How Modern Families Practice Religion in a Relevant Way

In an increasingly secular world, do ya gotta have faith?
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To the concern of some, and the delight of others, we inhabit an increasingly secular society. But faith and religion doggedly persist, and it is a particular challenge to maintain those traditions in the face of an increasingly science-based, and perhaps more cynical, world view. Especially so, when we have witnessed such things as a proliferation of abuse and oppression in the name of religion; the more pedestrian corruption of individual so-called religious and moral leaders; and the mocking and maligning of far-right conservatives for outdated and arguably unrealistic values. So, how do we reconcile deeply held faith with tolerance for diversity (or absence) of the same? And if we don’t hold with faith, how do we explain to our kids that those who do are entitled to the same dignities and rights the irreligious often profess to advocate for, even if those doctrines sometimes conflict with their own values?

Faith and contemporary family

Faith is the belief in some form of higher power, the doctrines or teachings of religion, or a standardized belief that is not based on scientific proof. For those with faith, it imparts a sense of understanding and wonder of the world, guides them in good and bad times, and because it means community, hope and, very often, family. All parents and caregivers have at least one thing in common: they want to pass along their values—good ones—to their children. Going hand-in-hand with identifying “bad” values, we want to teach kids to think “right”. Often this element of child-rearing is defined by the tenets of the faith or religion practiced in the home.

It has long been held that believing in something is beneficial to, if not downright essential for, morality and mental well-being. According to Lisa Miller, Ph.D., author of The Spiritual Child, spirituality is “at the core of our human composition.” She cites that robust scientific analysis has found that there is nothing “as profoundly protective against suffering as a personal spirituality.” Children connected to a strong spiritual practice are:

  • 40% less likely to use and abuse substances;

  • 60% less likely to be depressed as teenagers;

  • 80% less likely to have dangerous or unprotected sex;

  • and have significantly more positive markers for thriving including an increased sense of meaning and purpose, and high levels of academic success.

Miller writes that children who live without spirituality can feel their worth is “founded on ability and accomplishment.” She goes on to add that “children come to believe they are no better than their last success and suffer a sense of worthlessness when there is loss or even moderate failure ... Spiritual children have a sense of inner worth, a sense of the lasting, higher sacred self, much bigger than the day’s win or defeat.”

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Nones’ habits

Does this mean then that irreligious and religiously unaffiliated people are simply navigating in a murky fog of indistinct principals, low self-worth, and nebulous integrity? Recently, researchers have narrowed in on the growing trend of secular and unaffiliated families, also called “Nones”, in an attempt to figure out how individuals could still have a moral compass without the concrete oversight of organized religion or, at least, a higher power. In a 2015 Los Angeles Times article entitled, “How secular family values stack up”, Pitzer College sociology professor Phil Zuckerman notes, “Far from being dysfunctional, nihilistic and rudderless without the security and rectitude of religion, secular households provide a sound and solid foundation for children.” Furthermore, it seems that “rational problem solving, personal autonomy, independence of thought, avoidance of corporal punishment, a spirit of ‘questioning everything’ and, far above all, empathy” are widely present among such families. “For secular people, morality is predicated on one simple principle: empathetic reciprocity, widely known as the Golden Rule.”

Widespread tolerance preached but not always practiced

Issues like racial equality, climate change, and civil rights surrounding women and the LGBTQ+ community have been found to be far more likely to be accepted and understood by people with a secular upbringing, according to Zuckerman. Meanwhile, a 2010 research review, Why Don’t We Practice What We Preach? A Meta-Analytic Review of Religious Racism, found a strong correlation between religiosity and general bigotry toward “out-groups”. Even as the religion preached humanitarianism, tolerance, and equality, practicing tolerance was often reserved for in-group members, while racist ideas and beliefs were personally reported by its practitioners. And a 2014 study, Judgments About Fact and Fiction by Children From Religious and Nonreligious Backgrounds, revealed that when presented with a story wherein a character had undergone an implausible or magical event, children from religious backgrounds were far more likely to identify that character as a real person than were their secular counterparts, suggesting that religion had impacted their ability to distinguish the fantastic from the realistic in applications beyond their belief in a supernatural deity.

