Is it possible to teach your kids about other religions without imposing your own beliefs?

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Amber sent this question about teaching kids about religion — what do you do when you want your kids to know about as many religions as possible but you aren’t well-versed in them?

Photo from Wikimedia Commons, used with Creative Commons license.
My husband and I are on opposite sides of the fence as far as religion goes. I consider myself a very opened-minded Christian and he leans more towards atheism. We both agree that we want our children to be able to choose what works for them as far as religion and beliefs go. We want to teach them about the different beliefs… but we don’t really know where to start as we are not well-versed in other religions.

Does anyone out there know of any books we can read (especially children’s books, as our children are one and three right now)? We’d also love to get as much advice as possible. This has been an ongoing argument with my husband and I, and we are trying to find a compromise and not inflict our children with our own tainted beliefs.

How have you guys introduced your children to various religious and spiritual thoughts and beliefs?

Comments on Is it possible to teach your kids about other religions without imposing your own beliefs?

  1. It might be worth looking into your local Unitarian church for guidance. They have great kids programs which focus on religious inclusion, social justice and global awareness without being specifically Christian or even Theist.

    • I was just going to suggest this! My friends who grew up Unitarian all speak very highly of their religious education programming. The teen programs have a year where the group visits a wide variety of different temples and churches, too.

      • As a woman raised Lutheran who broke away on her own to begin finding her way in a UU church, I have nothing but good things to say about UUism. I know that *I* have wanted to go sit in on the RE (religious education) rather than the sermon at times because it sounds like a lesson *I* have yet to learn, much less these littles that already know so much about religion. And you know what? If I chose to, I know for certain that nobody would mind.
        Here’s a little something that our church has on these bi-fold business cards that read “What do Unitarian Universalists believe?” on the front. I carry several with me in order to help guide discussions with people who ask or confront me about my religion:

        Unitarian Universalist. We believe in the freedom of religious expression. All individuals should be encouraged to develop their own personal theologies, & to openly present their religious opinions without fear of censure or reprisal.

        We believe in the toleration of religious ideas. All religions, in every age & culture, possess not only intrinsic merit but also potential value for those who have learned the art of listening.

        We believe in the authority of reason and conscience. The ultimate arbiter in religion is not a church, document, nor official but the personal choice & decision of the individual.

        We believe in the never-ending search for Truth. If the mind & heart are truly free & open, the revelations that appear to the human spirit are infinitely numerous, eternally fruitful, & wondrously exciting.

        We believe in the unity of experience. There is no fundamental conflict between faith & knowledge, religion & the world, the sacred & the secular, since they all have their source in the same reality.

        We believe in the worth & dignity of each human being. All people on earth have an equal claim to life, liberty & justice-& no idea, ideal, or philosophy is superior to a single human life.

        We believe in the ethical application of religion. Good works are the natural product of a good faith, the evidence of an inner grace that finds completion in social & community involvement.

        We believe in the motive force of love. The governing principle in human relationships is the principle of love, which always seeks the welfare of others & never seeks to hurt or destroy.

        We believe in the necessity of the democratic process. Records are open to scrutiny, elections are open to members, & ideas are open to criticism- so that people might govern themselves.

        We believe in the importance of a religious community. The validation of experience requires the confirmation of peers, who provide a critical platform along with a network of mutual support.

        –David O. Rankin

        • Wow, I really like the philosophy of a UU church. I was raised Lutheran, too, and I am currently going to a Lutheran church with my husband and three month old son. We like it, but my husband did not come from a Lutheran background, or a church background for that matter. He was raised in Europe with no formal church background or church family so to speak. At times, he even considers himself Atheist, but attends the church we are going to in order to support me (which I disagree with as a reason for going to church, but that is another topic). Interestingly, he has a far broader RE than I do since he learned it in school and I did not at the U.S. public school I attended. Do you have any more info about UUs that you could share? We are trying to coalesce on a church and/or RE to some extent so we can decide on how we want our son to view churches and RE. Thanks in advance.

          • Go poke around the Unitarian Universalist Association’s website: http://uua.org . There’s lots of information there, including a congregation search engine to find one in your area. That’s how we found our church.

            FWIW, my husband also started attending with me to be supportive, and is now a fully participating member. It may take a few months, but you might be surprised by how he takes to it.

    • why have i not heard about this UU before? we live in the midwest so maybe its not as known but it sounds like something i’m going to check out as soon as i get off OBM 🙂

    • My dad was raised Catholic, and my mom Jewish, and I was raised in a UU congregation (to become an atheist, but that’s beside the point). It was great as a kid because there was the community aspect of church, and their religious education programs cover a wide range of different religious beliefs, as well as morals and other traditional stuff you might get from a Sunday School environment, without being preachy at all.

