A mother attends mass with her young son
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I Was Raised Without Religion and I Don’t Want to Make the Same Mistake With My Son

Jan 8, 2020

I’m not religious, and this was by design.

The only conversation I can ever remember my parents having about religion in early childhood is that they were going to let me pick a faith on my own. Looking back, it was an enlightened view for the early 1980s, but it also came about because they were in a Buddhist-Christian interfaith marriage and neither of them were devout.

So I grew up and was not drawn to any religion, so I didn't pick one. However, when I had a child of my own (he’s 11 now), I did choose for him to be raised as a practising Catholic. The reason is very simple: I was raised without religion and I think it was a mistake.


Kids and parents have always had differences. Read about a mother with a son who was going vegetarian at the moment she was getting her hunting license here.


His father, my husband Niall, is a barely practicing Catholic immigrant from Ireland. He didn’t care if Cillian was raised in his faith — in fact, it would be less work for him as he’s the one who attends mass with our son while I go to the gym. He would have gladly handed the religious reins over to me. Except I’m not a Catholic and I don’t intend to become one.

A recent study I read said that a religious upbringing is associated with better life satisfaction in youths, more frequent volunteer work and more forgiving attitudes. All worthy goals. However, another study I read notes that a religious upbringing is associated with less altruism. And yet, I don’t really care about any of these studies. 

This desire for Cillian to have a religion to call his own doesn’t come from an academic place, it comes from my intuition and life experiences.

Whether Cillian believes in Jesus or follows the teachings of the church is up to him. Like my parents, I leave his deep beliefs for him to decide when he grows up. However, unlike my parents, I want him to have a feeling of belonging to not only a church, but its community and his own Irish Catholic culture.
This was something I never had.

My grandmother was a Chinese Buddhist who attended temple regularly. I never went with her and I know in my bones this is an essential part of my Chinese heritage that I’ve missed out on. And as a young adult, a harrowing tragedy made me see up close what I was missing.

When Niall and I were in our 20s, his sister Eugenie died at age 25. Fresh out of university and exploring South America for the first time, she was killed in a horrifying bus accident in Bolivia when her tourist bus plunged off a cliff notorious for its peril. (You can still read the story in the Irish Times.) Niall and I travelled to his family home in Donegal for the funeral. One of his aunts, his siblings and a few of Eugenie’s friends and I were sitting in the living room warmed by a coal fire, curtains pulled tight, saying the Rosary. I could not take part in this other than bowing my head with my eyes shut, not knowing even one word of the Hail Mary prayer.

Later at Eugenie’s funeral mass, everyone knew the rituals: when to kneel, when to make the sign of the cross, their voices chanting in unison at the right times as the mass marched on. Everyone knew the ins and outs as well as they knew the contours of their own faces in the mirror. And I was stirred by this, and I was a long way from being a parent at that point, but I knew that this sense of belonging, this sense of ritual and knowing-what-comes-next and cultural and spiritual togetherness was what I wanted for my child.

In my own parenting circles, religion is something we rarely speak about. We are a religiously diverse and mostly non-practicing group. If I take this one step further and am honest with myself, my crowd of secular urban friends and acquaintances can be silently judgy on the matter. I remember a brunch with friends where I was explaining why Cillian was getting baptized in Ireland, something I thought would be nice for his grandmother to celebrate at her parish. I was met with mostly gentle nods and affirmations, except for one acquaintance, who served me silence and an arched eyebrow worthy of Downton Abbey’s Lady Mary as I told the story.


Are you a non-believing parent who wants to talk to your kids about God? Find out about some books to help you here.


Our son is not what I call a blind believer, but he steadfastly believes no matter what that someday we will all be together in heaven. I love that for him. Like all smart kids, he has lots of questions about God and he voices doubts, and that’s great, too. Like all 11-year-olds, he would rather watch YouTube than go to church, but about once every five weeks, he goes without complaining. The point is he can dive deeper, or he can back out — it's his call, but he has a religion that he belongs to if he chooses it.

Funerals, baptisms, communions, confirmations and weddings in the Catholic Church will come and Cillian will be ready for them. If he ever finds he wants to light a candle, or attend church service in Ireland or here in Toronto or anywhere else where there are Catholics — and they are nearly everywhere — he will know his way.

And if he ever wants to say a prayer? Unlike me, he’ll have one at the ready.


Are you a parent? Are you a writer? Do you have a different opinion on this subject? Please reach out to us with a pitch here.



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Article Author Helen Racanelli
Helen Racanelli

Helen Racanelli is a Toronto-based writer, editor and content creator. Her writing has appeared in the Toronto StarChatelaine and The Lens. She also has a YouTube channel: Shrimpy McGee. You can reach her at @helenrac on Twitter. 

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