I’m an atheist but my step-kid is religious: how do I respect his beliefs while expressing mine?

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By: Phil WhitehouseCC BY 2.0
I have a nine-year-old stepson. I’ve been in his life since he was two-years-old. We’ve always split time 50-50 between the houses. My partner and I are definitely offbeat. We’re tattooed, politically radical and activist-y, feminist, intentionally unmarried, and atheists. Around the time my stepson was four, his biological mom “found Jesus” and joined an evangelical, fundamentalist church. Needless to say, this was a difficult transition. Up until now it’s been frustrating because his mom had tried to impose her values on our household.

BUT NOW! Now, our little dude is coming to our house and evangelizing to us, trying to convert us. The other day he told us he announced to his church that we were atheists and asked the entire church to pray for us. I’m angry at mom, but I’m even more sad. I feel like he’s a kid I don’t even know anymore. My partner was raised in a similar household and is dealing with it better than I am.

I don’t want to push him away, but I feel it happening. How do I continue to support him without supporting these hurtful ideas? — Suzy

You might get a few ideas from this post about letting your kid choose his/her own religion and this post about raising freethinking children in a religious community, but we’d love to hear from Offbeat Families who’ve had experiences with similar situations…

Comments on I’m an atheist but my step-kid is religious: how do I respect his beliefs while expressing mine?

  1. I have dealt with a similar situation. The important thing to remember is that he is still a child. Easily impressionable and still solidifying his ideas and beliefs which are constantly changing. He is learning everyday. He loves you so much that he is trying to ‘save’ you, because that is what he is being taught to do. – In my experience I constantly challenge the child’s statements and beliefs in a loving way and ask him why he thinks the way that he does, and to always consider other peoples beliefs and religion – not to simply accept other peoples statements as facts but to find the answers for himself. Allow the child to express himself, and continue to love him unconditionally. It is not an adult challenging you but a child exploring life and religion. Continue to teach him and live your life the best way you see fit, and he will learn from you.

    • I agree with this! I might also phrase it back to him like “I love you so much, too, and I know you’re probably worried about us.” I think being available to have lots of conversations as he grows older and continues to explore his own beliefs. I know for me, as a kid, the whole wanting to convert people was because I was SO AFRAID of the people I loved going to hell. I just couldn’t imagine not having them around in my life. So ask questions about the meaning behind what he’s saying and acknowledge that deeper part, which is probably fear, and hopefully it can actually bring you both closer.

  2. I think it’s important to remember that your child is trying to save you out of love. They have been told not only by their mother but by their entire church community that if you aren’t saved that you’ll spend an eternity in hell. At this stage in their life, I think it would be more upsetting if they didn’t try to save you.
    That said, they’re nine. They aren’t set in their faith and for now you should probably encourage them to explore their religion. If you discourage them they may only want to pull farther away from you.
    Something you might try is getting them to really read the Bible instead of just being taught it. Encourage them to question it without completely telling them that it’s all just silly fairy tales. For now, they’ll probably defend it blindly but after time they may begin to question some of it’s passages. During their teenage years you’re probably going to get to talk with them about your beliefs more freely and someday they may even decide that they are an atheist as well, or maybe they’ll grow up to be a full blown Christian. Either way, you can’t tell them who to be or what to believe without destroying part of their individuality.
    Remember, the journey to spirituality is a process. You have to help guide them through this process without making their final decision for them.

    • I would like to politely disagree with a point you made – I don’t know that he will be either one or the other in black and white. For example, I am Christian because I believe there is a God. I do not, however, believe that those who do not pray or become saved by Jesus do not get into Heaven. I consider myself straddling between Christianity and atheism – but leaning more toward Christianity. Perhaps he will go more toward the middle of the road. What do you think?

  3. I was a nanny to a 9 year old boy who went to a private Christian school that was very much in the same vein, and went through similar situations. Being just the nanny and not part of the family, I couldn’t really express any of my own beliefs, but I ended up repeatedly telling him that it wasn’t a subject I wanted to discuss or something that was good for us to talk about. It didn’t work too well, but it was all I could think of in a panic. :/

    The interesting thing I discovered is that, after a while, he started expressing opinions that made me realize he was actually beginning to question what he’d been taught at the school. Particularly because his parents were sending him to the school more for a private education than because they were actually super religious themselves – their father was a beer drinking swearing machine, for example. It was more about discipline. So often times, the kiddo would come to me and express these little doubts he had about God and the Bible. I would always listen to him, but all I ever told him was that it was okay to question things. I think, in the end, it did help him to have an impartial party to listen to him.

