that Jesus can really hear what I say (talk about getting a complex from thinking that entities such as Jesus are watching my every move!). The Boy Scout leader said similar things about Jesus being really real and about "accepting" Jesus, so I left that organization.

At no time, though, was I comfortable with being told these things. Never did I feel good about being told that my family was missing out on something, or that other families had something special that we lacked. And because I have always lived with physical impairments of one kind or another, I was particularly sensitive to being informed that we lacked something or were inferior in some way to other families. Anybody who acted in one way or the other toward me automatically became suspect in my mind: although I didn't know much and was quite naïve as a kid, I was at least able to suspect that something didn't quite set right. So, anything else that such people said to me was always taken with salt. Once they tried to convert me away from what our family believed, their integrity was forever compromised in my mind. I cannot explain why, but this is how it was for me as a youngster.

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine
Five years of service to
     people with no reason to believe

    [ Note: The sentence that I started but never completed in the e-mail dispatch is now lost. I do not remember where I was going with that one, so I deleted it from this copy. If it ever comes back to me, I will restore it to where it should have gone and delete this note. Sorry. -- Cliff ]

 

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Thank you.

I've been going back and forth with myself about popping over to explain my concerns and ask how they'd like me to field his religious questions and comments. I think I'll wait to make that decision until I read some of the forum responses. It's been raining here and he's only come over once since I wrote. He made no mention of anything religious.

One of our earlier experiments was placing a stone just outside of a shadow and waiting for the shadow to cover it thereby providing evidence of the Earth circling the Sun. I was thinking of making this a starting point for talking about verifiable versus unverifiable information and making that distinction as far as I go. We'll see.

At the very least, I now know Communion is capitalized.

-Carey

 

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I have always said that emphasizing scientific method while ignoring such issues as creationism and evolution is a great agenda for instructing youngsters.

I think it is possible to explain that science is the method whereby we distinguish claims that are true from those that are not true. In science, everybody submits their claims to the scrutiny of others. The whole point is to let them try to prove us wrong. If this happens, we are all just that much closer to the truth. Science says that nobody is the final arbiter of truth, that anybody can submit a claim and anybody can dispute a claim. Also, no claim to knowledge is above the scrutiny of the others, but everything that we think we know is subject to being overthrown by newer evidence or a stronger argument to the contrary. Any time a scientist says something is "a fact," it is understood that she or he is qualifying the word fact with these conditions: facts can always be updated or overthrown with newer evidence.

I think all this can be conveyed to a youngster without compromising that youngster's religious views. Doing this, though, is a delicate dance, indeed, and I highly recommend that you put much thought into your presentation before bringing it up. The best book I've seen that provides a simple, clear explanation of liberal scientific method is Jonathan Rauch's The Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought.

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine
Five years of service to
     people with no reason to believe

 

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Thanks again. I will look for the book you mentioned. I have to be particularly careful with this boy. He is such a sweet kid, but he has some learning and hearing problems that require extra attention. I also get the impression that he really looks up to me.

-- Carey

 

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If he is even more impaired than a healthy 9-year-old, he's probably less likely to notice you making excuses and blowing him off when he approaches you about Jesus. Youngsters that age are already more likely to want to go with the flow of the conversation, still not savvy enough to call your bluff.

On the other side, if you did talk with him about it, he's less likely than even a healthy kid to be able to appreciate (or even grasp) any direct message you might deliver to him about religion and atheism.

And don't forget the PAM recommendation: What other people believe about gods is really no big deal. My question at this point is: Does it really matter what the kid does or does not believe? Does he need (or is he ready for) full disclosure on this topic?

I mean, it's not like he's gonna burn in Hell or anything like that!

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine
Five years of service to
     people with no reason to believe

 

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Thank you again for lending air (and electrons) to my dilemma.

Since his school let out for the summer, my little neighbor as actually spent less time in my yard. On the few occasions he has popped over, he's made no mention of anything religious. I have decided to leave it alone. If he makes a religious statement in the future, I plan to change the subject. If he asks a religious question, I'll tell him I don't know the answer. If he asks about my faith, I'll tell him I wasn't raised Catholic.

What he and his parents believe is their business and what I accept or reject is mine. He hasn't done anything to try to influence what I think. I won't do anything to influence what he believes. I can teach him botany and geology and math and astronomy and leave philosophy to his family.

