Q&A: religion differences in families

In the aftermath of Easter and the winding down of Passover, Michaela writes:

"I'm struggling with how to deal with the varying religious beliefs inour family -- namely, that we have none (or very few) and that our parents, particularly our mothers, have very strong beliefs. My husband and I were both raised Catholic, and even got married in a Catholic mass (albeit largely for sentimental reasons rather than religious ones).

In the almost 10 years since then, we have both rejected our religious upbringings due largely to our values re: the role of women, gay marriage, etc. We've been open with our families about this process, and they respect our decision -- though they are sorry that we don't share their faith. The more time has gone on, the less comfortable I've become with Christianity in general. (We've pondered checking out a Unitarian church but haven't actually gotten off our butts to do it.)

Where this gets problematic for me (much more so than for my husband) is around holidays - particularly Easter and Christmas. I carry enough residual Catholicism that I'm uncomfortable w/ the whole Easter bunny/chocolate/presents model of things... but also not at all interested in talking to my child about Jesus, the cross, etc. And of course for our moms -- both of whom have wonderful relationships w/ our nearly 3-year-old daughter -- Jesus and the cross are the central message of Easter.

So I guess my question is two-fold: How do we observe holidays in a way that is meaningful to us and provides some worthwhile ritual for our daughter? And then how do we deal with the varying practices in our family? I don't want the grandmas to feel as though they can't talk about their beliefs with our daughter, but I'd like them to avoid proselytizing... and I'm just not sure where that line is."

There are a couple of aspects to this question. I'm going to start with a comment about religion and faithfulness. You guys know I'm both very faithful and pretty religious--Jesus and I are very good friends, especially since I escaped my marriage. So this is coming from the point of view of someone who does believe.

The first is that there's a difference between religion and faith. I think that to be educated, a person needs to be exposed to a religion and taught the mythologies and structures of it. It would be great if kids could all be exposed to four or five or six different sets of religious beliefs in an in-depth manner, but practically speaking, most kids are only going to get a solid grounding in one or two. I still think this is good, as it gives kids a vocabulary to understand and talk about what people do and why, as well as passing down traditions. A kid who has been raised with exposure to one religion (assuming it's not isolating and doesn't use scare tactics--non-fundamentalist religions, I mean) is going to have points of comparison when s/he encounters other religions. It sets them up with a framework to look at things, and that helps them later on with everything from examining their own views to examining other frameworks.

But religion isn't faith. I sometimes think that being raised with religion is inoculation against having faith later on! Your story, of being raised in one religion and then rejecting it later, isn't unusual at all. And I meet so many people at my church who were raised without any religious background at all who came to faith later on as adults. (They tend to be more zealous, IME, than the people who were raised with religion.) It''s almost as if knowing how the sausage is made (religion) sucks the joy out of it.

It's a strange, double-edged sword: You have to know enough about a religious tradition to question it with any accuracy and insight. But to have faith you almost have to be ignorant of the religious structure.

So if you want your daughter to have faith, you almost have to keep her from religion. And if you want her to be knowledgeable about religion, you run the chance that she will reject faith.

And proselytizing on the part of your parents? Well, you can't make someone believe in the long run. She might parrot back what your parents say to her now, and if that disturbs you you're going to have to decide how to approach your parents. (Good luck with that--I have no idea how to start that conversation if your parents are already disapproving of your break with religion. Although if they hadn't raised you in that religion, maybe you'd have faith...Ah, the circle of life.) But anything they say to her now isn't going to determine whether she has faith or considers herself Catholic or even Christian when she's an adult.

I think you and your husband are going to have to sit down and specifically talk about what aspects of each holiday you want to observe. You could focus on the family togetherness and peaceful spirit on Christmas, and make up some traditions that celebrate that. You could focus on newness and rebirth at Easter time and celebrate that. There's a path you can carve out for yourself that respects the solemnity and ritual of those holidays without faith per se, but doesn't fall into commercialism.

Now, about dealing with the differences. You just talk, a lot, about how different people do different things. "Grandma and Grandpa believe x and y, so they do z and w. We believe this, so we do that." She won't be any more confused by that than she is by the other things that are different at your houses. (I'm thinking about the gallons of soda and tons of Archway Homestyle cookies I consumed at my grandparents' house while my mom was hippie co-op mom who made us eat carob instead of chocolate. Resentful? Yes. Confused? No. I'm thankful the Carob Years are long over.)

To me it seems very similar to the kids who grow up speaking one language to one set of grandparents and another to the other. it doesn't mean they'll identify more strongly with one or the other--just that they know more about the world. And if your daughter is able to code-switch, mores the better for her.

Does anyone have any experience with mediating between your own beliefs and your parents in a way that honors both? And if you don't believe in the religious meanings of the holidays, but still want to celebrate them in a non-commercial way, what solutions or traditions have you come up with?