Thinking about religion while bailing out the hot tub or “Why can’t I just shut up and stop talking about this stuff?”

Not long ago, on a balmy day in mid-August, I was bailing out the remaining 3 to 4 inches of water from the drained hot tub so that we could clean it.  (For some reason, all instructions say that your hot tub must be completely empty and dry before it’s cleaned.  Why???)  While engaged in this tedious and mildly back-breaking job, my mind turned, unbidden, to religion.  Again.  It seems to be a recurring theme for me in the past few weeks.  Convoluted dialogues, discarded arguments, yearnings for understanding swirled around in my head as I toiled in the late afternoon sun, outwardly peaceful, but, inside, trying to figure out why I continued to feel so uneasy about politics, religion, and the dreaded “culture wars”.

First, a little about me.  As an atheist raised by atheists (think “Elf”), I guess I came by my beliefs (or non-beliefs, as the case might be) honestly.  Neither of my parents are believers, and I’m pretty sure that goes back several generations on my dad’s side of the family.  Actually, my paternal great-grandmother (who lived a long life, and who I was lucky to know into my teen years) was a Unitarian, which doesn’t necessarily mean she didn’t believe in God, but does imply a certain “liberal” religious tradition.  More about the Unitarian Church later.

As a kid, the religion thing was a little tricky.  Growing up in rural Wisconsin, most of my friends and classmates were regular church-goers.  I distinctly remember, as a new student on the first day of school in First Grade, being asked by another child, “What church do you go to?”  I ran home to my mom that afternoon, desperately hoping for a good answer that would satisfy my schoolmates.  Alas, none was forthcoming.  And so, I muddled along.  From time-to-time, I would visit the churches of my friends.  I remember a period in high school when I attended the Lutheran Church for awhile and even went to a few meetings of the church youth group.  I didn’t feel confused, or as though I was “searching”, but I did want to fit in and to do the things my friends were doing.  Ultimately, however, this did not feel meaningful or genuine.

For a long time, religion (or lack of it) didn’t really matter to my relationships.  Through college, law school, and the years after law school, it was not a pressing issue in my personal life.

But now I have kids of my own.  Now they are the ones being asked by classmates about their religious beliefs.  And, occasionally, they are being told that they are “weird” if they don’t believe in God, or that they “have to believe” something because “the Bible says so”, or even that they will go to hell if they don’t believe in God.  Yikes!  All of this has pretty much rolled off my son, but my daughter has taken it somewhat more personally.  And, frankly, it has freaked me out a little.

A few months ago, a friend told me about a study showing that atheists were the least trusted group of people in society.  What?!  Why?!  And, says who???  It just sounded so random and bizarre, I didn’t give it much thought and filed it away in the category of slightly disturbing, not-necessarily-reliable, quasi-factoids.  It was only yesterday, as I prepared to write this post, that I felt compelled to look up “the study”.  Sure enough, there is a recent study, conducted in British Columbia, finding that people consider atheists untrustworthy.  In the University of BC study, participants were told a story about a man who hit another person’s parked car and then left the scene without providing his insurance information.  The participants were given a handful of close-ended choices regarding this person’s identity, including that he was an atheist.  A significant majority of participants decided that the unethical individual was an atheist.

Wow.  I thought about my eight years of practicing law in rural North Carolina.  Most of my low-income clients were deeply religious Christians.  As we tackled their cases, they shared the most intimate details of their lives with me.  We worked, and worried, and sometimes cried together as I tried to help them win custody of their children from abusive spouses, or save their homes from being foreclosed on, or protect cars needed to get to work or doctor’s appointments from repossession.  Would my clients have felt the same way about me if they knew I was an atheist?  Would they still have wanted me to be their lawyer?  It made me feel as though everything good I’d tried to do in my life counted for nothing because I didn’t believe in God.

But then I read a little further in the article, which summarized follow-up studies and other related findings.  The basic conclusion the researchers drew was that people believed that others were more likely to behave ethically if they thought that they were being watched or monitored by someone with authority.  In one follow-up study, the researchers minimized the distrust of atheists by priming the participants with information about law enforcement before telling them the story about the hit-and-run driver. The finding:  ” From a psychological standpoint, God and secular authority figures may be somewhat interchangeable. The existence of either helps us feel more trusting of others.”

Links can be drawn to the differences in secularism across cultures.  “In many Scandinavian countries, including Norway and Sweden, the number of people who report believing in God has reached an all-time low. This may have something to do with the way these countries have established governments that guarantee a high level of social security for all of their citizens.”  Another related study conducted in Canada found that political insecurity may impact how likely people are to believe in God.  Participants were given “two versions of a fictitious news story: one describing Canada’s current political situation as stable, the other describing it as potentially unstable. After reading one of the two articles, people’s beliefs in God were measured. People who read the article describing the government as potentially unstable were more likely to agree that God, or some other type of nonhuman entity, is in control of the universe. A common belief in the divine may help people feel more secure.”

My point here is not to debunk Christianity — or any belief system — but to try to make sense of the current intensity of the “culture wars”, which I felt compelled to touch upon in my last blog post.  Have we not felt insecure, as a nation, since September 11, 2001?  Has the lengthy, far-reaching recession not left us rife with anxiety, as individuals and as a society?

As I try to quiet my worry about my children being confronted with these issues, I do my best to remember one of the basic lessons of parenthood:  Your children are more resilient than you think.  They can handle it.  They will find their way.  And I do believe this.  But in our current social-poltical climate, the vitriol seems so potent, I’ll admit, it scares me a little.

This past weekend, the kids and I attended the Unitarian Church.  We’ve been members there since the kids were three years old, though we are not the most regular attendees.  I’ve written about the Unitarian Church before.  For me, it can be a place of inspiration, a soothing balm, a positive community.  For my children, I hope the Unitarian Fellowship will be a good spring board for their own spiritual journeys.   Its philosophies neither demand, nor condemn, belief in a deity.  Its services and Sunday school curriculum include education in world religions (including Christianity), sampling rituals from different cultures and traditions, and teaching respect for the beliefs of others as a paramount value.

I hope this community will provide another secure place, along with our home, for my children to learn, explore, question, and formulate their own beliefs about the nature of the Universe.  I don’t really expect them to have that all figured out at age 11, and I hope they can move forward on their journey with a sense of openness and acceptance (within themselves and from others).  In the meantime, I need to take a deep breath, relax, and trust in the goodness of the human spirit to carry me, my kids, and all of us through the culture wars.

Have other people dealt with these issues?  What do you tell your children?  What do you you wish you could tell them?