“Mama,” my daughter said, “what’s heaven?”
We were sitting in the car, listening to music while waiting for my husband to get off work. “Blank Space” was playing, and Taylor Swift had just sung the lyrics “magic, madness, heaven, sin.”
“Um,” I began, searching my brain for the appropriate answer. “Well, it’s . uh ….”
You might be wondering why I found this question so hard to answer. You might be wondering why I didn’t jump at the chance to tell my daughter about Jesus and his sacrifice, about the glory that is heaven, of the peace and beauty that await us all there at the end of our lives.
The reason I didn’t tell her those things is because I feel telling her those things would be a lie. I don’t believe in heaven or hell. I identify as agnostic (bordering on atheist).
But on the other hand, I don’t want to push my beliefs (or lack thereof) on my child-I want her to be free to choose her own beliefs. So I continued with my awkward explanation.
“Heaven is a place that some people think exists. It’s . a place where they say angels live, and, er . well-“
“And dead people?” she offered.
“Yes,” I nodded. “Some people think that’s where we go when we die.”
She looked at me.
“I think we go to a graveyard.”
Apparently, dear readers, my 5-year-old is an atheist.
It’s tricky being a nonreligious parent, especially in an area like Chattanooga that’s saturated in Christianity. Atheists and agnostics are the minority, and we are taught to keep our mouths shut. It’s impolite to talk about religion unless you’re spreading the “good word” or actively trying to save someone’s soul. People don’t want to hear from an atheist, but it’s perfectly acceptable to accost someone walking along the Walnut Street Bridge with religious pamphlets and fliers around here. Religious privilege is a thing . but that’s another debate for another column.
Sometimes, I feel like raising a Christian child would be easier. I’d have ready-made answers to questions about death and the afterlife, and we’d fit in a lot better. There would be no awkward silence when asked where we go to church or how we’re planning on celebrating Easter. (Spoiler alert: We don’t.) I’d probably be judged a lot less (I’m sure there are folks out there who feel I’m raising an immoral, unhappy heathen), and I wouldn’t have to fight the urge to slam the door in someone’s face when they come to my home uninvited to push their beliefs on me-I’d simply invite them in and we’d have a nice little chat about our pal Jesus Christ.
But raising my child into a religion isn’t what I want to do. I hesitate when explaining things like heaven, afterlife, angels and Jesus to my daughter because I want her to have the luxury of making up her own mind. I don’t want her indoctrinated into any set of beliefs, whether Christian or agnostic. I want her to think critically and follow her heart.
If her heart leads her to atheism, I want her to know that she doesn’t have to pretend to be a believer. I avoided speaking up about my lack of belief for a long time. If I were at a church wedding and people bowed their heads to pray, I’d bow my head and pretend. When asked what church I attended, I’d mumble something about not finding the right one yet. I don’t want that for her. Being nonreligious is hard and you face a lot of judgment, but I don’t want her to be afraid to speak her mind for fear of what people might think. I want her to understand that people of every faith (and people of no faiths) all have the same right to speak their minds and share their hearts-so long as they do it in a way that’s respectful to others. I’m OK with her being atheist, agnostic, Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish and, yes, I’m also OK with her being a Christian, if that’s where her heart leads.
My daughter’s spirituality is her business alone. I feel my job as her mother is to educate her-unbiased-as much as I can so that she can decide on her own. My job is not to push my own beliefs on her so she feels she has no choice. I want her to be respectful of everyone’s beliefs while never being ashamed of her own. In the end, I don’t care what she chooses to believe (or not believe), just so long as she’s not a jerk about it.
Natalie Green is a Chicago girl living in Chattanooga with her husband and their 5-year-old daughter. When she’s not working full time outside of the home, she enjoys reading, writing, singing, zombies and running. From zombies. And also beer. You can stalk her blog, Mommy Boots, or follow her on Twitter @mommyboots; or you can email her directly at [email protected]. She also has an (Im)perfect Parenting Facebook page. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.