How to "De-Program" Children in a "Mixed" Marriage?

Dilemma... I am in a mixed marriage (I'm an atheist, wife is christian) and we now have three beautiful / wonderful children (son 8, daughter 5, daughter 7 months).  They are the most wonderful, amazing things I can imagine and is the ONLY reason I can understand why people believe in a loving god capable of miracles... Now my son is getting older and starting to ask why I don't eagerly go to church like mommy.  We're getting into the contentious stage of my son asking questions and my wife not wanting me to talk to him yet.  Now a little history.

When my wife and I got married (16 short years ago), I was agnostic at best.  Even then I was not a christian.  My wife, being raised catholic, had come "down" from that level to non-denominational in college (where we met).  My mother-in-law (very sweet lady whom I do love) is entrenched in the catholic faith and REALLY wanted us to get married in a catholic church; that meant catholic pre-marital classes...  I agreed because I love my wife / bride at that time and it was no skin off my nose (even offered to "lie" to the powers that be if needed as it didn't phase me, although it didn't seem like the right way to kick off our marriage :-)!)  The religious leader of the class, Father Guy, was a Franciscan monk (wore a brown robe with rope belt, sandals - whole nine yards) and “counseled” us.  I explained VERY clearly but respectfully that I did NOT believe jesus was the son of god and therefore not a christian but readily admitted that I had no "proof" and was open to change my mind if reason and logic dictated and was searching in earnest for my religious foundation, which was all true.  Father Guy was very understanding and even praised me for actually searching and thinking for myself as opposed to paying lip service like most other “believers” and stated as long as Christine was a believer, there was not an issue getting married in a catholic church.  Needless to say, I INSISTED he be the one to marry us which he was nice enough to do.  I also made it CRYSTAL clear to Father Guy and my wife then when our children were old enough to REALLY ask the question, i.e. old enough to comprehend what we were talking about, that I would give them my thoughts and opinions, never telling them that “their mother is wrong and I am right” because as all atheist admit, only christians are "100% sure" and let my children come to their own conclusions.

As mentioned in previous posts, I go to church most every Sunday because it brings joy to my wife and only costs me a couple of hours (small price to pay for the apparent happiness it brings my wife).  I attend a Merge Bible Study group most every Tuesday morning (have done so for the past 2.5 years) as a good friend and neighbor of mine asked me too and my wife "encouraged" it.  I made it clear to all at my table that I was NOT a christian but admitted that there are things that cannot be explained by science..  In the 2.5 years of bible study, I have gone from very skeptical Agnostic to atheist to borderline anti-theist.  Reading and hearing about the indoctrination of youth into the religious machine (i.e. no one is BORN a Democrat), I now get a bad feeling dropping my kids off to Sunday school knowing that I am making more work for me later when I have to "de-program" them but I feel that I made deal with my wife and will honor it.  I have only rebelled ONCE at church...  It was a child rearing class at a different church that my wife wanted to attend and when we picked up our son (6'ish at the time), he should me his coloring sheet explaining how Dinosaurs and humans did in fact live together at the same time.  Needless to say, I had a few choice words on the way home and my children NEVER returned there (nor did we and I told my son, whom I have taught manners and respect for elders, that if ANYONE every tells him that dinosaurs and people lived at the same time, he could tell them his daddy said they are ABSOLUTELY 100% wrong and should crack a book once in a while besides the bible!  My wife wasn’t to happy with me that night but we survived as she understood as she is NOT a fundamentalist!

ANYWAY...  I took a scenic route to ask this...  What is the best way to "de-program" my children when they get old enough?  How old is old enough? and How to keep the peace with the woman you love (even though she has been indoctrinated to deep to make it all the way back out to reason)?

My thought is, when my children learn that Santa is no real (getting real close for my son), I feel it will be a good time to explain wishful thinking in ALL myths!  I will make clear that they should even question my beliefs but the important point is they NEED TO QUESTION!  Do NOT become "sheep."  Use the reasoning ability and critical thinking skills that "god" has endowed them with.  I know I am biased but feel they are very smart and I have no doubt they will see reason in very short order.

Thanks for listening (reading) my rambling and offering advise on the best way to deal with this impending dilemma and keep the peace in a "mixed" marriage!  - John

PS: Thanks to Paul Elliot for recommending I post this in the Discussion part…  you can blame him as well :-)!

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Brilliantly and succinctly put and a dilemma for many of us.  The short answer is of course not to programme your kids in the first place – but that is not so easy in the real world.

I am in an almost identical situation to you but possibly a little more extreme, married the love of my life (Indonesian) 8 years ago while on task in Jakarta, and still here with 3 of exactly what you described, ie the nearest things to miracles if there were any, son going on 6, daughter going on 4 and another little lady at 2. 

