How Round Is Round?

I’ve been asked this question in various ways a number of times, over the years. The concern is basically that even though I’m adamant about freedom of (or from) religion in my own house, I’m raising my kids as de facto atheists because I talk about it openly and kids are largely influenced by their parents. The question is, how can my kids make a good decision about what (if any) religion to follow if they only hear my views? Shouldn’t they be similarly immersed in Christianity?

The question is understandable and well intentioned, but it’s a little odd. I do teach my children about Christianity. But it’s done so that they understand the cultural and institutional context of the majority of Americans. You can’t live in this country and be ignorant of Christianity any more than you can reasonably live here and refuse to learn English. I do not teach Christianity as truth, but I do teach it as important. I’m also respectful of it, and even encourage the kids to explore it.

This is not fundamentally different than the approach many Jews and Muslims take with their kids. They might not encourage the exploration angle, and likely don’t position it as another option they could choose. But in a similar way, they teach it as culturally important rather than theological truth. Yet I doubt most people would ask Jewish parents how their kids can make informed decisions about being Jewish if that’s all they’ve been taught.

Taking it one step further, I might reasonably turn the tables. How do Christian children make good choices about the religion that’s best for them? In this country, most children of minority faith or atheist households at least get some exposure to Christianity. Many children of Christian families only get religious diversity in the form of Catholics vs. Methodists. What if they would make better Jews or Shintos? How will they know?

My personal belief is that only a very small minority of people ever make a reasoned decision about religion. Most people simply adopt the religion of their family or community. You don’t see a preponderance of Hindus in India because all the Hindus move there. Rather, people born into that religion tend to adopt it. Further, I think that even when people do change religion, they do so for non-theological reasons. They might have a falling out with the pastor or people of a church. They may fall in love with someone of another faith and opt for family consolidation. They may change to attend a church attended by their friends so they don’t need to sit alone on Sunday. But only a few really choose based on the theology.

There will be ample opportunities for my boys to join a church or other religious group based on social convenience. Arguably, they belong to such a group now. They attend their mom’s church when they are with her, but it’s primarily a social engagement for all of them. My hope is to spark their minds to think about the theology. I can’t preach to them from the perspective of a believer, but I can make them aware and expose them to people who are truly devout.

Will they ultimately choose atheism, Christianity, or something else? I don’t know. And I’m unconcerned about it. My only hope is that they make a thoughtful rather than a convenient choice. And for those of you who are both readers and people in my boys’ life, I encourage you to share your beliefs and what they mean to your life. Help them see another side from a perspective I can’t share with them. I think that would be great.

In the meantime, consider that my kids probably hear more about different religions at dinner than most kids hear anywhere. I don’t think they suffer from a lack of exposure. And perhaps therein lies the rub. After all, “How You Gonna Keep ‘Em Down On The Farm After They’ve Seen Paree?” Perhaps the real question people are asking here is not whether my kids’ religious education is round enough, but whether it’s too round.

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