I once believed in God, in Jesus, in going to church and even in listening to (uplifting and terrible) Christian rock. I believed the people in my church were good, until a few were homophobic and hateful. Then in questioning them, I began questioning the entire institution. I stopped going to church (even though I believed most of the people who remained there were good, if too reticent). I read the Bible until I couldn’t believe.
It broke my heart, and it took me close to a decade to call myself what I now am: an atheist. But the crush of God is sometimes unavoidable. Theology keeps creeping in at home.
“God even loves bad people,” my son’s best friend told him as they set the table a few weeks back.
“No way!” my little guy replied.
“Yeah, he doesn’t love the things they do, but he loves them anyhow. God loves everyone.”
His pal’s theology is sweet, simple, perfect for kindergartners. My son buys it. He’ll accept most anything people tell him about God, since we avoid doing so. I brought in pizza and hoped to change the subject.
“Mom, did you know God loves bad people?” my son asked immediately.
I cringed. I don’t want his buddy to know I’m an atheist. I didn’t know if his mom would be comfortable with him hanging out here if she knew.
“People believe a lot of different things about God,” I began, feeling myself about to launch into a lesson on world religions. Pluralism feels like a safe way to broach the subject. Keep the options open. Without my meaning to, he’s absorbed the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jesus. That’s what he means by God.
Later that night I find myself texting this friend’s mom, asking if my son can go to temple with them. It was my son’s idea, and to be fair, it’s not church, not the sort of place where we’ll be proselytized to, not a place that holds so much baggage for me.
There was a time as a young adult when I thought I would be a minister. I got swept into the sort of circles that read the Bible literally and concerned themselves with what types of people are likely to be damned. As I studied the Bible and other religions in college, my faith peeled back in painful strips of faltering disbelief until I became what I am, an atheist who tries to cherish life, tries to be respectful of those who are religious, because I remember how precious my faith once was to me.
I want my kids to have that if they want to—even if I think they are wrong—because I value their minds, because I recognize my own fallibility. Like the vast majority of atheist parents once surveyed by psychologists Bruce E. Hunsberger and Bob Altemeyer, I am a nonbeliever who has no interest in evangelizing nonbelief to my children.
Being an atheist can be a lonely proposition, particularly if you are a woman (in Pew’s most recent study, the number of atheist women is growing, if slowly, but 68 percent of atheists are still men). The so-called four horsemen of New Atheism are all white men. I’m a mom, a soccer mom at that. I sometimes feel rare, like a unicorn, or some heretical subspecies thereof. That’s why this week, when the Pew Research Center released its latest religion survey, I felt a certain relief in finding I’m not so odd. The number of people who identify as Christians has dropped nearly 8 percent over seven years; atheists and agnostics are growing in number, particularly among Millennials like me.
That’s not to say God is dead in America. There are still 173 million American adults who call themselves Christians; 5.9 percent of Americans belong to other faiths. While nonbelievers’ ranks are growing, we are still in the minority, and sometimes it feels like God-talk and religious parlance are unavoidable.
So instead of passively absorbing it, we attended family education hour at the local temple and my son learned about Moses: Moses placed into a basket. Moses at the burning bush. Moses and the Ten Commandments. He had never heard even this most basic Bible story, and I considered all the literary Biblical references that he just won’t get, unless I teach them to him.
In coming weeks, he’d lobby me again. “I know you don’t believe in God, but I do, and I want to learn about God.” He wanted more than temple, he wanted a church. I didn’t want to fail him, but didn’t want to wind up beside him, feigning worship.
We settled on a Unitarian Universalist church. There were marriage equality posters on the walls of the meeting room, Buddhist meditation sessions on Thursdays. The hymns lacked much noticeable doctrine. It was wonderfully inoffensive, but my son complained, “They didn’t talk about God. I want to go somewhere I can learn about God.”
I pictured myself taking him to a Protestant church, or my extended family taking him with them to their nondenominational megachurch. I realized I want my son to believe what he wants, to a point: I don’t want him to become the sort of believer that broke my faith. I don’t ever want him to try to save me. I realized this makes me a free-thinking hypocrite.
So I asked him, “Do you know I was really religious when I was a kid? I even studied religion in college.” I couldn’t believe what I was about to say. “Maybe I can teach you some stuff.” He actually laughed at me.
I muscled through. “Do you ever pray?”
“What’s that?” he asked. Oh, how I’ve failed his basic vocabulary.
“You know how sometimes when we have dinner with Uncle Bill, everyone folds their hands and looks down and he thanks God for the food, and you, me and Daddy sort of look around like we don’t know what to do with ourselves?”
“Yeah!” he brightened.
“He’s praying. Some people pray every night. Maybe you can talk to God and say things that matter to you, ask for help for things you think need help. Maybe you’ll figure God out by getting to know God yourself.” He liked that idea.
That night after we read a book, I braced myself. It felt wrong, modeling prayer, and I wouldn’t be able to muster a “Dear heavenly [fill in the blank]” even to give him a start. Nevertheless, I asked, “Do you want to say a prayer tonight?”
“Yeah,” he said. He studied me, in his careful, inscrutable way. “But I want to do it by myself.”
Relieved, I smiled and pulled up his blankets. “What are you going to pray about?”
“Pollution,” he told me.
I kissed him on the cheek. At least I’ve taught him this. The rest is his path to travel.
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