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My son was three years old the first time I heard him say “God.”
He didn’t get it from me.
Cristina and I had recently enrolled him in preschool at a Methodist church a short drive from our house. We’d had him in a program three mornings a week at another church near our house, also Methodist—Welcome to the Bible Belt!—until the day I arrived early for pickup and found him on one of the playground benches, curled up as if back in the womb and unable to explain what had caused this despair. The incident, the last in a long string of red flags since a new teacher had arrived that fall, had provided our first experience with the brand of parental guilt that keeps you awake at night, wondering how you turned out to be such an awful person that you would consider outsourcing the rearing of your child for even one second. For a couple of months after that, we kept him home. Eventually, though, we’d had to acknowledge that the boy had taken well to the stimulation and structure preschool offered, and now that we had another child, his mother needed a break from full-time parenting. This new batch of Methodists seemed like good people who would care for him properly. But there was one hitch: Once a week the kids were lined up and led from their classrooms to the sanctuary for a short religious lesson the preschool called “Chapel Chat.”
Now, my wife and I had for the most part avoided chapels since becoming adults. And the last thing we wanted to do was chat in one. We didn’t belong to any church, and our feelings about organized religion, like our feelings about organized labor and organized crime, were, at best, ambivalent. We found all three were best experienced only as part of Hollywood movies. But that left us in a pickle: So that we could care for my elderly father and be near old friends, we had recently moved back to the midsized North Carolina city in which I had grown up, a place where nine out of ten preschools were run by churches. When touring these facilities, our first question for the director was always whether the children were subjected to any of that, you know, Jesus stuff, and to our surprise, not that many did. I suppose it made sense in a competitive market to stay as secular as possible. But it was midway through the academic year and most of the good programs (and by “good,” I mean ones where you didn’t feel the need to make unannounced visits to make sure your son wasn’t being left to wallow in a puddle of his own misery while the other children were playing on the monkey bars) were already full. Knowing we were lucky to find an opening at this one, we decided to take our chances.
To our relief, our son adapted well to his new environment, and, for the most part, it wasn’t much different from the old one. At this program, instead of having to come inside to pick up our children, we parents lined up in our station wagons and minivans and one by one the kids came running out to greet us. The new routine seemed to make our son feel a bit more grown-up, and as he warmed to his new teachers, we began to feel like we had atoned for the earlier debacle. That is, until that day, when we were reminded of the fragility of parental success, not to mention how uneasy the topic of religion made us both.
We were sitting on the ell-shaped couch in our den, passing the time in one of the amazing yet quickly forgotten ways that you do when your free hours are given over to bringing up small children, when His name came out of his mouth. Our reaction was approximately the same as if the word had been “antediluvian” or “nanotechnology.” Like most parents, we greeted every new addition to his vocabulary with a glee that would make innocent bystanders gag. But this one came out of nowhere, and I had no idea how to react. I wanted to grab it out of the air and gently shove it back into his mouth for a few more years. The context in which he said it was never clear. It just kind of spilled out, but neither of us had any doubt it was Yahweh’s nickname that had breached his perfect lips. I said nothing, my wide eyes fully expressing my internal alarm. Cristina remained calm, the way you would if a kid was test-driving a bad word picked up at school and you were afraid an overly animated reaction might encourage him to add it to his everyday conversation.
—Do you know who God is? she asked him gently.
—Yes. God makes us.
His matter-of-fact response indicated that the answer was so obvious as to be a priori. Cristina glanced at me but decided to ignore the panic now erupting visibly all over my face. She turned back to him and tried probing a bit deeper.
—How does God make us?
Again, he knew the answer, and he delivered it with the confidence that comes with knowing something is the undisputed truth.
—He screws on our heads and pops in our eyeballs.
Upon hearing this, my worry subsided a bit. Whatever he had picked up at preschool was too absurd to be of any harm. In the days to come, I delighted in passing on this adorable little anecdote to friends and relatives.
