CHOOSING YOUR BATTLES

STU TANQUIST

Ben Franklin wisely said, “In this world, nothing is certain but death, taxes, and religious zealots.” OK, so I added that last part. Were he here today, however, I suspect that Ben would add it himself.

There are many tolerant and respectful religious believers in this world, of course, and to each his or her own. By religious zealots, I mean those who feel a divinely mandated duty to assimilate everyone into their own worldview. When their tactics involve imposing their faith on others—especially by telling children that they must believe in a god in order to be good—I get a bit testy. I don’t make their children eat my cooking. It seems only fair that my child shouldn’t have to swallow their wafers.

Aggressive evangelical movements like the Child Evangelism Fellowship (CEF) specifically target children ages five to twelve, working to secure “decisions to accept Christ as Lord and Savior.”1 They know that they need to hook children at a young age, before they are old enough to think for themselves.

But it isn’t just groups like CEF seeking religious allegiance from our children. There is also a subtler, often well-intentioned desire by mainstream religionists to share something that is meaningful to them, or to save children from some imagined divine retribution. Well meaning or not, such evangelism of children nonetheless seeks to cut off the process of independent thought before it begins. It’s this aspect of religious indoctrination that is most unacceptable—the idea that doubt is bad, that unquestioning acceptance is good, that there is only one possible right answer, and that someone else has already figured out what that answer is.

imageAs a secular parent, I feel an obligation to help my child develop effective reasoning skills so she can form her own conclusions in all areas of life. I don’t want her to blindly adopt my views.image

Our kids can and must be helped to fend off these unacceptable intrusions. As a secular parent, I feel an obligation to help my child develop effective reasoning skills so she can form her own conclusions in all areas of life. I don’t want her to blindly adopt my views. My hope is that her conclusions will logically follow from a careful process of critical thinking. What a concept! Imagine if all kids had that opportunity.

Of course, if that were the case, this book would not be necessary.

It’s necessary to distinguish between religious believers and religious evangelists. An evangelist is a Christian who actively attempts to convert others to his or her religion. And even in a secular home (unless you raise your kids in a protective bubble), conflict with religious evangelists is inevitable. Such evangelists include teachers who impose religious views on young captive audiences, outside groups who obtain privileged access to our public schools, or our own secular government legislating that children recite a God pledge in school. The attempts are relentless and unlikely to diminish anytime soon. I for one can’t wait until we are “left behind.”

While some problems cannot be ignored, the challenge lies in determining where to draw the line. Some issues are too trivial to address, and others are simply insurmountable. Some would require a high investment of energy for small gain, while others entail genuine risk. The challenge is determining how to pick your battles.

A Little About Us

As a single secular parent living full-time with my sixteen-year-old daughter, I feel extremely fortunate. We have a wonderful relationship and truly enjoy each other’s company. We also appreciate living in a home that is completely free from religion—except for the occasional door-to-door belief peddler.

Our home life wasn’t always this way. At the impassioned request of my now ex-wife, our daughter attended Catholic school from preschool through seventh grade. At the time, I was an apathetic nonbeliever. Knowing how important religious education was to my wife and her family, I agreed to pay for several sets of snazzy blue plaid uniforms and years of private school tuition.

Our daughter initially thrived in religious school, though she grew tired of the inherent rigidity and required conformity. By the seventh grade, she was a self-professed nonbeliever, though she achieved the high score in her religion class that year. That was the year she decided enough was enough. Much to her mother’s chagrin, she insisted on leaving her classmates for public school. She has never looked back—at least not fondly.

The change created new challenges in our home. Religious teaching in her Catholic school was to be expected, of course, but the promotion of religion in our public school system has been hard for both of us to swallow.

The Issue of Authority

We have two explicit “rules” posted in our home:

1. Always question authority.

2. When in doubt, see rule #1.

These two simple rules—really one, of course—are a source of pride for my daughter and an ongoing wonder for her friends. And, yes, these rules apply to my own authority as well.

This may seem counterproductive to many parents, especially to those who struggle with disciplinary issues. Quite frankly, it has not been a problem. To the contrary, this simple concept has been a wonderful and positive influence in our home.

I should note that our rules encourage her to question my comments, decisions, and rationale, to receive justifications beyond “because I said so.” They do not authorize anarchy. Inviting questioning is not the same as a complete abdication of responsibility. As her parent and legal guardian, I obviously need to put my foot down from time to time. The point is that my daughter is encouraged to openly and freely challenge my views without fear of consequence for the challenge. If I am a good parent, my parenting should stand on its own merit, both in terms of her perception and the kind of person she becomes. Conversely, if I blinded myself to criticism, how would I know if I’m a good parent or not? That sounds like a recipe for self-delusion.

