How Do I Tell My Daughter I Don't Believe in God?
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This story originally appeared at Salon.
“I’ll make a peanut butter and matzoh sandwich since I can’t have bread,” Lizzie said, grabbing a knife from the drawer. My daughter, at 13, has decided she’s a little Jewish. Her ancestors, Irish Catholics, are as Jewish as I am, but the only dad she’s ever really known, who came into our lives when she was 4, is a nonreligious Jew. And, as an agnostic ex-Catholic married to him, I don’t mind at all that Lizzie is experimenting with religion. But I do hope it’s non habit-forming.
Lizzie has been trying on bits and pieces of religions for years now, discarding each after a little wear. A few years ago, as we read the decidedly secular Nancy Drew together one night, she asked out of the blue if I believed in God. As she snuggled into the crook of my arm, chewing on a strand of dark blond hair, she waited for an answer.
“Well, some people believe in God,” I answered, carefully putting on the same serious but accessible voice I’d used to answer previous uncomfortable questions about where babies come from and why there are Republicans.
“Do you believe?” Lizzie said, stressing the you so I could almost see the italics flying out of her mouth. There was no getting around it. I had to answer.
“No, I don’t,” I said as concern creased her face.
Should I have lied and just said I believed? After all, God seems to lurk in almost every nook and cranny of this country. Way back, in kindergarten, the Pledge of Allegiance told her she’s part of one nation under God. Lizzie sees friends and family go to church or temple each week and smiles at the store clerk who tells her to “have a blessed day.” Giant decorated trees and huge menorahs are everywhere she looks each December (rather, menorahs used to be everywhere — then we moved to Portland). Every time I dig through my wallet to find bills to buy a gallon of milk — or anything at all — I see His name. In God some may trust, but not all of us.
There are chunks of society saying if you don’t believe in God you’re a bad person. Will Lizzie intuit that she’s bad if she doesn’t believe — or that her mother is? Or is it OK to tell her what I believe: It’s a superstition that many people believe but I don’t, and that, to me, it seems like mystical make-believe. Maybe I should take what I like about religion — the moral and ethical bits — and drop the rest, my own personal ecumenical smorgasbord. I’ll take One Golden Rule and seven of the Ten Commandments, please, and hold the mortal sin and transubstantiation.
My disenchantment with religion started long ago, when I went to Mass each Sunday. I wore frilly dresses that my mother had carefully laid out the night before and the white acrylic tights that itched my legs and sagged uncomfortably as I sat, week after week, on the polished dark wood pew, standing and sitting on command, but not really listening to the priest. I chanted when everyone else did — my religion, with its comfort of ritual and repetition, seemed made for obsessive compulsives. But instead of mediating on God’s glory, I’d flip though the hymnal and wiggle on the hard wooden seat. After my First Communion, I’d go each week and eat Jesus, in Catholicism’s ritualistic cannibalism. As the wafer dissolved slowly on my tongue, I realized that to me it was just a wafer. The church didn’t fill me with the Holy Ghost, just the feeling it was a scam. There wasn’t one single event that made me feel this way — just a series of Sundays and something deep in me. I was a closeted agnostic at 6. But I kept going. When I was a teenager, I’d sullenly attend each Sunday morning, studying the other teenagers, potheads and cheerleaders. A cheerleader who, at school, strutted past with a flip of her feathered hair as if I didn’t exist, smirked a fake lip-glossed smile at me and shook hands when the priest told us to offer each other a sign of peace. As soon as Mass was over, the detente ended and everyone went back to their roles, the weekly pretend play over. I smoked dope with the potheads, and cheerleaders ignored lesser girls.