Dave Lesser doesn’t believe in God, but does his best to keep an open mind when his kids ask the big questions about religion
The Big Questions come at the most unexpected times. The other day, driving home from preschool, my daughter Penny asked me if God could hear us. This question was followed by, “Does he know where we live?” and “Does he see everything we do?” My responses to these thought-provoking queries varied from “Uhh…” to “Err…”, finally concluding with a “Maybe you should talk to your mother about this one.” (I was about as helpful as Penny’s little brother, Simon, who sat there, fascinated by the whole exchange.) Penny came to her own conclusion, “I think He does.”
I am an atheist. There are many reasons why I don’t believe in God and why I’m not a big fan of organized religion. But you’ve probably heard them all before, expressed much more articulately than I could hope to do here. I’m not trying to change anyone’s mind, anyway. My wife, Allie, believes in God. Although she does not attend temple services any more than I do, she observes religion in her own way. Encompassed in her belief system seems to be the need to constantly apologize to some dude who looks down on us from the clouds for all the silly, blasphemous things I say. (I’m sure she apologized for that last sentence…and probably for some stuff you haven’t gotten to yet.)
There are certain things in life that I would not hesitate to force on my kids (or, at least, strongly guide them towards): a love of running, experimental eating, and an appreciation of good music and terrible movies. (Other than enjoying terrible movies—and, regrettably, the wrong kind of terrible—I’m pretty much failing in these efforts.)
The acceptance or rejection of God is different.
Maybe it’s even more different when you’re Jewish. I don’t believe in God, but I still identify as a Jew. There’s just so much cultural baggage. And, of course, the belief in one God (and then the rejection of Jesus as the Messiah) is a big part of why Jews have historically been discriminated against and why they stuck together in whatever land they found themselves in throughout history, making them more like an ethnic group than a religious one.
Most of the time, I don’t think about my Jewishness. But, every once in a while, it becomes my defining characteristic. For example, I was a little offended that all of the holiday songs at my daughter’s school’s Winter Holiday Extravaganza (or whatever it was called) were going to be Christmas-themed, with not even one song reserved for Hanukah. I don’t have anything against Christmas songs, but I just didn’t like the idea of my daughter and the few other Jewish students feeling left out. So I became the “Jewish dad,” speaking on behalf of all of the Jewish parents, and Penny’s teacher, who is very sweet, was happy to add that old classic “The Dreidel Song” to the mix. My motivations had nothing to do with God—if God were mentioned in “The Dreidel Song”, I’d probably rather hear “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” for the thousandth time—just the cultural identity of being an American Jew.
I’ve always thought that the concept of God exists because people fear death, and that religion is too often used to justify abhorrent behavior against “others.” Before I cloud my kids’ minds with my cynicism, however, I want them to be open to the idea of a higher power. Maybe this belief will help them later in life; maybe they will eventually come to the same conclusions I have.
Or maybe I just don’t have a good way to talk about something I don’t believe in. Maybe, when Penny brought up the topic of God, the reality was I totally wimped out.
For now, I’m asking my daughter more questions than I’m answering. When we got home, I asked Penny if she thought God could see us when we were in the car or if he could only see us when we’re outside. Mostly, I wanted to find out if she thought God was always all around us or if her idea of a higher power correlated more closely with something that exists in nature. I also asked—because I felt bad—about not engaging in the topic when she first brought it up. She answered, hesitantly, that God… could see us in the car. In her answer, was the implicit question, “Am I right?”
Baby, if I only knew.
But no one does, despite the people who claim to “know Him,” no one knows. All we can do is decide for ourselves what we want to believe; what we want to put our faith in. I choose to put my faith in the things I can see or that can be proven: my family, myself, and, yeah, science. I do not always understand these things (my wife is an eternal mystery and science is, well, let’s just say I’m no rocket scientist). Hence, the faith part. But, through my own experiences, I know these things are real. Other people may feel the same way about God.
The most important part of religion for Allie is doing good for others (that’s why I love her). This fundamental aspect of Judaism is called tzedakah. For Yom Kippur—a holiday where Jews around the world fast while thinking long and hard about all the sins they have committed throughout the year—Allie does not refrain from eating. Instead, she had the idea a few years ago to donate food to a local no-kill animal shelter that is filled with dogs and cats that have been abandoned and, in many cases, abused. (We had a rescue cat that died when Penny was three and this tradition is in her honor.) We do this mitzvah (good deed) as a family. Penny picks out all the food at the grocery store and, at the shelter, tells the cats what she got them and asks if they’re hungry. As parents, it’s important to us that Penny feels instrumental in whatever charity we do.
If my kids do decide God is real, I just hope they use him as a tool and not as a crutch. People can be moral without God and immoral with him. I don’t care what my kids believe. I care about who they are. As they grow older, I’ll try not to influence their spiritual beliefs, but I know that everything my wife and I do and say influences the people they will become.
God help me.
Article originally appeared on Amateur Idiot / Professional Dad.
Credit: Photo—Atheist Bus Canada/Flickr