Teaching kids how to be religious, part nine

Part one: Link

I began this essay by saying that the very title of this little essay is an absurdity, because you don’t teach kids how to be religious, because they already are religious. Yet at the same time we all know that we do indeed have to teach kids how to be religious. They may be inherently religious, but we know that we also have to teach them how to be religious. I think I can be a little more precise in that statement: Children, all persons, are inherently religious; but children, and all persons, can only be fully religious within community.

To say this flies in the face of common beliefs in the West, particularly in the United States. Here in the United States, we trumpet our idea that each human being is an individual unto himself or herself; we proclaim that like the cowboy gunslingers of our national mythos we can only rely on ourselves; we say that like the free-market economics which motivate us that individuals, not families or communities, are the primary unit of our society.

Here in the United States, religious education has been reduced to developmental psychology; it has been reduced to “lifespan faith development.” In this reductionist model, we have one primary method for teaching children how to be religious: we separate them by age, and teach them from a curriculum based on their “developmental stage.” We have become extreme followers of Jean Piaget, assuming that children are like little scientists who figure everything out on their own; and if they fail to live up to our expectations, we label them “developmentally delayed” and imply they are somehow less than fully human.

I find it sadly ironic that religious liberals bemoan the evils of development — housing developments that drive out family farms, economic development overseas that kills off local economies, etc. — while in our own congregations we “develop” our children. No wonder our children do not return to our congregations when they get older:– the contradiction is too much to stomach.

Years ago, John Westerhoff asked the question, “will our children have faith?” in his book by that name. Today, we have not yet learned how to teach our kids to be religious, and we are still asking that same question. If we are going to answer that question, we have to get beyond our limited, reductionistic models and methods for teaching kids to be religious.

And when I say “we,” I mean you and me:– not denominational officials, not ministers or professional religious educators, not parents, but everyone who considers herself or himself a person of faith. We have to abandon our overly individualistic notions of what it means to be religious, acknowledging that religion has to take place in a community that includes human beings and the transcendent (and probably other living beings too, but that’s a topic for another essay). When you say, “I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual, and that’s why I don’t go to church [or to temple, or whatever]”, you are being overly individualistic, you are maintaining an attitude that will diminish the human community that nurtures individuals into faith, and therefore you are indirectly but in a very real sense preventing children from learning how to be religious — to be blunt, you are being selfish and you are killing religion. You and I cannot delegate the teaching of religion to someone else, hiding behind the insights of psychology in order to do so:– “Children learn best in Sunday school classes, taught by paid teachers, so I don’t need to get involved.” The very fact that you and I are religious (or spiritual, if you prefer that term) means that we are teachers of religion, and we had better shoulder that responsibility.

Teaching kids to be religious is a complex task, one that cannot be reduced to one sentence. Yet when we look at how and why we are failing our children, maybe we can sum that up in one sentence: We are not taking responsibility, as a whole community, for our children. Fortunately, you can change that situation: show up, take responsibility, learn how to teach our kids to be religious.

End of series

13 thoughts on “Teaching kids how to be religious, part nine

  1. Jess

    I tell you what, it’s a GOOD thing when you tell it like it is, Dan Harper. This has been a fantastic series – lots to ruminate over. I hope you put it all on one page (or a linked series of pages) for future reference.

    Thank you.

  2. Jean

    I suppose it’s the English professor in me, but as much as I too have enjoyed this series, I am
    left with a persistent, unanswered question: what exactly is “religious”? It you were my
    student, which you’re not…you’re my brother, lucky you, I’d say a lot of nice things about your essay, but
    I would hand it back to you and say, Dan, there’s a hole in this, a rather large one, and I think
    it needs to be filled. A defintion is in order. So, what is the definition(s) of “religious”?

  3. Administrator

    Jean — You actually hit on a key issue for anyone thinking about religious education these days. To attempt an answer of your question, I’ll have to start with some history, some wider context, and then talk a little about the current state of the field of religious education. Then maybe I can give an attempt at an answer. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to make this a short essay, so you’re going to have to wade through a lot of theory and background to get to your answer.

    History first. It’s important to realize that fifty years ago, “religious education” in the Unitarian Universalist tradition meant an emphasis on general religious studies, as opposed to introducing children to their own religious tradition. Many of us believe that this caused most Unitarian Universalist children in that generation to know more about other people’s religions than their own religion. We also believe this is correlated with the fact that about 90% of those who were raised as Unitarian Universalists in that era drifted away and stopped going to church.

    Context next. The phrase “religious education” is generally specific to a fairly narrow subset of religious traditions — the phrase is used primarily in the mainline Protestant Christian community, liberal Judaism, and to a certain extent the liberal Muslim community, all in English-speaking North America. In English-speaking North America, religious education does not (for the most part) take place in the schools, with the exception of religiously-based private schools. Therefore, religious education is education that takes place within congregations of those faith traditions mentioned earlier. For the most part, then, religious education is education meant to educate young people from within the framework of their congregation’s religious tradition.

