Finding Your Way Without a Star

canstockphoto0108300We are a secular family, so every December, we wend our way through a minefield of holiday traditions. When you’re an adult, you have settled on a belief system that hopefully gets challenged and re-evaluated on a regular basis. One of the things that forces you to look things over again is having a child.

This is a particularly difficult subject to even write about, because I know it can be emotionally charged for many people. Please don’t try to convert me. I don’t operate that way and you shouldn’t tire yourself out.

My husband and I had our biannual heated discussion about religion yesterday. He was raised in a Lutheran Church with a sense of community and belonging. His experiences with God and organized religion were so inherently positive, that he doesn’t understand my disinterest and occasional hostility.

I was raised and baptized into the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. I attended church regularly until I was 13. There are evangelical and orthodox churches that are much more intense. The SDA rates about an 8, between churches you only attend on holidays and churches at which you make animal sacrifices. People are fierce about their beliefs and this is the point at which I depart. I don’t know the answers and I’m really comfortable with that. I don’t know if there is any god or twenty.

People of faith talk of being touched by the hand of God, but I’ve never felt that touch in organized religion. There are things in the world that make me feel that way – when I am outside, in nature, when I watch my husband and daughter play together or when I read or see astounding literature or art or music (the first note of a live music performance is rapturous).

As a child, I believed everything that I was taught at church, so hellfire and damnation were just around the corner waiting for me for the mildest infractions. We were once read a story in Bible study class to illustrate that the Sabbath is a holy day. A little girl went rollerskating on the Sabbath and she broke her leg. What kind of God does that? The church had movie night on Sundays. I saw the apocalyptic movie “A Thief in the Night”. For months after that, I expected to wake one morning to find my family gone and “666” burned on my forehead. I was 10 years old, two years older than my daughter is now.

I have a hard time with organized religion and man made ideas of God for a few reasons:

Chauvinism. This is where my husband and I part ways on a very intrinsic level. It’s taken me years to come into my own as a woman and to recognize that no one has the right to belittle or abuse me. I have a knee-jerk reaction about men telling me what to do. Most major religions have chauvinism built right into the system, from using texts that treat women as property, whores or virgins, to blocking them from being church leaders.

Born Sinners. Some religions purport the idea that children are born inherently flawed and in need of redemption. I find this disturbing, especially now that I’m a parent. I could never look into a baby’s eyes and see evil – although all that crying, spitting up and pooping reminds me of “The Exorcist”.

Hypocrisy. I’ve simply met too many people who have declared themselves, imposed themselves and announced themselves to be of a particular faith when they are the people I would least put my faith in. I feel the same way when people say “I’ll be honest with you” right before they lie or “I don’t want to hurt your feelings” right before they insult you.

Exclusivity. For many religions, proselytizing and spreading the word are a requirement. The inherent nature of telling people how wonderful your beliefs are, is that you are saying that you know the answer and anybody else is, well, not a member of the club.

Exceptionalism. I realize I’m being petty, but every time there is a disaster and people die, there are always people who say this to the news camera: “God was looking out for me.” In their relief that they survived, they express gratitude that God skipped everyone else to save just them. It defies logic.

I had a great exchange with S. Smith, the author of Seed Savers this week. It was regarding the knee-jerk reaction people have to religious references – a reaction of which I’m definitely guilty. My daughter just finished the first book in Ms. Smith’s series, called “Treasure”. The book was wonderful and the biblical references fitting, but I had to look beyond my own prejudices to see that. Wisdom can come from a variety of sources and I believe, for many people, organized religion and spiritual text serves a positive purpose.

I spent about five years of my adult life “church shopping”, trying to find a place where I felt comfortable, where I could find a spiritual home. It was me, not the churches. Much like the old Groucho Marx quote “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept people like me as a member.” The bottom line is that I’m an introvert. Clubs, meetings, congregations, parties, riots – these cause me anxiety and do not keep me grounded in humbling and spiritual thoughts. Religious beliefs are personal, but so is one’s experience with organized religion.

How will this translate for my daughter? She knows a little about a lot of religions. We read and talk about religious and philosophical texts in our home. When she is curious enough, we will take her to a range of church services. She must know her choices to make choices, so my daughter will be raised with a weird hybrid of religion and nature and art. But she was born good and we’ll do our best to help her remain on that path.

