By: Shannon Ralph
My 12-year-old son is a self-described atheist…and I am totally okay with it.
This may not seem like the typical American parental reaction. Especially for someone raised smack dab in the heart of the Bible Belt. Honestly, I’m not sure that it would have been my reaction a decade ago, but parenting changes a person. Often in ways both unexpected and illuminating.
I was raised Catholic in a huge family in small-town Kentucky. I went to 12 years of Catholic school, adorned a miniature wedding dress for my First Communion, and played the organ at mass every weekend throughout high school. I was taught in school that people who did not believe in God—actually, everyone who was not baptized Catholic—were headed straight to hell. Do not pass Go! Do not collect $200! I never stepped foot in a non-Catholic church until I was an adult. I never knew a single person who was not Catholic until I went to college. I was not a child who questioned authority. I believed what I was taught, and took the word of my church as the word of God. In short, I was a good little Catholic girl, complete with knee socks and pleated skirt.
Then I graduated high school, went away to a liberal arts college, came out as a lesbian, left the South, married a woman, became a raging liberal, and haven’t stepped foot in a Catholic church since, with the exception of the occasional wedding or funeral. You know…your garden variety, typical lapsed Catholic.
Do I still believe in God?
Yes, I do. I’m not sure that I believe in the white-haired God of the bible who enjoys testing humans and often finds them lacking. I know that I do not believe in the God of the Catholic Church who holds men in higher esteem than women, thinks homosexuality is an abhorrence, and refuses to honor human sexuality (particularly female sexuality) as the amazing gift that it is. I don’t believe in a God who shames people into submission. I believe in a God who is light and love. Patience and peace. I believe in a God who calls all people to care for one another. Who wants nothing more than for us to treat one another with the dignity and affection God feels for us all. So, yes, I believe in God.
My 12-year-old son Lucas, on the other hand, does not.
Lucas recently told my wife and me that he is pretty much absolutely positive he is an atheist. We were not surprised by this news. We’ve never been regular church-goers. We don’t really subscribe to any particular religious tradition—as is to be expected when a lapsed Catholic marries an erstwhile Southern Baptist. We talk about God occasionally, but it is not a part of our daily dialogue. We are a family of nerds who put great stock in science. My son is the king of the nerds. He believes science can and eventually will answer all questions that humanity might pose to the universe at large. He has great faith, only his faith is not in an all-knowing God.
My initial thoughts when Lucas told me he was an atheist were, How very sad that he does not have God. Who will he talk to when he is all alone in bed at night and can’t sleep? Who will he turn to when he is scared? Or angry? Or heartbroken? Where will he find peace when his life is anything but peaceful? My reaction was one of loss. One of inadequacy. I failed him as a parent.
But then I looked at my son. I mean really looked at him. My son is sweet and kind and generous. Lucas does not have a cruel bone in his body. He would never dream of hurting another person intentionally. He possesses an innate capacity for compassion that amazes me on an almost daily basis. He loves to debate politics and history, and he displays a profound understanding of the ways in which people can hurt one another. He seems to grasp the difference between right and wrong intuitively.
Lucas believes that humanity has the capacity for incredible goodness without the necessity for an almighty God. He believes in his heart that people should treat one another with kindness not because it is the godly thing to do, but because it is the human thing to do.
What a concept! What a vibrant, rich, optimistically beautiful outlook on life. My son is good not because he is scared of going to hell like I was as a child, but because it is the right thing to do. It is the only way to be in his mind.
There has been an abundance of cruel and hateful acts perpetrated in our world—and in our own country—in the name of God. But there have also been numerous anonymous acts of kindness and generosity from people who give no thought to eternal reward. Though I believe in God, I am not of the belief that a knowledge of God automatically equals goodness, or that an ignorance of God or disbelief in God automatically equals evil. A belief in God does not exempt us from basic human decency. Nor is a belief in God the be-all and end-all of morality. I judge people by their character and their actions, not by the fortitude (or volume) of their publicly professed relationship with God.
I realize that Lucas is 12 years old. He may very well find God one day. He is young—he has his entire life to explore his spirituality. Like all of us, regardless of our backgrounds, Lucas will come to find his own belief system. It may look like mine. It may not. If he is an atheist in the end, I honestly will not give a flying fig. We need fewer bible-thumping bigots in this world and more intrinsically kind people. If my son grows up to fall into the latter category, I will feel that I have truly succeeded as a parent—God or no God.