Someone sent this to me other day, and I recalled, a while back, being on the playground with my then much younger toddler. She’d mastered walking but climbing most structures more than several inches high, was an impossible challenge.
Despite her physical and verbal limitations, she had endeared herself to a small group of elementary school-aged kids who were oddly not in school. They all seemed to be having fun, and I did my best not to hover or pull my phone out of my pocket. As long as I didn’t have to engage anyone in conversation, I didn’t care.
The girl in the group, who seemed to be the most outgoing, asked if she could put my daughter on the hammock swing with her and her brother. I told her I didn’t mind so long as she held onto her. Babies aren’t very coordinated and are likely to bump into, trip over or fall off stuff.
“She’s really friendly,” exclaimed the little girl.
“Well, she likes being around you bigger kids,” I replied.
There was some silence before she asked her next question, “I love Jesus. Do you know who Jesus is?” she then asked.
“Yes, I do,” my assumptions about them not being in school confirmed.
“Loving Jesus is right. Do you think she (my daughter) loves Jesus?”
I’m not making this up or exaggerating in any way. In fact, I had often fantasized about this moment- a time and place where being a father would afford me the opportunity to edify someone else’s kid on religion.
Instead, I ignored the question and offered a noncommittal, “Yeah, Jesus is great.” I hoped she wouldn’t probe any further. She then began singing a song about Jesus.
“Do you love Jesus?” she asked after her song.
“Sure do,” I said, “Hey, I think you mom is calling you guys.”
So what, I lied. I’m certainly not the first adult to lie to a child out of expediency or in the spirit of getting along. I’m definitely not the type to politely and succinctly explain myself to random children, even if being honest does them some good. My daughter was happy, and those kids were happily playing with her. Why make waves?
I still wondered how this whole interaction might have changed if I had been more honest with this moment. Would they have stopped playing with us? Would their mother have gotten involved, thus forcing me to exit my bubble of social comfort?
Maybe the little girl would’ve laid into a bunch of frank and probing questions about the state, or lack thereof, of my faith- it wouldn’t have been the first time my beliefs were questioned by a youth.
Nothing probably would’ve happened, but I couldn’t ignore what she was doing, even in its unintentional innocence. She wanted to know if we were like her. Were we in the club or out?
It’s a potentially awkward position I’ve found myself in plenty of times, where I avoided a confrontation because of my upbringing. I was raised Catholic/Christian, so I can talk the talk if I have to. Even if it’s not true, it puts the in-crowd at ease.
From here, it’s assumed that I’ll be in tacit agreement with whatever comes next in the conversation, which may or may not have included exclusive statements about outsiders, other religions, sexual orientation, etc. It’s how we humans have developed as social animals- to classify and categorize things. Our innate bias has served us well as a survival instinct, but it also fosters the “us vs. them” mentality that religion only reinforces.
Being a product of Catholic education, though, I can understand this mentality.
While we adhered to the Golden Rule, we also learned the differences between sinners of the faith and other sinners. We were taught that even though these people may not be bad, it was their lack of faith that made them different. God punished all sinners, but he would punish nonbelieving sinners more.
Salvation was for us, not them.
Even though we were constantly reminded not to cast the first stone (calling out nonbelievers for example), our minds were shaped in a way that made it hard not to judge. We loved, tolerated, and accepted people but with the caveat that there was something more fundamentally flawed in them than us.
It was a constant reminder that the tolerance and acceptance espoused by religions come with conditions if you’re not part of the group. We publicly claimed to be no better or worse than other sinners, but privately we knew different.
This stems, in part, from the seemingly innocuous idea that our faith is what makes us special, and it’s our faith that will grant us access to God’s Kingdom. But in order to have a strong faith, we must believe certain things about the world that ultimately separate us from other people, and put more constraints on being true to the Golden Rule. It was a “tolerance and acceptance, but…” scenario. In this, we argued that our application wasn’t wrong in pointing fingers because we weren’t pointing any fingers. God was.
In ultimately stepping away from this mentality, I count myself lucky. I ran into teachers, ranging from the devout to the atheistic, who challenged my childhood indoctrination.
I mostly credit my parents, whose faith was more tempered with liberal and progressive social ideas. They lived by the ideal that salvation was for all people, it was one’s goodness and humanity that brought them to God, not their adherence to a strict doctrine. In this context, the Golden Rule thrived.
Also, in spite of our generally homogenized classroom, we had a spattering of kids from other faiths or none at all. They were, of course, bullied in the beginning, but over time our attitude towards them softened, and we began to see them as ourselves, human (unless we found some other reason to despise a classmate, and among children, those reasons are legion).
This speaks to the obvious benefit of having a diverse school classroom. Being encouraged to play and work with people who aren’t like us, and teachers and parents (for the most part) reinforcing this cooperation, we stop seeing outsiders as the proverbial other and start to see them more like ourselves. But for many of the faithful, who see straying from the strict word of sacred texts to be a corruption of God’s word, this isn’t the case.
Even more dangerous is how this fear and exclusive mentality is instilled in the next generation. Who often find it impossible to break through this narrow worldview as they get older. Especially if most of their social experiences are sheltered from difference. How can we learn the best application of the Golden Rule, when we’re taught that outsiders are to be treated with wariness? When all the authority figures reinforce this narrow-minded view, it’s not tolerance and acceptance we learn; it’s judgment and intolerance.
This is not to say that faith and spiritual awareness can be a beautiful and necessary thing for many people. Indeed, it gives many purpose and meaning, which is a good thing. I’m not here to rail against faith, per se, I’m here to highlight a contradiction in religion.
Religion is the elephant in the room, and everyone knows it. You’ll often hear the devout speak derisively about religious organizations, but in the same breath defend their own religion, which is never wrong. Yet, despite our unconscious biases towards our own doctrines of faith, the Golden Rule is quietly filtered through that bias and reinterpreted.
I’m not suggesting that atheism is the way to go or that raising a child in the faith is akin to child abuse, but we have to admit that there is a quantitative and qualitative value we can ascribe to what it means to be truly tolerant, truly accepting. And, religion changes those values.
Thinking back on the park, I’d like to believe that if that little girl met my daughter on the playground later in life, my daughter’s beliefs or sexual orientation wouldn’t be a wall to building a friendship. I’d like to believe that my daughter wouldn’t be singled out and bullied (or be the bully) if the social cards were stacked one way or the other. But what if, instead of my silence at the park, my daughter of the future had said no? I think that would’ve been the end of their possible friendship. I know this because I’ve seen it happen. I was once that little kid who needed to know if these people believed like me or not before I could begin a relationship with them.
This post was originally published on Medium.com