Why I deconverted my son from religion.

I think I may have written about this before, but from a slightly different angle, and anyway, this was on my mind.

The other day, someone reminded me that I used to feel differently about my son’s upbringing. When I went to rehab back at the end of 2009 after helping arrange his care in the hands of others who would do a better job of parenting than I could at the time, I was happy for him to be brought up Roman Catholic, just like I was. But between then and now, my views changed drastically and the other day he caused issues when arguing with this person’s children, because he doesn’t believe in god. (Thanks to me taking him out of Sunday school in 2015 and thanks to my influence on him since then. To be clear, I don’t tell him what to think, but I do encourage him to think critically, and I don’t hold back on what I think of beliefs in gods.)

So I changed my mind. I do that. I don’t do it as often anymore, and the funny thing is, around twenty years ago I used to think I was really bad at debating, because I’d get into a debate with somebody, hear their argument, and immediately change my view, thus losing the debate. These days I consider it a strength. If I find my position is based on ignorance or that I am otherwise misinformed, I change my position. It doesn’t happen so much any more because most of my views are based either on direct evidence or on relevant authorities whom I trust.

I see it like this: In the past, my view was wrong. Now, my view may not be perfect but it’s a lot better than it used to be. There are many reasons I can be wrong. One of them is confusion. Being a meth-head for around eight years left me pretty fucking confused.

My error was that I attributed my morals, my values, incorrectly to my Catholic upbringing. I figured, incorrectly, that what was best for my son would be for him to be brought up with the same religion as myself. But I was wrong. Very fucking wrong.

  • My morals, my sense of right and wrong, were already as they are now at around the age of six years. I learned them from my parents, and later, those same values would be reinforced by my peers, first in nursery school, then school.
  • At Sunday School, I learned a bunch of Bible stories, myths, prayers, and other nonsense.
  • Christianity taught me I was born in sin. In shame. That’s the lesson of Christianity – that you are born a sinner and that you need Christ to be saved.
  • Christianity taught me a fear of suffering for all eternity based on arbitrary rules that made no sense to me, but they would keep me awake at night anyway, in my late childhood and early teens.
  • Christianity taught me that everybody who didn’t accept Christ would be punished for all eternity, even if they believed just as sincerely in some other religion, when the only difference between them and me was that they were born into a different religion. This kept me awake at night in my mid teens.
  • Christianity taught me to be guilty for my mere existence.
  • Christianity taught me to pray every night, and left me feeling guilty if I didn’t, to such an extent that I still prayed for ten years or so after I stopped believing in god, because I could not fall asleep if I didn’t do it.

To summarize, Christianity was traumatic for me. It provided zero good. I realized this when thinking more clearly after a couple of years of recovery from my addiction. And as the years have passed, I have come to see it as more and more harmful.

I’m an antitheist. I see only harm in the indoctrination of a child. If my son finds religion in his adult life, good for him, but to impose that on a child, I believe, is a grave mistake a parent can make. Religion is toxic. Brainwashing a child is flat-out wrong and the fact that most people are religious and are utterly incapable of seeing how absurd their beliefs are, and that most Christians do not even acknowledge the harm in the message of shame that comes with Christianity, are indications of just how harmful religion is.

On the indoctrination or deconversion of children

Lately Aishah, who is six years old, has developed an amusing new habit. Whenever Megan, her (religious) mother, mentions Jesus or God, Aishah shouts out excitedly, “Jesus isn’t real!” It really pisses her mother off. She thinks it was me, that I told her to say it. I didn’t.

It isn’t my job as a parent to teach my children what to think. I strive to help them learn how to think. So I would never say “God isn’t real” or “Jesus isn’t real”. Josh might though… He’s eleven now and I don’t know what he says when I’m not there.

I have discussed some things with his sister. She loved my mother too, and was devastated when my mom died last December. So when she talked about her on the drive to school, and said, “I wish granny was still alive”, I talked openly about my feelings. I told her that I miss her too, and also explained that I don’t believe in god; I don’t believe in heaven or hell or any kind of afterlife; I don’t believe she’s watching over us; I believe she’s gone, and you don’t get to see her again. I explained that some people believe in god (and all those other things), and some people don’t. And that’s OK. That’s the big deal for me… letting her know it’s acceptable to disbelieve. I never knew – when I grew up I didn’t know disbelief was an option. As far as I knew everybody was Christian.

So when this little girl started saying, “I don’t think god is real” to me all on her own, I was pleasantly surprised. After all, “I doubt it” is the very foundation of critical thinking. (And to be honest, her shouting “Jesus isn’t real!” is an example of her teasing her mother. She’s a clever girl.)