But before long, from his crude initial hypothesis, my son began to formulate what is referred to in religious literature as a “Christian worldview.” His mind was made up about the existence of God. And how. But the details still tripped him up. For instance, he wondered why there was a “big X” on the top of churches we passed while driving in the car.
Cristina and I tried to respond by balancing our own lack of traditional belief with a sincere appreciation for his curiosity. Independently, we each decided that all discourse about matters of faith should be prefaced by the phrase “Well, some people believe . . .” This seemed like a sensible disclaimer that would help him understand that absolute truth is an elusive thing in the world into which he had been born. But we both knew full well we were just trying to buy some time until we had something more definitive to tell him or at least thought him mature enough to accept our squishiness. We knew that he didn’t care about “some people.” He wanted to know what we, his parents, believed, what to us was true, what to us was real. But we couldn’t tell him. We were as reluctant to say something that would stifle his thought as we were to let him believe everything that the Methodists told him. For a while, as a compromise, we tried substituting “Mother Nature” for God. This, too, struck us as quite sensible: We both loved nature, wanted our children to appreciate and respect it, too, and liked the idea of a little pro-woman affirmative action in the supernatural realm. But ultimately she proved no better than the Man Upstairs. She was a poor proxy, only prompting more questions we couldn’t seem to answer. In actuality, they were the same questions, just with a different omniscient, omnipresent deity making mysterious decisions, like letting a good person do a bad thing or a flower die or one animal savage another for food. We were usually successful in directing the conversation elsewhere, but that tactic only lulled us into thinking we were addressing the issue when we weren’t, making his inevitable inquiries just as startling the next time they came round. If we couldn’t answer even a simple question, someone else certainly would. At this rate, he’d be born-again before he got to kindergarten.
One evening after bedtime, I heard soft chatter coming from the room he shared with our daughter, who was one at the time. I continued down the hall, stopping short of the door until I could hear what was being said. The boy, lying awake in his miniature bed, was trying to share some explosive new information with his sister, but she was already asleep in her crib on the opposite side of the room.
—Hey, did you know that God made us?
He paused, but there was no answer.
—And when we die, we go back to Him?
His voice rose expectantly at the end of his question in anticipation of an awestruck response, but once again, none came.
—Isn’t that so cool?
I lingered by the door a moment, expecting a return of the panic that had visited me on the couch. But it never showed. In its place, a different feeling arose, something vaguely happy, maybe even hopeful. For a moment, I felt his wonder at the idea of a benevolent creator just waiting to welcome us back into His loving, secure embrace. I understood his comfort at the notion of a grand plan for our existence. When you put it that way, it is so cool. I’ve just never believed it.
I am not an atheist. Correction: I’ve never thought I was an atheist. To me, atheism is so final, and unnecessarily so, like walking out on The Empire Strikes Back before Darth Vader has dropped the “I’m your father” bomb on Luke. No, I’ve always been one to stay until the credits roll, withhold judgment until all the facts are in, keep all my options open. I saw no reason not to hedge my metaphysical bets, too. The trouble is, as labels go, the alternatives aren’t much better. Agnostic? Irreligious? Unbeliever? Um, no. These are not ear-pleasing names. In fact, they’re borderline profane. They drip with a negativity that implies I’m a nonperson lacking in something fundamental to human nature. Heretic? Apostate? Infidel? Ouch. Okay, maybe those first three aren’t so bad. Thank God I didn’t live during the Middle Ages. What else you got? Freethinker? Too smug. Bright? Too silly. And too smug. Secular humanist? They still have those? None of the above? Now we’re getting somewhere.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve thought of faith as something other people had. Simple as that. It’s difficult to describe what it’s like not putting my trust in religion, not thinking that the divine is real and worthy of my mind’s attention, much less its devotion or worship. It’s not that I necessarily disbelieve such things. It’s just that the space that in some people contains belief and in others disbelief has in me always been somewhat barren, filled only with fleeting, tentative guesses that blow through like discarded candy wrappers—a vacant lot between everyone else’s seeming towers of certainty: Who would want to hang out there for long? Better to avoid it. Which is what I’ve always done.
