Passing on the Faith? Probably Not

(Patheos is running a special feature this month about “Passing on the Faith.” As I’m a sucker for bandwagons I thought I’d contribute in my own contrary way. For the record, I have no children, just cats at the present moment, so feel free to tell me I don’t know what I’m writing about.)

Despite being rather religious myself, my Father was never one for making my brother and I attend (Christian) church. Our family was “Christian” of course, but outside of Easter and Christmas it wasn’t all that important in the house the three of us shared. I think he was happy enough just to sleep in on Sunday, no need to get the kids ready for church, and if we wanted to visit church we were free to help ourselves to the “church bus” that rambled through our neighborhood every weekend.

Spending time at my Grandparents’ house was an all together different matter. While my Grandfather was always somehow excused from Sunday church services to play golf, such exemptions did not apply to my brother and I. If we were staying with Grandma going to Sunday School was part of the deal. She wasn’t a hard-core Bible pusher, but it pleased her greatly to see us involved at her local church. I remember her sending me off to church one morning with my Father’s old Bible tucked under my arm and this look of complete serenity upon her face.

In later years my step-mother began expecting my brothers and I (gaining a step-mom also meant gaining some extra brothers) to attend church. Eventually the expectation began to be both Sunday School and Sunday Worship Service, no exceptions. Oddly, my step-mother also mocked and ridiculed me for being involved at my local church. Apparently being a no-drug using, non-drinking, non-smoking virgin at 17 made me a bad Christian in her world. What I’m trying to get at here is that my Grandmother and even my step-mom (in her own weird way) were attempting to “pass on” the Christian faith to my brothers and I.

When I was younger I just assumed that was how the world works. If you are a kid you go to your parent’s church, it’s as simple as that. As I got older my perspective evolved, and while I never stopped going to church during my teenage years, I began to feel that religion should be a choice and a not an heirloom to be handed down from generation to generation. I grew up in a rather wishy-washy Methodist Church. The sermons there lacked fire and brimstone, and the word “evangelical” was foreign to my ears. It was a “kinder, gentler” sort of Christian experience. That began to change when my church went through some personnel turnover and we ended up with a born-again Baptist as our Youth Group Director. Suddenly that kinder, gentler Christian experience was out; replaced with the chant of “Onward Christian Soldiers” and groups of kids coercing classmates “to accept Jesus” in what looked like football huddles. I was a Christian at the time and it creeped me out. Religion suddenly seemed less like a choice and more like an exercise in extreme peer-pressure.

When I look back at my own Christian experience I’ve begun to realize that I never “knew Jesus” the way I know the gods of Modern Paganism. What I knew then were the expectations others had of what a relationship with Jesus should be like. As a young person who felt socially obligated to go to church I was never able to cultivate a relationship with the Guy from Galilee because it was all something that someone else planted. Paganism has taught me what real interaction with deity is like because that interaction has been entirely organic. No one told me I should experience a “walk with Pan,” it was something I got caught up in all on my own. If people are constantly telling you what deity to worship and how that deity perceives the universe it becomes that much harder to actually hear deity, any deity. Was Jesus actually answering me or was I simply repeating everything taught to me in Sunday School?

“Passing on the faith” is not a practice I’m a fan of, obviously. There are many different religions out there and I’ve always thought it was limiting to the concepts of “God” and deity to proclaim one pathway better than the other. I’ve always assumed that since people all work differently that there were many different roads that all lead (eventually) to the same place. Indoctrinating children to believe a certain way has always struck me as the coward’s way out. It’s almost like admitting “I’m not sure my faith is actually powerful enough to attract an adult, so I’ll make sure my kid starts believing in it at a young age.” If a person is meant to be a follower of Pan or Jesus they should probably figure that out on their own instead of being pushed into it.

