‘I taught English to a supermarket manager abroad’, says my sister. We’re eating, and each remembering time spent overseas.
‘No you didn’t!’ Her four-year-old sits between us, incredulous.
‘Before I had you’, my sister explains.
‘When I was in your tummy?’
‘When I was with Jesus?’
An hour or two later, and again I’m sat at the table, typing this post. My sister, actively evangelical and apparently fearing awkwardness, changed the subject swiftly, and the lump in my throat I swallowed then has re-emerged now.
I don’t know what to write. I don’t know what to say. Moments later, I found out they take part in Operation Christmas Child, used by U.S. fundamentalists to make converts of impoverished children. I don’t know how to tell my sister this, or ask if she knows – if she’s aware, specifically, of their director’s statements that Islamic nations deserve nuclear attack and the children of Hindus are ‘bound by Satan’s power’.
Though I don’t think she compares to Franklin Graham, I’m worried that if I tell her how OCC indoctrinate children, I’ll end up accusing her of doing the same. And what really worries me is that I’d be right.
A tenth of her large household income goes to her church, part of the charismatic Newfrontiers network. Other members meet regularly at her house, and held prayer sessions in each part when she first moved in. The playroom shelf includes a home-made magic wand, on the end of which a gold star bears the ballpoint pen inscription, JESUS IS THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD.
My sister has a right to her religion – I wouldn’t tell her otherwise – but I’m worried by her child’s subjection to it. I’m worried, and I don’t know what to do.
If this seems shrill, I still remember vividly my own religious childhood. I remember the Lord’s Prayer on my knees each day at infant school, being told I had atheist relatives now in Hell, and my nine-year-old tantrum at a careless hairdresser – then going to bed in a cold sweat, terrified of God’s wrath since I’d wished death on her. I remember saying in junior school that my father, previously violent, was a demon walking the earth, and remember thinking it. I remember the demonic spirits Mum feared in the house, the distinctive smell that alerted her to them, and the prayer – the assertion, ‘Jesus is Lord!’ repeated on a loop – we said to repel them. I remember the fit I had aged seven or eight, when at her phonecall the head of our church came to the house to resolve an argument, and the sudden feeling of being crushed but what I’d now guess were chest cramps. I remember being told, in the aftermath, that when I told him to go away, it was Satan talking.
Though it’s likely there are members of my sister’s church far more extreme than she, I don’t see her child suffering most of this. That makes me glad. But her belief aged only four that she ‘was with Jesus’ stems from the same indoctrination – literally – as my belief in a God who could hurt me, a demonic father and a lake of fire.
If a psychiatric patient were in my sister’s care who would believe everything she said, she’d think before speaking; she’d take care not to pass off personal beliefs as undisputed facts, since the patient couldn’t ever take them with a pinch of salt. But due to a medical condition – infancy – her four-year-old is credulous to just that degree. To hear a child that age refer to Jesus like a classmate suggests a total unawareness that doubters exist, or that other deities have ever been proposed. ‘Teach the controversy’, we’re sometimes told. Quite.
It’s possible that if I wanted children of my own, I’d be accused by some of teaching them atheism, but I’d never try to pass my unfaith off as a universal standpoint shared by everyone. There’s enormous disagreement about which gods exist, if any; I’m one of fairly few who think there are none, but I wouldn’t want to pretend all adults agree. The worry I feel now is the same I felt watching the recent, viral ‘No homos in Heaven’ clip, and seeing the WBC’s ‘God hates the world’ sung by a child. Yes, these are much more extreme religious beliefs, but they spring from the same supernaturalist vein as any belief in Jesus. To take one religion’s claims as read by the age of five risks an impaired ability later on to sort truth from fantasy; it opens the door to extremism, and credulity in general.
It’s tempting, as a blogger, to write as if you hold solutions for everything. But I’m worried that this happens in my family, and I don’t know for the life of me what to do.