My sister was 13 when my dad decided it was time to have “The Sex Talk” with her. It was the early 1980s. My dad, an educated, modern man who wanted to get things right, did the responsible thing and bought a sex-education book. When the moment seemed right, he headed to my sister’s bedroom, opened the door, tossed the book on her bed, and said: “Read that, and don’t ever do it.” Then he shut the door and walked away.
This isn’t the 1980s, and sex is no longer the dreaded topic of conversation it once was. We Americans are more open with our children than ever before. Modern fathers don’t flinch when their daughters ask about that thing dangling between daddy’s legs after a shower. Most parents are equally comfortable explaining sex to their kids as teaching them how to spell it. But progressive thinking has a way of replacing certain taboos with others. Today, the fastest growing religious group in the United States is the category labeled “nonreligious.” This group is about as racially, geographically, and socio-economically diverse as you’re likely to find, but we all have one thing in common: We have rejected organized religion as a defining force in our lives. And millions of us are parents.
What does all this have to do with sex? Well, nothing, actually. But it has everything to do with open communication. Because for this new generation of secular parents, there’s a whole new three-letter word: G-O-D.
When my daughter came home from preschool last year and declared, with a shocking degree of nonchalance, that “God made us,” I experienced something akin to panic. Unlike other topics that seemed to come so naturally to me, discussing God — hell, even saying God — was something my body seemed to physically reject.
The rational side of me worried that I wouldn’t be able to answer all her questions, that I’d fail to keep my own judgments out of my voice or get things flat-out wrong. I’d send messages I didn’t want to send. I’d confuse her.
The irrational side of me — and, let’s be honest, we’ve all got one — made matters even worse. I worried that, as a nonreligious person, I’d be doing my daughter a disservice if I allowed her to believe in something I didn’t. I likened it to sending her into society believing that the world was flat. I even worried that talking to our daughter about God — or allowing others to talk to her about God — might transform her into some sort of religious freak.
It was in these irrational moments that my dad’s 1980s-era concerns — that if he told my sister about sex, she’d go out and do it — began to sound pretty reasonable. If Richard Dawkins’ new book, The Magic of Reality, had been out at that time, I might have seriously considered throwing it at her.
But I’m glad it wasn’t. And I’m glad I didn’t.
Talking to our kids about God is not a choice; it’s a necessity. Whether I believe in God or not, faith in a higher power is a part of our history and our culture. It’s hugely important to so many people — so many good people. And at a time when religious tolerance is more important than ever, the idea of dismissing, ignoring or denigrating faith is, I believe, both arrogant and ignorant.
We humans love to think we’ve figured everything out. That our path has led us to wisdom, and that our responsibility as parents is to heap all that wisdom onto our kids. But some things need to be discovered by our children, and supported by us. The nature of the universe, and the existence of God, are two of them.
I think virtually all human beings on this planet would agree with Dawkins when he says that reality is magic. It’s just that for a great many people, God is reality. And I’m quite sure the world would be a better place if we all stopped criticizing each others’ realities.
But this isn’t a “can’t-we-all-just-get-along” blog — even though that’s clearly where I’m going. My point is that religion, and particularly God (or gods or deities or higher powers) aren’t something to be feared. Prayer, like sex, is something people do. Your kid might do it, too. Your kid might even enjoy it.
So take a deep breath and practice talking about religion without judgment, without sarcasm, without bias. Talk about it the way you might talk about, say, Notre Dame in Paris. Notre Dame is a cathedral, yes. But it’s also an indescribably beautiful building to be explored and appreciated on numerous levels. Don’t make your child go inside it alone. Hold her hand. Explain what you can. Enjoy the view.
And if she chooses to bow her head and pray, sit lovingly with her while she does. Rest assured: She’ll eventually rise from her pew, clasp your hand once again, and return with you into the sunlight. And when that happens, you’ll both still be in Paris.