Of course, religious people do not have the same standards… It used to infuriate me when I didn’t have custody of Josh, visiting him in a house where the children watched Christian DVD’s. Religious people do not teach their children that disbelief is an option. They have no problem with forcing the belief on their children, but they accuse us of doing the same thing. (Tu quoque much?) I hope that I’ve made the right decision in my choice not to impose my view on them, but I think they have. When they grow up, hopefully they will see the double-standard for what it is, and understand that religious indoctrination is nothing more than brainwashing.

Prayer was the most insidious part of my religious indoctrination

Last time I shared a prayer that I printed out for a certain someone who doesn’t want me to write about her here. I hope it helps her. You might think sharing that was an odd thing for an atheist to write about, but I don’t. I think it opens the door for me to share what prayer meant to me when I grew up.

First of all, excuse the simplistic format and words… I came up with this when I was around eight or nine years old. This was more or less my standard prayer every night:

God,
Bless Mommy, Daddy, Christopher,
Toby, Honey, Cheeky and Chirpy,
And me, if that’s the way it should be.

Thank you for [this changed every day]
Please can I [this changed every day]

There’s one thing that jumps out at me from those words: I did not believe I deserved to be blessed. And that’s a problem. (But that’s what Christianity teaches. We are born in sin and shame and are unworthy. That’s precisely what makes Christian beliefs harmful and that’s why so many humanists call Christian indoctrination a kind of child abuse.) My format was based on a book I’d heard someone read aloud at school – the name long since forgotten… In the book, a boy prayed in this format where he blessed everybody and left himself for last. Something like, “And lastly, bless little old me”. But I changed it and added the bit about not deserving to be blessed. Also I changed the words slightly over the years, but those are the ones I remember.

Here’s what I take out of this:

  1. If you look at the prayer I printed for my partner, her Christianity must be quite different to my former beliefs. I would never have considered reading a ready-made generic prayer and inserting the subject I wanted in it, like a template. Never. Everything always had to be in my own words, and I’ve been comfortable expressing them in writing since I was seven years old. It would not feel sincere to read out someone else’s words.
  2. I never did get my head around praying to Jesus, let alone infant Jesus.
  3. Toby was the family cat. He was a kitten born to a cat we had when I was five years old and he died when I was sixteen. In fact, I took the day off school because he wasn’t well, and my father was meant to come take him to the vet, but he died, in my hands, before that could happen. Honey was a golden Labrador, obtained from a school friend’s parents who emigrated when I was eight years old. Cheeky and Chirpy were budgies, and I don’t remember exactly what year they lived, but I am guessing at around my ninth year.
  4. Cheeky and Chirpy were the first pets I remember dying. (Cats like Toby’s mother had died before then, but those don’t register as memories for me. Maybe I hadn’t gotten my head around death and mortality until then.) I changed the words of the prayer, but their names stuck in my head because I’d been saying it that way for over a year. Thereafter changing the names in each prayer required conscious effort.

My prayer wasn’t just a religious thing. It was my link to my childhood. It kept those pets alive in my heart and mind. Also, this is a reminder of something else… Christopher became Chris sometime in high school, because other people called him that. If it had been me, and people called me Jay instead of Jerome, the name would not have stuck. My brother was always different to me in certain way related to peer pressure and outside influences. There was a phase where he went to someone else’s church and picked up their ideas, which upset my mother. I, on the other hand, even used her religious belief as an excuse (when I was 12 years old) to avoid going on a school outing to other churches. In truth, I would not have been influenced by other churches. More likely I would have rejected them all sooner. I think I knew that deep down. Catholicism, and prayer, had sentimental value to me. They kept me childlike and helped me not to forget my love for lost pets, and kept Chris as Christopher in my mind.

I didn’t want to let go of my childhood. I didn’t want to grow up. But also, I felt guilty if I didn’t pray at night. Now this might not make sense, but I continued to pray for several years after I stopped believing in god. It’s hard to explain, but the guilt kept me from being able to stop, even if it meant that absurdly I prayed to a god I didn’t believe in. Just like, for whatever unknown psychological reason, it took me over ten years to begin thinking of my brother as Chris, it took even longer for me to let go of prayer.

Maybe it isn’t only about indoctrination and guilt, but also about my own reluctance to change, but I found it especially difficult to let go of prayer. It was the most difficult part of my personal journey into atheism.

