06/24/2014 06:45 pm ET Updated Aug 24, 2014

What an Atheist Told His Daughter When She Asked About God

Design Pics/Christine Mariner via Getty Images

The Big Questions come at the most unexpected times. The other day, driving home from preschool, Penny asked me if God could hear us. This question was followed by, "does he know where we live?" and "does he see everything we do?" My responses to these thought-provoking metaphysical queries varied from "uhh..." to "err..." and finally, a "maybe you should talk to your mother about this one." (I was about as helpful as Penny's little brother, Simon, who sat there, fascinated by the whole exchange.) Penny came to her own conclusion, "I think He does."


I am an atheist. There are many reasons why I don't believe in God and why I'm not a big fan of organized religion. But you've probably heard them all before, expressed much more articulately than I could hope to do here. I'm not trying to change anyone's mind, anyway. My wife, Allie, believes in God. Although she does not attend temple services any more than I do, she observes religion in her own way. Encompassed in her belief system seems to be the need to constantly apologize to some dude who looks down on us from the clouds for all the silly, blasphemous things I say. (I'm sure she apologized for me calling him "some dude.")

There are certain things that I would not hesitate to force on my kids (or, at least, strongly guide them towards): love of running, experimental eating and an appreciation of good music and terrible movies. (Other than enjoying terrible movies -- though the wrong kind of terrible -- I'm pretty much failing in these efforts.)

The acceptance or rejection of God is different.

Maybe it's even more different when you're Jewish. I don't believe in God, but I still identify as a Jew. There's just so much cultural baggage. And, of course, the belief in one God (and then the rejection of Jesus as the Messiah) is a big part of why Jews have historically been discriminated against and why they stuck together in whatever land they found themselves in (more like an ethnic group than a religious one).

Most of the time, I don't think about my Jewishness. But every once in a while, it becomes my defining characteristic. I was a little offended that all of the holiday songs at my daughter's school's Winter Holiday Extravaganza (or whatever it was called) were going to be Christmas-themed. Not one for Hannukah. I don't have anything against Christmas songs, I just didn't like the idea of my daughter and the few other Jewish students feeling left out. So I became the "Jewish dad," speaking on behalf of all of the Jewish parents. Penny's teacher, who is very sweet, was happy to add that old classic "The Dreidel Song" to the mix. My motivations had nothing to do with God -- if God were mentioned in "The Dreidel Song," I'd probably rather hear "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" for the thousandth time -- just the cultural identity of being an American Jew.

I've always thought that the concept of God exists because people fear death, and that religion is too often used to justify abhorrent behavior against "others." Before I cloud my kids' minds with my cynicism, however, I want them to be open to the idea of a higher power. Maybe this belief will help them later in life, or maybe they will come to the same conclusions I have.

The only thing I know is that when Penny brought up the topic of God, I choked.

For now, I'm asking my daughter more questions than I'm answering. When we got home, I asked her if she thought God could see us when we were in the car or if he could only see us when we're outside. Mostly, I wanted to find out if she thought God was always all around us, or if her idea of a higher power correlated more closely with something that exists solely in nature. I also asked because I felt bad about not engaging in the topic when she first brought it up. She answered, hesitantly, that God... could see us in the car. In her answer, was the implicit question, Am I right?

Baby, if I only knew.

But no one does, despite the people who claim to "know Him," no one knows. All we can do is decide for ourselves what we want to believe; what we want to put our faith in. I choose to put my faith in the things I can see or that can be proven: my family, myself and, yeah, science. I do not always understand these things (my wife is an eternal mystery and science is, well, let's just say I'm no rocket scientist). Hence, the faith part. But, through my own experiences, I know these things are real. Other people may feel the same way about God.

The most important part of religion for Allie is doing good for others (that's why I love her). This fundamental aspect of Judaism is called tzedakah. For Yom Kippur, a holiday I like to think of as "Jewish time-out," Jews around the world fast while thinking long and hard about all the bad stuff they have done throughout the year. On that day, Allie does not refrain from eating. Instead, she had the idea a few years ago to donate food to a local no-kill animal shelter that is filled with dogs and cats that have been abandoned and, in many cases, abused. (We had a rescue cat that died when Penny was 3 and this tradition is in her honor.) We do this mitzvah (good deed) as a family. Penny picks out all the food at the grocery store and, at the shelter, tells the cats what she got them and asks if they're hungry. It's important that our children feel instrumental in whatever charity we do.

If my kids do decide God is real, I hope they use him as a tool and not as a crutch. People can be moral without God and immoral with him. I don't care what my kids believe. I care about who they are. I'll try not to influence their spiritual beliefs, but I know that everything my wife and I do and say influences the people they will become.

God help me.