When her 3-year-old son Graham came to her recently and asked, “Where is God?” Alexandra Roth took a deep breath.
Like many Americans, Roth has never found a home in any church or faith. A 38-year-old social worker who runs a home day-care program in Falls Church, Va., she considers herself an atheist, but she wants her son to have a sense of reverence and gratitude, “and the idea of God is one pathway to that,” she says.
So she told Graham that God is everywhere, but that only piqued his curiosity.
“Is God in my body?” he asked. “Is God mixed in with my lunch?”
“They’re hard questions to answer,” Roth said later, “especially if you don’t have a catechism to refer to.”
For non-believers, and for those struggling to determine their faith, having children often becomes a painful moment of truth and discovery. It challenges them to define their beliefs about religion and God and a whole universe of existential questions they could feel comfortably ambivalent about before.
In an age of anxiety over a perceived lack of values, many look to religion to shore up crumbling moral bulwarks. Secular parents say they are also concerned about instilling values, but they improvise as they go, drawing on many sources - literary, spiritual and above all, perhaps, their own experiences - to teach virtue to their children.
As a child growing up in Milwaukee, Pam Parr spent Sunday mornings with her family in a big Catholic cathedral. She recalls feeling alienated by the Latin Mass, frightened and fascinated by the swinging incense burner.
Parr stopped going to church in her late teens, to her mother’s chagrin. She didn’t return until she became a mother herself and realized, she said, that “I was responsible” for son Adam’s life and his soul.
She found a small, warm Catholic church to have him baptized in, and now that Adam is 12, Parr lures him and his younger brother and sister to Sunday services with promises of Slurpees afterward.
“Having a faith gives you comfort in knowing there is something else in control, and there are answers to my questions, and there is a reason,” said Parr, 40, of Montgomery Village, Md., who runs a consignment store.
In the generation of baby boomers, two-thirds of those who grew up with a religious affiliation left it behind, usually in their late teens or early twenties. Of those, only 25 percent return, according to a 1988 study by religion scholar Wade Clark Roof at the University of California-Santa Barbara.
The largest segment of baby boomers - 42 percent - is a group Roof classifies as “dropouts.”
Among Americans of all ages, about one in 11 said they have “no religion,” according to the National Survey of Religious Identification conducted by scholars at the City University of New York, which polled 113,000 Americans in 1990.
Even more have uncertain or unconventional beliefs and are unaffiliated with any organized religion. One-third of all Americans do not belong to a church or a synagogue, according to a Gallup Poll last December. Of those who do belong, 31 percent told Gallup they seldom attend services, and 11 percent said they never do.
Interviews with more than two dozen families in the Washington region found those who are not religious grappling with colossal questions: Will lack of religion deprive my children of culture, tradition or a sense of security? How do I answer their questions about good and evil, life and death, when no religion has offered satisfactory answers for me? Can I provide them with a sense of community without belonging to a religious congregation?
Few of these secular families are totally without religion and, as Roof noted, many think more about spiritual matters than some loyal churchgoers. Like Roth, many say they believe in God or some form of higher power and express a deep interest in or familiarity with religion.
The difference between secular people and others is that secular people do not accept the tenets of any one faith. They either believe that all religions have some validity, and therefore no single one can be divine truth; or that religions are basically arbitrary human constructs.
Many pious people also live with doubts about their own faith’s teachings. But for those who are not religious, the doubts are a chasm they cannot cross.
“If I could ever believe the dogma, I would be a very happy Catholic,” said Roth, who is of mixed Christian and Jewish heritage. “I like the stained glass and the bells and the smells, and I love the stories. But it’s those little niggling points, like the divinity of Christ, that get in the way. I just don’t believe.”
Children are “natural mystics” and very responsive to religious ritual, even a simple one like lighting candles, says Linda Kavelin Popov, a psychiatric social worker and author of “The Virtues Project,” a values education program used in schools and religious centers of many faiths.
“I think they have less of a foundation to stand on if they don’t believe there is some power that’s beyond them to help them,” Popov said. “When they don’t have something that is transcendent or spiritual, they replace it with what some religions call a ‘false God’ - having power over people, or being first.”
More important than faith is for parents to clarify their own values and beliefs and communicate them to their children, Popov said.
“If the parent believes in anything strongly - it could be civil rights - you have the same impact on the child. I think that children crave idealism. So if the parents are idealistic or spiritual in a really living way, that has a great effect on a child’s need for a sense of purpose.”
Like many of the secular parent interviewed for this report, Roth wants most to cultivate in her son, Graham, an ability to think independently. Her perspective, which many religious people would reject, is that most religions demand absolute belief in an absolute truth. And she cannot accept that.
“The idea that you would be going around, for example, as a Christian and thinking all the Hindus will burn in hell, that a gazillion Muslims on their prayer rugs are accomplishing nothing - that is disgusting to me,” Roth said.