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Religiously Congregating (or Not)

Posted by T. Resnikoff // January 16th 2013 // soundings, Stories and Voices, youth // no comments

In response to Katherine Ozment’s article “Losing Our Religion”, KJ Dell’Antonia presents an argument for what is gained by not fostering connection with religious community: parents having the opportunity to support their children’s freedom to define their religious identity. We invite you to add your reflection to the debate! – Ed.

KJ Dell’Antonia, writing in the New York Times blog Motherlode – Adventures in Parenting, comments on Katherine Ozment’s article “Losing Our Religion” (in the January 2013 issue of Boston Magazine, previously excerpted by Blue Boat) that it might not be a bad thing when parents don’t offer their children access to religious community.

Citing Andrew Solomon’s thesis in “Far From the Tree” (that “vertical”and “horizontal” identity formation are different and effect the well-being of the growing individual differently), Dell’Antonia broadens the debate, pointing out that for families of mixed religious ancestry the “compromise” of attending one congregation over another could be harmful to youth developing their own relationship spiritual or religious identity.

She writes, “It’s less important that teenagers embrace the community their parents have chosen for them (an example of vertical identity – Ed.) than that they find some community themselves (horizontal identity formation – Ed.), and as they grow up, what matters most is that we as parents embrace the communities and identities that become a part of our children.”

But the issue isn’t as clear cut as Dell’Antonia’s article “Children, Choosing Their Religion” makes it seem. Dell’Antonia comments on the effect the Unitarian Universalist youth ministry at First Parish in Arlington, MA has on Ozment, writing, “Ozment’s reporting takes her to a Unitarian youth group, where one of the teenagers asks her, “Why haven’t you given your kids religion?” Caught up in the moment, and an appreciation of this hugging, grounded, happy group of young people, she sputters excuses.” Ozment’s sputters finally give way to her deeper insight, “I drove home on that dark autumn night imagining my own kids struggling through adolescence, and having a community of like-minded peers to share their troubles with. Church seemed to offer those kids something nothing else could.”

While ignoring the description of the grounded, happy group of young people Ozment encountered, Dell’Antonia focuses the sputters to write, “Asked the same question, I’d have a different answer: because there’s no one religious community that everyone in our family will feel welcome in, and we have faith that our children will find their own way to the community they need, religious or not.” Dell’Antonia writes, “My children may find their own ways to organized religion, or stick with the pleasant acceptance of its absence that their father and I enjoy. As long as they’re not picketing military funerals, I’ll be fine with whatever they chose. I don’t see our family life as “losing” religion. I see it as gaining an entirely different “vertical” trait: that of including whoever they turn out to be in our definition of family.”

The practice of “vertical integration” seems a fair description of  Unitarian Universalism, the principles of which encourage understanding that our differences, too, enable our communion – even in cases where, as Dell’Antonia writes, “the very roots of those beliefs are in conflict with one partner or the other’s cultural identity.” Yet, Dell’Antonia’s observation is sound, for in our desire to commune upon and transmit shared values, and as our Fourth Principle instructs, we don’t wish for the individual, or that person’s search for truth and meaning to be lost.

This debate has many opinions – what is yours? How is Unitarian Universalism equipped to help today’s youth (or adults) find their place in religious community without challenging their freedom to choose and assert their identity? What are ways Unitarian Universalist youth groups provide adolescents the structure of community and the freedom to self-define? Where does Unitarian Universalism fit into a world where religion, religious identity and affiliation is rapidly evolving?

We encourage your reflection and comments – Ed.

About the Author

Ted Resnikoff is the Digital Communications Editor at the Unitarian Universalist Association.
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