Thursday, November 11, 2010

Temples of the Gods

On Halloween night, Meg and I went to Evensong at Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford, England. We sat on hard-burnished benches in the soft glow of candlelight and listened to the choir’s harmonies resonate within walls that had been raised up stone by stone in 1,250. (And I used to think the little stone chapel in the Maryland countryside where we used to live was old.)

Since the days when in god’s name we tossed virgins into volcanoes and, my personal favorite, danced naked under the full moon, we have built temples to our gods. And we have taken our children there to show them the majesty and power and to teach them what our gods demand of us.

What is a boy to think when he is led by the hand into a soaring cathedral and told that this is the house of god? (“That must be one big dude. Better not cross him.”) A child believes what his parents tell him. Some god or evolutionary imperative has seen to that.

This is the way we pass along our religious beliefs. It’s no more complicated than that. Some children are encouraged to study their religion (think bar mitzvah), others are taken to church only on high holy days, but the vast majority of us here in the United States grow up believing in god, and we pass along our belief to our children.

My grandfather was a preacher’s son, a man of quiet and steady faith himself, a deacon in the church. Sitting there in Christ Church Cathedral that night, listening to the prayers of his faith, closing my eyes and feeling as much as hearing the choral music that so often comforted him, was like being with him again.

That evening got me thinking about the choices we make as parents when it comes to religion. Would I have wandered into that cathedral if I had been raised differently? Will my own children, who were offered, shall we say, more casual exposure to religious services, seek out the organ and choir for the solace they still give me even though I have drifted far from faith?

In the South, where I grew up, faith, or at least the observance of its rituals, was the norm. In a community with a church on practically every corner, it didn’t seem safe not to have faith. And to the extent I thought much about it, there wasn’t any compelling reason to challenge the widespread belief in and worship of god. Even after I began to have doubts about some of Christianity’s more mystical beliefs---I can’t tell you how terrifying the concept of virgin birth was to a teenaged boy---it was easier to just not think about it very much.

Similarly, when at age twenty-five I already had three children, I couldn’t see much reason to stray from tradition when it came to exposing them to religion. However weak one’s faith, what parent wants to take a chance with his child’s immortal soul? But it was more than that, really, that led to those occasional Sunday morning struggles with tiny ties and stubborn cowlicks. Somehow in those days of my young adulthood it felt like I would have been abusing my children had I not taken them to church, like I would have been creating little heathens, culturally if not theologically. Who wants that for their child?

Even after I had slipped into spending Sunday mornings making brunch rather than marshaling the troops for Sunday school, long after my own faith had devolved into doubt, I read the children the story of the Nativity on Christmas. It’s hard to explain why I did that, since I no longer believed it myself. I loved the imagery, though, the angel of the lord appearing before shepherds tending their flocks, a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger, and I suppose I thought my kids should know the story that so many still did believe so fervently.

Perhaps I felt that reading those lyrical verses from Luke was a way to offer my children a look at our cultural roots, in much the same way that playing recordings of Martin Luther King’s speeches on the anniversary of his “I Have a Dream” speech gave us a chance to talk about the legacy of slavery. The lessons were connected, too, in this way: Dr. King used the language of the Bible to preach his message with such beauty and eloquence that he gave one faith in religion---not so much faith in god as faith in the good that can be done in god’s name.

Daily now, though, we are also reminded of the harm that can be done in the name of god. Unholy acts of oppression and terrorism are not new; since there have been gods, there have been atrocities in their names. I would like to think we are moving away from atavistic religious violence (not tossing virgins into volcanoes anymore), but a stoning for adultery or a bullet in the head for performing abortions doesn’t feel like progress, never mind flying airplanes into buildings.

So much of the political debate lately has become tangled up in religion that it has caused me to think that my complacent acceptance of it, acquiescence that is rather like the way I inhabit the same space with roads and factories and fossil fuels, seeing their benefits, tolerating their attendant pollution, is irresponsible, especially when it comes to the education of our children.

