"Lily, watch this.
"Maya! You shouldn't do that! Meditating is praying to the earth. And we pray to God."
I was up so fast the curtains swayed in my breeze.
"Who told you that?!" I demanded, when I came upon the youngest sitting with her legs folded, and hands facing the ceiling, forefingers and thumbs pinched. The oldest trying to wrestle her out of her pretzel position.
"Come on! Where did you hear that?!"
"I....I don't know!", my oldest said, concern mounting over my tone. I calmed down, then patiently explained to her what meditating is: an introspective practice with ties to various faiths. But that meditation could also be a very secular way to chill the heck out. She understood. And to celebrate, I taught her to meditate to ease herself to sleep. Such a worrier, that one.
When they were just born, an atheistic relative of my ex-husband's questioned the fairness of raising children in a particular faith tradition. "Indoctrinating them", he claimed. Not giving them the opportunity to try on and decide as an adult, as if faith were best formed from sampling all on the smorgasbord of options. I have to admit, he had a point. But there is another point: something is better than nothing. It was our belief system; and sincere in our hearts it was true, how could we not share it? Considering we felt it had a direct impact on the direction of our lives and the eternal delight of our disembodied souls it seemed more than a little important. Yet.
Yet I had to concede I wasn't sold on the idea of raising fundamentalist children. I had only been on "the inside" for a couple of years by then, and I couldn't help but to notice in my lucid moments, that orthodox faith was it's own subculture, as much as it was a religious practice. The facts were we listened to Christian music almost exclusively, and hung out with Christian friends, and only watched movies that were deemed "clean", and we prayed constantly, and there were Bibles everywhere in the house and scripture was always on my lips. Not to mention the Sunday mornings, and the Wednesday nights. The women's bible study, the small group, the Christian counselors. It seemed to be a tiny bit...insulating, to put it mildly. Further, if they were to attend Christian school 7 hours a day, how much more so would they be shielded from people who didn't look, or behave, or believe, or live like them? How would I raise them to not be narrow minded and exclusionary? How could I tell them about the world, and communicate that different was not bad? How could I raise them in a fundamentalist faith, then ask them to make room in their hearts for the outsiders?
I got my first opportunity in the summer of 2011.
"Mama, can a boy marry a boy and a girl marry a girl? Or does it have to be a girl marrying a boy only?", came the five year old voice from the back seat.
I smiled to myself. It was happening, and served to me on a platter by the first baby and her big adult questions.
I told her it was funny she'd asked, because that week our state had made it legal for two girls to marry. And we have a cousin who is about to marry her future wife, and it will be real! And legal! And your aunties are married already. And we love them, right?
"Well, some Christians think being gay is a sin. But we know that God loves everyone and that's just how they were made. Love is love."
"Okay!", she said. Satisfied with my logic.
Because, for better or worse, there is no larger "god" in a child's world, than a parent's influence. And I knew from that moment, my daughters would be okay. They could spend five days a week in a school that danced around creationism and evolution, that made intimations about certain "lifestyles" and our sin nature. A place where the colorfulness of society as a whole, and all it's creativity, was not well represented. And go to Church. And memorize scripture. And what they would get out of all of that is exactly what they needed, and none of the extras. Hope for the future, comfort in sorrow, and a sense of purpose and direction. Hatred, narrow mindedness, and fear were checked at our front door.
I was piecing this together in my head today, while reflecting on the terrorist act in Orlando. There is so much to tackle about our violence culture, our gun culture, the way society socializes young men, the easy accessibility to weapons, nationalism and religious fundamentalism that one hardly knows where to begin. I explained what happened to my children and they questioned the motive, naturally. I theorized that it seemed to be because he personally did not like gay people and perhaps his religion played a role. They scoffed that his religion must be pretty awful. "Well," says I, "his beliefs are not much different than what a lot of Christians believe."
