A reader writes in:
"My question is do you have any advice for how to raise kids in a spiritual sense when both parents have very different beliefs?
I was raised in the Pentecostal tradition. My husband was raised loosely Catholic, but when I met him he was more agnostic. Now he has said he is almost sure he is an atheist. This problem didn't come up until my father wanted to take my son (5 yrs old) to church with him. My husband has flat out refused saying he doesn't want his kids indoctrinated at such a young age.
Now there is a tug of war between my parents who try to teach him bible stories and my husband who tells my son that Jesus doesn't exist, and it's all in your head."
That's a really difficult position to be in as a parent. It used to be that an "Interfaith" marriage meant one between a Roman Catholic and a Protestant. But these days, it is likely to be between a Christian and a non-Christian theist or even, as in your case, an atheist. How do you handle a conflict between parts of your family as you describe? It's going to be different for each family, but here are some pointers:
- The Child's welfare comes first. Children are sometimes used as pawns in family conflict, and faith conflicts are often covers for deeper things. Make sure the conflict is really about what they say it is. If it's something else that's actually causing the conflict, none of the rest of this is going to have any impact. Also, make sure that if one party is talking about the others faith or lack therof in front of your son, it's not in a derogatory way. A child will benefit from watching adults resolve conflict, but only if it's carried out in an adult fashion.
- Determine what it is you want for your son. What do you want out of religion for him? Do you want him being raised within a faith community, or do you want him to just learn the stories? What level are you comfortable with? What do you think he wants?
- Determine how to achieve that. If you want the support of a faith community, what would work? Catholicism and Pentecostalism are probably both out. Can you find a faith community that will encourage critical thinking? Use the Internet to look around.
- Plan on how you are going to approach each party. Try to put yourself in each party's shoes and see what is important to them. What's negotiable and non-negotiable? Writing down talking points is a good idea.
- Approach them in love, not in anger. Try to be reasonable and find something that works. This can be achieved, assuming that there's not an underlying problem as in point one.
In your specific situation, here are a few things that might help:
- For your husband, emphasize the value of a Biblical education. Completely apart from the spiritual content, the Bible is one of the most important literary influences of western culture. English literature is full of references to both Old and New Testaments. Not understanding the stories puts one at a distinct disadvantage in appreciating literature, art and music. Also, determine whether the problem is faith itself, or uncritical faith. There are several denominations that see no conflict between critical thinking and faith. I'm partial to mine, but there are many others as well.
- For your parents, make sure they understand that you are the parent of your son. You have to negotiate this situation and not them, so make it clear that whatever compromise you arrive at needs to be respected. Your son is WAY below the age of accountability, so even from their perspective, salvation should not be an issue at this point. I suspect it has more to do with them wanting to share what is important in their life with him.
My prayers are with you. This is one of the stickiest wickets of parenting.