But a funny thing happened on the way to becoming a thirty-something father of two: I started to question whether I had really thought this position all the way through. At least for the time being, Cristina and I were responsible for all aspects of our children’s lives, including their spiritual guidance. For better or worse—and trust me when I tell you that most people have an opinion as to which it is—we had opted them out of religion, organized or otherwise. If “unbelief is as much of a choice as belief is,” as the theologian Frederick Buechner has argued, then by doing absolutely nothing, we had made up our little family’s mind already. Was I in danger of failing my children, of neglecting to prepare them for life in every way that I could, of sucking at being a dad? There seemed to be certain perks to faith that don’t come packaged so neatly in any other form: community, identity, fellowship, introspection, ethics. I had missed out on that package. Was it fair to deprive my kids of them, too? Sure, this might win me friends among those who liken instilling religious faith in your progeny to abusing them. But one day over coffee in her kitchen, my aunt Susie, a proud and devoted Episcopalian for more than fifty years, warned me of the opposite. To fail to take children to church was to deny them comfort, security, and self-worth. People who grow up without religion lack self-esteem, she said.
Trouble was, I wasn’t really the right person to prepare them in this particular regard. Penmanship I can do. Early REM I’ve got covered. Free throws are no problem. Religion? Not my strong suit. Still, I found myself wondering why exactly I was maintaining this “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on matters of faith, like they were radioactive and my children should never be exposed to them. Had I grown up in a different family, a more pious family, the silent treatment I was giving to religion might constitute a principled stand that proved I was my own man, unyoked from heredity or tradition. Instead, I worried that my faith-free existence, because I had never really questioned it, was somehow less principled, less defensible. I found myself looking at my churchgoing neighbors with envy, as if the simple act of getting everyone dressed up and in the SUV in time for eleven-o’clock services once a week was proof that they had it all figured out in the parenting department. I felt jealous of people who could say “I’ll keep you in my prayers” or “God bless you” or “Godspeed” without irony. I wanted to curse my intellectualizing, my skepticism, my lack of any mystical feelings. I fretted that I was ultimately consigning my two young children to the same confusion as their poor pitiful father, and for no reason other than I hadn’t gotten around to overcoming this squeamishness about spirituality and doing something about it. I could just imagine the look on their faces when the End Times come. Armageddon is nigh, just like the Left Behind novels said, and all the righteous kids are on the express ride to heaven to get their holy lovin’ Rapture on. Their faces full of hope, my children turn to me and ask if they can go, too, but I’m too preoccupied with rummaging through the kitchen drawers for a flashlight that works to answer. “Sorry, kids,” I’ll tell them later, as our apocalyptic future begins to come into focus. “Daddy’s been busy.”
I’ve been to church. Plenty of times. My kids have been, too. One of them has even been blessed by a man of the cloth. But in the last fifteen years, my visits to houses of worship have been mostly for weddings or funerals or Christmas Eve services, when all my favorite songs get played. On the Friday after 9/11, I went, like most of America, ducking into a downtown chapel with Cristina and a coworker, but that was as far as it went. Yet I have no problem with church. Belief was what confounded me. Naturally, I blame my parents. Belief, fate-changing, earth-quaking, mind-altering belief, could have been my birthright. My great-grandfather, the closest thing to a patriarch my family had, devoted his life to his faith, helping establish the fastest-growing denomination in the fastest-growing religious faith in the world—Pentecostalism. Near the end of his life, he met Oral Roberts, who was then a barnstorming young faith healer and not yet the worldfamous televangelist I remember from the mid-1980s asking his followers for $8 million to prevent God from “calling him home.” Hoping he might cure his failing kidneys, my great-grandfather asked Roberts to lay hands on him, but the preacher refused. “Mr. Culbreth,” he said. “I am not worthy.”
