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So, About Kids And Religion...

So, About Kids And Religion…

By Mir Kamin

I know that polite people (and people who don’t own fireproof suits…) are not supposed to discuss politics or religion in public, but I’ve never really been all that smart.

This week it seems like everyone is talking about a recent study showing that religious kids are “less generous” than their agnostic/atheist counterparts. Mostly I’m seeing it linked, in social media, by those who don’t consider themselves particularly religious as vindication, and proof that hey, the unchurched can still be good people—maybe even better than those who have a date with God every Sunday. Although I appreciate the sentiment, the study and some of the reactions I’ve seen to it make me uncomfortable.

Being me, I’ve been trying to figure out what’s bothering me about this. Some of it comes down to my own belief system (or lack thereof), but a lot of it comes down to feeling like my time with my nearly-grown children is dwindling and I hope I’ve raised them to be good people. (Parenting! The gift of guilt that keeps on giving! Thank goodness raising humans doesn’t feel like a monumental task, or anything.)

My own history with religion is… complicated. I was raised a mostly non-religious Jew, exploring my heritage more and more in my teens and becoming devoted to Judaism for a few years before drifting away during college. Then there was a boyfriend who was part of a very extreme church which, over time, I went from poking fun at to joining for a while. (Hey, everyone gets to be young and dumb at least once.) Again, I drifted away after a while, only to end up spending most of my adult life as a rather middle-of-the-road, church-attending Methodist. I loved my long-time church for the people and the community. The “God stuff,” for lack of a better term, was fine too, I guess, but that was not my primary drive.

When we moved to Georgia, I discovered that churches in the south are different from those up in New England that I had come to know. Why this was a surprise, I have no idea—the culture here is different, so it makes sense. Like Goldilocks, I spent our first few years here trying to find our new church home. Some were too big, some were too small. We were at one church, attending regularly, for nearly a year. Another we frequented for several months. And one by one, we visited most of the churches in our area trying to find the “right” place. In the end, we never did. And eventually we stopped looking.

Over the years the kids have asked, now and then, why we no longer go to church. Both have, at various points, gone to services with friends. Every now and then I ask my teens if they miss it, and they both say they prefer sleeping in on Sundays. One of my kids claims not to believe in God, and the other is unsure. My own answer, more often than not, to “Do you believe in God?” is “I believe in something.”

So, back to the study: I’m bothered. I know plenty of kind and generous religious people and some of those people who call themselves Christians but whose behavior seems decidedly un-Christ-like. I know lots of kids being raised without organized religion who are kind and generous, and others who aren’t. Religion can be restrictive and dogmatic, and sometimes not in good ways. A moral compass needn’t be planted in religion, but some kids are raised without one of any kind, and what then? Can this study claim a sweeping generalization? Or are we looking at some sort of correlation here (maybe the more religious kids tend to follow rules more or model more on what they’ve seen; I don’t know) that’s now being touted as causation?

It’s not the study I care about, of course. It’s my kids. A little voice in the back of my head worries that my own indecision and choices have done them a disservice, somehow. I don’t want them to head off into the world (really soon, now, too) missing something I should’ve provided. Neither do I want them to judge those who are religious. I just want them to be good, happy people. Is that so much to ask?? (Answer: Yes.)

Here’s what I know, and what I’ve tried to pass along to my kids:

  • The Golden Rule is always a good idea—treat others the way you’d like them to treat you.
  • Your first assumption about someone else’s behavior should always be that it has little or nothing to do with you specifically.
  • Miserable people are miserable to others. They need more kindness even though it feels like they deserve it less.
  • You can’t control anyone else, and you can’t control how you feel, but you can control how you act.
  • I happen to believe things happen for a reason, even if that reason isn’t clear to us for a really long time (or ever). I could be wrong, but that belief tends to bring me some comfort when things are hard.
  • Actions speak louder than words.
  • Unless you choose to go live in a cave, you are part of a community. Be an asset to that community even when it’s hard. Others will be there for you when you need them—not every time, and not always just the way you want, but in ways that will surprise you.
  • Religion is a deeply personal choice, and for some it brings out their best, and for others it brings out their worst, and you have to make your own choices. When you see others who make you think negative things about religion or a lack thereof, consider they may not be the poster child for that group (no matter what they say).
  • You always have the choice to be kind. It’s rare that you’ll regret it.

I just want my kids to be nice people. I don’t think they need religion for that, but if religion helps them, great. I’m curious to see where they end up once they’re out in the world. At the end of the day, no matter what they believe, I feel pretty confident I’ll still be proud to know them.

