The HDYDI community is a safe place for MoMs (and DoMs. Come by, dads!!) with different parenting styles, life circumstances and beliefs. It’s hard for mommy bloggers to write about their kids’ religious training without delving into murky waters that reek of judgment or limiting their readership to others of the same faith.
I’m in the uniquely fortunate position to be able to talk about my daughters’ spiritual growth and religious training without coming across as condemning of other faiths. I don’t share the faith in which I’m raising M and J.
I know. I know that sounds crazy. I’ve only met one other mother who’s made this choice, and she was my college roommate’s mom. Like me, the mother is atheist. Like my daughters, my roommate is Christian. Specifically she’s a member of the Religious Society of Friends, colloquially known as Quakers.
Here’s what I wrote about it on my personal blog in April 2008.
I don’t believe in God, but L and I are raising M and J to be practicing Catholics. While I see no conflict in those two facts, I know that many people do. “Hypocrite” is something I’m called often in this context. A close friend of mine recently embarked on a similar journey with her husband and their new baby, so I’d like to take this opportunity to try to explain how I reconcile my own atheism with my family’s religion.
For starters, it may help to know how I came to be atheist.
I was raised in a non-practicing Muslim family in the United Kingdom. I knew that my parents sometimes fasted during Ramadan, and that my Dad sometimes prayed on Fridays. Their moral guidance wasn’t couched in religious terms, though. The values of kindness, generosity and honesty were held to be deeply important, not because God said so, but because they were invaluable to the social order and self-fulfillment. Those values are still my touchstones.
The label “Muslim” meant about as much as “Bengali” when I heard it applied to me – not a whole bunch. I was Scottish, and I wanted to be a good girl, and that’s all that mattered. I didn’t really learn what it meant to be Muslim until my grandmother made a valiant effort once I moved to Bangladesh at age 8. However, by that time, my world view didn’t have room for God.
I went to a Catholic school, and loved it. I received an excellent education. A couple of the teachers at my school weren’t fans of the changes in the Church brought on by Vatican II. These old-school nuns took it upon themselves to inform me that my family was going to hell for their beliefs.
It was in my attempt to reconcile the idea that my Mum was a good person and that I respected my teachers that I happened upon atheism. In my 7 years of life experience, it seemed to me that the religions I knew about – Catholicism, Islam, and Anglicanism – the basic beliefs were the same. You should believe in God and be good, and you’d go to heaven. Heaven was a confusing idea, though. I knew that different things made different people happy. My heaven and my Mum’s would look completely different, but I’d want her in my heaven. If she had to be in my heaven, then she’d be unhappy, making it not-quite-heaven for her. (Hey, I was 7 years old. Cut me some slack!) In Sister Lemon’s heaven, there would be only Catholics.
I reconciled the contradiction thus: Since religion is a person’s most deeply held belief, chances are that at the moment of death, they would imagine their personal heaven and their personal God. Since the moment of death would be their last thought, the person would end up within that thought for their eternity. Every religion, then, was the truth for every person who truly believed it. Since my 7-year-old brain had it all figured out, though, I couldn’t expect myself to pick a religion. I’ve been an atheist ever since. Another aspect of this was that I was a depressed child, and the concept of having to exist forever was too much to bear. I looked forward to death being a real ending.
I still love the idea of organized religion. I value the importance of moral teaching, whether that comes through a church or otherwise. I have tried at various times in my life to find faith in God again, but it doesn’t stick. In a lot of ways, I feel that a number of options are closed to me because of my atheism. Perhaps navigating depression would have been easier with a faith that God would make it okay in the end.
I want my children to have every opportunity, including those offered by religion. Because of that, I want them to be part of the Catholic Church, believe in God, and know the church’s guidance and comfort. When Melody and Jessica are baptized, I will vow with all my being to raise them Catholic in every way I can. All I can do for them now is take them to Mass, read them Bible stories, and model the values of the church in my day-to-day life. (Forgiveness is the one I struggle with the most.) I hope that their father, godparents and grandparents continue to take an active role in their spiritual upbringing. If, after all our best efforts, they choose different paths as a better fit, I will be happy for both my children, because I will know that they made informed decisions in regards to faith.
