Passing on the Faith – The Hidden Questions

I wasn’t planning to write on the latest Patheos discussion question “Passing on the Faith.”  But yesterday P. Sufenas Virius Lupus posted a very good essay on the topic and today Jason Mankey shared his thoughts.  While I have no argument with either of those responses, they’ve caused me to give the question some more thought.

Full disclosure:  I write as a Pagan practitioner and leader, not as a parent.  Cathy and I were in our mid 20s when got married – we knew we didn’t want children any time soon, but we agreed to revisit the question periodically.  Every time we discussed it we quickly came to the same conclusion:  “not now, maybe later.”  We’re now to the point where age has turned “not now” into “never.”  We’re OK with that.  Some people simply aren’t meant to be parents – we just had sense enough to recognize it.

There are two issues to consider in the question of passing on the faith.  The first is the issue of religious continuity – how do we insure the religion we practice, the religion that is so meaningful to us, will continue to be practiced in the future?  The second is the issue of religious education for our children – how do we insure they learn the skills to navigate the challenges of life and the values to do so virtuously and ethically?

Before we explore those two issues, we need to look at two lower-level issues (“lower level” meaning hidden or obscured, not less important) unstated but implied by the original question.  The first is the issue of religious exclusivity.  If you believe your religion is the One True Way, or worse, if you believe followers of your religion go to heaven while all others go to hell, the question of passing on the faith has a much higher priority than it does for those of us with more liberal and pluralistic beliefs.  My mother worries about the fate of my soul… so we don’t talk about religion.  I don’t like that, but while I don’t want to distress her, I have to follow the path I’ve been called to follow.

Pagans – and pretty much everyone else except for conservative Christians and Muslims – don’t worry our children will suffer eternal torment if they worship Isis instead of Brighid, if they don’t worship any gods, or even if they become Baptists.  Passing on our faith isn’t a requirement for their eternal salvation.

The second hidden issue is that of identity.  The idea that religion is about what you believe is a very modern, Western, and Protestant idea.  For most people throughout most of history, religion was and is about who you are, what you are, and whose you are.  To walk away from the religion of your family isn’t just rejecting a set of theological propositions or social customs or even just a style of worship.  It’s rejecting the identity of the family.  That’s why religious conversions are literally a life and death issue in some parts of the world.

In our mainstream society, though, changing religion frequently does means nothing more than changing ideas or customs.  More importantly, most of us Pagans have already rejected the religion of our families.  Unless we’re highly hypocritical, we can’t criticize our children for doing what we ourselves have done.  Besides, if they reject our religion they affirm our identity as religious free-thinkers.

For Pagans, passing on the faith simply isn’t as important as it is for followers of some other religions.

That said, the two primary issues deserve to be addressed.  I take great pride in my Druidry, Paganism, and UUism.  They help me live a meaningful life, they inspire me to be the very best I can be, and they help me build a better world.  My commitment to Nature is strong and I believe a commitment to Nature is essential for the future of our species.  My commitment to my gods is strong and I believe working with them is the best way to keep me focused on what’s most important.  My religion is helpful to me, I think it can be helpful to others, and I want to see it continue to grow (in numbers and in depth) now and long after I’m gone.  Passing it on to the children of my co-religionists is one way to do that.

But counting on children to grow Paganism (or pretty much any religion in the West) is a losing strategy.  Birth rates have been declining for some time now, and while I have no data my strong impression is that the Pagan reproductive rate is well below average.

If Paganism is to grow, it will grow because other people follow the same path most of us followed:  they hear the call of the gods, of Nature, and of magic.  Our job is to make sure they have a good place to go when they respond to those calls.  That means welcoming young people – and everyone else – without pandering to what we assume they want.

The second issue is religious education for our children.  Let’s start with the obvious:  children learn more from what you do than from what you say, and they learn more from what you tell them than from what someone who sees them an hour a week tells them.  I rejected my father’s theology, but I couldn’t unlearn his dedication to faith and his devotion to his religious community – nor would I if I could.  The values and virtues he exhibited live on in me.  If you would pass on your values, make sure you embody them fully.

But children also need a more traditional foundation in religion.  Whose stories do you tell?  What holidays do you celebrate?  What holy days do you observe?  What offerings do you make?  What do you tell your child about prayer and meditation?  What do you show them?  What answers do you give when your child asks about death?  What do you tell your child about other religions?

Because some day, someone from one of the proselytizing religions is going to talk to your child.  They’re going to tell her she’s going to hell unless she accepts Jesus as her savior.  They’re going to tell him there is no god but Allah.  They’re going to tell her there are no gods and she’s wasting her time.  Trying to explain them away after the fact is no substitute for building the confidence to say “thanks for sharing, but we’re Pagan.”

Passing down our religion isn’t as important for most Pagans as it is for some people, but it’s a topic that deserves our consideration.  Let’s make sure we address all the issues involved, the hidden ones as well as the obvious ones.

