“I want to be something”

We have various neighbors who are devoutly Muslim, Jewish, and Catholic. There are also Hindus, atheists, and every variety of Protestant. And, of course, most of our extended family is Mormon. So our son is not unaccustomed to hearing “Because they’re Muslim” or “Because they think that’s what God wants them to do” when he asks, “Why do they do that?” I also try to explain a little about the different religions when he asks, and I hope he will understand diversity.For example, on Halloween, when he wanted to knock on our Muslim friends’ door, I asked him not to. I knew they considered Halloween a pagan holiday, to be avoided. When he asked why, I said, “They don’t celebrate Halloween because they are Muslim. But they have other great holidays that we don’t have, like Ramadan, when they eat a big meal with all their friends every night for a month. And Eid ul Fitr, when they get to go to a carnival, and get new clothes.” I didn’t want him to think his friends are weird or deprived just because they don’t dress up like vampires and dinosaurs and fairies and ask strangers for candy. (‘Cause that’s not weird at all.)

Yesterday was a rainy one, so we couldn’t go outside to play. He was bummed that he couldn’t be outside with friends. Out the window, he saw his friend walking up the street with his dad.

“Do you think Levi will stay outside and play?” he asked hopefully.

“No, it’s still pretty wet.”

“Do you think Ali and Hakim will come out?”

“Probably not,” I answered.

“Can Muslims not have rain boots?” he asked, trying to figure out what might be preventing his friends from coming out.

“Oh, no, Muslims can wear rain boots. And Levi’s not Muslim, he’s Jewish.”

“What do Jewish people do?”

“They go to synagogue—that’s like church—on Saturday, and they sing certain songs, and lots of them speak Hebrew” I stalled, trying to find a way to explain ritual, heritage, and ethnicity to a preschooler. “But not all Jews do that. David is Jewish, and his family doesn’t do any of that.”

Then he looked at me seriously and said, “I want to be something. I want to have something like that.”

He wanted an identity. He wanted to know what he can be.

I panicked. I’m not sure what I believe. I’m not sure what my identity is. While the closest things I can claim are Mormon and atheist, I don’t want to identify as the former, and I don’t feel the latter as an community or an identity per se.

I blurted out, “We have science,” thinking of the character in Nacho Libre that “believes in science.” I felt stupid. I couldn’t even figure out what to say to my child. While I have no trouble saying, “Muslims believe this, Christians believe that, some people do this,” I couldn’t figure out how to explain what I believe. Or better yet, how to encourage him to figure out what he believes.

Later at dinner, I recounted the conversation to my husband. He turned to our son and said, “You want to be something, huh?”

“Yeah,” our son said, “but I know what I want to be. I’m a pirate.”

“Great,” I joked, “that means you have the Flying Spaghetti Monster as your god.”

“The Flying Spaghetti Monster? What’s that?”

“The god of the pirates. I’ll show you a picture.” And we pulled out the Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, a book I got my husband for fun. Our son really liked the pictures and the connection to pirates, and quickly adopted the symbol of the fossilized fish as “my symbol,” lover, as he is, of fossils. He kept saying, “The Flying Spaghetti Monster is my god. ‘Cause I’m a pirate. David too, because he’s a pirate too.”

“This is the perfect thing for you to blurt out while we’re visiting Grandma and Grandpa in Utah,” I said, more to my husband than to my son. Better that than “My dad likes beer, but my mom likes wine.”

He was really getting into it, and I started to worry. Okay, so now my little joke was going a little too far.

“Is the Flying Spaghetti Monster real or just pretend?” I asked him.

“Oh, he’s real. He’s real. He’s just hiding.”


“Um, where no one, no one can ever find him. Deep, deep down in dirt.”

“What about Jesus? Is Jesus real or pretend?”

“Pretend,” he answered with confidence. (I never told him that, just for the record.)

Great, I thinking. My kid believes in Santa Claus and the Flying Spaghetti Monster, but thinks God is just pretend. If he thought all were pretend, I’d be fine, but why choose Santa Claus and a god made of pasta as plausible entities? Wondering what to do, I realize I don’t really have to do anything right now. Because he’s a preschooler: Within 30 seconds, he was more preoccupied with saying “Ahoy thar, ye matey” and his collection of hot wheels than gods or identity.

But I think it will be healthy for him to be able to identify with some identity, though I don’t think it has to be a religious one. And to help him learn that identity, I should figure out what my identity is.

Since then, though, I have come across two books that helped me feel better about my son not having a religious identity. One is Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. One of his main points is children shouldn’t be called Jewish or Muslim or Catholic–they are simply too young to be able to decide about religion for themselves. They could be referred to as “children of [religious] parents,” which frees up their minds to consider that their religion of choice (if any) is their choice.

The other book is Nothing: Something to Believe In by Nica Lalli, which I haven’t had a chance to read yet, but it looks interesting. I listened to a podcast about it at Point of Inquiry. What caught my eye is that when the author was a child, she asked the same kind of question my son asked: “What are we?” Her non-religious father’s reply was intriguing to me. “ ‘We’re nothing.’ My father was looking right at me; he had a pleasant, friendly kind of expression. ‘Nothing,’ he said again” (from the book description on Amazon). She then went on through her childhood and young adult life trying to understand what he meant by “nothing” and eventually embraced that terminology over the more common atheist, humanist, or secularist labels. Nothing isn’t an emptiness, a void to be filled; rather, it is a full, rich, and happy life. This life. And that’s enough.

a re-post adapted from an earlier post at emerging from the ashes.

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13 Responses

  1. Kullervo says:

    Good post. I’ve been talking to my brother about the functions of religion, and a big one in my opinion is providing, for better or for worse, a sense of identity. Not just for kids, but for everyone.

