The Perils Faced by My Atheist Family in Our God-Obsessed Community
“Goddammit!” “God bless you!” “For God’s sake!” “God forbid!”
My children have heard me take “the Lord’s name in vain.” These expressions slip out as easily as expletives and are part of my vernacular, even though I don’t believe in God.
God is not exactly welcome in our home.
I’m not a hater (at least not anymore). I’m an atheist. My daughters know I’m the tooth fairy; they have no use for Santa Claus; and would consider the Bible a collection of boring, inaccessible stories (at worst) or fables on par with Greek and Roman mythology (at best).
I’m raising good kids. They are good without God. They will not go to hell … because there is no hell. Neither will they go to heaven … because there is no heaven. I have taught my girls that “heaven” and “hell” are what we humans create for ourselves and each other right here on earth.
Atheist. Say it over and over again and it sounds like a meaningless label. I prefer to call myself a humanist, which expresses what I embrace rather than what I reject. Humanism is my religion. I have faith in the higher power of people – our capacity, indeed our yearning, to do good. If you think sustaining faith in an invisible God or his sacrificial dead son is challenging, try being a spiritual humanist. People fuck up all the time: We disappoint, we hurt each other, we fail miserably. To err is human. But to forgive at least feels divine.
So I forgive all of the evangelicals who’ve come knocking on my door to share the “Good News” with my family and save our souls.
I forgive my former next-door neighbors – a Baptist minister and her husband – for having a “Veggie Tales” video marathon while baby-sitting for my non-Christian kids. I forgive my mom’s Orthodox Jewish friend for “gifting us” with a mezzuzah when my first daughter, Sophie, was born. A mezzuzah is a little box that houses a teeny-tiny scroll with a Hebrew prayer on it that many Jews hang on the doorposts of their homes as a sign of their faith. I would hang one if it could ward off Jesus’ traveling salesmen, but it doesn’t. And I forgive Kayla’s dad for suggesting that I solve a childcare crisis by sending my 11-year-old daughter Jessie to Bible camp with his children. Thanks, but I would rather her binge-watch reruns of “I Love Lucy.” Finally, I have to forgive myself for many years of ruthlessly judging those who believe in God as gullible, fearful children holding on to the security blanket of an imaginary friend.
Parenting has transformed my perspective on religion. I don’t want my children to face prejudice for their beliefs and I don’t want them to feel prejudice toward anyone else. On some fundamental level, I think world peace begins with me teaching my children respect for freedom and diversity. So how did a nice Jewish bat mitzvah girl become an outspoken believer that Dieu n’existe pas? Feminism made me do it. Sure, let’s blame feminism. Everybody does.
A women’s studies class at Penn introduced me to the religious origins of gender oppression. I concluded that God didn’t create man, rather mencreated God in their own image. Patriarchy strikes again! So, God was yet another male authority figure to reject.
I dabbled with the Goddess – Mother Earth – and found the concept of a female divinity empowering. But she didn’t stick.
Still, I had a spiritual awakening. It didn’t happen inside any houses of worship or appear to me in the shadowy curves of a bagel. It happened, actually, during political demonstrations, when I felt a soulful connection to a larger group as we joined together to promote a common vision of justice. And I experienced an epiphany again during pregnancy and after giving birth, when I felt my own power of creation plus a deep connection to all women, across cultures and throughout time, who have grown a human life inside them, pushed a baby out of their bodies, fed that child from their breasts, and felt love of divine proportions.
Many people find God in these moments of mystery and clarity. I found my way to the Washington Ethical Society (WES). What looks like a church, acts like a church but isn’t a church? A congregation of spiritual humanists.
Both of my daughters had baby naming ceremonies at WES. These rituals don’t feature holy water or the drawing of blood. Instead, parents stand before the congregation, promise to love and accept their child’s uniqueness; and the congregation pledges to support our family, to know and care for our children, too.
My daughters have also attended Sunday School at WES and (like most parents there) my partner and I have taught our kids and others in class. The kids engage in social justice work, like campaigning against slave/child labor in the cocoa industry and serving meals at a shelter for homeless women. Instead of Valentine’s Day, we have Pay Attention to Love Day. We hold a humanist seder at Passover and celebrate Spring Festival in place of Easter. “Stone Soup” is our Thanksgiving and Winter Festival is our end of year holiday.
But God wormed his way into my children’s lives anyway. (He works in mysterious ways.) Where? At public school, of course, where my kids have been required to recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag every day, a ritual I find nauseating both for its nationalism and its invocation of God.
I decided that perhaps my children should have more religious literacy than I do. I purchased a series of books called “This Is My Faith,” which are first-person journals of children explaining the symbols, rituals, tenets of Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism and how their family practices their religion. One summer, I tried to get Jessie interested in creating her own “This Is My Faith” book about humanism/ethical culture, but like many projects launched with great enthusiasm, we never finished.
My older daughter hasn’t really asked about God. But I’ve asked her plenty. Most recently:
“Sophie, do you believe in God?”
“I don’t know!”
“You don’t know if there’s a God or you don’t know if you believe in God?”
“I don’t know! Now, leave me alone!” (She is 15, after all, and has better things to do, usually involving earbuds and a palm-size screen.)
Jessie, at 11, is surprisingly clearer on her beliefs. While rehearsing at home for a school chorus concert, she admitted to me that instead of singing “God shed his grace on thee” during “America, the Beautiful,” she silently mouths the words, just as she’s been doing for years, she confessed, during the pledge of Allegiance.
This summer, Jessie went to a week of overnight camp, where they sang songs before meals and bedtime. At the end of the week, Leslie, the camp director, asked the girls for feedback on what they liked most and what they would change. My daughter pulled Leslie aside and explained that she is an atheist and wished that they didn’t sing songs that mentioned God. Leslie thanked her and said that she usually tells kids they can substitute “Earth” for “God” but just forgot this year.
This past year, Sophie participated in the Coming of Age program at WES, a year-long rite of passage that educates parents about adolescent development. It includes spiritual experiences, like camping alone on a mountain. The program concluded with a moving graduation ceremony in which the teens gave speeches about how they had grown over the year and we parents tearfully sang songs to our children.
It’s been a challenging year. Sophie and Jessie are the only two of their vast brood of cousins who aren’t having bar or bat mitzvahs. We’ve been to so many of them, I wondered if Sophie felt like she was missing something, a special event that focused just on her transition from childhood to young womanhood. So, I offered to throw her an alternative quinceañera. “We’re not Latino, Mom,” she reminded me.
No, we’re not. We’re Jewish(ish). We’re liberals. We’re a two-mom family. We’re vegetarians. We’re not “nones,” that growing population of Americans who are disconnected from religious affiliation. We aren’t going it alone. But still, somehow, the thing that seems to push our family over the edge of mainstream America is our atheism.