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Should children inherit their parents’ religion? This fraught, emotionally-loaded question, so sensitive to so many people, brings up a major controversy raging around the world today.
To gather some factual information before addressing the question, let’s first look at the research, to see how commonly children do inherit their religious beliefs from their parents. Here’s what a recent Harvard study had to say on the subject:
Despite the general trends of declining religious participation, there is still considerable intergenerational religious continuity in the United States. For instance, recent estimates of the rates of intergenerational transmission of religious affiliation were 82% in Jews, 85% in Muslims, 62% in Evangelical Protestants, and 43% in Catholics … 59% of parents who attended religious services at least weekly had children who reported frequent service attendance. – “Associations of Religious Upbringing With Subsequent Health and Well-Being From Adolescence to Young Adulthood: An Outcome-Wide Analysis,” from the American Journal of Epidemiology, 10 September 2018, by Ying Chen and Tyler J. VanderWeele.
Religious inheritance—what the researchers commonly call “intergenerational transmission of religious affiliation”—still happens commonly at quite a high rate in the United States. In other developed nations, especially in Europe, that figure may be lower. However, in many of the world’s developing nations, religious inheritance ranks even higher than it does in the U.S. Typically, in many of the world’s regions, more than 90% of children automatically adopt their parents’ religious beliefs.
Here’s the basic principle that underpins the Baha’i view of this very important question: Baha’is believe in the independent investigation of truth. No one, the Baha’i teachings say, should ever automatically accept any religion just because they inherited it:
We must discover for ourselves where and what reality is. In religious beliefs nations and peoples today are imitators of ancestors and forefathers. If a man’s father was a Christian, he himself is a Christian; a Buddhist is the son of a Buddhist, a Zoroastrian of a Zoroastrian … This is absolute imitation. The requirement in this day is that man must independently and impartially investigate every form of reality. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 327.
To answer the question posed in the title of this essay, inheriting your religion can certainly be helpful—but it only really becomes yours when you independently examine your beliefs and accept them because you find them true.
Authentic belief, and the deep peace and serenity it can offer, only becomes possible when it belongs consciously and mindfully to you:
Alas that humanity is completely submerged in imitations and unrealities, notwithstanding that the truth of divine religion has ever remained the same. Superstitions have obscured the fundamental reality, the world is darkened, and the light of religion is not apparent. This darkness is conducive to differences and dissensions; rites and dogmas are many and various; therefore, discord has arisen among the religious systems, whereas religion is for the unification of mankind. True religion is the source of love and agreement amongst men, the cause of the development of praiseworthy qualities, but the people are holding to the counterfeit and imitation, negligent of the reality which unifies, so they are bereft and deprived of the radiance of religion. They follow superstitions inherited from their fathers and ancestors. To such an extent has this prevailed that they have taken away the heavenly light of divine truth and sit in the darkness of imitations and imaginations. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 179.
When parents expect their children to blindly follow the parents’ beliefs, and adopt them unthinkingly before they can reason properly or reach the age of maturity, the children have no opportunity to thoroughly examine those beliefs and decide for themselves. Unfortunately, though, many parents—especially those who were raised with the expectation that they would automatically follow their family’s Faith—then react with a backlash against all religion, and forego any spiritual instruction or training in the raising of their own children. The Baha’i teachings counsel against either one of these extremes:
That which is of paramount importance for the children, that which must precede all else, is to teach them the oneness of God and the laws of God. – Baha’u’llah, from a tablet translated from the Persian
Baha’u’llah promulgated the fundamental oneness of religion. He taught that reality is one and not multiple, that it underlies all divine precepts and that the foundations of the religions are, therefore, the same. Certain forms and imitations have gradually arisen. As these vary, they cause differences among religionists. If we set aside these imitations and seek the fundamental reality underlying our beliefs, we reach a basis of agreement because it is one and not multiple. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 175.
… know ye that God has created in man the power of reason, whereby man is enabled to investigate reality. God has not intended man to imitate blindly his fathers and ancestors. He has endowed him with mind, or the faculty of reasoning, by the exercise of which he is to investigate and discover the truth, and that which he finds real and true he must accept. He must not be an imitator or blind follower of any soul. He must not rely implicitly upon the opinion of any man without investigation; nay, each soul must seek intelligently and independently, arriving at a real conclusion and bound only by that reality. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 291.
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