My brother is my only link to those days now, since all those pets are long gone and both parents too. Funny how it works… my changes and my journey through the years feel natural to me, so I still feel like the same person – I am the same Jerome who was the child who remembers all these things as an adult. But it’s different now and I don’t perceive others as being the same. My brain has compartmentalized Chris and Christopher almost as if they are two different people. Christopher is my baby brother, the one I would lay down my life protecting. Chris is… someone else. It’s really difficult to explain, but at least we are closer now than we were a few years ago, since I (rightfully) lost his trust in my years of addiction. And then got it back, but it took some time longer than I expected. Maybe that’s a subject for another day… when we stop using drugs, we expect too much of those who know us, we expect them to know that we have changed long before there is any way they can possibly know.

Friendly reminder: Virgins don’t have babies

  • They don’t have babies now, and they didn’t thousands of years ago either.
  • Natural disasters aren’t caused by angry deities. Hurricanes in the US aren’t caused by God’s anger for [insert people you are prejudiced against here], and the plagues in the Old Testament of the Bible weren’t either.
  • Snakes don’t talk. They don’t now and they never did.
  • Women weren’t made from a man’s rib. We have the same number of ribs now, and we always did.
  • The whole world was never flooded at once. (Where did all the water go?)
  • People don’t come back from the dead. They don’t now, and they never did.

When I used to debate theists, I noticed different reactions to the impossibilities I’ve written above. Not everybody accepts them all literally, to be fair. Most avoid thinking about these things entirely. Some take some things literally and the rest is analogy. And some people, especially those who debate, take some bits literally and the same bits can be analogy, depending on the argument. The general trend is to accept specifics as being impossible in the moment, and call them analogy.

Analogy for what?

It’s easy to say… Well OK, the talking snake didn’t happen… But that’s analogy for Satan and god still created us; sure, virgins don’t give birth, but the other religions had virgin birth stories, so Christianity incorporated that to compete; sure, the other resurrections didn’t happen, but Christ was resurrected because he was special (Maybe he had magic beans?); the world wasn’t flooded all at once obviously, they just thought their small area represented the whole world; the plagues were blamed on God’s anger because the people were less advanced than we are, but the rest of those stories really happened for sure…

Why? Why explain away what can be explained away but continue to believe? There is no point. None of that happened. Every religion has a creation myth. Many had virgin births. Primitive people (and conservative evangelical Christian Americans) blame the gods’ anger at people they perceive as weak when things go wrong. It’s god’s anger at a minority, or a simple old woman who can’t defend herself… or someone similar. Someone they can punish on god’s behalf. The flood myths come from mythology much older than Christianity or Judaism and were likely part of the culture way back. But to then believe anyway is simply to believe what you already believe because you believe it. Because you’re indoctrinated.

All religious people know what indoctrination is. When a cult trends in the news because of something bad they did, you realize that members removed from that cult still hang onto their beliefs. You realize that something fucked up is happening with them psychologically, that they don’t want to stop believing, and that indoctrination must be similar to Stockholm Syndrome. But rather than calling their beliefs a religion, you call it a cult. Because on some level you know you are just as brainwashed, and you want to distance their beliefs from yours – convince yourselves that you are different to them. But you’re not. You’re just like them. Every atheist who has ever debated theists knows this.

Clarification: Why my son won’t attend his cousin’s first communion

Last night my mother, who will be attending her granddaughter’s first communion, told me she would really like Josh to go with her. I had to explain to her why that isn’t going to happen.

First of all, she interrupted to remind me that I originally wanted him brought up Catholic. Yes, I did. I was insecure in my atheism then, and I wanted the best for my son. The best, in my mind back then, was for him to be brought up just like I was. Am I not allowed to change my mind? In my mind back then, it was also very important for me to smoke methamphetamine every day. Why not equate the two beliefs? My mother (and others) are quick to point out the mistakes I made back then, the awful choices I made… But not this one. This one is perfectly OK because it happens to agree with them.

I, like so many others, used to believe my morals and values were Christian. My mistake was the argument from morality, and I have since changed that belief. And actually, thinking back, my morals were already rock solid by the time I started Sunday School. I already knew right from wrong, not to lie, steal, and so on. They didn’t teach me morals at church. Instead, they taught me a whole lot of confusing nonsense, prayers, and rituals, and also explained why contraception is not OK with their deity.

For he so loved the world that didn’t exist yet, that he created the entire universe, every planet, every star, every animal and every plant, and all manner of things that we cannot know, and then, he explained what I can and cannot do with my penis, and what you can and cannot put in your vagina, and that we can not do these things outside of an arbitrary contract between us that we call marriage. Also, oral sex is right out! And stay away from the anus. Satan lives in that dark hole. Amen.