That story would be repeated often in my family, until, like most of my great-grandfather’s accomplishments, it was imprinted in our lore. His faith, however, didn’t turn out to be indelible. By the time I came along, it was no longer in the family, like the heirloom lamp that is lost in a move or mistakenly put out for a garage sale. In April 1966, three months before my parents married in the living room of my uncle and aunt’s house in Raleigh and then headed west for graduate school, the cover of Time asked in ominous red-on-black type, “Is God Dead?” It would sure seem that way to me. My parents were intellectual, cultured, politically liberal. Religion didn’t have much relevance for them. It had lost whatever truth and meaning it once had. When I was born, instead of Protestant or Catholic or Jew, they checked “No, thanks” and went about raising my brother and me, deities not included. My parents never told me if they believed in God or if I should.
They didn’t send me to Sunday school or read to me from the Bible. At holiday dinners, my father might say a blessing before we dug in, but that was the extent of it. We seemed to have little need to talk about religion, at least not in any serious way. And then one day, my brother declared himself an Evangelical Christian, and it became almost the only thing we could talk about, the eight-hundred-pound messiah in the corner we feared would tear our family apart. There’s an old adage about the fleeting nature of family wealth: “Rags to riches to rags in three gene rations.” In four, we had made it from Holy Roller to Heathen and back to Holy Roller. May the circle be unbroken.
There are two topics that couples are advised to discuss in depth before getting married: money and religion. Cristina and I ignored this advice. At the time of our wedding eleven years ago, our financial situation was far too scary to discuss: We owed $20,000 on our credit cards, more than twice that in student loans taken out to attend journalism school, and, as was mentioned repeatedly at our wedding, including during the minister’s homily, I had no job. (In my defense, I had gallantly followed my betrothed to Texas so she could stay near her family, but this didn’t seem to matter to anyone old enough to matter.) Cristina shared my deficit in the faith department, too. Shortly before the big day, it was suggested we take a quiz that would measure our compatibility on a range of issues that often cause problems for newlyweds. Asked about the role that faith would play in our life together, we both gave the same response—“uncertain.” Total compatibility! As for the actual ceremony, which took place on the grounds of a lovely Austin art museum, we were characteristically laissez-faire. A person of the cloth to officiate seemed inescapable, so we chose a liberal Methodist pastor whom Cristina had interviewed for an article in the local alt-weekly. We didn’t write our own vows, but we did balance the customary reading from 1 Corinthians 13 with “The Master Speed” and an Apache love poem. The rest we left up to her. Just don’t make it too Jesus-y, we pleaded.
Cristina’s family is Catholic. Well, it was Catholic. She and her four siblings grew up in the Church, but today they range in belief from her atheist younger sister to an older brother who is, like mine, born-again. Her mother, who grew up in Madrid in the days of Franco, is the only one in the family who still claims fealty to the Vatican (as does an uncle back in Spain who occasionally expresses long-distance concern for the fate of our immortal souls). But Cristina was baptized, and when she turned seven, she wore a special white dress for her First Communion. She went to parochial schools and to mass every weekday and on the weekend, too. Her memories of that childhood, so different from mine, are by and large fond ones. When we met, she could still marvel at how the Catholics she knew didn’t spend much time reading the Bible or yakking about Jesus the way Protestants did. But if being a part of the Church had given her world structure and social outlets when she was a child, it did little more for her when she became an adult. The older she got, the more her bemusement at what she saw as its quirks—“They did away with limbo? Really?”—turned into irritation with its orthodoxies, irritation that began to eat away at her commitment. On birth control, homosexuality, the role of women, the Church was wrong, in her opinion. The horrifying revelation that the monsignor of her school had molested friends of hers would have been the last straw, but by then she had tried and failed to make peace with her former faith. She had even gone to mass at several different churches when she was pregnant with our daughter, our son in tow, hoping to regain some of her former devotion, but each time it was no use: The priest attempted too many sports analogies, or the architecture was too modern, or some snotty woman wouldn’t make room for her in the pew. At the baptism of a Catholic friend’s child, she was stunned hearing the dark questions posed during the ceremony:
—Do you reject Satan?
