Can I tolerate my son’s religious education?

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My family lives in an urban environment with failing schools. The schools in our city were so bad that the state seized control of them a generation ago and has never let go. The state, amazingly enough, did nothing to improve the poor test scores and today the schools in our area struggle to meet No Child Left Behind requirements and are, frankly, awful.

The result of the poor public schools has been a massive flight of children to private schools – at least, those children whose parents can afford them. Most of the schools break down into two types: secular schools (Montessori or similar) or Catholic. No other private organizations has the community presence to set up any substantial schools (i.e. there are no Baptist or French or Jewish schools). Starting in high school the options become a little better – some of the public city high schools are good enough to compete with the private high schools.

But the problem remains that the schools at the pre-K to 8th grade level fall into one of these three categories: failing, unsafe public schools, dramatically expensive specialty schools and moderately expensive Catholic schools. When I say dramatic, I mean dramatic (feel like paying $1000+ per month for half-day kindergarten?) and moderate is only moderate by Northeastern standards ($600-$700 per month for a full day of day care).

I have posted a number of times on my opinions of the benefits of stay-at-home parents. But a few months ago Bubelah and I decided to send Little Buddy to a day care program for about 3 hours per day. We saw our neighbors’ kids who were a little older bored and lacking social stimulation with nannies and stay-at-home moms, and we decided he would benefit from the socialization that he could get from a short day at a day care facility. With Bubelah pregnant, it also gave her time to rest. After about three days of unhappiness and adjustment, he quickly adapted and now seems to love his teachers and the activities that are possible with other children, although he would still probably be happier at home.

We sent him to Catholic day care.
Neither of us is Catholic, but this day care program met our requirements; other parents loved it, it was clean, safe, relatively nearby, and affordable for us. The secular schools generally wouldn’t even accept children who were less than three, so that wasn’t an option; even if they had been they were so expensive and so hard to get into they wouldn’t have been an option for us. The day care Little Buddy goes to is run by an order of nuns and although most of the teachers are not themselves nuns, they are Catholic and the school makes NO pretense at the religion-free environment I knew from public schools (which is ironic, since I went to schools in the Deep South – times have changed).

I am not particularly religious. I have been at both extremes; I was very religious in my evangelical Christian church in my 20s but a series of events drove me to militant atheism over the years. I have since returned to a fairly gentle agnosticism which I suspect is similiar to Unitarian/Universalism and I restrict my “exercise of religion” to an internal debate and discussion. I think anyone who wants to exercise their religious beliefs – or education – is more than free to do so in these United States. The free expression of religion has saved us from so many of the horrible conflicts that have wracked so many other countries throughout the years. Imagine Catholic Maryland fighting Protestant Virginia. I am happy to see everyone do their own thing and leave me the hell out of it.

Yet it has become very clear to me that my son – at the very early age of 2 – is picking up words and phrases and associations that are not in line with what I believe and most certainly not in line with what my wife believes. My son can already clearly identify, unprompted, aspects of the Catholic faith – which led him to proclaim to me once “Papa, look – baby Jesus!” And do not misunderstand me – I would be equally uneasy if he was identifying with Jewish or evangelical Christian or even atheistic thought. I don’t like the thought of any indoctrination at this age.

But what I really wonder is “will it matter?”
My mother was raised in an solidly, uncompromisingly evangelical home, and she’s a “big holidays” churchgoer now, if that. I was intensely religious for many years in my 20s and now I am not; no one person or event changed my mind. Should I worry about the exposure to religion? Is it the overreaction of an overactive, liberal-slash-libertarian mind? I don’t believe anyone in the school is pushing religion at this age, but the symbols and the presence of the religious artifacts and songs and so on are certainly exercising some effect on my son’s mind.

Perhaps I should just let it go. The teachers are very kind, the school is pleasant, my son loves the arts and crafts and playtime with other kids. Bubelah has benefited from a rest in the mornings during her pregnancy. I don’t remember anything from age 2 myself; perhaps it’s pointless to worry. But in an era where television and computers and information are crushing our brains into perfect data-gathering machines from a young age, every small bit of data begins to appear relevant. He’ll keep going, but I’ll keep worrying.

(photo by peasap)