I did not grow up in church. That surprises people who have only known me as an involved Catholic, but it’s true. My mom’s side is the Catholic side of the family, and they’re only occasional churchgoers. My dad’s side is mostly non-churchgoing, and they’re not Catholic. When I go home for Christmas, I go to church alone.
I received my Sacraments of Initiation on the typical schedule, for which I am grateful. Even though my parents didn’t go to church, they made me go to CCD. When they had more children and we got older, we went to Mass, too. The years preceding Confirmation (when we were going to Mass every week) kick-started my faith into the life I live now. I got to experience what being a Catholic was actually like, and that turned out to be something I wanted.
I say all this to make a point: even when you don’t force children to follow any particular religious path, they have to make up their minds eventually, and they’re going to need a foundation to start from. I lived it. I saw it multiple times when I was teaching RCIA. And I read it, supported by argumentation, in the First Things essay by Jason Stubblefield, “Should Children Make Up Their Own Minds About Religion?”
Stubblefield, a United Methodist pastor and new father, acknowledges that for Americans especially, freedom of choice is paramount. If you can’t make your own decisions, you’re a robot or a slave. Our country was founded on the idea that when you don’t like what someone is telling you to do, you do what you want and fight to keep it that way. It makes sense to think that something as personal and worldview-altering as religion should be the kind of thing we let our children freely choose.
That’s not what happens, though, even in homes where “parents try to foster curiosity in their children about any and all religions” or don’t expose them to religion at all. We’re not born with some kind of unprogrammed religion organ that will stay nonreligious or grow into whatever religion our parents pick for us. We learn how to learn, how to reason, and how to seek truth.
As Stubblefield writes, “people learn to reason by a process of initiation—by living within the practices and beliefs of [Christianity, Buddhism, or the sciences]. It is only after they have learned the grammar of a particular tradition that they are able to begin reasoning within it.” Thus, we can only decide if we believe something to be true if we know what it is that we’re evaluating for truth. You can’t decide that Christianity is not for you if you don’t know anything about Christianity or what it means to live as a Christian. Yet parents who don’t “force” religion on their kids have put them in that exact space.
Furthermore, deciding to let your children “make up their own minds about religion” is, in fact, deciding for them. What have you decided for yourself about religion? Consider the options:
If you practice any religion, you’re giving your kids an example of religion. (Good job!) Whether you force them to participate in it (the same way you force them to brush their teeth and to answer to the name you picked out), they will almost inevitably start their religious quest with yours. They know it, so now they can leave it. Or they can embrace it for themselves. Or they can identify exactly what they don’t want in a religion. At least they have something to accept or reject.
If you don’t practice any religion (atheism and agnosticism included), you’re setting an example that shows that having no religion is both possible and good (or possible and bad, depending on your life). This includes parents who haven’t made up their own minds. However, it’s likely that you have experience with at least one religion (or with atheism or agnosticism). Children raised by non-religious parents at least have a framework of non-belief. Children raised by undecided parents are probably not going to make religious decisions, either.
Confused? Imagine what that’s like for a ten-year-old! Why do so many people think “let them make up their own minds” is a good parenting plan?
Catholicism, like pretty much every religion, insists that parents raise their children as Catholics. Doing a poor job of it is better than not trying at all. Without a foundation for religious reasoning, each child becomes his or her own arbiter of truth. That’s a big job. By not deciding for them, you’ve already decided. Why not make a decision that gives them knowledge, a framework for reason, and perhaps even a little grace?