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Spiritual But Secular

Non-religious parents yearn to foster that sense of awe in their kids — but they’re skipping the dogma

By Anne Bokma

Katherine Ozment felt guilt-ridden on Easter weekend three years ago. Her then nine-year-old son, William, was watching the procession of people moving slowly on the street outside their home. After she explained that the group was Greek Orthodox, he asked her, “So what are we?” Ozment, a Chicago writer who was raised Presbyterian but whose three kids have set foot inside a church only once in their lives — for a family wedding — practically hung her head in shame. “We’re nothing,” she told him.

That admission set Ozment on an anxious journey — one she chronicles in Grace Without God: The Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Belonging in a Secular Age — to figure out how much damage she might be doing to her kids by bringing them up without God, the comforting embrace of a faith community or the religious literacy needed to distinguish David and Goliath from Daniel in the lions’ den. She asked herself, “Am I depriving my children of an experience that will help shape their identities in a positive way and anchor them throughout their lives?”

Her question is one a lot of parents who consider themselves “spiritual but not religious” are asking. Many don’t know what to tell their kids about religion, so they avoid the topic altogether. Or they outsource religious education, dropping their kids off at Sunday school or Hebrew lessons. Others have such a longing to be wrapped in the comfy fold of a faith community that they’ll attend services even though they can’t swallow the theology. Still others indoctrinate their kids against religion by being overtly critical of it.

That’s a mistake, according to Wendy Thomas Russell, author of Relax, It’s Just God: How and Why to Talk to Your Kids About Religion When You’re Not Religious. Her book aims to help parents raise religiously astute and tolerant kids by, for example, teaching them what all religions have in common, rather than what sets them apart. It even includes a summary of each major religion, along with ways to observe their holidays in secular style.

Mark Holder, an associate professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, says non-religious parents can stop fretting. His 2008 study of 320 kids ages eight to 12, published in the Journal of Happiness Studies, found children who consider themselves spiritual are happier than those who engage in traditional religious practices such as going to church. Genetics accounts for 40 to 50 percent of children’s happiness levels, he says, while financial status accounts for only one percent and spirituality represents up to 26 percent.

“Our research tells us that religiousness is not a strong predictor of a child’s subjective well-being,” Holder says. “As long as parents are supporting their child’s spirituality, they are golden.” This might include fostering their friendships, asking them what they’re grateful for, and encouraging them to volunteer and spend time in nature.

As part of her research, Ozment attended a Unitarian church, which her Jewish husband found too Christian, and a secular humanist society, which, although it aligned perfectly with her beliefs, she couldn’t muster up the motivation to attend regularly. Today, instead of focusing on what her kids might be missing out on, she looks at what they do have, including “a solid work ethic, the ability to get along and love one another, their haranguing me for dollar bills to give to the homeless people we pass every day, [and] their daily expressions of joy and amazement and curiosity about the world.” Her kids, she says, are being raised to question and be curious. She’s confident they’ll eventually develop their own unique set of beliefs.

That already appears to be happening. The other day, her nine-year-old daughter, Jessica, announced at the dinner table that she is “part Christian, part Jewish and part gymnastics.”

Anne Bokma is a journalist in Hamilton.

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