For a couple years I’ve been dreading having a conversation with my son about (me) no longer being a Christian. Well, maybe not dreading, but it was a big unknown. How would he react? What would he think? I was looking forward to any questions he might ask, but concerned not to upset him unnecessarily. As I’ve noted before, his main contact with Christianity in the last four years (beyond extended family members and its general cultural prevalence, which is no small amount) is through the “prayers” we say together at night. They were prayers, originally, and gradually morphed, at least for me, into general statements of thankfulness, reflection on the day, and hopes for the future. My wife and I dropped the opening greeting to God or Jesus long ago, but made no fuss that my son maintained a “Dear Jesus.” Given this ritual, I wasn’t sure if he would be angry, disappointed, etc., thinking that these statements of thankfulness he had been addressing to a special deity were invalidated.
My fears were unfounded and the conversation was anticlimactic, to put it mildly. Since Christmas is coming, Harland has just turned eleven, and he seemed to be ready to handle the conversation, I decided to have it out. He hates “talks,” because they usually happen when we want to admonish him or a potentially embarrassing subject is going to be discussed. He protested loudly when I asked if we could talk until I assured him it was not about puberty, a topic about which he claims he has learned all he needs to know in school. The “conversation” followed in roughly this form:
Me: Do you remember when we used to go to church at the school when we were in Santa Barbara?
Him: We don’t have to start going to church again, do we?
Me: No. Did you ever wonder why we stopped going there?
Him: Well, we started going to that house, and I’d go in the other room and watch TV while you guys talked.
(This was a group my friend and I called “Exiting Christianity” and consisted of weekly readings ranging from Nietzsche to Thich Nhat Han deconstructing Christian thought with fellow ex-Christians and sympathizers. I never thought about it, but he just figured it was a different form of church.)
Me: Well, we actually stopped going because I don’t really believe in God or Jesus anymore. I kind of stopped being a Christian.
Him: Does that mean we can’t call ourselves Christian anymore?
Me: Well, it doesn’t really matter to me whether we call ourselves Christian. I just wanted you to know that I don’t think that there is some God up in the sky watching over us.
Him: Okay. Can we just have the conversation?
Me: We are having the conversation. I wanted to let you know what I think and see what you think about it.
Him: Well, it doesn’t really matter to me because we don’t do any of that stuff.
Me: Well, it’s important for me that you know. I just thought I should talk to you because we pray every night and that’s why your mom and I don’t say “Dear Jesus” or “Dear God” at the beginning of our prayers anymore.
Him: That’s what I was giving you a hard time about. (He had been on my case to use the “correct” address in my prayers.)
Me: I know. I think that God is something that people use to try to explain things they don’t understand. You know how when you miss a bunch of basketball shots you joke around and say something like “God doesn’t want me to win?”
Me: It’s like that. People use God when they can’t figure something out, but I think we should look at evidence instead, like testing a hypothesis.
Him: So people are incredulous? (New vocabulary word from school)
Me: Yeah, kinda like that. We have a hard time not knowing things.
Him: Okay. Are we done with the conversation?
Me: Sure. We can be done.
And…he went back to watching basketball. In the week or so since then, I have been the object of his jabs about religion since he knows I’m a “religious studies” guy. At one point, he exclaimed “Thank you God!” about something and then looked at me and said, “Oh, sorry dad” with a smirk on his face.
I guess I was worried about the conversation because for a year or so after we de-Christianized, I figured that although Christianity was no longer acceptable for me, it was probably still good for my son. This may have been a way for me to avoid a difficult conversation. I know that there are many adults who feel the same way, who maintain some sort of nominal religious affiliation, in part because it’s “good for the kids?” But why would it be good for children if it’s not good enough for you? I just didn’t think I knew how to teach any other way.
Since I had learned whatever morality I have in the context of Christianity, it took some time to separate the idea of morality from Christianity, though it seems so obvious to me now. This is a prime example of belief without evidence. I had believed for so long that I was (or tried to be) a good person because I was a Christian. Despite the evidence of millions of good people around the world without Christianity, as well as those good people who are without any religion at all, I was told and took on faith that Christianity produced my goodness, or any hope I had of goodness. There is no way to prove this claim, and it flies in the face of the bodily evidence of millions of people, as well as the counter-evidence of plenty of “bad” Christians. Sure, there are lots of ways to explain away any deviation from the belief taken as fact that Christianity makes you good, but all evidence shows that morality is not contingent on religion. It’s comforting to me to know that my son, and people more generally, can be and are “good without God.”