Believing in Nothing is Indeed Exhausting

Sing me a song. I said.

Which one, Mommy?

How about “Hallelujah”?

I don’t know all of the words. Plus I can’t sing it. I’m not allowed.

Why? Because it has a bad word in it.

I scan my thoughts. I’ve been singing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” all week. I can’t think of any curse words in the lyrics.

Which one, Honey?



My poor kids.

I will talk to them about anything. They are four and they know where babies come from, they have heard books about paranormal experiences, they know the difference between a c-section and vaginal childbirth and we have even discussed vampire ponies.

The thing is that when it comes to questions about God and religion I can only tell them what other people believe. I don’t have any answers.

Of course I told her that Jesus wasn’t a bad word, but there were some ways that you could say it that some people found offensive.

I grew up in a house where my parents had very different religious beliefs.  My mother was raised Presbyterian and my father was raised Jewish. My dad no longer practices any religion, but my mom took us to church for Sunday School when we were little.

When people grow up with two parents that strongly believe in the same thing they are not given a choice. You are taught what is right. It is absolute. I could learn things in Sunday School and I would think about them. I could say to my mom “Do you think that [insert anything in the Bible here] is true?” and she would say “Yes, I believe that.” Then I would go ask my dad the same question and he would say “No, I don’t believe that is true.”

And I was allowed to decide for myself.

After spending time in several different churches that paid me to sing and suffering a miscarriage I have pretty much decided that it is all bullshit. I know some very lovely people who practice many different faiths, but I also believe that organized religion is riddled with corruption and hypocrites.

I respect your choices and I expect you to respect mine. And I want my children to make their own choices. Their own educated choices.

So what do I tell them in the meantime?

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  1. When you have that answer, let me know. Matt and I have 2 very different beliefs, as you know. I have no idea how to explain to our children WHY we believe differently.

  2. You give them what you got, the chance to hear differing views and decide for themselves. Exactly as you seem to be doing now.

    They’ll hear lots of those differing views from many people as they grow. You get the chance to reinforce the idea that they can decide what they want to believe.

  3. “some people believe _____”

    It’s all I’ve got.

    I’d like to know if there’s something else better (truly).

  4. Sarah – I go through the same thing. After everything I have been through (miscarriage included), I lost the small amount of faith I had. However, I swore I would let my daughter choose her own path. But she has questions that I cannot answer and don’t want to research for her. She wants me to read from the Bible to her, and I cringe. Luckily, my mother believes so I turn the questions her way. Chicken used to go to Sunday School but then wanted to go to church, which I refuse to do. I always swore my beliefs wouldn’t influence hers, but I guess, in a way, they do. I want her to learn and to get answers to her questions, but I don’t want to teach or to answer. She asks me if I believe in God, and I don’t know what to say. I’m afraid if I tell her the truth, that she will then decide she shouldn’t, simply because I don’t.

    If you figure out what to tell the kids, let me know, because it’s something I struggle with as well.

  5. Tell them K.D. Lang’s version of “Hallelujah” is molten silver.

    My daughter (2 years old) demands that I sing Hallelujah in the car every day on the way home from daycare. She sings along to some of the parts and it’s the cutest thing I’ve ever seen. A two year old singing “baffled king” wins.

  6. I am glad I grew up in a family of non-believers and questioners. My folks are extremely moral, but I can’t even tell you what their religious beliefs are, other than my mom says sometimes when she sees beauty in nature “See – that’s God to me.”

    They let me make my own decisions and it took me a lot of thinking and exploring to find what fit for me. I think that is a great way to go. If they want to go to church or temple with a friend, I would let them go and stay open to discussion.

  7. I’ve taken a similar stance, answering the questions as they come up, but my oldest is not much of a talker, so I’ve been surprised by how few questions have been asked. I know I’ll have to answer the deeper questions earlier for my youngest. It’s more his nature.
    That being said, we did go to a church where my husbands office was volunteering in the soup kitchen, and my oldest was really overwhelmed by the church itself. Now when we drive by it, he always talks about how much he disliked it.
    When they are ready to explore churches, they can do what I did as a kid, and attend with their friends families. We aren’t particularly religious, though I do consider myself internally spiritual. I do want them to respect the beliefs of others, and we’ll teach them just that. That just as their are many different countries and cultures, there are also a multitude of religious beliefs, and that they’re very important to the people who hold them.

