Is hell-fire religion encoded in your genes?
I am wondering about this, because I was raised in a Bible-thumping, sinners-are-going-to-hell kind of religion. It's something I left without a backward glance when I was old enough to vacate the parental home, but by then it was too late. Take it from an authority: if you want to raise a really anxious, guilt-ridden girl-child with major self-esteem issues, the kind of kid who is primed for illnesses like depression the way easy-light charcoal is primed for the match, Fundamentalism is the way to go. Maybe the Taliban could do a better job in this department, but I'm not so sure.
Consequently, I have been scrupulously careful about not teaching my kids that a) they are sinners or b) that God is sitting up in the sky running a tab on their every infraction or c) that they will go to hell if they don't Measure Up. I have, in fact, not even pushed my kids to go to Sunday School or church, being opposed on principle to intellectual force-feeding of any kind. My husband and I have gone out of our way to explain that the world is full of people who have all kinds of beliefs--atheists and Buddhists and Muslims and Baptists and so forth. So explain to me why my 10-year-old announced to me last night, "Mom, I've figured it out."
"Figured what out?"
"I've figured out why I feel so anxious and sad. It's because God is mad at me. I've done something wrong, but I don't know what it is."
Travel back with me in time, to College Park, Georgia circa 1965, and this would be me, saying the exact same thing. Except that I had people telling me this kind of thing three times a week, and my daughter does not and never has. So what gives here? Does bad religion leak out of your pores or something? Do you impart it to your kids with your DNA, along with a tendency to chew your nails?
Aside from assuring my daughter that God is not mad at her, and that perhaps her general anxiety has more to do with starting middle school than with some horrible sin she has committed (and, by the way, do any ex-Fundies out there remember the Unforgiveable Sin? It was "blasphemy against the Holy Spirit," whatever that is, and I was always petrified that I'd done it without knowing it)--aside from this, I have no idea of how to disabuse her of this notion, or whether I should even try. Perhaps she'll figure out for herself that fear is not a healthy basis for any kind of spiritual life. Perhaps she will, as William Butler Yeats said, discover that
Considering that, all hatred driven hence,
The soul recovers radical innocence
And learns at last that it is self-delighting,
And that its own sweet will is Heaven's will
She can, though every face should scowl
And every windy quarter howl
Or every bellows burst, be happy still.
("A Prayer for My Daughter," June 1919)
Come to think of it, this is something I'm still learning. Maybe we can learn together.