Skip to content

August 1, 2011


If you don’t indoctrinate your kids, we’ll do it for you.

by juju2112

Note: This story is personal. I probably shouldn’t be sharing it. I am sharing it, however, because many other people will have had this sort of experience. I think it’s important that they know they are not alone.


Last week, my two daughters (5 and 7 years old), went to their grandmother’s house for the week. My wife’s mother lives in Blueball, Arkansas (yes, that’s really a place), and it’s about a 2 1/2 hour drive from where we live. After my wife arrived in Blueball to drop off the kids, her mom said that there was a possibility the kids might be going to Vacation Bible School. My wife voiced her reservations. Once my wife drove the 2 1/2 hours back home, her mom called her on the phone and that possibility morphed into absolute certainty. The kids would be definitely spending the entire week at Vacation Bible School.

Now, my wife’s family knows that she’s an atheist. Or rather, to quote her mom, “She thinks she’s an atheist”. But we’ve never asked the relatives not to bring the kids to church. It’s free babysitting we’re dealing with here, after all. Who are we to argue with that? And besides, a little culture won’t hurt them. You can’t shield kids from religion forever. Maybe a little dose of it will fire up their critical thinking skills? But really, the biggest reason we never forbid this from happening is because we didn’t expect the rule would be followed. If we ordered them not to be exposed to church, we feared the relatives would just take them to church more often. Their eternal souls are on the line, after all. What’s a little white lie when eternal torture is at stake?

My point is, no rules were broken here. Still, though, her mom had to have known the kids would never have arrived at her house had she told my wife about Vacation Bible School before she left for that long drive. These things aren’t just dreamed up at the last minute. They have to be planned. So, it’s fair to say that she knew it was going to happen for sure way before hand. She chose not to mention it until afterwards.

The next day, the 7 year old called my wife on the phone. She was crying. She had been told a story at Vacation Bible School that terrified her. According to my daughter, the story goes like this: There was a magician in a town. Two men came to the town and were trying to talk about God. The magician tried to keep the two men from talking about God. Really bad things happened to the magician. My daughter refused to say what the “really bad things” were. After much crying and reassuring, my wife got her mom on the phone and there was a bit of back and forth yelling. Three hours later, grandma called back, and some half-hearted apologies were made.

We turned to our local atheist group for support. And supportive they were! There are around 70 comments on the facebook thread. One well-read individual in our group found the story the kids were taught: Acts 13:4-12.

4 The two of them, sent on their way by the Holy Spirit, went down to Seleucia and sailed from there to Cyprus. 5When they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the Jewish synagogues. John was with them as their helper.

6 They traveled through the whole island until they came to Paphos. There they met a Jewish sorcerer and false prophet named Bar-Jesus, 7 who was an attendant of the proconsul, Sergius Paulus. The proconsul, an intelligent man, sent for Barnabas and Saul because he wanted to hear the word of God. 8 But Elymas the sorcerer (for that is what his name means) opposed them and tried to turn the proconsul from the faith. 9 Then Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked straight at Elymas and said, 10 “You are a child of the devil and an enemy of everything that is right! You are full of all kinds of deceit and trickery. Will you never stop perverting the right ways of the Lord? 11Now the hand of the Lord is against you. You are going to be blind for a time, not even able to see the light of the sun.”

Immediately mist and darkness came over him, and he groped about, seeking someone to lead him by the hand. 12 When the proconsul saw what had happened, he believed, for he was amazed at the teaching about the Lord.

This story wouldn’t make me cry. Then again, who knows how the person in charge of educating our kids interpreted this story? However he did it, our oldest child felt personally attacked by people she trusted. She was terrified that something bad might happen to her. She became paranoid and wondered if God had cursed her for not believing in him.

Our friend from the group also found online what we believe to be the lesson plan the church organizers were going by. My wife was able to prep our oldest child by phone what the next lesson would be, thereby lessening the impact. The day after that, my wife drove down there and brought them home early.

Now, we’re left to pick up the pieces. We’ve decided to begin showing our oldest daughter some bible stories before bedtime. We’ll also be including myths from other cultures as well. We’ll try to make it fun and interesting. And hopefully we can teach her that she can be a good person regardless of what she believes.

