For many years, Varun Gauri rejected religious services, practiced no rituals and spurned all mainstream notions of God. But these days he's busy dipping his daughter's toes in various spiritual waters, from a religious preschool to services at a number of local churches. Gauri says he wants to offer Yasmeen the moral foundation and spiritual guidance he believes religion can provide. Perhaps above all, he wants his daughter to enjoy religion's potential for providing solace. Recently, the 5-year-old expressed a deep-felt desire: "I wish people wouldn't grow old and die," she said. Religion, Gauri hopes, "can help her find some ways of living with that kind of loss."
Like Gauri, many nonreligious parents -- whether they've eschewed belief or practice or both -- find themselves seeking the psychological, spiritual and moral blessings they hope a religious background can bestow on their offspring.
Less-than-devout Americans may be surprised that millions of folks share the same pew. Sixty-four percent don't attend religious services even once a month, according to a 2003 Harris poll, and 21 percent don't believe in God or aren't sure a deity exists. Forty-six percent live in a household where no one belongs to a place of worship, according to the 2001 American Religious Identification Survey, conducted through the City University of New York. And 12 percent don't identify with any faith, the Harris poll found.
But at some point, a number of parents seem to flock to religion. In 2002, for example, the percentage of fathers who attended church at least once a month was nearly twice that of men who had no children, according to data from a major demographic study. At least some parents likely were motivated by a kid-centric quest.
Such parents may seek the sense of community or emotional security they hope religion will provide their kids; they may want a sense of purpose or tradition; and they may be looking for ethical or spiritual influences to mold their children's lives. For some, a religious education simply means giving their kids a better shot at understanding a cultural force that they consider both powerful and pervasive.
Whatever the reasons, nonreligious parents may face a number of humbling questions. Are they willing to trade sleepy Sundays for 10 a.m. services? Is it a good idea to start down a spiritual path when their hearts aren't in it? And what should they say if their 4-year-old looks up at them wide-eyed and asks if there really is a God?
This was certainly the case with many of my skeptical friends that I grew up with. At some point in college or shortly thereafter, they stopped going to shul, started watching t.v. on shabbos, ate dairy in non-kosher restaurants, etc., but as soon as they had kids, they returned to a fuller observance.
Personally, I don't believe that religion is necessary or even necessarily helpful for learning morality and finding solace, but the sense of community I had growing up as an Orthodox Jew is something I still miss.