Secular But Not Atheist: Christmas and the Agnostic Parenting Dilemma
When it comes to parenting, my husband and I have taken a very laidback approach, which was surprising to me. Anyone who spends more than a minute talking to me will quickly learn that I am not laidback about anything, at least not if I can help it. As with school, and then my career, and even my decision to get married, I had already made decisions about certain major issues when we embarked on this parenting journey — natural childbirth, breastfeeding, the usual stuff. These decisions were easy. The evidence supports it! How great that someone did all this research? You only need to read and decide!
Enter religion: baptism, regular worship, sacraments, high holidays — the whole holy enchilada.
My long and evolving relationship with both organized religion and the more free-form spirituality that seems common today is very complex. I won’t do it justice, but let me try in one garbled sentence: Catholic Mom, agnostic Dad, tried to find a Catholic church, they didn’t like unbaptized but older kids in the 1980s, settled for Protestant church, tried several, found a decent one, parents go through weird spiritual awakening/new age thing, traditional religious views sidestepped for elements of pagan, wiccan, kinda sorta native indigenous spiritual universal huh-what . . . now this is ME trying to reclaim my Christianity as a teenager . . . extreme guilt, enter liberal politics, what was I thinking, COLLEGE hey atheists do it better, no! there is more to life right?, start legal career NO TIME FOR ANYTHING BUT SCHOOL AND WORK . . . let’s get married, which church, what church? I LOVE ALL RELIGIONS EQUALLY but especially the ones that have Christmas or some similar sort of winter celebration . . . consider converting to Wicca/realize Wicca is like Christianity except with magic instead of Jesus/and can you really “convert” if you don’t actually practice any faith on a regular basis?
STOP. RELIGION IRRELEVANT.
That is, until you have kids.
Sometimes I envy the parents who just say, “oh, we got the baby baptized so my in-laws wouldn’t give me grief,” or, “you know, we’re both kind of Christian, traditionally, so we do Christmas Eve services with my parents but it’s not like we go to church,” or this gem: “it’s not important to me, personally, but it’s for the kids, you know?“
No. I don’t know.
Look. I take this stuff really seriously. The bottom line is this: At almost 34 years old, the only thing about which I am certain when it comes to all Big Guy in the Sky theories is that no one is certain about the existence, or lack thereof, of a god or godlike force that controls the universe. So that means any and all religions, including the quasi-Christianity in which I was raised, are pretty much out for me. Some would call me a “soft atheist,” but I prefer to think of myself as agnostic. I’m not really happy about my agnosticism though. Like most humans, I want to know, and I want to understand, what makes the universe tick. I would love for God to show up one day and say, look, dude, I’m here, and here is the religion I would like you to participate in! But by default, until some deity intervenes directly, I’m not going to take on any religion just for the sake of picking one in the meantime.
So how can I choose to indoctrinate my children in any religion when, even if only by default, I have declined to indoctrinate myself in one?
And more pertinent to the time of year: How can I teach my child to celebrate Christmas when I don’t even consider myself . . . [DEEP BREATH] . . . a Christian anymore . . . at least in the classical sense of the word?
See, even there, I had to qualify it. And even as I type, I am looking skyward, cautiously, waiting for the huge lightning bolt to strike me. I can’t give up on this deepseated Christian thing. And, however irrational and dysfunctional of me, I can’t give up the beauty of the Christmas story. You know, the one co-opted from ancient pagans. The trope of the virgin birth that was already heavily utilized by the time some folks decided to slap a Christian label on it.
I can’t celebrate a secular Christmas with my kids, like most Americans do. It just feels wrong, and disrespectful. So I feel like I should tell my kids: sorry, no Christmas, because it’s a Christian holiday and we are not Christian. Or alternatively, I should indoctrinate them in Christianity, like I was as a child. I don’t like either option.
So for now I am stuck in a Christmas — and an approach to religion and parenting, generally — that is Secular, But Not Atheist. That may or may not be the same thing as “agnostic,” but I’m not really sure. I’ve never closely examined how agnostics, particularly agnostics with children, celebrate Christmas without feeling shallow at best, and hypocritical at worst.
My two-year-old is aware of Christmas, but I know she has no idea what it is. Like me, she is going to celebrate Secular Christmas this year, but unlike me, she won’t have any clue that there is another kind of Christmas. You know, the Christian kind. But this won’t always be the case.
No other parenting decision has ever caused me as much internal conflict and struggle as this one.