What Do You Teach Your Kids About Religion?

What Do You Teach Your Kids About Religion? October 31, 2014


Today’s Friday Forum, and I have a question for you: What do you teach your kids about religion? Whether you’re religious or not, do you try to raise your children to share your beliefs? Do you intentionally introduce them to different ways of thinking? If you are religious, do you require them to participate in religious events and activities, or do you let them stay home until you feel they have made a decision to commit to the religion for themselves? Let me know in the comments!

My thoughts? I don’t have kids (no guy has been foolish enough to shack up with me yet and make that decision), but I was a high school teacher and am an educational specialist with many hours under my belt studying how human beings develop. I’m around kids a lot now working at the Ethical Society of St. Louis, where we run a Sunday Ethical Education for Kids program, a youth group, and a coming of age group.

My instinct is that I don’t necessarily want my kids to share my religious beliefs, but I do want them to share my values. While I would never indoctrinate my children by teaching them there is only one right way to think about the big questions of life, I would certainly seek to provide a strong moral and ethical foundation as they were growing up. I would teach them to consider evidence, seek the truth, to be skeptical, as well as to be loving of people, accepting, open to difference. I would show them the wonders of the Humanist tradition (like religious parents often involve their kids in the cultural aspects of their faith). But I wouldn’t tell them they had to be an atheist like me.

One way to get at this distinction is to ask “What would make me disappointed in myself as a parent?” Would I be disappointed if a child of mine, after serious consideration, reading, thought, investigation decided to convert to Islam or Christianity? I would not. I would do everything I could to ensure it was a thoughtful and genuinely autonomous decision, but I would greet that decision with my full respect and love.

But would I be disappointed if a child of mine thoughtlessly adopted a religious faith, because their friends were members, or because they were pressured in some way? Absolutely – because an important value of intellectual autonomy would have been violated. If I’m not going to indoctrinate my children I’m certainly not going to allow anyone else to do so.

And if a child of mine somehow became cruel and inhumane, acting in ways which demean people? I’d be extremely disappointed – in myself as a parent, and in them. Thus if they were to join a religion which promoted inhumane ethics I would find that very difficult. Would I seek to actually prevent them? No. But I would try to persuade them to reconsider, and it would put a strain on our relationship.

In this way I both agree and disagree with Dale McGowan, secular parenting guru who wrote on this topic recently. I agree with Dale when he stresses the importance of teaching kids “to think critically and to love reality”. But I’m nervous when he says we should then “turn them loose on every hypothesis about the world they live in” – including “theories” about racism.

Dale says “My kids don’t think racism is bullshit because I said it is — they think it’s bullshit because they actively sought out the (weak) pro-racism arguments through the years and discovered that oh hey, it’s bullshit.” I’m delighted for him and his children. But in my experience prejudice is hardly ever about “arguments” – it’s about values, and I believe those have to be inculcated carefully and consciously, and I am not willing to be as flexible here as with beliefs. I would certainly encourage my kids to explore the bankrupt theories of scientific racism – but under the clear instruction that racism is wrong.

For me, the poet Khalil Gibran said everything you need to know on this topic in his poetry cycle The Prophet:

Your children are not your children. 
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. 
They come through you but not from you, 
And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts.
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as he loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.

You may give them your love, but not your thoughts, for they have their own thoughts. I believe parents should strive to ensure that their children are capable of having their own thoughts, and should raise them in such a way which facilitates their freedom of mind. At the same time, we are the bows from which our children as living arrows are sent forth. We must be supple enough to bend, but we must not break – our values must be sure, and communicated clearly. Then our kids will fly far.

This question has received a lot of discussion on the Patheos Atheist network of late, so if you’d like to frame your thinking, check out these posts:

Why I Will Teach My Children that Religion is Nonsense at On the Margin of Error
Why I Won’t Teach My Children that Religion is Nonsense at Love, Joy, Feminism
Is It Possible to be Neutral When Talking About Religion? at Natural Wonderers
Should Atheist Parents Set Out to Raise Atheists? at Camels With Hammers
Raising (Actual) Freethinkers at The Secular Spectrum
Raising (Actual) Humanists at Camels with Hammers

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