The fastest-growing religious affiliation in the United States is no religion at all. That has meant an increase in parents raising their children outside of the community provided by a church or synagogue. For Katherine Ozment, writing for Boston magazine, it also meant soul searching because, as she writes:
As ambivalent as I am about organized religion, I recognize there is something to it. Participation in a religious community has been correlated with everything from self-esteem and overall hopefulness to the avoidance of substance abuse and teen pregnancy. So I worry: Am I depriving my children of an experience that will help shape their identities in a positive way and anchor them throughout their lives?
In “Losing Our Religion,” Ozment (raised Protestant, but with a husband raised Jewish) traces her journey through explorations of secular humanism and Unitarian Universalists to an ultimate acceptance that while she and her husband may have been successfully raised in their respective religions, their children didn’t need to have the same experience. But it’s a rueful acceptance — and that rue is unnecessary. There’s nothing wrong with raising children outside of a religious tradition, and that upbringing doesn’t preclude them from being part of a community or later finding a community of their own.
Ozment’s reporting takes her to a Unitarian youth group, where one of the teenagers asks her, “Why haven’t you given your kids religion?” Caught up in the moment, and an appreciation of this hugging, grounded, happy group of young people, she sputters excuses.
Asked the same question, I’d have a different answer: because there’s no one religious community that everyone in our family will feel welcome in, and we have faith that our children will find their own way to the community they need, religious or not. (Though Ozment mentions families who choose to attend churches or synagogues for community’s sake, while glossing over any differences of belief, she also glosses over the difficulty that compromise would present for families like hers, and mine, where the very roots of those beliefs are in conflict with one partner or the other’s cultural identity.)
In Andrew Solomon’s book “Far From the Tree,” he highlights the distinction between vertical identity, which travels down from parent to child, and horizontal identity, which is specific to an individual within the family. Italian heritage is a vertical trait in my family; being gay is horizontal in his.
“Parents,” Solomon writes, “are constantly struggling with children who are alien to them in some profound way.” One thing I see in the fear that parents who don’t practice an organized religion are failing to “give” their children that identity is a need to shore up the vertical — a fear that without a shared religion, a child will fail to feel a connection to her family and her history.
That connection, though, can be found in different places. It can be found in stories of family history and family resilience shared around a dinner table, or in a sport, a hometown or a cause. There are many ways to deepen a vertical connection. What matters is to find and strengthen those things that are important to your family rather than regretting those things that have worked for other families in other times.
One unsought result of a family identity based in part on shared religion is that throughout history, families have struggled to accept the children who don’t remain within the religious fold. It’s less important that teenagers embrace the community their parents have chosen for them than that they find some community themselves, and as they grow up, what matters most is that we as parents embrace the communities and identities that become a part of our children.
My children may find their own ways to organized religion, or stick with the pleasant acceptance of its absence that their father and I enjoy. I don’t see our family life as “losing” religion. I see it as gaining an entirely different “vertical” trait: that of including whoever they turn out to be in our definition of family.
Contact KJ Dell-Antonia at: