November 28, 2007
Kids and Religious Experimentation
Yesterday I got an email from a friend. She was seeking my advice with a family situation.
Her experiences with a religious community led her to take a more personal approach to her beliefs, which means that she and her children are not part of an organized religion. She retains spiritual beliefs.
Her children have tutor, and this tutor is a practitioner of an unfamiliar religion. This religion differs significantly from her beliefs. The kids and she are really fond of the tutor and his wife, they’ve gotten close, and now two of her kids have decided that they’d like to join that religion and begin studying the religion. The younger of the two sons is 10. She doesn’t want to react in a way that motivates her older son in a negative way. And she doesn’t think the younger one quite grasps what it means to adopt a religion. On top of that, she doesn’t want to insult her friends with her reaction.
My advice (edited a bit and elaborated in places):
One of the problems I have with religion is in how it is used to control people, and that would be my main worry if my children got involved with any religion. I agree that 10 is too young to really understand the implications.
I think that if my kids were to get involved with a religion, I would get involved, too. Like your family, ours encourages rational and independent thought. Your sons are naturally curious, and so of course they want to explore both their world and people. And religious beliefs are absolutely fascinating, even if we find this one or that one silly.
I would try to make sure we could continue to have discussions about belief, so that I could understand what they are thinking and, perhaps, where they are going with their thoughts. As a parent, you are still guiding their study of belief. You’ve probably already exposed them to the ideas of different religion. I’d suggest continuing to do so. Don’t be afraid to touch on some of the dangers of belief, and trouble people have gotten into when other people take advantage of a willingness to believe. You can continue to teach them to be skeptical without necessarily teaching them to be cynical or atheistic.
The important thing always with children is to keep them engaged in thought and to be critical of their own beliefs as well as those of others. Self criticism is essential to a scientific mind. I am finding that the most effective people I know are creative thinkers who self-criticize. It allows them to be creative, productive and stay grounded in reality.
You have to have an open mind and many creative thoughts and points of view, but grounding them by thinking critically is what helps you find a balance.
If you’re involved with them you can help them make sense of what they’re hearing and make sure they’re not accepting anything uncritically. Their beliefs are going to be theirs alone, but as a parent you provide context and can help reinforce their confidence to decide what they want to believe rather than what someone else wants them to believe.
Posted by James at November 28, 2007 3:05 AM
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What's missing here is a discussion with the tutor(s) as to why they have been discussing religion with her children.
Whoops, hit "post" before finishing my thought.
I would be annoyed that anyone this close to my children--someone they trust and are learning from--would take it upon themselves to discuss religion with them without talking to me first.
Really Patti? I've discussed religion with my Girl Scouts when it comes up. I don't try to "convert" them to atheism, but they seem interested in discussing the subject.
I can see where the types who are insecure about their beliefs and can't justify them would be afraid to have their children's minds opened. Perhaps that is a prejudice on my part. I think that if what you're telling your children makes sense, you shouldn't be afraid for them to discuss religious ideas with somebody else.
It's hard not to discuss subjects with children if they want to discuss them. You certainly can -- you can say "that's for you to discuss with your parents," (or somebody else) and once we had a Girl Scout start talking about her parents punishing her with corporal punishment. I told her, "if you feel unsafe at home, you need to discuss that with a trusted adult, such as a teacher." She said, "or a Girl Scout leader?" and I said, "no!" A teacher would be required to report physical abuse to DSS. I'm a lowly volunteer and I suspect the girl was just complaining, although who knows? She ended up saying she didn't feel unsafe at home.
If you're in the position of teaching the child, then you don't want to cut off their inquiries too abruptly if you think they're harmless.
Sorry to post again... this is not really completing the thought but adding to it. I'm not jumping on you, Patti, anybody can answer this. The idea is from Dawkins, I don't take credit for it, I just agree with it: why are religious ideas protected from discussion? Would you be upset if somebody discussed the color paint they chose for their house with your children, or what kind of literature they enjoy the most?
What are people allowed to discuss with our children, and what aren't they allowed to discuss?
What I don't appreciate is when somebody tries to discuss something in a way that isn't age-appropriate, for example discussing what they find attractive in a member of the opposite (or same, whatever) sex with a six-year-old. A six-year-old doesn't understand the world that way, and now you're just coming off as a dirty old man/woman. Perhaps the ten year old is too young, as mom worries, to think about religion, so perhaps an objection on those grounds is reasonable. I certainly never discussed religion with my Brownies, it never came up -- the girls I've discussed it with recently are in sixth grade, because they brought it up.
