Americans are increasingly less religious and less inclined to identify themselves with a particular faith, according to a fascinating new poll and survey. Among those without ties to a religious institution are many parents of young children, a group that can struggle with how to present the concepts of religious faith to children.

The Pew Research Center found that the number of people who said they are “unaffiliated” with a religion has grown to 20 percent of the population. The percentage includes more than 33 million who say they are atheist or agnostic.

A companion survey, produced by Pew and the PBS show Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, found that the unaffiliated, or “nones,” frequently report belief in God or an embrace of spirituality. However, their faith in particular religious institutions has waned. “Overwhelmingly, they think that religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules and too involved in politics,” the survey found.

For these Americans, the question of how to explain religion and religious institutions gets complicated. How to translate to a child an adult’s intellectual or ideological differences with concepts most others hold to be sacred? How to not talk about it when religious references are all around?

For insight into this struggle, I turned to Wendy Thomas Russell, the author of a blog on secular living and the forthcoming book, “Relax It’s Just God,” on the subject of secular parenting.

I asked her for some guiding principles for secular parents. She said that it’s essential these parents talk about religion in depth and with frequency. Here’s why:

“Parents can’t shield their kids from religion. It’s impossible. Despite the somewhat rapid proliferation of ‘nones’ in this country, we are still the minority. Four of every five kids in our children’s classrooms have parents who self-identify as religious. So the chances are really high that our kids are going to be ‘introduced’ to religion, if not on the playground, then through TV shows, music, architecture, politics, history books, literature, bumper stickers, you name it. And our language! Our language is steeped in religious references. ‘I’d move heaven and earth,’ ‘God-forsaken town,’ ‘devil-may-care’…

But let’s say you’re a parent who has some baggage. Religion freaks you out a little; it makes you tense. So why should you go out of your way to expose your kid to other peoples’ religious beliefs? And who cares if you share your own anxiety over the subject?

First, and most importantly, religious tolerance doesn’t just happen. Parents have to teach it.

It’s human nature to be scared or skeptical of people we don’t understand; it’s why we parents have no qualms talking to our kids about people with disabilities. We don’t want our kids to treat disabled people badly; we want them to know that disabled people may be different from us, but they are people, and they deserve respect. Likewise, if we don’t tell our kids about religious people in a respectful way, we can’t possibly expect them to learn how to treat religious people with respect. It’s that simple.

Second, just because religion isn’t important to us personally doesn’t mean it isn’t important.

The chances are very good that my kid will meet people who are devoutly religious. Some of those people will be in her circle of friends. Some of them will be in her own family. Understanding religion and why it’s important means that she will be able to former closer bonds to the people she loves. She’ll also be more likely to judge people on the content of their character, rather than the “accuracy” of their beliefs.

Third, be the change you want to see.

I’m a nonreligious parent who wishes that more of my kid’s friends were being exposed to the idea of agnosticism and humanism and even atheism in a non-biased way. I can’t make that happen, but I can damn well live by the Golden Rule and treat others the way I want to be treated. Eventually, it’s bound to catch on, right?

Fourth, it may save your kid a lot of embarrassment.

In researching my book, I’ve learned that a lot of kids with little to no religious literacy begin to feel embarrassed about their lack of knowledge right around the time middle school begins. Which, with so many other things going on, is pretty much the worst time in a kid’s life to have to deal with embarrassment…

I don’t think any parent sets out to pass their anxieties on to their kids. If anything, parents think they’re being rightfully protective, not irrationally anxious. But when it comes to religion, anything short of encouraging kids to make up their own minds is probably going to translate as anxiety. And there’s just no need for it. Our kids shouldn’t have to fight our battles.”

What do you think? Might her advice apply to all parents? Is exposure to all religions the best way to give perspective and teach tolerance?

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