Read more from What's the Harm?
32 Comments Post a comment
  1. Rhoda
    Aug 1 2011

    I was raised in “the church” and I never really gave these stories a second thought until a few years ago (I have grown children now). I think it’s like anything, if you’re exposed to it often enough you become desensitized…like roundyonvirginmotherandchild is all one word in the christmas song, Silent Night.

    My point, and I do have one, is that the stories are traumatic if you’re told them at a certain age – it’s the reason you think twice about taking children to R-rated movies. They may still have a problem separating fact and fantasy!

    That said, I think you did a GREAT job of handling this, and telling bible stories along with other myths is a good way to help your daughter understand that none of this gibberish is true. The only problem I think you’ll encounter is that the bible stories may seem tame compared to battling a cyclops or cutting the heads off of a hydra or any of those other fabulous greek stories!

  2. Aug 2 2011

    If I may be so bold as to offer a suggestion, a super-PGified Cthulhu might be pretty alright. The Ancient One’s got everything. Mystery, an obscure cult, a massive underwater city, a massive monster, heck it’s got everything the Bible has but more interesting. Actually, Cthulhu might be a bit much until they’re teens. But you still have Isaac Asimov.

  3. George
    Aug 2 2011

    Well, you can’t blame grandma for trying.
    She is worried about their little souls. It’s what grandma believes…
    You and your wife’s skepticism should be enough to convince your daughters that it does not take a belief in a religion to make one a good person.
    It would be good to make sure your daughters understand that there have been hundreds of religions and most are now considered myths, and that some people have not realized that their’s is also. You might also try to explain why some people still seem to need a religious belief.
    But, there are no ghosts, holy or otherwise.

    • Michael S
      Aug 15 2011

      Oh, you can blame grandma for trying. She’s worried about their little souls? She wasn’t too concerned over their parents’ adult souls. Would you still find her blameless if she had injected a literal poison into the children?

    • katy
      Aug 16 2011

      Hmm – sending kids off to bible camp against parents wishes…. injecting children with poison. Yep, sounds like a totally equal comparision to me.

    • Jun 10 2015

      Yes, yes you can blame grandma.

  4. Aug 5 2011

    Hey I have a couple of questions and comments for you.
    I am wondering what atheist believe happens to a person when they die?

    You said, And hopefully we can teach her that she can be a good person regardless of what she believes.” What is your being a good person based on? Whose morals are you comparing them to? I guess what I am asking is, what is the standard of good and where do you come by that standard??

    Just wanting a little culture.

    • juju2112
      Aug 6 2011
    • Aug 6 2011

      Hi Bobbie,

      I have no doubt that one can be good without believing in God, let alone having faith in Jesus. Let’s look at what research has found regarding the morality of nonbelievers.
      In 1934, Abraham Franzblau found a negative correlation between acceptance of religious beliefs and three different measures of honesty. As religiosity increased, honesty decreased.

      In 1950, Murray Ross conducted a survey among 2,000 associates of the YMCA and discovered that agnostics and atheists were more likely to express their willingness to aid the poor than those who rated themselves as deeply religious.

      In 1975, a study found that college-aged students in religious schools were no less likely to cheat on a test than their atheist and agnostic counterparts in nonreligious schools.
      In the most recent studies of religious belief among prestigious scientists, only 7 percent of members of the American National Academy of Sciences believed in God, while only 3.3 percent of the UK’s Royal Society said they believe in God. Are all these scientists unrighteous? Ignorant? Atheism is often the product of understanding the scientific process, not some secret cabal.

      In his book, The Psychology of Religion: An empirical approach, David Wolf reviews dozens of studies of this nature that reveal a consistent and positive correlation between “religious affiliation, church attendance, doctrinal orthodoxy, rated importance of religion, and so on, with ethnocentrism, authoritarianism, dogmatism, social distance, rigidity, intolerance of ambiguity, and specific forms of prejudice, especially against Jews and Blacks.”
      There have been several interesting studies in which ethical dilemmas are presented to people of various faiths, including to people of no religious faith at all. You can read about these experiments in some detail here. They’re quite fascinating, and I recommend you if you’re not already familiar with them.

