The very title of this little essay is an absurdity. You don’t teach kids how to be religious, because they already are religious. At least they’re more or less religious, depending on their personalities:– some of them are already quite advanced religiously by the time they’re seven, while others (as the philosopher Richard Rorty admits of himself) are “religiously tone-deaf.”
Absurdity though it may be, I’m forced to talk about how to teach kids to be religious because my denomination, and much of institutionalized religion generally, believes that that’s what you do. My denomination, the Unitarian Universalist Association, has a department called “Lifespan Faith Development.” They want to “develop” kids, just like real estate developers “develop” old farms or woodlots or deserts into housing developments and shopping malls, because houses and malls are the “highest and best use” of the land.
“Lifespan Faith Development” has another fatal flaw:– it uses the term “faith development” as an integral part of its name. “Faith development” was conjured up by James Fowler, and still has a following amongst older male psychologists who began their careers when Fowler first published his book and who still try to do research on how faith develops, psychologically speaking. Problem is, Fowler never adequately defined what he meant by “faith.” To make matters worse, his model posits a highest stage of faith development for which his research found only one representative person; hardly an adequate sample size on which to base an adequate theory.
Still worse, Fowler basically reduces “faith development” to cognitive (and maybe affective) development, ignoring such things as the transcendental experiences which burst in on you unannounced changing you forever in a discontinuous fashion that has nothing to do with his orderly linear “faith development”; ignoring such things as certain slow dragging years of no transcendence which can suck all religion out of you if you’re not careful. But if you really want to know about why faith development doesn’t work, you can read Gabriel Moran’s essays on the topic.
Worst of all, I believe the term “lifespan faith development” allows us to delegate teaching kids to someone else in our religious communities. “Lifespan faith development” implies that you have to know some arcane theories about “faith development” in order to teach kids. “Lifespan faith development” means you should rely on the experts to set up scientific programs for teaching kids. That term allows us to abdicate our responsibility to our children.
Yet it is you and I, not some expert, who teach children how to be religious. And we do teach children how to be religious, regardless of the theory we espouse. Or rather, we don’t teach them how to be religious, we teach them how to handle the religion they already have. We do that in a way that flies in the face of typical Western understandings of the psychological underpinnings of religion, and persons, and faith.