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Growing Up Without a God. Diary of a Religious Tourist

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By Hannah Harkness

I had an unusual situation when it came to religion growing up. Both my maternal and paternal grandparents were in interfaith marriages. I had met kids in elementary school with one Christian parent and one Jewish parent before, but I still to this day haven’t met someone who had the same thing happen a generation back.

We celebrated both Christmas and Hannukah growing up, but my parents seemed to have their own spiritual paths that didn’t really dictate mine or my older brothers. Mom was raised Catholic but converted to Judaism when I was around 10 years old. When I was asking my Dad about what I was allowed to include in this article he said: “Out of curiosity, what religion do you think I am?”

I replied, “I think you just do your own thing without a label”. I will say that he was the first person to hand me a copy of the Tao Te Ching and we once went on a 5-hour road trip to grab a huge stone Buddha in Massachusetts which is currently on my parent’s front lawn, hippie-ing up a cookie-cutter suburban development in Abington, PA. My mom also does her own thing now.

The most zen house on the block.

Point being, I’ve watched my parents go on their own spiritual paths my whole life.I don’t remember what age I was when I asked them what religion was. They more or less told me that I should figure it out when I’m older.

I think my dad specifically said I was probably going to have an existential crisis when I was a teenager, and that if I really wanted to find one I should shop around for myself and figure out what works best for me.

So many choices! Pic from here.

At the time I didn’t think that was as unusual as I do now in retrospect. I guess I thought that most kids do what their parents do, and since my parents were on separate paths then I was also supposed to be on a separate path. But that didn’t mean I wasn’t aware I was somewhat of an outsider. There were other kids that celebrated Christmas and Hannukah with parents in an interfaith marriage, but I don’t remember other kids shopping around for a religion.

I have very early memories of being a guest in people’s churches and what I perceived as positive and negative. In grade school years, I obviously didn’t know much about the books but from a child’s perspective, I formed opinions about a lot of different religions based on experiences.  As a kid, you usually just judge things based on what is fun and what isn’t. As a child with ADHD, a lot of what “fun” meant had to do with how much and long I had to sit through something boring. I didn’t like churches that made me sit for a long time in an uncomfortable seat listening to things I didn’t understand. Christian churches were a mixed bag sometimes they were good, sometimes they were bad.

Once or twice I remember getting stares when I told them I was not Christian and I wasn’t baptized.

The unwashed heathen. Pic from this site.

A few times I felt humiliated because I had to explain to other children why I couldn’t take communion and could tell I looked weird when I sat alone while everyone was getting up. Catholic churches were tricky because I had no idea when I was supposed to stand up or sit down. In general, I got really good at faking mouthing along with hymns. People asked “well, what religion are you?” when I clearly didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t really have a real answer. Usually, I just said we celebrate Hannukah and Christmas, or Jewish once my mom converted because technically at that point, I was (it’s a matrilineal religion).

Sometimes people would try to convert me. Sometimes I had to sit through a sermon where they mentioned that if I wasn’t baptized I was going to hell-scary thing to hear as a kid.

It’s important to mention that the negative experiences were usually ones my parents didn’t take me to, or if they were present I usually said something and then they got up and had words with whoever I had a problem with. Also, I went for the negative experiences first, I’m a huge fan of the bad news first approach. I remember going to a Unitarian church youth group once and liking it, but not much religion was discussed, they just made lightbulbs with us as an activity. Synagogue was interesting. I went a couple of times after my mom converted. I really, really liked Purim-it’s a big costume party, why wouldn’t I?

I went to my friend’s older brother’s Bar Mitzvah and loved it. Again, huge party. The buildings were pretty and while I had to do some standing up and sitting down and mouthing along with things (Hebrew was obviously lost on me), nobody really treated me badly.

It’s a good time. Pic via here

My dad is a Jazz musician and he played gigs at a few churches in Philadelphia when I was a kid where they did Jazz versions of the hymns. Those churches were usually my favorite. Again, I had ADHD. I was way more interested in being in churches where there was dancing and singing-bonus points if I could brag about my dad being up front playing music. Those churches were fun too because I got to say “I’m just here with the band” and that kind of stopped people from asking me questions.

The food was also a sticking point. My parents had to have a conversation with me once when I said something about liking black churches better because of the food. I mean come on, soul food and sweet potato pie vs. donuts and instant coffee? Please.

Still, you can’t go around saying you like black churches better if you’re 8 years old. You also can’t say things like “Baptists are loud” or “I don’t like Catholic Church, it’s boring” or point blank ask other kids why their religion was so weird.

I made friends with the daughter of the reverend at one church my Dad played at a lot. We were already friendly, but I really began to like her when she asked me if I was going up for communion. Feeling weird as usual I said, “No, I can’t, I’m not baptized”. And she looked at me and said “It’s okay, it tastes like crap anyway” went up, and came back and sat next to me.  Even as a kid, you can tell when you’re an outsider it’s just a gut feeling you get. There I wasn’t. In that setting, I didn’t feel like I was lying when I sang about praising Jesus. At some point, I think I started judging religions based on how the congregants treated me.

When I became a teenager, my dad’s prophecy became true.

I started to wonder what I actually believed in and stopped judging churches by what was boring. Of course, churches made impressions on me as a kid, but at that point, I was old enough to understand that religion was mostly about morality and theories of existence. After shopping around a bit and feeling overwhelmed by heady texts, groupthink, and rules (ever the non-conformist), I remember going to my dad feeling pretty frustrated. He said: “Well, maybe you seem to like the shops in New Hope, maybe you’re pagan?”. Cool points. New Hope is a town in PA that is fairly well known for having a pagan community.

Wicca. Pic from this site.

Dad drove me to New Hope and I bought my first tarot deck. Then I became your stereotypical teenage Wiccan. I bought all the books, crystals, oils, herbs, the whole nine. I loved it immediately. I didn’t have to wake up early to go to meetings, I got to do magic and I got to pick whatever deity I wanted to worship. At some point, I settled on a deity-White Tara, a bodhisattva from Tibetan Buddhism. In high school, I began taking martial arts and Zen Buddhist Philosophy and Taoism entered my life.

Gradually, I eventually moved into that. Later in life my parents were on their own spiritual paths took me to Hindu temples, yoga classes, Kirtan performances (call and response devotional chanting), and to see gurus speak. I got to meet Rahdnath Swami, a renowned spiritual practitioner of over 40 years and a member of the governing body for the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. I was taken to see Amma Karunamayi, an Indian spiritual leader regarded as being fully enlightened that travels the world blessing people by hugging them, which is a blessing unique to her called darshan.

I’ve received darshan twice at an annual event in Washington D.C. attended by hundreds of people. I also found myself learning a lot about Judaism when I got a research internship at the Hadassah Brandeis Institute for Jewish Gender Studies at Brandeis University when I was in undergrad. A friend of mine since I was 13 let me know about the internship and we both got accepted. She later ended up going to rabbinical seminary after we graduated and I lived with her during the first two years she was in seminary. This put me in contact with a lot of rabbinical students and opened my eyes to a lot of aspects of that religion I was unaware of. And for the last year, I’ve been living in a predominantly Muslim neighborhood in West Philadelphia. I became increasingly angry at the violent Islamaphobia in America. Honestly, I massively prefer this culture-rich neighborhood filled with families to the one I lived in the previous year riddled with loud entitled hipsters.

I became increasingly angry at the violent Islamaphobia in America. Honestly, I massively prefer this culture-rich neighborhood filled with families to the one I lived in the previous year riddled with loud entitled hipsters.

While I view religion and spirituality as a thing that’s always subject to fluctuation and evolution based on circumstance, at present I consider myself Buddhist. It’s simple, it makes sense, and I’ve never had any real problems feeling like an outsider. But I still have my own spin on it and I never really delegitimatized anyone else’s faith. I never really understood why having one faith prompts you to dismiss everyone else’s faith as incorrect.

At the end of the day, I’m a person that believes that you can find truths by examining the commonalities in religion.

Most religions teach the same thing: be kind to other people. I like Buddhism because it sort of boils everything down to that truth as well as resolving a lot of existential questions in a simple way. Also, Buddha is a teacher and not a god. I believe in God, but it’s a little easier for me to follow a teacher on a day-to-day basis. It wasn’t always easy, but at the end of the day, I really like how I grew up. I learned how to think for myself and develop my own sense of morals and perception of reality. Nobody made me try to force my religion on other people who didn’t want it.

To this day, I react poorly to evangelism because of how aggressive some people were when they found out I didn’t have a religion as a kid. It’s easy to tell when someone sees you as a potential convert, and from a kid’s perspective, it seems almost predatory when they do that. I usually keep my beliefs to myself unless someone asks, but occasionally it’ll worm its way into conversations and at least one promotional headshot I use for comedy.

Spiritualism AND comedy. Via the author’s FB page.

I didn’t have to wake up early on Sundays. I learned a lot about all religions. Nobody ever instilled homophobic or sexist ideas in me that is written into a lot of religious texts. I was never involved in a corrupt religious organization against my will. I never experienced being cast out of a community because they thought I was ungodly. Nobody made me think sex was sinful.

#KidWin. Pic via this site.

I got double presents on Hannukah and Christmas.  My parents never told me I was going to hell or made me afraid of it.  But most importantly, I learned how important love and acceptance is and that you should do unto others what you would want done unto you. At the core, that’s what all good religions should teach.


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1 Comment

  1. Sam Wyogi
    July 11, 2017 at 1:25 pm

    Good article Hannah!