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Despite the scientific evidence showing the positive effects of religion on children, we probably all know kids and adults who have experienced the negative influences of a dysfunctional religious upbringing.
Fanaticism, fundamentalism, coercion and a too-literal interpretation of religion can cause enormous emotional, mental and spiritual trauma for children. Today we constantly hear stories of the abuse, both psychological and physical, that has victimized children in churches and other so-called religious settings. Even some clergy, previously the most respected and trusted class of individuals in many communities, have betrayed that trust with the children placed in their care.
So how can parents raise their children with effective spiritual and religious training, and avoid the corruption that has crept into so many denominations, sects and religious settings?
The Baha'i teachings offer a recommendation:
It is clear and evident to thee that all the Prophets are the Temples of the Cause of God, Who have appeared clothed in diverse attire. If thou wilt observe with discriminating eyes, thou wilt behold Them all abiding in the same tabernacle, soaring in the same heaven, seated upon the same throne, uttering the same speech, and proclaiming the same Faith. - Baha'u'llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, p. 51.
… the divine religions of the holy Manifestations of God are in reality one, though in name and nomenclature they differ. Man must be a lover of the light, no matter from what dayspring it may appear. He must be a lover of the rose, no matter in what soil it may be growing. He must be a seeker of the truth, no matter from what source it come. Attachment to the lantern is not loving the light. - Abdu'l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 151.
Let us understand what constitutes the reality of the divine religions. If a Christian sets aside traditionary forms and blind imitation of ceremonials and investigates the reality of the gospels, he will discover that the foundation principles of the teachings of His Holiness Christ were mercy, love, fellowship, benevolence, altruism, the resplendence or radiance of divine bestowals, acquisition of the breaths of the Holy Spirit and oneness with God. - Abdu'l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 444.
From a Baha'i perspective, children need to understand, from the very beginning of their lives, those foundational principles and character virtues that underpin all true religion: “… mercy, love, fellowship, benevolence, altruism, the resplendence or radiance of divine bestowals, acquisition of the breaths of the Holy Spirit and oneness with God.” They have to know, for the sake of their own choices as an adult and so they can relate to people with varied beliefs as a child, that all of the world’s great Faiths have truth in them—and that ultimately, truth is one. Baha’is try to teach their children, in other words, to love the light rather than focusing on the lamp:
No one truth can contradict another truth. Light is good in whatsoever lamp it is burning! A rose is beautiful in whatsoever garden it may bloom! A star has the same radiance if it shines from the East or from the West. Be free from prejudice, so will you love the Sun of Truth from whatsoever point in the horizon it may arise! You will realize that if the Divine light of truth shone in Jesus Christ it also shone in Moses and in Buddha. The earnest seeker will arrive at this truth. - Abdu'l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 137.
This Baha'i principle—the recognition of the divine light of truth from all the messengers of God—can have a significant impact when taught to children:
God leaves not His children comfortless, but, when the darkness of winter overshadows them, then again He sends His Messengers, the Prophets, with a renewal of the blessed spring. The Sun of Truth appears again on the horizon of the world shining into the eyes of those who sleep, awaking them to behold the glory of a new dawn. Then again will the tree of humanity blossom and bring forth the fruit of righteousness for the healing of the nations. Because man has stopped his ears to the Voice of Truth and shut his eyes to the Sacred Light, neglecting the Law of God, for this reason has the darkness of war and tumult, unrest and misery, desolated the earth. I pray that you will all strive to bring each child of God into the radiance of the Sun of Truth, that the darkness may be dissipated by the penetrating rays of its glory, and the winter’s hardness and cold may be melted away by the merciful warmth of its shining. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, pp. 32-33.
When children begin to understand that all Faiths express truth, it frees them from developing an exclusionary mindset—and the religious prejudices, hatreds and divisions of former generations. With that knowledge of progressive revelation over the course of human history, they can remain open to the wisdom and insight in each religion, and better understand and accept the followers of every Faith. Children will also, as their knowledge and comprehension deepen over time, come to comprehend a clear, rational explanation for the proliferation of the world’s religions. When children learn that all Faiths are essentially one Faith, it opens their hearts and minds to a much larger and more mystical truth:
All humankind are as children in a school, and the Dawning-Points of Light, the Sources of divine revelation, are the teachers, wondrous and without peer. In the school of realities they educate these sons and daughters, according to teachings from God, and foster them in the bosom of grace, so that they may develop along every line, show forth the excellent gifts and blessings of the Lord, and combine human perfections; that they may advance in all aspects of human endeavour, whether outward or inward, hidden or visible, material or spiritual, until they make of this mortal world a widespread mirror, to reflect that other world which dieth not. - Abdu'l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu'l-Baha, p. 128.