My son really wants to believe in God. He says, “I see God as a really nice man.”

We have kept God out of our home for quite awhile now. Religion didn’t do us any favors. I’ve mentioned before that it became a framework for mental illness–a way for me to break myself down and punish myself for being female and sexual and human.

When my son was born, I surrounded him with books and toys and songs that reflected my religious worldview. I told him how merciful and amazing God was, but also how God would punish us if we didn’t follow the divine rules. I warned him about listening to Satan’s evil whisperings. I passed to him the prayers I was taught for keeping myself safe from the evil of the world and the evil way it makes us think. I taught him to fear and hate anger and angry impulses.

It was quite by accident, but within the framework of religion, it was natural.

My child internalized everything. Little Dude is whip smart. It’s alarming. Not in the way moms brag about their kids alarming. In the way moms are never prepared for alarming. Little Dude sees way beyond any words. He picks apart metaphor better than some of my graduate classmates when I was pursuing my MFA.

So, Little Dude heard everything I had to tell him about religion. He read everything we had in our home about religion. He began carrying around a Qur’an and a Bible and reading from them. Again, he picked apart metaphors and gathered what there was to gather. What he came away with was that God was a big dude in the sky who created us and wanted us to do good things. But then there was Satan. Satan was onto us. He was interfering, constantly throwing up roadblocks to our happiness and success. He was mean and nasty and evil. Satan was angry.

My mommy told me something
That little girls should know
And it’s all about the devil
And I’ve learned to hate him so.

Now, my son was born serious with a furrow in his brow. We have at least a hundred videos of him frowning as he considers some toy, or lifting his head, or the merits of breastmilk while sleepy. His natural inclination is toward the severe. He is highly intelligent, highly sensitive, highly compassionate, and too young to really know what to do with the information his impressive brain is gathering. Being overwhelmed turns into being frustrated turns into afraid turns into angry. Can you see where this is going?

In Christianity, we are supposed to identify with the compassionate, self-sacrificing image of Christ. The uncomplaining martyr. In Islam, we are meant to follow the example of Muhammad, a man who came from nothing and revolutionized the politics around women and race. In both, we are meant to recognize that we have weakness of ego, and that Satan is prepared to exploit our ego.

Little Dude looked at all this and said, “Getting angry is bad. I get angry, so I’m bad.” He didn’t see the mercy of God in or for himself, he saw the other part.

Because we had both walked away from the if, then religious box, my husband and I looked at the intense pain and self-damnation our Little Dude was facing and removed all religion from our home. No more God. No more Satan. No more books. No more songs. Just conversations in which we shared with our son that, if there is a God, we don’t see him as punitive, as a God who would create evil to tempt us away from the joy of a promised utopia. A God who created us already knowing whether we would succeed or fail. I tell him I don’t believe in Heaven or Hell outside what we create for ourselves in this life through our thinking. I am, perhaps, a bit long-winded.

He says, “Do you believe we all get to choose?”

I tell him about free will. I say we are all in charge of our own choices.

He says, “Good. Because I get the impression you want to convince me of something.”

I stop to consider what I want him to believe. If he does choose to believe in God, I want him to believe in a god of compassion.

I want God to be an idea that uplifts him and helps him fulfill his most positive potential. I admit to myself that I would like him to do away completely with the idea of Satan. I consider Satan a cop-out, a way for us to distance ourselves from our humanity, the ugly bits that hurt but also serve to make visible the rich beauty of the world. I believe we should claim our anger and ugly impulses. Again, that shit is fertilizer. We accept it, we feel it, we grow. If not, we stagnate in that putrid mess and hurt and hurt and hurt. . .

I gentle my speech. We switch gears and talk about faith: knowing a thing is true because you have proof versus knowing a thing despite not having proof.

Little Dude says he has no proof that God exists, but he believes in God anyway. “I believe in God because I want to.”

This statement rocks me. What if we all copped to the idea that faith is believing in something because we want it to be true?

We do not believe in forcing a religion on a child, but we also disagree with not allowing a child to satisfy his curiosity about religion. So, last weekend, Little Dude acquired a children’s Bible story book. He is now  old enough to articulate what he finds and how it is affecting him.It is scary. Triggering even, as much of my childhood trauma centered around what I was told I had to believe.  But I look at my son as leafs through the Bible. We discuss how it is a collection of stories with morals like fables and folktales. I see his joy as he reads, how he is fascinated by his namesake, a biblical character. He is fascinated by God, Satan and all the rest. And he is talking to me about everything. If we all get a choice, he says, this is what he believes: He says he is Christian. He identifies with a male god.  He does not think Jesus is God. He thinks we are all sons and daughters of God. He thinks we are all part God, and that our God parts are our exceptional, unique gifts that we can use to change the world. He doesn’t know what his gift is yet, but he will probably figure it out when he is grown up. Do I know what my gift is?

