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Adoption Blog: Man Up!

How Do We Help Adopted Children Choose a Religion?

Have you ever stopped to consider how random religion is? Not the various religious practices themselves, but rather how we become involved in a particular denomination or sect? The world is vast with varying religious beliefs and practices, and practically speaking, it's where you happen to be born that likely determines your god and your vision of heaven. But what if circumstances beyond your control take you away from the world in which you were born and transport you into another? Is your birth religion suddenly less relevant? This is the plight of many adopted children, including my own son. Reconciling his two worlds is something I think about a lot. His spirituality and sense of belonging are very important to me, and I want him to be comfortable as a citizen of two cultures.

The subject of religion and adoption first entered my mind during our two-week trip to India to meet and adopt our son Manu. As we traveled throughout the country, we came across a multitude of ancient temples and beautiful monuments honoring various Hindu gods and mythological figures, the scale of which are breathtaking by American standards. Religion was so interwoven into the fabric of daily life we witnessed in Indiafrom the ruins of ancient mosques to the prayer calls of modern worshipthat it was impossible for me not to think about what Manu would be losing as a result of his intercountry adoption. I tried to express (lightheartedly) the guilt I was feeling about the reality of removing my son from the only world he had ever known to the director of the children's home we adopted him from, but she told me not to worry. The children have not been raised with religion, she told me. They are free to take the religion of their adopted family, she added. I understood what she was trying to say, and I’m sure her words would be comforting to many new families. But to me, that logic just didn't make sense.

It was something of a wake-up call. An aspect of adoption I had not considered before was becoming clear: In addition to needing to love, provide for, and educate my new son, I was responsible for his spiritual upbringing.

I am not what anyone would call devoutly religious. Although I was raised in a Christian atmosphere, events in my childhood and a never-ending stream of unanswered (or unanswerable) questions left me cautiously skeptical about faith by the time I reached adulthood. It appeared to me as a young twentysomething—both through my studies in history as well as my reading on the subject of religion—that most of the world's problems stemmed from religious tension and conflicts over varying definitions of right and wrong. It seemed that no matter what side of the religious spectrum you found yourself, if you were going to be true to your faith, you had to believe that opposing minds were, at the very least, destined for something less than your vision of heaven. I simply could not accept that proposition, and I would spend the next many years blissfully uninvolved in (some might say unaware of) religious practice.

I'm not sure if it is the interest I have taken in Hinduism since learning that I would adopt a child from India or simply part of getting older, but recently, thoughts of my own spirituality have crept back into my head. I find myself wanting to believe that there is a larger goal in life than to simply exist, but reconciling that with the idea that someone has to be right or wrong is challenging. Unable to simply will myself into a belief system, I await an epiphany.

While I'm not impatient on my own behalf, I wonder what we should teach our son about religion as he grows old enough to understand. How do I explain to him the dynamics of his situation—that if he had remained in India, in all likelihood he would have been raised a Hindu? How do I explain that now in the United States, with less access to the culture and raised by parents who don't practice the religion, he won't be as likely to choose that faith?

This is turning out to be far more difficult for me to come to terms with than I thought it would be. I don't want to impress my cynicism upon him while he is still impressionable, and I don’t want to discount any aspect of his heritage. At the same time, I can't teach him honestly about things that are still questionable to me with any real conviction.

We'll try and keep his options open and provide him with as much information as possible so that he can choose the path that's right for him in time. We are lucky enough to live in a community with a relatively large Indian population, so I hope that we can involve him in some of the cultural activities of his birth country. To keep his options open, we have been careful to observe some of the faith-based dietary guidelines to which he would have been accustomed in India had he followed a Hindu faith, hoping that he won't feel too far removed should he later choose that path. Furthermore, living in America, a country of relative diversity and religious tolerance, he won't lack access to other religions of the world, so I hope that he'll be able to make an informed, heartfelt choice when he comes of age.

In the end I want him to feel like he was free to make his own choices and not be hindered by my personal feelings toward religious organizations. I'm not sure yet how I'll accomplish that goal, but I know I won't stand in his way should he choose a path different from mine.

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Wonderful entry! Looking forward to reading about your son’s journey. My husband and I are encountering a similar issue. We are academics and secular humanists allowing our Korean born son to choose his own path, but there is much external pressure from relatives and our very Catholic community for us to take his “spiritual upbringing” more seriously - i.e., prescribed and imposed. Good to hear that others are wrestling with the same issues…

By LizLee on Friday, November 19, 2010 at 10:51 pm.

Jeff (and Liz, too), I can’t tell you how much time I spend thinking about this issue in general, on behalf of my two biological children, and, specifically, in terms of my future son or daughter, who will be born in Korea.  Thank you for being so candid about an incredibly delicate subject.  I very much look forward to reading about the hows and whys as they play out in your family.

By Meghan on Saturday, November 20, 2010 at 5:12 am.

Jeff, given the name of your blog I wanted to share a quick funny with you. Over Thanksgiving I was cautioning my daughter Hanna about eating too many sweets. She turned to me and said, “Kid up, Mommy!”

By Stacy Clark on Tuesday, November 30, 2010 at 5:27 pm.

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