Postmodern parents: Only time will tell

emptypewsThe Washington Post headline said it all: “Some Parents Who Shy From Religion Want Their Children to Taste Its Psychological and Spiritual Comforts.” (As a former copy editor, I ask, “What was that? A double decker six- or eight-column headline in 36-point type?)

The story by Stacy Weiner was just as broad and appeared, for some reason, in the health section. Still, it raised a perfectly valid issue. What happens when parents who have a skeptical or totally pluralistic approach to faith have childen? How does one teach postmodernism to a toddler? I mean, before they soak it up on Saturday morning in front of a television set?

Clearly, this is part of a larger story that we talk about all the time here at GetReligion — the struggle of a true religious left to find an identity and to hand it down generation after generation. Yet, as Weiner’s story notes, the secular/pluralist niche continues to grow. It is, for example, a growing segment of the Democratic Party’s base. Ask Howard “Call me Job” Dean. Once again, let me urge everyone to read the “Tribal Relations” article that The Atlantic ran not that long ago about religion and politics in American life.

The Post article stresses that parents of vague beliefs should lean left as they explore the pews. You never know when you might run into a damaging blast of certainty.

Nevertheless, what will most readers make of this?

Like her husband, Varun Gauri, Ayesha Khan did some soul-searching and concluded that she wanted religion’s bounties for their daughter Yasmeen and their year-old son, Sharif. At the top of Khan’s wish list: a sense of community and spirituality.

Over the years, says Khan, she’s seen religious community serve several of her friends — mostly Jewish — with its sense of shared history, support and belonging. “We no longer live among extended families and extended communities,” she says Khan, 42, who is legal director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. And, she notes, “there really aren’t intergenerational institutions that offer quite what religion does in our society.”

Khan also believes that spirituality — with its sense of purpose and meaning — is key to her children’s emotional well-being. And she’s convinced it would be a lot tougher for them to develop spirituality without the structure and guidance that religion offers.

So she and Gauri are dishing up a religious smorgasbord: Islam from one grandma, Hindu from the other, a Quaker school, a Buddhist retreat and a bit of evangelical Christianity via their former nanny. As Khan acknowledges, “Only time will tell if we were creating great confusion or great enlightenment.”

And there is the rub. Only time will tell. This is a fascinating article and the topic is ripe for news coverage. But I was troubled about several things. For example, Weiner does not interview any traditional authority figure or researcher who is skeptical about all this skepticism. The article is very one-sided, in other words. It could be a Unitarian or United Church of Christ tract.

19566Other than interviewing traditional believers, people who might see links between actual religious faith and its positive impact on the lives of children and adults, who else might this reporter have turned to for authoritative research?

I would suggest a follow-up story, focusing on the attempts of parents in interfaith marriages — the best data has been collected by Jewish groups — to raise their children in two faiths at the same time. During my days on the religion beat in Denver, the Jewish community there wrestled with this issue over and over.

The bottom line: Teaching children that two religions are true only teaches them that neither religion is true. Teaching them that all the religions are true will almost certainly teach them that there is no true faith at all, no religious faith that is worth their commitment.

Time will tell. And does anyone dare discuss eternity?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://www.crappychristian.com Marie

    As I read the Post article I kept thinking, please suggest the Unitartians. Why? Because one of the many reasons I left my very left leaning Episcopal church was one of the very involved parents at the church mentioned that really she was agnostic and thinking about what she was involved in and how she could influence some church decisions I could see how she and serval others with varying degrees of agnosticism could make for wishy washy church. I’m not saying she wasn’t a nice lady or no good at any of the tasks she took on, but I really didn’t want to be in a church filled with really nice people who really didn’t believe all that stuff we sang about and prayed about.
    Kids have an excellenct BS meter and parents should stick with what they can halfway believe in, even if it is watered down Christianity-lite. I really wish those parents were seeking something fullbodied and not watered down, and real, but when they bring in their agnostism and their atheism into the church something happens, and so far not for the best.

  • coray

    tmatt, i disagree with your ‘bottom line’. it’s not necessarily postmodernist to assert a primordial religious unity. one could argue, for instance, that the orthodox world faiths derive from the same fount. these sorts of ideas have currency among the sufis and ancient christian mystics. and it’s been the orthodox lately who have been most friendly to the “religio perennis” school of theology.

    also, “postmodern” is not a pejorative term, though it is often used so. were it meant here to signify a skepticism about natural kinds or of easy conceptual distinctions, then most of us are postmodernist. we are globalized, and christian exclusivism doesn’t make sense to people who are aware of and appreciate other world religions. if this is postmodernist, so be it. teaching a child that only one religious faith holds the sacramental path to salvation will probably sap them of their comittment just as a “whatever goes” faith would.

  • M. Everest

    Coray’s comment raises the following question in my mind: “What religion (or denomination) is most frequently passed on to the children of its adherents?”

    I think I’ve seen LDS at the top of that list. Anyone have a link?

    It would have been an interesting factual addition to the story.

  • Ken Shultz

    Be they Baptist, Muslim, Adventist, Catholic or atheist, in my experience, children everywhere are hypersensitive to hypocrisy. Being raised in a faith your parents clearly reject may be better, long term, than attending regularly with parents who, just for the sake of their children, falsely profess belief. …Not every atheist out there is angry, but of the ones I’ve met that are, they all seem to have a horror story about their parents and religion.

    My parents played a huge part in the way I understand things, but, eventually, I formed my own opinions anyway. Especially for people raised in devout religious families, separating yourself from your parents’ religious convictions is an important part of growing up. …I can see how some people might see having a religion to reject as an integral part of raising a well-adjusted, postmodern kid. I don’t agree with it, but I can understand it.

