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Do you want your child to be religious or spiritual?
Without a meaningful spiritual experience within the established religious community, some find spiritual connection with God in nature.
When I use the word “spirituality,” I mean whatever it is that helps you feel connected to something that is larger than yourself. – Dean Ornish

Recent surveys of religion in the US indicate that people’s affiliation is becoming more diverse and fluid. More than 40 percent of American adults have left the faith in which they were raised in favor of another religion or no religion at all. The percentage of people under 30 who are identifying themselves as unaffiliated with any religion has reached 20%.

Contributing to these changes are the demands of the modern workplace, which often requires extensive travel or frequent relocation. This is a major factor in the breakdown of community and the continuing emphasis on individual fulfillment. It means individuals put an emphasis on personal fulfillment in their religious experience, and that leads our children to seek personal unique spiritual experiences.

Dean Hamer in his book The God Gene used the concept of spirituality to define those people with the “God gene.” These are people who have a proclivity to spiritual experiences, which make them more likely to communicate with God and affiliate with a religious, faith-based community.

There are three characteristics of spiritual people, according to Hamer.

Such people have a tendency toward self-forgetfulness. Self-forgetfulness is the tendency to lose a sense of the self by being immersed in an activity. Often such people are described as absent-minded. They forget sense of time and place.

A second characteristics is a tendency toward mysticism. Mysticism is the fascination with events that seem to happen by chance, without a logical or scientific explanation. Such people believe that a chance encounter or an unexpected opportunity is a mystical sign. Whether it is a chance meeting of an old friend on the street or winning the lottery, it is a sign to the “mystical person” from some higher power.

Lastly, most spiritual people have a feeling of self-transcendence. They have a sense of connectedness with other people, animals, trees, flowers or mountains. They are quick to experience the feeling of being “one with nature.”

Without the positive experience of a meaningful spiritual experience within the established religious community of one’s birth, such people find a spiritual connection with God in their experience with nature.

Isaac, a student of mine, is an example of this spiritual connection. He grew up in a Jewish religiously conservative environment and culture in which holidays were celebrated, but nothing ever inspired him to pursue a religious lifestyle. He felt a lack of spontaneity and connection to God within the confines of his native city temple and religious services.

It was during a summer in college that he decided to join a 10-week cross-country Jewish ecological tour. It took no longer than the first morning of the trip, which was leaving from Mount Rainier in Washington, for him to be moved spiritually.

He described that moment as the first time he felt God’s presence as being tangible. As he rode home looking over the cascade of mountains, he felt he could now connect to the words of the Psalms, with the new awe he felt in the presence of God’s world.

Since then, Isaac has sought out religious experiences that were meaningful and spiritual. These included teaching Jewish texts on an organic farm, joining religious chanting groups and going to Jerusalem to study.

There is wonder and beauty in an individual like Isaac’s finding a meaningful channel to nurture his personal yearning and connection with God. The problem is that spirituality and relationship with God are not exclusively personal experiences. There is a communal social inclination that we have to share meaningful experiences with others. This is where spirituality meets religion.

Hamer described this as two types of religiosity: intrinsic and extrinsic religious practice. Intrinsically, religious people feel the presence of God often and are likely to pray alone as much as they do in their place of worship. They have an inclination to spirituality that Hamer says is genetic.

Yet not every child has strong spiritual tendencies. Their religious experience may be more characteristic of what Hamer describes as “extrinsic religious experience.”

Extrinsic religious practice is more social and communal in practice. It is religious expression of ritual and prayer as a communal experience. Your connection with God is enhanced by sharing and expressing it with other people who feel and believe as you do. Extrinsic religious experience is also less spontaneous and more cognitive. This includes the learning of traditional prescribed rituals, prayers and text.

Much extrinsic religious experience is learned from parents and teachers, both formally and by observing role models. Formally, a child is taught the history, meaning and practice of rituals and text. More importantly, the child experiences the integrity and grace or, unfortunately, the hypocrisy of religious life through parents or teachers. How much integrity and real commitment these role models have and how much they live an enriched life due to religious values have their impact.

If you are a parent who wants to instill in your children religious faith, life within a religious community, your effort in this area is as important as your efforts in their academics and in their personal relationships.

First, you must “walk the walk and talk the talk.” You are their model, and actions speak louder than words. You need to balance each of your child’s intrinsic personal spiritual needs and makeup with that of the social and ritual demands of your faith and community. Allow your child to search for his own personal spiritual connection and do not impose religious demands arbitrarily.

It is a search you should encourage, while simultaneously identifying opportunities to include him in your broader social religious community. It is also important to find a faith community that will be inclusive and allow for meaningful personal spiritual expression.

The writer is a clinical psychologist and certified life coach who helps teenagers, adults and executives achieve positive goals.
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