Just before his sixth birthday our son went through a phase. He felt an urgent need to decide whether he believed in God. A little early perhaps, but that's just how it goes when your mom is an ex-Muslim Indonesian diaspora and your dad is an ex-Catholic Italian-American from New Jersey (yes, we have a boatload of cousins and half of them are named Maria, Theresa or Donna).
It started out with a simple query about why he doesn't go to “Sunday School”, which is what the diaspora in the Washington, DC area call our weekly children's pengajian. The conversation went like this:
Son: How come Gisma goes and I don't? He says they get cookies.
Me: Do you know what they do at Sunday school?
Son: They eat cookies.
Me: Yes, and what else?
Son: They have games.
Me: What else?
Son: I don't know.
Me: They teach you how to read the Quran and how to be a good Muslim. Do you know what that means?
So I explained as best as I can the concept of religion in ways that a five year-old might understand. I told him “it's rules that some people believe they need to live a good life, to be closer to God”.
Son: What's God?
Me: Some people believe God is the creator of everything, of people, of planets, of the universe (we watch a lot of Science Channel). They read a special book that tells them about these rules and call themselves certain names to show that they believe God in the special way that they do.
Son: Like what?
Me: Well, Mom-Mom and Pop-Pop, they are what we call Catholics. They believe in God, they call him Jesus and they learn about his rules from this book called the Bible. And we call Yangti (Javanese for grandmother) a Muslim because she believes in God whom she calls Allah and her book is called the Quran. You know when she does sembahyang and you're not supposed to bother her?
Son: When she puts on the white thing?
Me: Yes! That means she's praying, which is one of the rules if you're a Muslim.
At this point he got distracted and that was that. I must admit that I was kind of relieved and later that night pow-wowed with his dad about what to say should the subject come up again.
A few days later when we were snuggling before bed he says, “Mami, do you believe in God?”
Son: Does daddy?
Son: Why not?
Me: We don't think it makes sense.
Son: Why not?
Me: Well, we feel that humans don't really know who created the universe and we think that it's better to say we don't know than to say we know for sure, when we actually don't.
And then I said the line that his dad and I agreed to say on this subject, which is, “Most people in the world believe in God and they practice religion. Mami and Daddy don't, and we are what people call atheists. When you grow up, we want you to think about this, read about this, talk to people about this and decide for yourself whether you believe or not.”
I had hoped that would have been that, but of course that's never the case with a curious five-year-old. He proceeded to list every single person he knew and asked me if they believe in God, everyone from his teacher, friends, our neighbors, the school bus driver, even pets. I swear the kid would have done well at Gallup.
After answering the best I could (“I don't know what Miss Mary believes”, “I don't think anyone knows because humans can't talk to cats”), I said that religion is a private matter and not everybody likes to talk about it. Then I told him that it's late and he needed to go to sleep.
Son: OK but tomorrow I'm going to ask Geoff and Rachel and Muhammad.
Me, silently: Oh boy.
Thus he spent a good week or so of his year in kindergarten asking everyone. Since this is suburban Washington, DC, most people would respond, adults mostly with a chuckle. Kids would sometimes ask him back what God is, and he would enthusiastically, elaborately and very often incorrectly explain God.
He kept a running tab in his head of who believes, who doesn't, who's not sure, who doesn’t know anything about it, and he would recount this list back to us, sometimes with glee (Anya is in FOURTH GRADE and she doesn’t know what God means!).
He was least satisfied with the “I've never really thought about it” that he got from some adult friends. But what was awesome was that nobody got upset. Obviously things would have been very different had this spiritual quest occurred during one of our family vacations in Jakarta and for this I am forever grateful.
For about a week he was obsessed with God and all things God-related. We answered his questions the best we could and kept on reminding him that there's really no rush, he doesn't have to decide now. But just as it was with dinosaurs, magnets, Angry Bird, Minecraft and Being a Spy, so it was with God. It was all God talk all the time, with almost everyone he knows. He would pick up conversations about God the same way kids would talk about trading Pokemon cards.
Some church-going friends would be a little surprised, but the harshest rebuke he ever got was from a neighbor his age who simply said, "That's rude!"
The conversations he had with his friends who attended pengajian were the most entertaining to eavesdrop. "What? God sees everything? How can you see EVERYTHING?” (his pengajian friends insisted that’s the case especially if you are being bad and your parents are not around)
"How can God be in your heart all the time and in everybody else's at the same time?" (at this point they would digress into the realm of superheroes). It was obsessive God time in a five-year-old boy's mind and it was pretty spectacular to watch.
We indulged him the way we would his other obsessions - we knew it wouldn't last. We delved into fun subjects like sin (something that's against the rules and your punishment is deferred) and other supra-natural beings (Santa is really your parents, except for the one you take a picture with at the mall. So is the Tooth Fairy).
We tried to stick to the most basic facts and we stressed that people can believe whatever they want, there is no right or wrong. We resisted the temptation to share our own issues with religion; not only to avoid having a mini rabid Richard Dawkins in the house which would get old really quickly but because we figured that would be the surest way to turn him into a born-again in his rebellious teenage years.
One day, out of the blue he declared, “I don’t believe in God.” We looked at him and said, “That’s cool. And it’s also cool if you change your mind”.
After this proclamation the God business was quickly forgotten, like old piles of Legos and once cherished paper airplanes. But a few weeks later he scolded us for not saying God bless you when he sneezed, the way his grandparents taught him.
I said, "I thought you said you don't believe in God?". He looked at me, puzzled.
"You know... God! God bless you?" I tried to explain.
And with the confidence only a five year-old can possess he replied, “It’s not GOD bless you mami! It’s GAAAA!! You know, gablessyou?! You say gablessyou when someone sneeze!”
So that, friends, was how our son declared himself an atheist at age five. Thanks for reading, and gablessyou.
Candy Unagi is a pseudonym, duh. When she's not pretending to be a Japanese porn starlet, Candy divides her time between work, her ever-curious son, her succulent terrariums and other crafty obsessions, as well as cooking and hosting dinner parties with her boyfriend who indulges her over-the-top thematic table-setting even though it means a lot more dishes for him to wash. Oh, and yoga where her favorite is the corpse pose. Candy is very proud of the fact that after many years in the closet she no longer hides the bacon when her mother visits. Of course Candy is a journalist. She just doesn’t use her real name because she believes in the message not the messenger.