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Does God Matter?

Published on: December 01, 2009

Girl prayingI’m raising this loaded question in the most un-churchy region of our country. In 1991, the American Religious Identity Survey, conducted by City University of New York, found that our region has the lowest number of churchgoers in the country. In the survey, “no religion” was the single most common answer given in our state to the question “What is your religion, if any?”

So, we’re not churchy — but does that mean we don’t have faith?

From the looks of it, we do. A 2003 Harris Interactive Poll found that 79 percent of those surveyed said that they believed God existed. According to the data, however, that belief doesn’t much affect their participation in what was once considered to be the cornerstone of a good religious life: regular attendance of religious services. Only 26 percent of those polled by Harris said they attended church once per week, as opposed to respondents of the very first Gallup Poll, which in 1940 reported that 41 percent of Americans attended church once per week.

We’re living in a region of high belief in God and low participation in traditional religious activities and the support those activities provide for families raising children.

How does this affect family life — and family values — in the Puget Sound region? How do area families define community, and where do they find it? And, when it comes to parents’ most deeply held desires for their children and the way they go about raising them, does a belief in God really matter?

The answer is complex. I spoke to four local families, three of whom are observant of their religion. They understand God and religious life in different ways, but their aspirations for their kids are startlingly alike, an amalgam of traditional religious ideals and a secular understanding of freedom of conscience. A sense of community is very important to these parents, and for some, it’s a compelling part of their faith.

These parents want strong but compassionate children who care about others; tolerant children who respect diversity, and who may ultimately choose their own religious paths. Their answers suggest that, though a personal belief in God is important, what really matters in raising good kids is not a specific belief system about a creator but the dogged work of modeling positive behavior and explicitly teaching kids how to recognize right from wrong. These are mindful parents of the first order, teaching their children the empathy they believe will make them better people, and the world a better place.

A framework for values

Jeff and Dana Malick, both 41, live on a quiet cul-de-sac in a North Seattle neighborhood with their children, Nik, 9, and Lexi, 7. Lifelong churchgoers, for the past three years they’ve attended Mars Hill Church in Ballard, a large and rapidly growing nondenominational congregation that has attracted attention — both positive and negative — for its melding of a hip cultural sensibility with conservative theological positions.

“I think one of the most important things in our parenting is a good Christian foundation for our kids, and to be in community with other Christian families,” says Jeff, a tall man who wears thin-framed black glasses. Still, although the Malicks’ belief system emphasizes the divinity and example of Jesus as well as regular family church attendance, Dana Malick points out that she doesn’t feel much different in many ways than non-churchgoing parents they see socially. “I notice that my neighbors, regardless of their religious affiliation … are pretty much raising their kids in the same way [as we are],” she says.

Like other families in their community, the Malicks are leery of the effects of popular culture on their kids, but they don’t shield their kids from it completely. Instead of trying to keep the children apart from non-Christian cultural messages, the couple prefers to use what their kids are watching or reading as a way of initiating a discussion about the family’s values. When watching a cartoon with her kids, Dana says she’ll ask them, “Wow, would you do that? Should we say those things?” The couple uses pop culture as a backdrop against which they can teach their kids to be respectful and loving of others without being pushovers.

The Malicks don’t cut themselves off from popular culture, and they don’t allow their belief system to cut them off from the people in their lives. As they talk, the word “community” — community with other believers, community with their neighbors and friends — comes up often.

“We have never hidden the fact that we go to church from the people whom we interact with,” Jeff says. Although the couple says that many of their friends are not churchgoers, and their children attend a public school, Jeff emphasizes that he and his wife wouldn’t want to be the type of people who would cease contact with friends because of a difference in religious belief or a disagreement about where they go to church.

A modern attitude

This sensibility — that what you believe about God may be important to you personally, but that what you do and how you treat others is of greater importance to the world at large — is important, says Seattle’s Pastor Kay Broweleit, an ordained minister who currently serves in University Presbyterian’s children and family ministries. “I actually delight in people discovering that I’m a Christian and a pastor way after they’ve met me,” she says. “To break down a stereotype is delightful, but it takes time to do that.” That’s not to say that there won’t be disagreements between people of different faiths or points of view, she points out. “But maybe in the Northwest, people are tolerant of each other a little bit more. There are many people of faith who … believe it and live it generously. The great commandment is to love.”

So although one of a Christian parent’s biblically mandated tasks is to raise kids in the faith, the Malicks, already comfortable with negotiating the line between the secular and the sacred in their social lives and cultural activities, have a modern attitude about their children’s faith when they grow up. Their role is to model right behavior, not impose a belief in God on their children, although it’s of central importance to them. “When all is said and done, I want our children to be able to go away and figure this out for themselves,” Dana says. “I want them to have this really strong faith and see their parents have this really strong faith, but I want them to decide for themselves.”

A great social life

“Community” is a word that Shelly Rosen uses often, too. Rosen, 43, has attended Seattle’s Temple Beth Am with her 14-year-old twin sons, William and Patrick, since the boys were in preschool.

Although the boys’ father is not Jewish, and her current partner is not religious, Rosen always knew that she’d raise her kids as Jewish, a religion that is a deep part of her identity. “I’m really clear where I want to be on it, and pretty stubborn about it, and there was very little if any room for any other option.” she says, laughing. “Pretty much my kids … are going to be nice little Jewish children, and that’s about it.”