    All this in distinction to religious education within, say, Great Britain, where religious education is a part of the national curriculum taught in state-funded schools, where there is a state religion, and where “religious” in “religious education” means a general academic introduction to the academic discipline of religious studies with a definite bias towards privileging the state religion.

    So generally speaking, “religious” in the sense I mean it as used in the context of the phrase “religious education” means the religious tradition of the congregation in which religious education takes place, where that religious tradition is also placed in context of other religions and religious traditions in the world.

    Current state of the field next. Within the academic field that is still called “religious education,” the term “religious education” is in the process of evolving. The premier academic journal in the field used to be called Religious Education — but a few years ago, a subtitle was added: A journal of spiritual growth and transformation. The simple term “religious education” is now seen by the premier academic journal as being inadequate to describe the field.

    The definition “religious” in the phrase “religious education” is being hotly contested right now within my tradition, Unitarian Universalism. A few years ago, denominational officials dropped the term in favor of “Lifespan Faith Development.” Of course, “faith development” raises its own problematics. For example, with “religious education” there’s a whole body of academic scholarship that carefully lays out various definitions for the word “religious” — but for “faith development,” the only body of scholarly work derives from James Fowler’s very questionable book on the topic, wherein he basically defines “faith” as cognitive (and maybe affective) learnings about religion — thus leaving out huge chunks of religion like the social aspect, direct experience of “God” or “the divine”, etc.

    Now an attempt at answering your question: How am I defining “religious” in “religious education”? I intend “religious education” to mean educating young people from within the framework of their local congregation’s religious tradition. I intend “religious” to include general (cognitive) knowledge of religious studies, and much more broadly a range of other kinds of knowledge.

    To talk about the range of other kinds of knowledge, I have to digress for a moment. Educational theorist Howard Gardner has developed a model for intelligence that recognizes several different kinds of intelligences, rather than the one kind of intelligence tested for on an IQ test. Gardner has based his work in the structure of the brain, and also in direct work done with children (he has been particularly involved in preschool education). Gardner has identified at least eight kinds of intelligence: interpersonal, intrapersonal, logical-mathematical, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, verbal-linguistic, spatial, naturalist. Since “religious education” was originally seen as primarily cognitive (logical-mathematical and verbal-linguistic in Gardner’s model), and since “faith development” emphasizes the cognitive, Gardener’s theory challenges the presuppositions of both terms.

    A further digression: in the Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle identified four kinds of knowing: nous, a kind of direct intuition; techne, or practical knowing with respect to action; episteme or theoretical knowing with respect what is true; and phronesis, sometimes translated as wisdom, sagacity, practical reason, or moral discernment (phronesis is something that comes with age and experience).

    To return to the definition of “religious” within “religious education”: beyond mere cognitive knowledge about religion, I want religious education to also be education of intrapersonal, interpersonal, bodily-kinesthetic, musical (and maybe more) knowing. Or, in Aristotelian terms, I don’t just want episteme, a theoretical knowing that need not result in action; I also want nous, techne, and phronesis — especially this last.

    “Religious” then implies more than an academic understanding of the phenomenon of religion: it is religion itself, as it is experienced, lived, struggled through. It is not religion at a remove, as contained in curriculum books, or as contained in a classroom; it is life itself.

    Hope that helps explain what I mean by “religious.”

  4. Tracy Duncan

    Didn’t get to finish that last comment–got cut off. Anyway, I was saying I copied your penultimate sentence–it’s so dead-on.
    Hearkens back to Sophia Fahs “Life becomes religious whenever we make it so.” I’d love to hear more of why you think we can
    only truly be religious beings in community. While I appreciate your “tell it like it is” attitude, I don’t think that
    telling folks (a lot of dads in our congregation, unfortunately)that they’re being selfish by doing their own
    spiritual “thing” will get them wanting to join our faith community. What are the compelling positives that will make
    these folks put down their Sunday paper and get over to the meetinghouse?


  5. Administrator

    Hiya, Tracy —

    You’re right. “Telling it like it is” doesn’t work very well in most congregations, unless you’re an interim minister or interim DRE. Strategies will vary depending on the exact situation. So let’s look at a very specific situation that you bring up — fathers staying home from church.

    Women have been the majority of membership and attendance in U.S. churches for probably more than a century, a trend that shows no signs of ending. So right away you’re going up against cultural norms and trends. I start off by saying that just so you can understand that it’s not a matter of failure on your part, nor is it failure on the part of the men — it’s part of the culture.

    But I think it is possible to increase male participation in congregational life. I’ve used a nubmer of strategies with varying degrees of success. Here are some ideas:

    When recruiting male volunteers, I explicitly tell men whom I think would make good volunteers that we need good male role models in our church for boys to look up to — doesn’t always work, but it does work. Getting male volunteers together, so they can have a sense of camaraderie, also helps.

