According to PEW, the SBNR (Spiritual-But-Not-Religious) demographic continue to grow, particularly among Millennials. This demographic is also approaching, or are at the age in which they enter parenthood. Confusion often ensue as they aren’t sure they want to pass on the religion of their own upbringing but yet want to give their children the robust spirituality that they still enjoy.
As if becoming a parent isn’t already panic-inducing enough, how does one navigate their own fast-changing spiritual identity with the intense responsibility of raising children into faith? How do we share a religion whose tenets we aren’t sure of, or cultivate moral values without a coherent structure?
Most importantly, what’s Grandma going to say when she finds out they aren’t taking their children to church?
First, I want to say, while some decry this trend and grieve the decline of institutional religion, I think it’s actually good news for the children. I think SBNR parents are well positioned to raise kids with the best of both worlds: the radical inclusivity and tolerance of secular values as well as the life-giving, self-sacrificial love taught by religion.
The reason is because most SBNR parents grew up in religion, they breathed the air that prioritized universal human questions: where do we come from? why are we here? who and whose are we? This has prepared parents to be acutely attuned to the same questions that their children will inevitably ask. It’s important for SBNR parents to not be afraid of addressing those questions even if you don’t have the answers, because it validates the real experiences of the children. It shows them they are safe to ask whatever questions they have about life and God even if we can’t provide definite answers. After all, isn’t that most of parenting?
Religious education for our children isn’t a bad thing, even if you identify as atheist or agnostic. According to Washington Times, 84 percent of the world population has faith, and a third of them identify as Christian. Purely for the purposes of gaining a deeper knowledge about the way a large majority of the people with whom we share this planet organize their lives, it is worthwhile to teach our children religion. And because of this overwhelming majority influence, religion touches almost every aspect of the world: politics, entertainment, pop culture, education, relationships, and education.
But a lot of SBNR parents identify as such because implicit in the “Not Religious” clause is a deliberate choice to reject some aspect of organized religion. There may be many reasons for rejecting religion, ranging from past experiences of traumatic abuse to feeling like religion is irrelevant. Again, this gives SBNR parents an advantage in their parenting because they have the capacity to detect toxicity in any religion exposure their children have and guard against it. Author and activist, Glennon Doyle Wambach, calls it being a canary in a coal mine, parents who have extra sensitivity to toxicity can keep their children safe.
One way parents can safeguard their children from toxic religiosity is by teaching spiritual multilingualism, exposing them to many religious teachings to infuse humility and guard against egotism. Good religion always bears good fruit, so if religious teachings promote bigotry, hate, divisiveness, hierarchical control and manipulation, parents should, with careful discernment, help draw boundaries that enforce our children’s spiritual autonomy and away from toxic influences. As much as we shouldn’t be afraid to teach good religion, we should not be shy about casting away bad religion. Many of my SBNR parent friends feel guilty for not taking their children to church, to which I say, if church has hurt and abused you, why would a good and loving parent want to bring their children to a place of pain? You’re being a GOOD parent, not bad.
SBNR parents can sometimes be certain of what NOT to teach but be fuzzy on what TO teach the children. One of the most universal ways of passing on faith to the next generation is simply to tell your story. Parents of antiquity told legends and mythologies, passing on their most cherished values through story. SBNR parents, tell your children your most authentic story of your faith. Stories are not static, they have an arc, and your children should hear what preceded your story before they entered the plot. Tell them how they are the beautiful new character(s) in your story, who intersect your story but who also get to tell their own. Storytelling allows us to compel our children instead of control, and fold our values, hopes, and love into the narrative of our everyday family lives.
Stories can also be composted, as Melvin Bray says in his book Better. There are some religious stories that have withstood the test of time, whose lessons endure through the generations. Then there are others which have been used to oppress others and now simply carry too heavy of baggage. Some stories need to die, others need to be tweaked, and yet others need a complete re-telling. SBNR parents, do not be afraid to tell the particular stories of faith, but also let the stories compost if necessary and breath new life into them. We are our children’s first storytellers, let us be responsible for stirring their imagination for the stories they tell of their own faith.
I am filled with hope for this generation of growing children, precisely because they are being guided by SBNR parents, those who infuse values of love and equality to their children with a side-eye for toxic religiosity. Keep up the good work, fellow parents, and tell Grandma you’re doing the best you can to lead your children to God.
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