I'm interested in opinions on this, if it's not OT. As I said, I agree with Dawkins, religious ideas shouldn't get any special protection or respect -- they should be exposed and discussed (and hopefully dispelled).
You are assuming, I believe, that all parents discuss religion and other weighty topics with their children.
Without discussing the subject the parents first, the tutor has no idea whether this subject is one the child's parents have discussed with said child and whether it is appropriate. The parents may not have had such discussions and, I would
hope, would like to be the first ones to introduce this idea so the child knows the basis of the family's beliefs, and can build on them if he or she would like.
The tutor should not take it upon him or herself to discuss a topic that is deeply personal and is truly the prerogative of a child's parent to introduce to his or her child and to initiate discussion.
What is a teacher's job, then? What if the parents aren't capable of/interested in discussing weighty topics with the children? What makes a topic weighty or personal? Why is it inappropriate? And do we know that the children didn't initiate the discussion? Should we hide aspects of ourselves that are personal to "protect" children from ideas they may not yet have been exposed to?
What if I'm gay -- should I not discuss that with somebody's children? What if somebody is prejudiced against gay people? Do they have a right to bring their children up with that prejudice and protect them from weighty and personal discussions about sexuality with homosexuals? What if I'm black and they're white extremists? Should I not be able to discuss my humanity with them?
In this case, I don't know the details of how the subject of religion came up, but I would guess that the parent didn't object to the children being exposed to the ideas in question. I don't have an indication that the tutor overstepped any bounds, or did anything objectionable.
I think it's an interesting question in general: are there topics of discussion that are off-limits with people's children? Just because we gave birth to them and contributed DNA, do we get to screw them up? I think the tide is beginning to turn on this idea. There are the Amish, there is home-schooling, there are Christian scientists -- this is mostly religious bullshit (I say "mostly," because not all home-schooling is religious bullshit... just some). If you can't claim a religious reason for letting your child die or just grow up as an idiot, then the courts will force you to provide medical care and schooling. Why does religion get to do what nothing else can do? It is powerful and it should not be.
I suspect the reason discussion of religion is verboten is that most people are not capable of discussing it rationally. They can argue or indoctrinate but very few people can seperate themselves from their own religion enough to have a decent discussion. I would include ardent atheists in that group as well.
In the specific case I would certainly want to know how the topic came up. If it was through the children's curiosity then fine but I can easily imagine it going other ways.
There are certainly topics that are off limits to discussing with other's children. If someone you only know a little is discussing pornography with your children then that's a problem. It has to be up to the parents to say what's OK and what's not. What is the alternative? The government raises every child? I'm not saying what most parents deide is or isn't right but until the kid's old enough to decide for itself then the parents have to make those calls. Unless of course there is a reason for the government to step in (child abuse,etc.).
I agree some topics are off limits -- pornography probably shouldn't be discussed until 18 or 21 -- whatever the age is that you could legally obtain it. As I mentioned, for me age-appropriateness is the most important factor in what people discuss with others' children.
But Bob, you seem to be saying that because a couple can't discuss a topic with their children, nobody else should either. That these children of emotional, irrational parents should not be exposed to reasonable treatments of the topics about which the parents are irrational until they're adults.
So I'll throw again to the group in general: what about racism and anti-homosexualism (I'll bet there's a word for that and I've forgotten it - "gay bashing"). Those things are against the law, but so is prejudice based on other people's beliefs. Should children of racist parents not be exposed to anti-racist ideas? And is this different from religion?
I think we can separate subjects into categories, because crossing those categories raises problems with analogies.
For instance, discussing different religions is not the same as exposing children to pornography.
And this raises a very interesting question. How much is religion like pornography? If your children need to be protected from religion as they are protected from explicit sexual images, does that mean that children are harmed by exposure to any religious ideas at a young age? When we keep children away from pornography we're not saying they can only be exposed to one type of pornography.
Taking an attitude of protectionism with respect to religious discussion is an even stronger form of religious indoctrination.
It's interesting to what conclusions that leads.
I believe what Bob is alluding to is who initiates the discussion.
If, say, I am a child and I'm interested in learning about the Coptic church, I will look online, in the library, and I might ask questions of parents and others.