Anyway, mother dearest agrees with me… my morals did not come from church.

Imagine letting a child grow up without ever hearing about Christianity, and then trying to explain it to him or her in their twenties. God created the whole world, and all of us, but he created us with sin. Then he sent his son down to us, but the son is also the father. Then he sacrificed himself, which somehow saves us from the sins that he created us with. But he came back to life, so there wasn’t really any sacrifice. Ignore that last part. He loves you unconditionally, and if you don’t love him back, he will send you to a bad place where you will suffer for all eternity.

My religious upbringing caused me much confusion. Before my first communion was first confession. I was the only one in my class to bunk that, pretending to be sick to avoid it, then had to go back alone the next week. And I attended my First “Holy” Communion as they called it, with everybody all dressed up. It was a special occasion and a big deal, and of course, it takes place in an environment where everybody believes, and everybody takes it for granted that everybody else there also believes. When you’re a child and haven’t yet learned to think critically, even if you have doubts as I did, it’s hard to hold onto them. You trust your parents and implicitly trust the authorities that they trust. I forgot about my doubts until I was much older, and it took me years to get over my indoctrination.

That’s what this is about: indoctrination. I don’t want my son to suffer any more of the church nonsense. I don’t want him to sit in an environment where everybody believes, and feel that sense of fellowship, of belonging. He already had that for a few years before he was returned to my custody. Enough damage has already been done.

Perhaps this last point can be carried to another post for elaboration, but another thing that annoys me about people like my mother and brother is their double standard… I am not allowed to say there is no god. “How can you say that? You don’t know!” But it is perfectly OK to hammer that there is a god into the unfinished immature mind of a child before he or she can learn to think critically? I don’t see or hear Christians telling their children that they don’t know if god exists. In fact, they teach it as fact that god does exist, but hold us who doubt this to a higher standard.

(Edit: This post was originally intended to be an elaboration of the last paragraph’s point, titled “Christian privilege”, introduced by comparing it to white privilege – because this double standard where Christians assume their belief as the default and impose it on everyone else, is quite similar to white people assuming white as the default for all people, and then treating others as inferior. But it’s a hard sell because too many people are ignorant of white privilege; the intro would end up too long and detract from the point of the post. So I decided to change the approach completely and make it personal and anecdotal instead.)

Knowing that men have created gods to explain what they don’t understand throughout history, why would you believe the god you were taught about is any different?

I had an interesting conversation with Josh, my ten year old son, last night. He asked me for tuck money for school, but since I had already given him two days this week, I said no, and suggested he find god and ask him for the money. “But god isn’t real”, he said. “Like Zeus.”

His answer was thanks in part to the Gods of Rome game that he occasionally plays, free from the Windows app store. I’ve used this as an opportunity to help him understand that there have been many gods worshipped throughout history, since we do like to invent them.

And that led me to this simple but logical argument: Knowing that men invent gods, why believe the one you were taught of is real, unlike all the others? That’s madness.

Of course we know how it really works. There are a combination of reasons to believe… The two most obvious are these:

  1. If it was drummed into your head before you could think for yourself, you accept it as fact, and at the end of the day, it is easier to continue believing what you already believe.
  2. The belief also teaches that you won’t die when your body dies, and that you will see your lost loved ones again.

But those are not reasons to believe. They’re excuses not to think.

I’m not going to get into this in greater depth today, or look at the misguided pseudo-logic used by religious apologetics to get around the obvious truth that all gods are made up. This is about my son… In December it will only be three years that he’s been back in my care, and this is a great step forward in terms of his deconversion. I’d worried that those who raised him while I was unable (due to my former addiction) might have brainwashed him to such an extent that deconversion was impossible, but it looks like he is going to be just fine.

Indoctrination can be amusing but is always harmful.

Lately I’ve been thinking of indoctrination again, mostly because of a conversation I overheard at my son’s school sports day, which I’ll get on to in a bit…

I’d forgotten that I became aware of indoctrination quite early on. When I was around seven years old, I’d noticed how several other children in school with me had a different dentist. When they went to get their teeth fixed, they were excited about it. They came back to school with packets of sweets, sample toothpaste, and other cool stuff. Their dentist was hip and cool and made their appointments fun by giving them stuff if they behaved well. Whereas I always behaved well and my dentist didn’t seem to care. He was an old bastard named Doctor Sanc, in Wynberg, Cape Town. Sometimes he didn’t wear gloves and I could taste his chubby fingers. When I returned to him for a molar filling at 19 years old, he explained that “You’re an adult so you don’t need anaesthetic any more” and then gave me a filling without anaesthetic. (That was my last time there.)

