Last month two friends, a young married couple pregnant with their first two babies (twins, the ultrasound says!), asked me: “Should we raise our children with a religion?”
What a profound question, I thought, as I began pondering how to best answer. I have no idea why they asked me—maybe because I’ve helped raise four children or because I write about spirituality regularly, or maybe because I just happened to be talking with them one day.
In fact, it later occurred to me, maybe they’re asking everyone they know that crucial question. If so, I can understand why—it’s probably one of the most important things parents-to-be can ask.
Here’s their backstory: both the pregnant wife and her husband have no particular system of belief. Raised by agnostic or atheist parents, they’re each like so many people today—non-religious, non-affiliated non-believers. In the parlance of the pollsters, they’re “Nons”—people who claim no religious connection at all. They have no parental or grand-parental pressure to take their children to any church, synagogue, temple or mosque, and yet they’re seriously wondering whether giving their unborn infants some kind of early spiritual education will help them develop into happy, competent, functioning children, adolescents and adults. Actually, they’re doing something wonderful—thinking responsibly and conscientiously about the future moral, spiritual and psychological welfare of their children.
My friends don’t have a formal religious affiliation, but that doesn’t mean they’re irreligious. Both of them believe in the existence of some kind of Creator. Both of them pray, in their own way, and I know, from previous conversations, that they each think deeply about the mystical aspects of life.
The husband, a research scientist, often encounters things in his work that he can’t logically explain, so he fully understands and accepts that something exists beyond this mortal, physical plane. The wife, a spiritually-aware woman and a social justice activist with much empathy for the plight of the oppressed and downtrodden, has a strong belief in the human spirit. I guess you could call them spiritual but not religious, although that term seems like such a cliché now. They’re far more than the term suggests—each one has a fine mind, a good heart and a questing spirit.
Before I tell you how I plan to answer them, though, I’d invite you to think about your own response to their question. What would you say?
As I considered how to respond, I realized I needed to really take their question seriously and not just answer immediately—so I asked my friends if I could think about it for a while, and write down my response. This series of essays is my answer.
Religion as a Moral Code
Let’s start by looking back: up until recently, and for most of humanity’s recorded history, people passed down their religious beliefs to the next generation as a matter of course. Parents fully expected children to inherit their beliefs and then transmit them to their own children. In that way, rather than a spiritual discovery or a personal choice, religion gradually became a generational inheritance, a cultural tradition children automatically adopted without much independent consideration or resistance, a part of their upbringing and culture they didn’t really question.
Unquestioned inherited religion can cause many problems, but in some ways that system did work. Why? Because in the past a thorough religious upbringing usually carried something important within it—a moral code. Along with their religious training children learned moral guidelines, a clear set of boundaries, a way to distinguish right from wrong. They learned that they had a soul. They learned about a Supreme Being who promised rewards and consequences for good and bad actions. They learned, too, that their soul would ultimately leave this world and be called to account in the next one.
Ultimately, this extended far beyond the personal. Gradually the values their religious training emphasized became tribal, cultural or even national values, which eventually found their way into formalized legal and governmental systems. European laws and culture, for example, came originally and primarily from the influence of Christianity, even though it has now waned in influence there.
Here’s the takeaway: every child needs a moral code. Developmental specialists, educators and child psychologists universally agree—children want to know the difference between right and wrong. Every child needs behavioral boundaries and guidelines. They yearn for structure when they’re young, and they flounder without it. They require a clear definition of how to act, and without it, they will “act out”—meaning that they will test the limits of those boundaries to see what they can get away with.
So, can’t the parents, even if they’re “nons,” simply teach their children the moral code they live by?
The Baha’i teachings say that inculcating a moral code in our children has to go beyond just parental reliance on the code they’ve adopted from their own upbringing and culture. Eventually, growing children will ask why they need to follow the guidance they get from their parents. “Because I said so” might work for some small children, but it usually fails to convince anyone past the age of five or six. Children need the sense of a higher authority, one above the merely human, a divine source of what’s right. Children benefit from knowing that their parents also do their best to follow a higher moral law.
That’s why the Baha’i teachings recommend that every child needs training “in the things of the spirit:”
Every child must be trained in the things of the spirit, so that he may embody all the virtues and become a source of glory … – Abdu’l-Baha, from a tablet translated from the Persian.
What does that mean? From a Baha’i perspective, it asks parents to recognize that their children have souls, and to focus on raising them as spiritual beings:
As to thy question regarding the education of children: it behoveth thee to nurture them at the breast of the love of God, and urge them onward to the things of the spirit, that they may turn their faces unto God; that their ways may conform to the rules of good conduct and their character be second to none; that they make their own all the graces and praiseworthy qualities of humankind; acquire a sound knowledge of the various branches of learning, so that from the very beginning of life they may become spiritual beings, dwellers in the Kingdom, enamoured of the sweet breaths of holiness, and may receive an education religious, spiritual, and of the Heavenly Realm. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 142.