Alan Greenwald, 42, has paid little attention to religion most of his life. He grew up in Los Angeles with virtually no spiritual training, spent much of his free time at the University of California at Berkeley in demonstrations, and, until recently, enjoyed his Sunday mornings reading the newspaper and brunching with friends.

No one is more surprised than he that he enrolled his two young daughters this year in Sunday school.

"No matter whether I believe in God, the moral aspects of the Judeo-Christian tradition are real important to me," Greenwald, a development company executive, said one evening in the comfortable Cleveland Park home where he and his family have lived for two years. "And whether {my daughters} believe, they will be more ethical for going."

Greenwald's experience is repeated in various forms throughout the Washington area and in other parts of the country, according to church officials of various faiths. Older baby-boom parents, many of whom once rejected religion as useless, even harmful to an intelligent understanding of the world, are sending their children to church and synagogue. Some of them are then staying for instruction as well.

In some ways, the older baby-boomers are like their parents. They want their children to learn virtues including honesty, compassion and self-esteem, and the Judeo-Christian tradition provides that education.

Unlike their mothers and fathers, however, many of them are still ambivalent about their own religious beliefs, and they are seeking a church environment that allows both them and their children a certain amount of exploration. They talk about religion as a tradition their children can reject, even as they hope some parts of it will sink in.

Their ambivalence about faith is reflected in the current pop media, from Parenting magazine's December cover story, "Do Kids Need Religion?" to last week's episode of the television series "Thirty Something" in which the star yuppie couple debated whether their infant daughter should celebrate Christmas or Hanukah.

But Greenwald and other newly involved parents say it would be wrong to pronounce such interest a sweeping trend. Most of their adult friends, they say, still push academic achievement on their children as the best insurance for the good life.

These thoroughly secularized parents have a hard time understanding why other parents don't think good grades are enough or why children need someone besides the family to provide moral instruction. "They look at me and say, 'Why are you doing that?' " chuckled Meg Weekes.

Weekes, a lawyer, and her husband Derry Allen, a federal policy analyst, started a Sunday school at the Cleveland Park United Church of Christ two years ago with their two children. They now have 12 in their group.

Both in their late thirties at the time, they hadn't attended church regularly in 20 years. Then their oldest child Abigail, who was then 4, started asking religious and moral questions they could not answer satisfactorily.

"Why does God let people die?" Abigail asked Weekes after a great-grandmother was buried. "Will we ever see her again?" And later, "Why aren't all people good?"

Locke E. Bowman, who teaches religious education at the Protestant Episcopal Theological Seminary in Alexandria, said most parents "are uncertain how to say things, how to answer questions." He's not surprised that after years of decline, enrollment in religious instruction in mainline churches and synagogues is edging back up. "I would call it a gentle awakening," he said.

The United Methodist Church, a large Protestant denomination that for years has suffered declining membership, reported recently that Sunday school enrollment of children last year increased in 27 of its 73 regional conferences, an unprecedented gain.

Local churches and other religious groups in middle- to upper-middle-income neighborhoods tell a similar story. St. Columba's Episcopal Church in Northwest Washington, where Hillary and Allison Greenwald go, has become a veritable Sunday school factory, particularly for children of third grade level and younger. The younger ages have multiplied so fast, to 20 to 30 per class, that they've pushed older children into rooms in a retirement home across the street.

At Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Falls Church, room dividers have been set up to accommodate a Sunday school youth enrollment that has grown from 57 in 1984 to 93 today, according to religious instruction director Alfreda Rulis.

Temple Sinai, a synagogue for Reform Judaism on Military Road NW, now has about 100 children from kindergarten to third grade in Sunday instruction, up from 75 four years ago, said Gloria Eiseman. Catholic instruction for preschoolers, virtually unheard of a decade ago, is now in about 70 percent of the parishes in the Washington archdiocese, said Larry Rilla, director of religious education.

Nationally, there are indications that once these parents deposit their children in Sunday school, many of them slip into the church sanctuary. A study released last year by Hartford Seminary in Hartford, Conn., based on data from the National Opinion Research Center in Chicago, concluded that regular church attendance by older baby-boomers, born between 1945 and 1954, increased from 33 to almost 43 percent between 1973 and 1983.

Attendance in the general population during those years declined by 1 percent, the study reported. Having children was the most significant factor attracting the baby-boomers back to religion.

In the turbulent 1960s, these baby-boomers say, God didn't make much sense. "There was so much anguish in the world, I couldn't reconcile it," said one mother. T. Berry Brazelton, a Harvard pediatrics professor and author, says today's parents rejected many of the values of their parents but found little with which to replace them. That emptiness didn't bother them very much until they began wondering what kind of anchor they could pass on to their children.