      • Our local UU congregation makes a point to welcome atheists, which I was delighted to discover. Their emphasis is on religious exploration, critical thinking, and social action–awesomeness, as far as I’m concerned.

      • Sounds like us!I’m Jewish, my husband’s Catholic, and we’re thinking of the UU church!

  2. My husband and I debated this issue many late evenings before we had a family. He was raised Lutheran and I was raised Catholic. Neither of these seemed like the right choice for our family but we knew some kind of education was going to be in order. We finally decided to join a Unitarian Universalist Church primarily because their Religious Education for the children consisted of presenting an unbiased overview of all religions, holidays, beliefs, etc while teaching a basic moral value system of respect for self, others, and the environment. ( http://www.uua.org/visitors/6798.shtml for more detail) The teen group even went to services at the surrounding churches to get more exposure. We are now parents of two with one on the way and feel confident that our children will be given the tools to make educated decisions on their own about what they believe and also want they want and need from a spiritual community.

  3. i would go to cultural events where people show other faiths. then learn about and talk about it.

    • I would also recommend “A Chosen Faith: an introduction to Unitarian Universalism” despite it’s title. The second half is most accurate. It really is a good, in-depth introduction to the faith for anybody that has questions or scruples about potentially attending a UU church. It will answer a lot of questions and quell a lot of misunderstandings/myths/falsehoods that are sometimes associated with UUism.

  4. I do not have children yet, but I can speak to how I was raised. I grew up going to a Unitarian Universalist Church. If you don’t know, UU focuses on shared values rather than beliefs. As a result, you get congregations of people with different religions. I am atheist now, but a grateful for being raised in a community where I learned about various religions in sunday school. As kids we were, more or less, encouraged to believe what we most connected with, regardless of source.

    I don’t know of any UU resources off the top of my head, but below I’ve posted the UU principles, written in kid friendly language. They may be helpful in setting the stage for talking about different religions with your little ones/or inspire you to create your own list of family principles.

    1. We believe that each and every person is important.
    2. We believe that all people should be treated fairly and kindly.
    3. We believe that we should accept one another and keep on learning together.
    4. We believe that each person must be free to search for what is true and right in life.
    5. We believe that all persons should have a vote about the things that concern them.
    6. We believe in working for a peaceful, fair, and free world.
    7. We believe in caring for our planet Earth, the home we share with all living things.

  5. I thought about Unitarian Universalism immediately too! Funny to see so many UU comments already. I found a UU church when I was in high school because I wanted something as far as religion/spirituality, but no other church I tried out really felt right. I wanted somewhere that it was ok to not be totally sure what I thought. I still don’t completely know what I believe and I’m ok with that. My husband’s parents were raised Jewish and Catholic so when they had kids they were at a loss for where to take the kids until they found a UU church where both of those religious heritages could be incorporated and respected.

    • One of the most valuable lessons I have learned as a new UU is that not only is it totally okay to be unsure of what you think, it’s often more truthful to answer some of life’s big questions with, “I don’t know.”

      I find a lot of churches–regardless of the religion practiced–try to force all of the answers. What results, to me, is like a puzzle with pieces that don’t quite fit being jammed into all the nooks and crannies. It becomes messy, and difficult for a newcomer (like a child) to sort out.

      As a UU, I find it much more acceptable to end with a question. I was once taught in a writing class that by the end of an essay/paper, one should have raised more questions than the one they started with, and that’s where revisions and progression come from. I’ve been able to see this as a parallel to the religious & spiritual journey ever since, but have not found that parallel accepted anywhere but in the UU church.

  6. I would advise, above all, the open hand. It may be less of an issue for a Christian and an atheist, but it can be a big issue for Jewish families like ours.

    My brother and I have both gone on to marry Jewish partners. My sister said to my parents on the day of her bat mitzvah ‘I’m doing this for you, but after this I’m not going to shul again’ (not in a confrontational way, just honest). She could just never related to the religion thing.

    She went on to marry a lovely non-Jewish guy, having had a long term relationship before with another. And it was not an issue for my parents, they accepted religion was not her thing.

    But I’ve heard of the opposite happening. Parents guilt-tripping their kids about it, blanking them, blanking or being unpleasant to their non-Jewish partners, harrassing them to convert, etc. And how, exactly, do they expect that will bring their kids (and potential grandkids) back into the fold?

