Note: This is published with the permission of my wife and daughter, who are discussed but not named.
I’ve never liked the Pledge of Allegiance. But a recent parenting experience really brought home the coercive nature of this ceremony and the divisive impact it has on nonreligious citizens. My family learned a hard lesson.
As an atheist father of young kids, and my wife a recovering Lutheran, our initial plan was to forego any discussion of religion, gods or the afterlife until our kids started asking questions on those topics, at which point—as those familiar with my prior writings might imagine—I will have plenty to say.
This plan seemed reasonable, since the metaphysical claims of religion are all false. If you teach young kids about the moon, you probably wouldn’t mention the moon landing denial conspiracy theory. Since it’s not based in reality, it’s not something small children need to know until they confront it and start asking questions, at which time you can teach them how to be good skeptics.
One of our major objections to raising kids with religion is not just that heaven, hell and gods are all myths, but that indoctrination relies on the fact that young kids are tremendously gullible. When parents tell their kids that every word of the King James Bible is true, their children will likely believe them without a second thought.
Since we want to raise kids who are true freethinkers, my wife and I were reluctant to tell them that we’re atheists, and that gods don’t exist. This would be accepted without question, and it feels too close to telling a four-year-old, “We’re Catholic, God exists and the Pope can talk to him.” So we put this discussion off as long as possible.
Initially, our plan worked well. After my wife’s father died, my daughter became very interested in the concept of death, but she understood the simple, true explanation that nothing lasts forever. And she seems to have taken to heart our reminders that the temporary nature of life makes all of our relationships precious, and we should cherish every day that we have with those we love. No one suggested that her grandpa was somehow living forever and is waiting for her in a magical realm above the sky, and so she never asked. The truth is, after all, much simpler.
But then came kindergarten. Although my daughter loves school—recently she lamented that she didn’t have school on the weekend, which I’ll have to get in writing for the future—this new chapter in her life brought new changes to her daily life. For one, on car rides she would see an American flag and robotically drone, “I pledge allegiance to the flag…,” all the way to her conclusion, “…with liberty and justice for all. Have a great day!”
The pledge has always seemed weird to me, and it’s especially weird to hear a five-year-old mindlessly repeat every word just as it’s read over the loudspeaker each day, not even realizing that the last four are not part of the “pledge” itself. She memorized each word long before she thought about what any of them meant. That’s creepy.
But she soon started thinking about what the words meant, which led to the question at dinner one day: “What does ‘one nation under God’ mean?” Initially, my wife deftly parried the question, saying the phrase is a funny way of saying, “We hope the country stays safe.”
When our daughter asked again a couple weeks later, I gave her an honest historical crash course about why humans imagine gods, beginning with something like: “When humans couldn’t explain lightning, they imagined a great monster in the sky throwing down bolts when it was angry. They called them gods, but now we know that’s not how it works.” My wife, as a former Christian and more sensitive to language that might offend my daughter’s classmates, was not thrilled with my choice to characterize God as a “monster.”
She changed her mind on this point, and we both changed our mind on our entire plan to hold off on the “god talk,” when Christmas approached. Like many atheists, we celebrate Christmas with family, lights, decorations, and presents. We put up a tree in our living room, and reindeer on our lawn. We never pretended that Santa was real, while letting our daughter know that she shouldn’t spoil it for other kids. Then one day, my daughter came home from school to say that an All-Knowing First Grader told her all about the “true meaning” of Christmas, which was that Jesus died on Christmas and came back three days later to go to heaven.
This first grader’s remark, although humorously a bit fuzzy on her own theology, was a major wake-up call. On further discussion, my daughter said that multiple other classmates had mentioned Jesus, heaven and church to her, and that she trusts them and was curious, but hadn’t asked us yet because, well, she was busy asking about how crayons are made, what she should do if a wild animal gets into our house, and dozens of other random topics each day.
Clearly, we had to rethink our approach. The sad reality is that being a kid in America means that you’re going to get proselytized, and it happens earlier than parents might think. Young kids are, after all, tremendously gullible, and churches know that they need to plant their seeds before kids are too mature to question them. (Churches even train children to do this with something called “peer to peer” evangelizing. Look it up.)
So we did a complete 180 on our approach. The same evening we learned about our daughter’s interaction with the first-grader, we introduced her to FFRF Co-President Dan Barker’s fantastic book, Just Pretend, which illustrates the importance of remembering what is real and what is just a story, even when it’s fun to pretend that fictional stories are true.
Our philosophy with the Santa story—telling the truth but explaining that it might make other kids sad if you tell them—provided an easy analogy to explain god belief. Of course, there was the uncomfortable fact that, unlike with Santa, many adults in her life really believe in an all-knowing, all-seeing creator god who reigns over a magical land where all their dead relatives live.
But at the end of the day, although I’ve counseled my daughter not to bring it up, a part of me wants to be a fly on the wall when a five-year-old lays waste to the obvious absurdity of religious belief in the brutally honest way that only a young child can. Some poor true-believing grandma is not going to know what hit her.
The lesson we learned is this: Teach your kids to be skeptical thinkers, but don’t be afraid to talk to them about religion, gods and the afterlife myth. In this country, if you’re not talking to your five-or six-year-old about the metaphysical claims of religion, someone else probably is.
At the Freedom From Religion Foundation, we’ve long fought against “under God” in the pledge. We’ve written hundreds of letters for parents to school districts, lobbied Congress, litigated cases, written articles and even books to explain that Congress’ tampering with the Pledge of Allegiance in the 1950s by inserting religion is harmful.
But while I’ve defended kindergartners being forced to say the pledge elsewhere in the country, this experience underscores how the pledge forces young kids into religious conversations at a tender age, even when schools are not violating the law, and often without parents’ knowledge. That’s too bad. I wish we could ditch this weird nationalistic practice altogether—or at least make it secular again, so that it’s not at odds with our Constitution. Until then, it’s more proof that everything you need to know you learned in kindergarten—even how to respond when someone tries to sell you immortality.