—And all his works?
—Do you reject sin, so as to live in the freedom of God’s children?
—Do you reject the glamour of evil and refuse to be mastered by sin?
—Do you reject Satan, father of sin and prince of darkness?
Catholic baptisms are occasions for the entire congregation to renew its vows to the Church, which is why they are often held during mass. But upon hearing those questions, Cristina knew she couldn’t do that. My wife is no Satanist, but she could not say the words honestly, nor could she agree to commit her own children to the faith. Her days as a Catholic were over.
After my brother’s conversion, my parents and I joined a church, as much as a safe haven as anything else. But even though I came to love the community there, I was by then in late adolescence and largely immune to the theology. Witnessing the change in my only sibling and my parents’ unhappy reaction had made me wary of spiritual transformation. It still does. In truth, all of the questions that force us to consider how we got here and why and what will happen when we die have always made me uncomfortable. They’re scary. They have no answer. To me, it has always been less frightening to believe that our place in the universe is the result of a certain amount of randomness. This belief in nothing, this attachment to no faith or creed, has served me well, thank you very much. I’m a good person. I’ve got a moral compass. The golden rule, it seems to me, covers most of it. I’m kind to strangers and old ladies and puppies. I’ve tried to be charitable and forgiving and humble and loving in my lifetime, and my most prominent failures to do so still eat at me to this day. Impure thoughts? Yes, I’ve had a few. Lust in my heart? At times. Taken the Lord’s name in vain? I long ago adopted my mother’s habit of exclaiming “Gawd almighty” anytime I felt even mild disgust. It’s funny. But from where I stand, these represent little more than misdemeanors in the cosmic scheme of things. I know I’m an unlikely candidate for conversion. I’m a Democrat. I subscribe to The New York Times. I listen to public radio. In my Volvo. Often while drinking a latte. And if that weren’t enough, I’m a member of a profession that prizes skepticism above all else. Recently, when I pitched a New York magazine editor on an article I hoped to write about the scientific roots of religion, he warned me that it would be a tough sell since all of the top people on the masthead were atheists. Another query, this one about one church’s sophisticated market research, was turned down by an editor weary of the prominent role faith had assumed in America under President Bush and the Religious Right. He wrote in an e-mail:
—Andrew, this is a good pitch, but I feel like I’ve lived that for the past eight years.
Deep down, I, too, have a bias against religion. I suppose it’s inescapable. There’s a file in my mind so thick with immoral, idiotic, and hypocritical acts undertaken in its name that the case should have long since been closed. The times in which I’ve lived have been one long Culture War, and my side was chosen for me before I was born, like a Red Diaper baby born a half-century ago.
But faith, perhaps precisely because it is alien, still holds an allure for me. Maybe it’s the times in which we’re living, when the world’s survival seems to turn on competing interpretations of a few ancient texts. Seems like I should have an opinion myself. But more than that, there is a curiosity in me about the community religion germinates, an aspiration for the commitment it demands, a clichéd desire for something different for my children from what I had. And like most Americans, I am not far removed from people for whom faith was an intense, life-directing force. I have memory—both brain and blood—of men and women thrusting violently to the extremes of the spiritual spectrum. Some repudiating the faith of their fathers as too liberal and permissive, others rejecting it as too rigid and archaic. Some accepting the unseen without question and then suddenly turning their back on it, others doing the opposite. Some feeling nothing for God and then being brought suddenly to their knees, others being cursed with travails that undermine long-held trust, still others being faced with mortality and desperately wanting there to be more.
