(The following is a copy of a letter sent to Cary Tennis at Salon.com)
Cary Tennis' advice to one of his correspondents in his Salon column today ('Unholy Father', Oct. 4 2007) seemed to me to show up an enormous hole in his objectivity. In a parental disagreement between an evangelical Christian mother and an atheist father (the correspondent), he simply assumes that it is preferable to allow the daughter to accept the religious viewpoint without question, and he even advises the father that his own beliefs should be subordinated.
The letter writer explained that his child is being raised mostly by her mother, who is deeply Christian, and that lately the child has become fearful that her father, who is an atheist, is heading for the fires of Hell. When he attempts to explain to her why he thinks this isn't going to happen (viz., there's no such place) she cries. Naturally, he finds this distressing and wanted some advice from Cary on how he can communicate with his daughter about such issues without the tears.
Cary's advice? He should just start going to church, so that his daughter won't worry so and to show his 'open mind' on such matters. I find this wildly inappropriate, and wonder how Cary would have approached the same problem if the letter writer had been a member of another religion rather than an atheist. Would he have advised him to skip the synagogue or mosque and go to church instead, because it would make the daughter more comfortable?
Mind you, this is not a 'default atheist' who simply doesn't believe but otherwise has no opinion on the matter. He states in his letter that he believes organized religion is actively harmful to her development into a rational adult. Despite this, he is certainly not trying to deny her mother the right to take her to church. He is, in fact, just trying to help her see that other people believe other things and that having an open mind is a good thing.
So the father's position is that he's willing to let her mother raise her in her beliefs (which also include such positions as denial of evolution and intolerance of homosexuality, naturally) but he wants to provide the rationalist viewpoint also, which seems pretty open-minded to me already, and he's writing to ask for advice on how best to communicate his views without upsetting his daughter.
Cary Tennis thinks the girl's father should start paying lip service to those beliefs, even though the man considers them wrong-headed and harmful. He thinks that caving to the child's tears, which were induced by those same irrational beliefs, and going to church for a few years will somehow give the father additional parental influence in these matters. When the man's daughter is grown and no longer so impressionable, why then her father can reveal that he was only humoring her and shamming his way through those masses, and she'll then be in a position to discuss these ideas reasonably.
What utter tosh. Being a hypocrite and denying his own beliefs is not going to gain this man his daughter's respect, and it is during childhood that it is most important for a parent to encourage open-minded thinking. As the Jesuits well knew, if you want to ensure that a fixed set of ideas are unshakably embedded in a person's mind for their entire life then you have to embed them, without competition, while the person is a child. In their hearts all religionists know this, which is why they so strongly discourage questioning of their dogmas - especially by the children.
Why not suggest that the mother should give up on church for a while? Obviously, because the child's already been taught to fear that idea, fear it beyond the point where it's even a viable consideration. It's the irrational fears which brought the tears! Humoring them is not going to help in the long run.
Note that the atheist isn't afraid of a fair competition of ideas - it's the theist who needs to frighten children out of even considering an alternate viewpoint. Truly, the father has it exactly right; subjecting a child to organized religion without a countering dose of skepticism is harmful to their development. It is child abuse, in fact, though the father stops well short of saying so. No doubt religionists will say that they are only trying to keep children out of their mythical hell and get them into their mythical heaven, but the only reason they hold such absurd beliefs is because they have been subjected to the same abuse themselves as children, without the moderating influence of a rational authority figure like this father presenting a better role model.
End the cycle of abuse. Teach your children critical thinking, and encourage them to apply it to everything. That will make them independent and strong, rather than hagridden by baseless fear of imaginary horrors.
A Rational Father