I have less of an issue with a child actively asking the questions than the child passively receiving the information unbidden.
There are many people on this earth who have beliefs we disagree with or find repugnant. That does not, however, give us the right to indoctrinate their minor children with our belief system.
How pissed off would you be if your kids came home and told you that today, at After School Activity X, Mr. Jones told them:
Girls shouldn't wear skirts because in his religion, that's not allowed.
Black people are genetically disposed to be less smart than white people.
Gay people are unclean and shouldn't be allowed to ride the bus.
You'd probably explode with rage and call Mr. Jones on the carpet.
But, you see, Mr. Jones has his belief system, just like you have yours...
"Girls shouldn't wear skirts because in his religion, that's not allowed."
Becomes a discussion on religion and sexism. I would have a lower opinion of the teacher, but could easily handle the comment.
"Black people are genetically disposed to be less smart than white people."
Becomes a discussion on backing up your claims with data. Unlike the first comment, which is an opinion, this is a scientific claim. Does it have a racist motivation behind it? Where is the data coming from? Becomes a very interesting discussion on politics interfering with science.
"Gay people are unclean and shouldn't be allowed to ride the bus."
This one's got a little bit of everything.
I think the point, for me, is that we as parents need to accept that different ideas will reach the ears of our children. We have to teach them how to process those ideas.
But there are valid questions about age-appropriateness and role-appropriateness that reflect back on the teacher. That's a slightly different question. The two sides of the coin are an evaluation of the teacher's behavior and the effect on the child.
Honestly, Patti, I'd call the school -- definitely, if Mr. Jones had expressed a racist and scientifically incorrect opinion such as opinion B, above, or prejudicial and again scientifically incorrect opinion such as opinion C. Opinion A would make me laugh, but I'd probably still call the school because that is not in the school's dress code.
I would say to my child, "and what do you think of that?" Most children these days are pretty savvy about racism, anti-gay sentiment, and the need for scientific proof for such assertions. I can't imagine many children in this town, at least the ones I know, allowing anyone, even an adult teacher, to get away with such a statement. That's how I'd hear about it in the first place -- a child would come home and tell her parents.
You can't be afraid, as a parent, for your child to be exposed to other ideas. There's such an opportunity now to discuss that the world contains people like Mr. Jones, and to figure out exactly how we feel about what Mr. Jones said and why we believe it's wrong. Putting those gut feelings into words helps us explore, strengthen, and learn about our own convictions.
I'd be far more upset if Mr. Jones said something personal to my child, such as "you're stupid," or "you'd be much prettier with make-up", than if he expressed an idiotic and general opinion about his own beliefs. Speaking directly to my child in this way would be abusive. We do need to learn how to deal with abusive behavior, but in school children should be safe from this. Unfortunately, that is not always the case.
Children are not fragile little vessels that believe everything they're told. The most important thing we can teach them is how to think, and I am not afraid if my children believe something different from what I believe. I've never said to them, "you're a secular humanist," or "you're an atheist." I've told them what I believe and why. They have a very religious grandmother, and I let her say whatever she wants to them, and then I ask them what they think of it. In fact, I laughed one day when K was quite young and we saw an image of an Indian or Native American god (I can't remember which), and she said that maybe her grandmother would like it, because she liked gods. LOL. Children have a theory of mind, they can understand that different people have different belief systems.
Wait a minute: Mr. Jones isn't a teacher, he's a parent whose kid is involved in After School Activity X that is community based. The school has no control over the activity or the program.
And those were just examples of outrageous things I know you two would never teach your kids. When you said:
What if somebody is prejudiced against gay people? Do they have a right to bring their children up with that prejudice and protect them from weighty and personal discussions about sexuality with homosexuals?
Whether you like it or not, whether you agree with their views or not, these are
their children, and the answer is yes, they get to raise their children with their beliefs. I wrote the scenario I wrote to illustrate that they don't have the right to impress these views upon your kids.
