The Anxiety of (Religious) Influence | WBEZ
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Eight Forty-Eight

The Anxiety of (Religious) Influence

I just about hit the panic button not long ago when my six-year-old son Theo asked me, “Daddy, why did Jesus invent butterflies if they die after two weeks?”

His mother, who's Catholic, had taught him that Jesus was God.

The literalism packed into Theo's question alarmed me.

I'd always been comfortable with our familial arrangement: Nilsa is from Puerto Rico, I'm from the Midwestern US; she grew up in a working-class family in the countryside, I grew up in a middle-class one in the suburbs; she speaks to the children in Spanish, her native tongue, I speak to them in English, my native tongue. I think this mix is healthy for the boys, right down to having one religious parent and one secular one. I imagine them thinking: “hmm, if mom believes x but dad doesn't, I guess there are multiple perspectives to consider, and who knows which one is right? Maybe none has a monopoly on truth...”

But I've begun to wonder… what exactly am I doing to share, or impart, my humanistic-secular worldview to my sons, as a counterbalance to the Catholicism they imbibe from their mother? She takes them to mass. What do I take them to? She has them reading the Bible. What do I have them reading?

Raising my children as a secular father in a society saturated with religion, and in a home that is itself mixed (if not mixed up) on the religious question, creates anxieties.

Is it enough to put them to bed, as I sometimes do, with the poetry of Pablo Neruda and a biography of Charles Darwin? Or, as a friend suggested, aren't Roald Dahl and Dr Seuss essentially humanistic? What if I simply expose them to the widest range of reading possible, and introduce them to the manifold religions and philosophies in the world? Can I nourish their imaginations and sense of wonder about the Universe, and help them view religion in a comparative context?

Call me intolerant, but I'll admit it: I don't want to tell my children what to believe or not to believe, but I would be displeased and disappointed if they were to embrace literalistic or fundamentalist religious views. I would be.

But maybe I need to relax. All parents must confront the prospect that if we raise our children to be free, self-confident individuals, they may make choices that we don't like. Tough. I'd like to raise freethinkers. But what if raising my kids to be truly free in their thinking results in their becoming religious? What if my efforts to instill skepticism in them lead them to become skeptical of my humanism? So be it.

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