It really isn't necessary or possible to force children to believe in "god," in either a general or particular way. Moreover, morality, ethics, and being a good person don't depend on religion or belief in god.
I myself was raised in a religious family. I went to church every Sunday from birth until I left home to go to college. I went to a religious elementary school, and went to religious education classes when I was in public middle and high school. I took courses in theology as an undergraduate at a religiously-based university.
But I never felt like I actually believed that any of the stories I was told were literally true. I could see that they were parables and lessons, that they were stories that made philosophical, ethical, and moral points -- not all of which were very moral or ethical (for example the numerous genocides commanded by the Yahweh).
As for the theology, I never actually believed that there is a "god" somewhere out there micromanaging or even watching over humanity, much less having "personal relationships" with individual humans.
But then came kids. My wife was raised in a different Christian faith tradition, but she feels much the same way as I do about religion. We talked a lot about what to do. We ended up having both kids baptized at the church I was raised in -- largely for the sake of my parents and grandparents. And it gave us an excuse to have the extended family get together.
When my daughter reached kindergarten age, we began going to church, and she went to Sunday school, as did my son when he reached that age. My daughter made her first penance and first communion. I think that we both felt it would be good to do this, despite our own non-belief.
But I found this position increasingly untenable. I didn't believe, I had never believed, yet I was asking my kids to go through the motions.
We tried other churches, but we didn't feel comfortable in them either, mainly because they were so religious and were talking about god all the time (of course, what did we expect?).
So we decided that it was best to be honest with ourselves and with our kids. We stopped going to church, and stopped trying to get our kids to go through the motions.
They had early on proclaimed their atheism -- I'd had to ask them not to argue with the Sunday school teachers about this -- which was one of the issues that led us to this decision.
Unfortunately, in this society, I need to add this: My kids are moral and ethical, they have very strong senses of right and wrong, and though they are not perfect, they are great kids and will be wonderful adults.
(Of course, the very fact that I feel like I have to say this indicates how our society views nonbelievers. If I was religious and a believer, I wouldn't even have to tell you about my kids' morality and ethics...)
Morality and ethics do not come out of religion. We all know people who are immoral and unethical who were also believers. And there are plenty of nonbelievers who are moral and ethical.
The sense of ethics, the belief that there are right and wrong ways to treat other people, comes, I believe, from how we see our parents and significant others act as we are growing up. Adults model behavior to kids, regardless of religious belief. As they grow up, children absorb the values of the people raising them. Kids learn by being told, and talked to, and having things explained to them: Why some things are right, and why some things are wrong; why some people do bad things; why others are selfless.
Kids also learn by watching what their parents and care givers do, how they act, how they live their lives, apart from the words.
But I also believe that there is an innate sense of morality and ethics. I know plenty of people whose parents were awful, yet who themselves turned out to be great people.
To me that indicates that there is some level of morality that is part of the package of being human. Perhaps these people also were lucky enough to have other adults in their lives who reinforced their inner moral senses.
Given this, I believe that morality and ethics don't come from believing in god, or from being attached to a particular religious community. Those values come from within, and they are reinforced by the way adults explain what's right and wrong, and how those adults themselves behave.
When I was talking to my 15-year old daughter CB about this, she said she thinks that nonbelievers are actually more moral: they do the right thing not because of a fear of punishment in the afterlife, but just because it's the right thing to do. I wouldn't say that all believers do the right thing only out of fear; but for those who do, I think CB's reasoning is right on target.
That said, I do believe it is important for my kids to be familiar with the various religious mythologies that are part of our cultural heritage. My kids know the Bible stories, are familiar with the Jesus stories, the saints and other aspects of Christian religious belief. They are also familiar with other religious traditions, as well as the basics of the mythologies of ancient Greece and Rome.
I see this knowledge as important for purely cultural reasons. You cannot understand a large part of European literature and art if you don't know the background stories coming out of Christianity and Judaism. You cannot understand the politics of large parts of the US if you don't have some basic knowledge of Christianity.
But kids don't have to believe that the stories of Christianity are actually true, any more than they need to believe the ancient Roman or Greek myths.
Of course we're lucky to live in a community that is pretty progressive, which is not dominated by Christian fundamentalism, and in which my kids know other kids who are also not believers. But given the outright hostility to atheists in US society, I have also had to warn my kids to be careful, to not discuss their beliefs with people unless they know them.
While I have no problem with other people believing whatever they want to believe -- as long as they don't try to force it on me -- I also think it's important to recognize that kids don't need to have a belief in god, anymore than they need to believe in santa claus or the easter bunny. They need to have parents who instill in them their values, a sense of responsibility and empathy towards other human beings, and who walk the walk as well as they talk the talk.
So if you're feeling uncomfortable raising your kids in an atmosphere of religious belief, act on your own beliefs and instincts. Kids are just fine without god or religion.
Crossposted at daddychip2