Of course this all leads up to whether or not I think we (as Pagans) should raise our children as Pagans. For the record I don’t have any children, but we are thinking that’s a step we might take next year so we’ve begun talking about how we might raise our little cute hypothetical. Could we hide our Paganism from a potential child? Absolutely not, and the moment our kid figured out how to use Google the jig would be up anyhow (and when does that happen now? age four?), but I can’t imagine raising a child with preconceived notions of deity. I’d certainly want to teach my children to love the Earth and to respect the change of the seasons, but I’m not sure I’d instruct them to pray to the Horned God before going to bed every night, that decision would be their own. (Of course I’d read Greek myths to them while in the womb, but that’s not indoctrination is it?)

Would I love it if my future child told me they wanted to be a British Traditional Witch and inherit Raise the Horns? Sure, but even more than carrying on my faith I’d much rather see my future child share my values. It’s more important to me that whatever spawn I create cares about the Earth and their neighbors and is generally respectful of those that deserve respect. You don’t need to be a Witch to do that.

The Roebuck in the Ritual (A Cochrane Inspired Rite)
Finding the Common Ground at PantheaCon
Paganism: A Tribe or Tribes?
Pagan Festivals and the .25%
About Jason Mankey

Jason Mankey has been involved with Paganism for the last twenty years, and has spent the last ten of those years as a speaker, writer, and High Priest. Jason can often be found lecturing on the Pagan Festival circuit, so you might just bump into him. When not reading and researching Pagan history he likes to crank up the Led Zeppelin, do rituals in honor of Jim Morrison (of The Doors), and sing numerous praises to Pan, Dionysus, and Aphrodite. He lives in Sunnyvale CA with his wife Ari and two hyper-kinetic cats.

  • Lēoht Sceadusawol

    Would you raise your child to believe in the tooth fairy? How about Santa? What festivals would they get?

    I have two boys. The eldest (aged eight) is an atheist, whilst the youngest (aged seven) is a Þórrsman.

    I did not attempt to indoctrinate. In fact we, initially, tried to raise them without any religion. This turned some heads when they got to school and people found that they did not celebrate Christmas/Easter (no one is going to convince me they are anything other than religious festivals).

    As they got a bit older, we realised that sheltering them from religion simply does not work. Especially since British society tries to indoctrinate Christianity in various insidious ways. So we started to teach them about religion. I wasn’t about to read them bible stories for bedtime, but I was prepared to talk to them about faiths not my own, with the rider “They believe”.

    I have read them various stories for bedtime, including Bēoƿulf, the Kinder Edda, The Hobbit, Where’s My Cow, The Bravest Ever Bear… The list goes on, but they were all read as stories, not scripture.

    Earlier this year, I found my youngest praying to Þórr in his bedroom. He made his choice and I support it.

    Also, by making the household Heathen, the boys get access to festivals, giving them something to look forward to throughout the year.

    Indoctrination is bad, but sharing of faith is fine.

    You said yourself, your relationship with Christianity changed when the Christians you interacted with did. I think that a lot of people have more of an issue with Christianity than they do with Christ (or his dad). This tends to create a reaction against certain constructs within Christianity (such as sharing faith with your offspring, or others, formal organisations, etcetera).

    I will continue to share my beliefs with my children (and anyone else) for as long as they want. If they choose to follow another path, then I will support that, also.

    With regards to morals and values, these things are just as personal as belief.

    • Nicole Youngman

      I’ve taken a similar approach (though we do celebrate secular versions of Christmas and Easter). My 10yr old son doesn’t seem overly interested in religion–my hubby is agnostic so he’s not getting it from both of us anyway–but he has a general idea of what I do and what I believe (or don’t!). I’ve tried to give him the basics of other religions here and there too and tried to say good things about all of them, emphasizing that the one thing that is NOT ok is to try to tell someone they should practice YOUR religion instead of theirs (or none, whatever). One thing I found out the hard way though is to be careful about introducing some myths too young–some of them involve sons slaying mothers and the like, and little kids are VERY freaked out by that. If anyone’s interested there’s a long series of audio recordings of world myths done by Jim Weiss that are just fabulous–easy to find at Amazon etc.

      • Taffy Dugan

        I looked Jim Weiss, thank you! With which book would you suggest we start? Which is your children’s favorite?

        • Nicole Youngman

          Oh, geez, they’re all wonderful. It’ll depend some on what age you’re working with. My son (he’s 10 now) listened to several of them over and over for a while–I think he enjoyed the King Arthur, Gallileo and the Stargazers (true scientist stories!), Three Musketeers, and the Greek Mythology ones the most.

