Sunday, February 1, 2015

Think of the Children

But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea. Matthew 16:6 (KJV)
I've briefly mentioned my children before and the role they played in my apostasy and how my wife and I took very seriously what we understood to be our duty as parents to raise our children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. We were intent on diligently teaching his commands to them, speaking of them when we sat in our house or walked by the way. Not only did we feel compelled by scriptural mandates and encouraged by our church's culture, we also had other, stronger motives to completely inundate them with Christian dogma.

For my wife's part, she had never felt her faith was authentically experienced. Any time she heard a sermon about what preachers would call "coattails Christianity" – an expression meant to convey the idea that one's relationship with God is vicarious and that one is attempting to ride the coattails of another, usually parents, into heaven – she would worry that she was one of those people. While she never doubted the existence of God and wholeheartedly believed the gospel message, she constantly doubted her salvation because the whole thing never felt real in the way others seemed to think it should. Things like prayer had to be forced and and did not come naturally. She felt she could never understand the Bible on her own when she read it, much less explain it to someone else.

What the Christians around her described about their own experiences just didn't match what she experienced. Her imagination simply wasn't potent enough for her to manufacture an unseen world with some undetectable entity as its focus and this brought her much fear. She eventually found comfort in a Calvinistic expression of Christianity that put more emphasis on trusting the outward, objective grace of God in salvation rather than her own inward, subjective experience. Despite this, she still wanted very much for her children to have a faith that felt real to them, because it had never felt real to her.

For my part, I saw my children growing up in a world that I perceived was growing increasingly hostile toward the viability of the Christian faith. I remembered the struggles I had in college. I wanted them to be prepared as best as possible for the onslaught of secularism and skepticism. While my wife wanted to make sure Christianity felt real to them on an emotional and experiential level, I wanted to make sure they understood Christianity as intellectually defensible in the face of other world views and critical scrutiny. Our concerns seem to have been reflections of our own insecurities.

Aside from these insecurities, always in the back of our minds was the fear of hell. The desire to protect one's children is one of the most natural for a parent to have. What greater threat is there to a person's well-being than the eternal wrath and curse of an angry god? Yes, we wanted our kids to know and love God through Jesus Christ, but really more than anything we wanted our children to be spared the fate of eternal hell. Now, of course, as Calvinists we believed that everyone's eternal destiny was ultimately in the hands of God. We could not save our children from hell in that sense. It was up to God to regenerate them with his Spirit if they were to ever be saved. We could not force his hand. Ultimately, the salvation of a child did not depend on parental will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.

That said, Calvinist doctrine also emphasizes that God uses means. Yes, election ultimately belonged to his secret will, but that didn't eliminate our responsibility as parents to evangelize the hell out of our children as best we could. Additionally, there was still the hope that children raised in Christian homes had a better shot statistically than other ones not brought up this way. At the time we felt this was because of the covenant promises made by God to faithful parents. Now it seems kind of obvious to us that children the world over largely adopt the religion they are raised in, regardless of what it is. Of course, my wife and I are currently living, breathing examples of how that doesn't always work out.

It remains, however, that no Christian paradigm outside of Universalism can offer a guarantee to parents that their children will go to heaven. Apostasy leading to eternal damnation forever remains a possibility for anyone, regardless of how secure they or their parents might feel about their own salvation. As I've said before, the only way to guarantee you will not have children that will one day grow up, apostatize, die and go to hell is to never have them in the first place.

Much could be said of the constant and unavoidable double binds in religious belief and practice. We came out of a form of Protestant Christianity that tries to emphasize salvation by grace through faith apart from works, but then also grants that human effort must accompany this as outward evidence of that inward, God-wrought change. If works do not accompany your salvation, perhaps it's not authentic. This makes for a rather maddening scenario in which one is constantly working to prove one's salvation is authentic, but denying that this work is done in one's own effort but rather through Christ. At the same time that effort can never be looked to as the ground of one's salvation, but rather the work of Christ must be looked to. It was a similar experience being Christian parents. Our children's salvation was something that we acknowledged in our theology was out of our hands, but we were still expected to work our asses off to cultivate it and we weren't taking any chances.

