I'm an Agnostic. When the topic comes to religion, I try to explain to my seven-year-old son what religious persons believe and why I don't share that belief. Until recently, he shared my scepticism.
Where we live (Germany), pupils in elementary school must visit two hours per week of either religious education ("Religion"), offered by the churches, or an alternative. For older children, the alternative is usually ethics, for elementary school children it is often a supervised quiet work time, where pupils are given more or less boring extra exercises that will keep them busy for the time the other kids are in their religious class. Common offerings for religious education are Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and Muslim.
Since most of my son's friends visit the Catholic class, and since the quiet work time is uninspiring, my son decided (without consulting his parents) to visit the Catholic class instead. The Catholic teacher allowed this, and I learned of my son's decision when he told me of it a week or two after this change had been implemented.
My son loves this class. The children sing a lot, and my son loves to sing these songs at home ("God loves all children..." is his favourite). If they don't sing, the teacher tells wonderful stories that impress my son who is generally very enamored of fantastic stories: he loves The Hobbit, Star Wars and LEGO Chima, and somehow the Biblical tales seem like fantasy come real to him.
My son has given himself a broad education (his teachers and parents are only the facilitators that help him gain the knowledge he seeks, e.g. by reading to him what he cannot or by answering his questions). He is very interested in everything from the natural sciences to history. One of his favourite topics are the Romans (a context, in which I explained to him the formation and development of Christianity), another are the Vikings, Celts and Germanic tribes.
He has been visiting the Catholic class for about half a year now, and last week, after we had watched a documentary on how the Christian faith spread to the Viking north and I said something about how "God does not exist", he told me that their teacher had explained how "during Roman times people understood that the other gods do not exist, but that only God does". A short exchange ensuing from this statement gave me the impression that my son is slowly acquiring a Christian faith.
As I stated initially, I am an Agnostic. I do not know whether God exists. And I liked to believe that I was open to my son finding his own answers to this question. But this development bothers be. Not because my son might find faith. But because his immaturity and gullibility are exploited by an institution (the Catholic church in the person of my son's religion teacher) to indoctrinate my son. Studies have shown that belief is most prevalent and most strong in persons who have been taught that belief as children. A clear indication that what most people see as their "belief" is mostly unquestioned habituation.
I am open to my son educating himself and coming to a different conclusion that I did. But I actually feel violated by my son being "made" to believe by singing songs and listening to charming tales. What I feel is similar to a parent worrying about what watching pornography will do to their children's adult sexuality. Or what playing violent videogames will do to their anger management:
I feel that the freedom to decide is taken away from my son.
But at the same time it was my son who decided to go to that class. And he loves it. So who am I to take that freedom and joy away from him?
I certainly don't think that believing in God would in any way harm my son. I even know from numerous studies that religious faith is a strong factor in finding a happy life. So there seems to be nothing that I need to protect my son from. On the other hand, believing that the Earth is flat wouldn't harm my son either – but is that a reason to let him believe such nonsense? To me, religion is on the same level with any other superstition, from not stepping on the cracks between flagstones to Santa Claus. I cannot quite understand why any adult would believe in something so clearly made up as a god.
So what do you think I should do? I would greatly appreciate your feedback on this.
If you are a religious person, it might help you with finding an answer to my question if you would imagine your child visiting the religious education of another, fundamentally different religion, or avoiding religious education altogether and visiting an atheist or agnostic class instead. Would you let them, if they wanted to and enjoyed it? Or would you want to enforce your own faith or at least protect them from the indoctrination until they are old enough to separate the singing from the believing? And how would you argue for it (apart from your belief that you know the truth)?
In response to some of the comments and answers, I'd like to add:
Intellectually, I'm an agnostic. Emotionally, I'm a torn atheist. Just like many religious people are filled with a painful doubt, or doubters with a secret belief, I don't know whether God exists, but believe, he doesn't. I'm only human, and it is difficult to refrain from believing anything. My stance is with Stanislaw Lem in this matter, who was open to be convinced, but hadn't yet encountered a convincing clue, and in the absence of evidence, chose not to believe. Also, despite my worried question, religion plays no role whatsoever in my day-to-day life. I don't usually think, much less worry, about the existence of God at all.
Reading your thought inspiring feedback has helped me become a bit more clear about what worries me.
What worries me is not that my son might come to believe in God. What worries me is that he is made to believe by habituation. But even that is not what I'm most afraid of. What worries me most is that my son will be taught those aspects of Christian morality that I find unwholesome (such as the concept of sin and the views on sexuality).
This question is not about how or whether to teach my son about Christian or any other faith. It is about how to deal with a situation where my son wants to partake in schooling that he enjoys for social reasons (his friends are there) but that conflicts with my values.
Update [March 2015]
From the large number of views, comments and answers this question has attracted, it is evident that many people share my concerns. This confirms my feeling that I should make a conscious decision and not just laissez faire.
After careful consideration of all the wonderful answers and comments you were so generous to share with me, and a lot of soul-searching to become clearer about what bothers me and what I would ideally wish, I have come to the following insights:
Religion does not play any role at all in my day to day life.
My son is in this class not because he is interested in religion, but because of his friends.
Or in other words, he did not currently ask about religion, and there is not need to force that explanation on him now.
A person can learn about anything at any time in life. There is no need to learn about religion at the age of seven.
I would prefer for my son to not encounter religion at all, unless he becomes curious by himself.
Since he so enjoys this class, I will let him visit it until the end of this school year, as corsiKa suggested in her answer. During these months I will complement his Catholic education in the manner suggested by Steve Jessop in his answer.
Next year I will tell his teachers that I do not want him to visit the religion class and find something interesting for him to do during quiet work time, as suggested by user3791372.
There were many other answers (e.g. by anongoodnurse, Kyle Strand, Joe, Guntram Blohm, CreationEdge, Marianne013, anonymous, and Cort Ammon) and comments that I found helpful and I have upvoted them all. I choose Steve Jessop's answer, because it addresses the aspect I am most concerned about.
Thank you all!
Second Update [August 2016]
My son has visited Catholic religious class for two years now. Contrary to my intention I let him continue to visit this class, because he so loves to be with his friends, and the alternative is just too boring.
I did pick up a couple of books on ancient and world religions as well as philosophy for kids from the library, and I read to him from them for a few weeks and discussed what we read, until stuff began to repeat and we both got bored by it.
I will let my son continue to visit the religious class next year, but I plan to make him visit Ethics when it is offered in high school the year after that.
My impression is that visiting the religious education did not turn my son into a believer. There was a phase when all the singing and tales of a kind, loving God got to him, but he has grown and developed and I think that his basic curiosity and scepticism are keeping the upper hand in the long run.
Certainly some ideas will have taken root in him, but it is still too early to know how they will influence his life in the long run.