Is it possible to raise your kids to be open-minded about religion?

October 21, 2007 | 33 comments

In my part of the country it’s very common to plan to raise your kids to be “open-minded about religion”. I know quite a few parents who are taking this route, and it seems to be becoming more and more popular. I respect the sentiment that drives this choice, but lately I’ve been wondering: is such a thing even possible?

If being in a state of open-mindedness means that you’re asking questions, seeking knowledge, and attempting to fairly evaluate data without bias, it seems that that should be a transitory state — at some point, you find the answers. And once you’ve found the answers to your questions, you’re no longer open to the alternatives (unless you get some new data) because you’ve already evaluated them and rejected them as untrue.

Yet I rarely hear open-mindedness about religion described this way. It’s usually described as a long-term plan, a way of life, e.g. “It’s important to us to raise our children to be open-minded about religion.” It seems to me that if you intentionally plan to stay in that state indefinitely, then what you’re really saying is that you believe that objective truth about spiritual matters cannot be known. And if that’s the case, then you’re taking an active stance against the three major monotheistic belief systems (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) that teach that objective truth does exist and can be known. And if you’ve closed your mind to that, the religions to which a large majority of believers in the world belong, then you’re not very open-minded. (Which is fine — I don’t mean that as a derogatory statement.)

I think that, in practice, being “open-minded about religion” means that you’re only open to different points of view within a small slice of what is traditionally considered “religion” — some of the Eastern belief systems or perhaps New Age spirituality. But you’re flatly, boldly rejecting Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

I’ve found this interesting to think about as I hear this phrase more and more lately. It’s definitely not a mindset I know much about — my old plan was to raise my kids (if I ever had any, which I didn’t plan to) to be atheists, and now I’m Catholic. 🙂 Yet this philosophy seems to work for a lot of families, which makes me think that maybe I’m missing something. What do you think? Is it possible to raise your kids to be open-minded about religion?


  1. Judge373

    I think a lot of parents don’t want their children to feel like their parents’ religion has been “forced” onto them. Being open about religion” is simply code for “I don’t want to set up a situation where my child will want to rebel against religion just because they’re rebelling against me”.

  2. majellamom

    Good question!

    I think as close as you can get to raising kids to be “open-minded” about religion is to not raise them with any religion and not talk about religion. My parents did this, and I definately don’t think that it was good for me.

    My parents aren’t particularly hostile to Christianity, Judaism, Islam…my mom says that she is a Christian, but hasn’t gone to church regularly since my older brother was a baby.

    Basically, we celebrated Christian holidays, and I had no idea why! Christmas we had a nativity scene…even though we never talked about Jesus. Easter we hunted for eggs, but I don’t even think that my parents ever told me that it was celebrating the resurrection of Jesus. My mom was very confused when she found out when I was in high school that I didn’t know the Lord’s prayer. I think she thought that I would absorb all of this from growing up in a family with historically christian roots.

    I think that raising your kids the way my parents did is a good way to lose your children to cults or devil worship, personally. I was a loudly self-proclaimed athiest when I was young…but being an athiest doesn’t really give you any hope! And life without hope is just depressing!

    Generally, though, I think that you are correct on some level about this phenomenon…although I think a chunk of the parents may be a little more like mine. One minimally religious (Christian, or whatever) the other NOT religious, and when they have kids the NOT religious person wins, and you just raise your kids to be secular humanists or whatever, and the justification given by the minimially religious parents is that they are trying to raise their children to be open minded to religion.

    Just random thoughts before 8am mass! Have to get the kids up and ready now.

  3. William Eunice

    “Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the
    mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something
    — Gilbert Keith Chesterton

    I’ll try to post more on this later …

  4. Laura

    That was my husband’s plan, too, but he was agnostic and didn’t really end up teaching the kids anything about religion, preferring instead to allow them to drift along.

    I recently read Witness by Whittaker Chambers and his parents were not Christians and were “open-minded” about religion. However, one day he matter-of-factly said something to his mother about God creating the world and she exploded at him. He said at that point, as a child, he realized that “an open mind is closed at one end.”