The US Federal Bureau of Prisons finds that atheists are underrepresented in federal prisons compared to the general population. That is, 1 in every 1000 prisoners (.1%) identifies as atheist compared to 1 in every 100 Americans identifying as same, while, for example, Catholics occupy approximately 25% of the population, both generally and in prison. Societies that demonstrate a high proportion of secular families, such as Japan (between 30 and 39% in 2015) and New Zealand (almost 42% in 2013), appear to have lower crime rates as well. As Zuckerman reports, “If secular people couldn't raise well-functioning, moral children, then a preponderance of them in a given society would spell societal disaster. Yet quite the opposite is the case.”

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People of faith

This is some good news about the less or non-religious. As one might ask about “rudderless” atheists, one can similarly consider the potential negative implications of being devout. If you embrace religion, will your child be more likely to engage in a crime? Should we worry that those who conform to scripture and convention are doomed to denigrate others who don’t look or think like them? How do faithful families balance and retain values as described in their scripture and still walk and talk harmoniously among out-groups – groups who may be deeply at odds with their beliefs – with their faith intact? And how do caregivers help their children deal with others’ misunderstanding of their beliefs? To consider these questions, it’s helpful to find modern families who embody and observe a variety of belief systems and simultaneously encourage independent and critical thinking in their children. Asking these folks how they deal with situations that challenge the relevance of their beliefs, and can even test their very conviction itself, may provide insight into how the religious and the irreligious can survive and thrive in the current environment.

I asked three people, a secular “None”, my friend Ruth, and Dr. Rohini Bannerjee, a professor at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, how they negotiate religion, as a topic or a practice, within their homes. These families illustrate a myriad of backgrounds, cultures, and faiths that evolved within their own lifetimes and which are important elements of their individual and group identities.

Don’t get mad, get heathen

We’ll call this secular acquaintance “TL” ... OK ... you got me: it’s me. I grew up in a home devoid of religious content with at least one parent who, as a child, suffered under its influence for the crime of having been born out of wedlock, and who, forever-after, sharply denounced the whole idea as *horse manure* (not the actual words). Beyond that succinct chit-chat, religion was never discussed. I visited various (Christian) churches with friends of varying degrees of devoutness over the years, but this generated neither the desire to practice, nor the impulse to "believe". I had a bible that I tried to read on occasion but couldn’t get past the 187th “begat”.

When my children appeared, it was unspoken that Sundays were for pancakes and PJs. The bulk of their religious education was incidental and came out of exposure to diverse families; talking, learning about, and embracing other places and stories, where religion might happen to be an element of those stories; and engaging in conversations that were socially conscious. Weekend sleepovers at others’ homes might well include early-morning-after worship on the Sabbath and was worth the sacrifice for the slumber-party benefits. But, as with me, these moments didn’t germinate the seed of spirituality within them. What they have managed is to develop and maintain an openness and curiosity about their friends’ and acquaintances’ wide variety of religions, cultures, and backgrounds. They tend more to actively listen to and observe the practitioners around them, than to ask me, “Why is this? What is that?”

One thing I have refrained from is ascribing behaviour to religion. That is, I’ve tried to assert that it is a personal choice (for adults) to do anything and label it “in the name of [insert rationale]”, just as it is a personal choice to do anything contrary to what one preaches. Both terrorists and the most saintly philanthropists could identify as one of any number of religions – there is no foregone connection. Doctrine may offer a guide for living, but it is the follower’s responsibility to interpret, justify, and act. Having perceived no indication that my children see any theology as an inevitable determiner of any human act, I feel that this has been a modest success in my ambition to foster religious tolerance.

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Oneness among people

For a more conventional perspective, I asked my friends Ruth and Patrick how they and their four kids, who range from 15 to 21, have benefited from, and operate within, their chosen religion, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS). To them, who were both raised in moderate Western Christian backgrounds, it is centred very tightly around the notion of family and the unwavering foundation of community. They contend that their religion “is now a lifestyle, not just a Sunday-go-to-meeting thing. It is always in our thoughts, actions, and deeds. It gives our lives purpose, motivation, and direction.”