Oh, okay, that wasn't clear. Mr. Jones is at the community center, or he's a soccer coach or Boy Scout leader, and he's said A,B, and C. So I don't call the school, but I still discuss it with my children in the same way. Now it's my choice whether to discuss it with Mr. Jones and whether to bring my children back to the activity, and that depends on a lot of details such as how often they'll see Mr. Jones, whether I think he'd become violent if somebody disagreed with his opinion, and whether I thought he was trying to start a new church with the kids in his community group or if it just came up or if he was even serious. Nothing's stopping me from volunteering myself, right? I could be a soccer coach or Boy Scout leader or whatever Mr. Jones does if I don't like the way he's doing it. For example, if a Girl Scout parent strongly objected to me discussing my beliefs with her daughter, she could start her own troop -- nothing stopping her. I'm a volunteer, and I'm not breaking any laws of scouting, in fact I'm supporting some fundamental ideas of Girl Scouts.
Anyway, no, I don't agree with your illustration. Nothing you have said has made your idea any clearer to me. Of course people get to raise their children with their beliefs, but I don't see how that means that I can't discuss my beliefs with their children. Please address that.
What does "impress" mean? Again, I get the idea you think children are very vulnerable to believing whatever somebody says. Mr. Jones said what he thought. We're talking about people expressing their beliefs. People are allowed to express their beliefs. It seems that you're saying that we don't have freedom of speech in front of other people's children. Is that what you're saying?
Are we talking about rights, polite society, what? What are you protecting, Patti?
By the way, I'm not just
saying that I wouldn't be upset with Mr. Jones' statements in order to make a point, where really I would be upset. I really wouldn't -- Mr. Jones can say what he wants about his beliefs. I don't think that's an unusual attitude for a parent to have.
I have a good friend who's religious, and a Republican, and she loved living in the south. The other day she said something about there being more fat women in the south, and I said (in front of her daughter), "That's because Jesus loves me no matter how much I weigh." She laughed. She didn't throw me out of her house for expressing an irreverent opinion about her religion. Maybe after I left, she said to her daughter, "Mrs. Burke doesn't believe in God and she's going to hell," because she's raising her daughter and she can teach her whatever she wants. But that doesn't mean that I can't say what I want! I fshe doesn't want to be friends with me, or chooses not to invite me to her house, that's her choice.
Anyway, no, I don't agree with your illustration. Nothing you have said has made your idea any clearer to me. Of course people get to raise their children with their beliefs, but I don't see how that means that I can't discuss my beliefs with their children. Please address that.
So if you agree that people get to raise their children as they see fit, and you don't see why
you can't discuss your beliefs with thier children, are you saying you would be perfectly alright if the shoe was on the other foot?
To wit, you agree you are allowed to raise your children as you see fit, and Mr. Jones is welcome to discuss his beliefs with your children? Given your previous reaction, I submit you would not.
In addition, while I do not think children are "fragile little vessels that believe everything they're told," they are still children who will lack critical thinking skills until they mature. This is why children are not allowed to do some things adults are allowed to do, and need to be monitored in activities they are allowed to do, such as participate in online chat rooms, for example.
Your children are, I believe, sharper than most because you and James don't talk down to them and have made an effort to raise them as critical thinkers. I would posit the majority of children are not of the same caliber.
Wow. This is a very interesting discussion, but let me add my trivial experience.
For all intents and purposes, I am an atheist. When my son was about eight, he would occasionally cite 'God' in some story or another he was telling me (as in 'God made it that way.') When I asked him where he got such ideas he kind of shrugged. We discussed it some, and I realized that he was getting his religious ideas from other grade school children.
This bothered me, of course. Since I did not feel up to the task of introducing him to all the information that led me to my belief system, I started examining my options. I located and started attending functions at the local Unitarian Universalist church. When I was satisfied that their purposes was to help their flock with their own spiritual journey without spoon feeding them any particular version of dogma, I started bringing my son to their Sunday school. Our UU church includes a VERY wide spectrum of religious beliefs, mostly very liberal.
We have been attending this church for about six years now. My son is a very active member of the high school youth group. Recently, he and I wandered into a religious discussion. He believes in God, but respects my lack of belief. We are even able to joke about it. I respect his beliefs as well, since I know that he settled upon them after being presented with a variety of viewpoints and weighing them with his own intellect before arriving at a place he found comfortable.
Don't you wish that everyone could do that with religion? Sadly, I think that many people either adopt their parents' religion without thought, or take on the first religion that offers them comfort when the perplexities of life overwhelm them.