  8. Oh I am so there with you. I was raised by atheists but don’t even remember how my parents taught me what they did. And I just had this same conversation, asking if Jesus was a bad word, are they allowed to say it (dad says it all the time, but I know his mom, a Catholic, hates it). And mine always ask all these questions in the car when I can’t even look anything up. They ask what people do in Church, why do they go, why do they believe. I don’t want to tell them what to believe, but one pretty much worships his dad, and the other just does the opposite of his brother.

  9. My kids are growing up with an Agnostic father and Jehovah’s Witness mother.

    They’ll probably spend their lives knocking on doors and telling people there is no God.

  10. Have you heard Brandi Carlile’s version of that song? It gives me chills every single time I listen to it.

  11. Jesus isn’t a bad word, organized religion just makes it seem that way…

  12. “I respect your choices and I expect you to respect mine. And I want my children to make their own choices. Their own educated choices.”

    How about just that? Actually, I can’t think of anything better to say to them and though my kids are growing up in a home where both parents are active in a religion that makes us happy, I plan to steal those words from you and use them with my own kids.

  13. I thought I was so progressive when I decided not to interfere with my children’s spiritual search by introducing them to religion. I figured that they would discover their own belief system on their own.

    I have three grown kids and not one of them is religious at all, which is sad to me because even though I long ago gave up my parents organized religion (catholism) I did go on to have a spiritual search in my 20’s and while I still do not like organized religions, spirituality is a big part of my life.

    So. If I had it to do all over again I would raise my kids with a belief in something else – perhaps I would call it God, perhaps I’d say The Universe. I don’t know. But I would introduce the notion to them so that it wasn’t a foreign concept later – too foreign to allow them to explore.

    So, I guess having SOME exposure to religion or spirituality is a good thing, as long as they know that there are many paths.

    sorry – longwinded.

  14. I hope it is possible for two people who agree on their beliefs to raise kids who make their own choice, because that is what we are trying to do.

    My husband and I are both Christians, and we are teaching our kids about Jesus. But I will happily read them a book about Hannukah, or take them to my FIL’s Hindu temple, because there are many paths to God and they need to find their own way.

    IMO, honesty is always the best policy. Tell your kids what you think, and why. If you do want them to be able to choose something else, though, you may have to be the one to expose them to it.

  15. we go with the “some people believe x, y, and z. daddy and I feel differently. you may also feel differently.” my husband’s a very hardcore atheist. I’m hardcore agnostic (is that an oxymoron?). in conversations just with each other, the husband and I have had some pretty strong words for organized religions and zealots. we haven’t really shared those with the baby. but he has said some very anti-god, anti-religion stuff on his own, some extreme interpretation of what we say. to be fair, it’s not only religion that he does this with. as Steelers fans, we have a healthy hate for the Patriots, but he takes that to psychotic new levels. I think it’s some way that they show that they’re listening and value what you’re telling them, which is good, but it gets really sticky with things like religion, where if they repeat their strong interpretations, people can get offended or even become furious with your child, and no one wants that. so that’s where we start explaining the subtleties, that religion, or lack thereof, is intensely personal, which is why we aren’t raising him Catholic by default. but the personal nature of it makes it risky to just openly discuss it in mixed company and when you have an “alternative” opinion on religion, like we do, many people will get more easily upset, especially kids who usually have a very rosy “Jesus loves me” brand of religion and I can see how upsetting it would be to have that challenged by a buddy.
    It’s not perfect, but at the very least he gets a hint of how complicated the whole matter is. and he hopefully avoids dragging us into a religious argument with the upset parents of one of his school friends. ugh.

  16. we have a really crazy way of doing things, i think. we are an agnostic married to a secular jew (read: agnostic) who send their children to religious school at temple. we want them to have a connection with other jews & want them to learn about their history. we teach them about judaism for cultural reasons. as i’ve said to my southern baptist grandma, “if you are raised a christian & grow up to not believe in god, you are no longer a christian, but if you are a jew who doesn’t believe in god, you are still jewish.” they know that we don’t believe in god and they can make their own decisions about it.

