How my husband (atheist) and I (believer) navigate parenting with disparate beliefs.
One of my absolute favorite books of all time is Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. When I first read it nearly thirty five years ago I had no idea, of course, that I’d end up a bit like Margaret’s parents in a marriage with disparate beliefs.
I’ve written before about how my husband and I have successfully navigated spirituality in our relationship but it’s a bit different when it comes to parenting. While our family actually works well together, my husband and I never sat down and had a formal conversation about how we’re raising our 8-year-old daughter Tori when it comes to religion. So today we did. Here’s how that discussion went.
ON OUR PERSONAL RELIGIOUS BELIFS:
Me: Personally, I feel great comfort in the idea of God, a sense of not being alone in the fight of daily living, even when I'm angry at God. I'd love Tori to receive that same sense of comfort too although I don't believe in forcing her to believe. I know you've found it easier to not believe, which as you know somewhat confounds me. Do you also want Tori to get that same sense of ease by not believing?
Charlie: It took me many years to come to that view, that a universe without a god is more comfortable than one with a god. What I want for her is to know that the choice is hers and that if she should find more comfort in a world without a god, she should be free to take that path without fear of censure.
ON THE CONCEPT OF AFTERLIFE:
Charlie: Tori should pursue her spiritual path, whatever it is. My only rule is that spirituality not be weaponized. Should she find comfort in dogmatic faith, so be it. I just find the idea of a supreme being or an afterlife appalling. That I should be trapped in this consciousness instead of being a blade of grace or something is horrible. I wasn’t Charlie before I got here and I won’t be Charlie after I leave.
Me: See, the idea of no afterlife is terrifying to me. I don’t believe I’ll have wings or be strumming a harp or anything – I believe in an afterlife that is beyond human comprehension – but the idea that there is nothing just makes it all seem so incredibly pointless, you know? I feel a bit like taking the idea of Heaven away from Tori is like telling her there is no Santa, only 1,000 times worse.
Charlie: Fair enough. I think kids don’t really understand mortality yet so the idea of an afterlife is rather abstract. Even when you tell a kid their pet has gone to Heaven, it’s hard for them to know what that means. It’s still hard for adults to know what that means. But I don’t want to take that away from her because it’s part of imagination.
ON OUR FIRST EXPERIENCE WITH DEATH:
Me: When I had to put my childhood dog down at age 12, I would have been wrecked if I believed that he simply vanished from the universe when he died. Tori lost her first dog when she was three and she doesn’t really remember him now,but at the time I remember her being reassured when I told her elaborate stories about Bubba being in dog heaven.
Charlie: My first real taste of death came when my cousin died at 15 due to a heart defect after a surgery. We went to her funeral and it was the first time I had the idea that young people could die, too. Back then, I was told God was all about punishment, a guy with a bucket of lightning bolts and no heart. When I was five I asked my mom, “What if there's no God?” and she said I was going to Hell because I said that. I got a cold later that week and missed my Halloween parade at school and she said that was my punishment for questioning God’s existence. After I got done being scared, I asked myself what kind of God would do that to a little kid.
ON THE ONE RELIGIOUS THING WE AGREE ON:
Me: One thing we agree on for sure is not raising our daughter with the idea that God will punish her for misdeeds. Your story about your mom fits into what I know about your mom as an abusive parent. I feel like making the decision to not use God as a behavior tool with Tori fits into your overall hard work to not be like your mother as a parent. But I know I choose NOT to believe in that version of God at all, even if it was also part of my formative beliefs. I’m curious why you hold on to that idea as the only version of God.
Charlie: I’ve never found any version of God particularly appetizing. It’s always authoritarian to some degree, the first word and the last word. I don’t see a lot of mercy in the natural world, either, as things die when other things eat them.
Me: So you don’t want Tori to think God has the last word.
Charlie: I don’t want her to think anyone has the last word. I want her to believe in a more fluid system than that. It’s mostly the concept of God, the Judge I resent. That aspect bothers me the most.
ME: So do you think part of how we work as a family when it comes to spirituality is because I don’t believe in that particular version of God? Would it be harder if I were more of a traditionalist?
Charlie: Yes. Because Tori is now given a choice between your kind and benevolent God and my no God at all, so it’s not a choice between a punishing God and a kind God, it’s a choice between no God and a kind God.
ON EITHER OF US "FORCING" OUR BELIEFS ON OUR DAUGHTER
ME: Do you feel like I force my beliefs on Tori? Like when I took her to Sunday School when she was little?
Charlie: I wouldn’t say force. I think we’re all exposed to spirituality in some way. And you stopped taking her when she didn't want to go anymore.
Me: So, do you feel secretly pleased that Tori currently proclaims to be an atheist?
Charlie: It’s not a secret that I’m pleased. But I also understand it’s not a mature belief at this point. She’s going to go through a lot of questioning before she has a mature stance. I’m pleased she thinks the idea of atheism isn’t positive or negative; it’s just another choice.
ON OUR DAUGHTER'S CURRENT RELIGIOUS BELIEFS:
Me: Tori mentioned the other day that she believes in the Greek Gods now because of her love for the Percy Jackson books.
Charlie: That’s fine. She can be a pagan. I loved the Greek and Roman gods as a kid. I didn’t believe in them but I loved the stories. So much drama and jealousy.
Me: True, the Greek Gods are like the soap opera of spirituality. And talk about punishing gods!
Charlie: The Greek and Roman gods are filled with human flaws as well as human virtrues. They’re jealous but funny, kind but fickle, and sometimes even cruel.
Me: So that fits into the idea of God you grew up with.
Charlie: Except there’s more ebb and flow in a polytheistic universe.
Me: Kind of like us as parents, right?