Published November 10, 2015. Last updated November 10, 2015.
About the Author

Mir Kamin

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now ...

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now her life looks very different than it did back then: Those little kids turned into anything-but-regular teenagers, she is remarried, and somehow she’s become one of those people who talks to her dogs in a high-pitched baby voice. Along the way she’s continued chronicling the everyday at Woulda Coulda Shoulda, plus she’s bringing you daily bargain therapy at Want Not. The good news is that Mir grew up and became a writer and she still really likes hanging out with her kids; the bad news is that her hair is a lot grayer than it used to be.

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  • Amie

    November 10, 2015 at 1:33 pm

    The actual results of the study were not that big of a deal, the headlines have been really hyperbolic. They behaved differently, yes. It did *not* say that religious kids are mean, or whatever. I think non-religious people have been bumping it so much because every day we hear that we’re not good people, not fit to run for public office, not raising good kids, because we don’t believe in God. And religious folks have been crying out against it saying it’s not good science, blah blah blah, because they feel attacked. While I don’t necessarily agree with the angry atheist approach, it makes me happy to see a headline that draws attention to the fact that there are lots of non-religious people out there and we’re good people too.

  • Nan

    November 10, 2015 at 1:51 pm

    Mir, I think you’re fantastic. I think you’re a great mom and I am so glad I’ve been able to follow you for the past ten years (ten? Is it ten? Can it really be that long?). Your posts over the years have helped me be a better parent. Pads and tampons? I’ve got that covered thanks to Mir. IEPs? Take baked goods. So many other things I could list.
    I have printed out your list because it is wonderful. These are things I want my children to know now and when they leave home. Thanks for being a great internet mentor to me.

    • Isabel Kallman

      Isabel Kallman

      November 10, 2015 at 2:41 pm


    • Mir Kamin

      November 11, 2015 at 8:51 am

      You’re too kind. I think I maybe should’ve included something in there about how we all make mistakes sometimes—certainly the list is the ideal, but we all slip on occasion, and that’s okay, too. We’re all a work in progress. 🙂

    • Amanda

      November 11, 2015 at 9:28 am

      This. Angry Atheist or not, in a lot of pockets of our great nation, if you are not of the “right” religion, then you are wrong, your raising your kids with no morals, and you’re going to tell for teaching your children about evolution and dinosaurs and that the Earth is more than 3,000 years old. It’s hard to not feel vindicated when you’re shunned at least weekly for not only not attending the “right” church, but none at all. 

  • Santa goes to the neighbors but not to us

    November 11, 2015 at 12:52 am

    The community thing and the kindness thing and pretty much everything you listed was really important to me. It’s why I stuck my children in the UU church. It gives me and my family support and community, even if sometimes I don’t know what I believe or even if they never sort it out for themselves.  They’ll have the 7 Principles which are basically what you just listed. It’s the religion for people who don’t like or never found a religion that fit. 

    And they’ll help me formulate a response when my child asks why we can’t believe in Santa for just one night that way he can swing by and drop off presents. 🙁

  • […] on this new(ish) study about kids and religion and generosity, and as usual, I have some thoughts. I’m over at Alpha Mom wondering if I’ve failed my kids, because I spend an awful lot of time wondering if I’ve failed my kids. It’s my […]

  • Caroline

    November 11, 2015 at 9:17 am

    Why do you say your one child ”claims” not to believe in god? Do you not believe him or her? I’ve had that disbelieving thing happen to me too, via my deeply religious m-I-l who, for years tried to get me to admit I am in fact not godless. Evidently I have now been given up as irretrievable ( I resist the urge to say ”thank god” for that as it seems hypocritical, if mildly amusing), but it’s something I’ve often seen; an unwillingness by those with religious faith to really accept that another person simply does not hold superstitious views in any form, that they really do believe the answers lie with science and evidence. Now, it may be true that you have seen in this particular child signs that he or she does actually have some kind of religious faith, but why repeatedly ask? Is the answer that important to you, and if it is, then do you think they might say what they think you want to hear? I must say I do love how suddenly the very religious are trying to get back-up from actual, real science to discredit the notion that they are less ”good” than their godless counterparts. Of course it must vary so much and depend on vast numbers of factors, obviously that was just a catchy headline. Still funny though! On the one hand ”those science heathens may have shared a common ancestor with the apes, but not ME NO SIR” and on the other ”science? Science!! They’re being mean, change it so they can’t be nasty anymore!”.