So what did we do? Well, we became baby-splashing Presbyterians shortly after our first child was born so, of course, we had them baptized not long after their births. From their earliest days up to the point we left the church, they attended Sunday school and two church services every week. Our church did not have anything like "children's church," and although nursery was available for kids up through three years old, we had been introducing them to the experience of sitting through about ninety minutes of traditional liturgical worship twice a day from about the age of two onward. In addition to this there were Wednesday night programs and VBS during the summer.  We had small group Bible study regularly as well where they would play with other kids who were being similarly raised. When they played sports it was through a local Southern Baptist church's Upward program in which there were prayers, Bible memory verses, and mid-practice devotionals. Whether in church, sports, get-togethers with extended family, or playing with friends, nearly every adult and child they encountered shared our faith.

That was outside the home. In the home we conducted "family worship" almost every day without fail. Before bedtime each night we would sit on the couch as a family, sing psalms (as in, like, actual chapters from the book of Psalms set to a tune), read from either the Bible or a children's Bible story book, recite scripture memory verses and go through questions from a kid's catechism. I would lead prayer. Every. Single. Day. Did I mention they were also home schooled using religiously-based curriculum beginning in preschool? In the car we had Christian music playing, including three CDs with a children's catechism set to music. You know how some fathers will sing songs like "Hush Little Baby" while rocking their kids back to sleep? Yeah, well, I sang "The Lord is a Warrior" and "In Christ Alone."

By the time we left Christianity, our oldest at seven could recite the books the Old Testament, sing the entirety of Psalms 1, 8, 117, 130, and a few other ones I've since forgotten, recite the Nicene Creed, Q & A #1 of the Heidelberg Catechism, the first twenty Q & As from our children's catechism, and a host of scripture verses including but not limited to John 3:16, Romans 3:23, Romans 6:23, Genesis 1:1, and on and on. Our goal was a new verse every two weeks. It wasn't just rote recitation either. We taught them theological concepts like sin, death, hell, suffering, redemption, justification, sanctification, covenants, propitiation. Seriously, we had a six-year-old who could tell you what propitiation is. Do you know what propitiation is? Are you now running off to Google to find out?

Basically from the womb to the ages of five and seven respectively, these kids were swimming in a concentration of religious indoctrination on an order of magnitude that would put many preachers' kids to shame. Then one day we sat them down and told them we didn't believe anymore and we wouldn't be going back to church. Boom. Just like that.

Honestly, of all the "coming out" conversations or correspondence we had with family, friends, and clergy this was the one I dreaded the most. How would our children react to being told that their parents no longer believed all that stuff they had pounded into their heads for the entirety of their short little lives? Would they resent us forever? Would they ever trust us again? Would their universes be shattered? Would their perception of reality be turned upside down? Would they demand that we take them back to church? Would we be forever forced to deal with tiny religious monsters of our own creation? Had we done permanent damage? Would they worry about us dying and going to hell?

Here's what we did. We sat them down and gave them a basic rundown of why we didn't believe anymore. We apologized for not allowing them to think on their own up to that point and vowed to do our best not to impose our beliefs on them ever again. We reassured them that they were free to believe whatever they wanted from that point on, even if it wasn't what we believed. We explained that no one was going to blame them for our rejection of Christianity. Finally we told them we wouldn't be going back to our church anymore. Our youngest, who had just turned five, sat silent until we got to the part about not going back to church. At that point he interrupted to clarify, "You mean we're not going to go to church anymore?" We reaffirmed that we were not. "Yippee!" Apparently that was the meaningful portion of the conversation for him. He sprang from the couch and went off to play. Being forced to sit through over three-hundred hours of stodgy worship services in his short little life probably led to that reaction.

The seven-year-old was not so relieved. She immediately recognized that this would have major social ramifications. That was her primary concern. Through tears that broke my heart she began to voice worry that she wouldn't get to see her friends again. It was certainly legitimate. At that point nearly all of her friends were the children of our friends and nearly all of our friends were from church. We told her that we hoped we could remain friends with those people and we shared that we had already received reassurances from one family that we would. However, we also explained to her that while we had this hope, it was very likely that many would find it difficult to be around us anymore. Sadly, that proved to be the case across the board. In the aftermath the kids had a single play date with a couple of their friends followed by broken contact. There was a separate occasion that involved some correspondence which came with the expressed stipulation that there would be no in-person interaction until we repented.

