24 Mar 2011

An agnostic dad considers how to discuss belief in gods with his seven year old daughter

Philly.com March 22, 2011

Kids and religion: A dad has questions

unattributed author

The holiest day in Christendom approaches, and my little girl is anticipating coloring Easter eggs.

She doesn't know from crucifixion or resurrection, and she has no clue of who Jesus, Judas, and Pilate were.

That's because I never told her.

I force vegetables, reading, and baths. But not God.

As an agnostic, I haven't figured out what to say. Of course, if it's not cool to dictate faith, it's not cool to dictate nonbelief, either.

Still, we religiously avoid church every Sunday. At some point, she's bound to ask me why.

This is my problem. And according to some polls and a few religion experts I've talked to, it's a problem other Americans are having as well.

I never had a choice about being Catholic. It was presented to me like a pet: Be attentive and dutiful and keep it alive, or you're in trouble.

Maybe the answer is a just-the-facts approach.

I could explain that there is serious, pious thinking beneath the secular sugarcoating of Pascal rite, and that some find life-enriching beauty in the Easter story.

But then I'd have to point out scholarship that shows Easter's pagan roots and that several old religions had dying and rising gods, just like the Christians.

Perhaps I could impress her with the suffering Jesus is said to have endured.

But then I'd have to add that people believed for centuries that the Shroud of Turin, said to be Jesus' burial cloth, with an image of his face miraculously preserved on it, was a true artifact - until scientists in 1988 reported it to be inauthentic.

On the Web, some people say it's negligent not to teach your children faith.

Others counter that it's akin to "child abuse" to do so.

At 7, my little girl is still too gullible to decide weighty issues such as God's existence. I know this because I told her about Santa, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny, and she swallowed it like Hawaiian Punch.

That's hypocritical of me.

In my defense, there's simple magic in Santa, and I wanted my daughter to experience the pure joy of being showered with gifts merely because she exists.

But even now she's expressing doubt, wondering if Mrs. Claus helps Santa because his prodigious tasks seem too daunting for a single person.

And, thanks to a classroom discussion of the poles, my daughter understands that there's no land at Santa's putative North Pole home. "Maybe Santa works from the South Pole sometimes," she reasons.

Ideas on teaching children about God are changing, according to research by Tom Smith of the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.

In a 1952 poll, 2,900 Americans were asked, "Do you think children should be raised as church members, or do you think they should be free of formal religion until they are old enough to make up their own minds?"

Seventy-two percent said children should be raised as church members; 24 percent said they should discover spirituality on their own.

But in 2005, a national poll of 1,130 households told a different story. People were read two statements and asked to react.

With the first - "Children should be encouraged to decide their religious views on their own" - 43 percent said they strongly agreed.

With the second statement - "Parents should encourage their children to accept their parents' faith" - 24 percent said they strongly agreed.

After children see the birth of kittens or puppies, they may desire to know more about life and how mom and dad were made, says Carole Rayburn, a Silver Spring, Md., psychologist with a degree in ministry. That curiosity often leads to questions about God.

Fair enough. But what do I, finally, tell the kid?

"The best gift you can give your daughter is to encourage her to explore, to seek out answers for herself," Rayburn tells me. "If it's merely enforced as doctrine, it becomes a brainwashing, and she may not accept it at the deepest level."

I see a cowardly way out for a conflicted parent: Let the kid decide.

Regardless of what she chooses, it'll always be useful for a person to understand Bible stories, since the culture and literature are suffused with religious allusions, says Nancy Duff, professor of Christian ethics at Princeton Theological Seminary.

But even Duff admits that telling kids about God isn't for the weak. "It's more intimidating," she says, "for me to talk about religion than sex with my children."

Did she say sex? Hang on, professor. I'm not ready for that conversation yet either.

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