"What's this one, mom?" My four-year-old son pulls a video off the library shelf in front of us and flaps it in my direction. I look down.
"It's called 'Jonah and the Whale.' It's a Bible story. Would you like to get it?"
"No." Ty shoves it back on the shelf, scowling. "I hate the Bible." His voice rings through the quiet room.
A teaching moment, this one, but all I can come up with is, "The Bible has some good stories," and not for Ty's benefit as much as for any parent patrons listening. The truth is, my small blond son has never been to church, we don't own a copy of the Bible, and I don't care about Bible stories, but I never meant for him to hate the Bible. I'm into tolerance and diplomacy, and I'm mortified at his loud opinions on a book he has never seen. How did we get here, I wonder? But I already know.
For ten years, we have lived next door to a fundamentalist Christian family for whom religion permeates all aspects of life. If not for these neighbors, our children would likely not have heard of the Bible, for my husband and I are wishy-washy agnostics, avoiding the subject of God until our kids raise it. And one day they did, partly from curiosity (God seems to be a developmental phase), but mostly to understand the neighbor kids, who asked questions like "Do you believe in Jesus?" and "Do you believe in Satan?" My kids looked to me for answer, for they had never heard of Satan and only knew about Jesus as a baby. I told the neighbor kids of course we believe in Jesus, hoping they wouldn't ask if I believed in God (what would I say?). They must have sensed my irritation, because in later years they broached religion with my kids when I wasn't around to intervene. That was when the arguments began.
I don't know if these arguments fueled the chalk path or not, but last summer eight-year-old Elizabeth, the eldest, wrote in sidewalk chalk "The wicked path of Satan" in front of her house and drew a path along the sidewalk to our steps. She may not have meant it as I took it, but I don't mind saying I was furious. Also glad my daughter couldn't read yet. My kids never questioned the words, but late one night, after waiting for rain that wouldn't come, I took out a bucket of water to splash the path away, though I left the writing in front of Elizabeth's house. It stayed there for a month.
Then a new family moved into the neighborhood five houses the other direction, bringing with them their own story: A long time ago people made up God because they didn't have science and they needed something to give them answers.
Maggie, this family's daughter, tells the story to my daughter, Leah, who tells Ty, who tells Maggie's younger sister, who tells Maggie. A version of the telephone game, and, clearly, a hot topic. I had no idea. Indeed, I wouldn't have known the story was circulating, except the kids' mother tells me about it one morning as we walk the kids to school, for she has overheard one of their conversations. She tells me, I think, to prepare me for what I might hear that afternoon lest I be offended, for we don't really know each other yet. To her relief, no doubt, I laugh, amazed and amused that kids would come up with this story on their own. How apt that my kids would choose this belief, for it nearly mirrors mine without my ever stating it.
When I tell my husband of the kids' philosophical leanings, he chuckles. "Sounds like Jethro Tull."
"Their album 'Aqualung.' In the liner notes, it says, 'In the beginning Man created God and saw that it was good.' Something like that."
I chuckle too.
But later I learn the kids' story is not something they have made up, nor have they secretly been reading '70s liner notes. It's our new neighbors' worldview, and it marks the beginning of an internal struggle for me, precipitated by another conversation between Maggie and Leah at our house.
"Do you believe in God?" Maggie asks Leah. At seven, she's the same age as my daughter but seems surer of herself.
"I don't either. People made up God before there was science."
I can't tell if Leah says she doesn't believe in God because she doesn't (who can know at seven?), or if she's going along with Maggie because she likes her. Either way, discussing this view of God is new for Leah. To my knowledge, she's never discussed religion with anyone except the fundamentalist kids, whose views make her angry. No surprise to me that people making up God might appeal to her sense of self-worth.
Maggie raises her voice to address me: "Do you believe in God?" I butter bagels without looking at her, stalling for time. How is it I've become the mother to whom children address the issue of God? I don't want to be this person, have recently decided God is a topic best left to kids' own parents.
Maggie waits. So does Leah.
I admire people who can state unequivocally what they believe. If only I could, but too often I lose myself in nuances that seem impossible to explain. And there's that diplomacy I wrestle with. I don't want to polarize my kids from churchgoing friends by saying we don't believe in God, nor would I want my kids to judge or dismiss these friends, as they have been judged. Nor do I want them to think of themselves as unchristian particularly, but I can't bring myself to say yes, we believe in God. It all feels so complicated and muddled, and now my kids are forcing my hand.
Take a stance, I tell myself, move beyond the we-need-to-respect-every-religion platform to something concrete. Do we believe in God or not? Curt and I have avoided saying yes or no because we don't feel strongly about any specific idea. We describe Christmas in Christian terms but Easter is all about chocolate and chicks. Our discretion (read: waffling) has led our kids, it seems, to latch onto an idea we haven't taught them. I ponder whether it's a sign of parenting issues to come: If we don't establish concrete views, will our kids seek answers elsewhere? Have we been cheating them by not introducing a family belief system? Are we setting them up for a truant adolescence? But growing up next to fundamentalists and observing my unconcealed indignation with the kids' proclamations about Satan and who goes to heaven, Ty has already extrapolated for himself what we believe, distilling our family down to one thought: "We don't believe in the Bible, do we, mom?" Apparently, he isn't seeking answers elsewhere so much as a deeper awareness of our family.