  • riceballmommy

    I’ve always let my daughter know what I believe, I’ve asked her what she thought. I also have the view that religion doesn’t have to be static, she can change her faith if she so chooses when she gets older. For now she has declared herself Pagan and wants to learn more about what I believe so I’m teaching her.

  • Mikal

    As seems to be the norm with most of us pagan types, I was forced much like yourself to attend church, by a stepmom with morals in complete contradiction to the things she so desperately pushed on her children as well as her step kids. I refuse to do anything of the sort with my kids, and the wife who happens to be a devout JW is of the same mind on this. We teach both of our beliefs in our house, but do our best to provide any information on anything they wish to learn from other faiths in our best attempt to be unbiased. Hopefully in time, they will grow to appreciate having all options on the table.

  • lishevita

    It seems that, despite not having any kids of your own yet, you and I actually have a pretty similar idea about passing on faith. It’s not the faith that’s the important bit but the value system. The difference, I guess is that I would never *hide* my faith or attempt to. I think that modelling faith-based behavior is potentially beneficial even if the child goes off into another religion completely.

  • Nicole Platania

    I didn’t really try to do much of anything as far as religion with my kids, they’ve been to Christian churches before but never forced and been exposed to other beliefs including my own. While I’m Heathen, my 13 year old son is Atheist and my daughter has created her own version of the God and Goddess that is comforting for her…who am I to tell them they’re wrong? We really have no control of what religion they follow, we can just guide and help when there are questions.

  • Taffy Dugan

    For most Pagan traditions, our faith is experiential so really can’t be taught. There are no threats of punishment, there’s nothing to cram down anyone’s throats. There’s no big daddy is the sky sending you to a non-existent hell. There’s not much to memorize and there’s no indoctrination (in fact, questions about faith are encouraged). There really is little to compare with the oppressive form of Christianity you experienced.

    Before I had kids I was a perfect parent, too. I thought of all the “right” things I was going to do. And how I was going to raise them a certain way. And then, I had kids. All those preconceptions flew right out the door. I wasn’t going to teach my kids anything about my tradition and just leave them open to the world. But, when my then 3 year-old daughter found a dead baby bird, the questions started. I tried being vague about how some religions teach this about after life, and others teach that but, it wasn’t helping her. It made her more upset. At 3,she couldn’t understand vagueness; she needed concrete answers and comfort. So, I told her about my thoughts on the afterlife and how the baby bird’s soul was now with its ancestors in Summerland (what her daddy calls Heaven). We buried it and asked the spirits to guide the bird’s soul. That really helped her. For months afterwards she’d bring up the baby bird and how happy she was that it was with its family.

    When my then 5 year-old son was getting bullied we did everything we could think of to help him. And then, my High Priestess did a little ritual and gave him the “strength and stubbornness” of a goat. He was thrilled and empowered, and stood up to the bully.

    I wasn’t planning on doing family rituals but, they asked. They get a real kick out of it. We have fun calling quarters and doing little spells. I don’t force them to do anything. If they don’t want to join in, they don’t have to. Sometimes my son just wants to build with legos off by himself, and that’s fine.

    Contemplating having kids brings up a lot about how we were raised. It brings up the pain and the joy of our childhoods. It’s important to honor those feelings but, not to let them control you or get in the way of understanding your child’s unique needs. As much as you might plan or envision what you might or might not do, until you actually have a child, it’s just theory.

    • Nicole Youngman

      LOVE the goat ritual idea!! I’m totally going to steal that if we ever need it. :)

      • Taffy Dugan

        It really helped that she had a viking/horned god type helmet (forgot which) which made him look like a goat.

        My husband and I got a secret giggle every time we called him “goat boy (SNL) which brought more joy into the situation. ;-)

    • Lēoht Sceadusawol

      “For most Pagan traditions, our faith is experiential so really can’t be taught.”

      Is that really the case, though? Surely, if nothing else, the stories of the gods can be taught?