    My comment is probably completely unhelpful, and I’m sorry for that. :/ It’s just such a difficult situation. But honestly, I think it’s good that you will be there when he inevitably starts to find things he doesn’t like about his mom’s new beliefs – we all question our faith at times, no matter how passionate we are. And I’m sure he will. 9 years old is an interesting time – it’s the period before adolescence when that second infancy will come into play, and I think 9 year olds are sometimes terrifyingly mature and adult-like.

    • Original Poster here: Thank you for the comment. I think that 9 is a super interesting age, too. And I think it’s why his comments feel different than they were before. They are taking on an urgency that wasn’t there prior.

      • He may well be a very sensitive 9 yr old (I know a few of them), the subject of fire and brimstone maybe very real and scary at this age. I think along with the other s, that if you can be non judgemental and supportive, you may well be his first port of call when he’s a little older.

        It maybe worth not commenting about the big, scary stuff but listen for the small comments that you can then offer alternative thinking to (such as ‘god made…’ ‘Well in science, this happens…’ – don’t try rocking his current world view but gently subvert it?

  4. You can thank him for the underlying emotion, that he wants you to get the good stuff he was promised and be with him forever.

    If it is important to you, you can challenge his methods. But if you don’t want to get into it, you can at least hear and validate the emotional source.

  5. I think it’s hard because it’s pretty unrelenting. He doesn’t give things up easily. So I’ll start with the gentle validations and questions. But he just keeps pressing the issue. For example, one day he went on for two hours about how evolution didn’t happen. The conversation was tame and gentle at first but I think he was getting desperate that we weren’t just believing him. I finally said that we needed to take a break from it. He’s the kind of kid who needs to be “right” and “win” disagreements (which is something we’ve continually worked with him on). So he kept going and bringing it up.

    It gets exhausting. I should say we have a 7-month old daughter, too, so patience for lengthy conversations/disagreements of this sort is thin. As I’m typing, though the baby might be another reason for his urgency as of late. Now he’ll be losing his sister, too. Hmmmmmm…..

    • “I think he was getting desperate that we weren’t just believing him.”

      It’s got to be really hard for him to be caught between two worlds. Personally I would redirect before the point where it gets that distressing for him. You could literally put a timer on it – “we can talk about this for 10 more minutes, and then it’s time to do chores” and then segue out with “Ok, I understand what you’re saying, but it’s chore time now.” And looottts of reinforcing how people can agree to disagree, and lots of people believe lots of different things, and religion is very personal to some people like their feelings or having a crush on someone (or whatever example of “thing that is sometimes uncomfortable to talk about” makes sense to him). And he needs to respect other people’s boundaries and comfort levels. Because if he’s like this with you, I worry what he will be like with his peers who aren’t a part of his religion.

      • The timer is a good idea. We do put limits on it but its usually after things get elevated.

        He has told us repeatedly that he tells his friends that evolution is a myth, so this is already happening. At our house we have always talked about respect for other beliefs but mom’s church tells him it is his duty to try to convert people. They even play this Pokemon type game where the goal is to save lost souls. It’s pernicious!

  6. In my experience, this is not uncommon at all. Many kids tend to see the world as very black and white. They may not have the ability to really appreciate nuance. I have met many younger kids who are especially fervent in their religious zeal, because they tend to take the churches more at their word. So first, please understand that this is not uncommon at all!

    Next: I might be wrong, but I am assuming that this church your stepson attends is of the fundamentalist/conservative wing of Christianity.

    Okay. might I make a gentle suggestion? I would not directly challenge his beliefs. That sounds good at first, but it can horribly backfire if it causes him to push away from you (and could potentially damage the relationship you have with him). Instead, I prefer the non-confrontational approach. If you are comfortable with it (and if you’re not, just disregard this) – let him explore faith on his own. I’ve found that once kids start exploring on their own, they naturally begin to question and form their own views. If your stepson is a person of faith, I don’t think there’s much you can do to alter that (and I don’t think it’s wise to try). If you are okay with it, encourage him to read about faith – I’d say to let him read the Bible! Once you actually sit down and start to read the Bible, you realize how much is in it that doesn’t jibe with conservative Christianity. If you are okay with it, read with him (that way, you can also skip over any bits you don’t think he’s ready for at 9). You can gently point out things that seem inconsistent or diverge from what he believes now. You can encourage him to think for himself. More likely than not, your stepson will begin to encounter questions of faith as he ages. You can provide a safe space for him to do this (since it sounds like at his mom’s he is expected to believe a certain version of faith). If you have friends or family who come from different faiths (or different forms of Christianity), encourage him to talk to them about religion. Sometimes, there is a tendency among more conservative Christians to demonize atheists (I intend no offense by saying this), so sometimes, another person of faith is a better messenger to talk to a kid like your stepson. It seems counter-intuitive to counter religion with more religion, but it often can work.

    Of course, you set the rules in your own home. If your son’s beliefs turn antagonistic (like telling you you’re going to Hell or something), you have the right to set down rules and ban speech like that in your home. That is a given. But hopefully in a few years, he will be ready to undertake a more thoughtful, meaningful examination of his faith, and you can absolutely be a part of that. Good luck!

    • Thanks! He is told he has to read the bible at his mom’s house a certain amount of time per week. He also has to memorize verses. He has actually told us that Revelations is his favorite book. My partner is really good at fielding this one since he had to do the same as a child. I tend to bow out of these convos.

      I’ve also asked my parents, who are Catholic, to talk to him about their beliefs. Particularly being Christian and also being pro-gay marriage and other socially progressive issues. I think he listens some but he’s also been told that Catholics are going to hell, as well. Though I think they are perhaps more “credible” than we are in that sense.

      • I LOVE REVELEATIONS!!!
        I would read revelations during service because i found apocalypse via dragons and plague 100x more interesting than the sermon… Unless the sermon was about the apocalypse via dragons and plague 😛

  7. In working with kids (in a Christian setting, but not a fundamentalist one like your step-son seems to be in) I’ve been taught and observed that kiddos are working on different identity/spirituality questions at different times. Up until they’re about 10 most kids are working on the “who are we?” question and are really into being the same as and belonging to their parents. They want to know what “we” believe and take comfort and security from identifying strongly with a parental belief system. When they get a little older many kids shift to a “who am I” question and start to really want to differentiate from parents and authority figures. In church settings this is when a lot of kids start not wanting to go to church, or to be with their parents in church.

    My hunch would be that your step-son is trying to bring you into his “us” using the language that he’s been given in his religious formation. But the underlying thing he’s working on isn’t a belief system that can be debated and shot down, but rather distress that you are different than him. You might just let his attempts to convert or preach to you pass by unremarked and instead focus on highlighting what you and he have in common. The more positive experiences he has with you, the more he is encouraged to find ways to belong to you, the easier it might be later for him to look at the religious values he’s been given critically.

    Pretty soon he’ll be ready to start differentiating from authority figures and finding his own way. If you have a history of loving him no matter what he believes and seeking out connections instead of highlighting or debating differences you might be well positioned to be a resource for him when he starts questioning on his own.

    • This is great! It’s very helpful to think about it in terms of the bigger picture developmental stages.

      We do hope to be the net to catch him if or when he starts to question. His mom has made it clear that it’s unacceptable to her if he is not a Christian. He may just as easily pull away from us, but that’s the gamble with parenting.

    • I would add you might possibly find a way to help him identify with your side of the family without conflicting with his mother’s side. So if he’s christian on his mother’s side, you could emphasize your identity as roller skaters or cat aficionados or friends of the environment, giving him a distinct identity to adhere to that is not directly contrary to his other identity.

  8. Being raised pentacostal, I probably was that kid once upon a time. Furthermore, my particular church was Charismatic and Postmillennialist, which somehow morphed into my thinking the world was going to end before the year 2000. I agree with other commenters that your step-son is coming from a place of wanting you to have the same ‘rewards’ as he’s taught he will gain by evangelizing and accepting christ.

    My partner’s family raised him in a slightly less rapture-expecting denomination that still expects evangelism of its members, and they continue to attend a similar church. We’ve started fielding these sorts of comments and queries from his 8-year-old nephew (a recent one was ‘I was scared to ride my bike, but God gave me the strength and I was able to do it!’). He pressures us with his church’s beliefs on marriage, most often (likely at the urging of my partner’s parents). Our standard response is “some people believe that, but other people have different beliefs. The important thing is to respect that they can have different beliefs than you do and that no one is right.'” Fortunately (I guess), our damnation to hell hasn’t come up, because he just assumes that we are also Christian, but we hope that by tackling respect for others beliefs on the small matters will eventually allow us to guide him into the same for religion as a whole.

    Now I anxiously await what others can add, because I have a feeling we’ll need the help too.

    • Thanks for the feedback and sharing your own experiences. It’s really helpful to me to hear others who have grown up with that experience and moved out of it!