      In these ethical dilemma experiments, atheists consistently make the same moral decisions that believers do. Maybe they’re just absorbing the religious values from those around them, you may say. However, adapted versions of these ethical dilemmas were presented to a tribe of people who had almost no contact with the outside world, and they too made the same moral decisions. Additionally, consider how to explain people’s morality when they live in a society where almost no one believes in a supernatural God, most notably Buddhists.
      One interesting study found differences between areas of the country with various concentrations of believers and nonbelievers. Believers tend to be more concentrated in ‘red’ (Republican) states as opposed to ‘blue’ (Democrat) states. Sam Harris noted that, “Of the twenty-five cities with the lowest rates of violent crime, 62 percent are in blue states, and 38 percent are in red states. Of the twenty-five most dangerous cities, 76 percent are in red states, and 24 percent are in blue states. In fact, three of the five most dangerous cities in the U.S. are in the pious state of Texas. The twelve states with the highest rates of burglary are red. Twenty-four of the twenty-nine states with the highest rates of theft are red. Of the twenty-two states with the highest rates of murder, seventeen are red.”

      Similarly, Phil Zuckerman, sociologist and author of Society Without God: What the least religious societies can tell us about contentment, found that the Scandinavian countries, particularly Denmark and Sweden, have the lowest percentage of believers and the highest percentage of atheists, and yet they are incredibly moral countries. They have the lowest rates of violent crime in the world, the best elder care, the best childcare, strong education, and high literacy rates. But aren’t they sad people who find life meaningless? Not at all—they have one of the lowest rates of depression and the highest measures of happiness in the world. They find meaning in their work, families, causes that they are involved in, etc.
      Another interesting bit of data comes from the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, which found in a 1997 study that one in ten people in the U.S. were atheists or agnostics (in 2008, the figure had jumped to 16%), whereas only one in 200 prisoners are atheist or agnostic.

      This doesn’t mean that atheism necessarily increases morality, although humanism, the ethical system that often goes with atheism, probably does. Another good possibility is that atheism is correlated with some third factor, such as higher education, intelligence, or reflectiveness, which might counteract criminal impulses. Neither do these data disprove the existence of God, but they are evidence that 1) people can be good without believing in God, and 2) that the morality of nonbelievers is not likely the product of being in a society steeped in religion.

      Some think that the only reason one tries to be good is to gain God’s approval and reward, or to avoid his disapproval and punishment. This, of course, is not morality. That’s just sucking up. If people are good only because they fear punishment and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed. If you agree that, in the absence of God, you would commit robbery, rape, and murder, you reveal yourself as an immoral person and we would be well advised to steer a wide course around you. If, on the other and, you admit that you would continue to be a good person even when not under divine surveillance, you have fatally undermined your claim that God is necessary for us to be good.

      So research does not support the idea that those who don’t have faith in Jesus are unrighteous, or that that people become immoral when they lose their faith in God. Indeed, the existence of altruism, compassion, generosity, kinship, and compassion can be explained very well by evolution by natural selection. Such behaviors are reported over and over in studies of animals, such as birds, bats, elephants, whales, rhesus monkeys, and others, and it is all well supported by the theory of evolution.

      Skeptical? Read or listen to any or all of the six books below. They all present and summarize the peer-reviewed, published research that lays out the evolutionary origins of our moral instincts.

      Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life by Dacher Keltner

      Natural Selections: Selfish Altruists, Honest Liars, and Other Realities of Evolution by David P. Barash

      Our Inner Ape: A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are by Frans de Waal

      The Moral Lives of Animals by Dale Peterson

      The Science of Good and Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule by Michael Shermer

      The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievementby David Brooks

    • Heidi
      Aug 15 2011

      That was awesome. *applause*

    • Jeff L
      Aug 16 2011

      I just have to say, that is one of the best responses I’ve ever seen to the “Where do you get your morals from?” question. There’s no way a believer could argue against that.

    • Daniel Schealler
      Aug 16 2011


      *takes of atheist skeptic hat*

      *puts on credulous believer hat*

      If it’s all just down to biology and evolution, then how do you know if the morality you describe is really true?

      A really true morality must be eternal and unchanging. Only God is eternal and unchanging.

      So in order for morality to exist, there must be a God.

      *takes off credulous believer hat*

      *puts atheist skeptic hat back on*


      *goes away to take a badly needed shower*

    • Daniel Schealler
      Aug 16 2011

      Very nice.

      I’m so stealing your bibliography. ^_^

    • Steve
      Aug 15 2011

      Morality and altruism are evolved traits that can be found in any social species from birds to primates. It’s also a manifestation of biology and neurology. People with damage to certain areas of their brain like the prefrontal cortex often exhibit socially unacceptable or immoral behavior.

