Regular readers of my blog will know that having children has raised for me the difficult question of how to talk to children about faith and spirituality when my own relationship with both is somewhat complex. So far, I have tried (extremely perversely) to stick to topics and practises that my inner atheist can live with, but he is a vigorous censor, and this has resulted in Tilly getting a rather patchy religious education.
I began with prayer. My inner atheist let that one through because he felt that prayer for friends and family could be justified, on purely psychological grounds, as a way of developing empathy and mindfulness in a child (as long as the prayers didn’t cultivate an overly developed expectation of the miraculous or involving asking for that pushy kid at childcare to get canker sores).
And I have recently been allowed to share a few Jesus stories with Tilly, but primarily ones that will build up a strong sense self, and that focus on her being an object of love. I have told her the story of the lost sheep (Luke 15:1-7). In my version the sheep is called Shaun, and is only found after the shepherd has traversed a range of landscapes in the style of We’re going on a Bear Hunt. See the clip below if you don’t know the book.
Tilly’s other favourite is one where Jesus and his friends are having a grown up conversation about grown up things in a cafe*. They are then interrupted by some kids who come in and want to talk to Jesus, and even though his friends try to stop them, Jesus lets them sit next to him and orders them each a babycino with a marshmallow (see Matthew 19:13-14), chats with them for a while, and then sends them off with a quick reminder of how much God loves them.
The only other thing my shadow side allows me is the singing of one religiously themed song with Tilly. I chose ‘Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so’, mainly because it was this song that the great and prolific Swiss theologian, Karl Barth, quoted when asked at one point how he would sum up his life’s work in a sentence.
When I first sang it to Tilly, however, she had some criticisms to offer. You see the middle of the song goes, ‘Little ones to him belong. They are weak, but he is strong.’ First she asked me who ‘little ones’ were, and I said they were kids. Then she wanted to know what the word ‘weak’ meant (I have to admit to a certain sense of pride that she had made it to the age of three without really coming across this word). She then put it to me quite forcefully, that she was a kid, and that she was very strong, and thus that this particular line had to go. Over the next few nights, I tried out on her a variety of replacements for this line, until we found one that she considered true not only to the Bible and to the last two thousand years of Church history tradition, but also to her experience of the world and to her emerging sense of self (ie ‘Little ones are very strong, and they like to sing this song’).
Tilly’s other interjection, when she first heard the song, was to ask me who exactly ‘The Bible’ was, and how she or he knew so much about Jesus. Now in my defence, I do actually have a Children’s Bible which I bought at a Brotherhood of St. Laurence Op Shop a few years ago, but Tilly hasn’t seen it because I’ve been keeping it in the shed (out of harms way). Every time I look at it, I flip it open at random and imagine that I am reading whatever it is that I come across to a young child. Needless to say, I never get very far before closing it again with a little shudder.
And that’s just the words, don’t get me started on the pictures! This morning, in preparation for finally bringing the book in from the cold so I could show Tilly a few carefully selected Jesus stories, I had to borrow a black pencil from the girl herself, so I could colour in the blond hair and blue eyes that Jesus is sporting in every picture in which he appears – and for those who don’t know the bible well, he is not what you would call a minor character, so it was quite a job.
To be honest, after a while, I really started to get into it and began changing his face shape, and colouring in his clothes and feet to make them look dirty. Then I started making him more and more hirsute. By the time I got to the crucifixion picture my work had become what I would describe as hyper-semitic. Jesus had a massive black afro and beard, shadowy black eyes, a hooked nose, and thick black hair all over his almost naked body. In the heat of the moment I had inadvertently swung the racist pendulum right over to the other side. Now my inner atheist is really politically correct, so he just wanted me to rip that page out, but then I promised him that I would wait until Tilly was old enough to understand ironic racism before I showed her that page, so he let me keep it in.
I blame A. C. Grayling (philosopher, atheist and passionate secular humanist) for the current intensity of my self-sabotage. I recently made the ‘mistake’ of listening to him on Late Night Live pontificating (Oxford Donificating?) about religion, and the fact that it is only able to survive because of the brainwashing of children. Evolution, so his argument goes, has resulted in kids being credulous, so that they will believe whatever lies their parents need to tell them to keep them safe, and religions are viruses that exploit this credulity to turn kids into lifelong hosts for superstitious nonsense.
The problem for me is that I am not seduced enough by this kind of reductionism to become a passionate atheistic humanist. The effect is instead a form of stalemate that leads to paralysis. It is this kind of paralysis that a lot of parents dress up as ‘giving my kids the freedom to work these things out for themselves’. But there is a difference between genuine agnosticism and cowardice, and I know which side of the line I fall.
You see, at heart, I’m still convinced that I am better off encouraging my kids to dig one deep well, rather than several shallow ones, or (worse still) not digging anywhere for fear of digging in the wrong place. My greatest fear for my kids is not that they become passionate atheists, but that they don’t end up being passionate anythings. One thing that really struck me about the interview with A. C. Grayling was the amount of work he had done, within his own particular belief system, to come to terms with his own inevitable death, and to help his children to do the same.
The greatest tragedy would be for my paralysis to result in me giving my kids no help to prepare for either my death or their own. Which is why I am going to keep trying to encourage my girls to dig in the place where I have found the sweetest water, knowing that if (in the end) they find that the water in that well doesn’t quench their thirst, at least they will know how to dig. That is when it will be time to get out of their way, not now.
So I’m going to frame my children’s haphazard religious education not as brainwashing, but as equipping. After all, I know plenty of passionate atheists who have not only survived the religious brainwashing they received as children, but (to me at least) seem to have acquired many of the tools and categories they required to become passionate atheists through that ‘brainwashing’. And I’ve also seen the process work the other way round.
Having already written all of the above, I just listened today (if you believe it) to a podcast that was a perfect example of exactly this phenomenon. The podcast was an interview with a father, who is an ex-bishop, and his son, who is a atheist, about the book they have just written together, Beloved Father, Beloved Son. If you are interested the podcast can be found here.
I got two comforting things out of listening to this interview. The first was to hear the obvious love and respect that these two men had for each other, despite their profound differences. The other was seeing how a shared commitment to honestly and humbly testing their beliefs against the complex nature of real lived experience was able to give them a surprising amount of common ground.
It reassured me that whatever it is that my children become, they and I will still share our common humanity, and as long as we all remain in touch with that, then we’ll probably be okay.
*Close readers of this post will have noticed that I have taken some liberties with this particular story. There were, in fact, no cafés in Galilee at the time, though the archeological records do suggest that there may have been a Starbucks in the outer courts of the Temple in Jerusalem.