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9/4/00 The road to Emmaus

After rearranging furniture, a print of The Way to Emmaus ended up being moved to the wall above the dining room table, filling the void where there had been tall bookcases. My daughter & I were sitting, eating lunch, and she suddenly asked, "Who are those guys?"

I answered, "That is Jesus, and two of his friends."

"Who's Jesus?"

Such a question is to be expected from a toddler. Possibly even more so from my daughter. Long ago, I made the choice to raise her without religion. That is not to say, as an atheist. There is a distinct difference.

During the custody dispute, I was to meet with a guardian ad litem, a court-appointed child's advocate. In amongst his questions about my home, the care I give to my daughter, and my lifestyle, he asked me about my religion. I answered honestly that I consider myself atheist. After the answer left my mouth, I realised how inadequate it was - I had to follow up with an explanation. I gestured to my bookshelves filled with a variety of religious books, and added: "that doesn't mean I'm without morals -- I've read all of these books, for the purpose of figuring out how to live. I just don't consider myself christian, or jewish, or any other form of religion. I believe what I believe, but I'm not into anarchy or anything. I do have faith."

And I do have faith. There are things about the world which I believe. I believe that there are things beyond the comprehension and perception of the human mind. There have always been such things, and humanity has used any number of tools to give us added means to percieve things beyond what our minds and bodies are capable of. But that is not to say that those things are acts of God, or that there isn't a God running the works. I believe that there's balance to the universe, that good and bad counterbalance and counteract each other, until there is equilibrium. These are simple things, the basic sort of faith which all religions have a basis in. The constant tenet known as the Golden Rule has existed since the beginning of mankind, in a variety of forms and functions, but it has always existed for the same purpose - create society where everyone cooperatively treats each other with respect and kindness.

However, another ingrained function of humanity is to create kinships. Organized religion is the result of kinships being created around common faiths. Faith is a personal trait, religion is a societal trait, and it's difficult to consider your beliefs as wrong if you and all your friends believe the same thing. So, outcasts are created, rules are enforced, developing into laws, and eventually into theological governments. Seperation of church and state may not be completely capable of solving the problems of e pluribus unum, but on a certain level the founders of the USA saw what the mix of personal faith and group cohesion caused. Once internal ideas become external rules governing other people, hostility will result.

It isn't easy to suddenly find a society of like-minded people to join you in a religion. Christianity began through followers of the religion becoming teachers, spreading the words of their faith to people who are without faith. There are many people without faith, people who have lost faith in the religion they were raised in, people who never learned a religion to begin with, and children who have not yet learned anything about faith.

I grew up going to Sunday School. Not by choice, however; I remember opposing religious learning. It didn't take me long to find it interesting. Not that I began to believe it, but that I began to learn it. I was able to read long before I started Sunday School, so I understood writing itself. I saw bible stories as stories, and I understood that there were underlying meanings to words. As I got older, I began to understand how to use the things I read in the bible. It took many years, and I even considered joining the priesthood to learn more. I never intended to make christianity my life. Despite the failure of years of inferior sunday school teachers, I saw the reason that religion is here, and not just because I was told to believe what the teachers said.

In high school, for speech class I presented a speech against organized religion. I didn't like the class, so part of the reason I wrote it was to offend the other people in my class. I succeeded in that aspect, but I didn't make the point that I understood within me -- that faith, belief, and morality are internal feelings, another level of emotion, and not a set of rules to be imposed by religion. Threats against the immortal soul are no good reason to live according to what you believe. Knowledge that my beliefs are my own, and that they reflect on who I am, give me a place in society. If I follow what I believe, and try to do good to other people, then I can act in good concience that I am being a positive part of the society around me. Nobody is capable of perfection, and bad things happen sometimes, both due to my own actions, and sometimes despite my own actions, but these events will pass. Every religion is based off of these statements, to some degree, and this is what I've learned over the years.

My peers, equally intelligent, equally thirsting for knowledge, took to the religion that was impressed upon them. I, however, learned this under my own efforts. Like most teenagers, I looked down upon people who I felt were not as smart as me. It took me a while to learn something which organized religion seems to ignore, but is a core part of the beliefs I outlined above, and have said a couple times in leading up to this point: Faith is a personal thing. The things you believe are your own. It sounds extremely simple, but yet it is true. The people who believe in their religion believe it for their own reasons. The faithless who take to a new religion are faithless for one reason or another, but no matter what the reason, they are without anything to believe in.

I do not want my daughter to feel, someday, that she was misled. To lose faith, whether due to a sudden epiphany, or due to leading a lifestyle which cannot exist within the rules of the religion, can be very difficult. There are stories of people suddenly being reborn into Jesus, or one day finding the Islam faith, or slowly migrating into Bahai or Unitatianism or Baptist, just because they catch a glimpse of something which they believe, that was not accomodated by the religion that they had been taught.

Teaching my daugher to follow the rules of a religion is not going to help her find her own faith - I want her to learn how to act upon what she believes. I want her to understand that when she acts upon what she believes, that she has a responsibility to the world around her to do the right thing. How she acts and what she believes do not matter, as long as she can stand behind what she believes, and that her beliefs have a positive effect on her world. Every religion can accomodate this level of personal faith, and she can fine-tune her beliefs in any religion that she can find. Personal faith leads to social responsibility, and finally into a position in society where she can believe in her own faith.

When she asked "Who's Jesus?" I paused for a moment. I thought about how to present religion, without degrading the faith behind it. "Jesus was a smart man. He was the son of God - " I leaned my chair back to reach a Bible off a bookcase behind me.

"He taught people, a long time ago, about how to live and be good to each other. This book is full of stories about how to live, be good, and be happy. I'll have to read you some of the stories sometime."

She responded, "I am good."

"Yes you are, you are a very good girl."

"Sometimes I'm bad, sometimes I don't listen...."

"Well, that doesn't matter, as long as you try to be good, and apologize when you do something bad. Bad things happen sometimes, but you can still be good."

"I'll try to be good."

"That's good. That's all that matters."

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