How Can We Protect Our Children from Religious Recruiting and Heartache?

By Valerie Tarico

“Sunday was a day of just so much external restraint as public opinion absolutely demanded. I learned at last, as I came to be about seventeen, that my father was an entire freethinker, as much as I am now. It shocked me much, because he never taught me anything, allowed me to pick up religion from any one around me, and then scolded me because I embraced beliefs which he knew must condemn him. I think this neglect to be honest with children is a terrible evil. I have lost years of thought, and wandered wide and done such unwise conceited things, and encountered risks for soul and body, all of which might have been obviated by his frank teaching.”
-- Moncure Daniel Conway, Autobiography (1904)

" I did what I thought was the right thing so my children would not have to unlearn all that my church taught me--I took them out of the Methodist Sunday School and put them into a Unitarian church school which they then refused to attend. One was Jewish then Buddhist then Unitarian and I don't know what now, two are not religious and one is a born-again who does not know if she is evangelical or fundamentalist--but believes in the rapture--and she is teaching her 5 children that stuff. Would it have been better to leave them as Methodists?"
--A Seattle mother and grandmother, 2007

As I speak publically about fundamentalism, one theme I encounter is the pain of parents who have lost children to religious recruiters. My friends, Elise and Thomas, have a wonderful smart daughter who was recruited into Jehovah’s Witnesses by a college boyfriend and now spends much of her time doorbelling. A colleague has little contact with his grown son, who isolates himself in a fundamentalist Evangelical community. Yet another woman, a professor, is cut off from her grandchildren because her scientific world view is perceived as a threat. One couple stood by helpless as their daughter struggled with her marriage to an abusive Muslim who demanded absolute obedience to himself and his religion. All of these parents feel helpless and often heartbroken.

For them, it may be too late to do anything other than wait, hoping that life circumstances and their ongoing love will bring their children back around. But what about those of us who are parenting right now? What is the best way to inoculate children against the predations of religious recruiting? I don’t think any of us know for sure. My hypotheses are along the lines, below, but they are only hypotheses. For the purposes of my public speaking and writing, I would welcome thoughts/ideas from any of you on this topic.

1. Educate them about the history of religion and the Christian religions specifically. Put Christianity in a broader context. Make sure they know the myths that the Bible emerged out of and how our modern Bible got built. Teach them about the political and cultural influences that shaped our current selection of belief systems.

2. Educate them about the psychology of belief – how religions get transmitted, how they fit into our brains, why they feel so powerful. Explain “book worship,” why sacred texts are the perfect idols in our modern era. Help them understand why other people become "true believers," and how Christianity, specifically, turns believers into recruiters.

3. Actively prepare them for encounters with recruiting: What does “friendship” missions look like? How about when you are being recruited by a loved one? How can you perceive the (often slow, patient) hidden agenda? How can you respond with kindness and firmness to a persistent and beloved missionary?

4. Find a way to not only model but also articulate your own moral core, perhaps within some kind of community that shares your values. Teach your children about the ways that familiar religions violate our shared moral core, or universal ethical principles. In other words when religious dogmas are immoral, point this out and process it together. Watch for teachable moments.

5. As much as possible, help your children knit themselves into communities that don’t require them to subsume the individual self to a cult self. These can include communities built around activities or social networks but try also to find one that includes dialogue about morality and meaning. As is said, nature abhors a vacuum.

6. Teach them about the good as well as the bad in our received traditions, and in local religious communities. If you only teach them about what is bad, then when they encounter warmth, love, mutuality, and joy they will think you were wrong. Teach them how to be selective in the service of a higher, deeper set of goals and values: to glean the good and leave the bad.

7. Block access of recruiters to your children. No matter how much educating you've done and how healthy your kids are, don’t assume it is safe to send your children to a nondenominational summer camp or youth group any more than you would assume it is safe to send them to a Scientology camp or youth group. Where you can, pull the plug on friendships that involve religious recruiting.

Valerie Tarico, Ph.D. is a psychologist in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of The Dark Side: How Evangelical Teachings Corrupt Love and Truth. Additional essays can be found at

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