Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Non-religious Parents Raising Children With Religion

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.


Stephen (aka Q) said...

Personally, I don't believe that religion is necessary or even necessarily helpful for learning morality and finding solace.

Religion is at least helpful insofar as it raises the issues and offers a point of view that people can react to.

You're a self-starter, JA. You work at these issues; you don't need to be prodded to think about them.

I'm like that, too. But most people are not, in my experience. If they don't attend religious services, they give very little thought to life's big questions.

Of course, religion tends to raise the big questions only to spoonfeed people pat answers. I don't think they're doing anyone a service in that respect.

But the best religious communities acknowledge the struggles and the ambiguities, invite people on a journey of discovery with them, and offer to support them in that journey.

BaconEating AtheistJew said...

When it comes to morality, there is a lot to debate, including the definition.
Hellbound Alleee for example says that morality is not relative but based on fact.

CyberKitten said...

Q said: If they don't attend religious services, they give very little thought to life's big questions.

And yet most people seem to 'get by' without a single "Big Question" passing through their heads... Go figure. Most people (at least in my experience) either don't care about the "Big Questions" or actively avoid them. I see no problem with that if people just want to get on with their lives. Thinking about the "Big Questions" doesn't have to be part of anyone's life.

I just think about them because I think it's fun to do so.

Oh & I agree with JA's comment: Personally, I don't believe that religion is necessary or even necessarily helpful for learning morality and finding solace.

Right there with you JA.

Sadie Lou said...

There's a church in my comunity that definately resembles a gathering for people wanting to get their kids active in a community organization rather than the attendance being anything about God.
There's a man that works with my husband that brings his kids to this church's youth group. Dan asked him if his kids were seeking God. The man said," I don't think so. I just read a study that kids who go to church functions are less likely to get involved with parties and stuff because they're too busy with church."
Maybe that's how it starts but hopefully after spending so much time around people who (maybe) have a faith in God, the kids will start questioning their participation and wondering what the underlying message is about.

I think in some cases, it's a social club for families.
"Yeah, we do church on Sundays."
You know what I mean?

Anonymous said...

I think children thrive in a structured environment. Structure is comforting and it eases certain types of anxiety so that other aspects of the mind can flourish. I don't think it necessarily has anything to do with religion or faith though. It has to do with order and predictability.

Juggling Mother said...

"nonreligious parents may face a number of humbling questions. Are they willing to trade sleepy Sundays for 10 a.m. services?"

ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha - I can tell you don't have any kids yet.

sleepy sunday's disappeared they day the kids arrived:-)

getting back to the point though - we are raising our kids unashamedly atheist, and (I hope) with a strong moral sense!

Although Mstr A goes to the local school, which is C of E, at 5 years old he has already expressed his dis-belief to myself, his teachers and (rather inappropriately) his vicar.

I have absolutely no difficulties answering questions about age/illness/death (biology), inequality (politics), belief (comparitive religion), or world & personal events. In fact it's easier to understand chance and human nature than try to make sense of a loving God while watching Tsunami's, famines, murders & wars on the news!

I try to teach them about as many different religions as I can when suitable topics come up in conversation, because it is important for the growth of their understanding of how the world works - some people believe A, and some people believe B, mummy thiunks C, and daddy leans towards D is probably one of the most important lessons any child can learn!

Although I have to say, since having children I have been to more churches than in the rest of my life put together, and heard more religious dogma spouted at me & them than I previously thought possible. The religious community is organised, and the secular "community" is non-existant - which is a shame:-(

asher said...


Your final comment was the most telling; you miss the community of the Orthodox.

When I was saying kaddish for my father, it required me to be at shul at least twice a day and stay through the services. Clearly this was designed to get you involved with the community, or at least ask someone where the correct page was. It didn't work on me though...after a few weeks I went back to the way I was.

Recommendation: someone lent me a copy of the DVD called "The Quarrel" a movie about 10 years old. Two friends meet in 1948 by chance after both their families had been wiped out in Europe. One becomes a rebbe and the other and non-believer. The movie is basically a dialogue between them but worth it. Good acting.

Laura said...