-- Carey

 

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Added: June 6, 2001

From: "John Polifronio"
To: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: Re: FORUM QUESTION: The Neighbor's Kids: What To Say?
Date: Wednesday, June 06, 2001 12:27 AM

Shouldn't our thoughts concerning serious religious, moral, ethical, political, philosophical, etc., problems, as they relate to small children, be directed to the parents? We also don't wish to "brainwash" people with atheism, etc. Brainwash here, simply means instilling ideas in people who don't have or haven't yet developed the critical faculties and thinking powers and skills necessary to independently appreciate what we're telling them.

Most religious folks would give up any friendship rather than question their own thinking on a matter as central to their lives, as the very existence of god.

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From: "Art Haykin"
To: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: Re: FORUM QUESTION: The Neighbor's Kids: What To Say?
Date: Wednesday, June 06, 2001 12:45 AM

The letter explicitly states:

 

"They have a nine year old son with special educational needs."

 

I say, "Leave it alone."

If you are afraid of being lonely, don't (always) try to be right. -Jules Renard, writer (1864-1910)

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From: "Bryant Adams"
To: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: Re: FORUM QUESTION: The Neighbor's Kids: What To Say?
Date: Wednesday, June 06, 2001 1:03 AM

What a great question!

The general concept is yet more interesting, but I'll gear my response toward the specific situation.

 

My next door neighbors to one side are Catholic. I learned this only recently because they don't flaunt their faith or evangelize or even talk about it other than to say things like, "We just got back from church."

 

This, to begin with, is a good sign. If the neighbors aren't actively trying to advertize how special their belief makes them, they may realize that there are other world views out there with some measure of validity.

 

They have a nine year old son with special educational needs.

 

One question that comes to mind immediately is what kind of special needs he has. Slow reader? Hyperactivity? Excessively credulous?

 

I'd like to explain the situation to his parents and ask how they would prefer I respond, but I am reluctant to bring up my atheism because I can't be certain how they will react and we get along well as things are. If I just go ahead and answer any difficult questions about his fledgling faith and this information is repeated to his family, I'm afraid he may be exiled from my garden.

 

I, personally, think the first impulse to talk to the parents is the best one. Granted, they may be bigots who refuse to talk with you after that, but in that case such a situation would probably have come up eventually anyhow. Less noxiously, they may simply feel concerned for the fate of your soul, thank you for asking them first, and politely request that you try to tactfully avoid religious issues. This settles your question, and gives them an example of a faithless person acting honoroably, which I think is generally a good example to give theists.

With some luck, they might even say they're alright with you answering questions about your lack of belief, but please don't tell their son that what he believes is wrong. Where questions like "How do you know" fall into this can be ambiguous, but if you have a lot of good luck, you may run into a family who may recognize that facing up to such questions is not so much a route to godlessness, but rather to having firmer, more reasonable beliefs, regardless of the content of those beliefs.

So, out of four possibilities, one (which, due to their lack of evangelizing, seems unlikely) sucks, two are respectfully quiet and perhaps strengthen a friendship, and the last (which, due to the lack of insightful people, also seems unlikely) would be great. It seems, to me, like talking to the parents has the best chances for a good outcome.

What to say to them, of course, also requires consideration. "Hey folks, I think you should send your kid to a good psychiatrist, he's got an imaginary friend he calls 'Jesus,'" for example, might not be so good. On the other hand, "Your son was just telling me about his experience with communion. I realize we don't share the same beliefs, and I wanted to ask you how much exposure, or lack thereof, you'd like him to have to other world views? I certainly wouldn't mind sharing my perspectives with him, but if you're not comfortable with that, I could tell him that's a subject I won't talk about until he's older. In any event, I'd like to be considerate of your duties as parents." kinda stuff could work nicely.

 

Jesus is real." While ordinarily I would ask how, specifically, this knowledge came to be acquired, it seemed inappropriate in this case.

 

"Who is Jesus" is another good one.

 

You forgot to mention how old the child is, but...

 

Nine years old...

 

If you highly value your friendship with the kid, then by all means act as you would were this an adult whose friendship you value

 

I would contend that, as the boy is very distinctly a minor in the care of his parents, their position on the issue is important, even if their position were to involve indoctrinating their son into a cannibalistic death cult. In some circumstances, appeal to intervention by authority might become appropriate, but direct 'vigilante' action is irresponsible.

 

This is particularly urgent when dealing with the less-stable among us. Children and teenagers, who have not had a chance to fully develop their skills at critical thinking, are especially prone to coming under the influence of certain remarks made at certain moments, and having those remarks change that kid's outlook forever.

