Whether or not to raise your children with religion is a pretty controversial topic. Just google “choosing religion for your children” and you will find a host of articles explaining why choosing religion for children is a bad idea.
In spite of the prevailing opinion out there, I am going to make a bold claim:
The idea that you can defer choosing a religion for your children until they are old enough to choose for themselves is wrong.
As parents we are choosing for our children either way, whether we choose religion or not, we are making the choice for them. We are not putting off that choice, we are choosing something or we are choosing nothing for them. It is like saying I am not going to choose literacy for my children, they can decide to be readers on their own when they are older, if they want to. You aren’t delaying the choice, you are depriving them of a real opportunity to read.
And while, I get that every family and every child is unique, and that applying a universal rule is impossible… I am convinced that choosing religion for your children can be and is a very good thing.
Strangers in a Foreign Land
I do a lot of baptisms for families with babies or young children. And most of the baptisms I do are for families who have only the most nominal or tenuous connection to the church. Grandma has said that the new baby in the family needs to be baptized to protect him or her from hell.
And what usually results is that some sheepish and tentative new mother or father phones or emails the church, wondering about baptism for their new beloved child.
“I was baptized and confirmed at this church,” they say. “We are thinking of coming back.”
(I don’t know about you, but the idea of introducing a significant lifestyle change, like regular church attendance, shortly after having a baby is crazy-talk in my books).
So I set up a meeting to talk about what baptism means and we plan to have the baptism on a Sunday morning. I try to go into good depth about the meanings and symbols of baptism; and about what the church believes that it means and what we believe that God is doing in baptism. But no amount of casual, yet informative, conversation can prepare a family for standing in front of a congregation of regular church attenders with this weird guy in a dress praying prayers, asking questions and pouring water on the baby’s head.
I almost always feel bad for families that come for baptism, and the obvious awkward self-conciousness that they are experiencing while standing in front of a group of mostly strangers.
It takes years to live into and feel comfortable with the liturgy and ritual of the church. So for those for whom church is not really a part of their daily lives, parachuting in for a baptism can be a strange and alien experience. I imagine it to be something like if I were to be parachuted in as a contestant in a Miss Universe pageant. I only know the vaguest things about the pageant world from the movie Miss Congeniality… it is an understatement to say it would be super awkward!
I don’t question the motivations of those who come for baptism and I will baptize anyone who asks, but I do wonder why people subject themselves to a ritual and experience they have no connection to and little desire to pursue in any meaningful way.
Choosing Religion vs. Choosing Faith
My parents chose religion for me. Sunday morning worship was a weekly event, in addition to playing music, youth group, confirmation, bible studies, fellowship events throughout the week. Church was a big part of the life of our family, and it was clear that as children we didn’t have a choice about participating.
Sure there were some annoying parts, like missing all the medal games of weekend sports tournaments because they would be scheduled during Sunday morning worship. Or knowing that Saturday night was essentially like a school night because I had somewhere to be in the morning.
But looking back, there was nothing else in my world that gave me the experiences that church did. There was no other intergenerational community full of adults (not related to me) who knew my name, asked about my life, and just cared about me. There was no other place where the deep questions of meaning – life and death – could be talked about without hushed, anxious voices. There was no other place where I was exposed to the rituals, symbols, metaphors, music and history that comprise so much of our western world.
As I grew up going to church, what became clear to me is the more religion I was exposed to, the less my parents were making the choice for me. Faith was my choice and my experience at church allowed me to be informed about what I was getting into.
- A caveat: I am aware that not every church or faith community is a safe and healthy place. In fact many are centred around fear, judgement and shame. Many do not encourage questions and conversation, nor are places that allow members to search for deeper meaning. Sometimes churches can be places of abuse. These churches are not religious experiences that I would advocate for, and I am sorry for those for whom this is their experience of religion.
Liturgy and ritual in our DNA
Recently, our 3-month-old daughter was baptized. Standing on the other side of the font, so to speak, as a parent rather than the pastor, I was struck by the experience. I have presided at more baptisms than I can remember, but only been a parent for two.
While the Bishop (presiding at the baptism), godparents, my wife and I stood around the font, our two-year-old son stepped up and placed his water cup and container of goldfish on the font. He must have thought it was a natural spot to stash his stuff. And then he proceeded to do laps around the font as the Bishop led us through the liturgy for baptism. None of us were worried or anxious, all 5 of the adults standing there were seminary trained (who else do pastors ask to be godparents but friends from seminary!). We even laughed when our son started dipping his hands in the font in order to bring some water to his own head (re-baptizing himself?).
I was struck at how comfortable my son was in the moment. He wasn’t in a strange place. The font and altar rail and nearby pews were not foreign pieces of furniture. Being in worship with us and in front of the congregation was not unusual.
My son was at home.
I wasn’t just struck by his comfort, I was moved by it. I could see that even at the age of 2, he was beginning to be shaped and formed by the experience of worship, by the experience of religion and community. Liturgy and ritual is being imprinted on his DNA, his daily life is connected to the practice of re-telling the story of Jesus.
When it comes time for him to chose faith for himself, I know that he will know intimately what he is choosing. He will know what practicing religion feels like, he will know what it means to be a loved member of a community. He will have a sense of what it might feel like and be like to practice other religions.
My wife and I are choosing religion for our children, because we are choosing to give them an experience that will allow them to choose faith later on in life. We are choosing religion, because there are few, if any, other places in our lives where we can be a part of diverse, intergenerational communities that help us make sense of and bring meaning to our lives. And choosing “not to choose religion” for our children, would actually be almost certainly be choosing “nothing” for them.