    • Mir Kamin

      November 11, 2015 at 9:23 am

      Caroline, I think you’re reading something into this that isn’t here. “Claim” merely means to assert or state; I meant no inference that I don’t believe this claim or that it’s false. Kid says “I don’t believe in God” and I take that claim at face value, end of story. Also I’m not clear where you’re getting that I “repeatedly ask.” Why would I do that?

      I’m comfortable with my children reaching their own conclusions in this area. Furthermore, I’m a little unclear on my own beliefs, and I think I’ve been very honest about that (both with them and here in this writing), so I’m confused about these accusations that I’m pushing an agenda or disbelieving what my kids say.

  • Brigitte

    November 11, 2015 at 9:50 am

    I always feel like I’m a total hypocrite because I’m an atheist raising my daughter in the UCC.  I don’t do it to teach her morality, however, that comes from my husband and me, and other adults she looks up to.
    I do the church-y stuff with her only to give her a background in Christianity (people here are just expected to know certain bible stories and such), plus I have had religious friends whose faith brought them strength in times of difficulty; as far as faith goes, I figure she can learn it and make her own choice.
    So shortly, to me, religion and morality are two different things, only sometimes related.

  • mar

    November 11, 2015 at 10:17 am

    I was raised a more than casual Catholic (we skipped church sometimes, we didn’t have perfect attendance at CCD, etc.), by a mom who was raised REALLY Catholic (confession every week, fish on Fridays, tithing, etc.). I embraced it as a teen (possibly because I liked to sing in the folk group Mass on Saturdays, and possibly because my then boyfriend insisted we go to church to pray for his Sunday night softball team?), but by the time I was 19 or so, I was done with organized religion. I do see how the rituals give people comfort, and without a doubt the sense of community, but being told what I should and shouldn’t believe (gay rights, abortion, etc.) just made me uncomfortable. I adopted much more of a “live and let live” philosophy that I feel has served me well. And yet …

    I do also wonder if I have done a disservice to my kids. Our family joke is that I raised them as heathens, but we have always spent a lot of time volunteering with all kinds of charitable or non-profit groups, from cancer to animal shelter to food drives to historical/natural preservation groups – giving back in a way that appeals to them has always been a constant in their lives. Even just from an educational standpoint (so many biblical story references in literature and movies!), I feel like that maybe I should have done it differently! Of course, they are now 19, 17 and 15, so that horse may be long down the road, but I keep flogging myself over it. Mother guilt – the gift that keeps on giving!!

  • Meh

    November 11, 2015 at 11:46 am

    I don’t understand going to church because of community. I’d rather go to a club or have a hobby. Otherwise it feels so hypocritical. If you believe in God, worship him. Don’t go to church because you like the company or it gives you a pleasant experience.
    Mind you, I’m personally a sort of agnostic who’s done about a decade of personal research into religion, theology, spirituality and the occult. I feel the world would be a much better place if Christians were only those who actually believe and adhere to ALL the tenets of their religion. If you don’t, you don’t have to be a part of it at all! And your children will not grow up worse off for it. Good people raise good children, regardless of faith, religion, ideology or conviction.

    • Karen.

      November 11, 2015 at 12:43 pm

      It’s hard to be Christian sometimes (er, oftener than not) when the tenet thing is discussed because frankly even we can’t agree on what all the tenets are.

    • Arnebya

      November 11, 2015 at 3:15 pm

      I do get the community aspect. I LIKE the people I go to church with (when I make it there) and I like knowing what’s happening in their lives, knowing they’re physically well, just seeing them. I disagree that one HAS to go to church for fellowship, though. It was actually posed in a sermon once and I remember bristling at the notion that one HAD to go to church to see the other people or be closer to God. I believe in something, like Mir, and sometimes I find myself talking to my something and feeling rather close to her. I have a “church home” but I’ve never felt like I belonged there, so we go less often. I worry that I haven’t given my children a church-related foundation. At the same time, what does that even mean? I went to church as a child and if I were to fall upon hard times, it would be my family to which I would turn, rather than church. If I impart that to my children, I think they’ll be fine.

  • Lucinda

    November 11, 2015 at 12:39 pm

    I live in the wildly “unchurched” west so take whatever I say with a grain of salt. 🙂 I agree with Amie that the study has been taken as a justification for non-belief despite the study not really showing any causation.  Merely an observation in one particular study.  I’m quite certain there are a myriad of variables among those children beyond religion that affected their choices.  You can design a behavioral study to prove pretty much anything if you wish.