  5. Christine

    What I think this phrase means when I hear people talking about it is that they don’t want to put forth a solid truth for the kids.

    They don’t mind admitting that Christianity, Islam or Judaism might be true. They just haven’t really made up their minds or if they have – they don’t want to impose it on their kids. Which is just silly – what I’ve seen from this attitude is that the kids don’t end up embracing anything.

    They tend to like the parts of any religion that feel good – but flee anything they don’t personally like. And they don’t want to alienate any religion or idea as possibly wrong (even if they hate it) because that might be discrimination. And really what they mean is don’t impose anything on us. And as long as my kids grow up “good people” we’re alright.

  6. Jeff Miller

    I think there is way to much of the idea that there is a problem of parents raising their children up in their own beliefs. As if they should just wait for the kids to decide on their own what religious practice if any to follow. They don’t wait for their kids to be 18 before they decide what language to speak, but somehow something as important as God is suppose to be left to just their decision.

    But for most it is really religious pluralism and relativism that drives this “open mindedness.” I think it is much better to teach a pursuit of truth. Being raised in a totally non-religious household it was the openness to truth and following where it leads you was helpful in becoming Catholic.

    Though conversely it is possible to teach religion as truth while still teaching respect for adherents of other religions and those who follow no religion.

  7. Dr. Colossus

    G.K. Chesterton said, “Don’t be so open-minded that your brains fall out.” The problem with raising kids to be open-minded (using today’s definition) is that it becomes a tacit endorsement of the “whatever works for you” philosophy. I’m 24, so I know a lot of people who were raised w/ that mentality and most of them have plenty of interest in religion but no interest in following any of them. They’ll read or talk to you about your faith and then go right on doing whatever they please.

    That being said, I think it’s important to raise your children in the Catholic definition of being “open-minded”, which is to say that you should, as St. Paul said, “test everything, hold fast to what is good.”

  8. Melanie B

    “It seems to me that if you intentionally plan to stay in that state indefinitely, then what you’re really saying is that you believe that objective truth about spiritual matters cannot be known. And if that’s the case, then you’re taking an active stance against the three major monotheistic belief systems (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) that teach that objective truth does exist and can be known.”

    Jen, I think you’re exactly right. The logic of open-mindedness is closed to the possibility of objective truth and is really only open to subjective feelings. It seems even more closed off to the possibility of belief than atheism, which at least takes a stance on the objective truth of the non-existence of God.

  9. Red Neck Woman

    How about redefining what “open-minded” means? I would like it if my children lovingly embraced the adherents of all faiths, while passionately embracing the Truth. I’m also not afraid to show them what I’ve found to be the Truth, why I think it is the Truth, to willingly allow the Truth to be challenged by all-comers including my children so that in the end the Truth is not something that has been forced on them but something that they have willingly embraced as their own.

    But then I was always that kid in high school who when the “open-minded” kids started saying things like “who decides what is normal?” raised her hand to volunteer to decide.

  10. Karie, the Regular Guy's Extraordinary Wife


    I agree with Redneck Woman. I think the important thing is to raise our children with compassion and empathy for those who have not yet accepted the full truth and rejoice in what has already been embraced through their faith. Teach your children to act with charity, not “open-mindedness” because most of the time people who wish to raise “open-minded” children often wonder what went wrong, because now they don’t believe in anything.

  11. Melora

    Is it possible that they mean that they are telling their children to be open to the idea that God might have a plan for ultimately saving all people, not just those who recognized the truth of Christianity (or Judaism, or Islam, which ever They believe is true)? I’m thinking of something like what C.S. Lewis has in The Last Battle, toward the end (pages 205-206, in my book). In the story, Tash is the god of another culture and Aslan is the Christ figure. Aslan tells another character, by way of explanation of how someone who followed Tash could wind up in Heaven, “For he (Tash) and I are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore, if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom is serves and by Tash his deed is accepted.” I guess the idea is a sort of universalism.

