09/05/2013 10:50 am ET Updated Nov 05, 2013

The Religion Post

John Kinnear

This post has been a long time coming. I have written and rewritten it. I have three different versions sitting in draft. It started as a simple question: Should Stevie and I be taking our kids to church? Then, much like every other question regarding religion has done in my life, it led to more questions. Which church? Why? How often? Should we try multiple churches? Shop around? And bigger questions: Is religion necessary for morality? Will my kids be ostracized if they don't have a religion? And then, finally, the biggest question. What if I don't believe? Do I lie? Do I pretend? Does that do more harm than good?

And so it goes... over and over and over. Now, the file titled "The Religion Post" is the only thing I can see in my working folder. It is always there, staring at me, telling me to open it, to finish it, to make a decision. It has gotten to the point that I can't write anything else. It is killing my creativity. This religion post is my white whale!

So here, take it for what you will, judge, comment, argue. Let's get it over with. I need to purge the topic from the editorial calendar of my soul. I need to get back to writing about important stuff -- like whether dogs are like kids and pooping in McDonald's Play Places.

I live in Utah. Utah has a very large population of Mormons. Good people. Kind people. Wonderful friends, family and neighbors. No tails, no more than one wife per family, unusually good basketball players. Sometimes the missionaries stop by my house, but they know I'm not really interested anymore. Last winter they offered to shovel my driveway, and the one kid said "You don't even have to get baptized!" I found that hilarious. I know he was joking, but the thought of trading yard work for eternal salvation strikes me as appropriately silly and wonderful. So like I said, Mormons -- wonderful people.

Growing up in Utah as a non-Mormon was really, really hard. It was lonely. It was confusing. At times I felt marginalized, outcast, and angry. Sadly, the angry part carried me through much of junior high. I was never bullied because I wasn't a Mormon. I was never told I was going to hell, or that I couldn't participate in a social activity because I didn't belong. On the contrary, I was often invited and welcomed to participate. I was even asked to say the prayer a few times, or stop by church on Sunday, or come over to their house and hear the missionaries speak. All of this was done sincerely and with kindness. I believe that. But it led to me feeling that I was viewed as "less than" and "unfinished" in my friends' eyes. And that hurt, even if I didn't believe it.

Things got better. I grew up, found my own path, and became comfortable not just with my own beliefs, but with others' as well. I got to a nice spot where I understood how faith is incredibly important to some people, and not as important to others, and that how we treat each other is much more important than which set of beliefs gets us there. All was well. For me, the religion thing was settled. And then I had kids.

Now, like me, my kids are going to grow up in Utah as non-Mormons. I don't want them to go through the rough parts. I don't want them to feel marginalized, outcast, and angry like I did. Yet, I know that someday, in the near future, they are going to come home from school and ask me "Dad, What religion are we? Are we Mormon?" I'll be honest with you. I have no idea what I am going to say.

I know what my mom said when I was in third grade and came home to ask that question.

"We're Presbyterian."

It was the first and only time I had ever heard the word Presbyterian. Even now, in my 30s, I still couldn't tell you what a Presbyterian is. Still, the word was a gift. I was something. I had an answer for the kids at school. I practiced saying it a couple times, went to school the next day, and proudly told all the kids in my class that I wasn't a Mormon. I was a Pregnantarian. They shruggedly acknowledged my newfound religion as "Not-Mormon" and that was enough for them.

Unfortunately, I proceeded to call it Pregnantarian for the next five years. No one ever corrected me. Ever. Which explains why, when I tried to find out more about my blossoming Pregnantarianism in the school's encyclopedia, I never found it.

The word helped though. It gave me something to tell people. At the very least, I had a religion -- and in the world I grew up in, that was much, much better than not having a religion at all.

So there's option number 1.

I tell my kids that we're an easier-to-pronounce branch of Protestantism than Presbyterian. Lutheran is easy to say. I could go with that. I can tell the Christmas story, and I can explain heaven when one of Stevie or my parents eventually die in 50-60 years... or never, 'cause they're never going to die.

We can go to church once in awhile, and I can do what I usually do when I go to church: contemplate the similarities between Jesus and the Superman mythology. Seriously, bearded guy in the sky sends his only son to save humanity. Son makes a big entrance, hides for 20-30 years, and then gets busy saving. I can't be the only one who has thought of this. I digress.

We keep things simple. Our kids have a religion to name when asked, and as a bonus they get a foundation on which to build their own belief system.

Or there's option number 2.

I can be completely honest with my kids. I don't know what is out there. I have serious doubts about religion. I don't think of myself as a Mormon or a Lutheran or a Pregnantarian, and I think that is perfectly ok. I can explain to them that there are many religions in the world and that commonalities can be found in each, and that a desire to see order within the chaos of the human experience is a natural, humbling, and comforting thing. God exists to different people in many different ways, and to some he/she doesn't exist at all. And that is ok too. Sounds great!

Except then my kid goes back to her class, tries to explain agnosticism in a language she has yet to master, and all hell breaks loose. Can you see my dilemma? The nuanced/don't-offend-people approach I generally take when begrudgingly explaining my beliefs to others does not lend itself well to kid-speak. You think you're mad when your kid comes home after someone tells him there's no Santa Claus. Wait until mine tells your kid there's no God -- because kids don't deal in nuance. They deal in absolutes, and we live in a world of maybes.

So maybe I'll do a little of both. Maybe Lutheran with a big spoonful of pragmatism on Sunday nights. Maybe I will teach them about other religions, too. Maybe maybe maybe maybe. Maybe I'm going to drown my kids in a sea of maybe and they're going to grab the first hand that reaches down to pull them out.

Or maybe I'll set them on a path up a mountain of understanding and at some point during their journey they'll realize that it's not the top of the mountain that supports life, but the sides.*

Or maybe I'm just over thinking this, and all kids feel lonely, marginalized, and angry in middle school. Maybe there's nothing I can do. Maybe I just need to have faith.

Faith in my kids. Faith that if Stevie and I fill their lives with confidence and love and reason, that they will find their way to whichever joy they choose. I'd be ok with that.

The other night Stevie and I were having our normal bi-weekly "discuss our kids' futures and possible choices they might make" conversation when she threw me a curve ball.

"How would you feel if our kids decide to get baptized Mormon someday?" (It's not out of the realm of possibility. I have plenty of friends who have converted.)

I chuckled a little. "There are a lot worse things out there that our kids could become. A Mormon doesn't even make the list," I replied honestly.

"Very true. What's on your list?"

"Drug dealer, Prostitute, Zombie, Republican. Yours?"

"Murderer, Crime Lord, Evil Leprechaun."

"Good lists."

"Yes. Good lists."

And then we high-fived.

So I guess Lutheran it is. And Agnostic. And Pragmatic.

There you go kiddos. We're Pragnosteran.

Hey, it's easier to say than Presbyterian.



*Sigh... leave it to me to unknowingly plagiarize Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig. Here's the actual quote my subconscious cribbed.

"Mountains should be climbed with as little effort as possible and without desire. The reality of your own nature should determine the speed. If you become restless, speed up. If you become winded, slow down. You climb the mountain in an equilibrium between restlessness and exhaustion. Then, when you're no longer thinking ahead, each footstep isn't just a means to an end but a unique event in itself. This leaf has jagged edges. This rock looks loose. From this place the snow is less visible, even though closer. These are things you should notice anyway. To live only for some future goal is shallow. It's the sides of the mountain which sustain life, not the top. Here's where things grow."

An earlier version of this piece appeared on John Kinnear's personal blog, Ask Your Dad. You can also find him trying to be funny on Facebook.