    I grew up in the church, attended pretty regularly as a child. stopped as a young adult, started again as a new mother, and finally left the church when my kids were tweens.  I believe deeply in God.  That is pretty unshakeable.  I also believe in Science.  Equally unshakeable.  I don’t think the two conflict at all. However, when I found the churches I was attending teaching ignorance (often members didn’t really understand the Bible or the history of Christianity) and intolerance, I couldn’t raise my children in that environment. It wasn’t the God I had been raised to believe in.  Not even close.

    People with strong morals raise kids with strong morals.  In or out of the church.  In my humble opinion, church just gives clear guidelines and a sense of community for those who really do need that guideance.  The problem arises when churchgoers believe that the rest of the world also needs those same guidelines to survive in this world when in fact many people can figure it out without church.

    • Karen.

      November 11, 2015 at 12:50 pm

      It disturbs me that many Christians see a conflict between belief and science. Like you, I don’t, either.

      Furthermore, I am A-OK with teaching my kids that Earth is millions of years old even as the pastor tells them some kind of calculation that’s less than 10,000 years. I can disagree. Simultaneously, I don’t really care how old the Earth is. It’s taken a long time to be able to reconcile my disbelief with my belief, but I’m OK with that.

  • Kim

    November 11, 2015 at 1:38 pm

    We’re a secular family, and I will admit to enjoying a smug reaction to the study.  I did my best to confine it to other like minded folks, though, because that’s just polite.
    But you know, I’ve been hearing about the damn cups all week, and not a day goes by without mulltiple Christian posts in my newsfeed, and I had a major falling out with my neighbor this year because she freaked out over the fact that I share my secular values with my children, so yeah.  I’m going to enjoy my smugness, I’m going to go ahead and wallow in it  – quietly- right now.
    OTOH, I commented on a Momastery post yesterday, thanking her for recognizing that organized religion is not a prerequisite for being a loing, generous person, and it’s gotten almost a hundred likes so far.  We are out there.

  • Sarah

    November 11, 2015 at 2:40 pm

    This column is really timely for us – we recently attended church with my brother, and I suddenly realized that I’ve taught my three year old son very little about God or religion. I grew up in a conservative Christian church/community in the south; my husband was raised in agnostic European household. I really identify with Mir’s mixed feelings and thoughts around religion, morality, church, etc. And while I expect my children to learn the prevailing scientific theories of the day – hello, evolution – I don’t view faith and science as mutually exclusive, nor do I think science holds all the answers.

    Also, I love Brigitte’s comment about how there is an expectation that people will know Biblical and religious traditions; here in Texas, I definitely think that is the case. Also I want my kids to feel comfortable in church if they go with their cousins, grandparents or friends – and also comfortable exploring their own ideas about God, faith and morality whether I’m around or not.

    I would love some resources to help younger kids with these ideas. My favorite picture book in this area so far is I Wonder by Annaka Harris. Any other ideas?

  • diane

    November 11, 2015 at 3:19 pm

    I’m not a parent, but I could relate to quite a bit of this as an adult.  Growing up, my parents had turned their back on the Catholic church and I felt a little weird about the fact we never went to church. All of my friends did in our small town in Ohio, so what was wrong with us?
    Like you, I had various adventures over time and sort of ultimately landed on “I think there is something bigger than us, but I don’t know what that looks like.”
    At some point in my childhood my Dad said, “I don’t know if there is a God, or what he is, but I think if you’re nice to other people you’ll be fine.” And that pretty much sums up where I landed.
    (I like to think I’m a good and kind person)
    I actually think it was a blessing (pun intended) that I didn’t have a strict religous upbringing.  I didn’t rebel, and I found my own path, which I think is the very best thing a young person can do. 

  • My Kids Mom

    November 11, 2015 at 4:59 pm

    A Unitarian Universalist minister I heard once discussed how to talk to kids about your faith without making them feel like they have to comply. He suggested saying, “Our family believes x, but when you’re older you might have different ideas, and that’s ok.” It gives them some structure, which I never had as a kid, but keeps the door open.

  • Chuck

    November 12, 2015 at 8:46 pm

    I’ve been a member of a Universal Unitarian church for a bit over a year now, but I don’t feel like I’m getting much from it. Thinking about leaving, although I do admire a lot of what they do and what they believe. Perhaps I should give it a bit more effort before leaving…I haven’t decided yet. I agree though that you can be a good and satisfied person and a good parent/example to your kids without being a churchgoer.