    The fact is, because my parents have been open and accepting, my sister does want her children to experience Judaism so they can make a choice just as she was allowed to make hers. Can you imagine wanting that if your parents’ faith had been used as a stick to beat you with your whole adult life? No, you wouldn’t want to follow it up.

    When the hand is open, the option is always there and family life is so much happier.

    • Yes. Leaving my faith behind was heart breaking because, although my parents love me unconditionally, they regard my leaving the faith as the ultimate failure on their part. I am no longer part of their “tribe”. My parents will not be attending my wedding because they do not believe that their religion allows them to do so. Religion has introduced a lot of unnecessary pain into my and my loved one’s lives. I want above all to teach my children to engage in an honest and unflinching search for truth, I also want to protect them from that pain. I wouldn’t stand in their way, but I would be absolutely terrified if my children began seriously exploring my birth faith.

  7. All the comments about UU churches are not surprising. My roommate is an atheist (raised Christian), and she loves UU.

    My suggestion would be to get in contact with a local world religions teacher (you should be able to find one in a large high school), and ask them for resources. My high school WR teacher was amazing, and would really be able to help with this sort of thing.

  8. I do it on a regular basis. I have multiple beliefs myself and my child’s father has totally different beliefs. When I discuss religion with my child, I use a lot of “Some believe…” statements and “similar to how we…” statements.

  9. By raising your child, by being near your child, you’re imposing your beliefs. The values you teach your child reflect your beliefs and the things you do or don’t expose your child to are invariably tinted by your own experience, exposure and belief.
    I believe that the key for a parent is teaching your child to think and learn for her/himself. Teach your child that it’s absolutely okay to ask questions and be curious.
    Consider with me… when did you really start thinking about religion, beliefs and the existence of god? Probably not early. And you probably listened to people around you, but in the end, it came down to you. You can create an environment of curiosity, passion and wonder, but letting your children make up their own mind requires doing that. By sort of consciously exposing your children to a set list of religions, you’re sort of imposing a pan-religious viewpoint. I think the focus should more be on tolerance and general awareness than conscious inclusion. That’s just me, though. Everyone has their own religious experience to consider and the overall environment for religious awareness in different regions really does need to be taken into account, I guess. Where I grew up, I had to rely pretty deeply on the internet to research other religions.

  10. It’s such a touchy, personal subject… I am a full-on atheist. I’d go so far as saying I’m actually an anti-theist. Husband is more agnostic. I was raised in church, he wasn’t. With the oldest, I let her go to church with her grandparents and tried to expose her to multiple religions through books. With the youngest, I’m not going to expose her to any of it.

    My suggestion would be to get the holy books. Let them have access to the Koran, the Bible, the Bhagavad gita, etc. when they are old enough to understand it.

    I don’t personally feel that children are cognitively able to understand religion- and so shouldn’t be exposed until they have formed stronger critical thinking skills.

    If you and your husband don’t subscribe to a particular faith and aren’t church goers, why not wait until the kids are older and more cognitively developed before introducing it to them? If a child is not able to understand the concept of 1+1=2, how can they possibly understand the concept of a Father, Son, and Holy Ghost? (Just my reasoning behind why I’ve done it the way I have with my kids). 🙂

    • Haha I think, “let them have access to the Koran, the Bible, and the Bhagavad Gita, etc when they are old enough to understand it” is a funny statement because I’m in my twenties, I have a BA in Religious Studies and I STILL am not sure I’m old enough to understand it.

      But I do agree, to some extent, with what you’re saying. Even if we can’t always understand it, we do, as adults, have the tools to interpret, think about, and at least attempt to understand it, and THAT is the point. Expecting children to sort through the myriad complexities like Trinitarian doctrine or the pervasiveness of suffering is expecting a lot out of them.

      That being said, I think there is also potentially a lot of value in even the simpler aspects of religion. For one, there are a lot of good stories for kids, and there a lot of good lessons, too. Personally, I wouldn’t object to using some parts of religion even with younger kids, and then helping them encounter the complexities later on.
      But really, that’s just me, and it also does make a lot of sense to wait until they’re older.

    • As a former Sunday School teacher who taught 3-5 year olds, I will have to respectfully disagree. Having/understanding faith is as much about what your heart/soul/whatever tells you as it is about facts. Just because a child cannot do a sum doesn’t mean they can’t explain how they feel about God.

      • I am torn between both ideas. I guess that is why I plan on just having them follow along with my beliefs until they start questioning on their own. That said, I started questioning when I was around 9 (and started my own religion lol!) and then truly questioning when I was 12. A lot of people would have said I was still a “child” without critical thinking skills.

        Maybe it is one of those things that is so unique to each child.

