this week's problem

Joan's in-laws are coming to stay to care for her two children for three months while she accompanies her husband on a business trip. However, they are churchgoers, and say grace, and Joan, a confirmed atheist, wants her children to go to a friend on Sundays instead of attending church. They'd be bored, anyway. Could she suggest it without causing offence?

Is Joan really an atheist? I suspect she might be a secret Moonie or Scientologist - for on reading last week's dilemma they must have been rubbing their hands with glee as they prepared to welcome another couple of young converts in a few years' time. Does Joan not realise that discouraging her children from going to church is precisely the way to make them prime candidates for cult-joining in the future?

If she keeps from them the idea of the mystery of religion, if she doesn't teach them what praying is about, they'll be completely at sea in the spiritual world. Those of us who have been to a variety of religious ceremonies know well the spiritual high that can assault the senses. Whether it's a valid, truly spiritual buzz or simply a mental state induced by sitting on hard seats, listening to sensational music and talking about love and forgiveness, I wouldn't know. Personally, I vacillate easily between one and the other. But imagine if, as a confused adolescent, you caught your very first whiff of spiritual intensity. You would want to sign up immediately, such is the longing to be part of this newly discovered emotional haven.

Merely in the interest of their education, Joan should take her children to a few church services so they know how a service is conducted. From a purely cultural point of view, she should introduce them to hymns, images of Christ, and Bible stories. But if she wants them to be open-minded about religion she should take them to a great many, different, ceremonies - from Muslim to Mormon events, from Quaker meetings to New Age, Freya- worshipping groups. They will grow up to understand that there are many routes to the same awareness that there seems to be something "other" and greater in our lives. Only then will they be able to question whether this "other" has any validity for them.

Joan should certainly not discourage her children from attending church with their loving grandparents - but, having said all this, she should vet the local church services with the children before the grandparents arrive. I innocently pottered into a perfectly normal-looking Victorian Gothic church the other day in a London suburb only to find that the "speaker" (for so he was called) was giving a talk on why homosexuals and anyone who had an abortion would fry in hell. The hymns were repetitive and happy- clappy, and the immense friendliness of the congregation was extremely seductive, in a distinctly evil, creepy way. Though the grandparents would doubtless see this style of service in the larger context of their own faith, it could seem threatening to children coming to formal religion for the first time, particularly to children feeling vulnerable in the long absence of their parents (ahem, ahem, Joan, this is the voice of your conscience speaking).

But in the end, if the children do turn to religion, temporarily or long term, so what? As long as they don't want to ram it down everyone's throats, there's little harm in it, and only comfort. Truly religious people do, generally, seem happy, and good to their fellow men.

As a loving mother, does Joan not want everything for her children that might give them innocent comfort? And more importantly, as a loving mother, does she not trust her children's innate good sense and general marvellousness that in the long term they would always be able to make choices which were right for them?

readers' responses

Speaking as an agnostic married to a devout Christian, I remember well as a child being pressurised by my father to conform and take a more active role in the church. I remember too draughty churches and hard pews, with only the counting of stained glass panels to kill time.

Notwithstanding this, you must allow your children, young as they are, to experience the comforts that religion has to offer. I suspect that they, like you, will feel strong enough to face life as individuals. If they do find a spiritual home in the church, then it is bound to happen, either now or in years to come. If they don't, then they will be gaining a valuable lesson in respecting the views and beliefs of others, even when they differ from their own (a lesson many believers would do well to learn).

Anthony W Prime

Cheshire

My husband and I are both strongly atheist, each of us having been brought up in stiflingly Catholic surroundings. Nevertheless, we allowed our children to join their friends in Anglican Sunday school and later to sing in the church choir. The crunch came when, like your children, they spent extended holidays on their own with their Catholic grandparents. Now in their thirties, they are both untroubled atheists and nicely tolerant of other people's beliefs.

If your parents-in-law are taking over for you, let them take over fully. Teach them to be polite and helpful to their grandparents, which will look after the question of how to behave when grace is said. What harm does it do? Even if they were bored at any of these "strange" practices, is it not a good chance for them to learn that one cannot always have one's own way?

Mrs B Wallis

London

Religion should be part of everyone's experience, along with music, sport and travel, so that out of the whole mix one chooses eventually for oneself.

How many children go to church for the first time of their own volition? Or to local amateur drama group productions or professional theatre? To an opera? To a foreign country and try eating local food?

All of these experiences were wished on me in my childhood, and I am grateful for them even though I may not have thought much of them at the time. I joined a church choir at 18, kept it going through national service and university and turned to humanism and atheism in my mid-twenties. I was able to reject belief in gods because I knew what it was I was rejecting.

Let your kids be taken to church by their grandparents. They may be alienated by the experience, and if they're not then they would have "found" religion at some later stage and there is nothing as a parent you could do to prevent it.

Martin Kyrle

Hampshire

Leave well alone and you may be surprised to find that the children actually enjoy their visits to church. As an atheist brought up by atheists, I used to look forward to my visits to church with an elderly aunt. It was novel, I was made to feel welcome and important and spoilt by my aunt's friends and, although it did nothing in the end to change my views, it certainly did no harm.

Lynne Waite

Gwynedd

The best way to put children off going to church is to expose them to regular services with their grandparents. Yes, Joan, a six- and seven- year-old will be bored rigid. By letting them attend church, Joan can guarantee the children will share her atheist views.

Ms Greer Nicholson

Essex

next week's dilemma

Dear Virginia,

We have two children of nine and 10 and they are both pestering us with questions about sex. I did once give them a basic book on the facts of life, but I'm at a loss to answer their more intimate questions. For instance, my son this morning asked what homosexuals do to each other in bed! My daughter asked me what rape was, and it won't be long before I'm asked about oral sex. My husband thinks I should leave them to find out about these things from their friends - and I gather their own magazines can be pretty explicit! - but I feel that I should answer them honestly. However, I'm not sure whether I should tell them, and how much. I don't want just to buy another book and give it to them. I feel it's such a cop-out and it would make it all seem as if I thought it was dirty and secret. Have other readers any experiences? And how did they find out the "secondary" facts of life?

Yours sincerely, Deirdre

All comments are welcome, and everyone who has a suggestion quoted will be sent a Dynagrip 50 ballpen from Paper:Mate. Please send relevant personal experiences or comments to me at the Features Department, The Independent, 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London, E14 5DL; fax 0171-293 2182, by Tuesday morning. If you have any dilemmas of your own you would like to share, let me know.

With reference to 'Right to Life' (1 February 1996) by Pat Walsh, the author wishes to point out that the views expressed were not entirely her own.

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