    I teach my children that our beliefs, defined in the Nicene Creed, are correct. However, I also teach them that, because God’s power and love are limitless, it is entirely possible that He has a plan that includes the ultimate salvation of those in our family who are Jewish, atheists, and pagans. We try to live according to the teaching of our church and the Bible because they give us the best guide to serve and love God and to receive his grace, but we are open to the possibility that there may be other paths. Not as good or joyful or hope-filled as our path, and probably longer, but still paths that may ultimately lead to the same destination.

    This came out sounding like I am very wishy-washy, and I’m really not. But there are some things that I think we just aren’t going to know for sure or understand completely in this life, and I’m okay with that. The Baptists in the church next door are Very Sure that Episcopalians, Catholics, etc. are going straight to Hell (they are pretty eccentric over there, even for Baptists), but I’m “open minded” to the idea that, after a stint in Purgatory (I’m Episcopalian, but I love the idea of Purgatory — I certainly will need it!) they will outgrow their self-righteousness and be ready to move on to a nicer place.
    Could this be what your open-minded aquaintances are talking about?

  12. Abigail

    I think better than “open-minded” to is raise your children to be grounded in their faith and also knowedegable about other faiths. Respectful of other faith’s is my goal for my kids, not wishy-washy that all religions are essentially the same.

  13. Patrick

    Jen, your logic about this is a thing of beauty. Thanks.

    As for raising kids, few parents are open-minded about, say, whether it is OK to hit people you don’t like, or to spit on widows and orphans,or to scream obscenities at random strangers in public. We don’t let kids figure these things out for themselves. Yet we should be open-minded about teaching them how to save their souls? It makes no sense.

    Scripture is pretty clear that children receive the faith of their parents. It really can’t be any other way. So when parents have no faith, or weak faith, you’ll likely see the same in the children, just as parents of great faith tend to produce children who are the same.

  14. Anna


    just as parents of great faith tend to produce children who are the same.

    How do you explain faithful parents whose children have strayed from the faith?

  15. Jeannine

    My uncle and aunt agreed to raise their kids to be open-minded about religion. My uncle was a Catholic, and my aunt was a Christian Scientist. So their children now have no religion.
    If parents wait too long to let the children “decide” about religion, the children may not ever see that there is a reason to even bother with it.

  16. Courageous Grace

    What an interesting conversation! In my circle of real life friends (as opposed to the wonderful people I’ve met online but not in person) there is a whole spectrum of faiths and beliefs and have noticed that generally those whose parents go with the “open-minded” position ended up with children who are rather lazy in their choice of religion, meaning they don’t really care. With one exception, a friend whose cynical father raised an even more cynical wannabe Buddhist/Agnostic/Athiest son.

    Then there’s my husband and me whose parents brought us up in the church from an early age. Hubby has always been active in the church. My parents kind of quit taking me when I got older but I ended up returning anyway.

    It seems our friends fit the mold…lol

  17. Tienne

    Excellent post, Jen. I think you’re exactly right.

    Open-minded and tolerant are not the same thing, in my opinion. I want my children to be tolerant of all religions. We have a mix in our family of Jewish, Protestant, Catholic and agnostic/atheist. There’s no reason in my mind why every member can’t get along with every other member of the family. There should be discussions of our differences and seeking of common ground. There should be respect for each individuals needs and beliefs. There should be love and understanding and admiration.

    But if my kids grow up to be so “open-minded” that they never commit to the one true faith, I will consider their religious upbringing to be a failure.

  18. Christine the Soccer Mom

    Jen, these comments are great! (And so is your post, natch!)

    Soccer Dad and I once talked to my sister and her husband (she’s still nominally Catholic, he’s nominally Muslim), and said that they needed to do SOMETHING about religion. (Actually, this came up before the wedding, too, but let’s not go there…) He said that if they kept saying, “Let’s let them decide” their kids would wind up with no religion. What they needed to do was to expose them to both, even if it meant going to Mosque on Saturday and Mass on Sunday, so they had information to decide.

