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?

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All’s well that ends well? Or maybe even if it doesn’t?

This week, like most, had its ups and downs. Unfortunately, I seem a little more susceptible to the downs recently. The kids are wearing me out. With Zander, it’s about trying to help him do better in school — encouraging him to slow down, get organized, write more neatly, take pride in turning in good quality work. I feel like I’m on him constantly. It’s exhausting. With Zoe, it’s a completely different dynamic. She and I seem to be engaged in an endless, complex power struggle, which is constantly manifesting in new and bizarre ways. This, too, is exhausting and leaves me with a continuously short fuse.

On Wednesday, we tried something new. After I picked up the kids from my mom’s, we went to the University library to do homework. The atmosphere seemed perfect, and I had high hopes for a pleasant and productive evening. Turns out the kids had a lot of homework that night — especially Alexander. And things were not exactly “pleasant”. After almost two hours of slogging away, we left the library, stopping for a quick hot chocolate at the coffee shop on the way out. That’s when Alexander dropped the bombshell: he still had some unfinished homework for AIG math. But not just “some homework”; he was required to create a math board game, for which he still had to make 25 cards with math problems and answers. He also had to write detailed directions for the game. It was due the next day.

Despite the fact that this was not MY homework, I immediately felt completely freaked out, along with being angry and frustrated that the assignment had been left to the last minute. We got home a little after 8 p.m., and Alexander immediately got to work. I was impressed by his determination, but there simply wasn’t enough time to get it all done — and the law of diminishing returns started kicking in as he got more tired. He went to bed with a plan to get up early the next morning and finish. The next day, he did wake up early, though not quite as early as planned. There was still a lot to do, and he was overwhelmed and frustrated with trying to write the math questions neatly on the cards. But then Zoe got up and started helping him make the cards, and things took a turn for the better. Though they didn’t get them all finished, they had a substantial number, and Zander had also fleshed out the game instructions. He had a plan for how he was going to present the assignment to his teacher.

Overall, based on past experience with how Alexander responds to school work challenges, I was surprised and encouraged with the way he had handled things. It was also great to see Zoe and Alexander work together, which had turned it into a much more positive situation.  Suddenly, instead of another 5th grade homework debacle, this felt more like an “all’s well that ends well” scenario.  With the homework dilemma solved, I was able to assess my own role and recognize how I could have toned down my reaction and not been so distraught.

But what if things hadn’t turned out well? What if, in fact, things had turned out very badly, with serious negative consequences? What if I or our family was confronted with a real crisis, not just the threat of a late homework assignment? How would we handle it?

At a recent Unitarian Universalist service, visiting minister Reverend Audette Fulbright shared this story about Thomas Edison, which was adapted from Chicken Soup for the Soul:

“On December 9, 1914, fire broke out in the West Orange district where Thomas Edison’s laboratories were. The fire destroyed most of the labs, and although the damage exceeded $2 million dollars’ worth, they were only insured for about $240,000 because they had been built of concrete and were thought to be fireproof. Edison was 67 at the time.

At the height of the fire, his son, Charles, went racing around, trying to find him. He finally found Thomas standing nearby, white hair blowing in the wind, soot and smoke surrounding him. ‘Where’s your mother?’ his father shouted at him. ‘Go find her. She’ll never see anything like this as long as she lives.’

Charles later wrote how sad he felt for his father at that moment. What must he be feeling, at age 67, watching much of his life’s work go up in flames? A disaster, surely. The next morning, the two went and surveyed the ruins. ‘There is great value in disaster,” Thomas suddenly said. ‘All our mistakes are burned up. Thank God we can start anew!'”

Reverend Albright went on to elaborate on the individual differences in how people respond to change, the unexpected, and crisis. “I consider a fire that burns almost all one’s life work to be one of those big moments of unexpected change. Some people are devastated by such events. Some people look at the flames and see an opportunity to start over. What is the key to that difference?

My suspicion is we can’t begin with the fire. We probably need to start much closer to home, somewhere in the realm of the daily, with those much smaller, much more frequent opportunities for dealing with the unexpected that visit us. We’re stuck in traffic when our meeting is beginning across town. We burn the biscuits the night we hope to impress someone with our cooking. A child drops and breaks our favorite coffee mug. How do we deal with these little things? Do we get angry, do we sulk, sigh with resignation and move on, do we laugh? It makes a difference, each time we face that choice of how to respond.”

Ah, how that hit home for me. I often think about how I want my children to be more resilient and adaptable — but I really need those characteristics for myself! In the area of my family life, more than in any other arena, I find that I do not react the way in which I would wish to change, the unexpected, the (minor) crisis.

In her service, Reverend Fulbright discussed ways to combat our negative reactions to unexpected and uncontrollable events in our lives. She remined us that we have choices about how we see and respond to change and suggested the use of humor, which “allows us to flow through difficulties instead of being broken by them.”

It was a lovely sermon, and I left feeling refreshed and excited by the ideas she had described. I’m not a particularly spiritual person — and I’m definitely not a religious person. But there are those moments of transcendence — glimpses into another world that are inexplicably uplifting and inspiring. Mostly, for me, they happen outside in nature, sometimes during truly good times with friends (or with my children!), and very occasionally even in a church. At earlier times in my life, it seemed those moments were enough — enough to buoy me through the mundane and the trying. But I’m realizing (ten years in) that successful and happy parenting requires more than just moments of transcendence; it requires a true sea change in one’s attitude about life. It requires becoming Thomas Edison! And that, my dear friends, is something I’m still working on.