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A Spiritual Patchwork Quilt
I tried to keep this short. I really tried.
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1995. Manchester. Oasis were at the height of their powers, (What’s The Story) Morning Glory reigned supreme, as “Wonderwall” blared out of car and bedroom window alike. Teenage boys across the city recast themselves in the mould of Liam Gallagher—the fishtail parka, flicking two fingers to all and sundry, his attitude and swagger, that iconic haircut—and I was no exception. The only thing stopping me? My dad. His rules were clear and incontrovertible: “Until you’re 16 you’ll get your haircut once a month, and you’ll go to church once a week.”
Music was my religion of choice; Catholicism was the religion I was born into. My parents went to church every Sunday back in Ireland, and
goddammit we’d be doing the same here. You’d find us in the pews every week, present and correct, dressed in our smartest clothes, heaven or high water. I’d stand next to my sisters, counting down the minutes until it would all be over, cycling through seating, standing and kneeling; again and again, perfectly synchronised with the rest of the congregation. We’d work to wind each other up, secretly pinching the back of a hand, trying to get someone in trouble (and silently mouthing “YOU JUST GOT DONE,” out of sight, when it inevitably occurred). And then closing time would arrive, we’d slam shut our hymn books and work our way to the exit—not before lighting a candle, the one part I’d look forward to—before jumping into the car and heading home.
Religion wasn’t limited to that one hour a week. We’d spend time at school preparing for the big milestones in a Catholic upbringing—Confirmation, First Communion—whilst learning the history of our religion, or a curated greatest hits, in class. We’d visit extended family in Ireland and realise the extent to which they invited religion into their homes—praying together every night, sprinkling holy water across the house at bedtime, priests constantly dropping by to say hello. As a young child, I’d go to sleep with an illustrated book of Bible stories next to my pillow, losing myself in a different tale before nodding off—Noah and his Ark, Moses and the parting of the Red Sea, Daniel in the Lion’s Den.
As I worked through adolescence, I began to notice some … let’s call them “inconsistencies” in these stories. One example, amongst many—how did Noah get all those animals onto one boat, then manage to keep them from eating other? Every question opened two more. When I started to ask, the answers I got didn’t sit right. “It’s called faith for a reason,” I was told, in no uncertain terms, by a teacher. I started looking for answers elsewhere, a search that coincided with the rise in New Atheism, driven by writers like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris (a name I don’t remember from the time, but would later come to be very familiar with). I came to see organised religion as a contributing cause, and not a solution, to pain and suffering in the world; a tool used by bad actors to impart their moral superiority over others, a point of view compounded by growing up in close proximity to The Troubles. I started to feel uncomfortable every Sunday, questioning what the priest was telling us, fraudulently waiting to accept the Body of Christ, standing in line for a ritual and sacrament I no longer believed in. When I asked to stay home on Sundays I was told this wouldn’t be happening anytime soon. I waited, and then I turned 16. My Sunday mornings, and my hair, were my own. I turned my back on the religion of my youth, a teenage rebellion which was, unbeknownst to me, becoming all the rage.
I got older. I tried on different hats. Strict atheism, in the vein of the New Athiest writers, staunchly rejecting God, religion and all that it stood for. I was, as we all are in our twenties, stubborn and headstrong, closed off to opposing opinions. I began slowly softening to agnosticism—open minded, but still sceptical—where I’d spend most of my adult life. I suspect I’m not the only one whose story hits these beats: an early introduction to religion, seeing if it fits, proceeding even when it doesn’t; an unwillingness to pass this on to your own children, whilst wrestling with worry about what your family might think. I’m reminded of a conversation with my mum, discussing the potential baptism—or not—of our soon-to-be-born first child:
“I don’t think it’s right to force this decision, and set of beliefs, on a child who can’t choose for themselves.”
Cut to 5 minutes later in the call, when my mum raises the topic of football.
“So, what football team will the baby support?” My mother asks.
“Manchester United,” I reply.
“Not Liverpool? Or Manchester City? Sure. But don’t you think it isn’t right to force this decision and set of beliefs …”
Nicely done. That was almost a decade ago. I felt sure it was the right decision then. just as l do now. That hasn’t changed. But I had no idea how much my own beliefs would.
The spiritual path means making a path, rather than following one.
— Mark Epstein, Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart
Those of us raised Christian grew up under three complementary—but often conflicting—ideas of fatherhood: the paternal lineage personified by your father and grandfather; the white-collared men playing the role of “father” at the churches I was dragged along to throughout my childhood; and the other Father, the one whose name would always be capitalised, and preceded with words like “Heavenly”, “Beloved,” or, simply, the collective “Our.”