If you don't discuss your religious beliefs with your children, at a level appropriate to their age with as much detail as they are willing to take, they are somewhat vulnerable to absorbing the first belief system offered to them by someone that they trust, even if that person isn't consciously lobbying for their conversion to that belief system. Children have questions about how the universe works, even if they don't always come right out and ask those questions. If you haven't probed them and offered them your own answers, or merely offered your answers preemptively, they may eventually stumble on someone else's answers that you may not agree with. Children are like sponges.
How do I convince you that yes, I think Mr. Jones has a right to discuss his beliefs with my children? I don't think I can be more clear about it.
When you tell somebody what they're thinking, it's usually what
you're thinking. Please read what I've actually written. At no time have I said that a person shouldn't express their views to somebody else's children, except where it's age inappropriate or abusive.
No, I don't agree with Mr. Jones. Yes, he may express his beliefs to my children. Yes, that has happened plenty of times. No, I didn't freak out or get angry -- I discussed it with my children.
What does make me angry is when people are physically or emotionally abusive to my children. Those are the only occasions on which I've ever talked to anybody about how they behave around them.
But even if it would upset me, that doesn't justify the opinion that it's wrong. One person being upset or offended doesn't justify a philosophy. It is BECAUSE children lack critical thinking skills that they should be exposed to different ideas and taught how to think about them.
You still haven't explained how people lose their right of free speech around other people's children. Please stop trying to use what you imagine are my feelings as an argument and provide an actual argument, or concede, or call me an unreasonable rabid atheist or call it a day. :-)
I think we're actually in agrement, but somehow it's gotten lost.
I'm sure there is more common ground than less. I was trying to tease out the justification for the argument that people shouldn't discuss their religious beliefs with somebody else's child.
Can I concede AND call you an unreasonable rabid atheist? ;-)
As long as you don't call collect. ;-)
I think I might ask why the kids are interested in joining the religion; it may be nothing more than an interest in all the pomp and circumstance surrounding their rituals.
There's an awful lot of color and activity and flourish in many religious rituals, so the kids might be interested in the "show." They might also like the implication that magical things can happen if you just believe hard enough.
I'd probably try to find out their motivations before thinking about how to approach the subject with them.
Liking a person isn't really a great reason to join their religion, I don't think. But kids (and humans in general) tend to have a need to "belong". Kids like to conform. I suspect if the kids hang out with the tutor's kids, and the tutor's kids are always talking about their religion and how wonderful it is, your friends kids may feel left out.
I won't call it peer pressure... not sure what you would call it. But that might be what's going on.
I think if my daughter expressed a desire to join a friend's religion I would want to know exactly why she was making that choice to be sure it was for the right reasons. A 10 year old can be very impulsive and irrational, and part of a parent's job is to show their children how to approach the world rationally, to sit back and think, to make good critical decisions.
It might be worth it to talk to the tutor and ask him/her to express in no uncertain terms to these children that the tutor's family likes them just fine no matter what religious beliefs they hold.
Oh no, I missed this earlier. This is a great discussion! Maggie, I hadn't thought about talking with other peopls' children the way you have, and it gives me something interesting to think about. I am still really uncomfortable with other people talking about religion with my children, though. I lost a friend whose children insisted on proselytizing my children (they were Jehovah's Witnesses) because her kids felt they were obligated to do so to my kids, who were really small then. When I approached the friend to ask if we could keep religion out of the playtime our kids enjoyed, she became quite angry, told me her children's religious beliefs stated that they tell others about their religion and that she certainly would not tell them otherwise. That was the end of playtimes together- I ddin't feel it was appropriate for another family to try and persuade my 5 year old that his own religion was the wrong one.
More to the point, our maths tutor(those are my kids in JP's original post) didn't exactly bring up her beliefs, but the kids do see her various statues and religious drawings which are prominently displayed in her home. When they began asking questions, her answers were at the very least designed to make the boys curious to learn more, if not outright proselytization.When she began setting up discussion groups for my 15 year old, I became really uncomfortable. I don't want to say 'angry', but...definitely uncomfortable.
The funniest thing about this has been peoples' reaction to the actual names of the religion involved. When I first asked another friend for her opinion without giving specifics, she responded very negatively, saying she certainly would not allow any 'born-agains' to try and convert her children. However, when I said that our friends are pagans and this was the religion being discussed, her answer changed drastically. Would that make a difference to you guys? At first, it did to me. I was trying a lot harder to be polite and tolerant of a religion with which I don't agree because it was not Christianity- I would have been polite but firm from the very beginning. After examining that, I found it interesting that my attitudes to the situation changed with the two different religions under discussion.
