A Child’s Interest in Religion; A Father’s Agnosticism
My 4-year-old daughter goes to a Catholic pre-kindergarten program. Recently, she attended her first Mass. For me, this was an odd experience — I was raised as an agnostic. My parents, both non-practicing Hindus, enjoyed the cultural traditions of Hinduism, but as scientists, they also strongly believed in evidenced-based reality.
Faith and mysticism were not high on their priority list.
My daughter seems to like to talk about God, Mary and Jesus. She seems to view them as benevolent, un-seeable friends. As I write this, it’s Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent in the Catholic calendar, a season of restraint and reflection. Again, as someone who is not religious, this is all very quaint to me. But, it is not fair for me to impose my views on my daughter. My responsibility is to be a steward of her ethical development, presenting an un-biased view of religion so she can approach it on her own terms.
As it is, we gladly share Hindu traditions alongside Christian ones. If I am anything at all, I am a Buddhist, and so we also try to share the valuable lessons about removing needless desires from the psyche as well. Religion, in the abstract, is not a bad thing to me. The Universe is an unimaginably large, nearly infinite expanse of pretty much empty space. Religion affords us a blanket of comfort, connection, and morality as we make our tiny way through it.
But, objectively, I often find myself conflicted about religion. So much strife in the world is based on extremist derangement of religion. It’s hard for me to explain the harsh views Christian, supposedly sober US politicians have of Muslims, or the unspeakable crimes taking place in Syria in the name of purified Islam, or the harsh violence of avowed Buddhists in Sri Lanka. None of that makes any sense to me.
Still, I think that opening children’s minds to peaceful positive aspects of religion is valuable. Even though I disagree with the Catholic Pope on many social issues, I find his message of humility, kindness, generosity and alleviating poverty deep and meaningful. Recently, the Pope issued an encyclical, a sort of statement of guiding purpose toward the 2 billion Catholics worldwide. His focus? The environment. I found this so refreshing. He did away with the notion that the world was created for us to do as we please. He spoke of our need to protect the planet and stop degrading it.
This is a person I would like my young daughters to listen to, I thought. So instead of telling them that religion is fantasy — an “opiate for the masses” as Karl Marx described it — I will tell them religion can be a force for moral purpose and a call to action. After all, even as a person not firmly rooted in religion, I care a great deal about the environmental degradation taking place all over the globe. I worry a great deal about climate change and the social strife it is unleashing everywhere.
Introducing children to religion is too often about instilling a moral fear of God, and in this way, they learn ethics. But maybe the best way to introduce them to religion is to introduce the idea that religion, when we learn the right lessons, is about connecting ourselves to one another. as my daughter continues to attend Mass, rather than worry about her becoming too religious, I choose to use this as a way to encourage her to think about the world in a compassionate way.