My definition of what father means has, of course, been influenced by all three, to vastly varying degrees. From the conversations with other dads in this community, I know I’m not the only one here who grew up with religion playing a significant role in their life, before deciding to break this tradition with their own family—clapping a “Confirmation date: to be confirmed” sticker on your child, whilst hoping the grandparents don’t ask too many questions. I see it in the data too—three in ten US adults are now “religiously unaffiliated,” and whilst Christians continue to make up the majority of the US population, they’re now 63% of it, down from 75% a decade ago. Those identifying as “non-religious” shifted from 16% to 29% in the same timeframe, whilst in the UK more people now believe in ghosts than God.
The Greek philosopher Heraclitus once said, “change is the only constant in life.” Whilst those identifying as “religious” are dropping, the shift of the “nones” is trending in the opposite direction. The number of US atheists feeling “a deep sense of wonder about the universe” has increased by 17% in the years 2007-2014. The number of Americans saying they are “spiritual, but not religious” increased from 19% to 27% in the five years running up to 2017, a growth consistent across genders, races, and even political affiliations.
All of this aligns with a wider trend I’ve noticed, if not solely in myself, then across the wider world. Maybe it’s confirmation bias. (Maybe it’s Maybelline.) But my new-found perspicacity and ability to feel it all around1 means it may have been hidden in plain sight all along. I’ve experienced a personal glacial shift, from a purely logical, data-based decision maker, forming beliefs exclusively through facts and peer-reviewed evidence, to something … different. If not another side of the coin entirely, then at least surfing the line between them. It’s not been uncommon to find myself feeling at the whims of something bigger, offering an observation of “it feels like the universe is trying to tell me something,” a sentence that would have caused the me-of-five-years-ago to eye-roll beyond belief.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where it started. Maybe the mushrooms helped? I wouldn’t be the first:
Still, there was no question that something novel and profound had happened to me—something I am prepared to call spiritual, though only with an asterisk. I guess I’ve always assumed that spirituality implied a belief or faith I’ve never shared and from which it supposedly flows. But now I wondered, is this always or necessarily the case?
— Michael Pollan, How to Change Your Mind
It played a part. But it can’t solely be attributed to one thing. It’s down to a mélange of external sources, consumed over the last decade—books I’ve read, conversations I’ve had, podcasts I’ve listened to—that have brought me to a place where I lean towards spiritual, and find myself contemplating things that some people—including that me-of-five-years-ago—might term “wooey.” I’ve begun to notice coincidences that, if employed as a plot device on whatever show you’re currently binging, you’d call out as being on the nose. I’ve started relinquishing attempts to control future events, becoming comfortable knowing things will work out. And even if they don’t, then we gon’ be alright. I wait. I read. I listen, I watch, I talk. I think of these inputs as a spiritual patchwork quilt: ever-evolving, intentionally chosen, and crafted with care. When put together they tell a story, becoming more than the sum of its parts. When something that resonates, or helps me open myself up in a new direction, I sew it on, another metaphorical patch in collection. The quilt continues to grow. Here’s a snapshot of where it is, notes from the last few months I’ve been working on this essay:
Various writings on Buddhism, particularly Robert Wright’s Why Buddhism is True (which served as a handy on-ramp for a religious sceptic like myself), The Art of Living by Tich Nhat Hahn and When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chödrön.
Various recordings of Ram Daas and Alan Watts, especially those used to phenomenal effect in Everything, the 2019 videogame from David O’Reilly (the first videogame trailer to qualify for an Academy Award).
The Waking Up app, the daily meditations, and the various talks contained within.
The Bhagavad Gita, which is the clearest “capital R Religion” book on this list, but had quite an impact when I read it last year.
These sources have turned into habits, forming the texture and cadence of my days, weeks and months. I’ll play a Joseph Goldstein lecture through a single Airpod as I’m going to bed, his voice comfortably navigating complex topics and telling compelling tales. His cadence and tone are reminscent of a Catholic priest delivering the homily during Mass; the short interlude between religious rites where the priest is given space to freestyle, delivering his own sermon, connecting current events to religious teachings. Once a day I sit down on a cushion, cross my legs, and spend time with my thoughts, practicing a connection to something bigger than I. There is little difference, to the outside observer, between this and how others pray, across the world, every day. Different positions, and different thoughts, all variations on a theme. Throughout 2021 I spent each morning reading a daily entry from Ryan Holiday’s The Daily Stoic, reflecting on excerpts from Seneca, Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus. The parallels were clear to see, as I sat down with a passage each day, their names and guidance as helpful to me now as the ones from Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were for my Granny who read them every night, as they have been for millions of others throughout history. A good book, if not the Good Book.
