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November 21, 2008

Children and Religious Diversity

Susan We are a very liberal household. We chose our community in part because it is diverse — racially, ethnically, socioeconomically and, presumably, politically. Many residents who have the financial ability to live almost anywhere frequently cite our city's diversity as a major draw.

Yet few of us are naive enough to believe that we have achieved true integration of these diverse populations. There is still a pronounced achievement gap in most of our schools. There are neighborhoods that are considered "better" or "safer" than others. Children who play together in preschool and elementary school drift apart in middle school and high school — often along racial lines. Still, we try. At least our children know that not everyone looks alike or comes from the same background.

In our home, we talk a lot about tolerating differences, even within our family. My children are so different that I sometimes think they aren't even members of the same species. But we strive for acceptance (except when it comes to college football, as we are devout Michigan fans). So imagine my surprise when my middle boy came home in second grade and asked if it was OK that he was friends with someone who didn't believe in God.

I was stunned by the question. We are Jewish and our children attend religious school, but we are not particularly observant and have certainly never implied that we had a corner on the religious market. In fact, within our own extended family we have plenty of believers of different faiths, as well as our fair share of nonbelievers.

"Of course, you can still be friends," I assured him, and we had a wonderful discussion about how freedom of religion also includes the freedom not to believe. The First Amendment suddenly made perfect sense to this logical child and he moved on to being intolerant of his brother touching his stuff. I patted myself on the back for another parenting job well done.

So imagine my surprise when, a few years later, my youngest child encountered an even more disturbing form of religious intolerance at school — in third grade! A big playground brouhaha arose when ugly words were hurled at a child who said that his family did not believe in God. Parents and social workers were called in, and the school conducted a "Cool Tool" lesson in the classrooms about tolerance. I was proud of the school for addressing the issue directly, and yet something still did not sit right. I was particularly struck by the fact that both these instances of intolerance were directed at children and families who did not believe in God. Differing religious beliefs did not raise an eyebrow, but non belief seemed to be a huge issue.

One of the things I like about Judaism is that the religion itself encourages questions, debates, even arguments (at least within the Reform community). There is a constant quest for knowledge and understanding. We made the conscious choice to bring our children up within this religious setting because most of the people I knew who were raised without any religious affiliation grew up to believe in nothing. We felt it was important to give our children some background that they could learn about, rebel against, embrace or reject — but come to their decisions from a place of interest, knowledge and questioning.

I worry now, however, that by providing specific religious instruction, even in a tolerant congregation, we may inadvertently be teaching them that our beliefs are somehow "right", which almost by definition implies that different believers must somehow be "wrong." I hope this is not true. I hope these examples of intolerance will lead to more discussions, more growth and more tolerance. I hope my children continue to question — us, their religious teachers, their friends and their community — and I hope they do it in the spirit of achieving true diversity.

This is an original Chicago Moms Blog post. When Susan isn't pondering the big questions of religion and politics, she can be found writing at Two Kinds of People and The Animal Store Blog.

Photo courtesy of Jeanne Levy via flickr.com; the chalk art was done by Liza White and Kary Taylor at the Forest Grove Chalk Festival.


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