    Is that god or bad? It’s comforting on one level to have that kind of identity, but there are drawbacks. Can sufficient identiy be drawn from extrareligious sources? From family, nationality, ethincity, whatever?

    Religion seems to be an inextricable part of culture. Can you really have a culture without a religion? Or does the void in your culture make the whole thing collapse in on itself?

  2. fta says:

    Great questions, kullervo. I certainly think that cultural identity can occur outside of religion, or besides religion. I think our questions about identity and religion are more pressing than for other groups, since “Mormon” can be considered an ethnic group itself. Catholic or Methodist, on the other hand, can’t. (I have the entry on Mormons from the Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups in front of me now. I’ll work on a post about it.)

    But, then, with the growing atheist movement–with claims to be decidedly non-religious–it’s almost as if the new atheism is replacing religion, almost a religious identity in itself.

  3. Hueffenhardt says:

    Great post! I am atheist and currently classify my beliefs as spiritual naturalism with humanistic tendencies. My wife is agnostic.

    We both are members of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship; over half of our congregation is atheist/agnostic. In a lot of ways it is like atheist church. We have all the benefits of church: community, identity, mentors, service opportunities, weekly reminders of our shared values, pooling efforts for social change, opportunities to feel transcendence, awe, elevation, peace, joy, and opportunities to work on developing attributes like patience, forgiveness, wisdom, hope, compassion, altruism, global awareness, etc. But, without all the crapy parts of religion: dogma, obedience, unequity, superstitious beliefs, uncritical thinking, etc.

    I am currently working through a UU workbook that is entitled, “Building Your Own Theology”. I find it useful in helping me think through an articulate what I do believe and what I value and what gives me purpose, etc. I will be putting my answers to the assignments in the workbook on my blog over the coming weeks.

  4. chanson says:

    That is so cute!!!

    The funny thing is that I was thinking of joining the Pastafarians myself because of my kids’ interest in pirates… 😉

  5. fta says:

    Huf- I really like the UU, too. I haven’t been heavily involved, though. I still have a adverse reaction to anyone trying to get me to commit to any church. I had too many callings and feelings of obligation in the Mormon church. Still getting over that.

    chanson- Pastafarians are pretty fun. But too male-oriented for me. Beer and (female) strippers in heaven? Hmm.

  6. chanson says:

    Wow, I hadn’t heard about that. Clearly I haven’t researched this religion thoroughly enough.

    I mean, it seems perfectly reasonable that strippers should go to heaven, but should they have to keep doing their job there? What kind of heaven is that? 😉

  7. JulieAnn says:

    thank you for this post! God I needed a good laugh! And I can totally relate to your comment about not commiting to any church; it took me 10 years to step foot voluntarily into a church (the UU). Even now, I test the waters and only go every other week! But funny thing; there’s nothing wrong with that in my church. And in my church, I can say ‘no’. Ahhh….

  8. fta says:

    chanson- Yep. The gospel of the flying spaghetti monster was most definitely written by a (straight) male. There’s a footnote about male strippers for female pirates, but the male strippers are invisible to hetero guys. lol But he never considered making the female strippers invisible to the hetero gals. Hello? You should check out the book; it’s good for a couple hours of hearty, pirate laughs.

    JulieAnn- Isn’t it great that we can stop in at the UU and then not stop in when we feel like it? I go a few times a year, but I haven’t been ready to “covenant” to join. That word is just way to strong for me. I’m glad you found your faith affinity community.

  9. NFlanders says:

    I mean, it seems perfectly reasonable that strippers should go to heaven, but should they have to keep doing their job there? What kind of heaven is that?

    Milk before meat, my friends. You must first eat of the al dente noodles of His love before you can understand the intricacies of Pirate Heaven. Besides, I don’t know that we teach that. It’s more a bawdy couplet than anything.

  10. fta says:

    Milk before meat. Bawdy couplet indeed.

  11. The Sacred Sister says:

    fta, I can relate to this post. My oldest (7 years old) has asked me on a few occasions if we can attend various churches. Many of his friends talk about attending church and doing activities, so it’s very appealing.

    My favorite was when his friend, ‘Billy’ told him, “If you come to church with me on Sunday, you’ll get a door prize!”
    This peaked my curiosity so I asked, “What’s the door prize?”
    “All the new people that come to church get a jar full of Hershey’s kisses!” Little Billy was practically drooling at the thought.
    I told my son, “Hmm, I wonder if we can buy our own jar of Hershey’s kisses and stay home?”
    Billy nodded his head, “You can buy your own jar of kisses, I asked and my pastor told me it was only $10.”

    Wow, $10 for a jar of Hershey’s kisses? I hope that pastor was kidding about the cost. But seriously, what kind of crap is that? Giving children candy to attend church? Disgusting!
    This is also the same child that told my son he was going to burn in hell if he ever lied. Hell, fire, brimstone and… Chocolate? I wonder if they’d throw in some marshmallows and graham crackers so we can make s’mores?

  12. fta says:

    sacred sister- Now that is just manipulative, snaring kids with candy. Grr.

    I’m not against taking DS to different churches so he can see what he’s (not) missing. But for now, he hates the idea of going to church, really. DH told him today that our parents forced us to go to church every week, even when we didn’t want to, and DS was appalled! “I’d be sad if you did that to me,” he said.

    Love the s’mores comment. Priceless.

  1. April 29, 2007

    […] In a theistic world, secular humanists can face pressure to conform from unexpected directions. fta of Main Street Plaza deals with the tricky question of what a humanist parent should tell her son in a world defined by religious identity, in “I want to be something”. […]

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