  9. Tough one. All I can say is, encourage him to think WHY. Why do the adults in your church believe this or that? What does HE think? Stress that religion is a way for people to seek answers, and that he is an independent person who has the right to seek his own answers about the world. I would probably say “Some people use religion to find answers about the world, and some people use science,” but that is a little biased. 🙂 You could take him to a science museum with fossils if you wanted to revisit the evolution issue and introduce it in a different way.

    Also remind him that there are many different religions, and suggest that maybe people arrive at different answers because there are different answers. Ultimately (admittedly biased) I would steer this to a conversation that beliefs are beliefs, not facts.

    But at this stage, it is really important not to alienate him. Maybe show him examples of your “beliefs.” I don’t know what yours are, but some examples could be the beauty of nature (go for a hike) or the importance of helping people (community service). Lead by example that you can “believe” in things other than a god, and make sure at this stage they are NOT contradictory to his beliefs. Set the stage and provide opportunities to him to explore.

    • Yeah, I would like to add, maybe focusing on the things that you do agree on, like being kind to people, it won’t help him not feel “right” but might help switch the focus?

      • Yeah, that is what I was trying to suggest. I feel like religious people (some, not all!) sometimes view atheists as sad or angry or think that they don’t believe in anything. Or that “goodness” is indistinguishable from faith.
        Because we don’t always have a built in social system for our beliefs, like a church, we do have to do more soul searching to find what is important to us, ways to express it, and people to share it with. I think it’s this searching and acting part that is valuable and can be shared. Finding a constructive way to act on a common belief is a great way to bring family or friends together!

    • I think it’s a great idea to help him solve this kind of questions (why do the adults in your church believe this or that, what do you think). Several years ago I dated a Catholic boy for a while. I was raised Catholic (as 90% of the people in my country) but I’m really an Atheist, and would often ask him such questions to understand how the things we were both taught got to such different results- not to judge his choices of course. We were in our mid twenties and he said it was the first time someone had made him think so deeply about what he had always taken for an unquestionable fact. (this is not to diminish the importance of his faith, he really lived his principles and thinking about it only reassured him he was doing the right thing for himself. i only found it weird that he had not been thinking about it before.)

  10. That sounds like a really difficult situation, and everyone else has good suggestions so far. I am not sure if this would work with a kid of his age, but when I was younger and my peers were evangelizing to me I would try to explain how much it hurt me that they thought I was going to hell. Because I was (and am) a good, kind, generous person. Did they really think that I deserved eternal damnation? Was their god that petty and vengeful? Ok so that might not be the best way to phrase it to a child, but maybe talk about morality and being a good person outside of the context of religion. And learn about other religions, and ask how he would feel knowing that according to other religions they might think he was going to hell for not believing in their god.
    Another idea to suggest to him, not necessarily when discussing religion though, is that authority figures are not infallible. Parents can be wrong, teachers can be wrong, and adults in general can be, and are often, incorrect about all sorts of things. I remember I was about that age when I learned that my teachers at school were not always right, it kind of blew my mind. Try to lead by example by apologizing and admitting when you are wrong, or when you just don’t know something, or point out situations where people disagree but neither person is right or wrong, they just think differently. If he says something you don’t agree with it probably wouldn’t work to try and prove him wrong, but just shrug and say “I don’t agree with that, but its ok if we don’t always agree”
    Perhaps try taking him to a Unitarian Church? As an atheist I find them very welcoming and they have a really positive attitude towards education and a variety of belief systems.

    • I too had an experience with being evangelized by my friends and other peers in middle school. At that point I was still going to church every Sunday, participating in Sunday school, and had an intact belief system. It just wasn’t THEIR church with THEIR brand of Christianity. I also found it hurtful, although I don’t think I could articulate why at the time. I just knew that when I finally made it clear to them that I already had a church family and would not join theirs, they all of a sudden weren’t interested in being my “friends” anymore.
      (This is just one small reason out of a multitude of reasons why I am an atheist.)
      Acceptance of other people’s belief systems is a valuable concept and maybe can be a gateway into acceptance of a non-belief system.

  11. I definitely think at 9 it’s more about being interested in what he says and saying that lots of different people believe different things rather than what he believes is “wrong”. Use it as an opportunity to discuss all sorts of different religions, you could maybe even get him to do a project about it – make a poster about all the things he believes, then get him to do a “research project” about another religion (perhaps something tribal to really highlight differences!). Make it fun.