29 Comments on “Finding Your Way Without a Star

  1. I share Shane Claiborne’s philosophy that “Most good things have been said far too many times and just need to be lived.” Actions speak louder than beliefs. Be well.

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    • Thanks! I took to heart the phrase “Lead by example”. I didn’t learn that in church – I learned that in the Army. All sources are fair game for wisdom!

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  2. Beautifully written post. I have to say that, although I am a devout Christian, I have problems with most organized religion for many of the same reasons you list. I wish you the best as you journey, and lead your daughter on this journey of life.

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    • Thanks for the good wishes! I’ll be the first to admit to my prejudices and this is what I learn from parenting – you can’t hold onto those prejudices and be a good teacher for your child.

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    • Thank you – I just didn’t want to get into a standoff over this post with an absolutist. It’s hard to have an open dialogue that way.

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  3. Michelle, I too am thoroughly agnostic in the true Greek sense of the word – “not knowing” – and that is where I will stay. I have a lot of the same issues with organized religion that you do. In the end, I think all religions become politicized and men use their religious institutions as positions of power.

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    • I am most comfortable with admitting that I don’t know the answers to “Life, the Universe and Everything”, but I am attempting to cultivate personal openness and respect for what other people believe. It’s a challenge though, due to my personal experiences and need for pragmatism.
      The public face of any group of people is always represented by the worst examples: cheating politicians drop God into every speech, suicide bombers who kill under the auspice of religion and the lady that slaps a fish on the back of her car, but is a vicious gossip. Churches do an immense amount of charity work for their communities, but little attention is paid to that.
      As in any large organization, in the words of Lord Acton (writing to a bishop in 1887), “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” This has historically been an issue with organized religion and we see it still today.

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  4. Great post.

    I struggle with this, too. At first, I planned to just be honest with my kids. I try to be agnostic, but at heart, I’m really an atheist. When my oldest was two, I decided that I was going to lie about this. I tell him that there is a god and that I know it to be true in my own heart, and that the only path toward the truth is inside himself.

    My thinking: Don’t care about organized religion at all. But, I never want my children to feel isolated from others due to a lack of faith, or even ashamed of their own spirituality. If they can manage to keep faith inside themselves, I’m really happy for them.

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    • It is a struggle to come to terms with one’s actual beliefs and what you want your child to believe, because sometimes there is a very big gap. I am honest with my daughter, but my husband talks to her about his beliefs as well. He and I share the same values, but not the same theological beliefs. We also talk a lot about literal versus metaphorical meaning.
      I feel in my heart that we are giving her the tools to critically think about and, at some point, make the choices that work for her. I worry about lack of community, but not lack of shared belief. We live in world of hundreds of religions, so the world she moves in will be made up of a plethora of beliefs. If she can be comfortable and open there, she will never lack for community.
      It’s hard sometimes to not follow a well-trodden path, so I understand your concerns!

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  5. I draw a huge line between the idea of a spiritual connection (which can indeed be found in nature) and organized religion. To me, “worldly church” is a bit of an oxymoron. There is even, I think, a difference between (the idea of) religion and the organizations that represent it. Church organizations are run by humans with all that that entails. Ones connection to the greater reality is, as you say, personal.

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    • I’ve heard people mocked when they said, “I’m spiritual, not religious”. It occurs to me that we are all inherently spiritual to some degree. I talk about religious organization, but the root of it is religious doctrine, the basis upon which the religion is practiced. I don’t necessarily believe that they should be viewed separately. So often people will say that they don’t ascribe to all the beliefs a religion is based on. Then I don’t understand the point of calling yourself this or that – it’s a buffet religion, then, with people picking only the bits they like. Although I might attend a church that called themselves the Buffet Church. That just sounds good.

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      • I like what Gandhi said: “There are as many religions as there are people.” Our connection the greater {whatever} exists whether we acknowledge it, believe in it, or not. (Assuming the greater {whatever} does exist at all.) It’s like that old saying about, ‘You might not believe in god, but god believes in you.’ We’re all a part of whatever does exist regardless of our beliefs.

