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“My wife and I don’t really believe in anything. Can we still bring our kids to your church?”
This is more or less what I asked Rev. Hank Peirce, the interim pastor at the Unitarian Universalist church about a mile from my house. I’d never spoken to him before, but when I looked him up on Twitter before our call, I saw a re-tweet that he’d posted on Christmas Day: “That awkward moment when you celebrate the birth of a Jew by eating a ham.” He sounded like my kind of guy.
It turns out, my question isn’t all that uncommon. Peirce told me that lots of people think they don’t have any use for church, up until the day their kids come home from school spouting the (sometimes noxious) beliefs of their playmates’ parents. “Religious education is like sex education,” he said. “If you don’t tell your kids about it, they’re going to hear something on the schoolyard, and it’s going to upset you.”
Actually, I hadn’t even thought about that yet. My kids are under 4 years old, and they’re completely ignorant about religion. My wife and I both grew up with a fairly evangelical, literalist brand of Christianity, and while we don’t quite consider ourselves atheists, we certainly don’t believe the things we believed when we were kids. I have decided, for example, that the earth is probably quite a bit more than 6,000 years old, that my pastor was probably wrong about Armageddon being imminent, and that, when we die, we most likely go back to where we were before we were born – a state of nothingness.
So, if I no longer believe that God can grant my family salvation in a life after this one, why am I thinking about going back to church now that I have kids? It’s not out of a desire to instill morality in them. Anyone who takes a look around can see that there are good and bad people of all faiths, and of no faith, and personally, I have pretty much the same sense of right and wrong that I did when I was a born-again Christian (except that I no longer believe an all-powerful being is giving me demerits for my sex life).
Instead, I’d like my kids to have a place where they can contemplate essential, universal questions about what it means to live a good life. I’d like for them to be part of a community searching for something bigger than the joys and struggles of everyday life – even if this “something greater” isn’t God. And I’d like these things for myself, too.
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Peirce told me that, while he does believe in God, my own lack of faith wouldn’t make me a misfit among Unitarians. In the church where he grew up, most parishioners were atheists.
“It’s about each individual having the ability to figure out, what’s the best route for them as they go through their life, and figure out what helps them make meaning in their life,” he said.
Peirce invited me to come to a service some Sunday, and while we haven’t made it in yet, we plan to visit soon. I still think it’s possible for my kids, and for me, to find meaning and community without God. But it might be a whole lot harder to find these things without church.