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My Son Was Taught to Believe in Jesus by His Mother -- How Do I Help Him Become a Free Thinker?

Panicked by his son's Jesus references, an agnostic dad discovers a skeptic's reading list for kids. But is counter-indoctrination really the answer?

"Daddy, why did Jesus invent butterflies if they die after two weeks?"

I just about hit the panic button when my 6-year-old son Theo put this question to me not long ago. His mother, who is a Christian, had taught him that Jesus was God. When Jesus's visage appears in a painting or on television, Theo sometimes exclaims, "That's God!"

In his butterfly question, he seemed to reason, syllogistically, that if Jesus was God, and God created the world and its life forms (butterflies being one of them), Jesus "invented" the winged creatures. Either that, or God and Jesus are simply interchangeable in his mind.

"First, Theo, your question presumes that Jesus was God," I responded. "Many people, like Mommy, believe he was, but many others don't. It also presumes that there is a God -- we don't know for sure that there is."

"I think there is," he retorted.

"There may very well be a God, Theo. But not everyone agrees on that -- there are many people who doubt there is a God. We might never know for sure if there is or not," I told him.

"When we die we'll know," he came back.

"Maybe," I said. "But maybe not."

The literalism packed into Theo's question alarmed me, but this was by no means my first encounter with the influence of religion on my progeny. My 10-year-old son Elijah enjoys going to church with his mother -- not every Sunday, but not infrequently. I've never discouraged it. One Monday morning a few months ago, though, I saw him reading the Bible, a children's Bible he had been given at his mother's church. In no way did I discourage him from reading it, but I confess (as it were) that I went to work that day a bit preoccupied.

To be sure, I'd always been comfortable with our familial arrangement: Our boys have parents with very different views on religion -- their mother is a Catholic, their father is an agnostic humanist. This is only one of the several ways in which our family is "mixed": Nilsa is from Puerto Rico, I from the Midwestern U.S.; she grew up in a working-class family in the countryside, I in a middle-class one in the suburbs; she speaks to the children in Spanish, I in English. Our differences regarding religion must therefore seem, to the kids, par for the course, no?

I've also sensed (hoped?) that having one religious parent and one secular one could be healthy for the boys ("hmm, if Mom believes 'X' but Dad doesn't, I guess there are multiple perspectives to consider, and who knows which one is right? Maybe none has a monopoly on truth…").

Nonetheless, the sight of Elijah reading the Bible that morning did leave me with an uneasy feeling. Of course it was wonderful to see him reading. And the Bible is, in any case, a seminal world-historical text: familiarity with it is an essential form of cultural knowledge.

Churches, however, don't typically dispense Bibles merely as cultural texts but rather as the Word of God. It was in this register that I worried a bit about Elijah's engagement with the book. And it made me ask myself what exactly I was doing to share, or impart, my secular worldview to Elijah as a counterbalance to the Catholicism he was imbibing from his mother. She takes him to services. What do I take him to? She has him reading the Bible. What do I have him reading?

I have read all sorts of books with Elijah that I think of as humanistic, broadly speaking: lots of poetry (particularly Pablo Neruda, whose Book of Questions is ideal for children); books like David A. White's Philosophy for Kids , and its sequel, The Examined Life: Advanced Philosophy for Kids . I recall feeling especially proud one evening after doing a chapter of Philosophy for Kids , which is designed for discussion between parent and child -- I think it was a chapter on the meaning of friendship -- followed by some verses of Neruda. I put Elijah to sleep that night thinking to myself, a diet of Aristotle and Neruda for my 8-year old -- how cool is that?