An Approach to Keeping Children Open to Religion in a Secular Age
I was raised in a Protestant Christian household, but after being confirmed at the age of 13 my parents gave me the choice of continuing with the church or not. I couldn’t run away fast enough. The whole thing seemed like a sham and a waste of time. Nothing aligned with the science I was learning in school, and the church’s ideas of God, creation, and heaven seemed beyond ridiculous. It appeared that everyone was under some weird cult-like spell, and that nobody was being honest, either with themselves or with me, I wasn’t sure which. It took me another 30 years to be able to open myself up to Christianity and rediscover what it might have to offer.
Last month, a couple who is amongst my closest friends mentioned to me that their bright, clever, and witty 13-year-old son was struggling to figure out “what he believed.” The parents are Catholic, but they were conflicted about confirming their son in a Catholic church because he had been expressing doubts about his belief in God and was conflicted on where he stood. I could relate.
The parents wanted to provide guidance for their son but did not want him to feel he was being forced into something he wasn’t comfortable with. Knowing that I had been exploring various avenues of spirituality and religion over the last couple years, they asked if I would be willing to sit down and talk with him about his religious struggles. I agreed to do so, albeit not having the faintest idea what I would say.
We met up at their house a short time later.
I asked the boy to walk across the room and pick up a squishy ball that was lying on the floor.
“Is this ball real?” I asked.
“Yes,” he replied.
“How do you know?”
“Because I can feel it,” he stated.
I then asked him to smell the ball.
“Still real?” I asked.
He laughed. “Duh, of course.”
“How do you know?”
“Well, if it smells, it must be real,” he said.
“Touché,” I conceded. “So we both agree that this ball is a real thing in THIS world, right?”
He looked at awkwardly. “Yes.”
I then asked him to go sit down on the couch, close his eyes, breath slowly and deeply, and concentrate on the inner space within himself.
“What’s it like in there?” I asked.
“Uh . . . it’s dark, and quiet. And peaceful.”
“Are you comfortable in that space?”
“Yes, very,” he said.
“Can you touch anything in there? Is it hot? Does it smell funny in there?”
He laughed. “Uh, no!”
“Is that inner space real, or not real?” I asked.
“Mmm, it seems real.”
“So it’s real, but maybe not in the same sense that it’s real in THIS world, the world that the squishy ball is in?” I asked.
“Right, it’s sort of a different kind of real,” he replied.
“Okay, so we have THIS world, the world of the squishy ball, and we also have THAT world, the quiet and peaceful world inside you.”
“Yes, exactly,” he said.
“So, I have a question for you. If God is real, do you think you would find him in THIS world (squeezing the squishy ball), or THAT world?”
“THAT world!” he said emphatically. His enthusiasm took me aback a bit.
“Okay. Would you say that science is able to figure out pretty well what is real in THIS world?” I asked.
“Yes, for sure,” he replied.
“Alright, well I would like to also propose the idea that religions might be able to help one to explore that inner world. If that is true, can science and religion BOTH be true?”
“Yes, each one for the different worlds!” he exclaimed.
“I’ll buy that,” I said, then paused a few seconds.
“Now, do you accept every scientific finding as true?” I asked.
“Hmm, well, kind of,” he replied.
“Well you shouldn’t!” I exclaimed. “What if the researcher just used a really small sample size? Or what if she or he measured wrong?”
“Well, then yeah, I wouldn’t accept it.”
“Do you accept every religious statement as true?” I asked.
“No, some of them don’t make any sense to me.”
“Well then you should reject those, too. But what about the religious statements that do make sense to you. Would you accept those?”
“Yes, of course,” he replied.
“Okay, so it should probably be you, and nobody else, who gets to decide what to accept and what to reject, right?”
“And have you explored religion enough to be able to choose what is real and what is not real in THAT world?” I asked.
“No, I’ve hardly studied religion at all.”
“Well, then I probably wouldn’t decide until you have. Go explore both THIS world and THAT world, try different things, listen to different people, keep an open mind, and never compromise on who gets to decide what’s true for you. Ultimately, it is you and only you who gets to make the final decision on what’s true in these two worlds.”
“That’s right,” he said with a smile.
Religion is about something deeply internal. My hope is that through this conversation, the boy is able to get a sense of that internal world, and hopefully retain an interest in religion throughout his life in a way that I wasn’t.
I wonder how my own experience might have been different had someone spoken to me about religion in a way that did not overemphasize “belief,” but rather encouraged questioning, exploration, and introduced me to the deep inner life that the great religious traditions speak to.
In our secular age, with less and less emphasis being placed on the importance of religion, and with increasing distractions diverting us from experiencing and exploring our divine inner world, as spiritual parents we should seek to speak to our children in ways that keep their religious and spiritual curiosities alive and thriving.
Brad Benson is the Founder and Chairman of HEF Solutions, a healthcare IT company based in Elgin, IL. His primary interests outside of work and family include psychology, philosophy, art, and religion, and he seeks to discover parallels and similarities within these disciplines that can help lead one towards spiritual growth and development. Brad lives in Sycamore, IL with his wife Julie and their three children Nolan(16), Leah(13), and Nora(8).