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Devon Corneal Headshot

Keeping the Faith

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My son doesn't say prayers before bed. He's never been to church or Sunday school. We haven't talked to him about God yet and we've never read to him from the Bible. He hasn't been baptized. So far, he seems no more devilish than your average 4-year-old boy, so I'm optimistic that our secular home isn't turning him into a serial killer.

It's impossible to be entirely certain about these things, but I've got my fingers crossed.

My husband and I never sat down and said, "We will not be a religious family." My husband was raised in a religiously observant, Catholic home, but despite years as an altar boy and a rigorous Jesuit education, he hasn't gone to church in years. He is a spiritual man, but I wouldn't describe him as religious. I'm from the less devout Protestant side of the fence, but not even four years of religious studies in college returned me to the fold. When we met and married, we never discussed including religion in our life together.

Our only prayers are of the "Oh, please let him sleep for just five more minutes" kind.

Yet, every so often I wonder if we're denying our son something important. Should he be exposed to the kind of community that some religious traditions offer? Is it ok to leave him to figure it all out when he's an adult? Will he be less of a person or miss out on important connections to his life and the world if I don't guide him down a spiritual path? Will he end up a delinquent Scrooge visited by the ghosts of secular holidays past? To be a good parent do I have to help him explore options at the theological buffet so he can choose what appeals to him?

Am I going to hell for even talking about this?

I've tended to avoid opportunities to discuss religion with my boy. When he brought home his edible menorah from school (a study in matzo, Skittles and pretzels), I only briefly mentioned its connection to Hanukkah. (Given that his only question was if he could eat it before dinner, it wasn't hard to avoid a deeper discussion.) Easter has been a time for chocolate bunnies and a celebration of spring. Christmas in my world is about the food, time with family, carols and general good cheer. This is what I emphasize with my son, so that's really all he knows.

I even dodged religion when my parents' cat, DJ, died last year. Because this was my son's first experience with death, I knew it should be handled with some care.

I told him the cat was dead.

I explained that things die when their bodies get old and sick and too tired to work anymore. I even pulled out the trusty "circle of life" imagery. There are no cats with angel wings in my world.

My dad, not sharing my cold-hard-truth approach to Important Life Lessons, told my son that DJ went to heaven. My son liked this idea, charmed I'm sure by the notion of DJ pouncing on unsuspecting angelic mice and playing poker with other cats. (My husband, a devoted dog guy, finds the possibility of a feline afterlife horrifying. He's convinced that cat heaven would smell like pee and involve a lot of scheming.)

So, up until now, DJ's fate has been the extent of my son's religious curiosity. Which isn't all that surprising, given that he's still in preschool. He probably won't always be so disinterested and I expect that there will be a time he may ask more questions. It makes sense for me to have a plan of attack before that happens.

After a lifetime being blasé about all things religious, my matzo-eating son has made me re-evaluate my choice to live outside of rituals of faith.

This is a challenge for me. I'm not convinced that any of the world's religions have the perfect template for leading a good life or raising moral children. There is a lot about formalized religion that I find troubling. For any number of reasons, I've always been more comfortable with the idea of spirituality as opposed to "religion."

Yet, I want my son to learn the importance of social justice, charity and equality. To do that, I think it's important that he be exposed to a community of people who believe in fairness, service, generosity, and taking care of others. My husband and I spend time talking with him about these things.

And, again, the kid is only four.

Right now, morality is usually served up to my son as "sharing is caring" -- which often translates into reminders to share his toys and to leave some Cheerios for his friends.

But I see signs that he's starting to see the bigger picture. The students in his preschool class are currently collecting "Change for Chicks" to buy a flock of chickens through Heifer International. My son makes sure he has some coins every morning to put in the collection jar. I love this about him.

My husband and I want our son to grow into a compassionate, loving and principled man. We want him to learn humility and gratitude. We know he'll be better off if he is surrounded by people who share similar values, who love him for who he is and support him through whatever challenges come his way. Our family and friends will do that. But, do we also need a church, temple, or meeting house to make sure the lessons we teach him stick? If so, should we forgo our unscheduled Sundays for sermons?

I'm not sure.

Religion can be a positive presence in some people's lives -- increasing their optimism, happiness and even academic achievement. Religious traditions can provide comfort during times of loss and an extended family for those who need it, and people who regularly attend church gain emotional support from the friendships they form there. All of those things are good things for kids (and adults).

Still, I don't know that regular church attendance or even religion itself is necessary to raise "good" kids. I'm not even sure that a belief in God is required to lead a fully-realized or examined life. Even if it is, I don't know how to join a church in good conscience when I disagree with central tenets of its faith.

Unless and until my son starts asking about God or showing a renewed interest in heaven, I'm content sticking with non-church going ways. I also know that this decision isn't entirely up to me. How we talk with our son about religion, spirituality and how to live a good life is going to be something my husband and I talk about for years to come.

So far, though, I think we're good. So, God, if you're out there, I hope you get where I'm coming from. I'm taking a pass for now.