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How Do I Tell My Daughter I Don't Believe in God?

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?

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High school also taught me how malleable faith could be — religious beliefs seemed as steadfast and unbendable as tin foil. After losing my religion as a teen, I lost my virginity and got pregnant. My parents, avowed Catholics, took me to the clinic for an abortion without a second thought. We didn’t even consider any other alternative for more than 20 seconds — and thanks be to my parents for that. But it crystallized the feeling that religion was full of hypocrisies — and you could twist it and turn it to fit your needs. I still went to church, though, with my parents weekly. I didn’t ask them not to go and they didn’t tell me to go; it was expected that I go, so I did. And as soon as I left home, I left my religion without a second glance. During my 20s and 30s, I gave as much thought to religion as I did to my 401K — pretty much nothing. But in my mid-40s, I found myself back in church for the first time in decades.

My 40-year-old cousin and her two young children had been killed. There aren’t words to explain the awfulness of what happened, but here are a few to describe it: It was late. It was dark. My cousin was driving with her two kids tucked safely into their car seats. Something happened and the car hit a tree. It burst into flames. Everyone died.

Red electric candles flickered in the corners and incense burned my nose and eyes. Flowers and tiny white coffins were wheeled into the church and placed next to the larger coffin — children snuggled next to their mother in death, as in life. All around, mourners sobbed. My cousin’s husband was lost to his grief, his entire family gone in less time than it takes to say three Hail Marys. What can you say to someone drowning in misery, how can anything you say possibly make it better? You can’t.

The priest’s words, meant as comfort to the family, fell flat to me. Everything seemed like a false comfort offered for such bottomless loss. Part of me wants to be able to tell Lizzie her second cousins are in a better place, to buffer her from the sadness of children dying. But it feels like a lie. So what do I say when other people tell her they’re in heaven? Do I stare straight ahead when she looks quizzically at me? What’s wrong with a white lie to help ease grief? I fight the urge to answer like a therapist. (“Are my second cousins in heaven?” “What do you think?”)

I feel comfortable with what I believe about not believing, but I still find it hard to talk to Lizzie about it. I want to give her the wisdom I have but also the room to decide for herself and not have her beliefs trailer-hitched to mine. So we read my old children’s Bible, Greek myths and Native American creation stories. Her dad tells her the story about the Maccabees and the oil when we eat latkes at Hanukkah and about Moses at Passover. I tell her about Jesus during Christmas and Easter. But I feel compelled to stress to her that these are myths that some people believe. And is it hypocritical on my part to even talk about Moses and Jesus? To have a tree? To search for eggs? To eat latkes?

Lizzie is sifting and sorting and exploring theology in her own way. She and her dad started their own religion, Dalala, after her fish Sparkly died. It involves lighting a candle for all the people or animals who’ve died in the past year — so they can come back as babies. And it involves eating pancakes. We’ve observed it annually, every March 26, for seven years now. It sounds as plausible as anything I grew up with.

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