These are my remarks from the Sunstone 2008 panel #331, “Raise up a child in the way she should go…and which way is that?” Several of you have asked Jana and I about how we’ve approached the spiritual aspects of raising our two precocious children, and two years spent outside the church have given us a little bit of perspective. You can skip all my blabbering and go straight to GameBoy’s and CatGirl’s own words about their experience thus far (shared pseudonymously, with their permission):
About two years ago, our family decided to leave the Church and to commit ourselves more fully to the local Quaker meeting that we escaped to on occasion. In a general sense, we left we found that the Church was no longer a spiritual haven for our family. While we loved the people at Church, so much of the doctrine, institution and culture was in dissonance with what was dear to our spirits. In the next few minutes I’d like to share a little bit about the circumstances of our family’s departure and the impact that it’s had on our children.
Although I preceded Jana in shedding the core convictions that many if not most Mormons share, and in spite of the dissonance and frustration we experienced weekly, we continued to attend out of fear: fear of offending Jana’s family, and fear of our children losing the moral and social stability provided by the Church. If I can point to any one thing that eventually pushed us over the edge, it was Gameboy’s ordination to the Priesthood. The validation, responsibility, and ritual authority he received were a living testimony of everything that CatGirl would be denied. For Jana and I, leaving the Church suddenly took on a moral urgency. We asked our children if they would be ok with leaving the Church and after discussing the possible social and spiritual impact, they agreed that it would be the best thing for our family. We felt that the Quaker meetings we had attended left us feeling a deep, abiding peace (fwiw, President Monson has said that peace is the one feeling that Satan cannot counterfeit). We found our core values in sync with the central Quaker “SPICES” testimonies: Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality, and Sustainability.
- Our names are still on the records of the church.
- Jana and I choose to remain orbit around Mormonism, though her orbit is tighter than mine.
- We self-identify differently: Jana would probably describe herself as a gardener first, and Quaker and Mormon second. Our 14 year-old son (Gameboy) calls himself Quaker, my daughter (CatGirl) — Quaker Atheist, and me, well, today I’m an ex-Mormon, Quaker Atheist with a long pour of Japanese Buddhism and twist of cultural Shintoism.
That said, I think that our decision to move to Quakerism was because we all felt that we had to go somewhere—we felt that we couldn’t just cut ourselves adrift.
One Sunday earlier this year, I taught the older kids’ Firstday School (aka Sunday School). The class that day consisted of me, my son, and my daughter. I took advantage of the situation and ditched my prepared lesson and began an informal discussion about our encounter thus far with Quakerism.
We took turns going over the core Quaker values and what they meant to each us. GameBoy observed that “The values are all tied together, they all interact with and reinforce each other.” He gave the example that when we’re content with what we have (as individuals or as countries), we’re less likely to fight for more.
When we got to Equality, CatGirl said that as a Quaker, “I feel like I don’t have to wait to grow up to make a difference. I can start now.”
We then read some of the queries for this month, which were laden with references to God. We talked about that. CatGirl admitted that she felt that she was an atheist (and that her best friend was an atheist who occasionally sacrificed to the God of Homework). GameBoy felt that he was an agnostic. We talked about what it meant to wait in silence for the inner light/light of Christ/voice of conscience and to share these experiences in a community of Quakers who had a wide range of beliefs and descriptions of God/not-God. We wrapped up with five minutes of silent meditation.
Colored as our experiences are by a long history of Mormon doctrinal rigidity, it’s an absolute joy to have opportunities of open-ended discussion about God, beliefs and values with my children.
Now some people have dismissively pointed out that my atheism is just a replacement for Mormonism in its influence on the children. I don’t deny that my own unbelief has influenced the kids, but Jana and I have given them a lot more room to come up with their own conclusions than the LDS environment encouraged. Whenever the kids asked me questions growing up, I always tried to give them both my view as well as a faithful LDS view, out of respect for Jana and for their own ties to the Church. CatGirl often joined me when I visited other churches (and now we have a shared pool of unforgettable experiences, including being called up to stand in and be prayed for in front of an AME Church and receiving communion and origami cranes from a beloved gay minister of the United Congregational Church). I don’t think that the kids would have received this kind of broad religious exposure in most LDS settings. Kiskilili (of ZD) paraphrased Matthew 15:8 offhand yesterday to me and I think it applies here: “With their lips they (the church) do honor free agency, but their hearts are far from it.” I think that I can say that we have a lot more respect now for their questions and agency than we ever did as believing Mormons.
Here the kiddos in their own words:
I never really liked Mormonism. For one thing, I never really believed most of the things that I was told in Primary, and never really listened in Sacrament. That didn’t mean that I didn’t know it, I had what I knew about Mormonism pretty much memorized. Once the bishop told me, after I had said that I was unsure that I believed, that I surely must have faith because I had answered correctly all of the questions he had asked. The questions were about Joseph Smith, going on a mission, keeping the Sabbath day holy, etc. Personally, I think it was more that I listened every single time I was told this stuff over and over again. I just didn’t believe and/or didn’t agree with the things that I was told. Another thing that I didn’t like about Mormonism was that, to me, I felt that there was so many things that I felt obligated to do that I didn’t want to do. Reading the Book of Mormon, for example. Another thing is that I was given the priesthood when I turned twelve. It seemed like more of a burden than a blessing to me.
I feel that Quakerism is very different. In Quakerism as I know it, there’s less doctrine, more freedom to believe what you believe. You can be Jewish and Quaker, or atheist and Quaker. It’s less strict–missing a Meeting is okay, and you don’t need to wear nice clothes when you go to meeting. The Quaker ‘spice(s)’ beliefs match mine: Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality (and Sustainability).
So, in short, I like Quakerism better than Mormonism.
I never really believed all that stuff we learned in Primary, I just thought, “I have no choice.” I dreaded Sundays–Saturday was always my favorite day of the week. I dreaded sitting through those three hours of boredom and playing some game that was made for five-year-olds. I remember my baptism interview particularly well. The bishop asked my what I had learned about in Primary that day, and I, being very shy, simply mumbled something or other. But the bishop leaded me, “You learned about prayer and Joseph Smith, right?” I nodded. He continued on to ask me about my beliefs–and of course I said I believed all that–what else could I say?
I loved that month of transition, of searching, more than anything. It was the freedom I had longed for all these years. My favorite “church” that we found was “Beach Church”. Quite simply, we would meditate on the beach. I loved the soothing rhythm of the crashing waves as we sat on the warm sand.
Quaker meeting is similar to beach church. Despite the fact that I moved through faiths with my parents, I don’t feel as if I were forced. I love the freedom and simplicity of Quaker values–simplicity being one of them–and this freedom has led me to realize what I really am: an Atheist Quaker.
Of course, Quaker meeting could be greatly improved if it was at the beach…