    • It would be impossible to avoid questions about religion from small kids, I think. I remember hearing about God from my playground friends when I was little. (I was raised Catholic, but my dad’s irreligious and therefore I’ve always been pretty strongly aware of these things.)

  11. I would suggest relying on friends from other religions if you have them (not saying you wouldn’t just that some people I know live in towns that are pretty much all one religion). I am a pretty strict Christian in my own opinion, but when I was a teenager I explored sooo many different religions to see which one made sense to me.

    When I have a kid I plan to do it this way (although plans always go out the window when you have kids, so we will see lol!). I will raise them in my religion until they are about 12 or so, and at that point, they can do as they like.

    I may believe that my religion is the only “right” one, but I am not worried that my child will look down on other people or their religion. We have a diverse group of close friends from atheist, Buddhist, Wiccan, LDS and a whole bunch more! I don’t love them less than my Christian friends, and I don’t respect them less either. I have always believed that I don’t need to teach my child that all religions are right for different people. I have never believed that. I believe my religion is right. What I WILL teach my child is that they may not agree, and if they go a different path, my love and respect and trust for them remain the same.

    EDIT: I realized I blabbed on and on without really answering the question. I was going to say that if you have friends from other religions, ask them to teach your child about it, or take them to a religious service if there is one. Even if your child may not like the religion itself, by having a human face on it they won’t want to have a poor attitude towards it. I mean, it might be easy to hate Muslims with the way the media portrays them, but as soon as you have a Muslim friend, you realize that the media is so biased! As adults we know that intuitively but children often need concrete evidence and this can be through family friends.

  12. My family consists of: a mother who was raised Catholic and turned agnostic, a father who was raised by an Episcopalian bishop and turned athiest, two half brothers and their mom who are all Jewish. My entire immediate family took a hands-off approach to religion and told me it was up to me and that they would tell me whatever I wanted to know or help me find info about it if I so chose, and it was an approach I really appreciated.

    My extended family, on the other hand, took great pains to educate me about their religious beliefs, which I found to be a complete turn-off to their respective religions. Having lots of books around was enough for me to find my own spiritual path. Remember, kids are actually naturally curious about things like the workings of social and physical mechanisms, their role in the universe, and about philosophies and beliefs others hold.

  13. Many religious institutions offer one week events for kids. Christian churches have vacation Bible school. I work at a church and we rent out our building every year for a New Age camp. Parents (especially UU) send their kids to our church for a week to interact with Christians, hear core principles and have fun. It wouldn’t be a bad way to introduce religions. They could go to a different camp every few weeks.

  14. When I was young, my mom would get various bits of literature on all the different religions from the local library, and at night for a while, she’d read about a different religion every week or so.

    It helped me get a good introduction to all sorts of religions, and totally let me chose what I was most comfortable with and which religion I felt was closest to my beliefs, without feeling that my parents were trying to convince me of one way or the other.

    Also helped me respect people following other religions a lot, I didn’t judge them for their religion, but more for who they were as people.

  15. Find a Unitarian Universalist church in your area (http://uua.org). DONE.

    FWIW, I am a Pagan with Humanist leanings and my hubby is a die-hard atheist. We’ve both found a spiritual home in our UU church. I cannot wait for our daughter to be old enough to start the Religious Education program, and also to go through the UU sex ed program (Our Whole Lives).

    I taught 4th/5th grade UUs last year and we covered many of the world’s most prominent religions. This year I’m teaching the Coming of Age class (8th graders) and it’s all about asking questions and finding one’s authentic self, whether or not that includes a belief in any god. My husband teaches in the OWL program and it’s offered at every age from kindergarten to adult.

    Joining a UU church provided us with a supportive, welcoming place that reinforces at the community level the things we teach our daughter at home about living a life of social justice, global understanding, and joy in everyday life. Definitely one of the best decisions we’ve ever made.

  16. We have a lot of friends who are ‘anti religion’, who don’t understand how we can ‘be religious’ in any way, but they tend to be people who either experienced no religious influence in their upbringing, or else a very narrow and dogmatic one.

    The way religion fits into our life is very much about cultural tradition rather than ‘faith’, although we do attend and enjoy religious services. I never felt ‘preached to’ or ‘indoctrinated’ by my family or community’s approach to Judaism, and hopefully our kids will feel the same.

  17. Aw I’m literally teared up with all these great comments about the UU church. I was raised UU and I work really hard in my own community to promote the truly open-hearted/open-minded message that we teach.

