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Even secular parents are religious educators

If you don't answer your children's religious questions, someone else will—and you may not like the answers they provide.
By Roberta M. Nelson
Fall 2007 8.18.07

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religious education

(Robert Neubecker)

More and more people choose not to identify with a religious tradition. However, in order to understand current world events, coworkers, neighbors, and friends, we need to be religiously literate. Parents especially need to help their children to be aware of the great diversity of faiths and cultures.

Unless our children are isolated and do not ask questions, they are bound to hear “stories” that are confusing, troubling, or raise additional issues. They will have questions: Who is Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed? What is the Bible; why do so many people think it’s so important? What is Passover, or Ramadan? Why doesn’t Rachel celebrate Christmas, Halloween, birthdays? Where is heaven? Where will I go when I die? What’s this about some people going to hell? Who is God, and why do people say we have to believe in him?

These are some of the questions and issues that I have helped parents and young people deal with as a Unitarian Universalist minister. Many of them were secular parents who came to the churches I served because they found it difficult going it alone. They wanted answers and ways of dealing with complex religious issues. They wanted an education for their children and soon realized they needed it for themselves as well.

Choosing not to affiliate or join a religious community does not shield a parent from these questions—you will still need to be able to answer some or all of them. If you do not provide the answers, someone else will—and you may be distressed by the answers they provide.

I grew up during the 1940s and 1950s in a Boston neighborhood where, despite some diversity, there was almost no division by class or race, or tension over different views. My children grew up in substantially more diverse neighborhoods—first a Boston suburb, later a Maryland suburb near Washington, D.C.—in the 1960s and 1970s. There were considerably more unchurched families; there were still Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish families, but there were also children whose families were Muslim and Baha’i. There were more black families and a growing number of Latino/Latina families, and there was more diversity among the Protestant traditions. There were tensions in the school when differing views were expressed, often between homogenous groups dependent on race and class.

Children today are growing up and learning in this environment. As adults, it is our responsibility to adapt to the changes, engage with the issues, and begin to learn along with them about the rich histories, cultures, and religions of the people who are making our neighborhoods, schools, and wider communities a collage of race, color, and creed. Regardless of whether we think of ourselves as “religious,” we parents are our children’s first and primary religious educators.

My parents were extremely influential in educating us by example about valuing and appreciating differences, as well as guiding us to realize that not all the decisions and ideas we saw and heard around us needed to be equally valued. There were conversations about the issues of the day especially around religion, politics, and race. We were encouraged to express our views and to listen to the views of others. In reality, my parents were my first religious educators. The UU church was their community of support for shared ideas and values.

Today we are living in an age of increasing diversity in religion, language, sexuality, gender roles, class, and politics. This diversity raises issues that are polarizing and confusing, and at times frightening to our children and youth, maybe even to ourselves. While these issues are important, we must try not to be overwhelmed by them. I believe that most parents can be excellent mentors if they take some time to honor their own yearnings, wonderings, and reflections, and then—most importantly—share them with their children.


Like so many things, values are “caught as well as taught.” Our values cannot be esoteric or removed; they need to be lived in the everyday and undergirded by our principles. Family life is where those connections are made, where stories are told and remembered, and where a wider perspective is embraced. And just as they will indeed hear answers to religious questions, one way or another, children will indeed learn values, one way or another—if not from us, then inevitably from someone else. We have a choice to assume that responsibility or to simply allow it to happen, with what could be serious consequences.

What most of us hope for are happy, healthy, and ethical children. Some of the things that will help us are times to be and do together, time unstructured and flexible, time to be companions on the journey.

To be committed to the values that permeate our way of being together, we must learn to really listen, to be flexible and open, and to share what we think and why. We also need to model taking a stand on what we believe and living with the consequences.

Our role is to help our young people to build an ethical framework, enabling them to become responsible adults who are capable of being responsible decision makers, understanding of and connected to those around them—including those significantly different from themselves. In a recent New York Times column, Thomas Friedman wrote of his daughter’s high school graduation: “I sat there for two hours listening to each one’s name pronounced. I became both fascinated and touched by the stunning diversity—race, religion, ethnicity—of the graduating class. I knew my daughter’s school was diverse, but I had no idea it was this diverse.”

It is in these awakenings that one of our central challenges as parents becomes clear: To raise children in the midst of this “stunning diversity,” we must educate for empathy, for a deep understanding of our shared humanity. And because so large a portion of our fellow human beings articulate their own meaning, purpose, and values through their religions, it is essential that our children know as much as possible about those religions: their beliefs and practices, their literatures and traditions, and their meaning to their practitioners. To be fully engaged members of the human society, they must be religiously literate.

An important part of this literacy is the recognition that humans have a “spiritual” dimension, broadly defined—a yearning for meaning and purpose, a connection to the rest of humanity and life on Earth, a sense of existential wonder and mystery. Whether expressed theistically or secularly, it is a part of being fully human. In Secrets of Strong Families, John DeFrain and Nick Stennett reported that the primary expression of these families’ spiritual dimension is not in formal ritual but in everyday life. These families believe that the challenges and trials of life are bearable and surmountable because of their spiritual resources. They feel they need the spiritual dimension to give lasting meaning to their lives.

It is my hope that we will make a covenant with our children to be their companions and guides on a magnificent journey in which they know the meaning of transcendence, a process of moving over and going beyond real or imagined boundaries—and recognize the myriad ways in which the rest of humanity has done the same.


Adapted from Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion, edited by Dale McGowan. Copyright 2007 Dale McGowan. Published by AMACOM Books, a division of American Management Association, New York, NY. Used with permission. All rights reserved. www.amacombooks.org.


Ways to promote religious literacy in your family

  • Read and discuss books as a family. The World’s Religions by Huston Smith and One World, Many Religions by Mary Pope Osborne are good primers for different age groups. For in-depth study try a book like Islam by Karen Armstrong. Stephen Prothero’s Religious Literacy includes a “religious literacy quiz.”

  • Visit other faith communities in your area. How to Be a Perfect Stranger, edited by Stuart M. Matlins and Arthur J. Magida, will help you know what to expect and how to behave when attending services or holidays in many other faiths.

  • Go to religious art exhibits, performances, or festivals. It’s a fun way to expose your family to the practices and beliefs of other religions, and an opportunity to learn more yourself.

  • Ask your UU minister or religious educator for help, or contact the Church of the Larger Fellowship for materials if you do not have access to a local congregation.


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