Losing Our Religion?
Even though America as a whole seems to be distancing itself from organized religion, the desire to connect with “something greater” remains strong
by Bob Craig

Like any good mother, Marie Youngblood would do anything to make sure her children—three of her own, as well as four stepchildren—are safe, happy and on a path to becoming honest, hard-working adults. Given that she is an ordained minister, it should come as no surprise that such aegis extends to matters of personal faith.

“I told my 5-year-old not to play in the road,” she says. “Why? Because I’m smart enough to know that if he does, the risk of him being hit and killed is far greater than if he stays in our yard. Play within the boundaries I set up for you. If we apply that to religion, there is not one [5-year-old] with a maturity level and thought process to make that decision for themselves.”

When it comes to looking for answers to the “big question,” people such as Youngblood believe it is vital for parents to guide their children by sharing their own religious beliefs. Reason is, their religion of choice, they suggest, provides a structure for decision making, forges a connection with something bigger and more important than oneself, and/or equips them with a moral compass. Not everyone agrees, however, as an increasing number of Americans seem to be distancing themselves from organized religion, perhaps in part because of crimes committed in the name of Christianity, Islam, Judaism or some other brand of faith.

More than three in four of Americans—77 percent of those asked—say religion is losing its influence in the United States, according to a Gallup poll of more than 1,500 people from May of this year. This represents the highest such percentage in more than 40 years, though 20 percent of those asked say religion’s influence is actually increasing. Furthermore, according to the same poll, 75 percent of Americans suggest the country would be better off if it was more religious.

Even if the country as a whole is losing its religion, so to speak, Americans have not walked away from what they might describe, instead, as their spirituality, their faith or, more simply, their connection to an entity some would call “God.” In other words, America is not necessarily becoming a nation of atheists.

‘Things Have Changed’
In the mid-1900s, Christianity and Judaism were the dominant religions, and most families followed the faith practiced by their families. Several trends—the widening prevalence of interfaith marriages, an enhanced desire to learn about world views, and a need to connect with God on more individualized terms, for example—have worked to open many doors through which previous generations were unwilling to walk. Today, approximately 20 major religions are practiced worldwide, including in the United States, according to the World Christian Database. Those major religions are subdivided into more than 270 large religious groups, as well as countless splinter groups.

“Things have changed so much,” says John Backman, an associate of an Episcopal monastery and regular contributor to Huffington Post Religion on matters of faith. “People are so much more aware of the world, aware of the vast spectrum of religious and spiritual expressions.”

The shifting landscape presents both challenges and opportunities to today’s parents, as they must make tough decisions about whether or not to pass their own beliefs—or lack thereof—onto their children. Backman, for his part, suggests spirituality in a family setting is fundamental but by no means an obligation. He also believes that encouraging spirituality and expressing one’s faith as a family unit adds richness and complexity to their lives and also makes them more compassionate.

“Exploring [religion] with your child may connect you with a spirituality that resonates with you,” Backman says. “It adds depth to your own life. … Exposing children to religion gives them an opportunity to discover what is at their core—what motivates them and what their thoughts are about the big question. Spirituality has such a rich tradition of offering ways of exploring those questions, not answering them. When we expose children to those things and give them opportunities to explore, then I think it gives them the opportunity to explore more of what it means to be human.

“Spirituality is part of the human experience,” he continues. “If one of our goals in parenting is to bring our kids up to be successful, productive, fruitful human beings, then I think that is part of them that we want to help cultivate. In today’s world, that’s important. Does it have to be organized religion? No, I don’t think it does.”

By encouraging children to understand the universe through their faith, parents might gain a fresh perspective on their own spirituality. Such an experience certainly influenced Edie Weinstein, a resident of Bucks County’s Dublin borough, who grew up in a conservative Jewish household in which her parents taught her that “religion can offer a social conscience,” she says. “It’s not enough to sit in a church and pray if you’re not going to take it out the door. My parents were active volunteers and they volunteered until they died. They taught me to be of service, to offer because you can.”

Today, Weinstein is an interfaith minister, social worker, writer and educator, and she is also a perfect example of how one’s faith evolves through time and life experience. After years of practicing Jewish faith traditions, she married a man of Christian faith, whose upbringing she describes as “run-of-the-mill vanilla Protestant.” Following their marriage, the Weinsteins adopted a son—now 26 years old—and have provided him with what she calls “the best of both worlds.”

“He celebrated both holidays,” she says. “For us it was more cultural than religious. [My son] and I have spiritual conversations a lot. I tell him he can practice however he wants; I just want him to be a good person. He says he doesn’t follow a particular religious practice. That’s OK with me. I don’t think it has to be any particular religion. It’s the responsibility of the parent to provide the framework to practice good morals and values.

“Spirituality is about a direct connection,” she continues. “I don’t have the right to tell people what to believe. There are religious traditions that say ‘my way or the highway.’ I don’t believe that in my own spiritual practice. … The difference is that religion is a box and spirituality is what you put in it.”

Ask Youngblood, and she will say that sharing one’s faith with a child is not only a parental obligation but also a privilege. More importantly, she believes, it also creates stronger bonds among family members.

“It gives an anchor to the family, boundaries and morality that I don’t think you’ll find without it,” Youngblood says. “Nobody can teach your child in the way that you can teach them. I think the main thing is that a family needs a central belief system, whatever it may be, for the family to enjoy. It gives the family a sense of togetherness that they can’t get anywhere else.

“I believe in what I believe because I think it’s true and right and good. Why would I withhold that from my child?”