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February 18, 2015

Teens, religion and the freedom of choice

Teens Religion File Art/for PhillyVoice

Where will his quest lead? You can’t control where his conscience takes him, but you can stay connected to him as he journeys.

Dear Amy,

My teenage son is no longer interested in attending church. We are a devout Christian family and center our lives upon the Bible. However, my son now tells me “the Bible isn’t the only truth.” Two days ago, I found a book about Buddhism in his school backpack. My heart is breaking.

My wife and I require that all of our children attend church. If any of our children miss a service, weekly privileges are revoked. For example, we take our son’s cell phone away for a week if he doesn’t attend. So, he goes. But I can tell that he is not engaged. He sits through the service and sulks. 

“You are forcing me to do something I don’t want to do!” he tells me. “Don't you believe in the freedom of conscience?” His question keeps me up at night.

What can I do? Should we “force” him to go?


A Struggling Dad, Philadelphia

Dear Struggling Dad,

Thank you for reaching out to me. 

It makes sense that you are struggling. On one hand, you want to affirm your son’s individual right to matters of conscience. To see him sulk through a worship service is hardly ideal. On the other hand, you are hopeful that by requiring church attendance, you secure your son’s affiliation to the faith you embrace as true. 

Such tensions impact families across traditions. Even parents who are atheists can struggle if their teen shows interest in converting to a theistic worldview. As parents, we so often assume our children will embrace our truth as their own. 

Should you “force” your son to attend church? Let me answer your heartfelt query with a personal story. 

I grew up in a devout LDS (Mormon) family in Utah. Mormon rituals, beliefs and practices punctuated our daily lives. We attended weekly, three-hour Sunday services and my parents were regularly involved in church activities. The vast majority of the people surrounding me, even at school, were LDS.

In many ways, Mormonism provided a nurturing cocoon of safety and comfort permeating nearly all of my childhood experiences. Yet, I was an avid young reader. I thoroughly enjoyed diving into a good story. I could sit in my backyard in American Fork, Utah and journey across time and space with only a book in hand. Through literature, I came to better comprehend the diversity of life outside of Utah.

One afternoon, at the age of 14, I felt compelled to write a “thank you” letter to the author of a nonfiction memoir. The author had chronicled her faith journey as an evangelical Christian so beautifully. I was moved by her account of coming to know God and wanted to thank her for sharing her story. In my letter, I mentioned I was Mormon. I sent the letter to her publisher and hoped she would receive it somehow.

Surprisingly, she wrote me back. At first, I was excited to hold the rather thick envelope in my hands. I could tell she had put a great deal of time into crafting a multi-page letter. What did she have to say? 

I went into my bedroom, shut the door, and opened the envelope. I soon discovered that the author I so admired firmly believed I belonged to “an evil cult.” She devoted page after page to cataloging the grave errors of Mormonism. From her point of view, I was in immediate danger of hellfire. My hands shook as I read her words. 

By 14, I knew there were people who didn’t like Mormons. Certainly, the persecution of the early LDS community was highlighted in church lessons. Nevertheless, this was the first time I read through detailed anti-Mormon propaganda. The experience changed my life, though not in the way the author intended.

I began to inquire. I began to seek. To his credit, my father welcomed my quest. Secure in his own LDS testimony, he acknowledged the presence of “good” in all faiths even as he affirmed “the truth” of Mormonism. After a lengthy debate, my father changed our family rules regarding my church attendance. I no longer had to attend the LDS church on Sunday. As long as I attended any religious service, it would “count” toward fulfilling my church obligation.

So, I journeyed. Sundays suddenly became very interesting. I attended Baptist, Presbyterian, Haré Krishna, and Catholic services. I checked books out of the library focusing on religion and philosophy. My father and I engaged in meaningful conversations and my respect for him grew.

Today, I am no longer Mormon. Yet, I don’t regard the faith of my family with contempt. Would my attitude be different had I been pressed, “forced,” or coerced to only attend Mormon services at a time when my mind was on fire with spiritual and religious wonder? I hope not. Yet, I’m certain that my relationship toward my parents would have suffered, perhaps a great deal. 

I share this story because I was like your son and you are in a place where my father stood years ago.

What event has prompted your son’s current religious musings? What conversation, letter, film, article, or blog post has sparked doubt in your Bible-centered approach to life? Where will his quest lead? You can’t control where his conscience takes him, but you can stay connected to him as he journeys. You can make your relationship the priority. Looking back at my own story, I’m very grateful that was the choice my father made.

Here is what I suggest. Spend an hour together exploring the philosophy/religion section of your favorite bookstore. Buy two copies of a few books that interest him. Read with him. Study with him. Share your own vision and listen to his. Be willing to “let” him attend a Buddhist mediation circle and share his findings with you. Don’t force him to go to church.

Of course, you will pray, as my father did, that your precious child comes to embrace your faith. And he may. He also may not. While you can’t guarantee that your son doesn’t lose his Christian testimony, you can ensure he doesn’t lose you.



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