"I don't have the beliefs myself," Greenwald said, but "I don't want my children to feel the vacuum I do now."

Some social scientists explain the latest surge in Sunday school enrollment as a matter of demographics: the so-called boomlet of births to adults in their middle years that the public schools are witnessing. David Roozen, director of the Center for Social and Religious Research at Hartford Seminary, suggests that these couples, many of whom both work, lead "more frustrating, tension-filled lives" than previous generations and have less time to devote to their children's moral upbringing. That's where church or synagogue comes in.

Among the best-read of any generation, these mothers and fathers look to myths, folk tales, even contemporary fiction, as sources for inspiration, along with the Bible. A religious curriculum should provide a starting point for a no-holds-barred discussion about life's dilemmas, these parents say, including the presence of evil and the inevitability of death.

A raucous group of 3- and 4-year-old boys heard those lessons one recent Sunday as Derry Allen read the story of Giovanni, a clown.

Giovanni, a poor boy "who had a mother but no father," became famous as a juggler, Allen read, but when he grew older, "one day, he dropped {the balls}. People threw stones at him . . . . His clothes became rags."

Giovanni fell asleep in a cathedral one night, and when he awoke, he saw people putting presents before a statue of the baby Jesus and his mother Mary. When everyone left the church, Giovanni began to juggle, and the baby smiled. Then, "suddenly, {Giovanni} fell down dead."

The boys, engaged in shaping monsters out of modeling clay, stopped in mid-shape. "Why did he die?" asked one boy. The answer: "He was so old." The larger lesson, that everyone has talents that should be used for something special, came next. "Some of you can make special monsters," Allen said.

Even as they try to explain religion in contemporary language, many of these parents want their sons and daughters to learn Judeo-Christian symbols and stories. And they would prefer their children hear about the parting of the Red Sea and the Crucifixion in church, rather than on the playground.

"It's cultural literacy, like taking Bible at Wellesley College," said Brenda Viehe-Naess, a lawyer who teaches 5-year-olds at St. Columba's Episcopal.

The traditions within Judaism are what prompted Louise Klok and Richard Neugass, both 41, to take their two young sons to a small informal cheder, or Jewish school, which is held on Sundays in homes in the Takoma Park area.

Klok was brought up as a Presbyterian, Neugass a Jew, but both essentially ignored religion as adults until their oldest son Antone turned 8. Neugass, a planning engineer for MCI Communications Corp., attends the cheder more often than Klok, who is working on her master's degree in social work and sometimes uses Sunday morning to study for exams.

"It feels real hard to give up your Sundays," she admitted.

Teaching young children to respect themselves and others has replaced sin and guilt in much of the newer Sunday school curriculum, said Catholic religion instructor Rilla. Values such as self-esteem can be taught in the home or school, parents acknowledge, but Sunday school reinforces those values and helps explain why they're important. "My daughter picked up in her day care center that we are all special," Rilla said. "The faith experience tells her why. We're special because God made us that way."

Some newly involved parents are not as comfortable as Rilla in what they call "God-talk." They explain "the why" more as Klok does: in terms of "some kind of order to the universe . . . . "

They use similar psycho-social language when explaining how the Bible story format captures young imaginations, and how peer discussion often has more impact than a parent's lecture. Young children love -- and need -- ritual in their lives, they say, and almost all religious organizations do rituals well. They cite Erik Erikson, the developmental psychologist many of them studied in college, who wrote that the church is a primary reinforcer of beliefs, including the sense of "basic trust" he said is critical to a child's mental health.

Some religious institutions, sensitive to the criticism that past generations of parents simply deposited their children at church and left, have structured their programs to encourage family participation. Sunday school at St. Columba's begins in the first worship service and the relatively small sanctuary fills to standing-room only. The cheder that Klok and Neugass attend requires members to do work for the organization. "This isn't just a place to drop off your kids," said Sally Brucker, a cheder member.

Parents who accompany their children to church frequently say the Sunday morning experience is something meaningful they can do as a family. They say it has a calming effect on their children and on them. Still others say it is a powerful reminder of their own childhood, a chance to take a trip back into their past.

"I brought my daughter {to the Takoma cheder} when she was 6," recalled Brucker. "I heard the music and it brought back all the old memories. I stayed."

These parents hope their broad interpretation of religion, and their willingness to share their doubts with their children, will make faith more attractive to their children than it once was for them. But they're also preparing themselves for adolescent rebellion.

"I remember arguing I got more out of Dostoevski," Weekes said. "I could probably recite the reasons {my daughter} will eventually give against going."