    I know it’s hard, but you also have to remember that your step-son needs equal input from both families, so respecting what his mother is teaching him is also about respecting his mother. If you start trying to subvert what she’s teaching him, it could really backfire on your access with him, and is kind of the same as undermining any of her parenting practices.

    • We do talk about other religions openly and without judgement. We used to get books from the library when he was a bit younger.

      My partner is pretty good about not subverting their teachings but just sharing what we believe, without demand that he believe it too. It’s hard because this approach is not shared at mom’s house.

  12. You mention that your partner was raised in a similar household, but is now just as radical/feminist/atheist as you are. Maybe they can provide some insight into how that transformation went, what caused it, and what kinds of things your stepson might need to hear now or later. And the two of you do have the right to lay down ground rules in your own house, just as your stepson’s mother clearly is in hers (and attempting to do in yours).

    Otherwise, I don’t have much personal experience with fire-and-brimstone religion and evangelizing, but I a lot of friends raised like that whose beliefs turned out much gentler and more open than their parents’. What helped them was constant exposure to different beliefs, and finally accepting that it really is okay to question these things. That’s a good message to pass on now, if nothing else sticks.

    I will also say that as a step-parent, you’re in a unique position. As I was growing up and experiencing all the joy of teenager-hood and hormones, I came to rely on my stepmother in a very different way than my parents, simply because she wasn’t one of my parents and was always open and loving. If down the road your stepson starts questioning what he’s being told now, you can be there to help him through it.

    • Thanks! I do try to mine my partner regarding his experiences as often as possible!

      Also, thank you for sharing your experiences with your stepmother. Being a step-parent is really hard, and stepmoms specifically get a really bad rap. I hope I can be a good support for him as your stepmom was.

      • Yeah, I wonder if your partner might be able to share ” I used to believe that one time too, but now I believe something different, and that’s okay.” And maybe use an example like, “remember when you thought thomas the train was the coolest thing ever and now you’re much more interested in XYZ? it’s kinda like that.”

  13. One thing that might be helpful is to talk to your stepson about what his understanding of the term ‘athiest’ is. Growing up in a more conservative environment, exposure to athiesm and agnostcism is often very limited, and in his church these groups are probably presented as very antagosnistic (don’t we all tend to tell the ‘horror stories’ of groups that we fundamentally disagree with?).

    Simply by pointing out to him the ways that you and your partner are ‘good people’ could help to change his understanding of non-christian belief systems. Most of the prescriptions in the Bible relate to how people relate to one another: helping others, being non-judgemental, being fair and honest, and similar qualities. Let him see that even though you don’t share the ‘supernatural’ elements of his faith, you have more in common than different.

    • Exactly! Faith and morality don’t have to be linked! There are so many HUMAN qualities that we all have in common. 🙂

  14. I haven’t been in this situation, but just from reading your description it seems like there are a couple different things going on here. One is your stepson’s beliefs (and his mom’s beliefs, which sounds like an issue as well). But evangelism is a separate issue. I think it’s reasonable to set a boundary that you support him in believing whatever feels right to him, but expressing those beliefs in a way that’s hurtful to others is not okay in your house.

    It sounds like he likely doesn’t understand that asking his church to pray for you is hurtful, and if you can find a way to explain that on his level that might be a good place to start the conversation. I also love Rebecca’s idea of finding things in common. Perhaps you could learn about Christian activists together? Martin Luther King Jr comes to mind, of course, and the Liberation Theology movement always amazes me, or the nun who was recently in the news for breaking into the nuclear power plant.

    It also might be useful to think about your own reactions, and how much is you reacting to your stepson as an individual and a child, and how much is reacting to him as a part of a larger movement that makes you angry. When you talk with him about evolution, are you thinking about what your stepson needs and how to have a good relationship with him, or are you thinking about the creationism debate in schools and churches around the country? I find that when I can relate to someone directly as an individual, especially a child, it’s a lot easier than if I get lost in thinking about the larger culture they’re representing.

    • Thank you so much for your comment, Marina. I feel like you laid it out in a way that makes so much sense. Yes, it is two different issues. I was raised in a religious household, but one that felt religious beliefs were personal. The evangelizing thing is very difficult for me and, I think, brings on a different reaction than if this was just about personal beliefs.

      My reaction often is about the larger issues and not him. I totally own that and I’m trying to work through it. I come from a social justice perspective, doing anti-oppression work. Hearing my little buddy repeat things that are homophobic or treating women as secondary feels personally hurtful. I know that is not why he’s saying them. I have to work hard to not react from that gut level, but really be empathic and listen. It’s hard when earlier in the day I read about violence directed towards GLBT individuals or the attacks on a woman’s right to choose what to do with her body. I just need to separate those things from what he’s saying.

