Skip to main content

Raising kids in a religiously diverse society

Not a topic I cover frequently here on the blog despite my background of holding a college minor in Religion.  But, as some of you may know, recently the world marked the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council--a landmark moment in modern religious history you should look up if you don't know about it--and today I stumbled across this column by Chicago's Francis Cardinal George about secularism. Recently, I've read several blogs and articles from especially parents who are struggling with religious drama in their family. And I have friends on both sides of the aisle on this issue...I know many dedicated atheists and many dedicated churchgoers.

So I wanted to weigh in on a few things the Cardinal has to say...not because I frequently have responses to specific things a Catholic leader has to say...because the subject and the current political/cultural climate we live in is important enough to bring it up. At the risk of alienating a few readers, I'll say upfront I take a stand neither with religion nor with my friends who attack it. See my recent blog post about television and the media as a tool that is neutral. I take the stance that religion is neither right nor wrong, but is simply a tool for doing harm or good depending on the hands using it.

As it relates to Cardinal George's column, I wanted to bring up two things: 1) the influence of religion on society 2) the influence of religion on our children. They're actually a package deal, but I'm going to treat them separately here.

The first is that the Cardinal correctly reaches an excellent conclusion that the Church is having a more difficult time in the world today because of hostility towards faith. The battle between science and religion; the post-Christian America where we can no longer assume a person is Protestant. The growth of unaffiliated spiritual-but-not-religious as a category people identify with. The reply I have here is less as it relates to how the Catholic Church specifically needs to evangelize to the population and more towards how people of faith and nonbelievers can find common ground.

The current political battle in the United States, if one were to boil it down, is largely over the role of government and the size of government. In many ways, this reflects a certain faith in institutions that I won't expand on here, but needless to say one of the fundamental principles for many non-churched is in the use of the secular government and "national religion" of patriotism to build an agreed on set of values. Which is problematic for those who want to shrink the size of the government...they certainly value other institutions...because it leaves us with fairly little common ground to establish law and order. We clash over all the other ideas out there because we clash over the basic idea of what we all have in common.

Which brings us to the second point about children. Assuming one doesn't live in the increasingly rare, predominantly white, Protestant parts of America, the modern United States is a grab bag of races, faiths, backgrounds, beliefs, and one of the very core problems we're having is deciding what our communities should look like. How do we update our systems of values to reflect the diversity of opinion, skin color, even gender as we find roles reversed or switched (speaking as a SAHD).

With children, particularly my own, I'll say the same thing I told one dad recently...don't sweat it. If you do your job as a parent, they're going to develop into freethinking, independent human beings capable of choosing for themselves what they think and believe. In this case, as an atheist he was worried about the influence of religion on his child. But I'm here to argue that exposure to the world is like letting your kids go play in the dirt. It builds immunity to intolerance and it creates the kind of good questioning that will hopefully lead to...not answers. But respect and valid disagreement without resorting to the kind of bitter disharmony we're currently living in.

If anything, as I watch the current political landscape it's not that the hope for unity from 2008 has gone away. It's that we've grown more and more depressed about how to come to any sort of consensus in the face of such wildly differing opinions.

And that is what the Cardinal hits on with faith versus secularism. Religion--yours or someone elses--is not the enemy and neither is reason and science. Secular humanists, I promise my religious friends aren't all THAT bad. And my friends of faith, I promise the atheists don't really want to dismantle your God. What common elements of human experience can we turn to to guide us all? The answers aren't going to be all in one place.

Where is the common ground in the middle? Trying to understanding that atheists don't want to use your faith as a yardstick and, atheists, that my religious friends have a set of values you need to speak to if your reasoned argument is going to win the day. I think both sides need to give a little.

Religion needs to stop beating others over the head with religion. And secularism could stop thinking every public discourse of faith is a violation of basic rights. Cardinal George, the problem isn't spreading the faith, it is in learning to make the faith work in response to real human needs. The same holds true for secularism. Somewhere along the line you're both missing an opportunity to speak to people as they live. True evangelical work is done via reason, interestingly. And true "winning people over to reason" involves a certain amount of trust--dare I say faith--in people making choices not out of fear but out of concern for fellow human beings.

That's the real response I have to parents and the public at-large. If you're worried about what your kids...or your facing then you're not recognizing the reality of living in a plural society. Now, we can talk demographics all day about who is "winning" both the political and religious arguments in the US. But, at least for my own children, what I hope to achieve is a recognition that variety exists and you're going to have to face it. Vegetarians, meet the meat-eaters. Pro-life, meet pro-choice. You have two choices...either find something you can talk about and agree on, or resign yourself to a struggle nobody will win as long as each side feels isolated and insulted.

It's a little like the playground rules I'm trying to teach brother and sister. It's a strange collide of Bible and child development. Yes, you are your sister's keeper. Either get used to sharing now, or face a lifetime of very bad feelings. Your choice. It's not my job to make my kids play nice. It is my job to make them think carefully about the consequences of whether or not they look out for each other.