Before we conceived our daughters J and M, My now-ex-husband and I agreed to raise them within the Catholic faith until they were mature enough to choose for themselves. Since my ex was frequently deployed, religious training and church attendance fell to me. Now that he sees the kids a week or less a year, the religious upbringing falls on me all the more.
At the beginning of this year, my 7-year-olds attended church with a babysitter and decided that they would rather become members of her non-denominational church than continue attending Catholic mass. We’ve been going every Sunday since, except when we’re out of town. We also recently began attending weekday Bible study. I’m “out” at church as an atheist, and people have been extraordinarily welcoming, understanding that I’m seeking an ever-maturing understanding of what my children should be learning and a community of mentors who can provide them what I cannot in the ways of religious training.
Last Sunday, a friend from ballet class invited my daughters to go to church with her. They had a great time and asked me whether they could switch churches. This wasn’t a decision I thought should be made lightly, so I asked them why they wanted to switch. It boiled down to rewards. Their friend’s church’s children’s program gave the kids tokens for good behaviour that could be traded in for toys. The church we attend has no such program.
I challenged my daughters. Church, I reminded them, was to honour and learn about God and Jesus. Were toys really important in that context? J got my point immediately. She was embarrassed, she told me, that she had lost track of what mattered. Of course Jesus and making decisions he would be proud of were more important to her than a cheap toy. I commended her for 1) acknowledging her error 2) discussing her embarrassment with me despite her discomfort and 3) setting her priorities where they belonged.
M wasn’t quite there. She pouted about it, finally agreeing to go along with me and Sissy, but clearly not getting the larger point. J was rather annoyed with her, but I took her aside and let her know that M didn’t share her understanding of religion yet and she needed to be patient. M would come around, in the same way that J would eventually come to share M’s confidence and vocal control when she sang. J was more ready for church. M was more ready for choir. It’s okay to learn things at different times.
A few months ago, I “came out” as atheist to my kids. We had been discussing something, I don’t remember what, that could be looked at from several different perspectives and I’d tried to fairly present them all. J asked me what I believed, and so I told her, explaining that I didn’t believe in God. M was unfazed, but J was truly bothered by my revelation.
The next night, J asked me to stop saying bedtime prayers with her, explaining that she considered it disrespectful. I now tuck the girls into bed, kiss them goodnight, and leave the room after reminding them to say their prayers.
J has had quite a few questions for me about where I stand spiritually, each of which I’ve answered honestly, to the best of my ability. Yes, I respect and try to emulate Jesus, but as an inspirational historical figure, not as the Son of God. Yes, I read the Bible, but as a document of ancient peoples’ best attempt to explain the world around them given their limited experience. No, I don’t find her Christianity to be in conflict with my atheism, and yes, I want her to be the best Christian she can be. I go to church because I made a promise to do my utmost to raise my girls within Catholicism unless they wanted otherwise, and to support their religious training to the best of my ability.
The other day in church, J and M elected to attend the adults’ service with me instead of going the kids’ class. At one point, J asked me whether something in the sermon meant that she was supposed to love God more than she loved her sister. I told her that was correct. She looked at me in horror. She couldn’t do that. She couldn’t possibly love anything more than her sister. I did my best to explain that I thought that she would come to that feeling in time, that her love for M was part of her love of God, but she wasn’t buying it. “You don’t understand,” she wept. “You’re an atheist!” I sent her to the row in front of us to talk to an adult friend whom she’s known since she was 2. They had a long whispered discussion, and J came away from it still a little teary, but at peace.
M doesn’t have J’s level of religious or spiritual maturity. Church is fun for her. She loves reading Bible stories, doing crafts, and memorizing verses. While she does her best to apply the lessons she learns to her life, being a Christian isn’t as core to her sense of self as it is for her sister. She’s only 7. I honestly think that J’s maturity is the anomaly.
It’s been interesting for me to observe these developmental differences in my daughters, given that they are otherwise so evenly matched. They hit developmental milestones in concert. Their academic performance is almost identical, although M gets 100% to J’s 98% in math and J’s analysis of the fiction she reads is a little deeper than M’s.
In what areas do your kids differ in maturity? Do you think that J’s understanding of religion at age 7 is the anomaly, or M’s relative nonchalance?