Religion is often not a humble following of a universal truth. It is a changeable man-made entity designed to subjugate certain peoples.
I received a Christmas card from a distant relative today. The front showed an ornate crèche scene and inside was a bible verse proclaiming the birth of Jesus. The card itself was addressed to my son and me, with my partner conspicuously absent. I laughed out loud at the audacity of hiding a passive-aggressive statement about my same-sex marriage in a card dedicated to the birth of a man who spent his life preaching unconditional love.
But I didn’t laugh that long. Mine is just a small scale example of how often religion is used to disguise hatred. Not everyone does it. I was raised as a Catholic and know many people both inside and outside of my family for whom religion is a pillar of a well-lived life. But it happens often enough that I have decided, after years of going back and forth, that I do not want my son growing up in a religious tradition.
I believe in God. I consider myself a Christian. But I don’t believe in the politics and hypocrisy of religion. For example:
In this Christmas season, how many homes have crèche figurines on display in the same room where they cheer Donald Trump’s assertion that Muslims should not be given refuge in our country? In those manger scenes the Middle Eastern faces that would most accurately depict Jesus’s birth scene are mostly replaced with white skinned versions. The message of unconditional love that Jesus taught has been replaced with the message that some groups are “God’s chosen” and by their birthright are more deserving of good fortune. Religion is often not a humble following of a universal truth. It is a changeable man-made entity designed to subjugate certain peoples.
How many people reject the very compelling evidence of climate change, yet have never once questioned the story of the virgin birth of Jesus? That story has been used to oppress women for centuries. Children learn that Mary was used only as a tool of reproduction, becoming pregnant without giving permission. They learn that it is essential that her purity was untouched in the process, understanding that sex soils a woman. How different would the conversation on birth control and abortion be today if Jesus had been the product of a voluntary out-of-wedlock affair? Religion allows people to create a universal “truth” in the absence of any evidence. Religion allows people to believe what is convenient.
In a more personal example, I have a brother who sexually abused me for years. He belongs to a religion that teaches him that he will go to heaven because he has accepted Jesus into his heart. No acts of contrition necessary. Being raised Catholic, I spent my childhood counting my sins, constantly fearful that I would not perform all the acts necessary to make it to heaven. My belief system made coming out as a lesbian all the more miserable. So whether it be the threat of hell or the promise of salvation, religion turns morality into a discussion between an individual and God, not a conversation between two equal human beings.
As I said, I am well aware that not every religious person or community bases their faith in hateful beliefs. Many good works come out of church initiatives. For many, church provides a sense of community and a touchstone for morality. That is originally why I intended to join a church with my now 7-year-old son.
But I worry that no matter how liberal the church we ultimately join, someone will tell him that his mothers are sinners because we are lesbians. I fear that someone will tell him he is an angel on earth because he was born with Down syndrome. On Facebook, far from his young eyes, I often hear the sentiment that God gave me my son because I am a special person. My answer is always that you don’t have to be a special person to raise my son—he is awesome and parenting him is its own reward. I want God out of my familial relationships and especially out of my son’s disability.
So I will teach him a naked morality. No leaning on the bible or other religious teachings. No hiding behind religious doctrine. We should help others out of empathy, out of the humility that someday we may be the one who needs an extra meal, an extra coat. We will face the world as it is and trust in its goodness, even in the absence of religious rhetoric.
It’s not always easy. Last spring my son’s beloved aunt passed away. In explaining it to him, I initially told him we would never see her again. He cried. I so wanted a softer landing that the raw honesty gave way to talk of her being with God and the angels. I only stopped because it occurred to me that if I ever did want to introduce the concept of God, it should not be in the context of Him taking away the people my son most loves.
We got through it. There will be other circumstances I am sure when I am tempted to fall back on the teaching I got as a child, but I will resist as much as possible. The payoff? A simpler life with no artificially long lists of do’s and don’ts. A more peaceful life with no need to constantly defend one’s religious beliefs. A freer life with no need to capitulate to religious leaders. A life lived for itself.
Anne Penniston Grunsted writes about parenting, disability, and family life from her perspective as a lesbian mama. She has been published in The Washington Post, Brain, Child Magazine, Mamamia, and won the 2014 Nonfiction prize from Beecher’s Magazine. She lives in Chicago with her partner and son.