The point is, the other kids were excited about their dentist because he made the appointments fun, just like other kids who were excited about the stuff they did in church. I knew this when I was already seven years old, and maybe that was to my advantage because I was able to see behind the curtain. I didn’t know the word “indoctrination” and I didn’t know what brainwashing was, but I understood. My mother didn’t allow myself or my brother to attend other churches because she was afraid of just that… My brother once went to a friend’s church and they got him involved in the youth activities (he was really young, a preteen), and she abruptly put a stop to it. So she knew how it works too. She recognized that indoctrination happens, but not in the Roman Catholic church, because that’s the “one true” church… It’s amusing and ironic.

But I did get sucked in. Despite seeing through the way it was done, and knowing nothing other than a Christian upbringing, I did get brainwashed to some extent. I was excited to participate in my First Holy Communion, just like everybody else. I received keepsakes, and we all dressed up and did it together. It was a big deal. My Confirmation was similar, except by then I had begun to doubt the existence of god so the ritual of Confirmation felt weird.

Getting back to the conversation that reminded me of this… at Josh’s sports day I was sitting beside my former sister in law, who was also Josh’s foster mother until December 2015. I overheard her talking to another couple she is friends with, because they all have children about to do their First Holy Communion. And that brought it all back. Like my mother, they are oblivious of the brainwashing effects of the ritual and how that sense of fellowship convinces children that the nonsense of communion is meaningful and important. Maybe those sorts of rituals, where the whole class gets confirmed together, are a large part of what cements the idea that religion (and god) gives believers’ lives meaning? The ritual and the sense of community, of belonging, that comes along with it, becomes an event that’s remembered with nostalgia. Even if the exact details are lost, it becomes something sentimental, a vague memory of times in our youth where we were part of something… something that later becomes “spiritual”, or at least leaves a lasting impression of meaning that we as adults perceive as being part of a creator’s plan for us. Maybe even a “personal relationship with god”? Meanwhile in reality, no deity was involved and we were just dragged through nonsense by excited parents capturing photos of it all and brainwashing us. I don’t think parents are at all aware of the harm they do when dragging their children through these primitive rituals. It’s a case of “monkey see, monkey do”, and it saddens me that more people don’t see through it.

I am so glad that Josh is no longer a part of any of that. Make no mistake – he was already indoctrinated to some extent. When he learned that I don’t believe in any god, or a soul, or an afterlife, he asked lots of questions. Questions like “Who made the first man?” and “If there is no god, how were we created?” assume creation. Those questions don’t come naturally to us, but are part of the mindset of someone who has been taught from early on that a particular god exists and created us. However he also expressed doubts, saying things like, “[Redacted] says I must listen for god’s voice, but I don’t hear anything” and “I’ve never seen god. I’m not sure he’s real”. And unlike religious people who discourage doubt and questioning the dogma, I encourage it. So I think I got Josh at just the right age where, even though he’d already been indoctrinated to some extent, he still hated church, and I pulled him out of that before that hatred and boredom got changed into something else, before he found meaning in the meaningless and fellowship in the foolish rituals.

In early 2016 when my family members realized that I’d pulled Josh out of church and Sunday school, they initially resisted it. I was asked questions like, “What about his first holy communion?” by my mother. My brother argued with me about it with some determination. I think this reveals what they know deep down but will never admit: That their beliefs and relationships with their god are more about the sum of the experiences they had in their religious upbringing. In other words, subconsciously they know that if a child does not have such experiences they will most likely not end up a believer. (Imagine telling an educated adult who never heard of religion about a virgin birth, talking snakes, a worldwide flood with more water than we find on the planet, walking on water, coming back from the dead and so on. They will think you are crazy.) Thus they were quick to oppose my choice. The irony of course, is that they realize the importance of indoctrinating children but not the effect of it; they don’t see the end result for what it is – brainwashing. And that brings us back to: Monkey see; monkey do.

Not everybody finds their way to critical thinking and the rejection of their indoctrination. The fact that about 70% of people are religious is testament to this. Most people, no matter how much they are taught to think critically, are unable to reject their firmly held religiously brainwashed beliefs. I’ve realized that when debating theists and even family members in the last few years. This is why, for me, it was of utmost importance to stop my son’s indoctrination before it went too far. And there’s no way of knowing how far is too far. It seems to me that since I am the only atheist in my family, allowing anyone to continue indoctrinating my child would have been a serious mistake.