Friday, November 12, 2010

Family values

In last week's NSS Newsline, the question "What would be your advice?" was asked about a query in Coleen Nolan's advice column in The Mirror. The questioner began,
I'm furious after discovering recently that my mum's been taking my five-year-old son to church behind my back when he stays with her at the weekend.
Some of the answers in this week's Newsline made me wonder about the respondents' abilities to relate to their own families, so I've belatedly joined in the debate by writing to Newsline.
The responses to the Catholic grandmother who took an atheist’s child to church story in last week’s Newsline were interesting, but two in particular made me laugh. One wrote that “Anyone who abuses her own mother by using her as a free baby-sitter deserves all she gets!” Abuse? For taking advantage of a grandparent’s willingness to babysit? Give me strength! That’s how families work, surely? Then another wrote, “I would tell the old bag that if she persisted I would find another babysitter and she would not have any further contact with me or her grandson again and remind her that her actions were and should have been obvious to her were contrary to the way I intend to bring up my son.” Oh dear. Old bag? He doesn’t know the woman, yet he calls her an “old bag”? These two would make appalling agony aunts/uncles!

Over the last week or so I’ve been treated to some vitriol dished out by an Islamophobe in response to a story on the Suffolk Humanist group’s website. Among other things, this ignoramus claims that exposing children to religion, Islam in particular, is “child abuse”. I get the impression that there are quite a few readers of Newsline who share this view. I’ve found that people who’ve expressed such opinions haven’t known any Muslims or few (if any) followers of other religions. Instead, they parrot the caricatures they’ve read on the most reactionary websites or in the tabloid press. This is ignorant and lazy. They don’t see religious people as just people; they see them as representing the worst aspects of the fundamentalist versions of their religions, regardless of their culture, ethnicity or, most importantly, their behaviour. It’s indistinguishable from the sort of ignorance we’re treated to when the Pope makes ill-informed comments about atheism, lumping us all together with Nazis, or whatever.

Anyone who’s confident enough in his or her own values to tolerate other people’s irrational opinions or behaviour will convey, by example, a relaxed attitude to his or her children, who may learn to understand that people, in general, don’t necessarily think clearly or act sensibly. As long as you do, what have you to worry about? A clergyman I know was caught in the act of kissing an atheist (me) in the local crematorium vestry. A member of staff, in mock horror, said to him, “You kissed an atheist!” “That’s all right,” said my friend, “it’s not catching.” That’s my attitude to religion. There’s a world of difference between organised indoctrination, when children are never exposed to other beliefs or religions that might contradict what they’re being taught, and being exposed to beliefs or religions that are different from their parents’ beliefs. This is why I’ve come to believe that withdrawing children from RE lessons in school is not a good idea; in some Muslim communities, the right of withdrawal is being used to keep children in ignorance.

The Catholic grandmother in the newspaper advice column was clearly unable to comprehend her daughter and son-in-law’s position, and was possibly determined that her grandchild wouldn’t end up in hell for lack of the necessary instruction. Or it may just be that she wasn’t going to allow her baby-sitting to interfere with her church-going. Whatever the reason, this family should be talking to one another, not writing letters to Coleen Nolan. Most of what goes on in a Catholic church service would go over a five-year-old’s head and when he’s a bit older he’s likely to find it all rather boring, if he doesn’t already. If he’s included in sensible discussions about what various members of the family believe at home, as long as they’re appropriate for his age, and if he’s taught about various religions in school, it will become clear to him that there are contradictions and inconsistencies in religious teachings. He should also be encouraged to question his parents’ beliefs and values, without anyone getting upset. The most important thing for him to realise is that no questions are off limits, and that we can still love people in spite of our differences. His grandmother may give up her attempts to turn him into a good little Catholic when he bombards her with questions she can’t answer.


Shirley said...

Sometimes, simpler life truths are seen as very complicated. You are an excellent clarifier.

Margaret said...

I try, thanks.