  17. I give my kids a lot of honest “I don’t know” answers, but also often say “some people believe…” or “I believe…” I tell them that their grammy would be sad if she heard them saying “Jesus” unless they are praying. Singing hymns counts for that explanation, I think. My girl asked me recently if she could say “ass” as long as she’s talking about donkeys. It’s all relative.

  18. My husband was raised Catholic and I was raised Muslim. Neither of us practice anything right now. We’re both on the sliding scale of agnostic/atheist, but neither of us has any room for organized religion.

    Our daughter is 12, and she’s always been exposed to both [through grandparents] and other religions through friends. It was hard when she was younger to answer questions about other people’s faith, particularly when they were a) kids; who were b) adamant that their family’s religion was the only way. I didn’t want to be as negative to them as they were to us, but I did tell her that her decision about god was her own to make. So she decided she liked the idea of the Greek gods.

  19. What is it about that song that is so haunting? I go through kicks of it, too, though I don’t think I’d ever heard it before Shrek came out. Ditto BP Dad’s recommendation of K.D. Lang’s version – OMFG!!!

    I’m having some of the same issues you are concerning religion and how to handle the sticky issues. Growing up, my mom was presbeterian and used to take us to church. My dad was an athiest though and refused to go. However, my parents split when I was 8, so church in earnest didn’t really start until after he’d left. I’d basically decided by about age 13 that I didn’t believe in the things that the church was teaching and stopped going.

    When Will was born, Tom insisted that he be baptised. I didn’t really see a reason to piss off the in-laws so agreed and had the ceremony performed at his parents church (a very progressive gay-friendly community church downtown; basically everything I’d want in a religious establishment if I actually wanted a church home). However, I said if Tom actually wanted Will to attend sunday school, he’d have to do that himself. Seeing as the boy hasn’t been to church since he was 6mos old, apparently it isn’t that big of a deal to him.

    The thing that gets me though… a couple years ago I was out of the country for 2mos. When I came back, my MIL had apparently started reading children’s bible stories and saying prayers with him every night while I was gone. I came back and my kid started asking me to say prayers with him at bedtime – WTF? I did not agree to that. It took nearly 6 months to break that habit. Will still asks occasionally if I believe in God and I say that I don’t; that I don’t think anyone is controlling what we do or is ‘watching over us.’ I also don’t think you have to be religious to be a moral person; the two do not go hand in hand.

  20. I tell them what I believe to be true and applicable, no matter the religion. I tell them that people are not just their bodies, that the real person is the mind, the spirit, the one that loves, that thinks. I tell them that people may believe in different things, live in different places, speak different languages and have different skin color, but we are all one race: the human race. I tell them that all actions have consequences, whether good or bad.

  21. I would highly recommend “Parenting Beyond Belief” by Dale McGowan. Actually, McGowan edited it, but it is a collection of essays by different parents raising their kids without religion, some famous, some just regular people. It is a great way to get different ideas.

    There is also a companion book that I haven’t read yet called Raising Freethinkers.

    And Dale McGowan has blog (the Meming of Life and links to other blogs (like mine!) of other parents raising their kids without religion.

    Here is one of my posts on the topic:

    I also love the school curriculum with regards to religion where I live. They teach about all different religions and beliefs without putting one forth as being right or better than the others.

  22. I forgot to mention, I love this post by Dale McGowan in particular when it comes to answering your kids questions:

  23. Hmmm... says:

    I struggle with how I am going to raise my future kids.
    The one answer I have come up with is that we all need to know the basics.
    The Ten Commandments and Golden Rule are the basics to me–I want them to treat people with respect and to ask to be treated with that same respect themselves.

  24. That song is haunting. I got so obsessed with it once that I searched on i-Tunes and downloaded every version I found.

    As for what to tell the kids, I don’t know. If I knew what to do with kids, I might have given birth to some. I grew up going to Sunday school and church with the family, and although I don’t go now, I look back fondly on the experience, because it was such a nice family thing to do. On Saturday night we would all be polishing our shoes and taking baths and laying out our clothes for Sunday. I might cherish that time even more than the church time. I still remember the house smelling like shoe polish and Old Spice. In fact, I have always planned in the back of my brain to write a memoir about my dad called “Shoe Polish and Old Spice.” (COPYRIGHT!! :) )

  25. I’m not sure what to tell them. As the product of a Muslim father and a Catholic mother, I can honestly say that “making up my own mind” and “a science-heavy education” certainly made me believe — that science explained things better than faith in an invisible deity.