Have I rambled enough? I hope you're going to continue this discussion, because the ideas I'm getting are really good in that I am forced to think this through from another's POV.
For whatever it's worth, the kind of situation that Cindy describes would probably make me very angry. (I don't think it's just "probably," but since I don't have kids I have to use some weasel wording.)
I think it's fine to give straight answers if kids ask questions. The problem is that, while there are many people that I know personally and would trust with this kind of thing, I wouldn't trust just *any* adult (even one in position of authority) to give accurate, rational, honest information about their own religion to curious children, any more than I would trust pre-Alzheimer's Charlton Heston to give reliable information about guns. (Who knows - perhaps dementia has mellowed him.)
And yes, I am aware that I'm comparing religion (at least some of it) to firearms. This may not be completely fair, but it depends on a lot of things that this other adult, being not-my-kid's-parent, is in no position to evaluate (and may not even care about).
And I'm not talking about people I'm close to. I pretty much know what to expect from them. This would be more like people who have access to the kids but I don't know much about them beyond the scope of whatever the relationship is (i.e. I wouldn't expect to know much about a tutor's private life and would expect the tutor to maintain a PROFESSIONAL relationship with the children).
I would expect a decent person in this situation to say to the child's parents, "your kid has a lot of questions about my religion that go beyond casual curiosity - I thought you should know." If they didn't, I would see this person as deliberately hiding this information, perhaps trying to screw with my family.
Maybe they're doing it for what they believe to be the kids' own good - saving them from eternal damnation, or preparing them for the arrival of the mother ship, or whatever. That's a scary thought, but you can't know. Even if I believe that my kids' brains are unwashable, this other person doesn't know that, and it seems that they are hoping to take advantage of the situation.
So, for me, a lot of this boils down to:
1) I don't consider religion to be harmless;
2) I don't consider even semi-known adults to be harmless;
3) My wish to stay informed isn't about respect for a person's religion/lack of it, because there are a lot of subjects this applies to. This is more about respect for the parent/child relationship;
4) If my kid is showing a lot of interest in a particular subject with another adult, but has never mentioned it to me, there might be a problem. I wouldn't expect to be seen as an expert in all things, but if something's occupying that much space in their brains you would hope it'd come out in conversation.
Maybe they just assume that their parents wouldn't understand, or wouldn't be interested. But for something like this to be some other adult's secret seems really improper to me. I'd consider it a sort of professional courtesy among adults to keep one another informed of these things, assuming that no abuse is suspected.
I'm sorry I hijacked the discussion and went off on the right of free speech. This is a parenting issue and more complicated than that. People have the right of free speech and I don't think there's anything wrong with them discussing their personal beliefs. Again, how do you dispel it if it isn't discussed? Proselytizing is also within their rights, but is personally distasteful to me (and I think most people), and would certainly end a relationship for me if it didn't stop.
Why is proselytizing distasteful? For one, some religions require their members to do it, so basically you're being used: enduring some boorish and silly conversation so your "friend" can get his imaginary reward. If your friend doesn't want you humping his leg, he shouldn't try to convert you to his religion. Fair's fair.
For another, it seems to cross the line of respecting your personal beliefs. To discuss it once is okay, to persist after you've told the person you're not interested is irritating, at the very least. At that point it's no longer a conversation, it's a sick, pathetic obsession.
Like Julie, I also don't consider religion harmless, and maybe James' discussion of pornography, which got lost in the fray, is relevant here. I must say that it is within somebody's right to discuss pornography with my children when they are adults, but the content of that discussion could end a friendship and certainly calls into question the psychological health of the friend, again, depending on the content. (To a lesser degree, a person who insists on telling a child how she should dress, wear her hair, and suggests make-up also, in my opinion, has an unhealthy attitude and I would tell her to stop or risk ending our relationship.)
The difference is expressing a personal belief, "I like to wear make-up because I think a woman doesn't look 'complete' when she's un-made-up," vs. abusing the child, "You really need to wear make-up because you are inadequate as you are." "I am a Christian because I'm afraid that if I don't believe, then I won't see my loved ones when I die," vs. abuse: "Non-Christians burn in hell... let me tell you about hell."
