Let’s Talk About God

“Every mythology, every religion, is true in this sense: It is true as metaphorical of the human and cosmic mystery.” ā€“ Joseph Campbell, the Power of Myth

God

Detail of Michelangelo’s ceiling fresco at the Sistine Chapel, Vatican City. Source: Photo illustration by DadScribe.

Our first summer in Florida, I was 13 years old and wheelchair-bound after corrective surgery on both feet. My parents sent my brother and me to vacation Bible school at the Presbyterian church up the road from our Palm Beach Gardens apartment complex. There, in the Sunday school classroom, as I sat in my wheelchair with my feet in their twin casts sticking straight out in front of me, a young man with shaggy brown hair, bad acne and huge glasses asked me if I would accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and savior.

If so, he added, my soul would be saved and I would be guaranteed a place for all eternity in the Kingdom of the Lord.

That sounded OK to me. So I said, “Yes. Yes, I do.”

And he said, “Praise Jesus. You are saved today.”

So, I’ve got that going for me. Which is nice.

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Sundays at our house have always been reserved for rest. If not rest, Disney World. If not Disney, Busch Gardens. Or laundry. Or yard work. Or the community pool. Or grocery shopping. Or anything except church.

Put simply, we don’t go. We are among the 20 percent of Americans who a Pew Research Center poll identified as having no religious affiliation. That’s not to say we are not religious. Beth certainly is. She prays regularly, and she believes in the traditional, organized-religion definition of the Christian God.

I don’t share her beliefs. I suppose I would have to be lumped in with the 33 million Americans who identify themselves as atheistic or agnostic. I don’t know what that means, though. What I do know is that I don’t know what happens when we die.

I also know this: Neither does anyone else know. But you know what else? That doesn’t matter.

Religion isn’t about that. Or it shouldn’t be.

Joseph Campbell, a scholar of comparative mythology whose work influenced George Lucas as he created the Star Wars universe, makes as much sense to me as anyone I’ve read or listened to when it comes to the purpose of religion. He said it exists not to reveal the meaning of life, but to help us find a way to live life with grace, to discover within ourselves an accord between what we experience and the questions and concepts that transcend our experience.

Campbell said God was, in fact, a metaphor for the things that transcend thought. I think what he meant was that because we exist in the field of time — we’re born, we live, we die — it is incredibly difficult, maybe even impossible, to grasp the concept of eternity.

And that’s about as deep as I want to go with that. As I say, I don’t know. I want to know, but I also am not arrogant enough to believe that I have the answers. That said, nor will I at this point in my life acknowledge that anyone else truly knows, either. That’s what I believe.

Which brings us to our sons.

__________________________

Beth wants them to go to church. We have found one that might serve, at least for now.

I have qualms.

On one hand, I want our sons to learn about organized religion, about spirituality, about humanity’s attempts to make sense of it all.

On the other hand, I believe that much of humanity’s strife — today and throughout history — has been caused by organized religion. As Campbell said, practitioners of the individual religions get stuck in their own interpretations of their chosen metaphors. That is, they fail to read the sacred texts or hear the sacred stories as poetry. Instead, they read it and hear it as prose. It is, Campbell said, a purely literary problem.

I see people in the public eye espouse views in the name of their religion about topics such as homosexuality, and it is clearly a bigoted way of thinking. Here’s the problem, though: They don’t think of themselves as bigoted, because they simply are adhering to the things they learned from their religious leaders. They are wrong to think that. Hiding behind specious lessons does not excuse the ignorant. While I might not know the answers, I do know this: Any religious teaching that is used to objectify and dehumanize other people is deplorable. I hope our sons never think that way.

Some of my favorite people in the world are deeply religious, and so sure in their convictions that it sometimes makes me wish that I could give myself over to the rapture and let the joy wash over me like a baptismal font.

It’s tough, but our sons need a frame of reference. They need to be exposed to these ideas — and at 7, our older son is probably as impressionable as he’ll ever be when it comes to ideas about spirituality.

It’s tricky. I bought our older son a book the other day called The Kids Book of World Religions, and he sort of freaked out about the drawing of Jesus on the cross. He needs to know what that means, that the resurrection is emblematic of the “death” and “rebirth” we all must experience as we transition from one stage of life to another (I am aware there are those whose interpretation of the crucifixion differs from this one). I Googled [talking to children about religion] and found an entire blog dedicated to the subject, along with this Washington Post story about the author of that blog. This is not a problem unique to us.

It’s necessary. We want our sons to make informed decisions about how they choose to think about spirituality in the future. We’re going to expose them to different ways of thinking, to different paths. We’re going to let them make their own decisions when they’re ready. You’ve got to start somewhere. So … we’ll start by giving up our Sunday rest or recreation to explore the spiritual.

