When I grew up, God was, for the most part, a blank slate my parents let me fill in as I pleased. My father, quietly agnostic, was never pious about his disbelief. My mother, a professional artist and bohemian, was fascinated by other cultures, and not remotely evangelical. She was, however, raised Christian by my grandmother, so occasionally we attended the local Methodist church.
Back then, God felt more like a superstition than a comforting spirit. If I didn't believe, bad things might happen, and if I did, maybe I'd pass my algebra test. Every night I prayed ("if I die before I wake…") with the same conviction I felt when I avoided black cats or blew dandelion fluff into the wind.
During college, God drifted to the background until I dated Mark, who I eventually married. Mark attended an Episcopalian high school but grew up in a laid-back religious family (his parents dropped him at Sunday school and went home to watch golf). He believes in a more traditional God than I do, but after 12 years of formal religion, he decided church was an unnecessary weekend interruption. God's everywhere, he reminds me. He doesn't keep attendance and He loves football.
After our daughter was born, Mark and I reluctantly joined a church. We wanted Tina to have a spiritual connection she could rely on during difficult times. I figured as she got older, she could decide if the Christian message spoke to her, or if she preferred a different religious pathway. I didn't care if she converted to Buddhism or became a Reformed Jew as long as she believed in some divine presence.
I chose the Methodists because it's what I knew, and because they ordained women, accepted evolution and sounded sort of liberal. I was disappointed my church didn't support gay marriage or gay clergy, but because they didn't preach damning guilt-soaked sermons, I was willing to split the difference.
And so for the first time in my life I attended Bible studies where circles of warm deeply rooted Christian women graciously listened while I questioned Original Sin, Hell, His will be done, Sodom and Gomorrah, and that believers go to Heaven while the others (maybe) rot. I rejected angry Old Testament God and decided Jesus was a radical progressive, my kind of messenger. After 16 classes, I still had no idea who God was, but I was sure who God wasn't.
For the most part, Mark's Christianity remained steady, the laid-back God from his childhood, around when he needed Him, while Tina and I created our own dynamic version together. I encouraged her to question religious teachings that didn't jive with her gut: "Honey, do you really think God only lets gay people into Heaven if they say, "OK, just kidding. I'm not really gay"?
Gradually, my God felt less Christian and more of a spiritual hybrid. In other words, I had no idea. But even as I rejected doctrine, I continued our family's familiar religious rituals. I wanted Tina to stay connected to a divine spirit even if that spirit was as loosely formed as tapioca pudding.
So, at dinner I said a brief gratitude blessing then reminded Tina that God wasn't a homophobe or against women in the priesthood. Before she said her bedtime prayers, I told her to respect every religion, as well as non-believers, because nobody has all the answers. And when she was in middle school, I begged her to go to church, then complained on the ride home that "He died for our sins" always felt strangely empty.
Eventually I looked at Christian teachings as an à la carte menu. The Prodigal Son was a beautiful lesson in grace and forgiveness. Sodom and Gomorrah was written by latent homosexuals and pure nonsense. I stopped saying "sin," "repent" and "His will be done" during hymns and church prayer because the words felt disconnected and punishing.
"You were born perfect," I often told Tina. "Everyone is. But over time, bad parents, bad choices or bad luck messes people up." I painted God in the image I wanted Tina to know, and if I didn't have the answer, I shrugged or made something up.
One afternoon, when she was six, I took her to the Rainforest Café for lunch. Across the room she spotted an enormous gold statue of a man holding up the world. "I saw God's bottom!" she yelled at the top of her lungs. A few tables turned around.
I laughed and told her that wasn't God, that it was Atlas, and like God, he had the weight of the world on his shoulders. She asked me if God had a bottom. I told her I really didn't know, but that he probably did.
About five years ago, I decided to leave the church. Mark and Tina took the news well. Losing church meant sleeping in on Sunday.
By the time we left, Tina had been baptized, confirmed, attended three overnight Methodist retreats, two weeks of intense church camps, six summers of vacation Bible study and eight years of children and youth programs. While I indoctrinated her into Christianity, I also started to dabble in the metaphysical, wondering out loud if maybe God was "our collective unconscious of positive thoughts."
Last year, when Tina turned 18, I asked her if she still believed in God, although I already knew her answer.
"Not really," she said. "It's fine for other people. I know it gives them comfort, but I only believe in science."
It turns out black holes, distant galaxies, the natural world and popular astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson give Tina the same wild-eyed euphoria the devout feel as they raise their hands to the heavens.
I have no doubt I helped destroy her faith. As Tina grew up, my higher power shifted from a His Will Be Done Christian to a genderless "divine force in the universe" with good intentions and a wry sense of humor. It's pretty hard for kids to grab on to God when God is radiant healing energy crossed with Mother Theresa and George Carlin.
Tina insists losing religion isn't my fault, that she started questioning back in middle school. She tells me not to worry, that she finds hope and comfort knowing she can "question everything in the universe" and then sit back and "consider the infinite possibilities."
Wonder is her worship now, and I'm thrilled she has the same unquenchable awe I had at her age. But when Tina told me she didn't believe in God anymore I was heartbroken. I felt like I'd stolen something from her, like I gradually chipped away at her faith until she had nothing left but skepticism.
Recently I asked her if she'd be willing to call herself an agnostic instead of an atheist. I said to insist God does or doesn't exist assumes we know for sure. I suggested that our glimmer of doubt on either end is humanity's shared space of humility and respect.
"Yeah, I'm actually fine with that," she said. "Because you're right, we really don't know."
Maybe I should be grateful Tina doesn't grapple with a higher power. I grapple all the time. Her beliefs are rooted and affirming: the Big Bang, evolution, the Golden Rule, respect for different viewpoints.
The other night, we watched a couple episodes of the series "Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey" and then tried to figure out what we just watched. Sometimes we have no idea, but we don't care. Science can be as charismatic as any great preacher.
So I think I'll just thank God, She-He-It, that at least my daughter believes in something unseen, something out there, something that blows her mind.