  • Ken Shultz

    …Perhaps there’s something corresponding culturally to ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny? Maybe we all need our own reformation?

  • Rathje

    What people forget about parenting is that kids actually want the comforting certainty of having an authoritarian figure in the household. Furthermore, kids tend to prefer structure over freedom (even if their occasional gripe sessions would indicate otherwise).

    A recent psychologist (wish I remembered who) once pointed out that it’s far better to give your children something to rebel against, than to provide them with no framework for understanding the world at all.

    So no, I have absoutely no problem with forcing my beliefs on my children. Right now, my wife and I are Mormon. And so are the kids, whether they like it or not. As long as they live in my house, they’ll go to church and live by its precepts (well, that’s the rule anyway …). When they’re adults, they can blog about how mean I was if they like. But at least they’ll have some basis for identifying their place in life.

    Even hatred is better than apathy as far as I’m concerned.

  • David Vinzant

    Based on your insensitivity to the religious left, perhaps this website should be re-named “Get Right-Wing Religion.”

  • http://www.notfrisco2.com/camassiablog/ Camassia

    Well, you might be interested in me as a lab specimen, Terry, because that was more or less the scene I grew up in. Oftentimes, the approach isn’t so much postmodern as consumerist. One friend I had in college who was a lapsed Catholic said that she and her fiance planned to raise their kids in church so they have that option available if they want it. My stepmother told me that when she was in her teens her parents decided that she ought to have a chance to pick a church, if she wanted one. So they sent her out to visit a bunch of different churches — alone — to see if she took a fancy to any of them. She wound up going to a Catholic church for a while, but not surprisingly she left when she ran into teachings she disagreed with.

    My parents never took me to church at all, but their attitude is similar enough that they look at my churchgoing kind of like, “Well, if it makes you happy and it’s not some wacky cult, I guess it’s OK.” Still, it can be weird trying to embrace a tradition when you come from an anti-tradition tradition. If you’re interested, I ruminated on that Well, you might be interested in me as a lab specimen, Terry, because that was more or less the scene I grew up in. Oftentimes, the approach isn’t so much postmodern as consumerist. One friend I had in college who was a lapsed Catholic said that she and her fiance planned to raise their kids in church so they have that option available if they want it. My stepmother told me that when she was in her teens her parents decided that she ought to have a chance to pick a church, if she wanted one. So they sent her out to visit a bunch of different churches — alone — to see if she took a fancy to any of them. She wound up going to a Catholic church for a while, but not surprisingly she left when she ran into teachings she disagreed with.

    My parents never took me to church at all, but their attitude is similar enough that they look at my churchgoing kind of like, “Well, if it makes you happy and it’s not some wacky cult, I guess it’s OK.” Still, it can be weird trying to embrace a tradition when you come from an anti-tradition tradition. If you’re interested, I ruminated on that here and here.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    I went through the “let them decide for themselves when they grow up” routine. What happened, as any fool should have been able to see, was that I got the message loud and clear that religion is something shameful that “nice” people don’t talk about… that “normal” people are not even interested.
    I will not be a party to inflicting this on anyone else.

  • tmatt

    DAVID:

    Are you up on the actual statistical trends in religious groups that practice an “all of the religions are true” approach to theology?

    But the main point of my post was that the article need to quote a wider range of voices and seek data from another source. The purpose of this blog is to plead for more informed coverage of religion — left and right. The blog has featured numerous pleas for improved MSM coverage of the religious left.

  • Marie

    There is something deliciously ironic in the spectacle of the legal director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State searching for a “spiritual”, but not religious, home for her children.

  • Steve

    Please help me. What is the difference between religion and spiritual? I hear that religion is “bad” but “spiritual” is good. How can you have one without the other?

  • Maureen

    “How can you have one without the other?”

    The same way you can spend a lot of time with people but never know them at all, or have sex without having kids. Just make sure you keep doing Action A and refusing Consequence B, since Consequence B requires work, and may at some points be unfun.

  • http://religious-studies.blogspot.com NBR

    There is, indeed, a fair amount of statistical data on questions like these, if you trust statistics. A lot of research has been done by the National Study of Youth and Religion (youthandreligion.org) which is run out of UNC and funded by the Lilly Endowment. There’s a relatively recent book ([1], [2]) by Christian Smith and Melinda Denton, published by Oxford UP, called Soul Searching that summarizes their findings, which emphasize teenagers across a broad social and economic cross-section of the U.S. One of the things they claim to have discovered, in fact, is that families like the ones discussed in this article make up a minuscule percentage of the overall population, and that most American teenagers are so far from being “spiritual but not religious” as never to have heard the expression. In statistical terms, LDS families are the most successful in indoctrinating their children (measured in terms of how many teenagers whose parents identify as Mormon also identify as Mormon, themselves), followed by conservative Protestants (admittedly a pretty broad term). Jews are among the least successful, if I remember right, and so are the non-religious — in other words, children of Jewish or nonbelieving parents are statistically much more likely to self-identify as a member of an organized Christian denomination, for example, than children of, say, Baptists are to self-identify as non-religious. (On rereading that, I realize how convoluted it is, but … there you have it.) The book is worth a look, though the study is notably characterized by subtle Christian assumptions throughout — about what it means to “belong” to a religious tradition, or how important it is to “believe” in particular doctrines — peculiarly and even uniquely Christian, especially Protestant, concerns. If you’re interested in this kind of thing, the study also found strong correlations between overall level of religious observance and various measures of the strength of family relationships, as well as with other measurably positive life outcomes. They also found that most teenagers claim to believe what they think they are supposed to, but that they are also astoundingly inarticulate and ill-informed about what their tradition actually teaches. Make of that what you will.

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  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    Simple, Steve. We have spirituality, while They only have religion.


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