by Truly Render
My five-year-old daughter, Lila, and I were cuddled up at bedtime talking about God, a conversation that, as a non-believer, I can only sustain by relying on the belief systems of others. We were running down the list of people we knew who were religious: our Hindi neighbor, a Buddhist colleague, our Jewish friends, our mixed-bag family of Christians, Pagans, and atheists, and finally Grandma Bird.
“And what does Grandma Bird believe?”
“She believes that God had a son named Jesus that helped people on earth a long time ago.”
“Jesus?! Like the swear word Jesus Christ?”
“Yes, only Grandma doesn't like it when people use the name in a mean way.”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake!’”
“I believe in Jesus Christ, too.”
“Yeah. So God has a kid. Even if he named him a swear.”
“I like having a kid.”
“Yeah you do. Tell it to me again!”
Lila is being raised by heathens and she’s not alone. In his recent LA Times op ed, “How Secular Family Values Stack Up,” sociologist Phil Zuckerman found that 23 percent of American adults have no religion, creating a new demographic segment called the “Nones,” short for “nothing in particular.” And while this is certainly unprecedented from a historical standpoint, it seems that lessons of morality and The Golden Rule are flourishing regardless of whether a household incorporates worship into family life. While I don’t have any doubt that this is true, I couldn’t help but wonder, reading Zuckerman’s piece, if the human craving for a spiritual life has really dissipated or if the generation raising children is just jaded. If the former, then Lila isn’t the only kid whose frequent questions about God and curiosities about religion are being fielded by “Nones” like myself.
“Historically, American religion has followed an ethnic thread,” said Ian Burch, a priest at St. Chrysostom's Episcopal Church in Chicago. He continued:
Danish immigrants would make Aebleskiver (Danish doughnuts) to share at Sunday service. Catholics had Fish Fry Fridays. In large part, your religion is hooked into your family’s immigration story; in many ways, church was an expression of culture. We might be seeing weaker ties to religion in America because we have weaker ties to our heritage. Overall, I see an ambivalence in young families that is probably unprecedented.
When I was Lila’s age, my atheist mom and I lived with my atheist English grandparents and my atheist English great-grandmother. Once, while serving the Queen in the Corps of Royal Engineers in Egypt, my grandpa flirted with joining a numerology cult but was put off by the floral head-garlands the members were required to wear. There is also a story that emerged after some genealogical digging on my grandfather’s part, stating that one of my great-great-aunts was the last alleged witch to be burned at the stake in England. That’s about as close as my maternal family comes to organized religion. As a child I was told that when you die, your body returns to the earth to make beautiful flowers and forests. On vacation hikes with my grandpa, he’d sit me on his lap at rest times, taking stock of the mountains around us and say, “We’re just a little tiny speck, aren’t we?” On autumn walks with my grandma, we’d open milkweed pods in the wind and watch the white fluff swirl; it was all the magic I needed and as close to spiritual as I’ve ever felt.
In stark contrast, I spent every other weekend with my biological dad who shipped me off to my great-grandparent’s Southern Baptist Church for Vacation Bible School. There, a youth leader crushed my little paleontologist dreams by telling me that dinosaurs weren’t real and that fossils were just a bunch of chicken bones glued together by scientists trying to get rich. My love for the Apatosaurus and my maternal grandparents was strong: aside from a brief alterna-teen flirtation with Paganism, I became a steadfast atheist pretty early on.
As for my husband, Shaun, he was raised by my second-generation Greek mother-in-law. While she speaks fondly of a childhood with ruby red Orthodox Easter eggs, we think she started attending a Lutheran church in college. While Shaun loves the human capacity for belief and incorporates ancient belief-based stories in his life as a fiction writer, as far as personal beliefs go, he’s pretty much a “None” too.
When Phil Zuckerman’s LA Times editorial went viral, I was honestly happy to see a secular voice so accurately and positively represented. That said, raising a purely secular child seemed unfair to me; while Shaun and I had knowledge and experience to base our “non-belief” around, Lila was left high and dry. Plus, Lila was asking frequent questions about faith, God, and religion. As parents, Shaun and I agreed to love and support Lila in her religious decisions but we weren’t really giving her any guidance, nothing to take comfort in or rebel against. If she expressed interest in ukulele, swimming, or gymnastics, we’d make room in the budget and sign her up for lessons straight away. But faith? It was generally a vague bedtime chat equivalent of “that’s nice, dear.” A chat that has cropped up on average two times a week for the past year.
“Ultimately, if you don’t explore questions of faith with her, someone else will,” said Rabbi Bob Levy of Ann Arbor’s Temple Beth Emeth. “It could be a neighbor, a friend, or a complete stranger. It’s better for everyone if this is dealt with in the loving warmth of your family.”