We tried to shield them as much as we could from the fallout of our apostasy. We tried our best to explain to them that the situation just made people feel uncomfortable and that it was nothing personal. I'm sure they were aware of the stress this placed us under in the weeks that followed. It was not an easy time for any of us. We trusted our families were not likely to allow our apostasy to become an impediment to their relationships with our children. To their credit, this largely proved to be the case. The children were not completely estranged from everyone in our former Christian world. We gave it some time and hoped some of our former friends would come around and be open to contact with us. Eventually it became clear to us that this was never going to happen. We would need to find other friends for the kids.

It took longer than we would've liked, but eventually the kids made new friends through non-religiously affiliated sports and other "secular" activities. We've since moved to another town with better schools. They've transitioned to public school and live in a neighborhood with lots of kids close to their ages. Not only do they have even more friends now, they get to see them much more than they ever got to see their old ones. Back then it was mostly just Sundays and Wednesdays or whenever we had small group Bible study. Now it's pretty much every day. Little people from all over the neighborhood are constantly running through my house and yard.

So those are the social aspects. What about the theological ones?

When we first told them about our apostasy I was a bit surprised at how the grand questions about theology and the nature of reality seemed secondary to the social aspects. After all that indoctrination it just wasn't as big of a deal to them as we had anticipated. Our oldest did wrestle a bit with the concept of hell in the aftermath. She still has some residual fear even now over two years later. We had several conversations about that. We told her how we didn't really see evidence for the existence of such a place. We talked about why people might have come up with the idea. We discussed how it was different in other religions. We talked about how most Christians didn't believe children could even go there and that some of them didn't even believe it was a real place because they didn't think a loving god would ever make a place like that, much less send children there.

She kept praying for awhile on her own and confessed that her reasons for doing so were "just in case." Of course, we reassured her that she was free to keep believing and praying and reading her Bible (she has two: an ESV and a KJV), or we could read from the children's story Bible she had whenever she wanted. She was reading pretty well by then, but we had read some of those stories so many times that she had the words memorized. She did this for a little while, but it faded with time. I will have more on her experience in a subsequent post. After discussing things with her and my wife, we agreed that she was old enough to have an opportunity to speak for herself about her views and her experiences in her own words. You will hear more from her later.

As for the younger of the two who is now seven, last I checked he was still emphatically claiming to be a Christian and saying he believes in God. Frankly, I like his god and I really like his version of Christianity. It's not remotely believable, mind you. But if every Christian believed like he does, well, I would be much less critical of Christianity and have much less to talk about on this blog. He seems to have the theology of a quintessential cherry-picker. He thinks Jesus was good and said some nice things and treated people well. However, his Jeffersonian Jesus didn't do any of the miracles attributed to him. In fact, he laughs at most of the supernatural elements in the Bible and is blissfully unaware of the lion's share of Old Testament atrocities attributed to the Israelites and their god. Not that it would matter. He was recently reintroduced to the exodus story and decided he liked the part about freeing the Hebrew slaves, but didn't care too much for either the plagues or killing sheep and smearing their blood around to ward off an angel of death. He decided it was just a story that people made up.

He's emphatic about hell not existing and thinks the notion that any god would ever punish even the most vile person in such a way is utterly preposterous. Much to our relief, he literally laughs out loud at the idea. In fact, his god doesn't do any bad stuff at all like cause natural disasters and bring disease and other awful things. Bad stuff just happens and if his god doesn't stop it, that's just because he can't. He's perfectly willing to diminish his god's power and sovereignty in exchange for preserving his goodness. His god asks for nothing whatsoever in the way of obedience or worship. Prayer to him is only necessary when you want something or if you just want to talk. Like I said, I like his god. The boy might make a good process theologian someday, if he ever cares enough to give it any thought.

He says he believes when he dies he will go to heaven, but jokes about the rest of us not going there. He doesn't seem to be bothered by that. Sometimes I suspect he's just yanking our chains and playing the whole thing up to be different from us. He's smart enough to see the social benefits of outwardly confessing belief in God to remain part of the larger in-group. He knows we won't give him any crap for believing whatever he wants to and that we'll accept him no matter what. However, he sees how we were ostracized and treated with suspicion. He knows the rest of us are guarded about being too open about our religious views. I suspect he figures as long as he just calls himself a Christian, most people will be satisfied with that and leave him alone. They might even favor him over us. Plus, he knows it really irritates his older sister.

