What I Told My Children About Religion

When I became a father, I knew that I would one day become responsible for my children’s spiritual education.

This was a problem.

I’d been raised Lutheran. I came of age during the 1950s and 1960s. My parents were kind, fun-loving, and naturally compassionate.

But their religion was the opposite. It was soul-crushing and life-denying.

Lutheranism taught me the doctrine of original sin. It taught me that human beings are born intrinsically flawed.

It taught me that the default setting for a new human being is to be condemned to hell, and that the only refuge is immediate baptism and eventually confirmation.

Hovering between shame and guilt: What good can ever come of that?

I remember when my daughter Missy was born, in 1983. I stood at the glass window to the infant warming room in Fairview Riverside Hospital in Minneapolis.

There were maybe 30 babies in there, including Missy, all lovingly arranged in cribs in a temperature-controlled room.

I stood there, staring — sleep-deprived, wide-eyed, with a heart as big as the sun.

I looked at all of those babies — tiny, wrinkled, perfect, holy — and thought: The religion that I was raised with says that at this moment all of these babies are condemned.

If — God forbid — one of them died, they would go straight to Hell.

And then I thought: How absurd it was that I ever believed that, or that I was ever taught that.

It was then — at that very moment — that I promised myself that I would never teach my children anything that was ugly, mean, or stupid.

Little did I know how difficult this would prove to be.

Fast forward to a decade later.

Okay, I thought. My children, both of them, are now standing well above my waist.

We have this whole matter of religion. I need to say something about this.

I have no idea what to say.

Maybe we could go to go to church.

Okay! Let’s go to church!

Let’s delegate this whole matter of religion to someone else who is willing to talk about it. Because I am definitely not comfortable talking about it.

The question is: Which church? Oy, there are so many!

So we sampled churches.

We started with Unitarian Universalist churches. As it turns out, this was a huge mistake.

There’s an old joke: What do you get when you cross a Unitarian with a Jehova’s Witness?

Answer: You get a person who goes knocking from door to door with nothing in particular to say.

My actual experience was that Unitarian Universalist church services consisted of marking time until after the service when everybody got to go to the social hour and drink coffee and eat pastries.

If they had told me at the beginning at that this was a religion founded on coffee and pastries, I would have respected that as being honest. After all, food is grounded in reality — bodily sensation, pure pleasure. Pure Zen.

But of course, the Unitarians did not do that. They made large claims about being “a liberal religion characterized by a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”

Translation: Coffee and pastries.

You can’t raise your children on that.

So, we left the Unitarian Churches and went to a Baptist Church. I had concerns about this, but the church was near the University of Minnesota and had a lesbian minister. So it must be okay, right?

We forced our children to attend some Sunday school classes at the Baptist church, and I went to religious education classes for adults during that time.

And do you know what our first reading assignment was? Chapter 1 of Acts of the Apostles. This is from the most deadly part of the New Testament (almost everything after the four gospels, which are juicy and contradictory).

Yikes! I thought. I’d come full circle. From cruel Christianity to boring Christianity.

There has to be a better way than this.

So, we gave up on churches altogether.

Joanne and I decided to just do yoga and meditation with the kids on Sunday morning. We bought four yoga mats and built an addition to our house. We did yoga in that room followed by a short sitting meditation.

Here — finally —was something that worked.

My kids still talk about it to this day. I am convinced that our homely Sunday morning sessions made a difference to them.

Would they have gotten more from church services and Sunday school? Maybe, but I doubt it.

So, this is what I recommend to you: Teach your kids to do a little yoga. This grounds spirituality in movement, which makes it real. Then follow up with the intimacy of shared silence.

Most of all, practice what you preach. Kids learn wisdom and compassion from what they observe, which is what you actually do in daily life.

No scripture can match the power of setting an example. And if there’s any contradiction between what you say and what you do, you can count on one fact: Your kids will tell you about it.

This is what surprised me, and the biggest lesson of all: I worried so much about finding a spiritual teacher for my kids. And in the end they became my teachers.

P.S. For extra credit, get a recording of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. Play it a hundred times for your kids, and turn it up loud.

Coltrane was a saint who lived among us, and when you hear this recording for the 101st time, it will open up to you like the four gospels.