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About John Beckett

I grew up in Tennessee with the woods right outside my back door. Wandering through them gave me a sense of connection to Nature and to a certain Forest God. I’m a Druid graduate of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, the Coordinating Officer of the Denton Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans and a former Vice President of CUUPS Continental. I’ve been writing, speaking, teaching, and leading public rituals for the past eleven years. I live in the Dallas – Fort Worth area and I earn my keep as an engineer.

  • Tommy Elf

    (Again, I really hate the way that Disqus lacks quoting features – anyways)…

    >But children also need a more traditional foundation in religion.<

    In a way, I feel you're lamenting the fact that there are so few children within the Pagan belief system. You noted, most of us that came to Pagan beliefs did so as refugees (to borrow a term that doesn't quite fit) from our parents' belief systems that we grew up with. Perhaps part of the answer lies within this point. Since most of us had our parents' basically foisted upon us – those that are parents are not wanting to repeat that same action on their own children. Instead, they choose to not involve their children in religious eduction, allowing them (the children) to explore and decide for themselves what they believe. I believe its an interesting sociological point and perspective to visit upon. I sincerely would love to see a graduate student take on the study to see if (a) this is truly the case, and (b) the end result of such a technique has on those children as they become far more impressionable teenagers and young adults.

    –T

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

      I’m envious of the kids in the Denton UU Religious Education program. They learn about different religions and different religious concepts, They’re encouraged to explore their own thoughts and to let them develop naturally. I wonder what I would have become if I had grown up in an environment that taught the inherent dignity and worth of every person instead of sinfulness and damnation. Or rather, I wonder how much more quickly I would have become what I’m called to be.

      I think parents who give their children no religious education do them a disservice. Everyone needs basic religious knowledge to navigate our still-very-religious society. Beyond that, most (not all, but most) of us have a religious impulse to one degree or another. For all the harmful stuff I learned in the Baptist church, I also learned some religious skills that are still helpful to me today.

      • JasonMankey

        In an attempt to keep my wordage down to a reasonable level my posts on Raise the Horns sometimes lack details. If Ari and I have children we do plan to raise them with an awareness of religion, heck a part of me thinks we might join a Unitarian Church just to accomplish that goal. I think not providing young people with the basics of multiple religious beliefs is a mistake (and really, we should teach some of this in public schools, children should know what Islam and Paganism from reliable sources, not Fox News or whatever), and me being me, it would be impossible to keep all of it away from them anyhow.

        What I don’t want to do is take kids with me into the circle, or tell them who to pray to or how to pray. Those decisions should be theirs, and theirs alone.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

          I struggle with kids in circles. I don’t want children in the circle who don’t want to be there – I remember being dragged to church Sunday morning, Sunday night and Wednesday night and I wouldn’t want to be part of inflicting a Pagan version of that on anyone. Nor do I want a 3-year-old disrupting a guided meditation or wandering dangerously close to the fire pit. Make a circle “child friendly” and you severely limit the depth the ritual can explore.

          On the other hand, religion isn’t an adult-only thing. Childhood is a good time to learn the stories of our gods and heroes, and it’s the best time to learn the values and virtues we reinforce in ritual. Done right, circles can be fun (some of the time, anyway) and children shouldn’t automatically be excluded from that fun.

          My inability to reconcile these two thoughts is one – though far from the largest – of the reasons I never became a parent.

          • kenofken

            I think there are some ceremonies which are wonderfully suited to kids and families and others not so much. Yule, Ostara, Lammas, Mabon. All of them are excellent ways to introduce kids to our understanding of seasons and life cycles. They are as festive as they are serious. Samhain and Beltane deal with some heavier adult topics. I would say in general, that those are best reserved for teens (or in the case of Beltane, legal age, depending what sort of hanky-panky you encourage there). I don’t think kids belong in a regular full moon working circle because there is some deeper work that needs to be done, and I think, requires an adult understanding of oneself and truly informed free will to dedicate oneself to your gods. That said, there may well be times where a family-run circle is appropriate. I don’t think it’s a binary choice of whether to involve kids in pagan religion or not. There is room for them to experience, and participate, and have fun and learn without the expectation that they will follow our own exact footsteps. We should consider one other factor: Paganism IS the natural default spiritual operating system of children. They have that sense of wonder and ritual and magick from day one. They know the dance. It is us who had to spend 20, 30 years reclaiming that and filling out the details of what it means to be “pagan.”

          • http://spinningofthewheel.wordpress.com/ Áine Órga

            I strongly agree that parents should educate their children about
            religion, should have open and honest conversations with them, and allow
            them to witness their religious practice and understand the practice
            and the beliefs behind it. But I don’t feel that religion is something
            for children to engage with beyond the basic celebrational aspects.

            I don’t think it’s adult only, either. But I feel that there is a line somewhere. I agree with kenofken that some ceremonies are suited to children, but until the children can fully understand what they’re engaging with I would advocate only including children in specifically family-oriented rituals, rather than including them in the sort of deep inner work and devotion that takes place ordinarily.