    So Sis is taking them to Mass (nearly every week – this is a great improvement), and now her three year old is begging to be Baptized. We’ll see where that goes. But at least one of them stepped up.

    I’m praying for her to have a great conversion that will sweep up her husband at the same time. It would have to be a huge one, though.

  19. Patrick

    Anna, I said faithful parents “tend to” produce faithful children. There are, of course, many exceptions. Some lose their faith and never regain it.

    I think what often happens is kids who are raised in a certain religion fall away from it during their young adult years, then come back after they marry and have their own children. The little things we learn as kids – prayers, Bible stories, etc – seem to come back to us down the road when we need them most.wwomt

  20. Melora

    All the other responses were quite different from mine, and now I’m curious. If you Don’t think that God can/might have a plan for saving those who die without having come to believe in and accept salvation through Christ, what do you tell your children when they ask you, “Are Grandma and Grandpa (not Christians) going to Hell?” And “Is Uncle _____ (Jewish) going to Hell?” And how about all those people who were good, faithful, believing Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists etc.? I guess, “Yes they are, dear. Too bad, but that is where they are going to spend eternity,” would be the right and non-wishy-washy answer, but it is not one I can bring myself to give my children (or, obviously, truly accept myself).

    I am not saying that one should teach one’s children that all paths are equally good. I think all salvation is through Christ, and that we are meant to live as Christ’s representatives on earth. I’m just not sure that death is the point where people are cut off from hope of receiving God’s grace.

  21. Jennifer F.

    Melora –

    Is it possible that they mean that they are telling their children to be open to the idea that God might have a plan for ultimately saving all people, not just those who recognized the truth of Christianity (or Judaism, or Islam, which ever They believe is true)?

    There are certainly people like that out there, but that wasn’t who I was thinking of in this post. The people I know who are raising their kids to be “open-minded about religion” don’t talk about God at all or adhere to any kind of definable belief system.

    All the other responses were quite different from mine, and now I’m curious…

    I haven’t had a chance to read every word of all the comments, but I didn’t see too many that I think would disagree with you. I think that most people who’ve commented would agree with your statement when you said:

    I teach my children that our beliefs, defined in the Nicene Creed, are correct. However, I also teach them that, because God’s power and love are limitless, it is entirely possible that He has a plan that includes the ultimate salvation of those in our family who are Jewish, atheists, and pagans.

    I can’t speak for everyone, but I think that most Catholics are with you on that one. The Catechism says: “Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience – those too may achieve eternal salvation.” (See 847 here.)

    Does that answer your question?

    Thanks, good discussion!

  22. Shelley

    I don’t think it is possible for a “true” (or should I say “practicing”) Christian to do this. I can’t speak for other religions. But the Bible tells us to raise our children up in the way they should go, and many other things about sharing our faith.

    Something I find interesting is that Muslims are instructed to study other religions as teens I think, I guess so that they will recognize their own as the true religion. But I have read many a story of Muslims becoming Christians as a result of studying our Bible.

    I do believe in teaching my child about what other religions believe, but as I do I point out why the other religion is a false teaching.

    Living out you faith is the best way to teach your child. Not living it out but telling them to is probably the surest way to make sure they don’t grow up Christian.

  23. Tienne

    Melora —

    I think your theology is sound. As Catholics, we don’t presume to know where anyone is after death, neither Ghandi nor Hitler nor Judas Iscariot. We know the Saints are in heaven because they’re working miracles, but that’s the extent of our knowledge. And we have no confidence of our own eternal salvation either. We hope for it, trust in God, follow Him and pray for the best. So I would definitely answer my child’s question as to whether Dedah is going to hell because he’s an agnostic with “That’s for God alone to decide. But if you’re worried, you can pray for Dedah and talk to him about how much God means to you.”

    In addition, I think we can acknowledge the good in other faiths. The average Protestant, for example, has a deeper relationship with God than the average Catholic. The Jews have been faithful to the Covenant through the worst trials and have kept their ways no matter what society they live in. I think it’s worthwhile to look at other faiths and learn ways to better our adherence to our own, but that’s about as open-minded as we should get.

