It wasn’t a hunger for faith that drew me to attend Sunday school with my step-cousins and my Mormon friend. My religious curiosity was born out of ignorance about religion and an abiding puzzlement regarding the appeal of faith.
Growing up as a secular child, the world of believers was as exotic as the harems of the romanticized Orientalism of centuries past. Religious curiosity as was sheer exoticism for me. What strange and arcane rituals took place behind those church and synagogue walls? And what exactly was the appeal that drew so many into the mysterious fold of faith?
I’m sure my Southern Baptist step-cousins (or their parents) thought they had nabbed a potential recruit. They had already lost my step-dad to the Unitarian Universalists, his soul condemned to the fires of secularist Hell.* Of course, he would be in good company, along with the vast majority of the world’s population who are content to have been born only once.
My Mormon friend, Kim — whose favorite show was The Donny and Marie Osmond Show — undoubtedly thought I might one day join her in venerating Joseph Smith and his disappearing Golden Plates.
But if I had any Satan-worshipping friends, I would’ve accompanied them to Black Mass, as well. My religious curiosity didn’t discriminate among creeds or mythologies. The Judeo-Christian God might as well have been Zeus or Baal.
It that a real Golden Calf? Cool!
I just wanted to see what the other kids did when I was outside playing, enjoying the last day of freedom before heading back to school on Monday.** There must be something pretty good going on to give up so much perfectly good playtime.
Not that the kids had a choice.
For those of you dragged to a stuffy church or synagogue against your will, the very concept of religious curiosity must seem puzzling. Why would someone born free of religion voluntarily submit to the indoctrination you so longed to escape?
Mostly, I just wanted to see what the fuss was about. I had zero interest in religion itself. In fact, the Unitarian Sunday school I liked the least was the one that most resembled a Christian Sunday school. On the bright side, the boring liberal moral lessons the teacher droned gave me a chance to brush up on my daydreaming.
Perhaps you’re thinking to yourself that I should’ve realized that this was exactly what so many Christian children endure during Sunday school. Perhaps you rolled your eyes at the biblical puppets and squirmed in the pews, longing for a parent as indifferent to religion as I had.
Ah, but I was just a kid. The grass is always greener on the other side of indoctrination. And for this secular-raised girl, Adam and Eve were forbidden fruit.
Well, not forbidden, exactly. My agnostic mom had no problem with me attending Sunday school when invited. In fact, she had done it herself as a child.
As with me, she did it out of religious curiosity. The Judaism of her childhood was one of celebrating only the High Holy Days and eating pork cooked to a crisp to kill the trichinosis it was undoubtedly teeming with. Like me, she approached the religious beliefs of her Christian friends as a sort of anthropologist trying to understand their rituals and beliefs.
My mom knew exactly why I wanted to join in, so she wasn’t the slighted bit worried that I would succumb to indoctrination. The fact is, I remember little of what I “learned” in the Baptist Sunday school.I remember a bit more about the Mormon Sunday school. As I viewed a short film about the history of Mormon persecution, I recall thinking that it was nothing compared to what Jews had suffered. This thought was inspired by the same growing understanding of the Holocaust that lead me to portray Hitler in front of a class of conservative, Southern Christians. Seriously.
Yes, I am a shanda to my people.
That’s all I remember from my sojourn into a very different temple than the one of my ancestral religion. I kind of wish I had a Jewish friend in my childhood to invite to see what “the Chosen” choose to do on their Saturdays. I’m pretty sure that the older girl named Leah who befriended me in Girl Scout camp was Jewish. She had a sister named Rebecca, and I’m confident that she recognized the ethnicity of this stereotypically short, curly-haired girl — who at the time sported a much-hated Jewish schnoz.
In my ethnic ignorance, I had no clue to our common heritage. We moved from Miami, with it significant Jewish population, when I was eight. After that, I simply didn’t have a lot of exposure to Jewish landsmen. My religious curiosity was therefore limited to Christianity.
Religious Curiosity: A Gateway Drug for Faith?
The odds are you’re a deconverted Christian who is happy to see the back of the religion that was forced down your throat as a child (even if you once swallowed it hungrily). The very last thing you want is to see your children sucked back into the Christ cult.
I get that. Yet I think that respecting your child’s religious curiosity by letting your child attend Sunday school with their friend or relative is the wiser path in the end. You certainly don’t want them to see religion as a rebellion as they head into their contentious teenage years.
More importantly, you want to raise good critical thinkers. What better way than to allow them to pursue their natural inquisitiveness? (Especially when it’s followed by your age-appropriate contextualization.)
So, what impact did my Sunday school sojourns have on this secular child? None.
Well, maybe I gained an appreciation of not being shoehorned into a play-banning church dress. (The tomboy in me would’ve despised that.) And though I was plopped into a Sunday school simulacrum, I survived the snorefest without the resentment so many deconverts feel.
My secular Sundays featured fewer puppets, but far more fun.
*Googling my step-dad, I discovered that he became a prominent Unitarian minister after he and my mom divorced.
**Despite attending Unitarian Sunday school, I recall having more of my Sunday free to worship play than my Christian friends.
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