            Personally, although I won’t be even thinking about having children for many years yet, I think I would probably continue to conduct my rituals in private, but celebrate the sabbat days with my children in a similar way to how I was raised to celebrate Halloween, Christmas and Easter – in a largely (if not entirely) secular way.

          • http://nuannaarpoq.wordpress.com/ thalassa

            It isn’t hard (if parents are willing to take turns and some other adults are willing to help out) to facilitate a children’s circle before an adult ritual…or finding a way for them to participate in part of it (and then incorporate a way for them to leave to do something more kid friendly)–kids are quite good at doing things like cleansing and blessing a space so that it is ready for later. Combine an early children’s circle with a person to watch them, some snacks, and a craft, and more families can participate…right now, we do absolutely nothing (except for Pagan Pride Day and one festival) because there is very little family friendly Pagan stuff. Our UU congregation, on the other hand…they provide daycare for most church activities from meetings to Sunday services to any participant that needs it, as long as they have notification in advance (of course, our congregation fits that into the budget and pays for it…which is a whole. ‘nother ball of wax).

        • http://www.patheos.com/Pagan Christine Kraemer

          I heard a paper a few years by Laura Hanlon-Wildman. She had interviewed a dozen or two second-generation Pagans. Their biggest and most consistent complaint was that their parents had not trained them or given them consistent religious education. Very interesting!

          So… you might want to teach them spiritual tools from your tradition, like how to pray, while making it clear that they are not obligated to do so and that you will still love them just the same if they choose a different religion or none. I know that the training I got in the Methodist church (how to lead group singing, give a sermon, facilitate a worship service, organize a potluck, pray and meditate) came with me into Paganism, where in some cases I learned better tools, and in other cases I found I had skills that the other Pagans didn’t have and desperately needed. Religious education in any tradition produces transferable skills, and some of them are a lot harder to learn as an adult!

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

            I think it is the fate of each generation to overcompensate for the errors of their parents. Not all religious education is indoctrination!

      • Tommy Elf

        I’m not sure that I (the personal *I* as in me) would call such decisions by parents a “disservice”…I certainly wouldn’t agree with it – but how they choose to raise their children is really up to them. There are many things that I think some folks could do better as parents – but I’m also not them. They have to make their own choices. I understand the point you’re making here John (and honestly, I agree with it) – just that the wording (in my opinion) comes off a touch emphatic… $.02

        –T

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

          It was meant to be emphatic. I respect the right of parents to teach their children nothing about religion, but I think they’re making a serious mistake.

          • Tommy Elf

            ::shrug:: Fair enough. Just an observation on my part.

            –T

      • http://www.mysticcomfort.com/ Mystic Comfort

        “I’m envious of the kids in the Denton UU Religious Education program.
        They learn about different religions and different religious concepts,
        They’re encouraged to explore their own thoughts and to let them develop
        naturally.”

        Okay, that cinches it! I’m going to visit the UU church in my area. Thanks!

  • kenofken

    I don’t think we need to indoctrinate kids into becoming pagans. What we can best do for them is to embody and share those pagan values that will give them the strength and courage to take their own spiritual journey and to live boldly, and compassionately and joyfully. If we’re able to do that, they will hear and answer the call to whatever gods or path they’re meant to follow.

    Many will remain pagan, others Buddhists or humanist or any other path you can conceive. Some, (it pains me to say :) will go on to become Christian or Muslim. BUT, they will not be driven by the fear and pathology that so often defines Abrahamic paths. To me, it’s not important that we raise more pagans. Which gods or goddesses they’re called to is between them and the deities. What’s important is that we create a world in which they CAN be pagan, and to imbue them with best virtues that can arise from paganism.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

      Indoctrinating children is wrong, period. But they will learn something – hopefully what they learn will help them build honest, virtuous lives. As you say, what gods call them is up to the gods.

  • http://www.mysticcomfort.com/ Mystic Comfort

    “Most of us Pagans have already rejected the religion of our families.
    Unless we’re highly hypocritical, we can’t criticize our children for
    doing what we ourselves have done. Besides, if they reject our religion
    they affirm our identity as religious free-thinkers.”

    I agree! And right now, my 12-year-old son seems drawn to Christianity. I accept some responsibility for that because that was my religion for more than half of the time he’s been alive.

    But I also feel concerned about his learning things like patriarchal approaches to understanding the Bible, guilt and fear and moralistic judgments, a sort of “us vs. them” mentality and a sense of never quite measuring up. I also don’t want him to miss out on the wonder of nature, the possibility of magic, the comfort of connecting to the goddess, etc.

    I can only hope that my example will eventually have impact because he is at the age where he is less than impressed by anything I say.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

      “I can only hope that my example will eventually have impact because he
      is at the age where he is less than impressed by anything I say.”

      As with myself and my father, the values you live will be communicated. Words are nice, but they aren’t necessary, and they certainly aren’t as important as actions.

      • http://www.mysticcomfort.com/ Mystic Comfort

        SO encouraging to hear, John! Thanks!!


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