Religion is a tricky subject to take up around the dinner table. No one wants to tromp on someone else’s faith. Spouses don’t always agree, and sometimes it seems safer to just keep quiet. Often we let others talk about it for us.

Which brings me to this question: what should we teach our children about religion?

If you are a strong believer, the answer is simple: you teach them what you believe. But should that be the end of it? What about what others believe? Should we let our children, who tend to see the world in absolutes, infer that people of other faiths are idiots, or worse?

And what about the more extreme and exclusionary views (sexist, anti-gay) of our own faiths? Should what is said from the pulpit never be questioned? Are we failing our children, and society as a whole, if we send them out into the world unprepared to participate in the debate on that question?

When I was a lawyer, I negotiated business deals. The most important thing to know to reach a good business agreement is what the other side wants---not just what they say they want, but the basic need driving their specific demand. If you can get behind what is being asked for and focus on what is really needed, frequently you can find a way to make everybody happy, or at least happy enough to agree to something mutually beneficial.

Faith isn’t like that, you say; it’s not something you can compromise. You’re right, of course. But often there is common ground to be found. And even where there is not, we can agree to disagree on certain points without demonizing one another.

Take abortion, for example. For those who believe that human life begins at conception and that terminating a pregnancy amounts to murder, it is hard to justify abortion. But there are so many issues in the reproductive penumbra---birth control, AIDS prevention, how men should treat women---that it makes no sense for us to go to our respective corners and come out fighting rather than sitting down at the table and working out programs to reduce teen pregnancy, AIDS and rape.

Progress upends the status quo. Most of us have a stake in the way things are, so it is in our nature to resist change. Progress, in the form of living together more harmoniously, comes slowly, through hard-won consensus gained only after prolonged exposure to one another opens the door to understanding. In a recent speech addressing the plan for a Muslim center near Ground Zero in New York City, retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens said, “Ignorance---that is to say, fear of the unknown---is the source of most invidious prejudice.”

A year or so ago, my youngest son, who is a freshman in college now, bought a copy of the Bible and read most of it. Recently, he picked up a copy of the Hindu scripture Bhagavad-Gita from a monk who was handing them out on campus. My son is trying to make some sense of it all. Trying to understand what others think and why. Searching for common ground.

I’m proud of him for doing this. I’m proud of all my children for their open-mindedness about religion, whatever their own views. I just wish I had better understood, while they were growing up, that it should be my job to teach them not just to be tolerant, not just to elevate science to its proper place in the dialogue, but to understand the humanity that lives and breathes in all the world’s major faiths, in teachings which after centuries still govern the thoughts and actions of so many.


  1. A wonderful piece. I am always looking for the common ground. And I love that cathedral in Oxford-- more an example of the wonders of man than the wonders of God (at least for me).


  2. Mac,
    If I start drinking again, it's probably going to be your fault!
    Keep it up!

  3. Such a moving and beautiful piece, Mac. Thank you. I agree 100% that the more we as parents can show genuine respect for and engagement with different religions, the better our children's lives and the world will be.

    A charismatic and highly intelligent Lady Abbess (of the Abbey of Regina Laudis, in Connecticut) once said to me, after I'd expressed doubts (well, more than doubts --- my particular, safe blend of agnosticism and atheism), "Some of the most spiritual people in the world are atheists." I so agree -- because, so often, people who think they're all for one religion (and "against" others) aren't thinking in a larger way, aren't asking the ardent questions that, I think, are at the heart of any vital spiritual life.

  4. Thanks, Harriet. Here's a link to an interesting Newsweek piece on Sam Harris, who might be called a spiritual atheist:

  5. Mac,
    You have put a lot of my own feelings into words so much better than I could express them. I too struggled with the religious teaching of my three children. I am proud to say that all three have grown up to be thoughtful and respectful of others views & have found their own spirituality. Thanks for another moving piece.