"So what faith are you raising your daughters in?"
"None," I reply with a smile. Looks of grave concern sweep across the room. That was not the answer they wanted.
At the end of my book events, that same question inevitably arrives, landing with a thud. It is asked by the same people who, only minutes earlier, with great consternation and indignation, chastised my parents about raising me in a cult.
Before they shuffle out the door, I am approached stealthily by a few people who voice their disappointment then hand me pamphlets about their particular church and how my family can still be saved. I thank them, restraining from pointing out the irony.
Why is it that in 2011 it is still taboo, a social oddity, to raise children free from religion?
This week, as certain fanatics are sheepishly removing their signs about the end of the world and others are beginning the countdown until the next prophesized date of doom, now perhaps more than ever, the expected practice that parents should bequeath to their children an antiquated, weighted, codified belief system -- one that decries itself absolute with deviation deemed corrosive, heretical or even damning -- seems archaic and detrimental.
Of course, children can, and many do, grow up and shed the burden of that imposed belief system. But why should parents impose upon their children a religion to lose?
As the mother of two children, I fully understand that there are certain perks that come along with faith-based membership. Given the multifarious surface comforts that religious communities bestow, it is natural for parents to believe that they have provided their precious children with the foundation for a socially and morally rich life. It certainly can be advantageous to wear the label of one religion or another. It can open doors, get jobs, get votes. As the next presidential election cycle begins its groundswell, political rhetoric escalates in "godliness," as candidates unzip their private faith to flaunt it for public view.
For parents, religion provides a safety net for their children's future -- private schools, holiday traditions and comforting, easy answers when Grandma or a beloved pet dies. Explaining to a 3-year-old that Grandma is knitting in the clouds and Fluffy is playing fetch with the angels makes it all seem better. Offering concrete answers is easier than having to admit uncertainty, but from uncertainty springs questioning and growth. Imposing religious doctrine upon children as irrefutable truth, potentially harms and hardens them by creating seismic divides that fester, foster and nurture exclusion. It creates the destructive illusion that some people are better, more righteous than others.
Safely cloaked under the protective cover of religious beliefs, discrimination, a lesson parents actively attempt to ward away, settles early, naturally and gently into children: Rights such as marriage should be denied to some based on archaic scripture or those who worship a different god should be punished as infidels. Believers versus nonbelievers. Us versus them. Quickly, children become isolated forts: They are the Chosen Ones. Their way is the true way. They are correct. They, alone, are saved.
The irony is that the same parents who lovingly and dutifully attempt to provide all the resources required to advance their children, propelling them toward independence, seem blissfully unaware of the contradiction and duality that imposed religion creates. These parents long to see their children stand out from the crowd, attaining their place as future leaders instead of followers. Unwittingly, parents' push of religion undermines their children. Religion often demands the negation of empirical evidence, proof and facts. It repels challenges via the unquestioned absolute authority of Faith. Contrary to an organic meandering towards an independent life, being born into a religion may nurture a distrust of one's own self and foster the condition of subservience -- a holy shut up and obey. The commandment of following automatically places one in line, receiving orders through an obstructed view. Constricting, confining and potentially dangerous, the damages are all too real when religious authority figures lead the faithful into the blackened underbrush of unchecked power.
Society needs to understand that without imposing religion upon our young, we can raise a morally and ethically responsible generation. Being raised without religion does not mean that one is being raised without the foundation to live a deep and morally rich life. Morality and ethics -- the simple beauty of being good to others and living a peaceful life -- are not exclusive products of religion. They are elementary and fundamental. They are arguably, in our genetics, something magical and wonderful that we all inherit.