There are several questions I just don’t want to field when I’m elbow-deep in a particularly odious toddler nappy-change. “Could you get the door?” is one of them. “Wait, did I just see a worm in there?” is another. Last week, care of my four-year-old son, I added a new question to the list. “Mummy, was Jesus a real person who was born a long time ago, and then died, and then came back, and then went on a cloud up into the sky, and is he alive now and walking around?”
Well. Still occupied with digging out a fresh nappy for a toddler intent on rummaging through his old, soiled one, I shoot a look at my husband that said: “A little help here?”
“Ah no,” my husband’s amused glance seemed to twinkle in reply. “I will have no part in this, but I am very interested to hear your response, so please don’t say anything until I have returned with some popcorn.” Awful man. I hereby reverse my position on his attitude to vasectomies.
Before asking his question, our son had been sitting on his own for a little while, uncharacteristically quiet, his little forehead furrowed in contemplation.
“What’s made you think about whether Jesus was real?” I ask him. He’d been learning about “Jesus stories” in class, he tells me, “Like when he turned dirty water into yucky wine at that wedding.” Right. I wasn’t quite expecting this, especially as his last “Is this real?” question concerned The Avengers (“Well,” I hedged, “Maybe, but I haven’t met any of them.”)
My son goes to a Church of England primary school, but not the sort where parents have to start pretending their house is called ‘The Nunnery’ on postal addresses or anything. It teaches religious values, accepts children from all religious backgrounds and, honestly, my son seems to be having a blast there.
“Bit Jesusy, though, isn’t it?” whispered my husband during our first open day. He was raised in a church-adjacent family (no contact with religion save for weddings and Christingle services), and said he was “creeped out by all the crosses”. Whereas I was brought up in a a family of almost excessively various ethnicities. Largely, we were Roman Catholic (of the cultural Italian variety) with a small but influential pocket of Brahmin/Buddhist Eastern mysticism. Also, everyone seemed to be way into homeopathy.
Perhaps it’s this clash of confused philosophies that’s driven me, as an adult, straight into the arms of atheism (shot through with nerdy, half-baked interests in quantum theory and multiverses and if I’m spooked by a movie about demonic possession, all bets are off).
“I look my son in the eye, suddenly aware of all the lies I may have told him...”
I want my children to make up their own minds. I’ve always assumed that, at some point, we’d all have a big, reasonable chat about what faith is, and how that differs from organised religion; and that there are loads of different organised religions, because there are so many different people in the world.
If you’re being taught about faith or religion and deep down – as I did – you feel a little tickle of doubt, that’s fine, I want to say. It’s okay to question religion or faith, just not to be mean about what someone else believes. Equally, if it all makes sense to you, and you develop a personal relationship with god through Christianity or another philosophy – that’s absolutely fine, too.
Ultimately, I want my sons to know that they have a choice whether or not to believe what they’re taught about faith or religion at school, or anywhere else. In fact, it’s what I want them to grasp above all: the concept of choice – before they’re presented with one of the options. Listen to the Jesus stories, I want to say, but know that other people have other stories.
Admittedly, when I imagined this scenario, my sons were eight or nine. One of them wasn’t four with a finger up his nose, and I wasn’t physically trying to prevent the other one from digging about in his own poo
Impossibly, my older son – who normally has the attention span of, at most, half a goldfish – is still waiting for my response. “Look,” I sigh, attempting to sound cogent. “Some people…” I hear my husband suppress a snigger. “I mean, Jesus was…”
″... Was?” my four-year-old echoes, looking frightened. “What I mean is,” I rally, “the world is a big place, full of all sorts of different things, and… and… and…”
I look my son in the eye, suddenly aware of all the lies I may have told him – Father Christmas only gets you the toy you ask for first; sorry, Paw Patrol is closed today; if you keep shouting, that man over there will get very angry with you – and take a deep breath.
“Jesus?” I say brightly. “Well, I mean maybe. But I’ve never met him.”
We’ll try again when he’s eight.