And we’re going to hope that when (if) they choose their paths, they find grace and peace and love. Above all else, we hope that.

Michelangelo

Michelangelo’s Pieta, Vatican City. Source: Photo illustration by DadScribe.

28 thoughts on “Let’s Talk About God

  1. I have qualms too. Make sure your kids get a good dose of anti-venom/reason after every indoctrination treatment. Don’t let a single church visit go by without you giving them YOUR perspective on things. Train their minds right, for reason and rational thought, and they’ll see it for what it is — metaphor at best and the opiate of the masses at worst. When they’re old enough get them some Sam Harris to read and everything should be fine.

    • Oh, I’m sure everything will be fine. Both of them quote Empire … religiously. Their favorite is, “No. Do, or do not. There is no try.” They’re already secret Jedi. As it should be.

  2. You had me at Joseph Campbell.

    This is a really nice piece. I’m glad I followed my way here. I’m probably on the side of agnostic leaning mildly towards faith, but there’s a whole lot I don’t feel I know. But I identify with Campbell and your thoughtful explication of him.

    And I appreciate where Sam’s coming from, but I’d suggest that “science” or “reason” are not nearly so black and white as he seems to think. If there’s anything I’ve learned from my English Major and studying Nietzche (damned rabble-rouser), it’s that finding origins, of meaning, of purpose, of religion, whatever…is a neverending chase down the rabbit hole. And I believe that “rationalist” scientists, as much as any religious believer, must rely on faith to justify their views of the world.

    Although Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions is probably beyond a seven-year-old’s reading level, in another decade or so I’d recommend it as an introduction to the philosophy of science, and how people in all sorts of disciplines make theories and defend them, right or wrong, to the death. For myself, it helped me to see that all of us, religious or not, can find common ground in the way we perceive the world and try to make sense of it. And I like ideas that bind us together rather than separate us.

    • Thanks, Neal. Your thoughtful comment deserves better than that, but it’s late and I’m sleepy. I’ll give you better next time, promise. Meantime, follow your bliss.

  3. My wife and I are both non-religious, and were before we met. Before the twins were born, we were introduced to the Unitarian church (www.uua.org) through a Darwin Day festival (for Darwin’s birthday). They have the good of church (community) while also exposing them to all religions and none, giving them the freedom to choose while not preaching. When we moved back up north, we found that there were more UUA churches (including one the next town over), but we haven’t gone since. Once the kids get bigger (4 and 2 now), we’ll probably go back.

  4. Best of luck navigating your family’s way through this, Carter. I do not envy you. My wife and I both grew up Catholics (she with Irish Catholic abusive drunks and me in 12 years of it at private school) and we are now both unbelievers. We didn’t have our girls baptized which nearly made my parent’s heads explode (I should probably write about that) and continue to only believe in the power of the human spirit and stand in awe of the mysteries and wonder of the nature world. Everything else, the structure, the hand-me-down bigotry, and the misguided and rigid ideology…that can all suck it.

    • It’s not so bad, Jeff. I actually enjoy the puzzle, and even though I’m fairly certain my sons won’t run off and join a cult in Clearwater or somewhere, I just want to make sure we do all we can as parents to equip them to make the decisions they’ll need to make when they’re old enough.

  5. Yes on all points.

    A general understanding that there is something out there that isn’t as understandable as we’d like it to be, and is way bigger than any of us. Some call it faith, sometimes it is organized into religions. When it isn’t practiced by as many, sometimes it becomes myth, but that doesn’t make it any less real or relevant for the time when it was practiced.

    I could go off for a few hours like this, but we get the point. I’m glad you are having that talk with the family now, rather than waiting until a moment of crisis to introduce the concepts.

    Good on you, and your family. (Hi Beth!)

  6. I’m glad that you wrote this, and that I read it. This is a conversation that I’ve been struggling to have with my wife. She grew up Catholic and is still religious. I grew up Baptist and am definitely not religious. She keeps bringing up taking our child to church. Fortunately for me, she is currently disillusioned with church in general. She knows that I am not interested in church, but I don’t think that she realizes how deeply I feel about this. I really need to get my thoughts in good order about this difficult subject. I appreciate you sharing your thoughts as it helps me organize my own.

