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Raising resilient nonconformists

By Michelle Richards

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Despite our best intentions to raise freethinking children who understand there are many possibilities for religious truths, the reality is most of us live and function in a world which frowns upon nonconformity where religious ideas are concerned. Even as our country grows more and more religiously diverse each generation, distrust of atheism, agnosticism, and humanism remains the last bastion of intolerance because many people have the mistaken notion that nonbelievers have no sense of morality.

Even Unitarian Universalist families who have a traditional belief in God or consider themselves to be theists may face confusion and rejection by a population of people who have been indoctrinated by those faiths that teach there is only one truth (usually theirs). And although more and more young people identify themselves as “spiritual” rather than “religious,” the domination of right-wing evangelicals often drowns out the voices of more moderate and progressive Christians or theists.

As parents, we can sometimes feel overwhelmed with the need to protect our children, particularly if they are facing bullying or teasing. Because of this desire, we risk going overboard by attempting to protect them from any issues that have the potential to cause them pain.  If we are too over-protective, however, we risk insulating them from real life issues that they will have to face sooner or later. We do not benefit our children when we shield them from all of life’s ugliness, nor do we teach them resilience if we fight all of their battles for them.

Of course, deciding when it is actually in our child’s best interests to stand aside is usually a judgment call. Perhaps the best way we can prepare our children for some of the realities of life is to talk to them about all the possibilities they may encounter. In this regard, exploring how others may react to our personal theologies is no different than discussing the possible consequences of sharing political opinions or ideologies with others who may not necessarily agree with us.

During adolescence in particular, when most of their peers belong to a different religion, our children can feel alienated and isolated. Therefore, as parents we need to offer them what support we can and, if possible, engineer participation in a Unitarian Universalist youth group or (at the very least) some contact with other youth who are also open to diversity when it comes to religious belief. This can make a large difference in combating that sense of isolation and perhaps they can even discover that being “normal” means being different, because none of us are truly the same as another person.

Finally, we as parents may also need to stress that while the culture we live in claims to appreciate diversity, in many instances the reality falls far short of the ideal. This may hold true even for youth groups or the overall church culture where a family seeks acceptance and finds instead more rejection. Then it may be up to us to be the change we seek; and it may become necessary to remind ourselves—and others—that the ultimate purpose of religion is not to establish absolute truths; that is the role of science. Religious beliefs may be concerned with truths, but they should be considered more of a vehicle for arriving at a truth rather than the only destination possible.

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