“You are the first generation born without religion.” Douglas Coupland wrote this about my generation in Life After God. Of course he was correct. As much as our parents, many of whom were part of the hippie generation, attempted to live a nontraditional life in their youth, once they got a little older and married they fell into fairly conservative lifestyles. Church, and specifically the Judeo-Christian religions of the founding fathers, was a cornerstone of that conservatism. As much as they tried to separate themselves from the greatest generation they shared many of their beliefs and traditions.
Perhaps the most nontraditional thing our parents did in terms of religion and faith was not forcing their children to follow their path. Oh sure, they might have baptized us and sent us to Sunday school but they were half hearted at best in their attempts to indoctrinate us with their religion. Whether it was their silent protest at the world, laziness or some other unknown reason they just didn’t feel the need to force us to be good Christian soldiers. Don’t get me wrong, there’s still a whole lot of people my age that go to church each Sunday, belong to church groups and believe in the holy trinity, for the most part though, it’s a lot like fraternities, they still exist, have an active membership but aren’t relevant to modern society the way they once were.
In my particular circle, which I admit, is probably more liberal and artistic than most of society, not one of my friends attends church or professes belief, real belief, in a god. I’m sure some of them do but I couldn’t tell you who. We don’t even go to church on the big two anymore, Christmas and Easter. As a result, I’ve done what some people would consider a lousy job instilling any sort of faith with my son. To begin with, he’s never been baptized, has never had any religious training and would be shocked to hear that Christmas was about anything more than a jolly guy in a red suit.
What all this means is that my wife and I have struggled with how to instill a sense of morality into my son’s life. My wife, having attended catholic school her entire life, was brought up believing not just in a just god that ruled with wisdom but also a god that constantly watched over your shoulder, waiting for you to screw up so he could punish you. It’s easy to make your kids tow the line when they’re afraid of burning in the fires of hell if they touch themselves in their bedroom. It’s a lot harder to attempt to say it’s important to be good and fair and just and not pick on your classmates because it’s the right thing to do. It’s what we’ve done though.
Penn Jillette voiced an essay for the NPR series This I Believe. What he believed is that there is no god. Because of that he had to live each day attempting to be good for the sake of being good. He’s responsible for each and every one of his actions. That’s sort of what we’ve attempted to do with Jack. There’s no god who made your grandfather die of cancer or cause an earthquake, no god who decided being gay is a sin and being Buddhist condemns you to hell—instead there’s right now, this moment. It’s not relativism, you’re responsible for your actions right here, right now. You’re also responsible for your own happiness and to help the people around you achieve their happiness.
So this is the moral compass we’re giving Jack–a belief that you do right things not because you’ll some day die and may go to hell but because it’s right. No one is better than anyone else because everyone has the responsibility to be good to each other and if they aren’t then they have to atone for their misdeeds, not to a god in the sky with a grey beard but to all of mankind. It may be a more just belief system than believing eventually you might be punished by an all knowing god for what you’ve done. There are no treasures to build up or subtract from so you better make the best of what you have, here and now.
In the movie Reality Bites Ethan Hawke’s character says ‘there’s no point to any of this. It’s all just a random lottery of meaningless tragedy and a series of near escapes. So I take pleasures in the details. You know, a quarter pounder with cheese…the sky about ten minutes before it starts to rain, the moment where your laughter becomes a crackle…and I sit back and I smoke my camel straights and I ride my own melt.” In the end that’s what I want for my son, to be a moral person because it’s the right thing to do and to know happiness is found in the details. It’s easy to get bogged down in the big picture. If you focus on the details you can ride your own melt.