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I have a son from a previous relationship. He is 8 years old and lives with his mother. I am now married and have two other kids, and he is with us regularly about 20% of his time. I have shared custody.

He recently mentioned he has been visiting Sunday prayers with his mom and her new boyfriend for several months in that new "church" they attend. I inquired some more and found out that the group in particular is an evangelical group. I have some experience with this group because part of my extended family belonged/still belongs to the same group.

I consider myself on the very atheist end of the spiritual spectrum, while his mother has been a moderate catholic, like most people in our environment. I have been raised moderately catholic but left as soon as I was an adult.

I recently attended a wedding ceremony of that very group, and the sermon included a stab against "people who don't believe in anything", who they apparently loathe. I felt directly addressed. I also know of some people from that group who have cut ties with close family members that didn't want to join their circle.

So this creates a bit of a tension field and I am worried he might be slowly drawn away from me.

His mother hasn't mentioned anything yet; she and I are not on the greatest of terms, and our relationship has slightly degraded lately. I suspect this also has to do with her new religious orientation.

How do I approach this topic with his mother? I do not wish to interfere with her spirituality, but when it comes to my son being taught that people like his dad are ill-guided poor souls, that is not something I take lightly either. Am I wrong to think she was supposed to tell me when she introduced him to that group?

And also, how do I talk to my son about this? I always encouraged him not to believe what others tell him to believe, but to find out what it is that works for him. I would never tell him that his mother's actions might be bad for him, but I do sense some cult-like tendencies in this group that I would like to protect him from without rising fear in him.

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    Is it an option to have him over every Sunday or on most of them? (Also, it looks like there's plenty of case law on the topic). – Denis de Bernardy Sep 9 '17 at 15:09
  • Having him over every Sunday was my first thought as well, but I think that's not an option. – beetkeeper Sep 14 '17 at 22:27
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    I can't believe I'm suggesting this, but you might want to join him at the church once or twice to see what kind of place it really is. – Erik Sep 18 '17 at 15:22
  • @Erik Just show up. Its a great idea. – Mister Positive Sep 18 '17 at 17:41
  • Does he appear to be enjoying church at all? Or is he being dragged there? Both situations warrant very different discussions. – Weckar E. Sep 28 '17 at 12:15
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I don't know what this group teaches other than what you've described above, and let's be blunt: if you're an atheist and they're evangelical Christians, you're probably not a totally unbiased source. For example, do they really "loathe" people who do not believe the same as they do, or do they just say that they're wrong? I don't know.

No doubt your mother's evangelical friends say that atheists are "ill-guided poor souls". But then, don't you and your atheist friends say that evangelical Christians are superstitious fools? Of course both sides say that the other side is wrong. The question is, are they capable of having a polite conversation about their differences, or do they just scream insults at each other? I doubt an 8 year old is really equipped to understand the philosophical, historical, and scientific arguments on each side. At this point I'd just want him to learn to listen respectfully to both sides.

"I always encouraged him not to believe what others tell him to believe" And I think you should stick with that. But when you say, "don't believe something just because others told you so", does he get the message that you mean, "because you should ignore all those other people and just believe what I tell you"?

I'm at the opposite side from you here: I'm an evangelical Christian myself. I tried to teach my children to learn what all sides have to say and to draw their own conclusions. When children hit their teens, they tend to question what their parents told them. Many parents agonize over this, but I think it's a good thing: if children blindly believed what their parents told them, confused or evil ideas could be perpetuated forever. If you tell your children, "You must believe this because I said so", that may work when they're 8, but it doesn't work when their 16. And if you think you're going to "protect" them from ideas you disagree with, in the Internet age that's almost impossible. Better to try to teach them to listen to competing arguments with an open mind and evaluate them fairly.

  • This is an excellent answer, expressing my own thoughts very well. – pojo-guy Sep 13 '17 at 4:34
  • Sure, that's why I think they need a good grounding in rational thinking before they go to college. And of course there are no guarantees. My first daughter didn't go to college until her late 20s, she's in a program that's all math and computer science, so not much of an issue. My second daughter went to a very liberal college and has emerged a solid Fundamentalist. My second son is halfway through college, also still a Fundamentalist. My first son never went to college and he's an atheist. 3 out of 4 ain't bad. – Jay Sep 13 '17 at 16:00
  • That's a good answer. I agree with everything here. The thing is, I don't tell my son that I think those people are superstitious fools. And I don't want them to tell him I'm a poor lost soul. – beetkeeper Sep 13 '17 at 16:52
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    @Jay I am still debating what to tell him. You seem to misunderstand the core of my concern. I am not worried that he may not become an atheist. Religion can be a beneficiary thing to have for some people, I acknowledge that. If he grows up to be religious, so be it. But if he somehow got the impression that the godless part of his family is bad influence for him, that would be a problem. – beetkeeper Sep 14 '17 at 22:21
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    @beetkeeper Good that you're open-minded about it. Again, I don't know what this church his mother is taking him to teaches beyond the couple of sentences you said above. But I've attended many evangelical churches, and none preach hate of non-Christians. Christian teaching is that we are all sinners. Christians are no "better" than non-Christians; we are just forgiven. As long as you are not attacking Christianity, an evangelical won't see you as an enemy. Maybe a potential convert. :-) I think the trick is to keep it non-confrontational. We disagree, let's just not worry about that and ... – Jay Sep 15 '17 at 6:32
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The other answer was fantastic. I wanted to address your concern that he will be slowly drawn away from you. I have seen how divorces affect children and the quickest way to push him out of your life is by forcing him to choose between his mom and you. He spends 80% of his time with his mom, if he feels like you don't respect his decision to go to church he is going to feel uncomfortable around you. It's not his fault his mom wants him to attend church.