  24. Kristen Laurence

    Great question, and insightful answers, Jen. Very interesting.

  25. Melora

    atJen & Tienne,
    Thank you so much for clarifying things for me. I don’t know much about Catholic theology, and I guess I have become a little defensive about my “open-mindedness” because most of the protestants I know Would tell you that non-Christians (or, even more specifically, non-Baptists or non-Presbyterians, depending on the person) are absolutely going straight to Hell. Your link to the Catechism, Jen, starting with 839 and going through 848, was wonderfully helpful to me! That really answers my questions in a way that strikes me as Truth. I am going to go back and study the whole thing in morre detail later, but I truly thank you. (Don’t know why it never occurred to me to read the Catholic Catechism!)

    I apologize for taking up so much space when I misunderstood the point of your question in the first place.

  26. Jennifer F.

    Melora – glad that was helpful. And no problem about the question! It’s fun to discuss this kind of stuff!

  27. Trudy

    Hi Jen,

    I’m Kate’s mom, form your ‘
    Three things Your parents did right’ group project.

    The last three posts together prompt me tp reply.

    When I was expecting my first child, I wanted to give her the very best, so I spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out what the best was. what has I recieved that I was most greatful for?

    Looking around, I could see that riches and fame were not a sure road to happiness, or even gratitude. Even health could not be the ultimate good, as some people with disabilities have a much better attitude, and therefore a happier life than some people who take the best of health for granted.

    So leaving tangible goods aside, I thought of the best intangible that I knew, human love. Yet this too was not good enough. My father, whose love shines out of the photographs of my childhood, died when I was seven. The best has to last eternally.

    So by eliminating the lesser goods, I understood that the best gift that I could give my children is a lively awareness of God’s eternal, bounteous love.

    Deciding to raise your children to be “open minded” is to refuse to give them the invitation which will allow them to interact freely woith the Creator of the Universe.

    I have raised 7 children, and each of them has asked ‘How does God talk to us?’

    I have responded that it varies, as God relates to us individually, but if they listen, He will communicate with them.

    The second realization that I had is that religion needs to be both taught and caught.

    We need to visibly live our faith.

    there is a fairy tale, where in order to win the princesses hand, the suitor has to ride his horse up a glass mountai n. The hero succeeds because he can see that the mountain is really made up of sand. As long as he can see the underlying reality, he can climb the mountain and win the princess.

    If we only show the polished side of our lives, we are presenting our children with a glass mountain. When we let them see our failures and struggles, they can see the handholds which they will need to hang on to in their own faith life.

    Let your children see your priorities. As parents we give many instructions. What do we stress most? I know that some people think that sucess at school and work have to come first, and that there’ll be time for religion later. But, there may not be a later.

    They might not live to become adults. One of my oldest daughter’s kindergarden classmate died accident.

    If we had the opportunity to introduce our children to a lovely, gracious, loving and very important ruler, would we rejoice at the wonderful opportunity?
    Does anyone think that parents who are able to take their children to the White House or to a Royal palace are doing their children some sort of injury?

    To wrap up, in order to pass along the faith we need to have it ourselves, live it, & teach it.

    Children are a wonderful gift from God. for maximum enjoyment we should read and follow the instruction book (the Bible, and take advantage of the accompanying internal Grace guidance system (the Holy Spirit). And we need to trust our God and Saviour, who has done a wonderful work in us, and will surely do the same in our children.

    God Bless,


  28. Tertium Quid

    G.K. Chesterton said that the reason we open our minds is the same reason we open our minds: to bite down on something worth eating.

    What do you think of someone who walks around with his mouth open all the time?

  29. Tertium Quid

    We now see the intolerance of the self-righteously tolerant. It’s OK to ask tough questions so long as you are willing to bow down before truth when you find it.

    Re what you tell your kids about who is going to Heaven and who is going to Hell, we Catholics are not Gnostics: we don’t know the fate of other souls. That’s God’s business.

