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There we were this past Mother’s Day, my eight-year-old daughter and I preparing dinner on our own.  My wife had requested linguine with clam sauce, so I’d assigned my daughter the job of washing the clams.  An essential step, but still pretty dull.  Her mind wandered.

“Daddy, here’s something I’m wondering about. You know those first people on earth?  What were their names again?  Adam and Ivey?”

Freeze frame and cue the voiceover.

My daughter gets good grades in school.  She’s in the top reading group.  She can talk a blue streak and at times she’s a pretty interesting third-grader to be around.  So how has she failed to register the correct names of that iconic couple from the Garden of Eden, whence whose loins, if you believe the Bible, all humans descend?

It’s her parents’ fault, of course.  We don’t put a lot of emphasis on religion in our family.  We go to church exclusively on Christmas Eve, when the story never changes and there’s no talk of Genesis.

My daughter has friends who are far more observant than we are — regular churchgoers.  She’s even accompanied one of them to Sunday school a couple of times after sleepovers, but that was a catch-as-catch-can situation.  For all we know they talked those mornings only of God’s love or some such thing.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s mostly a New Testament subject.

Earlier this year at the dinner table my daughter asked why we don’t go to church more.  “Why should we?” my wife asked, tamping down her discomfort.  Like many well-bred Episcopalians she cultivates a certain skepticism about religion, attributing to it more social than spiritual function.

My daughter’s reply suggested that she’d been fielding questions from a few of her peers who go to church, er — wait for it — religiously.  What she said was, “Everyone goes to church more than we do.”

This isn’t strictly true.  She has Jewish and Hindu friends who never go to “church” and some Christian friends who attend rarely if ever.  But some kids must have expressed to her the sentiment that going to church was something everyone should do, and now our laxity had redounded upon us.

I said something to the effect that one doesn’t do things simply to follow the crowd.

My wife, trying to recover, said, “You can go to church more frequently if you want.”

How was she going to accomplish that, I wondered.  Was she going to drive herself there?  I asked my daughter whether she enjoyed church when she went with her friend after sleepovers.

“Not really.”  She screwed up her face.  “It’s pretty boring, actually.  Maybe we can go just a little more often.  Like Christmas and — um, Easter.”

But we didn’t go this Easter.  We went instead to an Easter-egg hunt that my brother-in-law always puts on.  My daughter wouldn’t miss that for the world, though its relationship to the resurrection of Christ is tenuous at best.

You don’t learn about Jesus Christ from the Easter Bunny or from Santa Claus.  And those two cats won’t teach you about Moses or Adam and Eve either, for that matter.

So to Part II of my daughter’s question about the first humans.  Said she: “If Adam and Eve [now having been corrected] came before the Neanderthals, how come they have less hair on their bodies?”

Well, with all due respect to my observant friends, when a religious belief meets critical thinking, it takes an agile mind to respond with anything but piffle.  Or, looked at another way, I wasn’t exactly qualified to defend the view from the pulpit on this.  (I later mentioned my daughter’s question to a nominally Christian friend, who suggested that she send it to the Texas school board.)

I’m an agnostic lapsed Jew married to an agnostic lapsed Episcopalian and, for reasons that had almost nothing to do with religion, our daughter was baptized in the Episcopal church.  So, fortunately, I have prepared a fall-back position in response to schoolyard assertions about religious matters.  This position always begins with the words, “Some people believe that.”

I said, “Some people believe that Adam and Eve were the first humans and some people believe it’s just a story.  You can draw your own conclusions.  And — are you done washing the clams?”

She said she was.

We sat down to dinner an hour later.  I know that’s a long time to prepare a simple clam sauce, but my wife does most of the cooking, so I’m out of practice.

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J.E. Fishman, a former Big Six book editor and former literary agent, is author of the thriller Primacy, which Publishers Weekly called "appealing" and Kirkus called "good, boisterous fun." His mystery novel, Cadaver Blues, was serialized in 2010 on TNB and you can still find it here if you dig deep enough. It's now available in ebook and paperback. His financial thriller, The Dark Pool, was published this year, and his new series of police thrillers, Bomb Squad NYC, will be published in February 2014. He blogs here and at the Huffington Post. Please visit and follow him at his very fancy and expensive official author website.

40 responses to “Perils of Humanism”

  1. Becky says:

    My first reaction was “No one knows what Adam and Eve really looked like.”

    Though, on second thought, I suspect that might get her in trouble with some of her religious friends.

    Traipsing into church announcing to people that Adam and Eve might have been hairy monkeys because no one really knows…

    ooooh…..

    I have no children. Never listen to me about anything pertaining to them.

