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Throughout the months before our daughter was born, my husband and I shared the wild emotional roller- coaster ride that comes with creating a new life. I could talk to him about every doubt and dream, every ache and anxiety — everything, that is, except religion. I was newly overtaken by some strong feelings of connection to my tradition and faith, and he felt none of it. Although Burt, too, is Jewish, religion was not part of his agenda, and he felt betrayed by my newfound earnestness.
We weren’t unique. Whether yours is a same- or interfaith marriage, religion can be the most difficult issue a couple faces, and it typically doesn’t come up until a child is born. “If there were no children, 90 percent of the arguments and disagreements in interfaith relationships would disappear,” writes Los Angeles Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben in his book But How Will You Raise the Children: A Guide to Interfaith Marriage (Pocket Books, 1987). “Children bring out the sense of tradition in us all; they stir our ancient longings for immortality and remind us that we are part of a chain of humanity stretching back through eons of time. … It can be hard to realize that our partner may have very different ideas as to the childhood memories he or she wants to share with the same child.”
As in my own marriage, even parents from the same religious tradition may face new and uncertain terrain. Laurie and Dave, who were both raised Protestant but in different denominations, found themselves in the minister’s study only weeks before their baby was born. The minister asked them questions such as these: Do you both believe in God? Do you want a religious education for your children? Do either of you want to carry on your family tradition or prefer to experiment with others?
The questions he asked helped Laurie and Dave realize that while their backgrounds were different, they shared a desire for a relaxed but committed spiritual life. Like Burt and me, they learned that if a husband and wife can talk candidly and show open-mindedness and a willingness to compromise, these sensitive issues can be resolved without coming to blows.
Is religion necessary?
While conflicts over which religion will prevail are common, many new parents want to know if it is possible to raise a child to become a good, moral person outside of the framework of any formal religion. The answer is yes — if you work at it. Social psychiatrist Robert Coles, M.D., Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Spiritual Life of Children (Houghton Mifflin, 1991), found that atheistic and agnostic parents often raise children who are “morally decent and spiritually reflective.” The key, he says, is to create powerful moral traditions. But this may be difficult to accomplish alone.
Hillary Rodham Clinton was right: It really does take a village to raise a child, and religion can provide this village. Traditions such as attending worship services, sharing holiday meals and giving to charity often provide the glue that cements family stability, which is why so many new parents go back to the faiths they were raised in when they have children of their own. Others move on, shopping for beliefs or mixing religious customs.
Many families who lack religious traditions of their own eventually send their children to synagogue- or church-run preschools, so the family gains a religious structure by default. Lorene Surges, day-care director at Trinity Lutheran Church Preschool, Daycare and Kindergarten Center in West Chicago, notes that about 50 percent of her children come from families with no stated religious affiliation.