They can't wrap their heads around that concept, because to them, their brand of Christianity is it's essence. The one where all are welcomed, accepted, and appreciated and none are condemned. The one where science and faith can dovetail if we are creative and flexible in our understanding of scripture. The one where the highest call on our lives is love and service. The one where they see Muslims and Jews and Hindus and Buddhists and Animists as their spiritual cousins. The one where we are all sinners, yet at the same time none of us are - we're just people. The one where they concede that if everyone believes something different, and each insists upon their rightness, then many of them must in fact be - wrong. And their acceptance that they could be within this group. And then I saw this montage of scenes in my head:
The outrage over Trump suggesting Muslims should be banned: "What about M?!", my distraught oldest cried over a Muslim friend, who babysits on occasion. Whom they love.
"C is a boy now," the youngest casually mentioned after she came home from playing with a little girl they'd been hanging with for years, who's parents enabled her to identify herself henceforth, as him.
"Am I understanding this picture, right? Did we come from apes?" the oldest bravely asked after seeing a cladogram at the zoo. Patiently listening to evolutionary theory, she didn't seem to care how science conflicted with a story she'd been told her whole life about human origins.
And all these memories made me concede that his cousin was both right and wrong. On the one hand, I've known plenty who were raised with no exposure to religion at all, even educationally, and it has made them less likely to investigate faith as an adult. How many of these miss out on walking a spiritual path that could have deepened the experience of being human? It's impossible to say. That said, being raised atheist or agnostic is not the danger to society that raising children in a fundamentalist faith seems to be. Can I compare an adult who believes and teaches their children that homosexuality is caused by demon possession, with another who walks into a homosexual nightclub and blows fifty people away? Is it fair? Sort of. It grows from a similar seed, doesn't it? While it may be that it was nationalism that loaded his gun, it is no coincidence that it was pointed at a room full of "sinners".
Spirituality is great. I talk about how great it is, in general terms, all the time. But fundamentalism can be, and often is - dangerous. The insular culture, out of necessity, creates a mentality of the righteous "us" and the unrighteous "them". Those not in the fold, not like you, are dangerous. Many come to see them as a threat to their beliefs, their safety, their very way of life. I attended churches that advocated we not be pulled by the lure of unbelieving friends that could lead us down the path to destruction. I find it interesting that while I was adhering to this, I instinctively knew it would be a bad thing to impart to our children. And so gradually I turned off the Christian rock, and let them stay home from church at their choosing, and decide for themselves when they felt grateful or afraid and wanted to pray.
Religion, lets face it, has been the catalyst and excuse to wage the most despicable wars, horrific acts of terrorism and barbaric crimes against humanity. From Christians shooting up abortion clinics to modern Jihad via terrorism. From the Crusades to the biblical grounds for segregation and slavery. From the least to the greatest, religious orthodoxy has been responsible for more destruction than any one other human-driven cause. It has to be said - I can't name an atheist who shot up a movie theater or women's health clinic, in the name of science.
No, religion doesn't produce crazy people. Crazy knows no religion. Neither does hate. But beliefs that inherently exclude other people and their behavior, that label outsiders as unacceptable, when taught to a child, can and do produce intolerant adults. That come to hate those who are not like themselves. That can then funnel their inner fears and rage and psychic pain into eradicating people who are easiest to blame, though they've done nothing but live to the fullest expression of their humanity. Adults who can be so afraid of that otherness that they persecute, and maim. And kill.
Though I know very little for certain, one thing I am absolutely sure of, is that God does not want, need, nor honor these human sacrifices. But weeps over our ignorance, and violence - our foolish, childish, destructive ways as we battle one another for dominance.
I want to challenge any religious parent within the sound of my voice to consider the effect you are having on your children's ideas about other people by insulating them from those with different beliefs, and by telling them that people without heteronormative, biblically based lifestyles are sick, or evil, or doing something bad. Kids don't separate "doing bad" from "being bad" too well. And isn't it best to err on the side of love? It is not ignoring the directive of scripture to teach them to love their neighbors. All their neighbors. It actually sums the whole thing up quite nicely, according to Jesus. How about we leave the separation of sheep and goats until they are much much older? Or preferably, never.
May the souls viciously ripped from their human houses in Orlando yesterday, be received into the eternal light and love of God. And may the light of love always and forever overshadow the deep darkness of hate. Let all the people say: