Education: 'Don't forget God is watching you, Mummy'

Religious education can pose a dilemma for atheist parents.
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The Independent Online
"WHAT DID you do at school today?" I ask my weary five-year-old as she sits slumped on the sofa, eyes glued to the TV.

"I can't remember."

"Reading... number-work... art?" I enquire hopefully. Suddenly her face lights up. "Oh yes, I know. We learnt a new song in assembly. Do you want me to sing it?"

Without waiting for a reply she launches into a happy-clappy performance of Kum Ba Yah, My Lord, insisting on full audience participation in the choruses. It's sweet and funny, but I can't help feeling disconcerted by Rose's new found enthusiasm for religious education.

I'm not anti-religion, but I don't believe in God. So now I'm faced with a dilemma. How should I respond to that hot potato of a question, "Did God make everything?" and sinister asides such as, "Don't forget God is watching you, Mummy."

Of course, the obvious answer is to sit on the fence. I've tried to explain to Rose that some people believe in God and some don't. However, this does lay one open to the inevitable question, "Which one do you believe?", and the subsequent humiliation of having to admit to being a complete heathen.

I could opt for the feeble "no one really knows", but this would appear dismissive and highly implausible to a child who misguidedly assumes that grown-ups know everything about everything.

It's our own fault. If we had talked through this God thing at an earlier stage it wouldn't have been such a new and interesting concept. I like to think that, throughout her pre-school years, I did my best to educate my daughter. But I have to admit as a couple of unchristened atheists, her father and I have been somewhat lax with regard to her religious education.

The fact has not escaped unnoticed. Only last week I was chastened by the observation, "Only my teacher and the vicar who comes to assembly tell me about God - you don't."

It's true, I don't. But why should I? And, for that matter, why should they?

Rose attends a small county primary school distinctly lacking in ethnic mix, so I obviously approve of lessons that will teach her about Judaism and Sikhism and discuss the faiths and traditions of other cultures. I'm delighted to say that, since starting school, Rose has become our resident expert in the field of "world religion". Only last week we were treated to a very informative talk on "Diwali: the Hindu festival of lights" based on a class discussion timed to coincide with the festivities.

All well and good, but why can't Christianity be taught in the same objective way? Instead, the existence of God seems to be presented as fact. Since this is reinforced daily by compelling Bible stories and catchy hymns, it's easy to see why Rose is hooked. Brought up on Pocahontas, Mulan, Aladdin and Hercules, she probably sees Mary and Joseph as the "romantic interest" in a Disney-style animation. Given half a chance, she'd be plugged into "A Christmas Story: the Interactive CD" while cuddling a "Beanie Baby Jesus".

If I'm honest, I have to admit that I quite enjoy being the recipient of approving smiles from little old ladies as I do my weekly shop accompanied by Rose and her rousing rendition of All Things Bright and Beautiful. But I know that one of these days my daughter is going to want some straight answers. I will have to explain why I don't believe in God and then let her draw her own conclusions.

The trouble is, five-year-olds are unable to come to a balanced decision based on rational argument; they are more likely to adopt the opinion of the person they like best.

So if, like my unfortunate daughter, they have a godless mother and a Bible-bashing teacher, they are faced with a problem: how can two of the most important figures in their life, united on such issues as the importance of wearing a coat at playtime, disagree on the existence of God?

Well, I wouldn't say Rose is gullible, but she is a sucker for a good story, so I think I know whose side she'll be on.