Recently, I played a small part in a workplace conversation regarding religion and its perceived “importance” in the role of children’s upbringing – with Christianity cited as the main or rather preferred method of choice amongst the particular group. The talk was quick, casual and non-argumentative, but the underlying, passive-aggressive murmur – they (the religious) are right while everyone else (the non-religious) are so very, very, un-Godly wrong – was widely accepted as the final outcome of the chat.
Engaged with peers of the daily variety, I opted not to push the argument further towards, well, the truth. Nobody in their right mind looks to start a water-cooler war, especially one in which the awkwardness of a stalemate is inevitable. To this group, morality does not exist without fear. Love is not achieved without obedience. Beauty is not perceived without magic. And really, what chance does anyone have against arguing with a group that firmly believes in, well, magic?
I would suppose that most like myself – self-described “non-believers” – have engaged in many, many conversations quite like this one. Some are drawn out shouting matches, others are dismissively laughed away amongst friends and food and television and sports and whatever else with which we have managed to distract ourselves on a daily basis, generation after generation.
But to be honest, the whole thing leaves a sour taste in my mouth; that we as a society continue to revel in fantasy because to reject it is just too uncomfortable; as if to say that one’s reluctance toward “faith and the otherworldly” automatically cancels the social traditions we have come to enjoy.
I have been admonished as an “Atheist”, as if there was some cruel intent to the word. Although to be fair, I do not believe in the word anyway: “atheist” implies that there is something to not believe in the first place, as if to say “Yes, there is a God, but I choose not to believe in it.” See the absurdity? Is there a word for not believing in fairies or leprechauns? Is anti-mermaidia a thing? I certainly hope not, and therefore I am totally fine with the terminology. It is meaningless, much like “theism” itself.
As an adult, I am accustomed to it; that daily burden of quietly contending with the “faithful”: bumper stickers and Facebook wall-posts asking me to return prayer to school or to “keep Christ in Christmas”. Voters basing their opinions on which candidate is more Jesus-friendly while perpetuating the “prosperity gospel” farce. Friends and family batting a hesitant, judging eye when they learn that – despite my Roman Catholic upbringing – my children are not baptized, or that I think a nature hike with my family is a far more fulfilling use of my time on a Sunday morning than chanting subservience in a church and being lectured on how inferior I am to the Almighty.
And there lies the struggle: family, children – or rather, the expectations wrought with having them; raising them, teaching them to be good, despite all obstacles that would insist on the contrary.
Despite its beauty and splendor, the world can also be cold and cruel and outright sadistic. Confusing and daunting and fear-mongering. Awe-inspiring, yet crushing. I can understand – almost – how and why one might insist on using religion as a means to insulate and/or prepare children for the world that is set before them as a means for hope against despair, love against hate, light against dark.
However, the choice to NOT do so was one of the easiest decisions that my wife and I – as parents – have ever made.
Fundamentally, becoming a parent transformed my perspective on religion and faith. It made me never want to stifle their individual freedoms or teach them not to celebrate diversity – two things inherent in virtually every major religion. I could never insist to them the falsehood that God is not a man-made entity, or burden them with the woeful, guilt-laden verses wrought week after week at Sunday mass. I can not ever perpetuate to neither my daughter nor my son the patriarchal ignorance of man’s dominion over women; the latter whose place – according to the Bible – is only ever so slightly above that of livestock, fish and gold.
Do not misread: my kids are not without tradition, even those rooted in religion (well, sort of). We celebrate the holidays. They believe in Santa and the Easter Bunny just as eagerly as they await the Tooth Fairy with each missing incisor. They craft brilliant costume ideas for Halloween and have discovered oodles of fun in something as simple as lighting Hanukkah candles. They revel in the joy and comforts of togetherness, with bright lights and pretty pastels, all wrapped in a bow. They are, after all, kids.
But even at young ages, their curious little seven and four-year-old minds have already begun nitpicking the Bible, based on what tidbits they have absorbed via mass media (“Why did Moses have to convince his brother to let his people go, when he could have just used that magic stick to make him do it?” and “That piece of bread is Jesus’ body?! That’s silly.”), and I am not about to stifle that sort of inquisitive world understanding anytime soon. That, to me, is what will help build a foundation of morality and respect and wonder for the universe and its mysteries around them, not the antiquated perversions of cave dwellers over two millennia ago, nor its mass-effect of possession and obedience for centuries after.
How better prepared would children be if – instead of forcing ourselves from birth into conflicting sects and denominations – we all opted to embrace the one thing we ALL are: human? What if our collective religion itself was humanism, where our faith lied not in mythical creatures and old men with beards in clouds but our capacity for good and our yearning for knowledge? Where science and discovery were not in direct competition with our core, fundamental beliefs on morality? Where a person was not declared one’s mortal enemy from within the womb, and sacrificial, vengeful Gods were things found in museums rather than public schools?
My world is now burdened with defending these little minds against the “One Nation Under God” crowd, where touchdowns are celebrated by prayer groups in the end zone and the most gifted man or woman running for office may very well get booed off the pulpit for attending the wrong church, or – worse yet – none at all.
In a recent car ride to a local pick-your-own fruit and veggie farm (a fun family standard), my small family of four chaperoned a fifth-wheel: a then six-year-old friend of my daughter who was along for the afternoon’s festivities amongst the acres of fresh fruit and beautiful, morning sun. On the way, while nestled securely in her carseat between my kids, the young girl decided to yell-ask to everyone in earshot: “Did you know that God made the trees and the planet and all the mommies and the daddies and everything?”
She said it so matter-of-factly. And proudly, too, that she was in possession of this wondrous factoid. And all incredibly cute, of course. Which was honestly my thought at the time; young children’s minds – creative sponges, all – are amazing, and the stuff that spills out of them at a near-constant basis is pure fun.
I smiled, expecting the conversation to be over, but then through the rear-view mirror, I spied the squinty-eyed, “thinking” look come over my own daughter’s face.
“If God made everything, then who made God?”
No answer was given and, instead, my then 3-year old son blurted out some toddler-esque obscenity at which the pair of girls giggled incessantly for the rest of the trip.
I did everything I could to suppress that proud smile, but it was not to be helped.