17 March 2011

Mommy, who's Jesus?

This is a post among an unknown number of posts to come about "unequally yoked" marriage. Googling for "unequally yoked" produces an absurd amount of hits. I've found most to be about what to do before marriage. I'd like to write a bit about what it's like from within marriage.

Here's a link to the index for this series

I wanted to blog a bit about my current thoughts on kids. I've mentioned this in the other posts in this series and probably elsewhere on the blog, but it's becoming more pertinent, so I thought I'd write a whole post on this. When I first began to doubt, my wife was very adamant about still wanting to raise our children to believe in Catholicism. Suddenly about two months ago, this was not the case. I was amazed! She said that she was open to only telling them about Christianity, not teaching it. I was very surprised and relieved.

Lately, however, she's back to wanting to raise them to be believers. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the thought of not raising them to have the faith she loves so much brings her great pain and sadness.

She brought this up because our oldest, Felicity, has started asking things like, "Who is Jesus?" Or perhaps it was "Where is Jesus?" I don't remember. My wife wasn't sure what to say due to our situation, but would have wanted to "share her faith" with our daughter. I originally proposed three ways forward when I began to doubt:
  • Both "preach" conflicting views (I boldly proclaim my non-belief while she boldly proclaims her belief)
  • I say nothing while she raises our daughter to be a Catholic
  • We educate her about all religions while teaching only that which has proven to be reliable (science, history, logic, etc.)

I think the first would be the most harmful. I'm primarily opposed to the second (though I don't know that it's not unintentionally playing out as we speak), and think the third is by far the best choice given the situation (and in general). Part of my objection to raising them as believers is that none of the later-developed "filters" and thinking mechanisms for evaluating reality are in place at their age. My daughter once stated, "Jesus is in mommy's heart" or something to that effect. She has no way of evaluating what that means. How is a person inside the functioning organ of another person? Is Jesus a person? If he is, does he have a body? Do all people have bodies? Does Jesus both have a body but also not have a body?

Also, my even larger opposition comes about due to what one desires to teach. When my wife says she wants to "share the faith that she loves so much" with our children... it means sharing all the fluffy, warm, ooey-gooey goodness that she thinks is so great. I know these things and, yes, they would have been exciting to me as a believer to instill into my children.
  • God is so great!
  • Do you know how very, very much god loves you, honey?
  • God is the most powerful ever, and he thinks just about you all day long
  • Isn't [that sunrise, baby's birth, happiness-producing-occurrence, fill-in-blank] so amazing? It's because god is so amazing and can work miracles like these whenever he wants!
  • And many more...

You get the point. It's all the things you learn in Sunday school that I find parents want to "share" with their children. But why not start at the beginning? Why not teach them that god is omniscient, must have known it was likely for his beloved creatures to fall, created them anyway, let them breed in wickedness, and then killed them all off in a flood? While you're at it, teach them that god created vast amounts of water, flooded the earth with it, and then removed that extra water from existence and covered his tracks by erasing any geological sign that such a flood ever happened!

Perhaps that's a silly example as a lot of denominations don't take the flood literally. You get the point, though. No one is teaching their kids the hairy reality of the apologetical landscape. No, I think they deliberately want to use the impressionable nature of their minds to instill their beliefs into their children. This doesn't have to be malicious -- parents are just trying to share what is near and dear to their hearts and what they think is the greatest thing they can with their children. But when it comes to my current mindset, I obviously don't think this is the greatest thing one can share, nor do I think the theistic debate has reached a level of universal "resolvedness" to be teaching things like this as facts, especially when most of those around me can't defend the things they consider to be facts in the first place.

My greatest fear is that teaching Christian beliefs to a child will reduce their ability to objectively survey the theistic evidential and intellectual landscape when they grow older. I have a hunch that when someone is "raised a Christian," it severely limits their ability to ever be open to being wrong down the road. I fear that going down that road plants a seed of irrational certitude that is extremely difficult to remove. When whatever recipe came together that allowed me to actually doubt and think that I might be wrong about the very thing I'd based my entire life upon... I finally saw that I really didn't have any solid reasons for believing what I believed.

And I decided that I never wanted that to be true about anything again.

