Helping a Sinner Raise a Saint

What sort of advice would you give to an atheist whose fundamentalist 13-year-old daughter is upset at belief that her father is going to hell? If you’re Salon’s advice columnist, Cary Tennis, you give the worst advice possible.

Her problem is not that she believes in God. It’s that she believes you are going to burn in hell when you die. It’s her concern for you, and her fear for you, that are the problem. She wants to believe otherwise but has no solid grounds on which to place any hope. If you go to church with her, you will make it possible for her to believe that there is at least a chance that you will not burn in hell.
. . .
But don’t just go to church with her. Meet with one of the officials. That’s right, wander right down on to the field and speak with one of the guys in the striped shirts. Or whatever they wear. Arrange a private conference. In this private conference, you can say whatever you like. It doesn’t matter really. It might be a good conversation or it might be utterly ridiculous. But show your daughter that you are willing to engage with one of the people she respects. Show her that you have enough humility and independence of spirit to engage, that you are not fearful or dogmatic or close-minded.
. . .
Once you have done this, and conversed with an official, you might be able to confidently tell your daughter, without going into specifics, that you think everything is going to be OK, eternal-life-wise. She would probably appreciate that.

In other words, lie to your kid and help validate her beliefs that everything you stand for is against the wishes of God. The problem here is that the daughter’s view of religion is a choice between “friendly people who say daddy’s going to Hell” and “sleeping in on Sunday”. If you want your daughter to respect your beliefs, you should start by making your two weekends a month count for something.

When she’s with her mom, let her go to the fundie church where they tell her gay people are sinners, the Earth is 6000 years old, and stem cells are babies. When she’s with her dad, rather than argue about the merits of her religion (which is a waste of time), use the opportunity to broaden her religious horizons. Start by taking her to Catholic, Baptist, Presbyterian, Zionist, and Lutheran churches to experience different flavors of Christianity. From there, broaden her horizons even more with trips to Jewish synagogue, Islamic mosques, and Hindu temples. Show your daughter that there’s a broad spectrum of religious belief, not just a choice between religious extremism and no faith at all.

When you visit different houses of worship, don’t just sit there passively and let the words go in one ear and out the other. Ask for a meeting with someone there to ask questions about their beliefs. Encourage your daughter to ask questions too. Hang around in the lobby after the service and mingle with people. Not only should your daughter experience how other religions worship, but she needs to learn firsthand that one doesn’t need to be a fundamentalist to be kind-hearted person.

After you’ve given your daughter a worthwhile religious education, encourage her to find her own path. If she still decides to be a fundamentalist, then respect that decision, but with the insistence that your beliefs deserve respect as well.

6 thoughts on “Helping a Sinner Raise a Saint

  1. Pingback: Friendly Atheist » Worst. Advice. Ever.

  2. The heck with other churches. Just take her to natural history and science museums. Art museums. Historical societies. All of those institutions (particularly big-city art museums) have an enormous amount of context for the variety of cultures, beliefs, and philosophies.

  3. Greg, this is one of the best posts you’ve made in your entire career as a blogger. If the situation ever arises where I’m a single parent who’s battling with a fundamentalist ex-wife or girlfriend who begat my offspring, I will follow these guidelines verbatim! I knew all your years as a Unitarian would eventually pay off for me!

  4. I just read the Cary Tennis article, and that football analogy has got to be one of the most tortured, nonsensical analogies/arguments for the existence of God that I’ve seen. As far as I can tell, his argument is this:

    1) You claim God doesn’t exist.
    2) But some people might claim that football doesn’t exist.
    3) Therefore, you should go to church.


  5. I had a similar run-in with a devout Catholic girl in college. She was smitten with me, but my atheism (at the time) was of very intense concern to her, as I would burn forever. I mentioned some teachings of C.S. Lewis, who said something to the effect of, “There are those that spend their whole lives in church, and when confronted with the Creator; cannot handle it, and are cast away. There are some who have never set foot in a church, and when confronted with the Creator, shake His hand and walk right in.” This brought great comfort to her. I was not anti-God by any means, I just didn’t have an opinion either way. It wasn’t in my world view, so who cares. If I died and Jesus walked up and said how-do, I’d be okay with that. I don’t have references for this info, it could be totally off-base, but that’s how I recall it.

    There’s no little irony in my beliefs as an Orthodox Jew now. C’est la vie.

  6. Great post, Greg. This religious stuff has always been your strongsuit. Glad to see somebody carrying on the Cary Tennis-bashing for Steve Gilliard…

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