We are the absolute picture of dreams attained bar the “Black Dog” that hounds us, that black dog is Islam.  My wife still holds strong beliefs but could now be described as a liberal, but her immediate and extended family you could describe as devout/fundy – as are most in Indonesia.  Beyond your own considerations for your spouse,  out of love for mine I actually signed a piece of paper converting to Islam, something that meant nothing to me – bought up in ‘’fire and brimstone’’ Wales I sort of believed for a while, but ran away to sea (Royal Navy) when I was 14 and in my 19 year career saw too much in too many places to retain any possible belief in any possible belief. 

My wife knows only full well my thoughts on religion – which to her credit she acknowledges and understands.

My paper conversion was not all indulgence to my wife, in Indonesia it is illegal for two faiths to inter marry and for a muslim to convert nigh on impossible without leaving the country and family behind, so my choices were very limited if not zero.

Prior to marriage the subject of children was broached, in return for my ‘conversion’ was the agreement that our children would never be indoctrinated or be exposed to any religious teachings Christian or muslim, until at least past the age of understanding (around 10), when it was agreed that we would present them with a copy of the Quran, Bible and Talmud, read with them and without bias explain all – then let them make their own decisions.  That solution was agreed and seemed fine at the time – however in the real Islamic world that’s not quite how it turned out – hence the black dog.

My wife’s family consider me the antichrist for not allowing our children near a mosque.  Ructions were caused (with much ‘family pain’) when I wrote a letter to school requesting my eldest be excused religious lessons to attend the library instead.  Another example last Christmas my in laws came to visit, the tree was up and lit, presents scattered underneath and little people excited – all stamped on when mother in law declared our whole house ‘’haram’’ (forbidden, dirty, not allowed) on seeing the Christmas Tree.  None of my explaining it was a pre-christian tradition to celebrate the winter solstice held water.  Ruined it for everyone.

As much as travelling/war/disaster/witness experiences convinced me a long time ago of the total absence any deity, I would never impress this on anyone and fully respect my wife’s (and anyone else’s) religious beliefs, so while respecting and celebrating my wife & family’s religious holidays, as myself/wife/little people celebrate Christmas and New Year, the black dog is never far from the door.

Sorry I digress and apologise as this is very disjointed, very late and been a long day.  Back to our dilemma – if I had a solution it would be gladly offered, but sorry none at this stage, yet I will sort it and look forward to sharing thoughts and experiences while very much looking forward to reading any replies/opinions from others who may find themselves in our position.  Like you I am approaching the time of coming clean re Father Christmas and the Tooth Fairy, I only hope that there has been no indoctrination on other fronts that I am not aware of – am prepared for that as splitting families is one of the doctrines of all the Abrahamic  faiths when it comes to non believers within.

In conclusion, I truly enjoyed your post and wanted to let you know you are not alone, if enough folk respond to this then will consider setting up a global website for those in our position.  Look forward to reading responses from yourself and others.


Cheers: K

It's a shame world religion isn't taught in public schools because aside from fostering an environment of understanding it levels the playing field, inevitably making its students skeptics. In short, I'd say try to teach them all the mythologies, on an even playing field. These are after all just stories.

My mother is a Christian and my father is an atheist. My mother put me in a private Christian school, and when I would come home and ask my father to help with homework he'd laugh and say the text books were wrong (they were, being "Christian-perspective" and therefore extremely conservative- it's kind of scary, looking at some of them now). When I was younger I believed in God, and tried along with my mother to sucker him into believing what we believed. It never worked, and eventually religion became a topic no one really brought up in our house. In the mean time I became my church's service keyboardist, and was there twice a week on top of school for years.

In early high school, though, I stopped believing in God. One day it didn't make sense; I realized it had never made sense, and I'd only been in denial.

I am a freethinking young adult. I have very strong opinions about what I believe. I strive to be a good person, to minimize my own hypocrisy, and to live according to my own reason and values.

I am immensely thankful that I was lucky enough to be born into a household with parents whose beliefs differed. It enabled me to see, very early on, that just because my elders say so doesn't mean something is true (how could that be the case, when they constantly said different things?). It gave me a foundation from which to question myself, when I was ready to, and to arrive at a set of beliefs based on intense scrutiny and reflection. My father never told me to believe one thing or another. He told me, point-blank, what he believed, as soon as I asked him directly (I may have been eight years old or so), but never did he try to force my faith out, or even belittle it.

Do not think you must "deprogram" your children. It is up to them to decide, when they are ready, what to believe. And they may be ready in a year, or in ten. When they are, make sure you're standing right there with an honest answer to every question they throw at you, even if the answer is "your mother and I do not believe the same thing. Nobody knows for sure." And if they choose to believe in God, love them anyway. But, they might just turn out to have the same good sense their father does.


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