Now, surely there will forever be nooks and crannies of ignorance in my life, but I consider that awakening to be one of the best things that's ever happened to me. I'm "meta" aware. I'm more centered on careful rational analysis when presented with some new information or argument. I feel as though a switch was flipped that has allowed me to realize that I was really standing on air. I may have only reached this rare state (being able to doubt) because I only became religious at the age of 16 or so. What would I be like had I been saturated in religion-as-truth since birth?

And so, this is my fear for my children. I already know that they can take in anything -- see shameless plugs HERE and HERE for proof of my scientific indoctrination on our oldest :) I think that is combined with the fact that my own efforts in this area have continued to leave me unsure about my position. Thus, when others who I know have not put in such efforts want to proceed forward with a plan of raising a child to believe x, I'm quite opposed. At the bare minimum I want them to recognize that the subject area is quite far from a cut and dried case. When I do this with my wife, the typical response is simply that she "really, really cares about and believes in" religion. I love my wife... but that's not going to cut it!

This got a bit long... again. I'd like to end by following up on my comment above about my daughter being raised to believe perhaps occurring unintentionally as we speak. My wife stays at home while I work. I have very little "face time" with my daughter (perhaps an hour each morning and a couple of hours at night, and weekends). Combine this with the fact that non-belief really has no "outward signs." I have extremely little passive impact on this area, whereas my wife has tons. She sings praise and worship songs around the house and my daughter later will request them to be sung by name. She prays using a Bible and my daughter sees that. She prays with a rosary, which my daughter sees. My daughter the other day exclaimed, "Holy..." (and I swore she was going to finish with "crap" or something similar) and ended the phrase with "Spirit!" I wondered where in the world that came from! So... she's definitely saturated in a religious environment, but it's probably mostly because religious activity has outward, visible signs of participation. All of my "non-belief" is simply due to opting out of things. I stay home with my oldest while my wife and youngest go to Mass. I don't make the sign of the cross or pray at meal blessings anymore (I mostly try not to even bow my head). Things like that. I feel that the scales are quite tipped against me when it comes to this. Yet, even if I did have outward signs of some sort... I'd still be torn (revisit the three options above). I don't want my daughter conflicted about which parent to side with when it comes to belief. I just kind of want her to grow up as she grows up and at a later date when she has the inclination and mental capacity to dive into this mess of a field of study, she can! It's messy, ugly, and upsetting. To teach her the fluffy goodness of religion by bypassing and ignoring that fact is horrible, in my mind. It's sect-centric -- ignoring the fact that others believe wildly different conclusions just as strongly as you believe in your own! Teaching the Bible as the ultimate authority without explaining how someone across the globe has looked at it, and tossed it in the garbage in favor of his/her own holy text. Or teaching strict rules about something like contraception while leaving out the fact that the Jones' down the street, who are lively, righteous Lutherans who have "sold out" for the Lord... think contraception is perfectly permissible. These are my objections.

I know some read this blog who are in similar situations. What is your current practice in this area? This one is eating away at my wife (and therefore, me, too) and it would be fantastic to come to a resolution. How are you handling this? What do you think of my objections? Are they irrational and/or ill-founded? Should I lighten up? Should I address it more firmly? I appreciate your input!


Anonymous said...

What exactly are you afraid of happening if you take the first option? Are you worried that it would be harmful for the kids, or for your own social standing?

I'm not well acquainted with anyone who grew up in such a household, but I know some people with that upbringing well enough to observe that they don't seem overtly dysfunctional.

In my own case, I was born to a couple of nonreligious parents with a very religious extended family. I was born in the middle of the Bible Belt, and frequently looked after by fundamentalist relatives at an early age. It wasn't until I was older than your daughters that any of my extended family members felt I was ready to start talking about religion (I think it's probably not a coincidence that my family moved soon after.)

Sharing the warm, fluffy elements of religion with your kids might feel good at this point, but perhaps your wife can be convinced to hold off until they're old enough to properly understand the religion they're being introduced to. Until then, you can simply tell them how much you and your family love them, and how important to you they are. I know what it's like to want to be as warm and comforting and giving to someone as is possible, and it might feel like God's love is that much bigger and fluffier a security blanket, but sometimes there are things that you simply have to hold yourself back from saying, even if you want to, to avoid causing problems, and being assured of their parents' love is pretty emotionally satisfying for a child.

