Teaching kids how to be religious

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.

To be continued…

8 thoughts on “Teaching kids how to be religious

  1. UU Jester

    Reminds me of one of my least favorite questions, “How do you talk to children?”

    As if it were something that required special skills and techniques.

    I usually just talk to them.

  2. Jewelia

    I haven\’t read your blog in awhile, but found some time to do so recently. I\’m listening to Ken Wilbur\’s \”Kosmic Consciousness\” cd\’s, where he discusses his \”Integral Theory\”. Anyhow, on the cd I just recently listened to, he mentioned both Fowler and Gilligan. Part of his theory investigates stages of human consciousness and evolution. It was interesting to see your most recent entry mentioned Fowler, and mentioned him in a critical way. Your blog entry provided some balance to my perspective, especially as I\’m still trying to form an opinion about Ken Wilbur and his stuff.

  3. h sofia

    Waiting for the rest ….
    I’m not familiar with LFD, but certainly I learned how to be religious from my family, years of islamic sunday school notwithstanding.

  4. Administrator

    Jewelia — There will be more on developmentalism in later entries in this series. However, I should say that I am generally sceptical of developmental theories that posit a highest and best end state. Evolutionary biology doesn’t necessarily imply a highest and best state; rather, evolutionary biology posits increasing complexity, and it shows how organisms evolve to meet new conditions in an ecosystem. That’s quite different from saying that human consciousness is somehow the pinnacle of a linear evolutionary development. Wilbur seems to think we are some kind of pinnacle, but I don’t buy his theory — it sounds too much like “We human beings are so cool because we think we are so cool” — a little too tautological for my tastes.

    ms. m — Sorry, not the manifesto, just a manifesto. But it might serve as the groundwork for the manifesto, if you want to write it.

  5. Christine Robinson

    As far as I can tell, the curriculum put out by the “Lifespan Faith Development” folks are mostly a very light religious education. (learning about religion) A little bit about the famous people of our tradition. A little bit about Buddhism. A little bit about Christian holidays. A huge amount of sex education. A lot about living one’s values in the world, the only kind of spiritual practice we feel safe sharing with our kids. Our kids can answer every question anybody ever needed to ask about sex by the time they are 16, but they won’t know a prayer when they pray it.

    Here’s a sad commentary on “Lifespan Faith Development.” Our teen group (mostly kids who’ve been with us for years, if not their whole lives) was meeting one evening and some “friends of friends” crashed the party. Their behavior was disturbing to some of the kids, and they huddled with an advisor about what to do. The advisor suggested that they drive off the interlopers by “doing something religious.” (any number of things to cringe about there). But the kids didn’t know of anything religious they could do without it being a parody which would make them giggle and fail at their chosen goal.

    I hang my head in shame. It’s a good thing we don’t “develop” our kid’s faith; there would be no hope for them at all.

  6. Pingback: Unitarians and James Fowler at Making Chutney

  7. Jean

    Lifespan Faith Development? Oh my. I really hate to say this, but oh what the heck, I will: here in the
    bible belt we have a lot of storefront churches, or “nondemoninational christian” churches as they like to call themselves.
    They often have long odd names, names which seem to have been created by committees, or someone with an agenda,
    or a philosophy, or way too much time on their hands. Names like Lighthouse Assembly of God.
    Church of the Open Door. Rock Solid Ministries. And my personal favorite: Endtime. Call it like you see it, I guess.
    Anyway — maybe UU’s could set up shop out here, hang out a shingle with Lifespan Faith Development in big gold
    letters. See what happens. You never know.

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