      • Maybe if you could (very gently) explain to him, when he makes comments like that, that you find them personally hurtful, and give him age appropriate examples of the way some people will use those beliefs as an excuse to hurt others? I would think that it’s also not unreasonable to not allow those types of comments in your home, as long as you give him a reason why.
        Which isn’t to say that you should argue that those beliefs are bad and anybody who believes them are wrong (even if it’s what you think, it’s not what he needs to hear) but he probably doesn’t have the experience or context to connect those particular dots, from words to action, on his own.

  15. I think it’s important to make sure he respects you- lots of good ideas about that above, open conversation, open minds, and so on. Make sure you respect him and his mother too. You may not have meant it badly, but putting “found Jesus” in quotations kinda raised my hackles (and I don’t actually mind if you believe or not, my own belief system is hardly steadfast!). It may not be real to you, and that’s okay, but it is real to your step son and his mother.

    • Thanks for calling me out on that. Yes, you’re right, it was a snarky way to talk about her beliefs. I find myself occasionally falling into that trap that because she is not respectful of our beliefs that I can do the same to her. But it’s not right. Sometimes it’s hard to be the bigger person!

      • Being the bigger person certainly can be stinky and sometimes you need to do it for much longer than you want but please remember hindsight is 20/20 – which means he’ll evaluate the whole situation when he’s older and make his own decisions. I just hope he realizes the values you are trying to teach him.

  16. If you want to be respected for your beliefs, you have to respect him for his. I am in this situation also. For me, I realized a long time ago, just with all of us, my nieces will decide what they believe when they are adults. Right now, they’re trying stuff on. Some stuff will fit, and other things won’t. So, when my one particularly enthusiastically evangelistic niece tries to save me, I say, “Thank you.” And leave it at that.

  17. As an evangelical Christian kiddo turned into an evangelical Christian adult, I think the best thing you can teach him is tact and sensitivity. I have some cringe-y memories of me with the best of intentions being a blunt hammer on my friends. I have the same beliefs as I did then, but more tact now. I don’t bring it up unless conversation turns in that direction, I try to say things with more love, or make it non-personal towards the person I’m talking with. I’ve also learnt to fight my battles. Evolution is an argument I will NOT engage with, with anyone! Christian, Atheist, anyone. But wanna talk about Jesus? I’m there!! My beliefs are educated, thought out, comprehensive. There are lots of things you and I will disagree on, but that doesn’t make me an uneducated, unthoughtout bigot. 😉

    I think the best thing you can do with your step-son is to model love, sensitivity and tact. Have explicit conversations about *how* you talk to each other. Respect him and show him how to respect you.

  18. I live in a house where I am Christian and my household partner (unmarried boyfriend – is the correct term “domestic partner?”) is an atheist. We simply respect each other’s religious boundaries. Since you cannot do that with the nine year old yet, tell him, “Thank you for praying for me, because I appreciate that you are taking time out of your day to think of me” and leave it at that. Nine year olds are convinced that the world is black and white. They can’t see past that right now. You will have to be patient and let him run his evangelical stuff until he realizes that you aren’t going to go along with it. If he wants to pray, give him a moment to do so, but tell him respectfully that you will not participate. Showing him respect in his religion will hopefully teach him how to respect the religions of others. It’s gonna be a bumpy road but hopefully he will come to realize that you hold value in his life and he doesn’t want to lose that over a trivial matter such as religion.

  19. That’s tough. Maybe it would be good for him to be introduced to some more progressive Christian ideas. You’d never hear a progressive Christian praying for people because they’re Atheists. Maybe the solution is to show him a Christian path that is more accepting and forward thinking, and less judgmental and preachy. A subscription to Sojourners might be right up his ally, or following The Progressive Christian Alliance on Facebook.
    Other than that, does it hurt you for him to pray for you? I mean, you don’t seriously believe that now that he’s praying for you some god is up on a cloud using his god powers to try and force you to have faith, right? What harm does it do? Love him, respect him, and make sure he gets an education, and he will grow to see that not all Atheists are immoral, damned souls. I’m pretty sure that’s how I ended up a progressive Christian, instead of the kind that judges and preaches to everyone. Good luck!