  7. Christianity is not a religion to which man seeks God, for example, but a Faith that by trusting the work of Jesus Christ through his death and resurrection you gain eternal life. Religion is man seeking someone or something to give him/her peace for example, while the Christian faith recognizes that God seeks a relationship with us. Its all about that personal relationship, the moment you truly believe, you will know because you will be changed forever. Remember that we are human and are fallable even if we claim ourselves as Christians. There are no perfect people (especially the churches) and the only one is Christ our Lord. I wouldn’t let the actions of others claiming religion effect your place in eternity. I think Christians are wrongly portrayed in the media and in many ways stero-typed. My church does a lot to help our community and the world such as building a habitat house, building an orphanage in Haiti, supporting the haven house for battered women, going to Oklahoma to help tornado victims, etc…

    Glad you are sending your sons to church I hope that it is a bible believing Christian Church and I pray that you change your heart about Christ one day. Have you read some of C.S. Lewis work? He was a brilliant writer who became a believer later in life while being quite the discerner.

    God Bless you and your family.

    • Can’t say you’re wrong, Bryan, because I don’t know. You don’t know, either, by the way, because no one does. Thank you for weighing in.

      • That’s why they call it faith. However, there is plenty of evidence out there if one were to choose to look for it.

  8. Good for you to tackle this topic not only with your family but to post it here. Sorry Bryan and Jeb but I too fall into the author’s camp. My wife survived 12 years of Catholic school and is more anti-church than I.

    I had several close high school friends become ‘born again’ Christians while in college. Like Bryan wrote, they found the teachings of the bible to be the word of god through their new ‘faith’. I struggle for a year or two with the dramatic change in their life but I did not, could not and still do not see that level of faith.

    I’ve thought about how to expose my 4 year old son to ‘religion’, but haven’t done anything about it yet. Thanks for sharing the articles and book links.

    • Thank you. To be clear, I’m not anti-church or anti-religion. I am anti- some of the things that are done and espoused in the name of religion. I actually see that as a place of common ground for many people, because I can’t imagine people of faith appreciate their beliefs being used to diminish the good in the world.

      • Thanks for your reply.

        No, I’m with you. I do see value in church; love thy neighbor, having a sense of community etc. But as a student of history, like you say, “things done in the name” of their religion isn’t acceptable.

  9. Damn, I am late to the party but I wanted to say I am the word and the way. No really, I am. šŸ˜‰

    I sent my kids to a religious day school for a chunk of years and would have continued but for the cash, just couldn’t keep it up.

    I didn’t do it only because I want them to grow up and remain Jewish. Part of it was so they would have enough of a foundation to question their beliefs from an educated standpoint. I expect and hope one day they ask many of the same questions I did about why they should be XYZ.

    I can’t say where they will end up but I know at different points of my life I have held a place of belief and lack of it. I think the search and questioning can be healthy.

    • We still haven’t started going to church on Sunday. Not sure when we will. Not sure if we will. Not sure why we wouldn’t go to temple or a mosque or any other place of worship, instead. Not sure why we would, either. Still in development, like everything else in life.

  10. I tell my kids some people believe in God, but I’m not one of those people. I try as hard as I can to sound neutral and to not appear to be dismissive of others when I talk about religion with my kids, because, hey, if a little kid finds peace by thinking there’s a higher power looking out for him, that’s not a bad thing.

    Also, while I’m an Atheist, I distance myself from people who hate religion in general. I believe the Christians who had used the Bible to justify owning slaves, would have owned slaves without the Bible. And those who had used the Bible to justify freeing slaves, would have done the same thing without the Bible. The same is true for Christians during the Holocaust. And the same is true now with gay rights. Close-minded Christians pick and choose quotes to justify their hatred, and open-minded Christians follow Christianity as a religion of love.

    I can come to you and make fun of people who take the Bible to be the literal word of God, and believe snakes can talk, but while I’m telling you that joke, Bryan’s church has built a freakin’ orphanage in Haiti, so really, God or no God, the joke’s on me.

    • But would that orphanage have been built without the Bible?

      I don’t have the answers, and I am skeptical of those who say they do.

      That said, if I’m wrong, so be it. I won’t associate myself or our sons with people who use religion as a weapon.

  11. A couple of years ago my youngest kept asking why there were sticks in front of some buildings. He said they looked like a small letter “t.” It dawned on me that he had made it six or seven years (I can’t remember when this was exactly) without knowing what a cross was, and I’m okay with that.

    My wife’s family will occasionally take the boys to Jehovah’s Witness events, and it used to worry me that they would be brainwashed into believing what they hear, but frankly, a lack of birthdays and Christmas will never win my boys over to any belief system.

    We have talked a lot over the years about the fact that some people need religion and others don’t, and they seem to agree with me that nobody knows what the hell is going on. We live in the now and spend our Sundays doing whatever it is that we wish to do.

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