On the other hand, if you express to him interest in what he is learning it may be an opportunity to bond with him. Ask him lots of questions about what he is learning. Be agreeable when he says things like, "On Sunday I learned that stealing is wrong". It's important for him to know you agree with the church on things like that. This is also a chance for you to find out what it is he is getting out of church. If something doesn't sound right... have a rational conversation with him about it. If you feel like the church is teaching him bad things then talk to his mom about it.

In the end, if you don't feel like it's a good place for him that should be a decision you work out with his mom... not with him. He's 8, he deserves an easy childhood.

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    Thank you for this answer, I think there's a lot of truth to that. – beetkeeper Sep 14 '17 at 22:26
  • "his decision to go to church" I doubt he made much of a decision here at all! Most children introduced to church at such an age actually actively resent it. – Weckar E. Sep 28 '17 at 12:15
  • My answer is meant to be advice as the boy ages into his teenage years and the decision becomes his own. There's really no wrong age to learn about church. Parents typically let the child decide as they get older if they want to stop attending. I don't know if it's true that most children resent being taught religion at a young age. A lot depends on the parent decisions and which church it is. – Bronco Sep 28 '17 at 19:05
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Am I wrong to think she was supposed to tell me when she introduced him to that group?

The religious upbringing of a child is definitely something that should be discussed between parents - with agreement and compromise reached. This is especially important if you are separated, but also potentially a lot harder. I do not think you are wrong for thinking she should have told you he was introduced to that group. However, it is a moot point, even if she had told you, and you had been unhappy about it, you could only have made your feelings known, but not stopped them going. So I’m not sure what would be gained by talking to the mother about this topic - at least not currently, perhaps in the future for a specific reason (when the child is older, if they professed that they really do not like the religion for example)

how do I talk to my son about this?

He is young, he is potentially malleable. When I was that age I was a devoted alter boy with ideas of eventually becoming a priest. I am now an agnostic, who is not a fan of organised religion. During my teenage years I started questioning, didn't like the answers (or in some case the lack of answers) and grew away from it. As Bronco pointed out in their answer, many things the child might be taught will be wholesome good things to be encouraged. However your concern seems to be drawn, understandably, to a potential irrational fear of atheists. This is unfortunate, but addressable.

Firstly - do not try to directly influence his beliefs - this seems unlikely as you stated you want him to make his own choices. So provide a nurturing environment and answer question open and honestly. Demonstrate how the world is not black and white, that there are different ways of looking at things. Question don't preach. If you hear something unsavory, then encourage critical thinking. "Why do you think that?, Have you considered this opposing viewpoint?" etc. You have an important role in your sons development, but I would only concern yourself with issues as and when they occur rather than fears of the future as a lot can change in the next few years.

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What tends to happen to children that age is they usually follow whatever person the feel attached to and do what they do, so what i think you should do is try to stop whatever is happening to a limited number of times and then when he is a teenager or almost a teen ask him what he wants because by then they don't really follow there parents or step-parents like before so he should be able to chose what he really whats not what others are pulling him into.

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Just because your son's mother gets 80% of the time doesn't mean she gets to dictate his spiritual future. It's no different than, say, her putting him into a private school of her choosing. If your relationship with her is already strained, I'd approach the situation based entirely on how much potential for harm you (!) feel like this evangelical group might inflict.

If you feel they are a benign group, then it's probably not worth the fight; your son will scapegoat her and her faith in his teen years, blaming his problems on her and them, and you'll be there to support his emotional needs.

However, if you feel there is the potential for harm to your son, such as blaming society's problems on homosexuality or minorities or other forms of brainwashing, then you are the only one who can do anything about it. The sooner, the better - start with a lawyer and go from there. This is bread-and-butter for family law attorneys: they've seen it a thousand times.

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