Rethinking religion

Young teens often question their religious beliefs

/p> Maybe what some teens need is a little rumspringa. Among some of the Old Order Amish — the plainly dressed country people who ride in horse-drawn buggies in various parts of North America — there is a tradition known as rumspringa, which means “running around.” Tom Shachtman writes in his book (called, simply, Rumspringa) “during rumspringa, Amish youth…go on their own in the outside world. They have license to do things they have never done before. An individual’s rumspringa ends when he or she agrees to be baptized into the church and to take up the responsibilities attendant on being an adult member of the Amish community.”

Shactman says, “The Amish count on the rumspringa process to inoculate youth against the strong pull of the forbidden by dosing them with the vaccine of a little worldly experience…there is no firmer adhesive bond to a faith and way of life than a bond freely chosen.”

And it seems to work — more than 80 percent of the Amish youth who go through the rumspringa experience do return to the church.
Questioning beliefs

Those statistics may provide some reassurance to parents of more mainstream religions who find their teens questioning the religious beliefs they were brought up in.

Many teens announce they don’t want to go to church anymore, or decide to check out other religions, and it’s hard for parents to know the best way to respond.

This questioning time, says Robin Everall, professor of counselling psychology at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, is “an expected part of adolescence. As a child, you’re told what to believe and how you fit into the institutions you belong to. But teens are trying to understand why they believe what they believe, and they need to analyze it in a different way than they did as a child.”

Everall adds that adolescent development is not as predictable as, for example, the stages that toddlers go through. “So one teen may be rethinking and questioning religion at 13, while another might not start to consider these issues until he’s 21 or 22. You can’t just compare your teen to other teens you know.”

 So how do you respond if your teen says, “I don’t believe in it and I’m not going”? Everall says there’s no one right answer, but here are some points to consider:

• “Saying ‘listen to your child’ sounds simplistic, but it really is important to keep the lines of communication open,” says Everall. This can be the opportunity to have some real discussions with your child about religious and spiritual issues.

• Discuss with your teen how this may affect other children in the family. If your 14-year-old doesn’t attend church, will your 10-year-old then want to stay home too? Help her to see how her choices may affect other members of the family. She may be willing to continue attending church, even if she has doubts, to support her younger siblings.

• Help a questioning child find some resources. Is there a youth leader who might meet with your child, or a book for teens you can suggest?

• Are there other issues involved? For example, Everall mentions that sometimes teens who believe they might be gay feel alienated from religious groups that speak of homosexuality as a sin; this can happen even if the child simply has a gay friend because his perspective is changed. “This is a very different and more personal struggle than the child who is just questioning religious ideas in general,” she adds.

What if your teen’s rethinking of religion results in him deciding not to follow the traditions and spiritual beliefs he was raised in? Everall says that during the teen years, your relationship with your teen inevitably goes through changes, yet you can manage to remain connected and loving. Your teen’s choice to give up the faith he was raised in is one of the biggest changes, but your attitude of respect and acceptance will keep the relationship strong.

While some teens turn away from the religion they were brought up in, others raised in non-religious homes decide to join a spiritual group of some kind, and that can also be upsetting to parents.

Consider Lisa Anderson’s* story: “My son decided to start going to a fundamentalist Christian church with some of his friends from school. I just cringed when he came home and told me about what they’d learned that day.” Much to Anderson’s relief, her son’s involvement with the church lasted only about a year, as many of the friends he’d started attending with began to drift away.

Everall says, “When teens from non-religious families decide to attend church, they’re often looking for a place to belong. They may feel they don’t really fit in anywhere, but the religious group they join gives them a cohesive group, a structure with guidelines and limits, and some concepts that give meaning to their lives. That can feel very comforting.”

And remember the rumspringa. “If your teens have some freedom to question and explore spiritual beliefs, and then they come back to the religion they were raised in, they will have really made those beliefs their own, and it will be meaningful to them in a new and deeper way,” says Everall.

*Name changed by request.