      • Taffy Dugan

        When I share stories about the gods, that’s not teaching. There’s no quiz, no need to memorize, no training, no instruction. Just some good story telling. To them it’s almost as good as “Green Eggs and Ham”.

        What I do teach are tools to help them find their own answers. For example, I’m teaching them to meditate and do yoga in order to help them calm their minds and bodies. With a calm and quiet mind, they can connect (or not) to the deities.

        When I think about the years of CCD (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine for those who aren’t familiar with Catholicism) and catechism, whatever tiny bit can be “taught” in my tradition (holidays, maybe a night prayer or 2) is so miniscule you’d need a microscope to see it.

        If one day they want to learn more, I’ll be happy to “teach” them my rituals so they can personalize them to suite their own needs. In the meantime, we’re just having fun.

        • Lēoht Sceadusawol

          Storytelling is one of the most powerful ways to teach.

          • Guest

            True but, you are splitting hairs with her. In the context of this blog “to teach” would mean the more formal rote instruction as opposed to the more general imparting knowledge.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            I didn’t read it as that.

            Mind you I hear more about social politics from Pagans than I do theology.

  • Little Poobah

    It seems to me that your parents, rather than sharing their faith with you, treated religion as something to send you away to “get.” They don’t seem to have actually lived it much.

    My religion and values are simply part and parcel of my daily life: I’m not a “Full-Moon Pagan.” Therefore, my kids (both now grown) grew up in a Pagan household with Pagan values and Pagan life-choices, with Pagan godparents (well, one is a Quaker) and in a Pagan subcultural social milieu.

    We never told them what to believe, but we celebrated the Sabbats–often at the local Pagan community events, sometimes with our extended Pagan family (see godparents, above) and friends at our home. Bedtime stories were stories from world mythology, stories from history (such as the Battle at the Pass at Thermopylae), or tales of our ancestors (such as how my grandmother once rode an ostrich–yes, really, A photo is on my Facebook page). They also got good books and stories such as Charlotte’s Web and Wind in the Willows.

    We answered their questions honestly. Questions about fact were given factual answers (“Where did the world come from?” engendered a reply about the Big Bang Theory, not about a Goddess giving birth); how-to questions usually got multiple-option answers; and ethical questions resulted in discussions about actions, long and short term consequences, compassion, and values. And in pretty much all cases, these responses included a reminder about the limits of human knowledge and perception, and the importance of keeping an open mind (but not so open that the brain could fall out).

    The evening before each child started school for the first time featured a ceremony with the family coven, with each person there giving the child a present (a set of pencils with the child’s name, new clothes, and–from one godmother–a rubber stamp of the word “bullshit”, with a reminder that many things one is told are just that). The celebration culminated in a Working to help the child enjoy school and do well there. Menarche and driver’s license got appropriate rite-of-passage celebrations as well.

    Children derive great benefit from a predictable yearly round of family and community festivals and other celebrations to look forward to, and mine were no exception. So we were always active in our local Pagan community. (Pagan parents without a local Pagan community can still have family celebrations, and find regular events in their local school and neighborhood communities that serve the same function.)

    We went out of our way to find other Pagan families so that our kids could have Pagan playmates, but we also encouraged them to have friends from all sorts of cultural and spiritual backgrounds, We taught them than virtues like a good heart, loyalty, courage, compassion, thoughtfulness, and kindness are to be found and treasured in people of many different spiritual paths.

    We never taught them anything about how to practice: they grew up with it. and up to a certain age, children want to do whatever their parents do. I remember the first time I was on the phone with one of those call-the-high-priestess-for-help calls, and my kid whispered, “Just tell’em to take two white candles and call after next Full Moon!”

    The upshot of all this? One is happily practicing traditional Wicca in another state with her Pagan husband. The other is an independent Heathen. Both are ethical adults committed to living lightly on the Earth. Both are healthy and reasonably happy, and pursuing fulfillment of their respective dreams. What more could one ask?

    • Harmonious Rhapsody

      That sounds like a wonderful way to grow up!

    • Taffy Dugan

      I like that! I love how proud and confident you are of being Pagan. You’re an inspiration.