UC Observer logo
UCObserver on SoundCloud UCObserver on YouTube UCObserver on Facebook UCObserver on Twitter UCObserver's RSS Feeds

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.



Readers’ advisory: The discussion below is moderated by The UC Observer and facilitated by Intense Debate (ID), an online commentary system. The Observer reserves the right to edit or reject any comment it deems to be inappropriate. Approved comments may be further edited for length, clarity and accuracy, and published in the print edition of the magazine. Please note: readers do not need to sign up with ID to post their comments on ucobserver.org. We require only your user name and e-mail address. Your comments will be posted from Monday to Friday between 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Join the discussion today!

Environment

Song leader, police and gate blockers in front of the Kinder Morgan gates. Photo by Kimiko Karpoff

A Kinder Morgan protest in photos and song

by Kimiko Karpoff

A faith leader reflects on protesting the pipeline with the Water Protectors from the Tsleil-Waututh nation.

Promotional Image

Editorials

The United Church Observer's editor and publisher, Jocelyn Bell. Photo: Lindsay Palmer

Observations: #MeToo

by Jocelyn Bell

Our hope is that by giving voice to these #MeToo stories, a new conversation about sexual misconduct can begin.

Promotional Image

Video

ObserverDocs: Playing by Heart

by Observer Staff

United Church music director Kara Shaw was born prematurely, became almost totally blind and was later diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. Today, the 28-year-old showcases her unique musical ability, performing piano on local and national stages.

Promotional Image

Society

June 2018

Why some women of colour are hesitant to say #MeToo

by Jacky Habib

Three women share their stories in the hope of creating safe spaces they never had.

Environment

May 2018

A Kinder Morgan protest in photos and song

by Kimiko Karpoff

On April 28, 2018, faith leaders from many traditions, including the United Church, stood in solidarity with Water Protectors from the Tsleil-Waututh nation to protest the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion in Burnaby, B.C.. Kimiko Karpoff captured the day in pictures.

Faith

June 2018

After 93 years, this will be the United Church's last General Council meeting

by Mike Milne

When the United Church meets in July, top priorities will be a streamlined governance structure and Indigenous ministries.

Justice

June 2018

#MeToo in the United Church

by Trisha Elliott

9 women share their stories of harassment and sexual assault in the United Church.

Columns

May 2018

On grief and the healing power of gardening

by Paul Fraumeni

A writer reflects on how growing tomatoes is helping him find peace while dealing with the loss of loved ones, including his son.

Editorials

June 2018

Observations: #MeToo

by Jocelyn Bell

Our hope is that by giving voice to these #MeToo stories, a new conversation about sexual misconduct can begin.

Promotional Image