I smile. Here is an answer I’m sure of. “My gift,” I say, “is writing.”

14 Discussion to this post

  1. Heidi says:

    I love it. Such beautiful wisdom, truly out of the mouths of babes. 😉 They have such a beautiful, unencumbered way of getting to the heart of the matter. We humans need our stories and the Bible is full of them. I have no problem keeping a bible on the shelf next to all my other story books, but never again will I allow it to define how I act…or what kind of behavior I accept from others.

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  2. Amna says:

    I don’t know how I would’ve coped with such an inquisitive intelligent child .. Hats off to you! He is incisive and so very … clear. I envy him his clarity.

    And you… Your gift, your writing, touches me and forces me to take a long hard look at myself every time I read it. Loving reading your blog.

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  3. Ginger says:

    It’s interesting to me that some children pick up on things it has taken me years to see. He believes in God because it serves him to do so? That rocks me, because I always think I believe in God because I feel I am supposed to.

    You make me think of how different religions have a tone… An overriding theme if you will. Christianity is love, Islam is submission, Buddism is peace… At least that is how I see them. I often wonder why that is, and especially in Islam, how something with essentially the same narrative as Christianity could come to a completely different feeling.

    I bet you will have some amazing conversations with your little guy as he grows 🙂

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    • Ginger,

      The themes are amazing. I spent a good part of my undergraduate years in Islamic studies (and that’s actually how I became so conservative). We looked at Western religions there and through my anthropology classes. What I learned from all that is there is no one way to be, but every religion promotes one way to be. 🙂

      Little Dude is a great conversationalist. I just wish he would wait until he’s a bit older to tackle some of these big concepts.

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  4. fyrdraca says:

    So much to say, but its sooooo jumbled up inside my head right now…one of the many issues I am struggling with right now…

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  5. “I suppose they try and make you believe an awful lot of nonsense?”

    “Is it nonsense? I wish it were. It sometimes sounds terribly sensible to me.”

    “But my dear Sebastian, you can’t seriously believe it all.”

    “Can’t I?”

    “I mean about Christmas and the star and the three kings and the ox and the ass.”

    “Oh yes, I believe that. It’s a lovely idea.”

    “But you can’t believe things because they’re a lovely idea.”

    “But I do. That’s how I believe.”’

    Brideshead Revisited (2011), p.109, Penguin Classics.

    This is a beautiful piece, and you have a beautiful son. 😉 Glad that you posted on #ArchiveDay.

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  6. Rica@ Yoga Mat Monkey says:

    I raised my boys in the Christian church because I desperately needed to cling to something and give my kids that thing, too. But I learned that what I was searching for could not be contained or defined. My “religion” has evolved now and I see the flaws and limitations in that old system of rules and ideas. My kids, however, are still praying and claiming the faith of their youth. It makes me proud though because their beliefs give them comfort, and that’s good enough for me. One day they may wake up and see the world differently. Who knows? You’re a good mom for allowing your child to explore his world and choose his path. And writing is most definitely your gift!

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  7. stuckinscared says:

    What a wisdom, Shawna…You and your son. I have so much to say on this but not the wellness to say it at the moment. I will say though, that my thinking these days is very close to your sons. Thank you for this beautiful share. Kimmie x

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  8. elainemansfield says:

    Big questions. Wise kid. Wise parents. When my sons were young, the community of parents at my meditation center created a Sunday School. We taught the kids to meditate in the gentlest way. Watching the rings in a bowl of water when a tiny pebble was dropped on the surface.. Watching breath. Being aware of bodies. We taught a little hatha yoga. We did Advent gardens and spring planting rites. We had Buddhist stories and Christian ones, Jewish and Hindu and Sufi ones. We celebrated any holiday we could imagine and talked about them, including Celtic cross quarters. The kids hung out with each other every week which might have been their favorite part

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    • What you are describing is EXACTLY what I’d like for my children. I have tried to find resources for kids locally. We have a lovely Shambhala and Buddhist community here, but everything is aimed toward adults. I ordered two books for kids on meditation to at least get things begun at home. It would be amazing to bring some of the kids’ friends along for the ride.

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