    It’s difficult to generalize about men, and there will be exceptions to every generalization. However, generally speaking it’s easier to get men to come to church if the men know they have some role to play or job to fill. I’d also say men have a much lower tolerance for badly-run programs or churches that feel unsafe — so I believe paying attention to good project management and to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs helps retain male churchgoers.

    I do think it helps to have male staffers at church. I know it’s often easier for me, as a man, to get men to come to church than it is for women ministers or DREs to get men to come to church.

    That’s all I have to offer off the top of my head. I’m hoping that some of my male readers will add comments — if they don’t, I’ll rewrite this and put it in a post in the near future.

  6. Jean

    Okay dan, the theories are very interesting. But here’s a challenge, of a sort. A new potential
    parishioner comes to your church. He/she goes to the service, then lingers in the coffee hour afterwards.
    This person seems intelligent, friendly, open, curious, all the good stuff. Then this person, in
    conversation with you, asks: When UU’s talk about religious education, what do they mean by

    How do you answer that?

    I ask because I think this is one of UU’s greatest challenges if congregations are going to grow,
    attract new members, be healthy and diverse and welcoming. Of course “what does religious mean to a
    UU” is a serious, extensive question, and should not be taken lightly. However, there must be some way
    to answer this question in a way that opens a door for someone to walk through, in order to learn more.
    My experience out here in the Midwest is that the big box churches can answer this question with an
    “elevator speech” and by so doing they are very likely to get the attention and membership
    of a lot of harried, busy, questing people. What is the UU elevator speech? Yes, I know you are
    cringing even as you read that. But think about it. And, truly, I don’t suggest that
    anyone dumb down religion, but I would suggest that the definition of religious from a UU
    standpoint can be distilled to its core essence in a sentence or two.

    Okay, yes, I do have a background in marketing. Sigh. Still, I’m curious.
    love, yer sis.

  7. Pingback: Friday Scribbler 20060811 at Making Chutney

  8. Administrator

    Jean — Good question, but not a question of particular interest to the intended audience of the essay. (That’s a peculiarity of this blog — some posts are written for general readers, some are written for more specialized readers.) The answer I would give to your hypothetical newcomer can be found at http://www.uunewbedford.org/sundayschool.htm

    This still may not answer your larger question, which is a broad definition of “religious” from the point of view of liberal religion in the United States in the year 2006. To be honest, I would not try to attempt such a broad definition right now. I feel that I personally am still in the middle of deconstructing the old definition of “religious,” where “religious” meant something to do with God where God was definitely a Western construct coming out of the Judeo-Christian tradition. But that really is the beginning of a whole new essay….

  9. Jean

    okay, yes, but still: that very useful definition posted on the New Bedford site could
    serve well as an entree even into an essay for specialized readers.
    Especially the “lived religion” reference. Okay…I’m going to stop pestering you.
    It *was* a nice series!

  10. ms. m

    more than a great series, I think we’ve got your 50% of the book ready to go – now, if you just write my half – we’ll be good to print!


    miss ya – wish we could talk over burgers on sunday night…sniffle sniffle…

  11. Tracy Duncan

    Hey Dan,

    Yes, I’ve heard your suggestions on keeping men at church before, and am well aware it’s the cultural norm for them to
    leave the church-goin’ to the womenfolk. What we have a bunch of are guys who won’t even darken the meetinghouse door.
    They often pooh-pooh their spouses and some even put up a stink about the kids going to church at all. I mean, hooray for
    these women who value RE enough to put up with those attitudes! And most often what I hear the women say about
    their husbands is that the men feel they don’t need church. My immediate sense is that the guys were somehow wounded at some
    point by a religion-affiliated experience(Notice I didn’t say, “religious.”) that so affected them they don’t dare
    risk coming. One of my thoughts was to get them to chaperone active playground games for kids before church. That
    would serve a double-purpose–get the dads on the grounds (and maybe they’ll come in and hang around the Parish Hall and
    perhaps listen in on the service broadcast) and get the kids’ excess energy out so they’re more focused during worship and RE.
    What do you think? Worth a try? Most of the men we get to actually come in, stay around, at least for awhile, after which your
    other ideas kick in.

    Luago, Tracy

  12. Administrator

    Hiya Tracy,

    Sorry if I repeated myself for you, but others who read this blog won’t have heard my usual shtick before.

    I think you’ve got a great idea. Men like to do things, and on average we do tend to like to do more active things. Yeah, why not playground fun? Which raises a thought — did you know the Ottowa Unitarian Universalist church has one Sunday school class that spends every Sunday school session outdoors — even in the cold winters they get in Ottowa! Want to bet that more than half the teachers for that class are men?

    Let us all know how it goes!

  13. Administrator

    Hey ms. m. — I’ve got a whole other half of this essay brewing — this half is the deconstruction half — the other half is the constructive half — call me and let’s talk.

Comments are closed.