    • J.E. Fishman says:

      Forget what they looked like, no one “knows” whether they really existed, though plenty of people “believe” that they did. Which brings me back to: some people believe that…

      And some people have painted pictures of what they believe. And in the pictures that my daughter saw, Adam and Eve are, shall we say, highly evolved!

      • Becky says:

        Well, yeah, but I was thinking of what I would say to a kid.

        I don’t know if I’d get into the existence thing at 8. Maybe at 9.

        • J.E. Fishman says:

          Someone once told me kids can handle a lot more than we give them credit for. I’ve since learned he was right.

        • Becky says:

          Not so much what he or she could handle, but to what extent I, as a parent, would want to get into a discussion about the confusing line between mythology and history.

          It’s a personal hang-up.

          I imagine myself saying, “We don’t know if they existed….or, I mean, we do know that they existed, but not like that. Or maybe like that, at least insofar as the story is figurative…see…there had to be first humans somewhere…”

          *child gives puzzled look*

          “Go see what your brother is doing.”

        • J.E. Fishman says:

          Well, I have to admit, it’s certainly easier fielding questions about Phantom of the Opera.

        • Slade Ham says:

          I wouldn’t know how to handle it, having no kids either. How do you explain to them that they’re only going to get more confused as they grow up?

          I wish I was eight again.

        • J. says:

          Well, you don’t. Unless it involves Adam and Ivey. Or should I have written: Ivy? Oh, hell.

      • Irene Zion says:

        Fishman,

        Do you mean to tell me that those are not photographs of Adam and Ivey? (Oops, Eve.)

  2. Cynthia Hawkins says:

    I can so relate to this. We’ve gotten better of late, but there was a time when we walked our daughter into her friend’s first communion celebration and she took one look at the decorative crosses on the tables and asked, really loudly, “Who died?”

  3. Matt says:

    I’m an atheist who grew up in a largely secular/agnostic household. My parents dabbled in Unitarian Universalism for a while, but c’mon….as far as religion goes, that’s only a few steps removed from a college discussion session.

    When I was about your daughter’s age the other kids started to notice that I didn’t go to church or talk about the Bible; during a sleepover at a friend’s house I was asked to say Grace and had to tell them I didn’t believe in God. Once word of that got around….hoo boy.

    • J.E. Fishman says:

      Funny. It didn’t fit in the piece above, but last year one of my daughter’s friends announced to me that she was an atheist. Her parents are pretty secular — perhaps even atheists (I don’t know) — but her comment was particularly amusing because her grandmother is an Episcopal priest!

  4. Jordan Ancel says:

    If Adam and Eve [now having been corrected] came before the Neanderthals, how come they have less hair on their bodies?

    I think this is my favorite question ever!

    I think it’s great that you and your wife are setting her up to come to her own conclusions, but I think she’ll cave when she realizes that going to church on Easter will mean sacrificing the Easter egg hunt.

    • J.E. Fishman says:

      Eventually she may tire of the Easter egg hunt and become more interested in things like, I dunno, redemption.

  5. Uche Ogbuji says:

    My kids are of course as heathen as I am (agnostic, technically), and most of my extended family are Jesus Freaks. My oldest (10 yo) has had to endure many conversations with bible thumpers I suppose trying to convert him. I’ve never listened in on one, but I always find myself thinking: “hoo boy are they probably in for it.” My religion? The Church of Little Children who Question Every Friggin’ Thing, at Least Until Their Parents Get Fed up and Tell them to Knock it off.

    • Jesus freaks and bible thumpers sounds scary. But then, many Christians are scary. It took me decades to get back into church. I really like the place where my kids help out with an indie rock worship service. Landen (my 18 year old) has a music internship there. It’s really great to see him leading, helping, performing and serving a community and a faith filled with messed up people like me who need the help. And it’s nice to have found a church that recognizes all the hypocrisy within religion.

      I really like this piece. I won’t pretend to have an answer. I’m aware that some stories in the Bible may be just that. But then, evolution is pretty inconsistent too in my opinion.

      Life is simply filled with mysteries. Don’t believe everything in science and religion is my motto. There’s just too much unexplained.

      Besides. I love a good mystery.

      • “Life is simply…” I mean. I hope you edit my comment.

      • J.E. Fishman says:

        Personally, I wish I had the spiritual gene. I’ve done a great deal of reading on religion and found it interesting intellectually, but none of it really hits me in the gut. I have all the respect in the world for religious seekers. Not so much for those who claim to have complete answers to things that are, almost by definition, unfathomable.

        • I’d say I seek spirituality and not religion. Religion is filled with rules and expectations. I just want communication and to get energized. I often feel connected to spiritual stories when I hear them or encounter synchronicities between people, events, lives.

