How Can I Subtly Undermine A Fanatically Religious Upbringing?

My brother has two children – a 7-year-old boy and 6-year-old girl. His wife is CATHOLIC – in all caps. Their wedding included something like five priests (I can’t remember exactly, I just remember it was well above the required quantity). Their son is named after two popes. She once stated that she believes that athletes who pray more will win over those who pray less. She recently sent an email with pictures of her kids at a “birthday party” for “the Blessed Virgin Mother,” complete with a cake.

I grew up under the oppressive weight of Catholicism, and I am still dealing with the psychological baggage that comes with growing up gay and Catholic in rural Nebraska. This is one reason I don’t have a very strong relationship with my family. It’s not acrimonious — just distant, polite, and lukewarm. I see my brother and his family about once a year or so; his wife is pleasant to my husband and me, treats us both as pretty much family. I think the kids would probably recognize me in a police lineup.

I’m not against religion per se, but I think it’s a great disservice to indoctrinate children in superstitious belief systems when they are incapable of thinking for themselves. My attitude is that they would be better off learning about religion and then choosing for themselves which deity, if any, is worth worshiping.

What I need to know is: given how little influence I have, and have a right to (which I recognize is literally none at all), what can I do to subtly undermine their fanatically religious upbringing? Even if I’m only able to plant a seed now, some kernel of skepticism and rational thought that takes 20 years to bloom?


Uncle Atheist

Dear Uncle Atheist:

Okay, you say you aren’t against religion per se. But why the hell wouldn’t you be?

Sure– the face of your sister-in-law’s religion is looney, but sort of sweet.After all, she’s not chaining herself and her children to the doors of abortion clinics. She’s not sending them door-to-door to leaflet against trans kids in sports. It’s birthday cake for a magical virgin and priest chorus lines and treating you, a gay man, and your husband, “as pretty much family.”


Except you aren’t ‘pretty much’ family. You are plain old ‘family.’

And you know exactly what Catholicism preaches regarding family like us.And you’ve been deeply, deeply damaged by it. Raising little queer children to believe there is something fundamentally, sinfully wrong with them is a terrible thing to do. And raising little straight children to believe that there is something deeply, fundamentally wrong with their own family members is another form of child abuse: teaching hatred, even if it’s cloaked in ‘hate the sin, love the sinner,’ which I’m guessing is how your sister-in-law thinks of it.

The head of this church, despite his warm and fuzzy exterior and his belief that persecuting gays should be put on the back burner for now, had this to say in a private letter to nuns about same-sex marriage when it was being debated in his own Argentina, when he was then-Cardinal Bergoglio — according to The New Yorker:

Let’s not be naïve, we’re not talking about a simple political battle; it is a destructive pretension against the plan of God. We are not talking about a mere bill, but rather a machination of the Father of Lies that seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God.

According to the National Catholic Reporter, Pope Francis has also referred to adoption by gay parents as a form of “discrimination against children.”

You have a damn right to be horrified that your niece and nephew are being indoctrinated into this church that hates you — that calls your marriage a ‘machination of the Father of Lies.’

Don’t get me wrong: I think there are many Catholics who are pro-gay/queer. There is a way to still have cultural and spiritual connections to a damaged church while fighting to end the hate that the church teaches. During the debate over the proposed anti same-sex marriage amendment in Minnesota, very brave people put signs up on their front lawns saying: “Another Catholic Voting No.” There is the “Catholics for Equality” organization. There are many others.

But you do not mention your sister-in-law being a member of any of these groups. That means she probably isn’t preaching hate to her kids, but she probably isn’t trying to counteract that message, either.

So I want to ask you this: what if your niece or your nephew is queer?

You’re right that you have no right to undermine your sister-in-law’s parenting. But you can sure as hell undermine Catholicism.

You can show by example that they have this awesome gay atheist uncle, and you can be utterly open about who you are and what all that means. You can answer all of their questions whether their parents like it or not.

And despite what you think about little children — this part is very very important — children can think for themselves. Children do think for themselves. They might not believe they are allowed to speak up about what they are thinking. But children — like everyone else — have their own thoughts. You don’t have to instill a kernel of skepticism. They already were born with it. They will figure stuff out.

Especially if they have you as an example.

You can tell them that you don’t go to church anymore because of what they teach about gay people, like you and your husband — and that all queer, trans, and gay kids are awesome. Just like you were. You can tell them you don’t go to church anymore because you don’t believe other things you grew up believing, too. You can tell them you don’t go to church anymore because sleeping in or having a big gay atheist brunch is more fun for you.

But you can’t do any of that if you continue to be lukewarm and distant. You need to establish a rapport with them.

And as far as that goes, I am not sure if I am asking too much of you.

You are keeping your distance out of self-protection. You have moved on and out and away and you should be free.

But it sounds like those kids might be pulling you back.

Can you stand smaller gestures, just toward the kids? Like: do you send them small gifts on their birthdays? Do you talk to them at holidays?

If you talk to them a few times at holidays, or send them little gifts, can you Skype or Facetime with them? Just say hello. Let them show you their dinosaur toys (oh god I hope they have dinosaur toys). Their pets. Let them tell their maddening pointless stories they REFUSE to enunciate in any clear fashion.

You can basically ignore the adults around you if that’s what you need to protect yourself. You can focus on the kids. And, as they are real with you, you can be real with them.

They already have brains. They already have a kernel of the skeptic. They need to know that they have you to talk to when they are older and they want to say: “I think I might be bi,” or “I don’t know if I believe in heaven.”

If you can do that (that is a big if — I don’t know exactly how painful home is for you), I don’t think you will regret it.

This letter originally ran in on October 8, 2015.

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