        Good point about organization and doctrine. I think we might add another category: message. I’m not big on doctrine or dogma (let alone organizations), but I am interested in message. Regardless of the behavior of Christian church organizations (and there is both good and bad there), Christ’s Sermon on the Mount is a pretty amazing moral message.

        And when I look at pretty much any religion in terms of message, the quintessential one seems to be: “How you live your life matters for reasons bigger than you.” And there is the idea of good and evil. To me it’s this quintessential point where religion meets spirituality. The fundamental idea that how you live your life matters.

        As I understand it, the Unitarians might appeal to you as a Buffet Church. (Appeals to me even more: a Buffett Church! As in Jimmy.)

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        • I definitely believe in a connection with the people and world around me and it does give a sense of purpose. Great comment!

          My vision of a (Jimmy) Buffet Church are a wild clash of Hawaiian shirts, a lot of booze and lots of amateur guitar playing. That made me think of a (Warren) Buffet Church, which at this point in his life, might come closer to what a church should be like – “Tax me, tax me!”. The nonprofit status rankled a bit when the election season brought some religious political agendas out in the open.

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        • I am a UU (Unitarian Universalist) and my first thought was – you sound just like a lot of UU’s I know! Also, your line about “I don’t know if there is any god or twenty” reminds me of a quote by Thomas Jefferson:
          “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” In other words, what I believe shouldn’t matter to others and what they believe shouldn’t matter to me.
          Your reasons for not wanting to be a part of organized religion are similar to mine – and what ultimately led me to the UU church. I have blogged a lot about my spiritual journey – I invite you to check out the UU section of my blog.

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        • Thanks for weighing in. We have thought about going to the UU, but the introvert in me would rather go for a walk in the woods. I will check out your blog, once this FP stuff settles down a bit! Have a great day!

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        • There was, and maybe still is, a Sunday comic I liked, Rick O’Shay (if I recall the name correctly). It was set in the old west; the title character was the town sheriff. My favorite character was Hipshot, a former gunslinger with a heart of gold (totally a family comic). My all-time favorite was one that featured Rick and Hipshot riding their horses past the church (obviously on a Sunday) and out of town. In the penultimate panel, Rick asks Hipshot why he never goes to church.

          This is one of those where the artist used most of their allotted Sunday comics space for one panel and used only a couple normal-sized ones instead of the usual many. That last panel is the big one. It’s a big gorgeous drawing of an uninhabited valley, waterfall in the distance, trees as far as the eye can see, wildlife in the distance.

          Hipshot has turned to Rick, and he says, “This IS my church.”

          Oh, my, yes indeed!

          As for picking a church without agreeing with all the dogma, it’s probably like picking a politician. You look for the “least worst,” or–ideally–one is the most compatible.

          The thing about the Jefferson quote… I agree in principle, but there are those religions whose dogma is, “convert them all or kill them all; whichever works.” When it gets into that “my-way, die-way” thinking, that’s when religion gets really ugly.

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  6. Personally I think it’s a sign of great strength to be able to look deeply at organised religion and realise it’s not for you. I think all religions have truth in them but I think it’s important to look within and see what reasonates with you because at the end of the day religions have limitations the same as human beings.

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    • I find the challenge is to be honest about why something doesn’t work for me. It’s not always a great theological divide – it’s often a matter of personality, experience, sensibilities, even prejudice. If I don’t know why organized religion appeals to me or turns me off, I’d be hard-pressed to understand what it is that I need to do to create a spiritual life.

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  7. The hubby and I have had this SAME discussion for years, usually biannually or so as well. As a scientist, I put a lot of stock in facts and evidence. I actually don’t need proof of existence of God, rather I want to see that various denominations “do what they say” or follow in what they supposedly believe. This is where most churches fail the litmus test for me, both historically and locally. Also, most of the churches we’ve tried are full of hypocrites and judgmental people. It’s all about what you can offer the church, how much work you can do for the church – not about learning or following any kind of scripture or biblical life.

    Also (and this is weird, I know), I HATE singing in church. Hate it. I do not feel lifted up in any way when I sing hymns or when I hear a rock version of “Jesus Loves the Little Children.” And I have yet to find a church that doesn’t have singing in some form or fashion.

