Religion vs. Church

This week the kids have been going to vacation bible school. We’ve never gone to church as a family, so it’s a little weird having the girls come home in the evening singing church songs and trying to memorize bible verses. It’s even weirder that they’re so excited about it.

Missus and I were both raised in the church but drifted away from it after we grew up. We both had our minds blown by a world religion professor in the freshman course we took in college. I took a more Buddhist philosophy to the meaning of life, and started calling myself an atheist after reading a couple Richard Dawkins books. Eventually I corrupted Missus, much to the chagrin of her fundamentalist father.

When I was running for office, I had to tour the churches. I actually had a quite moving moment in one of them, as it was the first time I’d attended a real church service in years. I got caught up in the moment. I had been to a Unitarian church a few times in the previous year, but this was a black church, and it was unlike anything I’d seen in a long time. I remembered the singing from my childhood and the feeling of being a part of something bigger than myself, and it was so powerful that I broke down in tears for several minutes.

I’ve got a copy of Religion for Atheists sitting on my bedside table, unread. I picked it up years ago when I was struggling with this conflict between religion and church. I lost it for a while and have been meaning to pick it back up. I’ve only read the first couple chapters, but it’s remained untouched for some time. The theme of the book is how do non-believers take the things that are good from organized religion, the community, the sense of togetherness, the rituals, and remove them from the baggage of biblical literalism. I think the Unitarians were on the right path here, but the service that I went too seemed a bit hollow, like something was missing. Maybe it was the progressive, political baggage that was subtext to what was going on in the country at the time. I’m not sure.

I started a habit of listening to Dr. Roger Ray’s Progressive Faith sermons on my podcast feed. Ray was trained as a biblical scholar, and is very frank about the historical origins of the bible. He’s not one for magical thinking, and his voice was a very welcome one during the last months of the Trump era. I haven’t listened much since my interest in politics has waned.

During the COVID lockdown we fell in with a very religious family down the street. Trump voting, gun-toting, church-going, military family from Louisiana. Not exactly who we would have picked out of a lineup to be friends with. But the kids became friends, and our families became very tight. I even got D. to start buying bitcoin. A few weeks ago, Younger decided that she wanted to go to church with her best friend, and I really wasn’t going to stop her. So she’s been going for a few weeks, and when vacation bible school came around, I was surprised that Elder wanted to go as well.

So each afternoon this week, I’ve been watching D.’s kids while he brings over the church bus, and then the kids load up and head out for a few hours. The girls are super excited when they get back, talking up how they sing songs on the bus, how there are games and the food is really good. They have some sort of points contest going on, and Elder has been trying to game it, even trying to memorize bible verses.

Now I’m not the type of secular progressive to get all tittered over my kids going to church. Missus said we both went and we turned out alright. Recently I’ve been trying to come up with some family values as part of our family business meetings. All of the constitution templates that I dug up all reference “faith in God” as one of the tenets, and such language is a non-starter to me. Trying to figure out our own values outside of religious dogma is something that I’m struggling to enumerate, if you will.

I stumbled across a meme on Twitter yesterday, it’s a quote from H.L. Mencken. “Morality is doing what is right, now matter what you are told. Religion is doing what you are told, no matter what is right.” That’s mainly what’s always bothered me about “religion”. My grandfather used his religion to justify his racism, and it was the bigotry of evangelicals during the 90’s that ultimately turned me off from it forever.

And in a somewhat amusing case of synchronicity, I was reading section in The Sovereign Individual last night describing the role of the church in guiding Europe out of the dark ages. It’s a quote from A. R. Radcliffe-Brown: “the social function of a religion is as independent of its truth or falsity.” The last paragraphs of the chapter go on to interpret the Genesis story of the expulsion from the Garden of Eden as describing the change from hunter gatherer societies to agrarian ones. There’s contrast between peaceful gathering societies who enjoy an “life of ease”, and the “paradise lost” of toiling the land, and the violence that ensued as mankind shifted to stationary farms. It’s a very convincing argument.

Now my children have put me in a bit of a moral quandary. I’m more than happy to barter with D. for childcare — it does take a village — I’m a bit more at a loss to figure out what to do here. Missus seems to have no trouble letting the girls go to church with them, but I’m not sure how I feel letting them get on the bus to go off with a bunch of strangers. One time when Elder was little, she’d been going to another church with woman from her daycare, who also babysit from time to time. I remember one day I brought her there at her request, and basically dropped her off. I remember the look on their faces when I left, explaining that I wasn’t going to stay for service. I did feel a bit guilty about it, using them for free babysitting basically.

I feel a similar guilt here, but I’m not sure that it’s warranted. D. seems to genuinely relishing taking the kids, and the kids are enjoying it, and now I feel some sort of obligation. I think a donation is warranted to help cover the cost of the food and activities that the girls have been doing. And I’ll probably get dragged in to a service tomorrow night for kids’ recital or whatever they’ve got planned for their finale. Still, I don’t plan on attending any services.

I’ve been writing this most of the morning. The kids have interrupted me several times, and I’ve been short with them because today I actually had something to write about. They’ve been fighting, and I’ve actually gotten so mad at Elder for being defiant that I’ve wanted to hit her. We’ve been having problems for the last couple days. Yesterday, while enjoying our peaceful afternoon while the kids were away, Missus remarked that we really haven’t been doing a good job as parents recently. Keeping the kids at home all week, making them do chores and letting them watch TV all the time. It’s no wonder that they are super excited about VBS and want to go. I’m not really offering them much since school was out.

Tomorrow is July 1. Elder is starting her GalileoXP summer camp, and I’ll restart daddy pre-K with Younger. Missus wants to have an adventure this weekend, but I promised to stain the deck this weekend, so I’m not sure what will happen. Missus is looking at summer camps, trying to find something for the kids to do to get them out of the house and clear the air a bit. The mood in this house is bipolar, and I’m not sure what to do about it. Just breathe, I suppose, and try to find things for the kids to do.

It’s just so hard trying to balance my desire to do deep work and spend more time with my kids. Maybe I just need to accept that what my kids need is less time with their dad.

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