I thought I'd try to tread on ground that is usually considered decidedly UN-scientific. I've been thinking a lot about religion, faith, and the like, given that it's Passover for some of us, Easter's around the corner for even more of us, and spring has most definitively sprung in my neck of the woods. I find it fascinating and troublesome that there is shockingly little research out there on the implications of religious beliefs and/or the belief in a god (or gods) on children's development. There are studies out there that touch on the subject, of course, but systematic programs of research that investigate whether children benefit or are harmed by certain types of religious beliefs vs others do NOT abound (a kind reader pointed me out to this line of research, but it deals more with the cognitive developmental implications of assigning "theory of mind" to human vs non-human agents… in other words, not quite what we're looking for). But there ARE some studies scattered around that might help us think about the question a bit more deeply.
First, I'll back up a bit and give you my personal context which, let's face it, will colour the way I see the research and the questions I most want answered through science. In fact, that last little bit I just wrote? That is a doozy of a thing to say for some people, I know. Yes, I firmly believe that science CAN and SHOULD inform how we think about religion and faith and its impact on children's well-being. Sam Harris, at an awesome TED talk, said it MUCH better than I could, so go ahead and listen to his talk on the subject and let me know what you think. His basic premise: Morality has for too long been the sole purview of religion and faith. This is a bad thing. A science of morality can and should exist… and the sooner the better.
(Of course, this doesn't mean we shouldn't also talk about what might be outside the bounds of science… and why. The why part is crucial for me. Karen Armstrong is this brilliant woman who does an excellent job of cracking my brain open every time I read another page of her book, The Case for God)
I'll come right out and say that I generally consider myself a hethen in that I was raised a (very guilt-prone, heavily moralistic) atheist. I do not associate myself with one religious institution and although I have stepped foot in many types of places of worship, I do not groc most. Of course, this upbringing and belief system will now heavily inform what my children will learn about religion and faith. There are several studies that have shown that, in general, children and adolescents most often appropriate the religious beliefs of their parents. Yes, they question them. But the better the parent-child relationship is, the more likely that children will align with their parents' faith. Also, factors such as growing up in a relatively strict family, with a father working out of the home and a mother in the home, and marital happiness all are associated with an increased chance of children and parents sharing the same religious beliefs.
So, as I sit singing with my children at the Passover seder (my husband
is an atheist/agnostic Jew), as I cry with my in-laws about the plight
of oppressed people (thankfully, they focus on oppression
EVERYWHERE, not just for the Jews), as I watch with a mind-boggling
amount of pride as my children sing "the four questions"… in FREAKING
HEBREW, as I read from the haggadah and say words I don't believe (but
also don't feel hypocritical about reading), I wonder what this whole
thing is all about. I wonder what I'm teaching my children. What is this "thing" that they will likely appropriate from my husband and me? What are the core messages about religion and faith that I'm imparting to them? I wonder
what I'm going to say to my kids when they ask me why I'm praising a
god I don't profess to believe in, why I celebrate a group of people
who I most definitely do NOT feel are the "chosen" ones (for that would
imply that others have not been chosen and, dude, that can't be a good
thing). But I DO sing, and I DO teach my children these rituals and I
DO feel they are important and meaningful and quite beautiful (some of
it, not all, of course). I think the themes of oppression, death, rebirth, renewal, hope and transcendence are so important to discuss… over and over, year after year. I DO want them to celebrate spring and connection and love with their extended family. I want them to feel
connected not only to this generation and the last, but to generations
and generations before them who sang the same songs, told the same
stories, ate the same food, made the same jokes (oy… the jokes). And
I can't seem to do this outside of a context that revolves around a
deity that is not my own.
And we'll also be going to Easter Egg Hunts this weekend.
So many of you will be going to church and telling another story this weekend to your children. But at our seder table last night, I kept realizing that the Christian story at this same time of year has such similar themes: oppression, death, rebirth and so on. I'm not a theology expert and I've read far too little on the subject of how these Judeo-Christian stories arose in the first place and are connected. But it DOES seem to me, on the most basic level, that we're telling some pretty darn similar stories to our children.
So, here's what I'd like to talk about… or, rather, here's where I'd like to start this conversation that I hope can take us to some interesting places: What are you teaching your children about morality, faith, god, religion, worship, and so on? What do you most hope to give your children by telling these stories? What questions do you wish science would tackle in this area? Do you even think science has a place in this discussion? How would you feel if your children appropriated a completely different set of beliefs about faith than you espouse?
(I FULLY acknowledge that I have only touched on the two most widely talked about religious traditions in this post. In part, I do this out of ignorance. I don't want to misrepresent faiths that I know only a tiny bit about. I'd love to hear from you about the whole variety of faith-based traditions that are being practiced at this time and how you think they can effect your children's well-being.)