      It’s in the best interest of an individual to help others in their group because their survival depends on them and they’ll be helped in turn. That’s why you can find a version of the Golden Rule in pretty much any culture or religion. Only when society became more complex and humans lived in groups larger than tribes did sociopathic behavior really pay off. And even then few humans are true sociopaths.

      Richards Dawkins has a great little speech about absolute morality and the preferable alternative here:

    • Aug 15 2011

      Any person who is honest about death has only one answer to that: Their bodies decompose.

      That’s it.

    • Daniel Schealler
      Aug 15 2011

      “What is your being a good person based on?”

      I can’t speak for the author (obviously) but I can for myself.

      We know from history what life is like for societies without a developed moral sense. It isn’t good for anybody.

      So – given the experience of hindsight we can make reasonable predictions about what practices will or won’t improve our condition of existence in the world.

      Morality is the word we use to indicate the discourse and the tentative conclusions formed by this process.

      It is as simple, and as profound, as that.

    • Daniel Schealler
      Aug 15 2011

      Oh, I forgot to ask:

      I might be uncareful in my reading of what you’ve written here, but I sense that your words tacitly assume that it is actually possible to derive morality from some other source than the one I listed in the comment above.

      In particular, I get the sense that you assume morality must descend from some higher power.

      This always confused me somewhat. If morality can function in that lind of legislative top-down model… Then where did the entity at the top get it from?

      If that entity decided for itself… Then how is that any kind of guarantee that the morality itself is a sound one?

      If that entity decided for itself… Then why shouldn’t we also be able to decide for ourselves?

      The top-down model of morality always struck me as internally inconsistent with itself.

      Which is why I feel that the kind of bottom-up system of morality I’ve described above is in practice the only kind of system that can actually work.

      One example of this would be instances where allegedly top-down divine commandments and scripture are ‘re-interpreted’ to fit the modern age in ingenious ways that distance the base words from their face meaning.

      Twain gives perhaps one of the wittiest descriptions of this very common behavior in Bible Teaching and Religious Practice. Excerpt below.

      Yet now at last, in our immediate day, we hear a Pope saying slave trading is wrong, and we see him sending an expedition to Africa to stop it. The texts remain: it is the practice that has changed. Why? Because the world has corrected the Bible. The Church never corrects it; and also never fails to drop in at the tail of the procession – and take the credit of the correction. As she will presently do in this instance.

      The point I’m trying to make is that we are temporally-bound, contextual creatures engaging in contextualized behaviors. Whatever moral system we adopt or are capable of adopting must by necessarily also be temporally-bound and contextualized to our environment and abilities.

      Some kind of Platonic, reified idealistic morality that can descend from the heavens in a gold-plated tome of lore just won’t work. Or if it does by some stroke of luck work at all for a particular time and place, that time and place will subsequently change, and then the old tome will work no longer.

      Or at the very least, that’s my contention.

      Oh: And just in case you think of trying, please don’t attempt to bind me by insisting I must select between an unworkable and eternally divine moral system and the anarchy of mere preference – as if those are my only options.

      Because that’s false choice – there is a whole world of options besides these two where our preferences are constrained by sound argument-from-evidence and hard-earned experience regarding what does or doesn’t work in practice.

  5. Aug 15 2011

    Hi, I’m also a resident of NW Arkansas (Bella Vista). As a mother (and an atheist), I used to take advantage of the weekends off (when my son would spend time with my grandparents). During this time, they took him to church, and I knew it was going on. My feeling were that it was okay to expose him to religious belief, so long as I exposed him to other beliefs as well.

    When he came home on Sunday evenings, we discussed what he had been told and I explained what my views were. Now that my son is almost grown (his weekends at grandma’s ended some time ago), he has been exposed to christianity, islam, wicca, greek mythology, etc and has come to the conclusion (on his own) that it’s all BS.

    But, if the grandparents are specifically going against your known wishes, then they need to be put in their place. You are the parental units, not them. Your wishes need to be respected, or else.

    • Aug 15 2011

      *high five*

  6. Aug 15 2011

    I have two kids who are 9 and 6. Here’s how my wife and/or I would’ve handled the “We’re taking your kids to the Sky Fairy camp” situation.

    The kids go back in the car and we drive away.