I'd be lying if I were to say I didn't care if my children grew up and decided to be Christians of some kind. But I'm not that worried about it if they do. I'm much less worried about them growing up and believing differently from me now than I ever was as a Christian, especially since I don't believe eternal conscious torture is on the line. Above all, I want them to be happy, healthy, upstanding members of society. I know that, given the right upbringing, they can do that as Christians or atheists or Buddhists or whatever. I'm no longer focused on teaching them what to think, but rather how to think. I accept that it is very likely they will not agree with me on everything. That's fine. I want freethinkers, not clones.


Sarah: I don’t want deaf children.
James: You don’t want deaf children. I’m sorry if I-
Sarah: No. I just don’t have the right to demand that anyone be created in my image. 
Children of a Lesser God

15 comments:

  1. Fellow apostate here. Fortunately I was nearly completely out of the cult of Christ before my kids arrived, so they never had to suffer through Sunday School, church, etc. The few times they've had to go to church for family functions has left enough of an impression on them that once or twice I've used the threat of regular church attendance in order to get some good behavior out of them.

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    1. Occasionally I will joke around at the breakfast table on Sunday mornings and ask what we're going to do that day. I'll get suggestions like go to the park or see a movie or go to the natural history museum. Then I will ask, "What about church?" My daughter will typically roll her eyes and my son will guffaw. It's fun.

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  2. i enjoyed reading this, thank you. I'm glad that the social pressure didn't stop you from talking to your children.

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    1. Thanks. It was and still is important to us to level with them about things. It has been my experience that children will eventually see right through the pretense of adults anyway. You can see it in the kids' eyes when you try to give them a BS answer to one of their questions.

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  3. Thank you for such a lucid articulation of your experience. This resonates so strongly with me. I've been struggling so much with explaining this change of mind to my children, both of whom have been raised and encouraged in much the same way as you talk about here. I spoke to my older daughter just after Christmas and explained that I no longer believe the things I once did and encouraged her to do her own searching... but never to fear asking me anything. These are the dearest people in the world to me and the thought of leading them down a path only to mess with their head makes me feel really, really guilty.

    And I've also first hand experience of the social exclusion that comes from giving up belief. Part of me is angry, but part of me is also aware that I did exactly the same thing, so why should I expect anything different? It does make a bit of a mockery of the adage that a church is not a building but a people - anything not present in the building seems to be forgotten.

    But thanks again - I really appreciated reading this.

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    1. Thanks. I too experience guilt for many of the things I did and said as a believer. More than I care to enumerate, actually. We were acting in good faith (no pun intended), but that doesn't make the damage disappear. I suppose knowing I was doing what I was doing because I believed it was the right thing to do at the time lessens the blow from being ostracized. Like you said, I suspect I might've done the same, even though I'd like to think I wouldn't have.

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  4. Nice post Brian. :) It is true that telling the kids is the most delicate, stressful part. You and your wife did a good job. You didn't mention how they did with their grand-parents. The first time we visited our parents after coming out, our 6 years old one shouted « We don't pray anymore!! » just before the dinner... Everybody around the table quickly started a new conversation and embarrassment was reaching its breaking point.

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    1. We've been fairly incident free on that front, though my wife did get thrown under the bus by our son on one occasion in front of her family. You'll have to ask her about it.

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  5. My children were both adults when I deconverted. My wife is still struggling with this although not nearly as much and other than Christmas and Easter it's not a huge issue. My oldest holds onto Christianity and I have no interest is trying to deconvert her. She's a smart girl who will figure it out. My son left the church but took up with Scientology and I tend to blame myself for not raising him to be a critical thinker. Hopefully he will also figure it out. Our indoctrination of our children is such a disservice to them. If only we would wait until they were old enough and then present them with the countless contradictory options for religion they would realize how ridiculous they all are and refuse to be burdened by any of them.

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    1. I'm finding more and more stories of people like you who made it out after their kids were grown. It's an interesting perspective and one that certainly cuts against the typical narrative of the angsty, rebellious teenager leaving behind their parents' faith.

      I agree that if children were given a more balanced, comparative approach to religious views, they would be more likely to turn their backs on them all. It's interesting because there are some segments within Christianity that emphasize the need for a child to reach some sort of age where they can freely make a decision to "ask Jesus into their hearts." Yet those same Christians raise their children in pretty much the exact fashion as others who christen them at birth, even manipulating and coercing them into public professions of faith through peer pressure, emotional appeals or by sending them off to week-long religious camps where they are often isolated from outside influence, sleep-deprived, and heavily indoctrinated. In the end it's probably worse than the other approach because it makes that kid feel like it was truly their own personal decision all along.