The trick is teaching your children to read between the lines and understand that *everything* another person says is prefaced with, "I believe," and that doesn't make the belief valid. That's a tough lesson, especially with a charismatic person. It's so much easier to laugh at a fat, unshaven slob holding up an issue of Cosmo and saying, "Why don't you dress like this?" than it is to deal with your boyfriend saying it, for example. (Unless your boyfriend is the fat, unshaven slob.) You can squint a little at the murderer on death row who's suddenly "found Jesus," but when it's an intelligent person you like and trust, that's tougher, especially in the honeymoon phase of the relationship.
And there's the novelty of that pagan religion. "Maybe this one's right," kind of like finding that ad in the back of a magazine for a skin cream or something. "Nobody's heard of this (nobody's bothering to discredit it specifically), I'll bet it works!"
Some lessons you need to learn on your own. Think how much more powerful the conviction against organized religion will be if they come to the conclusions themselves. How old were you when you came to it? I was lucky enough to have been raised (mostly) outside of religion, so I never went through the pain of shedding it. I think it's harder for people raised in a religion.
I think an atheist's point of view is helpful here, and maybe it would help you to talk to your sons, Cindy, if you explored that point of view some (maybe you already have). I would study why people seem to need religion, and try to figure out what reasons are motivating your sons. And I think definitely the "We're both atheists, I just believe in one fewer god than you" point of view is very helpful in putting religion into perspective. The more abstract and global your view, the easier it is to see all religions as the same, to see the pomp as pompous and to see the magical beliefs as psychologically based.
It's also easier to pull out the stuff you believe in. There's a lot of philosophy in zen buddhism and in the teachings of jesus that I personally agree with (and a lot that I don't). That might be the best place to start with a child, and you might hold up your original religion as an example, "This is why I left X, but this is what kept me there for so long, I agree with a,b, and c. But I realized that I don't need X to believe a,b, and c, and in fact X was doing me harm because of..." That sort of thing. Model the thinking you would like them to have about their new religion. Help them make it personal.
Like Julie also, I would be angry if somebody tried to convert my child to their religion, as I said in the "Mr. Jones" conversation, I'd remove them from Mr. Jones if I thought he was trying to start a church. If he tried to start a church before I found out and my children had gotten sucked in, then I would try the damage control described above. I might have to accept, like KH, that my child has beliefs I don't share. This is reasonable... children are entitled to their beliefs... just not easy to accept. Once, influenced by a good friend, I told my parents that I was a Republican. They didn't bat an eye, and it passed, LOL. Sometimes, as a parent, you just have to weather these things. And sometimes your child ends up very different from you, and you need to find the commonalities and focus on that.
Literature and movies can be a good way to move a person, because they dramatize a situation and provide an example of behavior that feels personal. I might whip out a movie about Jonestown if there is such a thing and if I thought Mr. Jones' religion was particularly kooky. (Actually, they all seem kooky to me, so I'd probably do that anyway. "Here, honey, this is you. Lookin' good!")
If your child says something like a character in the hypothetical Jonestown movie, I know with my children it would only take a look for them to realize what I was thinking and to do a little self-evaluation. "Crap, I'm just like Barbie, and Barbie drank the kool-aid!"
It certainly isn't an easy situation. Good luck with it, Cindy.
Geez, you'd think I talked enough.
I just wanted to say, and you probably know this, that children have to go through that phase where they assert themselves as different from you and explore things that you specifically find distasteful.
The right approach might be the, "that's cute, dear," approach. It really depends on your child and your relationship with your child. Actually saying this out loud to your ten-year-old, in an aside, will probably save him. "Y'know, > is at an age where he has to do something to feel like he's his own person, and I think this is what he's chosen. As soon as he's a little older he'll see it as silly." My ten-year-old would (I'm fairly certain), laugh and say, "Yeah, silly," at that point, if we were discussing her older sister.
My sister is a "horse person" and was very influenced by the woman whose barn she worked at when she was a teenager. I'm sure it drove my parents crazy. This woman had an "open marriage" and sent pictures of herself (in chaps only) to Penthouse magazine. Eventually she divorced her husband and ran off with her "first love" when he was released from prison. Needless to say, my sister does not have an open marriage and doesn't send pictures of herself to Penthouse, and has never run off with an ex-con. She can laugh fondly about the poor woman at this point. It passed, but I'm sure it was upsetting to my parents at the time!