Hand-Me-Down Paganism

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A couple of years ago, my friend Sarah put together a workshop at the Heartland Pagan Festival for people interested in second-generation paganism. She called it "The Next Generation." (Although she displays few outward signs, at heart she's an enormous geek.) We spent a little over an hour talking about our experiences and taking questions, and then I read an excerpt from the first story I ever published, "Three Encounters with the Gods." Shameless plug: it features Pan smoking cigars and Thor attending Midnight Mass.

Our workshop attracted about a dozen people outside of our immediate cohort, including a couple I knew from Heathen events around the festival. They pulled up their camp chairs underneath the pavilion we had borrowed and listened to us talk. They had just had their first child, and the father was cradling the infant as he listened. He was one of the first to ask when we opened up for questions. "What do you think we should tell our son about religion?" he asked. "I mean, we don't want to push anything on him—we want him to be free to make his own choices."

I hear variations on that question a lot. Often people ask whether or not they should try to teach their children about the faith at all. Wouldn't it be better to leave their kids a blank slate, and let them make up their minds later on?

Well, if you're asking me: no. I understand that the intent is good, but I think it's a bad idea.

I assume that parents who put forth that question do so because they don't want a repetition of their own childhoods, where their parents brought them up in a religion that, for whatever reason, didn't take. Breaking away from their parents' religion may have been a deeply divisive event in their lives, one that left wounds that never have really healed—and perhaps even led to a disownment. Those anxieties are still a powerful force in the pagan consciousness, so much so that my first column here at Patheos was devoted to them.

But to take that as a reason to just not share any religion with your child seems like confusing the issue to me. The tension many converted pagans feel with their families isn't about the religion as much as it is the expectation—indeed, the demand—that the child follows the parents' path exactly. Thus, when the child finds his or her own way, there's conflict.

Teaching a child about your religion doesn't necessitate that. You can let your children share your religion without binding them to it. The problem is not in exposing a child to religion, but in refusing to accept that children aren't going to grow up to be exactly like their parents. (Thank the gods for that.) If parents support their children's choices, there won't be the rifts that many pagans have had to deal with—those aren't the fault of religion itself, but the expectations people have put onto them.

Meanwhile, I think parents are robbing both themselves and their children if they try to maintain this "blank slate" approach. For one thing, paganism is a part of our identities. Could you say that someone who didn't know anything about your religion truly understands you? Doubtful. It's even hard to imagine that children could really understand their parents when such a big part of their parents' lives are kept apart from them. Although I'm not a psychologist, it's not much a stretch for me to think such a void in the relationship could inadvertently cause the same kinds of stresses pagan parents are worried about causing in the first place. Even if it doesn't lead to that level of heartache, it still seems like there would be a gap: paganism becomes "just a thing my mom does," and never gets the opportunity to become a vital part of the child's life.

And frankly, that's a shame, because their parents likely converted to paganism because of the powerful emotion the religion brought into their lives: a feeling of harmony with the world, of connection to the past, of kinship with deities that felt more real and immediate than the gods they had been raised with. In short, they converted because paganism made their lives better, enriched them as people. For many of them, the benefits they found had to contend with troubles from every other aspect of their lives, and yet they still found it worthwhile.

Why would you want to deprive your child of something like that?

My parents brought me to rituals and festivals from the time I was born; paganism has always been a part of my life, central to my identity even at times when I was troubled or ashamed by it. Now that I am an adult, I feel humbled by the great gift my parents gave to me; through the education my parents gave me, I am connected to something much greater than myself. Every day I learn anew how much that gift has affected me, shaped me into the person I am today.

There is no need to confuse education with imprisonment. You can teach your children about your ways—whatever those ways happen to be—without condemning them to a lack of agency in their own religious life. If they decide your religion—or any religion—isn't where their interests lie, then so be it. But if paganism makes as much sense to them as it did to you, then you will have set something precious into their lives: a connection between the generations that will shape them for the entirety of their lives.

You will have, in short, created a family tradition. (And you didn't even need a fake mysterious grandmother to do it.)