During one of our ritual weekend phone conversations, my mother brought up a subject we’ve both avoided for over a year: religion and my son. I was appreciative that she broached the subject, since the last time we talked about it, things got tense. She is a deeply religious person and, in her own words, doesn’t “understand how my daughter, who was baptized, can turn away from god.” Following is our conversation, paraphrased from my memory. I’m sharing this because it was a big step for me in my atheist parenting, and because I was moved by how respectful my mother was of my autonomy as a parent, regardless of how strongly she feels about god and religion.
Mom: Can I explain to Soren that god created us, and that Jesus is our savior?
Me: You can tell him that you believe god created us and that Jesus is our savior. It needs to be in the context of what you believe, not fact. There’s a difference between presenting your religious beliefs as truth, and presenting them as something you, and others believe.
Mom: Okay. I think I understand that. But I want him to know that Christmas is about Jesus’s birthday and not Santa.
Me: I’d prefer that Soren know the historical context for Christmas rather than think it’s about gifts. I’ve been saying that for the past two years. I want him to understand the cultural and religious traditions behind Easter too — that it’s not about the Easter bunny — as well as Passover, Kwanza, Winter Solstice and many other holidays and traditions. I’m not going to keep him isolated from cultural experiences and historical contexts. I want him to experience those things, ask questions, think critically about the answers he hears and come to his own conclusions over his lifetime. My goal is to make him religiously and philosophically literate, but not indoctrinated.
Mom: What about things like the manger under the tree on Christmas.?I’ve been wondering if you want me to take that down when he’s here for the holidays.
Me: I would never ask you to give up your traditions and keep them secret from Soren. That would be disrespectful of you and Soren. I respect his capacity to learn and decide things for himself as he grows up, with our guidance and encouragement of critical thinking.
Mom: (Pause) Can I take him to church?
Me: Yes, as long as he’s allowed to see it as a cultural experience, as something some people participate in. But not as universal truth.
Mom: But I believe it’s true.
Me: I know, but I don’t and I want Soren to be given the opportunity to make his own conclusions.
Mom: So I can take him for walks and tell him that god made the flowers and the birds and the trees?
Me: First, if you start making this a mission to constantly talk to Soren about god, we’re going to change the rules. And second, — and as I said before — it’s fine with me if you express your beliefs as just that: beliefs. But don’t ask me to back you up. Quite the contrary, I’ll be asking Soren what he thinks about your beliefs, and telling him what I think too.
Mom: What do you believe? Do you believe in god?
Me: No. I don’t. We’ve talked about this and my lack of belief in god still holds true. It’s not a phase. I know that’s not what you want to hear, but it’s authentic to who I am. I also know, because you’ve told me, that you think I’ll go to hell for not believing in god. (I pause, to give her the opportunity to dispute this, but she doesn’t.) It is very important that Soren not be told that if he doesn’t believe in your god, he will go to hell. I don’t want him scared into any religious belief. Hell and soul-saving are out of bounds.
Mom: I would never mention hell to him! (a bit upset at my suggestion)
Me: Okay. Then it’s not a concern. But I have to say it because it’s important to me, and it’s also a central theme in your religion.
Mom: It’s hard for me to understand how my religion isn’t your religion anymore. But I want to respect your wishes about this, and I don’t want to overstep my bounds. This is all new territory for me and I’m afraid to make a mistake and upset you.
Me: It’s a process for all of us, and I’m learning as I go just like you are. Thank you for respecting our wishes, even though you don’t agree with them.
We ended on a respectful note. I sensed she wasn’t entirely clear on my position or where the boundaries are. We’ll need to have other conversations in the future, which is all the more obvious because she continues to ask me if I believe in god after many years of hearing the same answer. But I feel for her in this situation. She sees that her greatest duty as a grandmother is to be a spiritual guide to her grandson and I am denying her that. Despite how confusing and probably heartbreaking it is for her, she’s being very respectful of the boundaries my husband and I have established. I need to remember to be sensitive and respectful in return.