    My daughter has gone to UU churches with me weekly since she was 2 years old. She’s about to turn 10 and identifies herself as a Catholic/UU. Nevermind the trinitarian/unitarian contradiction, I LOVE that she is grounded enough in her own beliefs that she can voice them! It’s great to see her develop her own sense of spirituality.
    I really liked a book called “because nothing looks like God”. http://www.amazon.com/Because-Nothing-Looks-Like-God/dp/158023092X
    Best of luck and enjoy this great adventure!

  18. I was raised Christian (Anglican) to be specific). I feel like I would baptize my children and attend church with them. Once they are older they are welcome to explore other religions and I also plan on keeping religion very open in our family. I ultimately believe in openness and love which most religions preach. I identify as Christian but would let my children make their own decision once they are old enough.

  19. My husband and I are both agnostic, and we believe that religion and spirituality are separate concepts. We will not encourage our children to follow prescribed religion, though I’ll work hard to stop myself from discouraging it.

    We want our child to have whatever spiritual options they want so we will ask my best friend to be the Godmother. She isn’t religious, but she participates in a number of different communities. She won’t be the guardian in the case that something happens to us (this is the meaning of godparent in both of our families) because her life is too nomadic, but it’s a great way to entrench her role in our child’s life while providing the kid-o with opportunities to explore and learn.

  20. I was raised Catholic, I am now an agnostic with atheist leanings. My husband is vaguely Christian ( has no set beliefs but is adamant with involving some sort Christianity in our lives). I want to expose our future kiddies to everything, but for cultural reasons am leaning towards sending them to Catholic school. I don’t believe in any of the churchs tennets and quite frankly am still a little angry that the nuns led my 8 yearold self to believe I was going to hell. But my family is irish catholic and its as much a part of me as not believing in god is, but I don’t want to give them any of the negative aspects or mislead them. UU sounds like a nice middle ground, but that would leave out my Catholic family which would break Grandma’s heart. So looks like Catholic school (a good one like my HS which educated us on ALL religions not just catholic) and many other religious texts and my atheist books, on the book shelf, and let them go with it.Maybe they won’t care either way.

    • I teach in a Catholic school, but we have students from so many backgrounds. I have heard of super strict Catholic schools, but the ones from around here aren’t like that. Students do have to attend Mass whenever there is a big celebration in the Church calendar (Christmas, Ash Wednesday, etc) and they do participate in religion classes, but the major focus is on social justice. We participate in a TON of social justice projects. In High School they do study other religions (and perhaps a bit in junior high too, I just know in elementary the focus is on the basic foundations of Catholicism).

      I have one student in my class (mainly of kids ages 10 and 11) who is openly an atheist (where as a lot of our other non-Catholic kids are Christian, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, and basically other religions, just not Catholic). As far as I can tell she seems comfortable in the environment. She plans on staying in Catholic schools until she graduates and she always opts to receive the blessings rather than avoid the process altogether when there is an option. I have also never said any child was going to hell, although when one student said he didn’t believe in hell, I jokingly replied (In my most silly evil voice) “Hell believes in you!” which made the whole class laugh, including the student.

      I have heard some pretty nightmare stories about Catholic schools (especially private ones) but the ones where I am from are very multicultural, and focus on dignity and respect of the child. With that in mind we can never belittle their beliefs.

      We do pray all the time in class though, and God is mentioned throughout the day, so people who are uncomfortable with that would hate having their kid in a Catholic school, even one like ours.

  21. I was raised Southern Baptist (eek!), my SO was raised Catholic. He considers himself an Atheist, I’m more on the Agnostic/just don’t know side. I’ve wondered how we’re going to present religion to our baby, now 6 months…Both Grandmothers are pretty devout in their respective faiths and I do not want him to grow up confused. I would also be interested in a “church” like this one…it sounds like it’s right up my alley. So glad I read this post and its comments. Thanks for answering a question I hadn’t gotten around to asking, guys. 🙂

  22. I wasn’t raised in a specific religion, though my mother was Jewish and my father a Christian of sorts. My FH was raised in as a Baptist and I consider myself Jewish. We both decided that we would let our children choose for themselves what religion works best for them. My mother made an effort to teach my sister and I about all religions, but mostly she focused on a belief in God and that was all you really need. Despite our agreement we have had some serious discussions about religion and had some issues crop up already. I am the only Jewish person my FH has ever known and I feel like he associates it with negative things. It annoys me because technically by Jewish law my son is also Jewish, simply meaning he won’t have to ‘convert’ to Judaism if he chooses to go that route. For whatever reason when I mentioned that it really upset my FH.

    I am so pumped right now to figure out if there is a UU Church in our area because that would be great. I would really like to have the community you often develop from going to a church/temple and getting my son and future children an unbiased education. =D This was a great question.

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