    I just want to add after reading more if the comments that you’d never hear a progressive Christian deny evolution, call homosexuality a sin, condemn sex before marriage or divorce or birth control, or any of that kind of Focus on the Family type stuff that gives so many Christians a bad name. Maybe it would be really good to show your stepson that there’s more than one way to worship and serve Christ.

  20. This is really interesting. My husband’s family are very Catholic and so all of his nieces etc are being raised very Catholic. My husband was an altar boy and all of that when he was a kid, and then rebelled in a big way when he was 12 and is agnostic to this day. I’m a pretty die hard atheist. I find it very difficult sometimes to talk to the kids, particularly the older ones in the 9-12 range, about their religion. I basically avoid it or ask them about it. For example one of the girls had her first communion the other week and instead of talking to her about my perspective on it, which I don’t believe is helpful at present, I asked her what she thought about it and how it worked, and talked about the pretty dress and the fun party. I think she enjoyed educating me. I try not to get involved in the religious stuff because I don’t want to step on the parents’ toes.

    Anyway, I know this isn’t so useful. Just wanted to thank you for raising the question, really. The advice given is really interesting.

  21. I was in the same exact situation, except I was the kid.
    My mom converted to christianity when I was around the same age as your step son after she married my step dad. My dad’s side of the family is very atheist and liberal while my step dads side is very religious and republican.

    When I first started going to church I was REALLY into it. I loved listening to the bible stories, we prayed all the time, and i wanted to know all about it. So, like you are experiencing, I also told my dad that my mom and I were “praying for him”. This probably drove him up the wall! now that I’m like 27 I know how my dad feels towards christianity, and let me tell you, he probably was flipping shit in his head lol!
    BUT he NEVER discouraged me from believing what I wanted to believe. He would tell me things like “Well, I believe x, but if you want to belive y – that’s ok I still love you and whatever” With my dad I would talk about why christianity was ok in my book, and why I buy into it. I would tell him the stories, what i learned in church, and what I thought a “good christian was” and he would have discussions with me about what he thought.
    For example, I’d say “christians believe that there is only one true god”, and he would say “what about the hindu’s who also think there is one true god?”
    So he wouldn’t straight tell me, “You are wrong, here is why” . we STILL have discussions about my beliefs vs. his beliefs, but its not like “I demand you believe this or else!”

    But while all this was going on I was also being encouraged by my family to be open minded, which i think helped me not to be so “forceful” with evangelizing.

    Keep in mind, he might change his mind later too. I look back at my growth in religion and it was a major roller coaster BECAUSE I had both my mom’s views and my dads views instilled in me, but ultimately it was about me figuring it out for myself.

    tl;dr:
    My advice – listen to what he has to say, ask questions about what he thinks/why, and discuss your own views. Let him know that you are accepting to whatever he believes and on the same token he should learn to respect your beliefs (or anyone elses beliefs that differ from his).

  22. In addition to all the really great advice already posted, I would recommend looking for a kid-friendly interfaith dialogue group in your area. Try calling local churches, synagogues, etc (start with unitarian churches and reform synagogues, and expand from there). It would probably be really beneficial for him to be exposed to people with strong religious convictions speaking respectfully and without urgency to people of equally strong but completely different religious convictions (who then thoughtfully consider and respond in respectful and non urgent ways). It also will help him develop his theological vocabulary, and create a space for these discussions.

    As discussed by others, as a nine year old, his world is still pretty black and white (prayer is good, you guys are good, ergo, praying for you is double plus good). A wonderful gift you could give your step-son is to help him develop his gray-area processing core now. Helping him develop his ability to think critically will help him navigate his spiritual path (and everything else) as he grows in a way that is true to himself, be it his mother’s path, yours, or something inbetween or altogether different.
    (Background check: Before the economy flatlined, I was a designer and implementer of critical thinking and dialogue curriculum for all ages.) Here are a few exercises you can try at home with him.

    -Engage him in discussions on un-answerable questions.
    stealing for personal gain vs stealing to feed your family vs Robin Hood, and where are the lines drawn.
    Find a kids movie/show that deals with a protagonist seeking revenge (there’re a lot of them out there), watch it with him, and begin a dialogue about it. (Kids have a lot to say about the topic of revenge)
    Discuss his favorite movies from the antagonists perspective (Why do you think the wicked witch was so mad? What if a house had dropped on someone Dorothy loved…etc.)
    -Engage in debates on issues, and have him argue from the other perspective (it might take him a year or so to be ready for that one, but in the mean time, have him make pro and con lists for both sides of an argument), early subjects should be very low stakes and subjective, beach vs pool, coolest dinosaurs, chocolate vs strawberry vs vanilla (in the end everyone get’s a neapolitan ice-cream!).

