We have various neighbors who are devoutly Muslim, Jewish, and Catholic. There are also Hindus, atheists, and every variety of Protestant. And, of course, most of our extended family is Mormon. So our son is not unaccustomed to hearing “Because they’re Muslim” or “Because they think that’s what God wants them to do” when he asks, “Why do they do that?” I also try to explain a little about the different religions when he asks, and I hope he will understand diversity.For example, on Halloween, when he wanted to knock on our Muslim friends’ door, I asked him not to. I knew they considered Halloween a pagan holiday, to be avoided. When he asked why, I said, “They don’t celebrate Halloween because they are Muslim. But they have other great holidays that we don’t have, like Ramadan, when they eat a big meal with all their friends every night for a month. And Eid ul Fitr, when they get to go to a carnival, and get new clothes.” I didn’t want him to think his friends are weird or deprived just because they don’t dress up like vampires and dinosaurs and fairies and ask strangers for candy. (‘Cause that’s not weird at all.)
Yesterday was a rainy one, so we couldnâ€™t go outside to play. He was bummed that he couldnâ€™t be outside with friends. Out the window, he saw his friend walking up the street with his dad.
â€œDo you think Levi will stay outside and play?â€ he asked hopefully.
â€œNo, itâ€™s still pretty wet.â€
â€œDo you think Ali and Hakim will come out?â€
â€œProbably not,â€ I answered.
â€œCan Muslims not have rain boots?â€ he asked, trying to figure out what might be preventing his friends from coming out.
â€œOh, no, Muslims can wear rain boots. And Leviâ€™s not Muslim, heâ€™s Jewish.â€
â€œWhat do Jewish people do?â€
â€œThey go to synagogueâ€”thatâ€™s like churchâ€”on Saturday, and they sing certain songs, and lots of them speak Hebrewâ€ I stalled, trying to find a way to explain ritual, heritage, and ethnicity to a preschooler. â€œBut not all Jews do that. David is Jewish, and his family doesnâ€™t do any of that.â€
Then he looked at me seriously and said, â€œI want to be something. I want to have something like that.â€
He wanted an identity. He wanted to know what he can be.
I panicked. Iâ€™m not sure what I believe. Iâ€™m not sure what my identity is. While the closest things I can claim are Mormon and atheist, I donâ€™t want to identify as the former, and I donâ€™t feel the latter as an community or an identity per se.
I blurted out, â€œWe have science,â€ thinking of the character in Nacho Libre that â€œbelieves in science.â€ I felt stupid. I couldnâ€™t even figure out what to say to my child. While I have no trouble saying, â€œMuslims believe this, Christians believe that, some people do this,â€ I couldnâ€™t figure out how to explain what I believe. Or better yet, how to encourage him to figure out what he believes.
Later at dinner, I recounted the conversation to my husband. He turned to our son and said, â€œYou want to be something, huh?â€
â€œYeah,â€ our son said, â€œbut I know what I want to be. Iâ€™m a pirate.â€
â€œGreat,â€ I joked, â€œthat means you have the Flying Spaghetti Monster as your god.â€
â€œThe Flying Spaghetti Monster? Whatâ€™s that?â€
â€œThe god of the pirates. Iâ€™ll show you a picture.â€ And we pulled out the Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, a book I got my husband for fun. Our son really liked the pictures and the connection to pirates, and quickly adopted the symbol of the fossilized fish as â€œmy symbol,â€ lover, as he is, of fossils. He kept saying, â€œThe Flying Spaghetti Monster is my god. â€˜Cause Iâ€™m a pirate. David too, because heâ€™s a pirate too.â€
â€œThis is the perfect thing for you to blurt out while weâ€™re visiting Grandma and Grandpa in Utah,â€ I said, more to my husband than to my son. Better that than â€œMy dad likes beer, but my mom likes wine.â€
He was really getting into it, and I started to worry. Okay, so now my little joke was going a little too far.
â€œIs the Flying Spaghetti Monster real or just pretend?â€ I asked him.
â€œOh, heâ€™s real. Heâ€™s real. Heâ€™s just hiding.â€
â€œUm, where no one, no one can ever find him. Deep, deep down in dirt.â€
â€œWhat about Jesus? Is Jesus real or pretend?â€
â€œPretend,â€ he answered with confidence. (I never told him that, just for the record.)
Great, I thinking. My kid believes in Santa Claus and the Flying Spaghetti Monster, but thinks God is just pretend. If he thought all were pretend, I’d be fine, but why choose Santa Claus and a god made of pasta as plausible entities? Wondering what to do, I realize I donâ€™t really have to do anything right now. Because heâ€™s a preschooler: Within 30 seconds, he was more preoccupied with saying â€œAhoy thar, ye mateyâ€ and his collection of hot wheels than gods or identity.
But I think it will be healthy for him to be able to identify with some identity, though I donâ€™t think it has to be a religious one. And to help him learn that identity, I should figure out what my identity is.
Since then, though, I have come across two books that helped me feel better about my son not having a religious identity. One is Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. One of his main points is children shouldn’t be called Jewish or Muslim or Catholic–they are simply too young to be able to decide about religion for themselves. They could be referred to as “children of [religious] parents,” which frees up their minds to consider that their religion of choice (if any) is their choice.
The other book is Nothing: Something to Believe In by Nica Lalli, which I havenâ€™t had a chance to read yet, but it looks interesting. I listened to a podcast about it at Point of Inquiry. What caught my eye is that when the author was a child, she asked the same kind of question my son asked: â€œWhat are we?â€ Her non-religious fatherâ€™s reply was intriguing to me. â€œ â€˜We’re nothing.â€™ My father was looking right at me; he had a pleasant, friendly kind of expression. â€˜Nothing,â€™ he said againâ€ (from the book description on Amazon). She then went on through her childhood and young adult life trying to understand what he meant by “nothing” and eventually embraced that terminology over the more common atheist, humanist, or secularist labels. Nothing isn’t an emptiness, a void to be filled; rather, it is a full, rich, and happy life. This life. And that’s enough.
a re-post adapted from an earlier post at emerging from the ashes.