In parenting, they feel their job is not to dictate, but to be a sanctuary where the children can learn and experiment safely, discovering the best ways to manage their actions in the world. They feel that “the most important role as parents is to guide and love our children; to help them become adults who care about the world around them, so they can make a difference in the lives of those they come in contact with.”

For Ruth’s family, the question of diversity and potential for conflict with out-groups is summed up in the simple notion of acceptance: “For us, being accepted, not judged, by family, friends, and coworkers is what we would like, and in turn, hope that others would feel the same for what they believe. A lack of understanding into our religion/ beliefs might lead to people thinking we are not allowed to do certain things, when actually we choose not to do certain things ... For the kids, trying to uphold their moral standards and beliefs in an environment that is ... ‘in your face’ with things they might not choose to partake in [is a challenge]. It can be difficult for them to express their opinion, especially if it seems that it is not the same as the majority, or the vocal ones, or if it’s wrong, and they are unfairly judged for it. It works both ways I guess.” As to when the world presents its myriad of choices, even when some are not so choice, Ruth muses, “When a child chooses not to follow some standard or belief that has been taught, a variety of emotions occur. In the end, we still love them even though we might not agree with their choice... People have a right to believe what they want. Or have no belief. We might not understand or agree with their way of thinking, but it’s their life and their choice. It’s what makes this world interesting.”

While the Church substantially shapes their lifestyle and social circle, it is not a concerted effort to be isolated from the rest of the world, and the children are welcome to become knowledgeable about perspectives beyond their community. Says Patrick, “There are so many different faiths and religions and ideas out there that are interesting to learn about ... why they do the things they do. Knowledge is good.” While the kids accept that the LDS Church satisfies the ideals for their family and have not delved deeply into the principles of other faiths, they do sometimes ask questions in an attempt to understand the basics of other theologies. Keenly aware that there are sources who are simply not well-informed, or indeed intentionally mislead, if Ruth and Patrick themselves cannot provide a knowledgeable answer, they will guide them to an authority (anything from official websites to persons of that faith) that has a reliable perspective.

Diversity is reality

Rohini Bannerjee’s crew, including husband, Karim, and three boys, is a rich and vibrant example of an inter-faith family whose practices reflect a global purview. Raised Anglican by parents from South Asia, Rohini was educated at a Catholic school and married Karim, whose family is Ismaili Muslim. When children began to arrive on the scene, they were challenged to decide how they wanted to incorporate the assortment of customs and spirituality that benefited their pre-kid lives. They felt early on that allowing their boys future choice was important, and so opted not to have chanta (baptism) at the family mosque, since after becoming Ismaili, there would be “no option to become Christian afterward.” They discussed baptism with their Anglican minister, who advised that since they were clearly inter-faith, a blessing of thanksgiving would be appropriate, and as such, the boys have not been baptized into any particular religion. The boys attend the same Catholic school as their mother did. Asked how she distinguishes between the virtues of teaching religious values versus undefined “good” values – in other words, what does religion offer that lack of it doesn’t – she says, “I see them both one in the same. Some families like the structure of religion and others don't. Religion does offer community, and in some cases, connections with culture and language, and so I can see the appeal of organized religion.”

By their parents’ own example, Rohini’s children are encouraged to explore the spectrum of religions. Rohini notes, “My middle child is very interested in Buddhism. My mum has bought him several Buddhist statues and he has taken books out of the library to read. In our own home, we have images of the Lord's Supper (from Uganda, and so Jesus is African), Noah's Ark (from Nepal, so Noah has dark skin), Buddha, Natarajan (Hindu Dance god), the Koran, and the Bible. We keep religion an open subject matter in our home. This same child is keen on exploring the notion of reincarnation and we continue the conversation with him.” Incisive theoretical conversations may occur, such as “What would mummy be in her next life? We must respect the spider or butterfly because who says they don't have souls? Do they not need to be honoured? And if so, how can we justify eating meat? (And we go through moments where we eat meat, and then we don't...)” The children take seriously any expectations that have been clearly stated. For instance, “We don't eat pork, as we respect Karim's Ismaili (Muslim) upbringing ... For a hot lunch order at school, our middle son received a ham and cheese sandwich. He asked his teacher to remove the ham. She said, ‘Yes, you don't like ham, right?’ His answer: ‘I don't know if I don't like it because I have not eaten it. But I respect my Dad and so I don't eat it.’ PROUD MAMA moment!”