    Oh, I talk to my kids all the time about religion (I run an atheist/comedy/parenting blog), but we talk about like it’s a form of deranged comic book.

  7. Aug 15 2011

    How sad. How truly, truly sad.

    As I have no children of my own, I can’t offer an advice, but I did want to let you know how much I appreciate you publishing your story and sharing it.

    My husband and I just “came out” atheist to our respective parents this past week, and I wish that I felt confident enough to write about it as you have, if only so that others can share in the experience. I am sure, once we are in a place to have children, that grandparents may pull stunts like the one you’ve mentioned, and I will be left to wonder what to do with the pieces as well.

    I think, if you raise your children to be critical thinkers, they will think themselves out of this as well. You sound like a very smart, well-intentioned guy, and your daughters are so lucky to have someone this concerned at the helm. I managed to critically think my way out of 20 years of contemptuous indoctrination; if I can do it, anyone can!

    Best of luck. I am just beginning to see the ramifications of religious/family politics! I hope that it goes better for you than it is going for me.

  8. Allecher
    Aug 15 2011

    Greetings from Conway. It sure is fun raising secular kids in the south, isn’t it?

    I thought you might like to know about Dawkins’ upcoming children’s book “The Magic of Reality”. You might find the format appealing because it takes a number of pseudoscience topics and shows kids the history and the modern science behind it.

    • juju2112
      Aug 15 2011

      Is it a kid’s book? All I remember is the UK version of the cover is awesome. I wonder what age it’s aimed at.

  9. Dee
    Aug 15 2011

    I think that what your in laws did was EXTREMELY manipulative and I would never let them stay with them again, for any reason. They showed an enormous amount of disrespect for your family. They crossed boundaries and they knew it. It was premeditated as well. Shame on them and how “unchristian” of them to go behind your backs like that!

  10. Aug 15 2011

    Thank you for sharing this story. Having gone through similar experiences (many times), though not quite this extreme, I can completely empathize with this situation.

    I believe you’re handling it properly. *nod* And…I’ve added you to my blogroll. :-)

  11. Paul
    Aug 15 2011

    Dawkins’ comment in the video Steve above linked to is brilliant. Allow me to deepen Dawkins’ brilliance in a way he did not emphasize.

    A changing morality, as opposed to an absolute morality, need not be arbitrary, like theists often assume, but can be more like science: changing in the face of new evidence and getting closer and closer approximations to what Sam Harris would call the maximum benefit of conscious creatures.

  12. Aug 15 2011

    Wow, that’s a tough spot. I’m fortunate in that my very religious in-laws are about 9 hours away. ;) Good luck, and keep the (non)faith.

  13. Sue
    Oct 9 2011

    I read the above long comment by Athiestdad that cites studies and statistics. I am not weighing in on the issue of belief or non belief.

    I just want to say that most of the time “statistics” are not reliable. Saying there were tests and that those tests had this result is not reliable or anything to base or not base beliefs on.

    Who is doing the testing? What demographic are they testing? How many people are included in the tests? Did a corporation pay someone to gather the statistics? Have the statistics been quoted time and time again and rounded up or down by people along the way?

    About thirty years ago I watched a documentary on “statistics” and how they are quoted in the press. Anybody can claim to do a test or gather statistics, on any subject. And publish results that are skewed to favor a particular point of view.

    Using statistics as indicators is kind of bogus. It sounds good, but unless it’s done in a very professional, controlled way – perhaps by a group of university doctors, etc… I don’t pay a lot of attention to them.

    • Daniel Schealler
      Oct 9 2011

      Everyone knows that 87% of conversational statistics are just made up on the spot.


      1) Some statistical studies cannot be trusted
      2) All statistical studies cannot be trusted


      No, that doesn’t follow.

      Don’t get me wrong – I haven’t personally checked up on each of AtheistDad’s references. They could very well be poor or incomplete or even entirely misconstrued.

      But the point is that AtheistDad did in fact provide ample citations for his claims.

      This means that you don’t have to ask leading rhetorical questions. You can actually search out the source material and see for yourself.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Where do you get your morals? | Donald Morton's Blog
  2. What Do You Do When Your Kids Are Indoctrinated Against Your Will? | Friendly Atheist
  3. Christmas: A Great Opportunity to Proselytize | Donald Morton's Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Note: HTML is allowed. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to comments

%d bloggers like this: