I grew up in a very opinionated household, and I often mistook my parents' opinions for facts. So I argued passionately -- sometimes violently -- if a person dared contradict whatever crackpot ideas my mom and dad were rambling about the night before.
No one ever schooled me on the rules of engagement for religious and political debates -- I learned by trial and error, meaning Sunday school teachers despised me. "See that little girl over there?" They whispered and pointed their mean, knobby fingers at me. "She asked today, 'Why do we pray to Jesus? He's God's son, not God." "You think that's bad?"
Another teacher scoffed. "She told me, 'My dad says that Matthew says it's a sin to go to church. So why are we here?'"
It's with that in mind I tell Lily -- and Ashlyn eventually -- "Whatever Mommy says about science and God and religion -- these are my opinions. I don't have the answers -- nobody really does." We were curled up on the couch watching Jurassic Park, and Lily asked me -- "Mommy? Where do they keep the dinosaurs?" I told her that dinosaurs were extinct like the Unicorns in Shel Silverstein's poem.
"How can that be?" She asked me. "What happened to them?"
I don't really know what happened to dinosaurs -- maybe they starved; maybe they burned up in a fiery volcanic eruption; maybe a virus killed them ... I wasn't there. I told Lily what I know -- there are lots of theories but nothing absolute.
"Didn't the scientists back then do any experiments to see what killed them?"
So I explained that people and dinosaurs didn't live together at the same time -- that some people don't believe dinosaurs existed at all.
"That's just silly," she told me. "Of course there were dinosaurs." I asked her how she knew. "You told me there were dinosaurs, Mommy."
"I also told you that Uncle Paul was Pink Batman. I might not know what I'm talking about all of the time," I said. "People have all kinds of beliefs. Some people believe that our whole history is written in the Bible. Some people believe that we're reborn over and over and again -- you may be human in one life and a cat in another. Some people believe we're related to monkeys ..."
"Monkeys?" She asked laughing. "Like family? Like my sister could be a monkey?"
So I tried in the simplest terms to explain human evolution -- that scientists believe humans and apes have a common ancestor -- "Scientists say that our DNA -- the stuff we're built from -- is almost identical to chimpanzee DNA." "What in the heck are you telling me; that I'm half chimpanzee or something?"
She hopped around the room screeching like an apish monkey.
"No," I said. "Daddy isn't a chimpanzee. What I'm telling you is that it's possible we had an ancestor millions years ago who looked like a chimp."
"Then do the chimpanzees know what happened to dinosaurs?"
"No. I don't think so."
"Ok, Mom," she said condescendingly. "I believe in dinosaurs and ponies and God, because they're real. And I believe that I'm half chimpanzee, because chimpanzees are so cute."
And that's fine with me -- as long she owns it. I'd hate for her to believe in something simply because I told her to. I want her to listen and learn and decide for herself. A lot of people are compelled to share their beliefs with others -- part of their faith is spreading the word of whatever it is they believe in.
I'm curious about other cultures and religions, so I listen, but I don't share much. Whatever my faith is -- that part of me is private. Whether I worship Willy Wonka or pigs that fly -- it's my faith to do with as I please. It seems counter intuitive to choose a church like I would a football team and root for the rival parishioners to get their teeth knocked down their throats.
"If people believe something different than we do at home you can't just tell them they're wrong. You have to listen first."