I asked a friend of mine, doula Solana Windsor-Silvia, what she thought of this statement. Restless with her Catholic upbringing, Solana had always been a “seeker.” A fellow alterna-teen Pagan, Solana never felt she could talk to her parents about questions of faith; in a household where children were to be seen and not heard, it was unequivocally off limits. Solana fled to a house for college-aged inter-denominational Christians in Colorado after high school. She ended up fleeing the housing situation with her now-husband in the middle of the night after a roommate — a woman who routinely performed exorcisms on the toaster — burned Solana’s Beatles records and blamed Solana’s “vicious spirit” for causing health issues in the house. “I was a misfit,” Solana said, “and an extremist will prey on misfits, people who don’t know where they’re going.”
Solana eventually converted to Judaism after working for the Jewish Federation of Metro Detroit. While her first boss was an Orthodox male with whom she had little in common, she was in a position where she had to learn how to communicate, dress, and not offend people of a different culture. Her next supervisor in the organization was a female of the Reform persuasion; her feminist ideals (expressed in the celebration of Purim, honoring the Book of Esther), combined with earth-based celebrations (Tu B’Shevat — the Festival of the Trees), and a monolithic God all added up to a compelling fit for Solana.
“The religion offered me what I was looking for, both in concrete celebratory terms and in flexibility,” Solana said. She continued:
My rabbis were very receptive and human when I would talk to them about archetypical concepts of religion, like heaven. They basically said, “It’s up to every individual to determine what they believe.” My conversion was a ten-year process. I needed time to come to terms with my newfound beliefs, find comfortability in celebrating the holidays, and it is a different culture you adopt — it is not just a religion. Plus, I’m a mother. Judaism is matriarchal, so it meant my daughter, Genevieve, would be a Jew because I’m a Jew. It was a lot to take on.
My friend, composer Garrett Schumann, experienced a conversion from the other side of things, as a family member. In his formative years, Garrett grew up in Texas attending a mega-church every Sunday with his older brother Jonathan, his twin, Matthew, and his parents. Garrett’s family moved to Connecticut when he was a pre-teen and found themselves in the intimate setting of a 300-year-old Congregational church with Puritan roots. While church was a weekly part of family life, Garrett reports that discussions of faith never happened at home.
“We never had discussions at home about faith, belief, or feelings,” said Garrett. “We went to church and it was perfunctory — in a good way, but routine nonetheless. For me, it really was about connecting with the community. I never suspected that any of us felt any direct connection to religion.”
After an adolescence spent serving as church Youth Leaders, underscored by Garrett playing Mozart trumpet requiems at Sunday service, Garrett and his twin, Matthew, attended Rice University in Texas, where Garrett studied music while his brother pursued a major in religious studies with an emphasis on Islam.
“After 9/11, Matthew was really curious about Islam and about the role the religion played in modern society. While this intellectual pursuit made total sense, there was nothing that really foreshadowed the changes to come.”
In the spring of their junior year in college, Matthew sent a 2 a.m. text from two dorm rooms down the hall from his twin: “DUDE. I JUST CONVERTED TO ISLAM.”
“The real shock when my twin converted to Islam wasn’t that he converted to Islam, but that he was religious. It had nothing to do with the exotic nature of Islam; it was that he had been grappling with issues of faith or was even religious in the first place.”
Like Solana, for whatever reason Matthew was unable to explore his questions of faith at home. And while I wouldn’t be bothered in the slightest by Lila adopting Islam or Judaism, I’d hate for her to do so in isolation. Rabbi Levy’s words echo strong: if you don’t answer questions of faith at home, someone else will.
Another aspect that really struck me about these stories was the unexpected theme that emerged about the triumph of the family bond.
After Garrett’s twin, Matthew, moved to Morocco on a Fulbright scholarship, his relationship with Islam evolved and deepened. Instead of building barriers between themselves and their son, Garrett’s parents planned a family trip to Istanbul, a destination rich with Islamic culture. While this trip was not without its tensions — Matthew had transitioned to a five-times daily prayer routine without mentioning it to his family — at the end of the day, the family understood that a person undergoing a spiritual transformation may not have the ability to articulate the process in detail, long-distance.
Last summer, Garrett’s father suffered a heart attack that called the entire family together in Connecticut. An already challenging time, Matthew was attempting his first fully-fasted Ramadan. Despite the anxiety and sadness resonating in the family, Garrett and his older brother, Jonathan, would wait until after sundown to prepare the evening meal together with Matthew.
