My daughter is five months old and it is getting to be about that time…time to make a decision about whether we should “christen” or baptize her. My husband and I have avoided making a concrete decision, mostly because neither of us really wants to do it. We did christen our son, and we wonder if it is really fair to have an event for one and not for the other. We reason that our poor second child will already be deprived of our attentions due to the squeakiness of the wheel that is her brother, why deprive her of an opportunity to have a family event be all about her? If we are being honest with our families, and ourselves, the answer to that question is pretty easy. Why not christen? Well, mostly because my husband and I no longer identify with Christianity.
Ugh. I felt a little surge of nausea just admitting that in writing. In fact, I reworded it several times before I could re-read it without it making my heart pound. It has been a VERY long journey for me to get to a place where I can acknowledge that I am no longer a Catholic in name or belief.* My husband’s journey away from his Lutheran background was much more silent and, I believe, it largely happened before we started dating. I think he kept it to himself because he was worried about what I would say. When I first started to voice my doubts I could see the relief in his eyes: he was no longer alone in his rejection of the faith of his childhood. We are in a very similar place in our beliefs…or lack thereof.
The difference is that for me to identify as agnostic or non-Christian or…whatever…does not set me apart in any way that really matters to me. As a white woman who has primarily lived in the Northeast, I do not fear being ostracized for not believing. I know many other people who I can identify with that are also not religious. My husband and my children, as African Americans, do not have that same privilege. Rarely do you meet African Americans that are openly non-religious or (gasp!) agnostic. Although the majority of my family identifies as Christian, many of the relatives in my generation (cousins, my sister) would best be described as agnostic. My husband’s family? Not so much. Nearly everyone he is close to in his family is a born-again, church-going Christian. Christianity is a huge part of their lives and their identity. It took a VERY long time for my husband to admit out loud, even to me, that he no longer believes…in fact when he reads this sentence he’ll probably want me to take it out because it upsets him so much.** He would like to avoid the entire topic and he tends towards wanting to just do the baptism—the fake it to make it approach. And I’m not sure I disagree with him.
On one hand, I cannot in good conscience walk into the Catholic Church and have my child christened, knowing that I would have to lie over and over again about my beliefs. On the other hand, why deprive her of that feeling of belonging? We thought about having a ceremony with a Unitarian congregation, and we are still not sure that we will not do that, but it feels like we would be doing it just to make things even between the siblings and not because it really means anything to us. I also wonder what our families would think if we decided to have a welcoming ceremony that was devoid of all talk of Christ. I have spoken to my mother about my shifting beliefs, but my husband has not confessed (and probably will not ever confess) his change of heart to his family.
On yet another (third) hand, part of what is so hard for me is that I feel that I am setting my daughter (and son, although he is baptized) up for being a religious minority within a community in which faith means so much. One poll showed that just three percent of African Americans say that they have “no religion.”*** That is no small thing, and it is a HUGE consideration for us when deciding how we will treat faith in our household. We have tried attending church even though we do not believe, just so that our children will not feel as if they are set apart from the African American Christian community. However, both of us feel so strongly about what we believe (and do not believe) that at this point in our lives we can no longer continue to do this (who knows, things could change). And shouldn’t we concentrate on teaching our children what we do believe, rather than spending time faking belief in what we have come to reject?
This is just the first of a million religious decisions we will have to make as parents and I cannot help but feel out of my depth. As I no longer identify as Christian, I do not worry that this decision will make the difference between salvation and being hell-bound for our daughter, but I worry that it could make it difficult for her to feel like she’s a part of the Black community.**** As a Black/biracial woman being raised in part by a white mother, she will likely struggle with her identity. The last thing I want to do is make it harder for her. But, I also feel like I need to focus on creating an environment of honesty and one in which she can be proud of who she is as a unique individual. Then again, that sounds great from the standpoint of an adult who is largely removed from the pressures of fitting in, it will probably sound pretty stupid and clueless to my young children. Are there any other parents out there in the religious minority? How have you handled faith and family issues? How do you handle fitting in and instilling confidence in what your family believes, despite the fact that it is out of the norm?
* Please do not respond to this trying to convert me. I was raised Catholic and have been Christian my entire life up until last year. Please believe that my spiritual struggle is nothing that I have taken lightly.
**Yup, that was his first reaction.
***http://abcnews.go.com/sections/us/dailynews/beliefnet_poll_010718.html. This figure includes self-identified atheists and agnostics.
****Tami wrote about this awhile ago: http://www.racialicious.com/2009/04/29/coming-out-black-and-agnostic/.