Many times we’ve braced ourselves for lectures about the importance of baptism, regular church attendance, and other religious traditions that have deep importance in the lives of certain family members and friends. So far those lectures haven’t come. We’ve only received a couple nudges, in the form of a religious greeting card or a Christian baby book here and there. We feel like we’ve gotten off pretty easy so far.
We are not religious people. We are not spiritual people. We both have our reasons for avoiding religion and remaining focused on more worldly pursuits. I won’t speak for Lauren, but here’s a little background on my own interaction with religion.
I was baptized in the Catholic church, I’m guessing mostly to satisfy my paternal grandparents. My parents chose to attend my mother’s rather liberal northern Baptist church, the pastor of which would end up being one of the most influential figures in my upbringing besides my parents. Charlie was unconventional. He was preoccupied with providing the youth of the church community with healthy outlets for their creativity and sense of adventure. Our church’s youth group was probably the least religiously oriented church youth group on the planet. We went on camping trips, we went skiing, we went hiking, we hung out and socialized. We had a safe space to be ourselves, and it was something we all needed and benefited from greatly.
Eventually Charlie’s kids developed an interest in music. One quickly mastered the guitar and the other took on the drums. Meanwhile, I quit high school band in favor of guitar lessons. Several other friends played instruments and soon a bunch of bands were formed. Charlie got it in his head to buy a PA and hold rock shows in the church basement. I helped him book local bands, and within a year a safe and positive local scene had developed around the shows.
Thanks to Charlie, I gained experience not only as a musician and songwriter but also as a show organizer. I applied these basic skills to everything I did in my 20s — booking shows for Delphine, an indie rock band I toured with in 2003; organizing the Cheap Rent house party series; and later, booking national tours for my wizard rock band. Also thanks to Charlie, my approach to all my musical endeavors has been community-driven, collaborative, non-competitive, and based on the notion that all creative expression is important, even (especially!) if it’s coming from beginners who are just developing their chops.
Besides his profound influence on my musical endeavors, Charlie also encouraged me toward progressive values that, for him, are rooted in Christianity. Charlie preached against war and for peace and diplomacy. He taught us about economic inequality and he spoke to the importance of political advocacy, while most church communities focus merely on charity and service. His sermons were universalist in spirit, and so were my Sunday school teachers, who taught me that all religions are different cultural interpretations of the same holy presence. To some in the church community, Charlie was a heretic and a troublemaker. To me, he was an embodiment of the lessons Jesus taught. He placed an emphasis on Christian values, while most other religious institutions placed an emphasis on human-created dogma.
I remember believing in the immaculate conception, the birth story, and the resurrection as a child, but I didn’t start thinking about that stuff critically until my early teens. As soon as I had the capacity to think about those stories critically, I began to view them as mythology more than events that actually took place. I zoomed out from the details and objectively considered the big picture of Christianity. I saw it as one religion and one mythology among many, all of which were meant to provide context and motivation for an ethical lifestyle.
For me, the takeaways were the central morals of Christ’s teachings: turn the other cheek, treat others as you wish to be treated, love your enemy, love your neighbor, be a good citizen of your local and global community. If I’m living out those morals in my day to day existence, then what does it matter if I’m not attending church, participating in rituals, or believing in a variety of metaphorical parables?
I hesitate to call myself an atheist, specifically because I think true atheism requires about as much faith as theism. It’s as bold a statement to say that there is no higher presence as it is to say that there is. At times I’ve identified as agnostic, but even that has a connotation that doesn’t quite feel right to me. By my own definition, I am a Christian, in the sense that I have abided by the central tenets of Christ’s teachings in my interactions with people and the world, but the average dogmatic Christian probably wouldn’t appreciate my take on that term.
Recently I’ve become fond of Let the Mystery Be by Iris Dement, the lyrics of which sum up my feelings about the meaning of life pretty well:
Everybody’s wonderin’ what and where
They all came from
Everybody’s worryin’ ’bout where they’re gonna go
When the whole thing’s done
But no one knows for certain and so it’s all the same to me
I think I’ll just let the mystery be
Some say once gone you’re gone forever
And some say you’re gonna come back
Some say you rest in the arms of the Savior
If in sinful ways you lack
Some say that they’re comin’ back in a garden
Bunch of carrots and little sweet peas
I think I’ll just let the mystery be
Some say they’re goin’ to a place called Glory
And I ain’t saying it ain’t a fact
But I’ve heard that I’m on the road to Purgatory
And I don’t like the sound of that
I believe in love and I live my life accordingly
But I choose to let the mystery be
Of course, there are times when I’m bowled over by a hyper-awareness of the majesty of creation, and in those moments I can’t help but think about what the heck we’re all doing here. But I always end up circling back to the same reality: I don’t know anything for sure, and my only real, universal belief is that we should be good to each other and good to ourselves while we’re here.
That’s something I think we can instill in Rory without organized religion. I’ve found once you’ve committed to that basic value, the rest really sorts itself out. Ultimately, if we were to baptize Rory and commit to a specific church and associated dogma, we’d be engaging in a very complicated lie, one that would undermine one of the most basic principles of Christianity. That seems pretty silly to me. If Rory grows up and finds religious conviction on his own terms, it’ll be that much more meaningful, and I certainly won’t stop him.