    I now say Jesus pretty regularly, though. I believe he was a man who lived and had a following.

  26. I grew up a lot like you, not really being told much about any religion and being allowed to decide for myself. I explored a lot of different religions before the dogma started to bore me. Now I’m more of a spiritual person who admits, “I have no clue what the world is all about, but I know there’s something much bigger than me!” As for Jesus, I sometimes say to Little Bear that Jesus was a wise teacher who believed in love and forgiveness. I explain different religions by saying that nobody knows for sure what the truth is but that there are different theories that people believe very strongly. I want her to know that what her classmates tell her is the truth isn’t necessarily what she has to believe.

  27. As a godless jew (ok, some people prefer “cultural jew”) I think saying “some people believe” is a useful way to talk about things. It is respectful without implying that you believe it to be true.

  28. It seems your parents did a good job in raising you right. I would do the same thing. Give them the information and let them decide for themselves.

  29. Aprylsantics says:

    You and I have sooooo much in common. My dad was Jewish, too. My mom was Methodist. My father insisted the kids were raised Jewish, but he was so over all the crap he had to do as a kid, he didn’t want to foist it on us. So, we had a Christmas tree and the Easter bunny brought us baskets. Now when it comes to teaching my own kids what to believe, I’m stumped. We’re in the bible belt here and it’s tough when the kids they go to school with are all Christian. I’m also of the belief that organized religion is not the way to go, but I do want to provide something…It’s tough.

  30. I struggle with this daily. I grew up Episcopalian, my husband was a mut when it came to religion. His parents moved churches a lot. At this point, we veer between agnostic/athiest. When we moved to Nashville, we inadvertently entered our 4 year old into a faith-based daycare. We had no idea until she came home and started insisting on saying grace at dinner. We do it for her. In the meantime, my 6 year old wants to know why we don’t go to church. Diversion isn’t going to last much longer.

    I vowed when I was a kid that I would never get in the way of my kids’ wanting to discover their spiritual way. I did this becaue my mother would never let me go to my friends’ churches or temples for fear that I would learn something evil (WTF?!)

    I have no idea what to do.

  31. Jeff Buckley’s is, of course, the definitive version.

    I don’t know what to tell you. It’s a tricky one and I’m beginning to think we’re almost there with Mia, that we’re going to have to come up with something good soon. But, like you, I only know how to tell her what other people think.

  32. And here I was hoping that you had the answers for me. I struggle with the same issue every day. I grew up in an interfaith family, though no real religion was ‘practiced’. Now, my own family is an interfaith family as well. Basically, it is one big clusterf*#k.

    Go with your gut. You seem to be doing just fine.

  33. Karenina says:

    Very good question.

    I am a Unitarian Universalist, which is a very interesting religion. As a group, we do not consider ourselves Christian, as we do not (among other things) believe that the Bible is the Word of God and that Jesus is the Son of God. Individually, however,some of us do believe in the tenets of Christianity, and our roots are in Christianity. Some of us also consider themselves Buddhist, and I myself happen to be agnostic. So we are used to dealing with many different viewpoints within a single framework.

    To help guide our choices and keep what is really important in mind (as the Bible does for Christians, the Torah for Jews, etc.), we have a practical set of guidelines that value individual choice and exploration as well as the importance of respecting the earth. When we field questions like the one you are facing in our RE classes with very small children, we use the phrase, “Some people believe…” and follow it up with, “but the most important thing to remember is that no matter what, all people believe that everyone should be nice to other people.” With respect to Jesus, we add, “That is what Jesus believed, too.” With respect to whether “Jesus” is a bad word, we add much as you did– “it upsets some people to use Jesus’s name when you aren’t really talking about Jesus, so because we care about other people and their feelings, we don’t use Jesus’s name that way. Can you think of another word that is okay to say sometimes, but it isn’t nice other times?” In response to this question (sometimes with prompting), we bring up words like “stinks” and “ugly” — it is not okay to call your friends or your teachers or your parents those words, but it is okay to say that a blanket is ugly or that the trash stinks.

