It would be all together more convenient if I did not believe in God. It's not like I believe in a sympathetic patriarch who parts the Red Sea when prophets or ordinary folk ask. I'm an "ethnic Jew": the kind who rarely goes to temple yet is struck by a bolt of fervor when Rosh Hashanah rolls around; the kind who marries a Goy (non-Jew) and hangs the word "SHALOM" on her Christmas tree; the kind who believes that God sees every people as the Chosen People because we all have been given the improbable chance to live on this rare planet.
There have been times, like when I observed a tiny toad precisely camouflaged against a speckled orange leaf; like when my daughter tethered me to her forever by clamping down on to my sore nipple, that I have glimpsed a brilliant and unfathomable system that I consider to be God (or Goddess). There have been dark moments when I have reached out for something to steady me, and it did. I believe that whether one is praying to the faceless Adonai, the ineffable Allah, or to Durga, the eight-armed Indian mother-goddess who rides a tiger, one is praying to the same God. The most spiritual moments of my life occur outside a house-of-worship, sometimes in a yoga studio or at a poetry reading.
This deep spirituality in combination with a lack of clear religious affiliation is on the rise in America. This week, the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life reported their findings that one in five Americans do not identify with any religion. The majority of this group do not consider themselves Atheists or Agnostics. According to this survey of the unaffiliated, "Two-thirds of them say they believe in God (68 percent); more than a third classify themselves as 'spiritual' but not 'religious' (37 percent), and one-in-five (21 percent) say they pray every day." Some of the unaffiliated are seekers, like me, but others say they feel fine existing outside any organized religion.
My spiritual indecision would be sustainable, except for the fact that I have kids. The stories and rituals of religion have always been the way families impart values to their children. In my family, the Jewish holidays have been an intellectual celebration of freedom from oppression, a reminder of the darkest chapters of Jewish history, and a way to glue our interfaith tribe of friends and family together. I want my children to have a sense of their Judaism, an understanding of what their ancestors have endured to be free to worship the God of their choosing. I want my children think about their values on a daily basis, and that is difficult to do in a secular society in which children are running from school to sport to homework. I want my kids to have spiritual community.
But joining a temple now, when I am not sure what I believe, seems artificial. And let's just say my husband is utterly disinterested in the whole house-of-worship thing (Ugh, one more activity on the weekend). When I discussed this with a friend who recently joined a church, he said, "Just make sure there is something to fill the void." Here are some strategies I've been experimenting with:
• Share and Discuss Traditional Stories at Bedtime -- Religion is the source of much of the world's strife. It's also the source of much of the word's wisdom. I've taken to cherry-picking traditional stories from different cultures and sharing them with my kids. I choose stories that highlight the values and moral dilemmas that my children struggle with. Child-friendly re-tellings of old stories are surprisingly easy to find. Some of my favorites include Zen Shorts (Buddhist), The Barefoot Book of Earth Tales (Multi-cultural), and Days of Awe (Jewish). These books have helped me talk to my kids about conservation, forgiveness, charity, independence, letting go of anger and many other important life themes. This approach also highlights the similarities between people of different religions, instead of the points of contention.
• Create or Institute a Dinnertime Ritual -- We've had a hard time keeping dinner time a sacred space in our home. Kids get up. Phones beckon. Sometimes I stand over my kids like a short-order cook while they wolf down their food. Saying a little prayer of thankfulness, of your own invention or something from your culture, helps get all family members into seats and demarcates dinner-time as a window for meaningful conversation.
• Don't Talk the Talk, Walk the Walk -- Actions speak louder than words. I'd rather my kids see charity and community service than hear a sermon about it. They are finally approaching the age when they can accompany me to do volunteer work, so it's time to get them involved. We hope to start at the local food bank. To find a food bank to volunteer in your area, check out Feeding America's Food Bank Locator.
I do not know if I will raise my kids with or without a house-of-worship. Part of our journey will be investigating the options and examining what makes me uncomfortable about organized religion. For now, I feel I'm raising my kids intentionally, with an eye to their ethical development. It's certainly better than a void.