"Sometimes," I say in answer to Maggie's question about God. It seems the easiest thing to say, and she doesn't question it. Why can't I just say no, I ask myself -- it's what I believe, isn't it? But my answer isn't what's bugging me. It's the idea of sharing my views with a seven-year-old (have I not been here before?) even if I agree with her because -- here's the rub -- for some reason I am surprised and nonplussed to hear the world reduced to science. I'm also surprised that I'm surprised. My husband is a scientist, and I majored in anthropology, studying ancient hominid skulls, theories of humankind's origins. I love the Darwin fish. And yet. To say to my children there's no God feels so final. One-dimensional. Lacking in depth and mystery. And though I'm not inclined towards organized religion -- something about believing we can be good without being told how -- I know people benefit from their church community, from faith, and I wonder sometimes if they know something I don't. By not going to church, am I withholding a valuable life experience from my children?
My kids like the science view. It's concrete. Explains why we aren't churchgoers, why we hedge about God, why we've never grown close with our neighbors, and why we took an immediate liking to Maggie's family. Perhaps most relevant to my kids, the science view doesn't tell them they'll go to hell.
It happens outdoors on a spring afternoon. I hear Leah shriek that she -- Leah -- "won't go to hell for a long, long time," and then she flies inside, sobbing and slamming the door.
"Elizabeth's being mean," she rages.
Leah won't tell me what the argument is about, but they've had plenty of skirmishes before. Elizabeth, a persuasive leader and two-and-a-half years older, dictates the tone of games, and Leah, no slouch at leadership herself, often arrives indoors annoyed and upset. Today is different, though. Leah's beside herself with sadness and anger, and tears course down her cheeks. But after a few minutes of raging, she tucks back her blonde hair and disappears out the front door, whether to confront or to play, I don't know. I hover in the kitchen, wondering whether to mediate.
When Curt arrives home from work, he comes into the kitchen. "Elizabeth's telling Leah that anyone not Christian goes to hell," he says. Elizabeth's kind of Christian.
"So that's it. Leah was furious earlier."
"Well, they seem to have worked it out."
But at dinner, the real concern comes out. "What is hell?" Leah asks. "And who is the devil?"
"Hell is a place where some people believe you go if you're bad. They believe the devil lives there," I say.
"But we're not bad people."
"No, of course not. In our house, we don't believe in hell or the devil." At last, a concrete idea and surprisingly easy to state.
"Well, doesn't Elizabeth know there's no such place? I'm going to tell her she's wrong."
Curt and I exchange glances. "Leah, you can't do that," I say.
"Why not? She needs to know she's wrong."
Ty pipes up his support: "I hate the Bible."
We explain that Elizabeth isn't wrong because in her house it isn't wrong. We talk about tolerance and respect. We coach the kids to say, "In our house we have different beliefs." (What they are exactly, I can't tell them.) But I am angry on their behalf. At the same time, I don't want to upset the delicate balance between the two families because in many ways Elizabeth's parents are great neighbors. They like the kids playing together, and if there's concern about ours corrupting theirs, they don't show it. We discuss lawn care, house repairs, and family vacations. We discipline and praise. We expect our children to become productive citizens, make wise choices, and maintain a moral code. We want the same things. Who cares who goes to church? But, of course, it matters.
In October, our Christian neighbors move to a larger house in another neighborhood, leaving in their wake a sudden silence. My kids miss them, the impromptu play, perhaps even the arguments, but I bask in the new quiet. I feel freer now, less guarded, and one day when Leah asks point-blank whether I believe in God, I admit finally that, well, no, I don't. I have been asking myself the same question for some time, preparing myself, weighing the world with and without God, pondering whether such an admission will turn my children into atheists. And whether I mind. For me, science still lacks depth and mystery.
But we have become a science family, it seems, by default or design I'm not sure. My kids announce often these days they don't believe in God, Leah espousing evolution like a good scientist and Ty proclaiming God "make-believe," and I realize I don't mind. Then one day, going through our bookshelves, I discover, tucked away, a small Bible I'd forgotten we had, inherited from my grandmother a few years before. I hand it to Leah. "Here, Leah, this is a Bible." I feel as if I've introduced her to the alphabet several years too late. She takes it, curious, and thumbs through the thin pages, remarking how tiny the type is.
"I hate the Bible," Ty says loudly. "We don't believe in the Bible, right?"
"It's just a book, Ty," Leah says. (How these words would infuriate our neighbors.) She stops flipping pages to read a few passages and decides the text is too difficult. But she's interested and I'm pleased, realizing in that moment what I want. Perhaps now that the neighbors have moved, we can get on with what we do believe and stop reacting so much to what we don't.