    -Use his desire to be heard and successful in arguments as opportunities to teach the fundamentals of successful argument making (think back to persuasive essay writing). Emphasize that the point of engaging in a discussion is not to win, but to have the other person/people “try on” your perspective, and to take a turn “trying on” their perspective. Emphasize the importance of compelling arguments over correctness. Introduce kid-friendly versions of logos/ethos/pathos. (He’ll thank you when he out-writes everyone in his high school english classes). Teach him the meaning of the phrase “challenge your assumptions”, and ask him to challenge his. Be prepared to challenge yours. Kids are really good at this stuff.

    When doing these exercises, treat them like a game and keep them fun. Time them and keep them really short at first. Use a talking stick so everyone gets his turn, and has a chance to be heard. Have a few minutes discussion at the end to address what the experience of the game/debate/discussion was like for you.

    I hope some/any of these are helpful for you. If not, I hope you find something even better that works for you. Thank you for raising an interesting question, and best of luck.

    • The first time I considered ‘why was the wicked witch so mad’ nearly broke my teenaged mind.
      I think it’s a very useful (non-threatening) lesson on empathy and perspective.

  23. As an atheist kid who grew into an atheist adult, who often felt pretty hurt by people who evangelized to me or cut off friendships because I wasn’t religious, I might try to have a conversation with him about what it feels like for people to tell you that you’re going to hell if you don’t change who you are and what you believe. This would go alongside the bigger “it’s ok for people to agree to disagree” conversation.

    I don’t know if it would make sense to a 9 year old, but maybe something like, “so, you feel like religion and god are pretty important to you, right? What would you think if someone told you that they wish you would stop believing in god, because they believe it’s ok to hurt people who believe in god? And that if someone hurt you because you believe in god, it would be your fault because you should have stopped believing? Would you feel good that they loved you enough to want you to stop believing in god, or sad that they thought it would be ok to hurt you just because you believe in god?”

    I know that people are saying that it’s important to just recognize the love behind it, but I don’t think that’s enough – it’s also important to make clear to the kid precisely what he’s saying to people. Like, if a 9 year old was trying to be helpful by telling a bunch of his friends that they were too fat and it was making them unhealthy and they should go on a diet and lose some weight, you’d probably acknowledge that he meant well, and even acknowledge the validity of parts of that point of view, but also try to help him see how his remarks could be hurtful and figure out how to express his caring and helpfulness in more productive ways.

  24. I was on the opposite side of this situation as a child, with my nanny.

    I was 10 and I’d been learning about biology : herbivores have better developped molars, carnivores have glorious eye teeth, brushing my teeth every night is like a glorious
    circle of life moment !
    I told my nanny about this, and instinctively she gasped “don’t tell me you believe in evolution”.

    I didn’t tell her. It was a distinct moment where I started outgrowing her.
    She was my third parents from 3 months till 12 years, obviously I still love her, but it’s a melancholic love.

    TLDR : I think it’s great you’re questioning how you can best deal with this. I wish you the serenity to navigate these sensitive issues & the child the wisdom to see the gift you’re offering, and all of you the courage to keep going when the going gets tough.

  25. I’m a Christian. Raised Catholic, was given all the room I needed as a child to explore belief and identity (my Catholic parents were OK with me exploring Wicca, and then declaring I was an atheist), and I ended up a Quaker. Just making my ideological background transparent. 😉

    I think the most important thing is to help expose a child to a full and nuanced range of philosophical belief. I think it’s totally OK for you to be clear about where you disagree with him and why (my parents certainly were). The big thing is, in my opinion, not to set up your atheism and his fundamentalist Christianity as two opposing forces, two sides in some cosmic battle.

    Yeah, kids see things in black and white — because NOT seeing things in black and white is a learned skill, and one that you can help teach. I remember VIVIDLY as a teenager that when I declared I was Wiccan, my Catholic and very thoughtful father nodded and handed my a copy of William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Varieties_of_Religious_Experience). “Read this,” he said, “and you can be any religion you want.”

    William James is clearly too much for a nine year old, but the principle remains — you can gently challenge his beliefs, explore what belief, faith, spirituality, etc., mean, and yet not set up ATHEISM versus CHRISTIANITY as two sides in a war, which is (IMHO) the fastest way to set any kid up for feeling torn, judged, corralled, or cornered, which are (laudably), the outcomes you have set out to avoid.

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