Sounds like my cousin. He was semi-religious in his youth - but not much. Then he stopped going to church and looked into paganism and things. Now that he has kids, they go to church every week and he has a problem with ME being pagan... hypocrite.

Esther said...

Msr. Aginoth - My story is very similar to yours. My kids are being raised in an avowedly agnostic household. You know what? They're decent moral people. They're not spoiled brats. They make sensible decisions. They do well in school. They're sensitive to other people's feelings.

We've presented religion to them as a thing that everyone has at least one of - like race. Some of their friends are African Americans, some are white, some are a mix of several races. Likewise, some of their friends are Catholic, some are Jewish, some are part Presbyterian and part Jewish, some are part Hindu and part Episcopal. We're part Catholic, part Jewish and all Humanist.

Frankly, I don't think I would necessarily be upset if my kids, at some point when they're older, decide to identify with a specific faith. I would only hope that, if it happens, it's not because they are being pressured by a boyfriend, or that they embrace a faith that relegates women to an inferior status or rejects the value of rationalism and science.

Esther said...

One more thing - kids have supple minds. My younger daugher has asked about God. I've replied that some people believe in God and some people don't and that she'll have to decide for herself whether to believe in God or not.

Later on, she told me that she believes that God is all the good things in world including the things that you can't see with your eyes. Good for her.

R10B said...

Everybody thinks about big questions. Some people think about big questions all the time. Others think about big questions only when events warrant. It's not just those who consider themselves cerebral. In Christian theology it's called General Revelation and is a result of our having been created by (and given some attributes of) a thinking being.

dbs said...

It is an amazingly strong instinct, and the sense of community is certainly a positive. There is a very high price to pay, though.

There was a (good but rather negative) recent post which is relevent to this here:

Shlomo said...

I keep hearing about this 'sense of community'and that's bullshit. What practical advantage comes to the individual from living among the Orthodox? I certainly never saw any beyond my own extended family and friends; friends and family which I would likely have had anywhere, just like millions of goyim do.

No offense meant, but do you think the pushing and shoving at tish, the loshen hara, the thieves who ignore the beis din, the beis din who take money from thieves, the chasidishe Rebbes who quarrel with each other, the billion dollar weddings, the child molestors, the men who leave agunos, etc. etc., offer a sense of community? Puleeeze. One would be better off alone than among those kind, and even if you are among them, you are alone anyhow.

What kind of 'community' do you really have if your neighbor doesn't even trust your kashrus simply because you daven in a different shtibele? Just because you both appear to be doing the same thing at the same time doesn't mean that you are doing it together.

Even in the MO, reform, and conservative communities you have backstabbing in the shuls and on school boards. No different than you see among goyim. That isn't how I was raised, and I detest that behavior in anyone of any faith.

United We Lay said...

I'm not willing to trade sleepy Sundays for anything. It is never a good idea to start down any path your heart isn't in. If my 4 year-old asks me if there really is a god, I have the answer and I'll give it to them. You don't have to avoid the tough questions with children, you just have to answer them in a way that kids will understand and expand on those answers as they grow up. Be honest. Religion is not honest.

Stephen (aka Q) said...

United we lay:
You're not willing to trade sleepy Sundays for anything? What pathetic priorities.

Or maybe you're just prone to speaking in absolute terms where they aren't appropriate. As in your subsequent comment, "Religion is not honest". All religions? All religious people? That's an indefensibly sweeping judgement.

United We Lay said...

I didn't say all religius people, I said all religions, and in this case the use of absolutes is entirely appropriate. If a religious person is limited in mind enough to subscribe to the view tha an invisible man controls the universe, that's they're own problem, but for a religion to perpetuate the myth through deception and trickery is another matter all together.

Sleepy Sundays are a great time to spend with the family, at home, doing things you enjoy, and No, I wouldn't trade that for anything in the world, especially nto a false god.

Mary Kay said...

It's sad to see the confusion between religion and knowing God personally.

Knowing God is awesome.

Those who choose spiritual death are like zombies, walking dead men. What's the point to life if you throw away God.

Pray for His presence and then once in it you will leap for joy.

Isaiah 53