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.
“Often these families tell me they’re confused about religion or want their children to be able to pick their religion for themselves,” Surges says. “But children like some direction. By the time they’re 16 and don’t belong anywhere, many of them come back to me seeking that direction.”
Facing the Big Questions
The issue doesn’t go away. Instead, the older the child becomes, the more critical it becomes, because while you and your spouse may not formally ascribe to any religious beliefs, your children will have friends whose families do. Your kids may spend their weekends going to others’ first Communions or bar mitzvahs but have nothing to share and celebrate for themselves.
The problem here is that, as Coles points out, children have rich spiritual lives that are filled with questions about God, life and death, and the afterlife. If you decide to observe no organized religion in your family, you’ll need to have answers anyway. “Avoidance [of the big questions] is like a time bomb slowly ticking away,” Reuben says. “You never know when it will explode in your face.”
Before our daughter was born, my husband and I assumed we agreed on everything without discussion. But we learned that we had a lot of talking to do, and eventually we reached an accommodation on our own. Burt, it turned out, would participate in any holiday as long as it culminated in a big family meal. There are plenty of those in Judaism, so we were fine. I came to respect the fact that his spiritual needs were, simply, different from mine. Through emphasizing what we agreed on and allowing for honest differences of belief, we were able to give our daughter not only a religious structure she could choose to keep or reject later but also what every child needs most: a happy home.