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“Thanks for thinking about my soul…”

“Thanks for thinking about my soul…”

Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, joins Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat with readers. The leadoff “back to school” question was of religious nature:

Q. Proselytizing in the Classroom: My son’s elementary teacher sent a note to all the parents last week. The email included a link to her website. Included on the site was a note stating that she couldn’t wait to share Christ’s love with the children. We are a religious minority in this community and, living in the Deep South, I deal with this kind of thing every single year, whether it’s school-sponsored Bible study, the choir concert that includes Christmas songs almost exclusively, or my middle-school-aged daughter feeling like she has to become a Christian because the other kids at lunch tell her she’s going to hell if she doesn’t. Do you have any suggestions for handling these issues without causing my children to be ostracized or suffer retribution from the teachers?

A: It sounds as if your kids go to public school, so there’s something wrong with teachers who don’t understand their job description means keeping their explicit religious beliefs out of the classroom. Let’s hope the teacher means that Christ’s love animates her feelings about her students, not that she intends to prostelytize. But as you say, the religious assumptions of those around you are so pervasive that bringing a complaint might not do much except make school more unpleasant for your kids. If your concerns are mostly about afterschool Bible study or Christmas carols, I think you have to just shrug this off. When the annual Christmas concert comes around you can tell your children you know it’s not your holiday, but it’s a lovely one for those who celebrate it with beautiful music and you’re all going to just enjoy. Mostly you need to be teaching your children why you love your religion, showing them the joy and sustenance it brings you, and instructing that you will treat those of different faiths with the respect you wish all of them treated you. Being in middle school is for many kids a kind of torture at best, and being told you’re going to hell must only add to the fun. But unless your daughter finds her treatment intolerable, you have to help give her some tools to deal with this: “Thanks for thinking about my soul. But my family is happy to be Jewish/Muslim/Hindu.”

Other people commented on the question, leading to more responses from Yoffe.

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Emma Pease

I somehow think "Thanks but my family is happy being atheist" isn't going to go over well (one commenter mentions that they are atheist and for that matter I suspect saying they are Muslim could be very problematic in some places). More seriously I wonder how many other religious minority children (and this can well include some Christian denominations) are harried by teacher(s) in this public school for not joining in with the dominant religion because nobody is willing to speak up?

BTW do Episcopalians have much experience as an obvious religious minority in certain places in the US (perhaps over the custom of infant baptism)?

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