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    • I laughed when I read this, because I love the traditional hymns, although there is an awful lot of blood and guts involved. There is something powerful about a union of voices, regardless of content. On the other hand, I will kill over an annoying ringtone. As your funny post “Proof the World is Filled with Freaks” points out, to each his or her own freakiness!

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  8. I think you summed it up best when referring to the fact that religion and organized religion are personal choices — the fact you are open to helping expose your child to a variety of choices to help her on her faith journey (whether that journey be long or short!) is admirable, given your feelings about it. We are all molded by our upbringing and life experiences, and I also found that having a child makes us reexamine the whole role of faith and religion in our lives. I am very comfortable with the church “home” we chose . . . a place where one can ask those hard questions, there is room for interpretation, and everyone is welcome . . . . everyone. And, if there’s a Sunday or two that our church service is spending time at the cabin, or taking a run with the dog, no one gives us a cross look when we wander back again. One’s spirit is fed from many sources! 🙂 ~ Kat

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    • Thanks for commenting – I remember the pastor (a woman) at the church where I got married joking that the 3 times they saw people were at weddings, when they had kids and funerals. Human nature being what it is, we seem to wait for the big moments to make outward shows of faith, but there’s a lot of time in between – your last sentence is something I definitely embrace!

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  9. In so many of the thoughts you expressed, we are of the same mind.

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  10. I grew up in a family with no interest in church or religion but was sent at 8 to boarding school where our uniform (including a tie) had a tie-pin with an open bible on it. Oy. We had to listen to missionaries regale us with their Good Deeds and memorize (!!!) Bible verses to get extra privileges, so I can bang out John 3:16 at the drop of a hat…BUT having said that (and loathing religion for years, like you, due to early indoctrination) I chose to be baptized in the Anglican/Episcopal church and, in my early 40s, began attending church at a small Episcopal parish near me.

    One of the many things I value about finding and staying with a faith community — and my husband is a devout Tibetan Buddhist — is confronting our “otherness” and sameness there. Many churches are full of introverts like you! I have favorite hymns (All Things Bright and Beautiful) I love to belt out at the top of my lungs. I do love the liturgy. I do value a place and time and community that is NOT focused so wearyingly on status and power, getting and spending.

    It made our marriage, my second, much more meaningful to me in a church with a pastor I respected and admired. We were not simply mouthing words — and at the pastor’s (!) insistence, we included Buddhist elements in our ceremony as well.

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    • I memorized a lot of Bible verses and sang in a lot of church programs (not solo, or else I would have been tossed out). There is a lot to be found in those communities, but I just haven’t found a place and I’m not sure I will. Maybe in the course of helping my daughter, something will resonate. Your wedding ceremony sounds lovely and I am definitely drawn to Buddhist teachings, but again, unable to commit to a path and that actually might be where I belong. Thanks for sharing your experiences – it’s so amazing the many ways we each find what we need.

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  11. Once again, I feel like I’m looking in the mirror. I don’t have kids but I’ve gone down a very similar path being raised Catholic. I bought the whole package without question till my second marriage when I wanted to find a church closer to our house. I didn’t find a church but was forced to accept the true state of religious affairs, whether Catholic or otherwise. It has been an enormous loss that I’m still sloshing through. I always thought too that kids should be raised in a religion till they were old enough to make their own choice, which I now think is a mistake. Exposure, rather than commitment, to various religions seems like a better plan. And here we are at Christmas again. I’d like to have a reason to celebrate like the rest of the world but so far I haven’t been able to embrace winter solstice or Festivus or something else I could make up. This year I’m thinking more about New Year’s Eve and Day with their “out with the old, in with the new” possibilities. Thanks for a well-thought out post. Maybe I’ll memorize it like a bible verse for use at appropriate or awkward moments.

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    • Thanks for reading and commenting, Linda. We’re having such a low-key holiday here because of all of us being down with flu in November. I tend to get more excited about the new year rather than the holidays, but since I do have a young child at home we have to at least go through the motions. I’d like it to all go away. It is so much more important that we are able to “celebrate” on a daily basis the small joys, instead waiting for some occasion to feel elation. Hope you find your small joy today!

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