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


Anonymous said...

Great post. There's a forum dealing with this -- see link below.

Also, there's a podcast done by a friend of mine, Dr. Zachary Moore. Here's the link.

Anonymous said...

I wish I had this asvice when my kids were kids. I have one Catholic, one Buddhist, and one born again. I also have a (honerery) God child who just became an orthodox Jew. I don't know how to deal with it, so I fit in with those you mention that are in pain over this situation. I am an atheist, and I have been for a long time. But I wasn't aware of it for many years because I just thought there was something wrong with me. That I was bad for some reason. It's funny how, in one instant, I realized that I wasn't bad. I didn't do anything wrong.

My biggest sin, was my inability to keep a clean house. Turned out I was trying so hard to be perfect that I didn't have time to do it all, or I was overwhelmed by the enormity of keeping everything perfect so I did nothing. That was my big sin.

From that realization flowed an avalanch of realizing how many other things were absurd about the relegion that was crushing me. I'll save the rest of the story for another day, but now you can see why the religeous choices my kids are making pain me so. I know the pain they are in for, and how foolish it is to endure that pain in the name of a fairey tale.

Valerie Tarico said...

Chucky -
Thank you for the links. I've been looking for material on this topic.

And Gretna-
Your story both makes me ache and inspires me to keep trying to put these things into words.

eejay said...

Wow. That is a great post. Here we are usually talking about how we've tried to escape the bondage of religion forced on us by our parents....and here's the tables reversed.

Unknown said...

One of the most profoundly disturbing things that has happened in my life was to loose one of my dearest, oldest childhood friends to a Christian cult. It was a slow gradual thing, but now my old friend will not speak to me because I represent his evil past, and mind you I am a happily married guy with two kids who doesn't drink. I still can't believe that this one time friend like a brother to me, is like this fucking zombie for Jesus. I yearn for the day he comes back to reality.

As far as my own children go, I feel there is about a .00000001% chance of them ever getting sucked into any fundementalist religion. I think they have absorbed plenty of my home sermons on the irrationality of religious thinking. I mean who knows maybe one of them will join one of those feel good churches like my mother attends, but for one of them to become a fundie, NO WAY..........

Anonymous said...

Great article, Valerie. I know too many people who live it to chance, just to see their children go through a fundamentalist face.

Anonymous said...

I wonder what to do for my kids. I have recently divorced their mother who is a christian, and I've since left the faith. Added to that, I'm remarrying and my fiance is Wiccan. I don't want to push things onto them and I know that they'll keep attending church with their mom. The church they go to is quite liberal and I have lots of friends there from before. However their mom has mental health issues too and sometimes incorporates god into her times of madness.

SamiB said...

Great post, and I absolutely agree with what you have to say. As a child I was educated in christian schools, not because my parents were fundies but because where we lived the UK the church schools just happened to be of a higher standard and my parents wanted the best education for me.

For years I resisted the indoctrination and made a point of displaying my total rejection of christian teachings and for years I was picked out for negative attention from the school administration. This was a state school, not a private school so it was open to anyone, be they atheist, jewish or muslim, however, we had to participate in religious instruction.

Our RI teacher once told us that if we were attacked we should not fight back but rather turn the other cheek, great advice for young girls don't you think!

Our math teacher started inviting two girls back to his house for christian pep talks and flirtation and then on to his church where they were encouraged to speak tongues. They were told not to tell anyone about their visits.

I was continually harrassed by the head teacher who would tell me I would never amount to anything without accepting jesus into my heart. And another math teacher told me she could see the devil in me. In short it was a miserable time but I stayed true to myself as I had come to my senses whilst in a christian primary school and never looked back.

But why should I have had to put up with this? Especially in a state run school.

NO religion should play a part in education or law. NO child should be FORCED to respect a false belief system that makes NO SENSE what-so-ever to them, and then be treated like a pariah for having their own mind and a strong sense of reality.

speck said...

Here's a little tip that I found very effective to re-enforce a skeptical viewpoint in my two daughters; I raised them on a carefully selected diet of 'South Park'.
I would (and still do) watch with them. We have a lot of fun and it gives opportunity to examine topics that are sometimes hard to bring up (atheism, faith, gay issues, etc.)

I think that kids will either "learn" social issues at home or they will learn it on the playground. With a little care and well-timed exposure, South Parks' humor is a terrific tool.

sir fer said...

IMO honesty is the best policy. To parphrase Chris Hitchins "the teaching if ethics does not require telling lies to children".

Careful XRayman...never say "never" ;o) murphy's ;aw and all that haha

Samib, there is more out there than just church or religion trying to keep people ignorant and powerless. Another example is the media and the people in charge of the political system (no country in particular tho). A good indicator in my experience is that the harder they try and make you conform to some "way" , the more likely that whatever ideal it is, is being forced upon you for someone else's convenience..

SamiB said...

To: sir fer

Totally agree with you there. Every group has its agenda, unfortunately there is a huge section of society that choose to exist like battery hens. Cages lined up in a row, being force fed lies and ignorance.

To Billy Bee

I too think that South Park is a great educational tool. Schools all over the world should be following your lead. Anal probes and all!

resonate11 said...

"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."

Valerie, which books or other sources do you recommend for this information? Do you have a chapter on Christian origins in your book?

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