My wife and I have just had a row about introducing our two-year-old to religion. I am an atheist, while my wife is a Christian, tending towards the evangelical. Religion has not been a source of tension until now. She would like me to believe, but has made no great effort to convert me.
I was content with the idea that, at some stage when our child was older, school-age at least, my wife would start discussing Christianity with her and encourage her to share her beliefs. At the same time, I planned to let her know about my atheism and tell her that other religions exist. I didn’t imagine it would descend into a tug of war. If my child decides to believe, when she is old enough to make an informed choice, that will be her choice to make and I would respect it.
But tonight my wife opened a package of books she had bought, all aimed at introducing Christianity to toddlers. I protested that we hadn’t even discussed broaching this subject with our child, and said I didn’t want her to be indoctrinated at an age when she is barely able to form sentences. I begged for patience, and said there could be no objection to my wife discussing this with her when she is old enough to deal with such a complex subject, but that it was grossly unfair to start smuggling it into her life when she can have no understanding of its significance.
My wife’s position is that to delay the discussion is, in effect, to indoctrinate our child into atheism. She seems minded to press ahead, despite my vehement disagreement. Is there any general view on the age at which a child can fairly be introduced to religion?
Not really. And the age at which you introduce a child to a religion is no indication of how strongly, or if, or for how long, they will believe in anything. I know religious people who introduce their children to religion because “not believing” is more widespread so they feel they need to get in early to preserve their beliefs. I do not think this approach works in the long term.
So your wife may be doing this not to go against what you as a couple have agreed, but because she is fearful that your child will grow up without any faith, and this clearly matters to her. But what you think matters, too. I do not buy the idea that believing in something is more important than not believing in something, or not being sure what you believe in.
I wonder if this is also about culture. I am Italian and being Catholic is so much more than just religion. My real fear with my children was not that they wouldn’t have a religion – I’ve taught them to question everything – but that they would lose touch with their culture, and for me the two were inextricably linked. But the culture mattered far more to me than the religious side of things. I wonder if this may be relevant to your wife.
Try not to panic. Religion is not an injection you administer for immediate uptake. It is, as you say, a complex subject that is approached, explored, absorbed, dissected and maybe then rejected, over many years (just as atheism is) and one that your daughter will make her own mind up about, just as she will make her own mind up about sex, drugs and any other contentious subject.
What seems to be the issue is that you and your wife, at this point, are at odds about what you want for your daughter and how you bring her up. This may not be the last time you come up against something like this.
It really depends how you want to play it. If, once you have calmed down, you think that you are fine with waiting to introduce your child to the concept of faith/believing/other religions, then you may decide to do nothing.
Remember, your wife buying books does not mean your child will be interested in them – she is only two! But if you become uncomfortable with the imbalance then a) a conversation with your wife is called for (stay calm!) and b) there is nothing to stop you, too, buying some books.
Books on atheism for children are thin on the ground, but there is no harm in having a book such as Evolution, Revolution by Robert Winston, in the house. Usborne also has an excellent range of introductions to world religions under its Young Reader series: The Story of Islam/Hanukkah/Diwali for £4.99, aimed at age five-plus.
This article was first published in The Guardian Family section on 19 December 2014.