Our house rules are a recognition of the error in reasoning called the argument from authority. People commit this fallacy when they blindly accept statements made by people in a position of authority. It is important to remember that regardless of expertise, credential, or experience, none of us is infallible. We can all be wrong and so should not be placed above honest question or challenge.

We live in a society that values authority. Political leaders cry treason when American citizens oppose war and its related atrocities. Religious authorities expect us to sit silently and still while they tell us what to believe. In Minnesota, as in many other states, school authorities lead our children in reciting a weekly pledge to God and country—as if we don’t have enough unthinking patriotism on this planet. Children who opt out risk being ostracized by teachers and classmates. This potential soon became apparent at my daughter’s school.

The Nonmandatory Pledge

While attending eighth grade parent-teacher conferences, we were informed soberly that our daughter was not standing for the Pledge of Allegiance. I was unaware that she had made this choice and glowed with pride. Having children stand and recite a rote pledge to their country is something I would not expect from a free democratic nation—especially when they are further compelled to declare that nation to be “under God.” If our country deserves the respect of its citizens, that respect should be earned and freely and individually expressed. If we need to bolster love of country through semicoerced oaths, something ain’t right. I love my dog because she makes me happy. Imagine making up for a lousy dog by reciting a dog pledge: “I pledge allegiance, to my dog . . .”

I asked the teacher why he thought it was important to share this information about our daughter. He began squirming in his seat, then said at last that it really wasn’t important—he just thought we would want to know. I retorted that it must be important to him since he felt compelled to bring it up. Again, the same awkward response. He clearly understood that our daughter was within her legal right to abstain, and it was now painfully apparent that I was unsympathetic to his concern. Recognizing that this issue was now a nonissue, I moved on to talk about things that really mattered, like our daughter’s academic progress and learning needs.

Classroom Proselytizing

Things really got dicey the following year when my daughter brought home “values assessments” from her health class—a survey intended to measure a student’s developing moral and ethical sense, personal assets, and social stress.

The survey consisted of a number of statements; each time the student agreed with the statement, she garnered additional points toward a high “values” score. In a cumulative assessment of this type, every “no” counts against the final total—which in the case of this survey would indicate a student whose values need some attention. Perhaps you can see why some of the statements caught my eye:

image I attend weekly religious services.

image I reach out to develop my spirituality.

image I have taught Sunday school class or have otherwise taken an active part in my church.

image I will take my children to church services regularly.

image I believe in a Supreme Being.

image I believe that it is important to support a church by giving time and/or money.

image Each day I try to set aside some time for worship.

image It is important to me that grace be said before meals.

image I believe there is life after death.

image I read the Bible or other religious writings regularly.

image I believe in the power of prayer and meditation.

The assessments were clearly skewed to show that nonreligious students have higher stress, lower values, and worse personal assets. That was enough to raise my hackles. My first step was important: I spoke with my daughter to see if she had concerns about me pursuing the matter. It quickly became apparent that she, too, found the statements insulting and wanted to see the matter addressed. I considered scheduling a meeting with the teacher—something I recommend whenever possible before escalating—but this was not the first time I had been made aware of the influence of this particular teacher’s religious bias in the classroom. At an orientation earlier in the year, in a presentation reeking of religious language and influence, he had made clear his intention to focus on abstinence to the near total exclusion of birth-control education. Given his tendency toward religious proselytizing in the classroom, I was concerned that he might initially recant, then resume his underhanded tactics once my daughter moved on. To prevent this, I turned to the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) for help.

imageMy daughter brought home “values assessments” from her health class that were clearly skewed to show that nonreligious students have higher stress, lower values, and worse personal assets. That was enough to raise my hackles.image

As a life member of FFRF, I called co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor to see what she might suggest. She graciously offered to write a letter on our behalf—and boy did she. Annie Laurie wrote a powerful letter to the principal and copied the superintendent. Though initially resistant, the principal eventually replied that the issue had been resolved. Ninth graders at Burnsville High can no longer substitute health class for church.

My daughter was thrilled each time a copied letter arrived from FFRF and proud to have had the courage to do the right thing. She still managed to pull an A from the class, but then the teacher didn’t have much choice. Her test scores were stellar.

Surviving a Mixed Marriage—or Not

Adherents of competing religions are reasonably close in thought, especially different Christian denominations, so it doesn’t seem at first glance that intermarriage should present too many problems. But after seventeen years of marriage to a devout Catholic, I now understand why Catholics seek Catholics, Mormons seek Mormons, and jocks seek cheerleaders. While liberal believers seem capable of navigating a mixed marriage, the deck is clearly stacked against disciples of moderate and especially fundamentalist sects. They generally don’t mix with nonbelievers either. In our marriage, I tried to be flexible and we both compromised. However, on matters relating to religion and our daughter, opportunities offered for compromise were few and far between.

As noted earlier, I entered our marriage as an agnostic who was indifferent to religious belief. I have since come to appreciate the power that religious emotions hold over the human mind. Because religion was so important to my wife, I supported her desire to require that our daughter attend church until she was an adult. We went to church as a family when she was young, but I found that my skeptical mind could only take so much ritual and repetition. I soon learned to savor my Sunday mornings on the deck with a good freethought book and a tasty cigar, a ritual I still enjoy.

Though I tried not to intentionally influence our daughter’s views on religion, she couldn’t help noticing that Dad no longer attended church. Church had always been a source of conflict in our home. Our daughter rabidly objected to obediently subjecting her rear end to another hour on a hard wooden bench. Her objections gradually became more forceful, to the point where her behavior ruined the otherwise desirable experience for her mother.

I was quietly sympathetic to both sides of the conflict and strived to remain neutral, which is easier said than done. Things eventually snowballed when our daughter started questioning religious doctrine and later announced that she, too, was a nonbeliever.

I was eventually fired as a husband and found myself living full-time with our daughter. I kept the house, the kid, and the dog. What a sweet deal. I quickly purged the house of crucifixes, ditched the artificial Christmas tree, and sent Santa packing. My daughter loves the freedom and autonomy she now enjoys in our secular home. She was recently accepted as a full-time student at a major university, which she will attend in lieu of her junior and senior high school years. The religious zealots can be found there as well—but she has the reasoning skills to find her own way now, thanks in part to the battles we chose to fight so she had a chance to develop them.

Choose Your Battles Wisely

The battle for your child’s mind is real. Many religious enthusiasts—some well meaning, some certainly not—are working tirelessly to derail our children’s ability to think for themselves about the big questions and to substitute the principles of one particular religious view for the plurality and freedom of belief inherent in our nation’s founding principles. Their tactics are sophisticated and sometimes bold, sometimes subtle. I have tremendous respect for freethinkers and liberal believers alike who make the effort to oppose assaults on our precious liberties. It is my hope that readers of this book will do their part to protect our freedoms. As with any form of activism, one person can only do so much. As a parent, you have many demands on your time, including attending to the needs of your children—though in some cases, standing up for their right to think for themselves is an important way of attending to their needs.

It’s important to consider the most appropriate course of action. For minor infractions, try to start small and give individuals the opportunity to make corrections. Consider going directly to a classroom teacher, for example, rather than escalating the issue to the principal or superintendent—though in some situations, as noted, you’ll want to start at the top.

In some cases, a personal meeting is likely to be better received and therefore may be more effective than an impersonal email or letter, though the latter offers a written record of exactly what was said. If possible, solicit feedback from others before initiating contact. Bounce ideas off of trusted friends, family, or colleagues. And finally, try to maintain a positive, nonconfrontational tone. Remember that the ultimate goal is to resolve the issue in the interests of your child and other children, not to make the veins in the various adult foreheads stand out. You may find that some folks are willing to make changes if you make the effort to help them understand your concern.

Final Thoughts

Secular parenting can be a wonderful experience, even for those living in intolerant communities. We have the opportunity and responsibility to help our children develop effective reasoning skills, a trait sorely needed on our troubled planet. It is rewarding to know that our children will be empowered to think for themselves as they navigate this credulous world.

I find it especially rewarding to know that the respect I feel from my daughter is sincere and not a response to an authoritarian parenting style. I feel comfort knowing that if I were a lousy parent, she’d be the first to let me know. Better to find out now when there is time to make adjustments.

Finally, remember the two rules on authority and consider establishing them as guidelines in your home. They apply equally well to adults.

STU TANQUIST has been an emergency paramedic, a director for training and development at a large urban medical center, a national speaker, a seminar leader on critical thinking and business writing, and a published author. He holds three degrees, including an MS in management. At the time this was written, he lived near Minneapolis; he now lives in Seattle.

image

WEIGHING THE OPTIONS

When thinking about whether to challenge religious intrusion in our lives, there are many factors to consider:

image Is your child concerned about the consequences?

image Could your child be negatively impacted by the challenge? Might he or she be ostracized at school by teachers or students?

image If successful, how significant would the change be? Would it positively benefit other families and children?

image Could you and your family be negatively impacted?

image What are your chances of success?

image How much time and resources are required?

image Do you risk damaging existing relationships?

image Is this likely to be a short-term or long-term fix?

image Is legal action necessary?

image Are there other parents or organizations that could assist you?

image Are you bored? Do you really need the spice this will add to your life?

image Would it feel rewarding to you and your child if you succeeded?

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