I finally gave up Christianity when I was 15,” wrote the famous atheist Richard Dawkins in Outgrowing God: A Beginner’s Guide. Dawkins hoped to reach the rising generation of kids with the good news that they don’t need religion. In the decades since the New Atheist movement launched, you might think this was the only message sounding from the academic world. But this is simply not the case.
Religious belief was supposed to decline as modernization swept the world. But it hasn’t. Being a world-class academic and a serious, orthodox Christian was supposed to be increasingly untenable. But it isn’t. Giving up on religion was supposed to make people happier, healthier, and more moral. But it doesn’t. In fact, even Dawkins has had to acknowledge (grudgingly) the evidence that people who believe in God seem to behave better than those who don’t.
Broadly speaking, religious belief and practice seems to be good for society—and good for kids. Writing in The Wall Street Journal in 2019, therapist Erica Komisar gave this provocative advice: “Don’t believe in God? Lie to your children.”
Komisar was not shooting in the dark. There is growing evidence that regular religious practice is measurably good for the health, happiness, and pro-social behavior of our kids. In a recent study, the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health found that it contributes to a wide range of health and well-being outcomes later in life. Of course, none of this means that belief in God is right, or that Christianity is true. It should, however, give us pause before assuming our kids are better off without religion.
If this data is challenging for nonreligious parents, then declining interest in religion (at least in the West) is worrying for believers. Just as evidence for the benefits of religious upbringing is mounting, cultural tides are pulling kids away from religious moorings. So what are parents, grandparents, and carers on all sides of these great debates to do?
Whatever our beliefs about God, there are some things on which I’m sure we agree: We all want our kids to be happy, healthy, purpose-filled, and good. Few of us would want to lie to our kids, especially about our deepest beliefs. We want them to know the truth. But we also want to protect them from plausible-sounding lies. Deep down we know there’s a tension: To keep our kids truly safe in the long run, we must let them risk-take now. We know this when it comes to practical skills. Babies won’t learn to walk unless we let them fall. Children won’t learn to ride a bike unless we let them risk a tumble or two. Teenagers who weren’t trusted with a bike won’t be ready for a car.
So how does this translate to the realm of ideas? For some parents, protecting their kids from dangerous ideas feels like a must. I’ve heard this both from Christians who don’t want their kids exposed to atheism and from atheists who don’t want their kids exposed to Christianity. I’ve even heard it from parents who think they are very open-mindedly encouraging their kids to explore different religious traditions. For these folks, the really dangerous idea is that one of these religions might actually be true. Many of us who are now in the thick of parenting were raised with the idea that questioning someone’s religious beliefs was arrogant, offensive, and wrong.
I want to offer a different approach. Rather than protecting my kids from divergent ideas, or urging them to affirm all beliefs equally, I want to equip them to have real conversations with real people who really think differently from them—and from me. I want them to learn how to listen well and how to question what they hear. If what I believe is true, it will stand up to scrutiny.
The Christian faith sprang up in a world violently hostile to its claims. But rather than extinguishing the small spark of the early church, the winds of opposition gave it oxygen to spread. I don’t want my kids believing in Jesus just because I say so, or just because it’s the largest and most diverse religion in the world, or just because going to church makes you happier, healthier, and more generous to others. I want them to see Jesus for themselves and to believe that what he says about himself is true.
Content adapted from 10 Questions Every Teen Should Ask (and Answer) about Christianity by Rebecca McLaughlin. Copyright © 2021. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187. www.crossway.org.
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