“It was heartening to know that for a week or so, after such a rough time in Istanbul, we were able to come together as a family when we needed to and he didn’t need to sacrifice anything to have that,” said Garrett.
Family support and love during a person’s conversion also came up with Ian Burch. When Ian came out as gay while in the midst of religious studies in college, he wanted to explore his faith in a religion that accepted him fully. He found solace in the Episcopal Church, where he is now a priest, and his family converted alongside him. Ian said, “My dad didn’t want any part of a church that didn’t love and accept his son for who he was.” Ian said that, like many clergy members he’s known, his family’s support has helped him thrive.
As for Solana, her conversion came at the same time that her Catholic mother left an unhappy marriage. The timing was serendipitous, according to Solana. “My mother and I became better friends through my twenties because we were both changing our lives so much and both of us had to be really understanding and open with each other. It created more communication between the two of us.”
As Rabbi Bob Levy said, “Our affection for family members needs to be based on our affection for them and nothing else. If we only love our children when they do what we want, that’s not love. That’s control.”
While there is still some underlying tension around Solana’s conversion with her extended family, her immediate family has embraced the transition wholeheartedly. Solana said, “My husband, Frankie, is unaffiliated in terms of religion, yet he comes to synagogue with my daughter and I every week. It was part of our agreement; he wants me and Genevieve to feel supported in our religious choice.”
If Frankie could go to a religious service he isn’t wholly invested in every week, perhaps Shaun and I could aspire to be as generous and loving to our faith-seeking family members. It seems a better option to me than having Lila move to a home filled will appliance-exorcising fanatics the first chance she gets.
“Religion is no longer prescribed or cajoled. You don’t go to church because you want your neighbors to see your car in the parking lot,” said Ian Burch. Adding:
People are completely honest about what they need from faith, what they’re looking for from faith, and their conflicts with faith. As a result, we’re seeing more mixed-faith families than ever before. Churches have never really had to think about how to welcome complete newcomers into a space. We have to do that now.
Ian is right. I honestly don’t want to seem like a cultural tourist while individuals are having deep communion with their God. I want to respect and honor the numerous beliefs of every shiny person on planet Earth. But on a gut level, I’m afraid that my eyes will roll of their own accord. I’m afraid that I’ll unintentionally botch a prayer. Plus, what will my atheist mother say? I’m afraid of being the outsider, the tourist, the annoying splinter that bristles out from the smooth grain. The prospect of exploring religion with my daughter terrifies me. Which convinces me that it is a pursuit worth doing.
When I asked people for tips on how to feel comfortable when visiting a place of worship, I was given a lot of disparate advice. Everything from “sit in the back” to “call ahead of time and explain your situation.” Some of the advice felt right, while some just spoke to Ian’s observation that religious organizations are behind the times when it comes to paving the way for newcomers. Some of the advice worth passing on is as follows:
The Internet is your best friend. When faced with a religious ceremony or service that you’re unfamiliar with, Google ahead of time for tips on what to wear, if movement is required, and how long the service will last. The latter is of particular importance if attending with a child. Plan snacks and last-call for the potty accordingly.
Copy the people around you; allow yourself to follow.
As you explore of a faith, find a comfortable point of entry, keeping in mind that religious discovery is an evolutionary process.
Perhaps the piece of advice that I found the most comforting was from Ian. “When an emotional or rational disagreement leaves you feeling uncomfortable, take solace in the well-worn pebbles of a great tradition. The stories of the church are tales that humans have been telling themselves for hundreds of years. You’re wading in a stream of tradition.” While I don’t believe in God, I do have a strong belief in the power of storytelling. I can take comfort in that.
After discovering a local Universalist Unitarian church that seemed a comfortable point of entry, Shaun and I decided to allow the church into our family life if Lila’s religious curiosities ever lead us there. To date, they have not. We let her know in terms I hope weren’t weird and forced that we found a cool downtown church for families; Lila declined in favor of building Sunday morning blanket forts with her stuffed animals.
Regardless, this decision-making process has inspired a newfound openness to familiarizing myself with the stories that have shaped my culture and modern civilization. I’ve learned that love can triumph over righteousness in mixed-faith families. And if Shaun and I are ever called upon to change our Sunday morning novels-in-bed routine, we’re coming at it from an informed, thoughtful, and loving place.
Truly Render is the press and marketing manager for the University Musical Society and founder of Truly Render Creative, a boutique marketing and copywriting service. When not at work or swimming with her daughter at the YMCA, Truly enjoys reading, writing, and enjoying the incredible cultural offerings of southeastern Michigan with friends and family. Connect with her at trulyrendercreative.com.