The Doubt Behind the Mixed-Faith Household

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Jeremiah Traeger

Mixed-faith households must have a terrible time deciding how to raise kids in their faith. It’s probably hard deciding which eternal hellfire is more of a risk and should be avoided. I’m horribly informed about the demographics of mixed-faith households, and  as usual I’m not interested in putting effort into much, but some quick Googling tells me that as many as 25% of households are mixed-faith. That trend appears to be increasing over time, and therefore more and more households will be raising kids under the roof of two religions. This certainly makes sense in a world emphasizing more cultural tolerance over time, and I honestly think this is good news for secularism. Though I found no good numbers on the faiths of children leaving mixed-religion households, my experience being raised under parents under two denominations makes me believe that it’s an environment that will cause children to question over time and become more religiously tolerant.

 

As a bit of background, my dad comes from a Lutheran background (his mom gave me a shirt that says “Luther Rocks!” for my birthday once), and my mom is Catholic. Both are socially liberal, though my dad is more of a political centrist and has cancelled out my mom’s votes from time to time in major elections. Both have supported gay, lesbian, and bisexual rights, and both even recently thought my recent advocacy for the transgender rights movement is wonderful. Both are supportive of immigrants and value the variety of cultures around the world, including religions. This appears to be a successful enough foundation for a successful relationship including a marriage that is now 30 years old.

 

At this point, some ex-Baptists or other such ex-fundies might cringe of thinking of the Catholics as a “denomination” of Christianity. After all, Catholics deviate from Biblical literalism in many aspects of their practice, including praying to saints and including extrabiblical Church teachings as an integral part of the doctrine. What many people fail to recognize (Christian and non-Christian alike) is that while a holy book may be part of the foundation of a religion or a denomination, the holy book is not the sum total of the religion. There are plenty of extra-Biblical concepts that fundie churches teach; the Bible mentions nothing about abortion as we know it today, transgender people, and it doesn’t really describe original sin in detail or mention it by name. As such it seems just as reasonable to include Catholicism under the umbrella of Christianity as any other group. As a non-believer, it’s not my job to decide who a real Christian is or not, I’ll let the Catholics and the evangelicals battle it out and let me know when they come to a consensus.

 

Despite what some perceive as large differences, it was actually pretty hard growing up with both denominations to remember which part of each church was which. Each service is pretty much the same. There’s some singing, a guy up front talks for a bit, and he reads from his book, talks some more, there’s some more singing, you sit up and down, you have snacks, and then you leave. The Sunday schools were pretty much the same, we colored scenes from the Bible and sang songs and made artsy t-shaped torture devices out of popsicle sticks. Growing up in both, they were so similar I didn’t really have a good way of remembering which was which. My siblings and I constantly had to be corrected when we referred to the Lutheran minister as the “priest”, or the service as “mass”. And I was always confused when I would see that the person up front leading the service was a woman a few weeks after learning in Catholic Sunday school that women couldn’t do that.

 

One of the other relevant experiences that most religious folks growing up probably don’t share is a sense of openness to other belief systems. For any healthy interdenominational relationship, there has to be a certain respect for other religious viewpoints, which my parents definitely have. Because we were raised in that environment, we were not only respectful of the belief systems of both parents, but that extended to belief systems of others. As such, it was easy to get along with the LDS people that were a large portion of my small Arizona hometown, or to go to my friends’ Churches when I spent the night with them. I recall my mom even taking me to see some Buddhist monks working on a sand mandala, and she educated me on some basics of their supernatural belief systems such as their belief in the Buddha (at the time I didn’t realize that my aunt also had converted to Buddhism, which had caused a ruckus in that family).

