Faith is a choice: I want my son to be happy with his beliefs and let other people be happy with theirs
I was raised Catholic. Like pretty much everyone else who was raised Catholic, I am currently what you might call “lapsed.” (In reality I am actually just “not Catholic anymore,” but my parents might read this, so let’s go with “lapsed.”) I don’t put much truck in religion these days; it has its purpose for some people, and I don’t begrudge them their beliefs, except when they use those beliefs as a rationale for violence and intolerance and hatred and war and etc. Which is a lot of people a lot of the time, but it certainly isn’t the majority. So go ahead and pray if you like; I just won’t be joining you.
But my son might.
Obviously, I think religion can be very problematic, but I’m not militant about my lack of belief, and I certainly can’t deny some of the benefits of believing in something bigger than yourself. My wife definitely feels that way, which is why we’ve considered having our son baptized.
Like me, she grew up going to church, and enjoyed the positive aspects of having faith in something. And, like me, she’s had reason to doubt her faith in recent years. Unlike me, however, she hasn’t completely discarded it, and she would like our son to grow up believing in something. So baptism is on the table. And I’m not entirely opposed.
As a first-time dad, the question I have is: should I be? Should I brainwash my son the way I was brainwashed by my parents and my catechism teachers and my high school and Kirk Cameron and the backs of all our money and Tim Tebow ? Or should I leave him alone, give him a nice little secular Christmas every year, and let him find his own way?
I don’t have a big problem with the prospect of having my son baptized. The fact is, once he gets older and starts thinking for himself and exploring the alternatives, he’ll likely ditch religion the same way I have. And I honestly believe it’s better to give him a base from which to have his faith eroded than to start him at zero.
So despite my lack atheism, and the fact that I think believing in God can often be toxic, I’m still planning to raise my son with some kind of background in religion. Because I think it’s important for him to learn for himself, rather than be told straight out, what to believe. He’ll figure it out eventually, when his prayers go unanswered, his idealism slowly fades away and is extinguished with age, and he ultimately realizes that no, things don’t happen for a reason. There is a lot of good to be found in religion—ideals that need not be conjoined to a belief in a higher power—and just as a belief in Santa Claus can coerce a child into behaving, believing in God is a decent shortcut to getting some of the more worthwhile religious lessons to stick.
The way I see it, indoctrinating him early is the only real way to give him a real choice in the matter. If he rushes a religion now, withstands the hazing and joins up in time for his First Communion, it will give him something to rebel against down the line. But I’ve seen too many kids start with nothing and end up totally adrift, as if they weren’t aware of their options, and not understanding that faith is a choice, not something that gets passed down. So they go through life without any real convictions, without anything to turn to or argue against, and I think giving my son a foundation – without pretending there is only one answer – will better position him to weigh his options down the line. He’s a lot more likely to bow out when he starts thinking for himself than he is to glom onto a random set of beliefs after starting with nothing. And being religious as a youngster has few consequences, so long as you don’t count the lifelong fun-annihilating guilt he’ll be saddled with every time he masturbates.
And then there are the benefits.
Humility. Kindness. Selflessness. Hope. Discipline. Most religions focus on these virtues as building blocks, and after being taught those values in a Catholic high school and a Jesuit university, I don’t disagree. But even though I think my son needs to grow up with a solid foundation in such values, I don’t have the time to teach this kind of wishy-washy stuff myself! So I’ll get some guy to pour some water on his face and let them do the heavy lifting for the first 12-15 years of his life while I sit back with my feet up and wait to see what happens.
At the very least, if there is a hell that’s governed by byzantine rules about not swearing too much and avoiding meat on Fridays and something absurd called original sin that punishes infants for no fucking reason other than to scare parents into worshipping a vengeful angry boogey-man in the sky, my son will be protected, at least for a little while. The biggest drawback for me is that in order to sell it, I’ll probably need to accompany him to church, and that’s not a lot of fun, especially once you’ve started seeing the rituals as a weird community-theatre version of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
If my son decides to stick with it, I won’t protest. Unless he starts shooting people that disagree with him, or joining the Crusades. I’ll let him milk it for what it’s worth, eventually explain why I feel differently, and hope he eventually starts to see things the same way I do. But I won’t force him to.
Because as tempting as it may be to puncture what I believe to be a misguided faith in the supernatural, I’m not sure it’s really my place to tell my son there is no God. As sure as I am that there isn’t, I can never be positive. And just because you believe in Jesus doesn’t mean I think you’re evil. I might think you’re a little silly but I don’t think you’re destined to burn in hell and I’m not going to waste my time convincing you that you will.
Sadly, that realization is one of the biggest and most infuriating differences between those who are religious and those who aren’t. That will be one thing I impart to my son on my own: be happy with your own beliefs and let other people be happy with theirs. Unless they’re Nazis. Then just run.
My kid is now two-and-a-half, and he hasn’t been baptized yet, partially because we recently moved, partially because neither my wife nor I are hard-pressed to do it. But Jesus wasn’t until he was about 30, so we’ve still got time.
—first appeared, in different form, at Dad and Buried
—photo by bsabarnowl/Flickr