Hendy said...

@Anon: I'm primarily worried that this would have some sort of traumatic effect on the kids. Not so much for simply educating them about our respective views, but literally having an "indoctrination war" going on between use -- "Little one, there's a man in the sky who loves you and cares for you!" "Little one, no there's not."

Secondarily would be creating some sort of parental favoritism or simply an environment in which spousal love is not seen/witnessed (I think such a tactic would create the impression that mommy and daddy are rivals rather than showing our mutual support for the child).

I agree with your statements re. the importance of parental love and definitely think that is/should be the focus.

... Zoe ~ said...

On 9/11, I picked our now 16 year old daughter up after school. She hopped in our vehicle and quickly said, "All the Christians will be Raptured first, right?"

I realized that they had probably been watching the CNN coverage all day at school and she was sitting there thinking it was the end-of-the-world as she new it. The start of things to come and likely near the beginning of the Rapture. She was looking for assurance while still living with the reality of the days events.

I had left the church, left fundamentalism, but was still a Christian at the time. But I was evolving. Had she asked me that question a few years earlier, I wouldn't have blinked an eye and would have responded with, "Yes."

I answered, "Well, that's what some Christians believe. There are Christians who don't believe that. Not all Christians believe the same thing."

She relaxed with a sigh of relief. As far as she knew, we were the Rapture believing Christians and that's all that mattered to her at the time. There was enough "black and white" in my answer to give her some sense of security/assurance that if "this was it" she'd be safe. Yet, for me, there was enough "grey" in it for me, because I was as I said, "evolving" in my understanding as I was moving away from my former Christianity.

Though we raised our kids in a conservative evangelical fundamentalist literalist church, we as parents never quite fit the scenerio. I often talked with the kids about Jesus as our Saviour but I often talked about other religions and what other people believed. I was concerned with tolerance as well as respecting fellow human beings.

This is such a huge topic and if our kids had been younger, I'm not sure how I would have handled a situation like yours. For instance, I did not want to raise our kids to believe in Santa Claus. I was just sick about it. I presented what I thought was a reasonable objection to doing so. My objection? "It's a lie." I did not want to lie to my children. I wanted to still "do" Santa Claus but with the understanding that Santa is a myth that humanity has created to bring us comfort and light during a dark time of the year. Sort of like the Easter Bunny who gets us hopping in the spring. :-)

In the end, my husband who did care about what I thought, and could see my point, knew there was no way to get around it with his parents. When we approached the subject with them it was like we were speaking Greek to them. Seriously, I think they thought we were certifiable. Culture, tradition and societal expectations won the day.

Religion is like Santa Claus. It's normative in our culture, tradition and society. Never mind that Santa doesn't visit children in Amazon tribes. Never mind that children in Noah's day, died as Noah raised the door to the ark.

Thinking about the nasty parts of our reality isn't what people want to do. They want a Santa Claus. They want a loving God. If we started our tales of lore with, Santa come to you but not most children in this world and God killed a whole lot of people because he was ticked off with them for not worshipping him, we wouldn't win them to our myths in the first place.

Just some thoughts that come to mind as I think about your situation. I think I could go on and on.

Hendy said...

@Zoe: thanks for sharing. I meant to respond to this when I saw it. Fantastic example and comment. I really liked this:
| Thinking about the nasty parts of our reality isn't what people
| want to do. They want a Santa Claus. They want a loving God. If we
| started our tales of lore with, Santa come to you but not most
| children in this world and God killed a whole lot of people because
| he was ticked off with them for not worshipping him, we wouldn't
| win them to our myths in the first place.

Very true. Even thinking about Genesis right now brings that to mind. It all starts with "and it was good" -- take care of what was "before" the big bang and abiogenesis in one fell swoop... and then just pages later you're reading that it apparently wasn't good. Then those descended from Noah are now having to kill off a bunch of other people for not believing rightly -- where did they even come from?

Thanks again for the comment. I'm still pondering how to approach our children. I have Parenting Beyond Belief on my night stand; perhaps I'll get some insights there.

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