Parenting without religion
The following was a message from Eric's ex-Mormon mailing list.

My wife is pregnant to have our first child. ...[snip]... My dilemma is that I am not sure how important religion is (or is not) for children. ...[snip]... How import is spirituality for a child? I can teach about God to my child without the help of a church, would that be enough? Would I benefit from the help of a religion? ...[snip]... Some people want to make me believe that religion is the only way to raise decent people.

Are we humans so pathetic that we need to fear God and our eternal destiny in order to be caring and loving to one another? Do children need religion in order to learn morality?

I agree wholeheartedly with almost all the other sentiments expressed here in response to your question. Let me add my opinions.

My wife and I have raised two sons, now 30 and 25 years old. During their entire childhood they got no religious training (in any sense of that word). My wife and I are both atheists. She left Catholicism in her late teens and I left Mormonism in my 20s, forty years ago.

I may be biased, of course, but our two sons are just about as good as one could want two human beings to be. They are loving, kind, and thoughtful. They are hard-working, productive citizens. They have never been in any trouble. They both dabbled a little with smoking and alcohol, but nothing serious. They have gotten good educations and have always been intellectually curious. Their role models are well-chosen.

How did this happen? Well, religion certainly had nothing to do with it. We have frequently had people say to us, "My, you are so lucky to have such fine children!" My wife's usual response is, "Luck had nothing to do with it. It was a lot of hard work!" It really wasn't work, but rather giving careful attention to what a child needs to develop fully: love, concern, approval, discipline, responsibility, consistency, training, stimulation of talents, intellect, curiosity, sense of belonging to a society, pride in achievement - there's probably more to the list than I have mentioned, but I'm sure you get the idea.

"Spirituality" has been discussed quite a lot on this list, and I would like to suggest that it is all too often defined too narrowly, as something like a belief in God (usually as defined in the Judaeo-Christian tradition). I think a more useful concept is spirituality in the broader sense: an awareness of our role as human beings in the broad continuum of time and space, an awe of the forces of nature and a respectful humility in the face of those natural powers and a feeling of caution at unbounded human pride and the damage it can cause. Spirituality should also include a feeling of reverence toward the beauties that nature and our fellow humans can create.

All of these attitudes can be cultivated in children without religion.

Does religion make it easier? No, I don't think so. Religion (in its stricter sense, its traditional sense) makes it more difficult, I think, because any particular religion tends to try to channel these feelings into a particular path. Religion tends to claim that it has the answers, not that it encourages you to search for the answers.

However, if the parents of a child truly believe that a particular religion is really "true," then the answer about religious training for that child is already answered. You say, however, that you do not believe any particular religion is "true," and so that will eventually cause you problems. What will you say, for example, when your child asks you about something learned in Sunday School, such as "You will go to hell if you say bad words/lie/steal/curse the Holy Ghost"? If you lie about your own beliefs to your child, you are setting a bad example. If you say what you really believe, you undermine the religious training you are trying to give your child.

What kind of moral basis do you want your child to have? That is, do you want your child to avoid telling lies because the child fears being condemned to hell, or because some invisible god has forbidden it? Or do you want your child to avoid telling lies because the child understands why lying is basically not a good idea, and because it causes harm to the child and to others? (I have always had difficulty understanding how people can think that the highest form of morality is to conform your actions to an arbitrary code of rules because you fear punishment or hope for payment.)

As to moral models, let me suggest that you will not find them in the Bible, or in the lives of most religious leaders.

You mentioned teaching a child "fear of God." I presume you say this because the Bible suggests that fear of God keeps us from doing evil (Exodus 20:20, Prov. 16:6, Ps 145:19, Jer 32:39-40). But the New Testament says that it is the LOVE of God that leads us to be good (1 John 5:2, 2 John 1:6). Then again, there are other passages that say we should fear God because God (in his love and mercy?) can put us in Hell (Matt 10:28, Luke 12:5, Heb 10:31). It's all very confusing. I think that 1 John 4:18 is correct: fear and love cannot coexist.

One argument against everything I have said is the testimonies of many religious people. I have a born-again Christian friend, for example, who tells me that until he found Jesus and accepted Jesus into his life as his personal savior, he was a mean, evil, alcoholic, dishonest, violent bastard. And now he is a good man. I tell him that I was very thankful to God that he had found Jesus, because we certainly didn't need him in his pre-Jesus version. So maybe some people need religion to be good. But that does not apply to children with good, caring, and thoughtful parents. As Jesus said, "Suffer the little children..., for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven." It is only when children are abused, deceived, neglected, and unloved that they need a religious remedy.

Now, a qualification: everything I said above about religion probably does not apply to Unitarian-Universalism, which a couple of people have suggested. That is in a class by itself.

Congratulations and best wishes,

Richard Packham

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