Your mind will take the shape of what you frequently hold in thought, for the human spirit is coloured by such impressions
— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 5.16 (April 1st, The Daily Stoic)
Earlier this year I experimented with the 12-week program suggested by Julia Cameron in her book The Artist’s Way. Though I found value in the morning pages, they didn’t quite stick, and I struggled with the prominent role that religion took in the book. But one thing I’ve kept up is the artist date, a regular break taken in pursuit of creative interest, whatever it might be. Sometimes I’ll visit a gallery, other times an old library, and often a walk in a general direction, open to whatever happens. I found myself regularly drawn towards churches and temples, perplexed at the draw they had on me, the feeling of peace radiating from them, a place to slow down and to reflect. I became aware of how relaxed I felt walking into a church—having spent almost every Sunday of my childhood in one—versus how awkward I felt walking into a Buddhist temple, a voice inside telling me “you don’t belong here.” I would sheepishly make my way in regardless, coming to instant peace when the monkey mind was tamed.
As a child, I never realised how peaceful a church could be. The churches of my youth were visited only when full of people, or, on the rare occasion, during a not-incredibly-exciting school trip. But coming into them now feels different. Maybe it’s because I’m here by choice, not against my will. They are refuges, true sanctuaries. They’re silent and powerful, even when that power has all-to-often been used to continue the silence. There's something about their ability to evoke a sense of wonder, a connection to something bigger than we are. I know they've been built with that purpose in mind. One can still enjoy the trick, even if one knows how it’s done.
I’m writing about churches, but it could just as easily be any of these sacred spaces—the synagogues, temples and mosques—that are spread across the world, and our corners of it. They provide a space to seek solace in our thoughts and beliefs. Whether you identify as religious or not, you do hold beliefs strongly, and you worship them in your own way. In today’s society it’s hard to know who is praying to what; in these buildings, you see it clearly. People sit in front of an embodiment of what they worship, a manifestation of it. They sit in silence. And they reflect.
These places are sacred. You almost feel bad writing an essay on your phone in the middle of one.
I was never on an active search for spirituality. I didn’t feel something bereft at my core, a hole that needed to be filled. I considered it a dilemma already decoded. These sorts of mental gymnastics—do I believe, don’t I believe, what happens if I say I don’t believe, what happens if I say I do—are another entry on the ever-growing list of “things our parents never needed to think about.” For generations almost eternal, parents could lean on religion as a blueprint for teaching their children “the art of being good,” using these stories to explore morality, compassion and resilience. I grew up with these beliefs. It’s unfeasible they don’t inform the thought patterns I use today, the parent I’ve become. Our kids expect us to be—like the big man himself—omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent2 [footnote: ], expected to know the answer to all our our offspring’s questions, all the time. Religion offers a pre-vetted perspective on many of life’s big questions, ones that we might not have figured out for ourselves yet. Who wouldn’t take a helping hand, using these stories as a Cliff Notes for the existential questions that our children throw at us, delivered at the most inopportune moments?
But as more of us raise our children adjacent to religion—or, at least, less strict in our application of it—we continue to search for great stories to fill those gaps. My children will spend as much time learning about Jesus at school as they do learning about Ganesh and Hanuman at home—we’re far from a religion-free household, with rituals and beliefs playing a prominent role in their lives. Maybe one day I’ll become more comfortable with the religion I grew up with, to be able to look at it’s teachings with a new perspective. A call with a good friend, just as I was putting the finishing touches to this essay, was the universe’s way of reminding me to keep that door ajar.
My own journey into spirituality will influence how my children navigate life as they grow up. Whilst I’m not reading Bible stories to them at night, there’s a power in these tales, and a reason they’ve stayed around for as long as they have. They captivate the minds of young readers (and listeners) whilst embedding important life lessons. My love of the Greek Myths book comes from the same place—fantastic stories, delivered beyond simple black and white, moral and ethical wisdom to impart. The world needs more books like that. Because there’s only so much you can learn from the Gruffalo and a Big Bad Mouse.
Spirituality is not religion. It is a path for us to generate happiness, understanding, and love, so we can live deeply each moment of our life. Having a spiritual dimension in our lives does not mean escaping life or dwelling in a place of bliss outside this world but discovering ways to handle life's difficulties and generate peace, joy, and happiness right where we are, on this beautiful planet.
— Thich Nhat Hanh, The Art of Living
3 things to read this week
“How to Make Life More Transcendent” by Arthur C. Brooks in The Atlantic. Brooks remains a few steps ahead of TNF on the posting schedule. This essay from last month explores spirituality, its role in helping people live happier, more fulfilled lives, and three simple steps for those wanting to explore. "One of my greatest personal faults is the intellectual death grip I put on everything. My wife jokes that I might as well say, “I have data that strongly indicate that I love you.” This has always been an impediment in my spiritual journey, which often requires an intuitive attitude more than an analytic one—to allow myself, in a childlike way, to have experiences I don’t understand, as opposed to strangling them with facts and knowledge.”
