Is It Possible to Raise Spiritual Kids Without Religion?

by ParentCo. June 13, 2016

“When is Easter?" my five-year-old asked excitedly.

“Um... Sunday. Why?” If he understood the concept of a rhetorical question, I’d tell him this was one.

It’s those hooligans at school. The five-year-old rugrats at the playground, going on about a cheery bunny with baskets of candy. That would be the least damaging scenario. Please don’t mention anything about presents, please don’t mention anything about presents, please don’t… “Because that’s when the Easter Bunny brings treats!” he said, with a “duh, mom. I know you know that” tone.


Leave it alone. Don’t tiptoe further. You’re not prepared! The ice is too…. “But do you know why the Easter Bunny brings treats?”

Ha! No one knows this, Smarty Pants.

“Beee-cuzzzzz... it’s Easter.” Definitely with the “duh, mom” attitude.

“Right. So what kind of treats?” I had to know what expectations had been set.

“You know, candy and stuff. I can’t wait!” And with that, he ran off to play.

I grew up Catholic but in the decades since leaving my parents’ home, gradually lost my religion. It didn’t help that I taught Western Civilization and for me, the more I read, the less I believed.

Forgive me, Lord. (You can take the girl out of church, but she’ll still keep it buried inside — as an insurance policy.)

As a single woman, grappling with faith, belief, and institutional religion was one thing. As a mother, responsible not only for the spiritual path of my offspring in this life but also in some potential afterlife for all eternity, is something else entirely.

Religion is heavy. If I had a clear grip on what I believe and don't believe, maybe I'd feel better- equipped to start discussing it with my kids. Unfortunately, I find the things I don’t believe far easier to articulate than the things I do. (Which is like trying to explain what something tastes like by listing all the things it doesn't taste like.)

Luckily, all the major Catholic holidays have been commercialized to the point where I can ignore the religious undertones and simply focus on the secular parts I like: gratitude and peace, love and friendship, giving as an act of receiving.

Furthermore, at four and five, my kids’ logistical questions are minimal. “But why does Santa come down a chimney?” Because of the flying reindeer. “How does the Easter bunny know where we live?” We registered with him so he could find us. These flimsy responses stand firm. For now.

Still, maybe it's just Catholic guilt but it feels like I should be introducing more. I want for them to feel spiritual. I want them to think critically, wisely, and logically but believe in miracles. I'm just not sure how to teach this.

My oldest recently began using the expression, “Oh my God!” (Again, it's from either the preschool miscreants or the weirdly popular kids who open toys on YouTube.) I keep correcting him to say “gosh” or “goodness” instead. “Why? Is God a bad word?” Well, no. But.

What followed was a 10-minute speech about God and what some people believe versus what other people believe and being respectful to everyone and that he should try to learn as much as he can to figure out what he believes and...are you getting this? He's five. He stopped listening after the first 30 seconds.

I left it alone until it slipped out again. "Oh my God!"

“It's like poop, honey. It's not a bad word, it's just not polite to run around yelling it.” This, he understood. Now, the “g” in his “omg” is almost always “gosh” and I'm living with the sorry truth that I likened God to poop.

I considered having my kids baptized. It would make my parents and grandmother happy (and set my boys up with an insurance policy of their own. You know, just in case there is a judgement day with the pearly gates to the right and the inferno to the left.)

My ever-logical husband questioned why baptism is necessary. “You don't even really believe that unbaptized people will go to hell so what does it matter?” He was raised a guilt-free, part-time Episcopalian. (Lucky!)

He was right, of course. The whole “original sin” and “judgement day” is high on my list of things I don't believe. So why baptize my children into a religion that fills me with doubts? What message does that send?

As a young girl, my Catholic religion provided comforting answers. Saying prayers before bed was a ritual to keep everyone I loved safe. Going to church on Saturday evening was a boring lecture to endure before a fun family dinner out. Going to confession meant all was well once again.

Eventually I learned that prayers can't keep everyone safe. As the questions got more complex, the answers got less comforting. Having faith (in institutional Catholicism) began to feel like a “gotcha test” rather than a test of faith and understanding. (God forgives you, he forgives everyone. But you didn’t go to confession so... gotcha!) His unconditional love seemed to have more and more conditions.

And yet, spirituality feels increasingly more important to me as I get older. Somehow as you grow older, the world grows both scarier and less scary. Bombs explode, storms destroy, and innocent people get hurt – but the sun always rises for the rebuilding. The bad guys proliferate alongside the good guys. You learn you can only control so much.

I struggle with how to instill some sense of spirituality in my kids. I believe in science and the rational explanations but I also believe we are a part of something much greater. I don't want to grow overly cynical and I readily admit that part of my belief in some kind of afterlife may be a tale I tell to make The End less unsettling.

Faith — the idea that there are things you can and must believe, even without proof — is something I hope my kids embrace.

For now, I teach them to have faith in humanity: to believe that good guys will always be more powerful than the bad guys; that Darth Vadar was actually a good guy who got lost; to do the right thing not because of some fear about the wrath of God but because it's the decent way to behave; to look after their neighbors (even the ones they may not like) because kindness wins; that the right answer is always to break down walls, not build them. Faith that fear and hate can never outshine openness and love.

Easter morning, I told my kids that I was wrong earlier. There actually is no Easter Bunny registry. I told them I really didn’t know how the Easter Bunny knew where to find them but I had faith that he would.



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