Three years ago our then 10 yr old son's closest friend was at our dinner table sharing a meal per usual. Half way through dinner he said to our son, “Do you know you're going to hell. So is your whole family. When you die, you're going to burn in hell forever.”
He didn't say it to hurt, though of course it did. Our son's response, “I'm not going to hell. And neither is my family. Besides, there is no such thing as hell.”
“Oh, yes there is,” our son's friend insisted. “My pastor told me, and showed me in the Bible where it says that all non-believers, people who don't follow Christ, are going to hell. You and your family don't believe in anything. You're going to hell.” He said it as a statement of fact, and for him it was.
My husband and I looked at each other with furrowed brows, both of us looking to the other for words of wisdom. Clearly the boys words were hurting our kids, as our daughter was at the dinner table too, and protested loudly at first. Then, being only 7, turned to me and asked, “Is he right, mommy. Are we really going to hell forever after we die?”
“No. Of course not.” I assured her. Then I addressed our son's friend. “I realize you are a Christian, with certain beliefs, but everyone's beliefs aren't the same. Since no one really knows what happens after we die, as no one has come back from the dead to tell us--”
“Jesus has. If you're good you go to heaven. If you're bad you go to hell.”
“Do you think your good friend since kindergarten, or his sister, or my wife and I are bad?” my DH inquired gently.
The boy thought about this. “Well, no...” He thought some more, clearly in conflict with what he'd been preached and his experience in the real world. He was at our house constantly, afraid of his own with two older brothers that picked on him relentlessly.
I wanted to say, “Then think for yourself instead of listening to your pastor,” but didn't, of course.
Later, my husband felt a need to mention the exchange to the boy's father.
The dad scoffed at his son while the boy put on his sneakers to leave. “Your pastor didn't say that. You misunderstood.”
“No. He said it, Dad. And showed me in the Bible, too. It's in Revolutions.”
“Revelations.” My DH corrected.
The boy's father scowled. He didn't apologize for his son's earlier words. He simply insisted his son didn't know what he was talking about and had misquoted his pastor, then bid us goodnight.
Our now 10 yr old daughter had a playdate with a good friend yesterday. When her mother came to pick the girl up she asked me if our daughter would like a sleepover at their home on the weekend. The child exclusively, and fairly consistently, came to our house for playdates, so I knew our daughter would be excited by the invite. I felt excited for her since she has few close friends, has had few sleepovers, and has never been asked before.
The girl's mother extolled the virtues of their Wii system, the child's toys and doll collection she was excited to show our daughter. But the most exciting of all, a stroke of genius by her daughter—to bring our daughter to their church with their family on Friday night, which was fun night for the kids, introduce her to Christ, introduce her to all the girl's church friends, and the mom made hugging motions, as if welcoming one into the fold. After church our daughter could come back to their house for the sleepover.
I'd previously told her that our family practiced no religion. My husband and I are Atheists and we both feel we can not teach what we do not believe. I reminded her.
She nodded patiently, then repeated the plan for the sleepover, talked about their church at great length, what a wonderful organization it was, how connected her family was to the other members. She was sure her daughter's church friends would love our daughter, welcome her gladly. We stood in my kitchen and I listened respectfully, trying to come up with a way to shelve her offer that would not offend.
I knew she was devoutly religious, not only by the two inch gold cross she always wore, but also because many times when our daughter asked for a playdate their family was busy with church activities. Both the mom and daughter spoke of their church often, about the stellar sports teams the church sponsors, the Christian Family Camp in the redwoods, their picnics, prayer meetings and special presentations with renowned guest speakers.
I was unprepared for the blatant proselytizing, and felt rather dissed by her disregard of anyone's beliefs, or lack there of, than her own. And I wasn't ready to answer for our daughter without her knowing what was on the line. She wasn't being asked for a sleepover just because the girls were friends, and she needed to know their agenda. It would be her choice to go, or not. My husband and I are non-believers. That doesn't mean our kids have to be. In fact, the only requirement we have is if they choose to be believers they study the religion in depth and know what the hell they're believing in.
When her girl friend and mom left, I spoke with our daughter directly. She sat with me at the kitchen table and I repeated the words the mom had said to me, virtually verbatim since only moments had past since their departure.
My beautiful daughter, the sunshine of my life's face lit up when I told her about the sleepover part. I put my hand in front of me, the 'hold on' signal, even said the words, then, “Wait. There's more.” Then I filled her in on her friend's plan. Her lightness evaporated, and with it, a piece of me.
I said I'm sorry about 10 times, in between words in defense of the girl—her love of her church community; her offering our daughter the highest of compliments wanting to include her in her treasured fold. Though our daughter professes to be Agnostic, understanding the dictionary definition, perhaps the choice I was giving her was more than a newly 10 yr old should have to make. If she went to church and couldn't be convinced into the fold, would her friend not like her anymore? If she went to the church and became a believer, would she then not fit into her own family?
I assured her whatever she believed, as long as she didn't hurt anyone or herself with it, I'd be right there like always. But I felt afraid for our daughter, knowing how badly she wanted that sleepover, and how the church markets—selling to children with games and treats, like the Pied Piper.
These seemingly isolated incidents are not the exception but the rule since moving our family to the Christian, conservative San Ramon Valley. We'd considered only the schools when deciding to make our home here. Perhaps that too was short-sighted. Probably over 90% of the student body in both our kids schools are one form of Christianity or another. We've had parents of our kids friends stay for dinner and listen to them preach at us at our kitchen table to accept Christ in our lives to save our immortal souls. Twice. At least a couple times a month, different teens dressed in black suits and ties come to our door to sell their brand of Christianity. Our son's Boy Scout leader told him he could never reach Eagle Scout unless he believed in a god, one god, presumably the god of the masses. We've had neighbors assure us Atheists were better than terrorist, but avoid us since finding out we were non-believers.
We never thought raising our kids without religion would put them on the outside of their community, looking in. Neither of us considered the religious orientation of a neighborhood, and we didn't research ours when we purchased our home. But honestly, I don't know that it would be different anywhere we move.
By far, the majority of the U.S. claim to be of the Christian denomination. It's likely wherever we live we'd be the outliers—raising our kids to find their own spirituality instead of indoctrinating them with someone elses. Our kids know to respect others faiths; to discuss, not proselytize their own beliefs. And while I work very hard not to offend our neighbors, the parents of our children's friends, afraid of further alienating our kids, I am profoundly disheartened that these folks feel it's OK, even righteous to consistently offend us.