CHICAGO — We are a nation of believers. Mostly. A Gallup poll last year found that 91 percent of Americans believed in God or some universal spirit. Yet a more recent poll by WIN-Gallup International and published by Religion News Service found that the number of Americans who say they are “religious” dropped from 73 percent in 2005 to 60 percent today. And in that poll, 5 percent of Americans said they are atheists, up from 1 percent in 2005.
Believing in God doesn’t necessarily translate to belonging to an organized religion. And parents who do not belong to a religious institution, as well as those who don’t believe in a higher power, are faced with a difficult question: How do they instill spirituality and faith in the children?
Kara Powell, assistant professor of youth and family ministry at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., says parents need to make themselves available to talk about spirituality and religion at home. They should be extra diligent in making faith a topic that can be discussed so that children won’t be confused or ashamed about any observations or questions they might have. Even if there is no organized religion in the home, she says, religious holidays such as Easter and Hanukkah and their rituals can be one of the entry points into the discussion.
“(Another) thing we’ve seen that’s powerful is using current events,” says Powell, whose book “Sticky Faith: Everyday Ideas to Build Lasting Faith in Your Kids” (Zondervan) offers parents ways to develop long-term faith in teenagers. “Why would God allow X amount of people to be killed in a hurricane or earthquake? Use it as a springboard to talk to kids.”
Indeed, getting the ideas of spirituality, faith and respect for faith across to our kids is an uphill climb with or without organized religion.
Wendy Mogel, a clinical psychologist and author of the best-selling parenting book “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee” (Penguin), says that society is awash in irony and cynicism. Couple that with a world that seems to be melting down around us, and parents without organized religion face a deeper challenge.
“We have gloom and doom, a cynical, mocking culture,” she says, “and that will be your family’s religion if parents don’t actively balance that by showing examples and other counter-cultural ways. That means not being cynical, not being apathetic, and not being extremely prejudiced in your beliefs.”
That also means letting kids see your values: how you treat others, what your priorities are, how you spend your time.
“Children, absolutely, from birth are theologians and philosophers,” she says. If we’re not careful, she says, “we can kind of burn it out of them.”
There are endless opportunities to instill spirituality. Start with meals. Mogel points to the Jewish tradition of the leisurely meal of Shabbat, and says the idea works for any family, any religion (or nonreligion).
“It’s an opportunity to slow down our speedy lives and appreciate what we’ve been given rather than what we want to go shopping for tomorrow,” she says.
That principle can be applied elsewhere: Make sure in your family schedule there’s time for music, time for being outdoors, and time to talk and listen to each other.
Dale McGowan, editor and co-author of “Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion” (AMACOM), is an atheist. He gets his kids to think about the implications of evolution. “One of the fun things is to chase it as far as you can,” he says. “Tell them it’s nice to take a walk in the woods, but it’s a different experience when you realize you’re related to those trees. We’re related to our dog, we’re related to our front lawn. Most of these are spiritual realizations.”
Raising a child outside religion has other hurdles. They’ll hear about God from their friends and will have questions for you. And neighbors or other family members may object to your parenting. Mogel says to explain to relatives your reasons, and “they can then take it or leave it.”
She says that she encourages children who are not being raised in a home where there’s religion to go to religious services with friends. The parents can treat this as “cultural anthropology,” an opportunity to learn and not be prejudiced about religion.
“Even if the kids go to visit their grandparents and the grandparents drag them to church or the synagogue, I would hope parents would be OK with that, in the spirit of, ‘Let’s look at the whole wide world and see what’s happening in it.’ ”