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  6. Wow. This was extremely well thought out. And frankly, your son probably is better off calling himself a Christian. I'm from Texas, and most people don't care about all the specific doctrines, they just want to think everyone is a Christian like them.
    - ANFLT

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    1. Thanks. Yeah, I suspect a lot of people don't care how much of a die-hard fan you are, how well you know the rules of the game, how many games you attend each season, if you know the names of the coaches and players, or whether or not you occasionally pull for another team. They're mostly satisfied with the fact that you're wearing the home team's logo on your shirt.

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  7. I think you did as well as anyone possibly could.

    And it has not escaped me that the common Christian insistence on only hanging with the like-minded has two purposes; it keeps the doubtful quiet about their status, and keeps the decided away from the church!

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  8. Okay, okay, just hold on a second, hold the phone, wait, back up.

    You describe Calvinism as being the idea that "God" decides exactly who is going to Heaven or Hell. But then you say that OH NO, this doctrine of "means" states that Calvinists still have to evangelize.

    That sounds like a unique recipe for creating assholes. If I were trying to build a toxic Christian zealot, I don't know how I could possibly do better than that right there. Other Christians may mince around preening over their "god is a gentleman" and "oh no you totally CHOOSE Hell" bullshit, but Calvinists just get right to the point: They're going to be pompous jackasses, and they're still going to annoy everybody in sight. That's downright impressive. I always wondered why Calvinism infests evangelical Christianity like it does. Now I know: it gives them even more of an excuse to be hateful.

    I'm glad it went okay with the kids. That had to be tough. And I kinda like your son's god too. He'd make a great Hellenic pagan. ;) Did you know that the gods there don't actually love anybody or do humans big favors unless given a good reason to do so? They're busy, dammit. Makes a lot more sense, I think.

    Cas

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  9. First of all let me say that I am not a Biblical Scholar, I am just a woman who loves that Lord, because He made me and chose to save me from the lies that I believed about myself and what my purpose was in this life. It was nothing that I did on my own, but only His mercy that rescued me from a pointless and vain existence. I was not brought up in the church, but the Lord called me to Himself and the knowledge of His salvation through Jesus Christ, when I was 14. It is my joy to tell of the greatness of the Lord. It was in a personal experience of suffering that I turned from my self-reliant attitude and fell prostrate before my Maker. Many will try to say that suffering in this world is a reason not to believe in God, but I have found that it is often suffering that pulls us out of our navel gazing existence and turns our heart to the Lord and to others around us. I am personally thankful for every hard thing that the Lord has allowed me to walk through in this brief life and I look forward to the day that suffering will cease, but for now it has its place in this fallen world. Even though I don’t understand how it all works, I am confident that the Lord is working all things together for the good of those that love Him and are called according to His purpose. My heart is breaking for you and your children. You have become your own idol and you are training your children to do the same. In doing this you are creating more narcissists for our society to have to tolerate and a life of confusion for your precious children. You are teaching them that since there is no absolute truth, there is nothing true at all! Just as Eve was tempted by the serpent to eat the fruit, so that she could be like God, you have believed the Lie and are eating wholeheartedly. You have created your own personal religion and are teaching your children and others to do the same. Whatever you or anyone else comes up with that suits their made up personal philosophy of life, is truth. This is illogical. For Truth to be True, then there can only be one Truth. What is clearly lacking in your experience of Christianity is humility. God's ways are not our ways and His thoughts are not our thoughts. That is why He is God and you are just a man that He created. Can you create anything that he first didn't give you the brain to imagine? "Our thinking can succeed only because it is a drop out of the ocean of His intelligence" C.S. Lewis. I am praying for you and your family that in humility you will turn to the one true God and come to have a personal relationship with Jesus, whose sacrificial love is the truest thing that has ever been. Heed these warnings.
    "For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions,and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths." 2 Timothy 4:3-4
    "Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already."1 John 4:1-3
    And 2 Peter 2:1-3 look it up!
    “Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”John 14:6 “O Timothy, guard the deposit entrusted to you. Avoid the irreverent babble and contradictions of what is falsely called “knowledge,” for by professing it some have swerved from the faith."1 Tim. 6:20-21
    Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.In all your ways acknowledge him,and he will make straight your paths.
    Be not wise in your own eyes;fear the Lord, and turn away from evil.It will be healing to your flesh and refreshment to your bones. Proverbs 3
    Praying for you, Shan

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