    Hope this helps!

  34. That’s a good question. I grew up having to go to church every Sunday and now I hate going. It isn’t that I don’t believe or am not a good person, I just don’t think going somewhere for an hour every Sunday is going to do me any good.

    I think you explain to them that everyone believes in something different and that no one is wrong. And that they are allowed to choose what they believe, as long as they are good people and honest and nice and understanding.

  35. My wife and I aren’t as far apart as your mom and dad were, but we aren’t entirely in agreement either. We haven’t really run into this yet with our kids, the oldest of which is not yet 4. But we will, since I’m an atheist and she’s Christian, though not practicing. I think you have to be honest about what you believe (and don’t believe), and eventually they will come to make their own choices. Clearly it’s simpler for a family with unified beliefs, but I’m not sure that means it’s better.

    Interesting you talked about being paid to sing in church. My wife and I both spent years singing in churches and also synagogues for high holy days. We regularly referred to ourselves as sluts for God. I doubt the devout churchfolk would have appreciated that.

  36. I’ll preface what I’m about to say with this: I believe in God. However, I stay as far away from churches and/or organized religion as I possibly can. It’s a complicated thing. I was encouraged to read the bible as a kid, but was told by my grandmother, a devout Christian, not to blindly believe everything I read. So, I questioned and doubted and read a lot of theology and stuff about other religions and over the course of, gosh, a lifetime, came to a content understanding of what I believe and why. So, there you have it. Introduce them to the concept, encourage them to learn about religions (plural), to ask questions and then try and answer them, then let them make their own decisions. It is after all, ultimately, their journey. As for when you introduce them to the whole concept of reading and doubting and searching, probably after the ‘Nora the Explorer’ years, but I really have no help for your there.

  37. I grew up in a similar situation as your children are now… in a very religious community.
    My parents encouraged studying religion from an academic standpoint. They found books that gave me the “bare facts” that were age appropriate. They answered all my questions as nuetrally as possible, always starting with “some people believe…”
    I think I grew up pretty tolerant of different faiths and religions. I am armed with knowledge and comfortable with my own beliefs.
    I think that worked out pretty well.

  38. When my kids were young I was a committed Christian who taught them what to believe.

    Then I re-examined everything, emerged a spiritual agnostic, and didn’t know what the heck to tell them.

    But, I decided to just relax. To concentrate on loving them, reading to them, doing stuff with them. Over time conversations happened. Ideas were explored.

    It worked out okay, I think. Now they’re grown and one’s a theist, one an atheist, one we’ve nicknamed Buddha, and the other’s a pantheist.

    And the religious discussions are never boring at my house.

  39. LOL on the story about the song. My kid’s haven’t tried that one, yet.

    What to say? Good question. Being a Christian household we talk about our beliefs. At the same time I also know my kids will grow up and need to make their own decisions about religion, make their faith their own, not ours.

  40. Ahem. I plan to tell mine that we love each other as a family and LET’S DO THINGS TOGETHER ON SUNDAY MORNING LIKE EAT WAFFLES WITH LOTS OF SYRUP! Because that is soooo my holy. Amen, sister.

  41. I wrote about my experiences in more detail here:

    (For those that cannot be bothered to read the link: baptized Roman Catholic, heavy church goer until late teens, presently agnostic.)

    In the meantime, you tell them the truth: that there are stories about these people (Jesus, disciples, whatever) and that some people believe Jesus was special. You can get into the omnipotence of God, if you think it benefits their understanding.

    We’ve had the same struggle with Christmas. My wife wants our daughter (and eventually our son) to understand the nativity; not necessarily as the whole messianic debate and the formation of Christianity as a sect of Judaism, but as a myth: a story in a book about why Christmas is Christmas. So, we got her a book, and she likes it just like any other Christmas book. As she has questions, I’m confident my 18 years of Catechism (14 in a Catholic school) will have an answer.

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  1. […] when i was in the church choir Posted on September 9, 2009 by mommymae i hope not to offend with this one. i don’t talk about religion because it can be so polarizing, but goon squad sarah made me think of this when i read and commented on this post. […]