Raising a Child Without Religion, or Faith

Raising A Child Without ReligionEvery two or three blocks on the avenues of downtown Brooklyn, a big old stone church rises from the ranks of the brownstones. A couple of weeks ago, my little boy Felix pulled his trike to the curb and squinted at the steeple of one.

“What’s that castle, Da-da?”

“It’s not a castle, it’s a church.”

“What’s a church?”

“It’s a place where people go to worship god.”

“What’s god?”

“God is a concept some people believe in, a creative force, I guess you’d say.”


And with that, he rode on. I must admit, this isn’t the most compelling definition of the supreme being I could think of — I attended Catholic school for nine years, and am steeped in Bible lore. I could’ve told him the story of the Garden of Eden, in which god-with-a-capital-G appears as a benevolent father whom his creations defy, or perhaps recounted how the vengeful deity punished Sodom and Gomorrah, or the demanding dictator demanded Her loyal subject Abraham to sacrifice his only son, or I could’ve went New Testament, and talked about Jesus, and The Golden Rule, and the Virgin Mary. But while I’m familiar with these stories and dig many of them — they’re dramatic narratives, no doubt — I don’t believe these tales are true in any literal or even metaphoric sense.

I’m agnostic on a good day. Most days, I identify as straight-up atheist. I seem to lack something required for believing in a god — “Faith!” some of you’ll say. Yes, I do lack that, and always have as long as I can remember. Even in Catholic school, where reciting dogma meant receiving good grades, the stories just seemed to me to be only that: stories.

The first time I received the sacrament of Holy Eucharist, in third grade, I looked over at my best friend, kneeling at a nearby pew, his face transfixed with some emotion I wasn’t experiencing. The wafer lacked flavor, it sucked up my spit, turning to a gummy mash that I affixed to the roof of my mouth with my tongue. “This is it?” I thought. “God? He needs salt.”

And then I glanced up at the vaulted ceiling, wondering if I might burst into flame at this blasphemy. But no. Instead, I had to stifle my giggles. We had prepared weeks, memorizing prayers, processing in lines down the church aisle for hours, and put on really uncomfortable suits, all for a priest to feed us a cardboard-flavored circle? It seemed like a big joke, only no one else was laughing.

Perhaps, as has recently (and controversially) been proposed, what I’m missing is the gene for religious belief. Or maybe I’m naturally not a follower, always standing askance to movements of any sort, whether faith-based or political. Could be I’m just one bad boy who’ll get my comeuppance in the afterlife. Who knows! But it’s always felt foreign, this faith thing. The nihilists in the movie The Big Lebowski, with their chorus of “We believe in nothing, Lebowski. Nothing.” stirred me more than Charlton Heston’s cold hands holding those slabs of stone in The Ten Commandments ever did. The only thing I believe in with any certainty is myself.

And while I don’t think anyone should choose their children’s religion for them, obviously we raise our children in an environment that we select and which impacts them and shapes their belief system. We go to this church or that temple, or we don’t go to worship at all; we pray aloud or silently or not at all; we talk about a god or gods or we never mention him/her/or it, whatever the case may be. Our kids learn from watching and listening to us, and my son will learn that I view god as a construct, a device people rely on to help explain the world and what happens to them, a means — through prayer or supplication or worship — by which they feel agency in events over which they have no or little control.

This doesn’t strike me as a big deal, but I’ve been questioned about it before, the interrogator’s tone one of mock-shocked disbelief. What about ethics? Or morality? How will Felix know right from wrong? As if having a conscience depends on having religion, something anyone who tunes in to the news knows is a fallacy. (Say “Roman Catholic priests,” for example, and the first thing that pops into my mind is the word “scandal.”)

I will, at some point, introduce Felix to Bible stories. I’m a voracious reader and movie watcher, and Biblical stories infiltrate our culture so much that a certain amount of cultural literacy is lost if you don’t know them. (My wife has had very little exposure to The Bible; references to plagues of locust or thirty pieces of silver go right over her head.) I also hope he’ll be interested in philosophy and anthropology and good stories of any sort — in short, that he meet the world with a curious, open mind and a warm heart. I’ll encourage him to read about Buddhism and the Quran and the Bushido and the sayings of Confucius and the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, and no education in human behavior is complete without the short stories of Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Carver and A.M. Homes, and the novels of Margaret Atwood and Kurt Vonnegut and Lynne Tillman, each of which provide interesting examples of humanity in all its admirable compassion and deplorable savagery, and which raise important questions about life, the universe, and everything.

So what will my son believe in? Science, I guess. Though science isn’t really something one believes in so much as it’s a set of expectations built on observation. Let a glass go and it will drop — that’s gravity at work. I can’t see it, but I can feel it, and its invisible presence affects my every motion. Already, at not yet four, he’s a kid interested in the physical, building an understanding of the world based on what he sees and hears and witnesses to be reliable and logical. Even the stories that most kids swallow without question he wonders about the Easter Bunny didn’t fly this year, it just doesn’t make any sense. I have a feeling Santa is soon to fall.

My wife and I are interested in science and the humanities; we’re not believers. Nor, it seems, is our son. Does this come from nature or nurturing or a little bit of both? Who knows. One thing’s for sure. I don’t think it’s divine!

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