          There’s an interconnectedness with many people who seek a higher truth filled with mysteries and wonder. I like being a part of that. Whether it’s seeking understanding and wisdom in suffering as some Buddhists do, or contemplating the sacrifice of Jesus, well, I guess when I do that, it keeps someone as screwed up as me feeling a little more peaceful.

          Religion deserves to be targeted in social criticisms. While some may look from the outside at me and my family as thumpers and freaks, we’re really alongside Uche’s words. I often shake my head at the religions that spawn the overly zealous, the conservative fundamentalists, and the damning.

      • Don Mitchell says:

        “Life is simply filled with mysteries. Don’t believe everything in science and religions is my motto. There’s just too much unexplained.”

        Commenting from nearly a half-century of dealing with and thinking hard about archaeology and human evolution (and science in general), I’ll gently say —

        If there weren’t mysteries, there would be no science. I don’t know a single scientist worthy of the name who isn’t in awe of the mysteries that the natural world presents to us.

        I don’t know a single scientist worthy of the name who asks to be believed, beyond the belief that he or she isn’t lying, and the belief that he or she has evidence to offer.

        And finally, continuing my sentence frame, I don’t know a single scientist worthy of the name who doesn’t delight in (while sometimes being frustrated by) the fact that there’s much unexplained.

        And I love a good mystery too.

        • J.E. Fishman says:

          Many scientists believe in God. Einstein, when asked, said he believed in the God of Spinoza. Spinoza, you know, was ex-communicated by the Jews. There’s a wonderful book about him and Leibniz entitled The Courtier and the Heretic. Their philosophical debate essentially set the parameters of opposing views of God’s role in the world for 300 years (and counting).

    • J.E. Fishman says:

      Your comment, Uche, reminds me, for some reason, that Milan Kundera has said it is not the novelist’s job to provide answers but only to pose the right questions. In life, there are many more questions than answers.

      • Irene Zion says:

        Hey Fishman,

        Do you think Adam made dinner for Eve on Mother’s Day?
        (After they started having kids, I mean.)
        What do you think he prepared?
        I’m thinking mastodon leg.

        • J.E. Fishman says:

          Adam was a sexist. Adam surely made Eve do housework on Mother’s Day, as on all days. Only in modern times — and modern countries — do women finally get a break.

  6. Irene Zion says:

    Well, that’s all well and good, Fishman,
    but this was “biblical” mother’s day!
    Probably people were nicer to each other back then.
    Maybe Mom got to sleep in and Dad and the kids went out to hunt the mastodon, and then came home and rubbed some sticks together to make a fire and cooked it the night before.
    Then when she woke up there was a fabulous meal waiting for her.
    Sometimes you just have to look on the bright side, Fishman.

    • J.E. Fishman says:

      No, dear. Life was much harder back then. No one had microwave ovens or repeating rifles. And the snakes, apparently, could talk.

      • Irene Zion says:

        See now?
        There you go assuming the worst again, Fishman!
        Perhaps back in the day the snake got a bum rap and wasn’t responsible at all for the offer of the apple.
        Perhaps the snake was just hanging around trying to catch some rays and warm up and a
        cockroach was the one who tempted poor Ivey, or Eve, who’s to tell?
        It could well have been Alan and Ivey, after all, to begin with!

  7. Adam and Ivey (Ivy); your daughter has added a new twist to an old story that really needed a worthy update, I like it. When the questions are asked offer a direct answer; no such thing as a not ready child. Maybe a not ready parent, but that leads to another take on parental responsibilities to bright and inquisitive children. There will be more be more indepth questions like who came first and from where if he or she was all alone in a beautiful garden fully clothed and my, oh my. Have fun, Joel, more brain-twisters (chuckle) are in the very near future.

  8. Man, I’m dreading this moment with my daughter. We’re a few years away. Still dealing with the basic Death concept (the penguin in Surf’s Up recently died. Where did the penguin go? The big wipe out in the sky?) When we get to Adam and Ivey I’m going to show her a cover of a Captain and Tennille album and leave it at that.

  9. Joe Daly says:

    Being a lifelong bachelor and keeper of two dogs, I feel like there is no way I could be less prepared, intellectually or emotionally, to handle a situation like the one you describe here. Big props to you for navigating it so well, and for talking to your daughter as an adult- that’s sure to be a great asset as she matures socially.

    I grew up in an insanely strict Irish Catholic home. It took me over three decades to realize that I could adopt a set of spiritual principles and practices that work for me, independent of Catholicism. If I ever have children, I hope to pass these values on to them, while at the same time giving them space to explore whatever spiritual path feels right to them.

    Thanks for the read!

    • J.E. Fishman says:

      Three decades is better late than never. C.S. Lewis, you probably know, famously reasoned his way to Catholicism. Those with true faith shouldn’t worry about allowing other people to think.

  10. SKFJ ESQ says:

    God created the amoeba . . .

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