    Gnosticism is a heresy. It means you think you figured out your own fate and/or have special knowledge of the fates of others.

    Agnosticism is not a heresy; it simply means you don’t know.

    St. Augustine said when asked about those souls who have not heard the Gospel: “I don’t know what I don’t know.”

  30. Mojo

    Wow! You’ve each given me much to ponder on this post. Thank you, all.

    I recently heard it said at a baptism that we are “babysitting” our children in this life. Our children truly belong to God and are only “on loan to us.” I’ve heard this same idea expressed in other ways, but the message is consistent: my children do not “belong” to me. Since I am “babysitting” my children and I believe my job is to return their souls to God, I must guard their catechesis and their entire formation to make that even a possibility. My children aren’t going to “get it” if I do nothing and allow them to “choose for themselves.” Only by my actions and teaching will they learn. They will only flounder if all I serve-up is non-committal nothingness.

    What did most folks participating in the “Three things my parents did right” include in their essays? That their parents imparted the gift of Faith to them. This is worth noting.

    Yes, my children have free will and they will eventually make their own choices. That considered, I am still obligated to lay the proper foundation of Truth and I know I will be held accountable for this. Why would I want to play Russian Roulette with my children’s souls? Or mine if I don’t do my job? The trend of doing so is very dangerous.

    I have cousins who were raised as you describe, Jen. In their family of five siblings, all five have struggled with issues of faith, in their marriages…with LIFE, in general. And in their childhood home, discipline was much different than that which I experienced in mine. Frankly, the lack of discipline there was in stark contrast to how my parents raised me and my three siblings. Isn’t embracing and practicing our Faith a discipline? Don’t we owe our children the gift of Faith AND discipline?

    I actually view the practice of allowing children to “choose for themselves” as neglectful and as a clear example of parental laziness. It’s tough work raising a child properly in the Faith. Ditto for providing a framework of discipline in a child’s life. This may explain why some parents allow their children to “choose for themselves.” After all, to impart Truth to my children, I have to embrace it. I have to live it. I have to be disciplined. Yep, I must actually believe and live what I’m teaching. Otherwise, children can spot a hypocrite a mile away!

    Tienne is correct to distinguish between being tolerant and being “open minded.” And I agree having respect for others is also part of this discussion. Being raised Catholic in the southern U.S., I’ve experienced intolerance. I have defended and explained the Faith all my life, my first memories of having done so come from middle school. (But having done so made me appreciate my Faith all the more.) My parents experienced this in the 1940s and 50s, too. Because of their experiences, disrespectful attitudes toward other religious denominations and faiths were not tolerated in our home. To be sure, may parents made it clear they believed the Roman Catholic Church held the fullness of Truth, but they didn’t allow me to speak about other beliefs in a derogatory way. We were taught to acknowledge and respect the good in other faiths, but we were never encouraged to consider them as “options.”

  31. John Seymour

    I find this interesting because it was where I was many years ago, before my reversion. In thinking back on that time, I think many people who say they want to raise their children to have an open mind on God, do so because it allows them to avoid thinking too hard about God in their own lives. Either his absence, or their failure to live a life consistent with their nominal beliefs.

    Many folks have commented on the Chesterton quote about an open minds and open mouths. To which I can only add, “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” (Psalm 34:8)

  32. Catherine

    Have you read the book Life of Pi? Its one of my favorites (but you have to read to the end!) and that’s the point he is making – doubt is a fact of life, so its ok to be there. but its not an end in itself, you can’t stay there.

    I’ve been studying Hinduism lately (as a hobby, I’m a Christian) and I would say that they too believe in objective truth that can be known. There is a difference between East and West in HOW we know, but not IF we know, I think.


  33. Khadija

    If being open-minded means that they don’t believe there is truth, then I don’t think it’s possible.
    But if your definition of open-mined is ok with accepting other but believing in Truth, then it is posible. It all comes down to semantics really.
    Insightful question.



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