This is not a story about struggling with God; it’s about struggling with whether to struggle with God. It’s about the pros and cons of taking a leap of faith at a frighteningly uncertain time in the perilous occupation of modern dad. It’s about trying to open my mind to religion without corrupting my sacred secular principles, about reconciling the belief and disbelief I have seen, about coming to grips with the conflicting views of Christianity running through both my nature and my nurture. At some point after hearing my son utter one simple word, I resolved to take the most serious issue humans face a bit more seriously. I decided I needed to go to extremes. I got to know today’s Evangelical celebrity preachers. I read parts of the Bible and back issues of Christianity Today. I even flipped through the colorful and informative brochures left by the Jehovah’s Witnesses. My goal was simply to level the playing field a bit so that I might stake out some defensible middle ground for me and my family. Middle ground isn’t exactly a popular place these days. The overreaching of the Religious Right is well known, so much so that it seems recently to have backfired. But there was an unctuousness about atheists these days, too, these know-it-alls with their flying spaghetti monsters and de-baptism ceremonies, shooting Jesus fish by the barrelful. I got the joke, but it had gotten old quick. I wanted to believe there was another option out there.
Not long after we moved back to Charlotte, I met up with Chris, an old college friend who had grown up there, too. Chris and I shared many of the same interests—music, politics, travel—but his traditional Catholic upbringing had always divided us. His father had attended mass every day for the last forty years. Once, on a long, dark drive home for Thanksgiving in his silver hatchback, he had defended his family’s faith as having, if nothing else, “an answer to the most important question in the world.” It was a powerful argument for which I, tellingly, had no rebuttal. I wasn’t even sure what question he was talking about. Still, I never thought of Chris as particularly religious: He did not, as far as I know, regularly attend church, wasn’t involved in religious groups on campus, and certainly didn’t refrain from typical college activities of which the pope was known to disapprove. But in the intervening fifteen years, he had come to rely on his faith as a constant, no matter where his itinerant existence took him. He was dating a fellow Catholic whom he would later marry, and organized religion was becoming increasingly prominent in his life, or at least so it would seem by the question he popped after we had sat down to eat.
—So, what are you doing faith-wise?
Faith-wise? This was a variant on a question I had heard frequently since starting a family and moving to a new place:
—Have you picked a church yet?
—Have you found a pastor you like?
—How are you planning to raise the children?
—To keep questions like that to themselves.
But Chris had asked the question out of genuine interest, and I felt obliged to answer it honestly. He knew my family’s history and that I had long struggled with questions of faith. He didn’t know that they had reared their head again with the arrival of children. I divulged to him my growing concern that I had no answer for my kids and that they would soon be at the age at which they would want and need one. He told me directly that I needed to have an answer for myself first, that it was part of my personal evolution that I had to undertake, whether or not it yielded something I could pass along to my children. I agreed, though I was more skeptical of my chances of resolving that in the time I had before the questions began.
—Let me ask you this. Where is your mother right now?
I paused before answering. What exactly did he mean? The moment when he warmly pulled me out of the receiving line after her memorial service to give me a bear hug flashed in my mind. In a cold March drizzle following her last stand against breast cancer, we had sprinkled small handfuls of her ashes in a flower bed underneath the church’s columbarium. The rest remained in a cross- emblazoned pewter urn hidden away somewhere in my house while it awaited some cathartic treatment that never came. For the first few years after her death, I communed with her memory as I lay awake in bed at night, but I was under no illusion that this little ventriloquist act had served any purpose other than to soothe my grief at her loss, and it really hadn’t occurred to me that she might have taken up residence anywhere other than in my subconscious. It took me long enough to deal with the fact that she was gone. When people reassure me that she’s in heaven, joined now by my father, I have to laugh, since I don’t imagine either of them believed such a place existed, and at this point, I don’t believe it, either. Not really seeing how the question was relevant to what I was doing faith-wise, I turned the conversation in a different direction.
When we finished our beers, Chris and I tripped out of the bar, joking about how our college friends would laugh if they knew he was now doling out spiritual guidance. Then, as we parted ways, he startled me once again.
—I think the reason this is on your mind is that God is speaking to you. He’s trying to tell you something.
I stood there for a few seconds, unsure how to respond.
Oh, boy, I thought. This is more serious than I ever imagined.