 

If, however, one approaches the issue as a matter of "I believe in considering all the evidence I can, weighing the importance of that evidence, and basing my eventual conclusions primarily on the authority of immediate reality (rather than historical opinion)", it's possible to say "that leads me to not believe there are any gods, but it also leads some to belief that there are gods", which only undermines the blind dogmatism of their faith, and not the potential for faith itself. Indeed, having the "learning experiences" be impression of the importance of critical thinking, then the child may not become closed to the concept of thinking before they learn how it's done.

 

My second question would be: Did a trusted adult ever try to persuade you away from "the faith of your fathers" when you were a kid?

 

My father, I only recently discovered, is still a theist. I knew he had once been Roman Catholic, but for over twenty years didn't know his current views. My mother, so far as I can discern, is somewhat of an animist, and I think she'd feel most comfortable (religiously speaking) in a pre-colonial native American tribe. My atheistic 'faith', which I've held since I can remember holding anything, is certainly a far cry from the faith of my fathers. My parents taught me that the important thing was to think for myself, and consider whatever I could, and if they didn't agree with my conclusions, then we should talk about what I'd come up with and see if either or both of us could develop their own world view more thoroughly with the help of insights from the other.

So far, it seems like I've had more influence on them in such matters than they have on me, but it certainly has gone both ways.

No one, that I can recall, tried to use a position of trust to tell me their belief was right and mine was wrong. A position of faith, certainly, and sometimes a position of having done a lot more investigation into the subject, but "I believe you're wrong" and "If you read this stack of books I've written, you'll see you're wrong" are very, very different from "Please trust me on this, you're wrong."

In non-faith cases where a position of trust was abused (or where such an attempt was made, rather), my response was essentially "That apparently makes two of us," followed by asking enough questions to lead to a contradiction, at which point the attempt to put me in the wrong failed. To some degree, this approach was unfortunate, because as it turned out I used it on people who actually were right, but not quick enough on their mental feet to give a decent defense, in addition to those who were wrong, but as a kid I think I could be excused for some excesses.

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Added: June 6, 2001

From: "Alex R. Cohen"
To: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: Re: FORUM QUESTION: The Neighbor's Kids: What To Say?
Date: Wednesday, June 06, 2001 3:20 AM

"Go see what your father has to say about that" isn't integrity. It's rank ageism, and it shows contempt.

I would urge you to treat your young friend with respect. If he raises the issue of religion with you again, be open and honest about your views. Because you are in a position of authority, you should make a point of being clear that you are not trying to impose anything on him, and that you aren't going to be angry if he doesn't agree; you may wish to cut him some slack in terms of the rapidity of response you expect from him. (This may be a good tactic in many cases, even without the power discrepancy.)

If his parents are so anti-atheist that they'd keep him away from you if they found out you're an atheist (and, from your description, I doubt that's the case), and no one introduces him to an atheist viewpoint, it's quite likely that he will one day come to you to tell you how evil atheists are. If you're feeling conflicted now, how will you feel then?

One thing to remember, though: Historically, the Church has been very good at losing followers by telling them which of their friends and relatives are going to Hell.

ALEX R. COHEN

"A person who chooses to die or to risk death demonstrates that there are values, principles, maxims, that are more valuable to him than is life itself. In short, he places his immortal self above his mortal self."

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From: "InPRO IAfrica"
To: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: Re: FORUM QUESTION: The Neighbor's Kids: What To Say? - RESPONSE
Date: Wednesday, June 06, 2001 7:56 AM

Hi

I am a South African atheist, currently battling with a religious wife (ex) in a divorce where she wants to enforce a law (pre-1994 new constitution) requiring that my 6-year-old son goes to church on the weekend that he visits me. Further, my own child's kindergarten school Christian headmistress has spread the word that I am an atheist, resulting in it being far more difficult for me to get some of my son's friends over to play, and vice versa -- So, a fairly similar situation to yours.

Any suggestions on this from an American perspective, psychological or legal (our constitution is not dis-similar to yours) would be most welcome.

Looking at the given situation, my tendency would be to be more 'honest, direct and open'. I would go to the parents of the boy and point out that there is a great feeling of neighbourliness, community and friendship, that you enjoy the boys interaction and that athiesm is not necessarily a big issue with yourself (it is with me), would they mind if you were open and honest with them in expressing your thoughts to the child or not ? ! . This then gives them the control, shows your openness, highlights any dogma or bigotry on their side, and opens a potential debate as to all these related issues if desired on both sides.