 

Of course, such openness to other religious belief makes you realize that not everyone is right. Some beliefs are mutually exclusive. The god that Christians believe in can’t simultaneously approve and not approve of women ministers, as noted above. The existence of saints is either true or it’s not. I can’t comment on the experiences of others who lived with interdenominational parents, but for me this set me in a mindset of having to pick which religion was true. In a world where Christians are the overwhelming majority and being raised exposed almost exclusively to that worldview, my biases led me to believe there was probably a monotheistic god of a largely Christian flavor, and all the denominations more or less had it right but had minor differences of opinion on what the truth was. But because of this perspective, this put me in a state of having to decide what doctrines seemed correct or not. Of course, even the leaders of each church disagreed with each other, even after years of going to their respective seminaries (not all denominations require this, but many do). Most of them had far more intimate knowledge of the Bible than I did. How could I even hope to find which doctrine held to the truth over another? While I didn’t know it at the time, these would be the cracks that would eventually burst causing me to abandon my faith. At the time, I went about my life, having faith that my god would reveal me the truth when I needed to see it. Until then, I was on the same spiritual journey of uncertainty that everyone else seemed to be on, with no clear truth in sight.

 

Of course, this was under the faulty assumption that everyone else was just as uncertain as I was. My parents both were both open enough that they felt that once I was old enough I could decide for myself what my beliefs were. My naiveté didn’t allow me to realize that parents of the same religion likely taught their children that theirs was the correct one, and there were no realistic expectations of converting. After all, without exposure to anything else and with the trusted parent figures insisting that they have it right, what motivation is there to do anything else. This baffled me when I met fundamentalists who wouldn’t budge. Imagine my confusion when I met an actual creationist for the first time. I found him so close-minded at insisting that, “the Bible says it, and that’s that!” What a small god, who couldn’t design the Earth utilizing the Big Bang and planetary cosmology? The only way he could have possibly done it is by the snap of the fingers, but over the course of six days, apparently. Imagine my confusion another time when a girlfriend of mine didn’t get my liberal faith. “How do you decide who is going to Hell or not?” Is that really our decision? Wasn’t that our god’s decision? Shouldn’t we just do our best to seek the truth and do our best to our fellow humans?

 

Thus far, I have illustrated the mixed-faith upbringing as a mostly positive experience. I think it was a beneficial upbringing, but I think it has its downsides. The liberal, mix-and-match cafeteria Christian has a lot of room for the other hippie bullshit. By its nature, it lends itself to the thought-stifling, “all religions can be true” uncritical nonsense. Because of this, other religions are fair game to bring into the mix, as well as all kinds of woo. This insulates religion from criticism, since it elevates mere faith as a virtue, and has all kinds of problems wrapped up in the coexistence message. If someone else holds some batshit religion, it stifles questioning, reducing that interaction to a mere, “Well, that’s what those people believe, so we have to respect it.” This extends to holding back on fundamentalist Christianity which has a myriad of abusive problems and societal harms, or stopping criticism of Islam since it’s “just what they believe”.

 

 

My sister has gotten wrapped up in this too. When I’ve rolled her eyes at her for being afraid of spending time in a supposedly haunted house, she got mad at me because she believed in ghosts. She chastised me, because, “that’s just what I believe!” At a funeral, she insisted that there was some grand plan and that “everything happens for a reason”, a sentiment I think is part of a grand failure of religion’s way of dealing with death. She’s into karma and all sorts of other bullshit that has a “spiritual” essence but doesn’t fall under the Christian umbrella. This may just as easily be a result of her personality, but an open-minded Christian upbringing certainly didn’t hurt it.

 

That being said, I hope that the trend continues and religious households continue to diversify. Even if people fall into the “Everyone is right” coexistence narrative, it’s better than an abusive, homophobic, or authoritarian upbringing. For other children predisposed to doubt and skepticism, it is probably the best religious environment people could hope for, as it sows seeds of questioning. Someone could probably make the case that it’s even better than a household with no religion, as it gives the child a real chance to think their way to the truth and think themselves out of the faith. I wouldn’t take that stance, I’d rather the falsehoods be done away with altogether.

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