Skip to content

Thinking your Way to Faith

A while back, I had a conversation with a young couple who had differing religious perspectives about how they anticipated raising future children. One of the options floated about was something like this: “We’ll just raise them ‘neutral’; we’ll expose them to as many religious and irreligious options as possible and let them make up their own minds.” Well, that sure sounds admirable enough. Give them the choice. Don’t stuff anything down their throats. No indoctrination or coercion whatsoever. What could be more honouring of the individuality and freedom of our children than that?

Of course, the barely concealed expectation behind such a project is that once kids are freed of the overbearing, clumsy, and possibly even malicious miseducation of priests, pastors, and other religious leaders they will naturally, joyfully, and gratefully embrace some form of secular humanism. That is, after all, what it means to be a “free” thinker. All smart people know that “free” thought inexorably leads away from religion not toward it. This was certainly the expectation/hope of one of the parties in the conversation I had. By exposing their child to a wide variety of religious traditions (primarily as cultural artifacts, mind you) alongside secular “free thought,” the obvious superiority of humanism would shine through.

Well, today I came across an article that discusses this very issue. The author had similar expectations to the ones held by my conversation partner: “I’ll raise my kids to be open to anything (including religion) all the while expecting them to come around to the humanism that I happen to embrace.” The only problem was that his kid was still showing just a bit too much interest in religion, despite the supposed lack of constraints on his thinking from his father. Here’s what the author had to say about his “problem”:

The dilemma remained: what if all the science and fantasy and comparative metaphysics fail to do the trick, and Christian literalism, despite my efforts, works its magic on my children’s minds? Call me intolerant, but I’ll admit it: I don’t want to tell my children what to believe or not to believe, but I would be displeased and disappointed if they were to embrace conventional religious views. I just would be.

As refreshingly honest as this quote is, it seems just a bit, well, closed-minded (not to mention ideology-laden—Christian literalism is not a domain of thought but a form of magic that weaves spells on children’s minds? Hmm… I suppose I’m not a “freethinker,” but that sure doesn’t sound like an objective presentation of the options… ). The biases become quite readily apparent when the results of the “experiment” don’t turn out right. It becomes quite obvious that the main goal is not for little Johnny or Judy to be able to make up their mind on their own. No, the goal is for them to make up their mind correctly. It is for them to (independently?) arrive at the same views that are currently held and cherished by their parents. That sure sounds familiar… kind of like religious education.

To his credit, the author does recognize the irony of his position, and he does seem to acknowledge that free thought could, in principle, lead to a skepticism about humanism itself:

All parents must confront the prospect that if we raise our children to be free, self-confident individuals, they may make choices that we don’t like. Tough. The companion volume to Parenting Beyond Belief bears the title Raising Freethinkers. Sounds appealing—I’d like to raise freethinkers. But what if raising my kids to be truly free in their thinking results in their becoming religious? What if my efforts to instill scepticism in them lead them to become sceptical of my humanism? So be it.

There is much to be commended in this quote. I think that as parents, we do have an obligation to teach our children to think carefully and critically and to honour the choices they make. I also think we have an obligation to teach (and show) them how to live. When we have done these things, and our children end up taking a turn that we did not anticipate or desire, we have to accept that they have their own brains and their own lives and that nobody can make up their minds for them. We have to accept their choices.

Even when that choice happens to be religion. It is possible, after all, that one can “freely” and thoughtfully decide to pursue a life of faith. Rumour has it that it may even have happened once or twice throughout history. Much as many prominent voices out there these days would love to believe (and expound) that free thought is a one way highway to irreligion, this simply is not the case. Even when we are “allowed” to think, it seems, some of us still end up with faith.

13 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken #

    It was Kant’s ideal, the enlightenment ideal, that humanity would be released from “self-incurred tutelage,” and that we would be guided by reason rather than the wisdom of our ancestors. To a large extent all of us in the West are shaped by this ideal.

    While we admire this ideal as a political paradigm, it seems an inadequate paradigm for raising children. (Surely most parents realize this, unlike the fools that you conversed with.) It seems like it it is a good thing for Christian parents to teach their children about Christianity. It seems unlikely to bind them to the tutelage of their ancestors. Even in my own most atheistic, enlightened moments I remain grateful that my parents introduced me to religion, to Christianity, the religion of the West. Even if one ultimately decides that God is a fiction, it seems like an education that omits the religious aspect of life is deficient, illiberal, and less than human.

    July 21, 2009
    • I agree, Ken. I think that most people would think that anything resembling a well-rounded education could hardly leave out the influence Christianity has had on Western culture. Of course, there is a big difference between teaching Christianity as a historical antecedent to where we are now and a plausible and compelling story that makes sense of human existence. The former seems necessary for the latter, but maybe not vice versa.

      July 22, 2009
      • Ken #

        Yes, parents need to teach religion, in our case Christianity, in a vital way. It is the only way to truly teach it.

        I don’t think the young parents with whom you conversed would be able to do that.

        I recently attended a pagan wedding. The couple professed admiration for a wide range of religions and they had guests read short statements from these various religions. The readings were shallow. They lacked vitality. They reminded me of greeting cards. Of course, this couple really knew nothing about any of the religions, nor did the guests. They were just trying to seem modern and liberal. It was a sad and ludicrous thing to do. Pity their children.

