When we left off in Part 1 last week, I was holding my newly-minted Knucklehead in my arms and thinking now what? I’d accepted that I was atheist, but had no idea how that would translate into parenthood. Or even if it should. I’d never raised a kid before, much less raised a kid as an atheist dad. Was that even possible? I had no template for that, not even a bad one. I had an idea of how to teach a kid Christianity. Wasn’t that better than nothing?
And I wasn’t the only person in his life. His mom was Christian, as were her parents and extended family (my parents had died, and my siblings scattered). They weren’t going to think twice about baptizing him and raising him Christian; that was taken as given. The Knucklehead’s mom (at the time, my wife) knew I was atheist, but I hadn’t dared tell anyone else. For the sake of peace in the family, wasn’t it selfish of me to even consider raising him anything other than Christian? It would sure make his life a lot easier. He’d fit in better with most of the rest of the families we knew.
The burgeoning dad in me told me it would be better to provide a unified front for Knucks. That it would confuse him if one parent professed one thing, and the other parent another. How could I send him off to church when I didn’t go myself? Or should I go and just keep my mouth shut? I don’t know. That seemed a little hypocritical. What if all the Knucklehead learned was spirituality is something merely to be paid lip service?
I didn’t know what to do. I wasn’t even that confident in my own beliefs at that point. What right did I have to interfere with his?
And then, clear as day, I heard in the back of my head a scrap from the liturgy I’d recited weekly, for years in church: “We know that we are by nature sinful and unclean.”
No. Not this boy. This child is beautiful. Not only has this child not done anything sinful yet, this child hasn’t yet done anything at all. Not unless you want to count tears or meconium. No. This boy, this Knucklehead, this child, this life is beautiful. I felt a flush of anger toward anyone who would tell him differently, and I would be damned if I was going to tell him that myself. I especially didn’t want to hear it someday from his own lips.
I wanted to slap any parent who would allow such thoughts to be internalized by their own children. My parents included. So the paternal contribution to the boy’s Christianity was out. I still didn’t have anything to replace it with, but at least I had ruled something out.
I wanted to have something coherent I could present him with, not just a rejection of something else. That was going to take a lot of sleepless nights. And in the meantime, I had a little baby boy going on right in front of me. I shelved my theological difficulties to focus on the here and now. There were diapers to change, bottles to prepare, tickles to administer. And nursing school, for me, to add to the business at hand. We did the baptism, and I walked through my part to keep peace in the family. Sometimes it’s best to take one for the team.
Three years went by, and the marriage expired. The Knucklehead’s mom and I both knew we could be better parents apart than separately, more relaxed, more focused on him. It wasn’t the religious differences that did us in, not completely, just an inability to agree in which direction the family was heading. That may sound pretty sterile, and I am oversimplifying. But it’s all you really need to know.
This all happened just as The Knucklehead was starting to head toward the Sunday School age, and it provided a natural solution. Mom’s house would be a Christian house. Dad’s house would not. I would not reinforce The Knucklehead’s religious upbringing. But I couldn’t ignore it either. I didn’t want to make it the elephant in the room. I also knew that he needed a reason why I was tolerating something he was doing that I didn’t agree with. Here’s what I said, and repeated from time to time (and age-appropriately, obviously):
“Knucks, I don’t go to church because I’m not a Christian.* It’s not what I believe. But I started out as a Christian, and I think that was helpful for me. It got me where I am today. You can’t really understand a religion until you jump in and live in it for a few years. This is your chance to really get to know it, and understand the stories a lot of people grew up with. That way, when you’re older, and the time comes to decide for yourself, you’ll know what you’re talking about. You can either say, ‘Yep, I get it, it makes sense,’ and choose it confidently. Or, you might say, ‘I’ve given it my best shot, and it’s just not me,’ and walk away in peace. Or choose something different that makes more sense to you. Until that day comes, take this opportunity to learn all you can about Christianity. Who knows? You might find something I missed.”
But I wasn’t going to just throw him to The Church, either. I was worried about the questions he wouldn’t ask, the same questions that were never answered to my satisfaction when I was a kid. I was worried about his reaction to some of the scarier stories. I was worried about how he’d react to being told he must believe in all the magic and supernatural events taking place in The Bible. After all, in the rest of children’s literature, the supernatural is just “imagination.” It’s fun. In religion, it’s meant to be taken as fact.
For the latter, I borrowed from the brilliant Joseph Campbell, author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Campbell lamented that the word, “myth” had become synonymous in popular culture with the word, “lie.” Myths of any culture hold deep truths, they are the vessels for a peoples’ greatest values. They are metaphors. It doesn’t matter if they are literally true or not; even if invented, one does not go to the trouble to make up stories about ideas that have no value.
In that sense, Christianity is rich with mythology. In the child version: “Don’t worry if a story sounds impossible. That doesn’t matter. What you have to figure out is why the story is still around, even if it sounds like it was made up. What you want to figure out is what idea is inside that telling that is so important that people thought a crazy-sounding story would be the best way to remember it. The next step, the harder one, is to figure out if that idea matters to you.”
I told him to talk to me if anything bothered him. I rarely directly contradicted doctrine, but I told him that if anybody told him I was going to hell because I wasn’t a Christian, it wasn’t true. “They’re wrong. Don’t ever worry about that.” (That earned me a relieved smile that made me suspect the subject had come up already.) I told him that in life, in school, at home, at soccer practice, if something didn’t make sense, keep asking questions until it did. And that goes double for Sunday School. I offered to take him to church on the Sundays he was with me if he wanted me to. I repeated the offer, genuinely, from time to time. He took me up on it once, the year he sang in the children’s choir. After that, he opted out.
I felt as though I had prepared an adequate defense for him. I felt that I was giving him a lifeline that I would have clung to at his age. I was giving him permission to question and to doubt where no one else would. Even if he found much to guide him, he would find much that wouldn’t, and I felt like I was giving him a way to reconcile the two. To not be guilt-ridden by doubts that were entirely rational, but for which he might punish himself for not being devout enough to accept.
Above all, I wanted to protect him from the blasphemy of being told he was “by nature sinful and unclean.” I wanted to protect him from the violence of believing that of himself. Of the future loves in his life. Of potential knuckleheads of his own.
But I still felt I was spending too much time in negative territory, too much effort on defense. I wanted to give him something positive, something active that he could carry with him. But I didn’t have the experience outside of religion to find my own ethical voice. I didn’t know how to organize morality along secular lines. I’d never had to do it before.
Ironically, it was Knucks himself who helped me do that. I’ll tell you how next week.
*I avoided The A-word at the time, and didn’t call myself atheist in front of him until he was in his teens. I don’t know if that was the right decision, but the word “atheist” is so loaded a term that I was afraid his mind would run to the stereotypes applied to the label instead of listening to his papa in front of him. I also didn’t want him to suffer abuse from the community if he nonchalantly mentioned in front of his rural friends that his dad’s an atheist. Remember, I was working this all out myself at the time, too. Today, I think I’d be less worried about the consequences and identify myself more directly.