After dinner, one of my 6-year-old twins, J, asked what she probably expected was a straightforward question: “Are we Christians?” I assume that it was prompted by the morning’s Sunday school lesson, today’s topic having been the denial of Peter.
My answer was anything but straightforward.
It’s not the “Christian” part that’s complicated. It’s the “we” part. I’m atheist. My ex-husband, the girls’ father, is Catholic. We agreed to raise the girls Catholic until they were old enough to make their own decisions about what they believe. Getting divorced didn’t affect my commitment to honour his faith. Our daughters and I continued to read Bible stories, attend church, pray nightly, and talk about how to apply Biblical allegories and principals to our daily lives. The girls weren’t particularly keen on attending church until their babysitter took them to hers. The girls begged to switch from Catholic church to our babysitter‘s nondenominational Christian church, which we’ve attended since.
I have been readying myself to answer J’s question for 20 years. I actually expected it to come from my sister, 10 years my junior and, like me, raised Muslim. She never asked. I was 7 when I decided that I was an atheist, so I’d been anticipated that my girls would start examining their own beliefs any day now. They’ll be 7 next month.
“Being Christian is something that each person needs to choose for themselves,” I told J. “You have to decide whether ‘Christian’ describes you. If you believe that God made the universe, that Jesus is His son, and that he sacrificed himself so that humans could be forgiven for their sins, that you’re a Christian.”
“I’m a Christian,” J responded, without missing a beat.”
“Me, too,” M added.
“What about you, Mommy?”
This was it.
“No, sweetie, I’m not. I think that Jesus was a great man, and I try to live the important lessons that his life taught us, but I don’t believe that he’s the son of God.”
“WHAT?” Both my daughters were shocked.
“If you’re not Christian,” M followed up, “Are you Jewish?”
“Nope. Not Jewish. But do you know that Jesus was Jewish?”
“Yep. If you have to accept Jesus’ sacrifice to be a Christian, then there couldn’t be any Christians until after Jesus died, right? So he couldn’t be Christian.”
M nodded, then focused back on the real topic of our conversation. “Why don’t you believe in Jesus, Mommy?”
“It’s God that I don’t believe in.”
“So you don’t say, ‘Father, Son, Holy Spirit?’ You just say, ‘Son, Holy Spirit?'”
“No, sweetie. I don’t believe that there is a God at all. I pray with you guys so that you can choose to be Christian, but what you believe is a decision that each person has to make for him- or herself. Papa and I wanted to give you all the information you needed to make your own decision about what you believe.”
“If you have no daughters, you wouldn’t pray?” J clarified.
“So you’re not Jewish?” M persisted.
“It’s not just a choice between Christian and Jewish, sweetie. There are lots of different ways to pray and ideas to believe. My family is Muslim. Remember how our family in Missouri prays, kneeling and in Arabic? That’s how you pray in the religion called Islam. When do we pray?”
“At bedtime and when we want to,” J answered.
“When you’re Muslim, you pray 5 times a day, no matter what.”
“I only saw 3 times!”
“That’s because my cousins woke up super-early to pray and prayed after your bedtime too. There are strict rules on how to pray in Islam. You use the same words and gestures each time. You have to wash in a special way called wudu before prayer.”
“Even your feet?” M asked, appalled.
“Yes, washing your feet is part of it,” I told her.
“I don’t want to wash my feet a bunch of times.”
“Okay, baby. My point is that in different kinds of belief in God, called religions, people pray and think about God in different ways.”
I went into a high level comparison of the major monotheistic religions, and then threw in a few polytheist beliefs for good measure.
J wanted to know what I called myself. When I taught her the word “atheist,” she rolled in around on her tongue a few times, trying it out.
The girls didn’t make it to bed at our targeted 8:30 pm time. At 9:00, J still had me listing all our relatives who are Christian: pretty much everyone on her Dad’s side of the family. She and M both included themselves in the list. M wasn’t quite comfortable with leaving me off the list, but J said that she thought it was important that I should be free to believe what I want.
This parenting thing is complicated, and I certainly don’t make it any simpler on myself with my atheist pro-religion philosophies.
Sadia is the mother of identical twins, M and J, and coordinator of the mothers of multiples blog How Do You Do It? She lives in Texas, having been in the US for the past 15 years. Her childhood was about evenly split between Bangladesh and the United Kingdom. Her ex-husband is an all-American US soldier of Mexican, Scots-Irish, and French descent. While he attended American public schools and regularly attended Catholic church in childhood, Sadia attended Catholic and secular private schools and visited mosques a handful of times.