To Rohini and her family, diversity is reality and concerted explanations of others’ choices are unnecessary. She says, “As we are a family of colour, with multiple paths bringing our families to Canada, with stories of Partition (religion-based) and uprooting (Uganda: Idi Amin), we try our best to talk about how difference is what is reality for everyone on this Earth. We often say, ‘Mr. X chooses to connect with a higher power – Allah, Brahma, God, Jehovah’ [while] others don't see religion as necessary.... We try and move away from the notion that white Christianity is the centre, and all others are ‘different’ from that. There is no centre, except the Earth, and that all people and religious beliefs (and non-beliefs) stem from it. We acknowledge Indigenous practice as one that is interconnected with Buddhism and Kabbalah. There are differences which make us human and so they are not ‘differences’, but who we are, our realities.... Religion has always been seen as an interpretation of spirituality and that all of us, even the most devoted of individuals, interpret as they see fit.”

Rohini and Karim often face questions from their children about the illogic of others’ beliefs in what they sometimes feel are “fictions”; for instance, Santa Claus. The middle child, who is 8, is the only one in his class who doesn’t believe in the old elf, and he struggles with how to understand why others do, when, to him, it is so clearly implausible. The parents use this as an example of how families embrace stories to both include and protect, and also as a code to control themselves, and so advise their son to accept that this is an important tool to some, and it is not his responsibility to dispel. To this family, God is not so much an entity who makes things happen for or to you, but a personal voice that inspires your own choices, which in turn benefit from the critical thinking they celebrate as integral to their lives.

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Is exposing children to religion necessary or relevant? Is it healthy and beneficial? Are the benefits worth the potential for engendering exclusive values? The more secular are certainly not above prejudice or judgment. Balancing the desire to be open-minded with the simultaneous impulse to dismiss the plausibility of a higher power or the legitimacy of deferring to a sacred text can be a struggle. How does one reconcile a lack of faith with acceptance of others’ right to follow if they disagree profoundly with doctrine or practices that appear to support infringement of human liberties or rights? And how do we communicate any position to our children while allowing them space to decide for themselves, without coercion? One approach is to have conversations and ask questions: does the group recognize and try to evolve with the changing times and environment, even incrementally? Does the church or representative systematically exclude, single-out, abuse, or oppress people based on superficial features like colour or gender? How do we feel about that? Are they supporting and initiating humane activities like charity or (non-judgmental) health care, even including out-groups? Why should we care about others who aren’t “like” us? How can we not? Is rejection, condemnation, or violence a consequence of failing to conform? What is the price of belonging?

The answers are not always rock-solid and, like all parenting challenges, it behooves us to tailor our conversations based on where we, the child, and the person or group in question are currently existing – metaphorically or actually, whether in the moment, or with a bigger picture of the foreseeable future in mind. In each situation described here, families are making conscious, mindful efforts to produce healthy, upstanding citizens, whether god-fearing, god-questioning, or godless, and the accompanying values are equally meant to guide, comfort, and uplift. This can be accomplished from within a homogeneous group with a perspective that respects and accepts difference, or one that celebrates and illustrates diversity and regards differences as just locations on a spectrum of humanity. Clearly, religion can be practiced in a relevant, healthy, and tolerant variety of ways, and secularism isn’t the end of morality.

Our offspring look to us, until some point, anyway, as all-knowing deities: a heady responsibility that hopefully we have the skills and the validation to rise to in order to impart the particular ideas we deem important for their values, ethics, world-view, and overall health. Doing this well might increase the odds that everyone ends up at the end of this life in a better condition or place, whether that’s just until the physical end or, if you believe in heaven or reincarnation or anything like it, forever after. Here’s hoping that whether you are a believer or not, you can create a value system that your family thrives in and benefits your wider community as well.