Raising “nice little Jewish children” has entailed spending a lot of time at their synagogue, time that Rosen views as incredibly well spent in ways that go far beyond religious instruction. “I think the biggest influence on our family is that we have a really great community at our synagogue. We have a great social life, and my kids have a great community of friends they’re safe with,” she says. The sense of belonging fostered by boys’ youth group fills the hole that’s become such a part of modern parenting: the lack of a cohesive group of adults who watch out for the kids and enforce community standards, a lack of places for kids to go where they feel cared for. “It’s nice because all the parents know each other, and we all watch out and tattle on each other’s children.”

That’s not the only reason she attends synagogue, of course. “I like that so much of the Jewish religion is based on justice,” she says. “The commandment is that you do the right thing. It’s about living here and now. You can’t wait and do it later.”

That ethic has filtered into her sons’ thinking. When they had their bar mitzvahs last year, the boys realized that it was such a meaningful rite of passage that they decided to go to every one of their friends’ bar mitzvahs. “So every weekend we went to a bar mitzvah last year,” Rosen says. “And I loved it. I absolutely loved it.  Doing the right thing isn’t a matter of having the correct alignment with God, it’s a matter of action, and she can help her sons develop morally by supporting them when they recognize the right thing to do, even if it means juggling a demanding soccer season and a calendar full of bar mitzvahs.

Like Dana Malick, she understands that, as much as she loves her faith, her kids may feel otherwise as they grow up. “I think my hope for my kids is that they have some sense of spiritual peacefulness, and if they find something other than Judaism that works for them, that’s their choice,” she says. “We didn’t grow up in a damning religion, with any dogma at all. There is no going to hell in Judaism. I find that a big benefit.”

An emphasis on choice

Salah and Jeanne Suleiman, Muslims who live in Seattle with their children Sofien, 14, Fautimah, 10, and Sulayman, 6, emphasize reason and choice when they talk about instructing their children in their faith. Doing the right thing isn’t a matter of an edict from above, but of understanding why it’s the best thing to do. “We try to raise our children to understand what they’re doing and accept it because they understand it and want to,” explains Salah, who moved to the U.S. from Egypt more than 20 years ago. “I can’t force anybody to do anything. I just give them the message and raise them.” Speaking of her daughter, Jeanne says, “It should be Fautimah’s choice to wear the hijab. I’d like to see her wear it. It is her choice to wear that though.”

When asked about what they hope for their children as adults, both of them emphasize a solid relationship with the community. “Good citizens,” Salah says without hesitation. “It has nothing to do with what religion they are. Just be good citizens.” Jeanne adds, “I always ask God not only to have good Muslim children, but to be good humans … to be good humanitarians.”

Jeanne recalls that after 9-11, she was told to “go home” while out in public wearing her headscarf. “Go home?” she says in an exasperated tone. “I was born in Chicago!” That visibility as a religious minority in their community has made the Suleimans determined to not cut themselves off from others, particularly at their kids’ schools, despite not taking part in holidays such as Halloween and events such as their children’s elementary-school auction, which they don’t attend because alcohol is served. (Instead of attending, Jeanne baked cheesecakes for a recent auction, which fetched $900 when they were sold to the highest bidder.) The family has been at the same elementary school since their son Sofien was in third grade, and have been very open with other parents about accommodations for religious holidays, dietary restrictions and the like. “You have to be a de facto ambassador,” Jeanne says. They’ve been met with interest and respect, they say. “A lot of people try to find out about us and not offend us,” adds Salah. “As long as we keep mutual respect, you can live the way you want to live — as long as you don’t think you’re right and everyone else is wrong.”

Although their faith is at the core of their family’s identity and informs detail after detail of their daily life, the Suleimans emphasize right action as they come in contact with friends and neighbors: respect, tolerance, patience. “Faith is like attitude, so if your attitude is good, it means you have good faith,” Salah says.

Teaching right from wrong

Michelle Plants and Maurice Cartner, another Seattle family, also model respect and tolerance for their kids — Mara, 12 and Luka, 11 — but from an entirely different perspective than the other families profiled here. Plants was raised by an atheist father who discouraged her from going to church. She now considers herself agnostic, and although she and Cartner aren’t raising their children with any formal religious instruction, Plants’ hopes for her children’s moral and spiritual development are the same as the other parents’. “To be kind in your heart. To determine right from wrong,” she says, “… that they can only be good people if they’re not hurting others.”

Like the Suleimans, their children’s public schools play a large part in their formation of a supportive community. Growing up, Plants says, education — especially public education — was a priority in her family. “A lot of people send their kids to private school around here, but we send our kids to public,” she says. “I really believe that public education is the fiber of democracy.” And, echoing every other parent I spoke to, she adds that as they grow up, her kids will have freedom of conscience when it comes to religion, a freedom that is also part of the fiber of democracy and which informs the views of every parent interviewed regardless of the strength of their religious belief.

Whether they believe that it’s possible to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, or that religion is a matter of proper orientation toward God and the world, or they don’t believe that the question of God’s existence is even relevant, these families all believe passionately in teaching their kids to be good citizens, and to live in harmony with those around them.

So does God matter when it comes to raising kids? What seems to matter most is action: doing the right thing and raising kids who want to do the right thing, based on a solid foundation of values — values that look suspiciously like traditional God-associated behavior, whether churchgoing or not. Pastor Kay Broweleit quotes the prophet Micah: “He has told you, O Man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”

Kris Collingridge is ParentMap’s Out & About editor.


Originally published in the December, 2007 print edition of ParentMap.

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