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May 1 2013

My Sons, The (Maybe) Nonbelievers

By at 10:32 am

two silhouettes arguing

First up in our month-long series all about God is author Ben Greenman.

Before I talked to my kids about God, I talked to God about my kids.

That was tricky as I did not believe in him. It was 2000, and my wife was pregnant, and one day after dinner we were watching TV, probably something terrible, and I was overcome by a sense of what at the time seemed like dread but which I think, in retrospect, was awe. Both of those are biblical notions anyway and I cannot guarantee that they are not the same thing seen from different angles. I excused myself. “I’m feeling a little tired,” I said. She was happy to keep watching TV by herself–a little too happy.

I went into the bedroom. My head was spinning. I looked up at the ceiling. I began to imagine that I saw a presence there. I explained to the ceiling that more people were about to appear in my home, and that I hoped that was okay, and that I would do my best. It was like the opposite of the Garden of Eden: I fell asleep with all my clothes on, no snake in sight, without any sense of rules, even the ones I might break.

The kids were born, one and then the other, three years later. They got older as boys tend to do. Daniel, the older of the two, was always very circumspect about the idea of any divine power. From pretty early on, he announced that he was a nonbeliever, which upset my wife and her mother (though I should point out that no one told my wife to tell her mother–who does that? It seemed like a gilded invitation for blowback).

I was weirdly proud because it was a pattern repeated. My father hadn’t believed in any god, or at least said he hadn’t, and I had decided early on that he was right. A rational strain ran through the generations like a beacon. I didn’t say that to anyone, the part about the beacon, because it would have been obnoxious. But my son’s view was more nuanced, as it turned out. “I think that belief proves that there is a God, in a way,” he said. “It’s just that it’s an idea. And people believe in ideas.” He must have seen my brow unwrinkle as he spoke, because he went and wrote it down. I have that paper somewhere: his barely legible 8-year-old handwriting, his entirely legible 8-year-old thought.

My other son, younger, was not especially interested in nuance. He likes math and the certainty to which it is, in childhood, yoked. He dismissed the idea of God out of hand. “There isn’t,” he said. “It’s stupid.” There was probably a scowl spreading to fill his face as he said it, and a smile coming just behind to demonstrate his pleasure in scowling. My wife told him that he might change his mind one day and he shook his head vigorously. She told him that he could decide but also that he should not decide. He pounced on that. “You can’t decide and not decide at the same time,” he said. “That’s like saying there is a God and also there isn’t.” And there it was, two nonbelievers.

My wife, a believer (or at least a non-nonbeliever), was displeased. She accused me of swaying them. “I didn’t tell them what to think,” I said.

“It’s not that. They sense what you think and they think the same thing.”

“I wish I had that power,” I said. “It sounds almost godlike.”

She laughed but with a sadness at the heart of it and I felt bad. She was probably right. And whether or not they ended up on the side of belief or disbelief, wouldn’t it be better if they arrived there on their own?

Recently, to my surprise and pleasure, they have begun to soften. The younger one, now 9, passed through an extended period where he mused on the beginnings of the universe.

“I’m not sure,” he said. “There’s got to be something out there that started everything. Maybe it’s aliens. Maybe it’s science. How did the universe come from nothing into something? It makes no sense.”

His hands tightened on the impossibility of the idea (unless he was planning another hit). The older one has remained connected to his idea that God is only an idea, and it seems to amuse him and nourish him in equal measure. Once at night, when they were supposed to be in their own bedrooms, asleep, I walked by my older son’s room and heard them both in there, discussing the matter. “If there is a God,” the older one said, “he can’t really do what people say: see everything and hear everything. He could only hand out rules as recommendations and then see what happens. People make their own decisions after that.”

The younger one only listened, which is extremely rare. I should have gone in and made them go to sleep. It was very late. But I let them decide and not decide.

Ben Greenman is an editor at the New Yorker and the author of several acclaimed books of fiction. His newest book, the novel “The Slippage,” was just released.

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 To read all of the post in this series, click here.

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