        In one of Chaim Potok’s books, either The Promise or the Chosen, Danny’s father could see that he had a fine mind, but he feared that his son would not have a soul, would not understand suffering, not understand the human heart, not understand why his Rabbi father wept. It is something like this, what Potok wrote about and I have only alluded to here, that must concern parents if they would give their children a religious upbringing.

        July 22, 2009
      • Ryan #

        I too have appreciated Chaim Potok’s books. I remember reading them and deeply admiring the religious concern for the big existential concerns of humanity (the “soul” you refer to) as well as the deep commitment to intellectual pursuits that I saw in his characters. I continue to think that it is a goal worth striving towards and passing on to my children, even if I am not always as successful at it as I would like.

        July 22, 2009
  2. Larry S #

    A truly interesting post, Ryan.

    In my journey, after my children became adults and left home,for a variety of reasons, I did much soul searching and musing about Christianity’s basic paradigms.

    Having become more comfortable (if one can use the term ‘comfortable’ with one’s faith) with the Christian story, I’ve been confronted with the birth of my granddaughter. I have no doubt she will be taught ‘Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so’ and this warms my heart.

    I think the arrival of children/grandchildren put us at a kind of ‘ground zero’ place relative to our basic notions about faith (or, as is the case of the author of the article you quote from, lack of faith).

    anyway, blessings to you and yours.

    July 22, 2009
    • Thanks Larry – it’s great to hear a bit of your story. I’ve noticed a similar dynamic at work as I’ve had to figure out how to talk to my kids about faith. A lot of the things that I was taught as a child have been left out, and I’ve tried to leave a lot more doors open a crack for them to push open themselves. Sometimes I feel like I’m being irresponsible, other times it is immensely gratifying to hear what (and how)they are thinking about things.

      July 22, 2009
  3. Ryan,

    Excellent post. And very true. If I may, it reminds me of Hauerwas’ comment that these days the only story that is seen as legitimate is the story we choose when we had no story. Of course the idea is ridiculous: we did not choose _that_ story, the story that we should have no story except the story we choose when we had no story. Your words are a lot easier to follow than Hauerwas’, but it’s the same idea.

    Freethinking parents want their children’s story to be a story they ‘freely’ choose when they have no story, but the very idea of having ‘no story’ is a particular story rooted in the Enlightenment and, in particular, Kant (who was a Christian, ironically.) Worse, the ‘no story’ story seems to have a corrosive effect on explicit ‘story stories,’ because they are often ill-suited to being ‘freely’ chosen from a neutral, ‘no story’ standpoint. Consumer capitalism, though, seems to be an eminently compatible fit with the ‘no story’ story, which is perhaps why so many of us end up ‘freely’ choosing it.

    July 22, 2009
    • Ryan #

      Thanks Michael. I think your point is a good one – we are fundamentally “storied” creatures. Yet one of our pervasive cultural myths (inherited from the Enlightenment, as both you and Ken helpfully point out) is that we can (or ought to) somehow set our particular historical locations, with all of the various streams that feed into how we think, the questions we ask, the influences and options available to us, etc. and just choose. As you say, we easily transfer the consumer mentality that is operative in so many other spheres of our lives into how we think about worldview, all the while ignoring that this entire approach is itself a story with a past that gave rise to it, a present, and a future.

      I think you’re right – this story does have a negative effect on other stories because it often presents itself as the logical fulfillment of the other stories, or the latest step on the journey from primitive to enlightened humanity. In that sense, it is a kind of “supercessionist” story, even if its adherents might not use that language.

      July 22, 2009
      • Ken #

        I will never forget a speech Stanley Hauerwas gave at Duke. He said he has never been able to believe in God, but as a theologian attempted to answer the question how we should live if there was a God. He ridiculed his own mother’s devout Christain faith for believing that the birth of Stanley was a gift from God. His audience shared his disdain for faith and laughed at his mother with him.

        I always had the sense that something was missing in Hauerwas’ writings. I learned later, hearing that speech, what is was.

        I sympathize with Hauerwas’ disbelief. It is tough to be schooled in the story of the enlightenment and not share that disbelief to some extent. But when that disbelief takes as its expression making fun of one’s mother, disbelief becomes ugly. Perhaps Voltaire would have done the same thing. But what narrative is that? It is a dangerous narrative to teach children.

        July 22, 2009
      • Ken,

        I have no idea what Hauerwas’ personal convictions are, but based on his account of an encounter with his father in his essay “Character, Narrative, and Growth in the Christian Life” (pages 246-248 in the Hauerwas Reader) I have difficulty accepting your interpretation of his comments about his mother.

        It may help to consider that Hauerwas explicitly rejects the idea that faith is belief in certain propositions, and defines it only as fidelity to Jesus. (Hauerwas Reader, 139) But I’m open to correction.


        July 26, 2009
  4. Great post. My next video at will deal with precisely this issue, and in very much the same way.

    July 22, 2009
    • Thanks for the link Dale.

      July 22, 2009
  5. JC #

    I linked to your post on another blog I regularly read.

    July 25, 2009

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: