Before I wade into a potentially thorny issue, allow me to give you a little context. Religion is a touchy topic, so I’ll try to provide some background so that you can understand where I’m coming from.
I was born into a strong religious tradition (Southern Baptist, to be specific), and you would be hard-pressed to find a family who went to church more frequently than we did. Sunday morning, Sunday evening, Wednesday evening, plus various extracurricular activities (visiting people’s homes, mission trips, choir, pageants) – you name it, we did it.
I also hold a degree in Religion from a prestigious Baptist university, so it’s safe to say I know my way around religious topics!
In my late teens and early twenties, I gradually became more inquisitive about the beliefs that were handed to me (like many young people). Somewhere along the way, however, my questions outpaced my faith.
Some people’s beliefs grow and strengthen to withstand their questions and experiences, expanding to take in whatever life throws at them. Mine didn’t. I worked hard to stay, to keep my faith and make sense of my doubts.
But after several years of soul-searching, I decided to walk away from religion. I made this decision without animosity or scorn for those who still hold their faith; it was simply the right decision for me. My Christian faith no longer fit with my understanding of the world or myself.
Since then, I have felt more peace and clarity about my own identity and place in the world than I ever experienced while in the Church. I want to be clear though: I don’t believe that my views are right for everyone. They’re just right for me. If I identify as anything, it’s as a Relativist. I respect the beliefs of my Christian friends and family members. I love to hear how their faith drives and comforts them (and I feel the same way about other belief systems as well). I just don’t share that faith anymore.
When I talk about the advantages of raising a child without religion, I don’t intend to imply that religious families can’t teach the same values and beliefs. Both approaches have their merits. Mine just happens to be what makes sense to me.
What my child will learn without religion:
- To be open-mindedI am so excited to raise my son without an organized belief system because I think he will be able to truly explore other beliefs in a way that I was unable to do as a child. I think most people value open-mindedness, but I found it difficult to actually put it into practice when I was in the church. When I was taught that anyone who wasn’t a Christian was going to hell, how could I really appreciate their choices and beliefs?I know that my husband and I will leave impressions of our own prejudices and opinions on our son’s mind, but as much I am able, I want to leave him free to explore without bias. If he becomes friends with someone who practices Buddhism and feels drawn toward that tradition, then I want him to jump in with an open mind and heart. If exploring and agreeing with someone else’s beliefs is a betrayal of your own, then you have to keep yourself somewhat closed. Living without religion lifts those constraints and sets the stage for true open-mindedness.
- To be kind & considerateRaising a child without religion does not mean raising a child without beliefs or morality. I may not identify with an organized faith tradition any longer, but I do have some very strong beliefs.I believe that every human has value. I believe that every person deserves kindness and consideration. I believe that everyone struggles and hurts and deserves compassion. I fiercely believe in honesty – without honesty, there is no understanding, and misunderstanding breeds mistrust, fear, and anger. I believe in using your brain and asking “why.” I believe in relationships and treating people like you want to be treated. I believe in giving people the benefit of the doubt. I believe that all life should be appreciated and respected. I believe in mental health. I believe in good manners. I believe that a good sense of humor can ward off most problems. And I believe in the goodness of people.My son will learn these values, not because I take him to church each week, but because he sees us living them every day.
- To embrace questionsAs a mental health counselor and an INFJ personality type, do I ever love questions! Questions are my lifeblood. My “why” stage as a young child was so exhausting that my mom had to designate a daily “Answer Person” from the family just to get a break from my inquisitiveness.Unfortunately, a rigid belief system doesn’t encourage questions. To be fair: Christianity doesn’t exactly discourage questions, but if you ask enough of them, you end up hitting a wall. The Bible is vague, contradictory, or even silent on many big issues, and sometimes the only answer given is to trust in God or turn to your faith. I started to fear questions because I worried that they meant my faith was weak.I want my son to question without fear. When there are no easy answers, I want him to feel comfortable with uncertainty on his own terms, not because anxiety caused him to stop searching. I want him to love questions. There’s a quote by Rainer Maria Rilke that perfectly captures this idea: “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” Amen!
- To make his own decisionsWithout religion, my son won’t have answers to life’s big questions handed to him from an ultimate authority. From hot-button political topics to the major existential questions, he will have to come to his own conclusions. I’m thrilled about this!If no one is trying to make sense of the world for him, he will have to develop the skills to do it himself. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not just throwing my child in the deep end and telling him to fend for himself. My husband and I will be there, providing guidance when it’s needed and stepping back when it isn’t. I will teach my son how to question and how to wrestle with big ideas, and I will be there to support and encourage him every step of the way. Hopefully, he will learn to think critically and come up with answers that actually satisfy him.
More than anything, I hope that raising my child without religion will mean raising him with peace – both for myself and for him. If he comes to Christianity (or Buddhism or Judaism or Islam) on his own and finds something there that makes his soul sing, then I will celebrate with him. If not, that’s okay too.
When I first left the church, I worried that I would feel differently about my convictions once I had children. Would I change my mind once I was responsible for the shaping of another tiny soul? So far, that hasn’t been the case. If anything, becoming a mother has deepened my conviction that I made the right choice for myself.
If I want my son to be kind and courageous and authentic, I have to live these qualities myself. I know now that my most authentic self is the one living without religion. When I think of sharing my journey with my boy, my heart bubbles with happiness. Finding myself has been my truest struggle and my proudest accomplishment, and I can’t wait to share it with him.