Bottom line, while you enjoy the boy's company or interaction, how important is it to you in your life? If the parents react badly, apart from pleasant neighbourlyness, what are you losing? If you avoid direct responses, do you feel you (person and philosophy -- atheism) are losing something ? The problem I have with responses such as suggested by Cliff is that ultimately we sacrifice openness, honesty and truth on a micro (the boy) level, and consequently also on a macro (society) level. I personally look at the longer term picture, and have decided, rightly or wrongly, that I would rather lose a couple of potential (bigoted) friends (and have indeed experienced this) than 'cower' back and not be free to express myself. I would also like to show the boy that there are different opinions, and it can be fun to discuss them, thereby encouraging an enquiring mind. This could be a couple of small comments, or a longer discussion, depending on all factors. Ultimately, the boy's parents have the last say, and their wishes need to be respected. If you back-off completely, religion wins and continues, whereas if you approach them, you are maintaining your integrity, while respecting them and giving them control.

Peter Brossy

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Added: June 10, 2001

From: "Jonathan Dill"
To: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: The_Neighbor's_Kids:_What_To_Say_9038
Date: Thursday, June 07, 2001 10:12 AM

My questions are these:

1. What do you hope to accomplish by having a discussion with this boy or his parents?

2. What are the important issues for you in this matter and how do they rank in importance?

Personally, I probably would have cracked a wry smile, but then sincerely congratulated the boy on something that, for him, was a significant passage in his life, and left it at that. If anything, I would simply introduce the idea of religious tolerance in generic terms, and that other people may have different beliefs than his, but I wouldn't get into specifics or force the issue.

Holidays could be a good time to introduce those sorts of ideas, particularly if you are knowledgeable about other religions and their customs and when their holidays are going on, maybe you even have some other neighbors with different religious beliefs. Christmas/Hanukah is probably the most conspicuous time--Why do those other neighbors have blue lights and a menorah in their window, for example. There was a wonderful holiday episode of the children's show Blues Clues, for example, where the characters in the show visited neighbors that were observing different holidays, showing Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanza (no atheists, however). Traditions of any kind, if you observe any, could also be a good occasion to presence the idea that other people may have different ways of doing things.

Writing this note makes me appreciate that I learned a lot about religious tolerance having grown up with the Unitarian Universalist Religious Education program with classes like "Why do bad things happen?" and then "The church across the street" where we visited other churches/temples/synagogues as guests.

This boy is 9 years old, and probably not very mature for his age at that. You have a good, neighborly relationship with your neighbors, which is probably appropriately superficial, there is certainly nothing wrong with that. What good do you hope will come out of discussing the issue with the boy or your neighbors? If you wanted to have a closer relationship with them, a discussion would sort of make sense. If they did or said something which you thought was insensitive, a discussion would certainly make sense. If the issue is that it made you feel uncomfortable, I think that is an issue best resolved by yourself without involving the boy or his parents.

For better or worse, I think that late teens and twenties is the appropriate time for young people to question and think independently about the beliefs that they were taught. Until that time, provided that children aren't being subjected to anything that threatens their well being, the parents should control the religious aspects of their children's lives. Precocious youngsters may develop doubts and their own ideas before then, but will probably have to keep it to themselves, or find friends who they can confide in outside the family. No doubt, some teenagers will outright rebel, but that is all part of the process of growing up and becoming their own people.

"Jonathan F. Dill"

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From: "Blacktubby The fat child"
To: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
Subject: The_Neighbor's_Kids:_What_To_Say_9038
Date: Thursday, June 07, 2001 2:39 AM

Mr Walker,

I have, in the past, found myself in a situation analogous to that described by Carey. A couple of neighbor children who live nearby became good friends with some of my younger siblings. Their ages at the time were ( I believe) around 6 and 9 years of age. I discovered through my siblings that their parents are atheist. Despite the fact that my parents are aware of the neighbor's lack of religion, they often had the kids participate in catechism lessons which my mom teaches. I noticed that the younger neighbor girl took to the habit of playing religion. (Saying the sign of the cross, pretending to be "holy mawee" and what-not.)

I found this somewhat disturbing since I was quite sure that the children's parents were unaware of this overt proselytism. At the time I was a closet atheist so I remained silent. Those neighbors have since moved away.

My parents are adamant about their responsibility to spread the word of the vatican. Upon reflection, the only way that they would stop teaching the children is if the child expressly desired otherwise (which is unlikely in younger children), or their parents had spoken to mine about it. This would lead to a good many decades of the rosary being dedicated to them. At worst, they might see the heathen parents as in need of the truth. (My parents were instrumental in the conversion of another neighborhood parent.) This would certainly not deter my parents from setting a conspicuously prayerful example but I am quite certain that they would cease trying to actively push their faith on the children. Perhaps I should qualify that. They would stop preaching religion to the children unless the child asked about it.

Regards,
Timothy

"If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear."
-- George Orwell

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