“Who Gets ‘Quality’ Leisure?” by Anne Helen Petersen in Culture Study. This is a fascinating essay on the differences in hobbies and societal norms between men and women, backed up with reams of data and an unparalleled level of insight. “Put simply, there are quantitative and qualitative differences in the way that men and women experience leisure — and there’s a whole lot of scholarly research and time use data to underline as much.”
“Fathers and Daughters: What’s the Truth Behind this Unexplored Family Bond?” by Andrew Anthony in The Guardian. A father of daughters explores how this unique bond has been portrayed in media, from recent movies like Aftersun and The Dependents, back to some of Shakespeare’s classics.
What to buy the dad who has everything
December is here. Already. Christmas just over three weeks away. If I’d have got my shit together, I might have been able to do a gift guide—I’ll have to leave you with this one for your kids instead. For those looking to get something more meaningful than socks for the dad in your life, why not consider something from The New Fatherhood?
An annual subscription to The New Fatherhood. This includes all essays, past and present, access to the community, regular online events, occasional in-person events next year (in London and Barcelona, other locations TBC), and an eBook containing some of the best essays on what it means to be a dad today. This subscription is perfect for current dads and dads-to-be, and comes with a pin badge and sticker set that you can wrap up and give on Christmas Day. A portion of this money will also go the the Therapy Fund, helping dads who need it to get some help.
The pin badge and sticker set, solo, minus the annual subscription.
Hey! Listen to this!
Changing gears—this discussion between Cal Newport and Dr Yael Schonbrun is highly recommended. They go deep on the tensions between being successful at work and present at home, the dangers of comparing success against child-free peers, and how parents can find time for deep work. Thanks to Eric who dropped this in Geneva last week.
Previously on The New Fatherhood
Last weekend’s conversation on health and exercise after becoming a parent was the most popular we’ve ever done. Wherever you are in your journey you can find some kind of support or inspiration within. Here’s a few highlights.
To anyone who needs to hear it, find a sport or activity that’s FUN. Don’t judge where you are at relative to someone else. Enjoy where YOU are at. If you enjoy it, you’ll do it more. The better you get, the more motivated you will be to keep doing it. — Caleb
One of the reasons I do push-ups or planks is that no weights are required. I add dumbbells because no bench is needed. My entire workout center fits in a 2'x2' area and can be pulled out and put away with very little time or effort. Try to do 10/20 pushups, 3 times a day. Seriously - just that. You'll notice a difference after 4 to 5 workouts. DO NOT workout to extreme soreness. As little soreness as possible. Some people start so hard they can't workout for another week+ and that is a killer. — Matthew
I have found that for me it has been easier to stay in great shape than before I had kids because I have a more reliable schedule. But it is way harder to get out of the house, and my free time is very limited. So I bought a basic set of barbell weights and do a 1 hour routine 3 times a week. All my lifts start at the floor. Lots of squats, deadlifts, and overhead press. Im in really good shape, better than before I have kids. I don't get out much so lifting is a way that my mind can escape and get out of the craziness of raising kids. — Samuel
I used to be in decent enough shape and managed to keep it up after my first little person because it was during lock-down, and y'know...furlough, which meant running anytime the little one allowed. But managing parenting with work (and study) has proved near impossible for me, and I'm now 2.5 stone heavier. We've got number 2 on the way, so not feeling too optimistic about how it's going to go anywhere but downhill in the near term. In a way, that's OK because I'm focusing on my family while they need me the most, but I also know that's a bit of a cop out. — GCJ
Thanks for everyone who took part. A topic that demands further exploration another time. Maybe when we’re on the other side of those turkey dinners, Christmas drinks and tins of Quality Street.3
How did you like this week’s issue? Writing about religion is something new, and something I’ve been wary of getting into. But it’s an important topic, especially with its influence and impact on raising our kids. So I’m particularly interested in hearing what you think of this one, either through the links below or directly in the comments
Branding and illustration by Selman Design. Survey by Sprig. Thanks to Michael, Tina and Linda who provided essential input to this essay. Next week we’ll have someone else writing about religion and parenting from a fresh perspective. If you’ve got something to add to the conversation, and are interested in writing an essay on this topic, please get in touch.
“All-powerful, all-knowing and ever-present.” For those who didn’t grow up knowing these things. Or weren’t paying attention in Religious Education class.
US readers, please replace this with whatever candy you eat at Christmas.