Zen wants absolute freedom, even from God.
D. T. Suzuki
Last month, on a random evening, my children and I were sitting at the dinner table discussing the things we like to talk about the most: video games, books, and the state of the world. We certainly talk about other things, but these are the subjects we linger on the most. (TC would probably say we talk about our cats and their personality quirks as much as any of those subjects and she’d probably be right.)
I ask them about the things they watch on YouTube and about the things they read, from a critical perspective. That is, I ask them what it makes them think, not just whether they like it or not. They, mostly my son, ask me what I’ve read or seen that interested me. We talk about politics and science and spirituality and love.
On this particular evening, they were asking about ads for the upcoming Presidential election. My son asked how any one could vote for Trump when it was so obvious that he wasn’t a good person and by his logic, if he’s such a bad person, how could he be a good president? We’ve talked about a lot of policies that are in place and how they effect most Americans. This evening he was asking how people could ignore something so obvious.
So, I decided to try and explain cognitive dissonance to him. The closest I could come to it was to use Santa Claus as an example. I told him to remember when he believed in Santa and to imagine that rather than learning the truth when he did, he instead grew up still fully 100% believing that there was a Santa. Not only that, but that people still gave him gifts “from Santa” and so even though there was so much evidence and reason to not believe that a fat saintly elf flew around the world giving people gifts, there was still a tiny sliver of evidence that Santa could by a very long stretch of the imagination be real. So, whenever anyone told him Santa wasn’t real, he would put his fingers in his ears and say “uh-uh, he’s real and I KNOW it.” But then, one day, some small thing got through to him and he realized all the gifts “from Santa” were really from his family and all the stories were just fairy tales and all the news broadcasts about the Santa-tracker were just in fun. He would realize he’d believed all this just because he had wanted to believe it.
And my 12 year old said something that shocked me. He said, “oh, you mean like God.”
Friends. I was pretty floored. And proud. And sad. And curious.
I asked why he thought that. He said that in every fiction book he reads there’s always some kind of magic or God to explain why things happen but in the science books he reads there are always rules and reasons for the things, or at least theories that use science to figure out the answers we don’t know yet. Then he asked me what someone who believes in science rather than god would be called, since the people he knows that believe in god are called Christians. I explained the terms theist and atheist to him and he said, “that’s what I am. I’m an atheist. I just can’t believe in a god that would make science that can’t prove he exists. It doesn’t make any sense.” My daughter piped up at this point, having been an unusually silent observer, and said “well, I still believe in witches and potions. I want to be a witch.”
You know that scene in the Grinch where his heart swells up two sizes too big? That was my heart in that moment. But, probably not for the reasons you are thinking. I’m not over here purposefully teaching my children to be godless heathens. Quite the opposite, really. No, I was proud because they trusted me. They were able to articulate, in age appropriate ways, their beliefs about their places in the Universe. They weren’t afraid of being judged or told they were wrong. They weren’t doing it to test boundaries or rebel. They simply were having a dinner time discussion and felt safe to discuss this. That, to me, felt like a parenting gold medal moment.
Later, we were discussing their upcoming trip to “Camp Grammy” and what they would be doing for fun. One thing they always do is attend vacation Bible school and weekly church services. I have long been on the fence about this, but have talked with them, and their grandmother, every year about my concerns. I taught VBS when I attended church and at the time was a whole hearted believer. I know how much heart and soul the people who work VBS put into it. I also know why they are doing it. They are lovingly sowing seeds of belief into very fertile ground.
There was a time several years ago, when my son said he believed “in God and Jesus like Grammy, but science and the Universe, like you Mommy” and it pained me. It didn’t pain me that he was a believer in Jesus, but that it had to have a qualifier “like Grammy” and “like you, Mommy”. I’ve long felt that I wanted his beliefs to be his own. I didn’t want to unduly influence him. If given the choice between Christianity, Buddhism, Neo-Paganism, Atheism, etc (all things he’s been exposed to) what would he choose all on his own? If he chose something different from me, which is what I mostly expected, how far down the rabbit hole would he go? I want him (and his sister) to be curious seekers in the world and not accept things at face value or just because an adult told them so.
Since he was about 8 years old, I have had the concern about VBS pushing him to “get saved”. There is a window of time where children are especially keen to fit in with their peers but to also be seen as “good” by the adults. If you read many biographies of Christian pastors and performers a large number of them “came to Jesus” when they were between 6-12. I know my son. I know he has a hard time fitting in with his peers and I know he’s a people pleaser. These things leave him vulnerable and seemingly easy to influence. This is why I’ve worked so much to teach him skeptical inquiry and critical thinking. I don’t even want to have undue influence on him myself.
Fast forward to now, when I have been … mayhaps one could say “brooding” about the upcoming VBS. VBS is this week. It started on Monday night. Tuesday, when we spoke, I asked them first, if they had fun, to which they exuberantly proclaimed they did. Then, I asked what they did that made it fun, what were the activities, and what story are they learning. They are learning stories of the Israelites from Genesis, which surprised me a little bit. I had forgotten how much my former church studied in the Old Testament. Most younger Christians I speak with don’t study the OT, but instead focus on Jesus’ message of love in the New Testament. (I’m not sure if this is a generational or denominational thing.)
They both enjoyed the art activities which included making their own brick out of sand and mud and straw, like the slaves in Egypt. I thought this was an interesting thing for craft time, but they seemed to like the tactile qualities of the mud and getting dirty. We discussed the story they were told, about the Pharaoh enslaving the Israelites. They both said “but don’t tell us the end, Mommy, the storyteller is really funny. We don’t want to spoil the end!” I laughed at that and said “but you know this story, if you think about it. What is it you want to happen to the Israelites?” Then, my son said, “Oh yeah, they do get to go free. Cause that guy goes up a mountain and then the ocean splits apart.” “Yes, that guy was Moses.” Then, he said, “Yeah, I don’t think science can really explain that part.” I realized I’d been holding my breath. “But Mommy, I can kind of understand why Pharaoh enslaved them, because there were so many Israelites and they outnumbered the Egyptians. If he hadn’t they could have taken over his country.”
So, what would you say to that? Alarm bells went off in my mind. For context, this church is in Texas, USA. So, I’m thinking, “What kind of anti immigration non sense are they telling my children?!” I had to take a moment and think about how to express what I wanted to convey.
We then discussed freedom. Freedom to live as you choose, where you choose, how you choose, and with whatever god you do or don’t choose. I explained how even thousands of years after that story, people still fight and kill each other because they disagree about whose god is the right one, who can live where, what rights people have when they leave one country or another. We both agreed that it was a case of people making things far more complicated than they need to be, since we should all just share the Earth and treat each other with love.
He said to me, “I think people just want to believe in god so that there is something bigger than them that makes good or bad things happen. They don’t have to worry as much if god is taking care of them.” I’m proud he sees that at such a young age and it scares me to think what weight he may be carrying around on his own, although I think we manage to talk out most things pretty well.
“There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.” – Edith Wharton
He’s twelve, so our conversation didn’t go as long as I’d hoped. But, when he said he wanted to tell me about his Yu-Gi-Oh cards instead of talking about freedom and church anymore I thanked him for talking with me about it as much as he had.
“Thank you for listening to me, Mommy.”
Moments like these make me feel that if I can be a mirror for the light in him to illuminate his curiosity and kindness that will be enough.
Let your Light shine,