Someone recently pointed out an article wherein the author, ostensibly a Hellenic polytheist, goes on and on about her home not being a polytheistic one, and insisting that she is not raising her children in her faith. (1) This comes up every so often. Usually I see it from neo-Pagan quarters, not so much in general from polytheistic ones but whenever it comes up my response is the same: Shame on you. What a disgrace to yourself and the Gods.
If we are not going to pass our traditions on to the next generation than what are we doing this for? The strength of any tradition is its intergenerational transmission of praxis and belief. Without that transmission, our traditions will wither again on the vine. There will be no restoration.
There are obligations inherent with taking up this restoration and this is one of the really fundamental and base-line things: raise your children polytheistic. Inoculate them against the depredations of secularism, consumerism, and monotheism. If one is living one’s faith, this should occur naturally. We learn by osmosis and imitation at first after all. To doggedly refuse to expose your children to your faith is pathetic. It’s a cop-out. It speaks volumes for how little one truly values one’s Gods and traditions. I find it contemptible. Why this is even an issue, I truly don’t understand.
Now I realize some people come from deeply troubled and perhaps even traumatic backgrounds where their birth religions were concerned and may associate raising up a child in a faith as forcing one’s faith upon that child. Firstly, I would counsel that person to get therapy to work through those issues; first and foremost because they will impact one’s new faith deeply and often in deeply deleterious ways. Also, if you can do something that helps heal pain, that’s a good thing. One’s religion should not be a thing that brings one existential anguish, especially not because of other people misusing religious teachings. Monotheism is a terrible thing, soul destroying and cruel. If there is healing to be done, work on that. That is a separate issue from denying your children contact with your Gods.
Secondly, I hear many in this situation fretting about denying their children freedom of choice. Well, I guess you just let them do anything then? I guess they can stay home from school, not learn to read, never brush their teeth, and run out in public naked. We deny children freedom of choice in a thousand ways every day and we do it so that they will grow up kind, intelligent, healthy, and whole. It is the job of a parent to educate a child and that includes teaching them how to approach the Gods rightly and well. This need not be abusively imposing one’s religion on a child. Our theologies after all are not generally rooted in self-hatred, shame, and abuse. What it means is teaching them to see the world as a polytheist.
Furthermore, for those who may not be familiar with how polytheisms worked in the ancient world (when the entire world was, for the most part, polytheistic), adults were free to initiate into whatever cultus they wished, but there was almost always the veneration of one’s family, ancestral, and community Gods as well. One did not negate the other but because people were raised with a polytheistic understanding of the world, raised steeped in family and community cultus, they understood far better than we how to approach the sacred. It’s not that easy to learn when one is older.
There’s been a lot of study done on the acquisition of grammar and apparently there is a very brief and finite window wherein a child can learn to use grammar.(2) If a child is not exposed to language at that time (and it is very young, if I recall my reading correctly, before the age of three), then he or she will be incapable of learning it later. That part of the brain shuts down. The connections are not made and the capability for them to be so later disappears. I would maintain that the same paradigm can be carried over to teaching about spiritual and devotional connections. If a child isn’t exposed to it young, maybe they’ll never learn to do it well. Maybe it will always be a struggle. Maybe those spiritual connections, the ability to form them, will atrophy. Hell, half the issues we are dealing with in the polytheistic communities today are a direct result of the fact that almost none of us were raised polytheistic.
Thirdly, there are those in mixed marriages, where a spouse is not polytheistic. Well, this is one of the main reasons I don’t favor mixed marriages and as a priest refuse to do them. (3). Now, I should be clear about what I consider a mixed marriage: a monotheist (or atheist) and anything else. It’s one thing to have two polytheists from differing traditions forming a household. That can be negotiated fairly easily: the worldview is the same, for the most part. It’s quite a different thing to have a polytheist and monotheist (or polytheist and secular humanist) raising children together. Unless the non-polytheistic partner really doesn’t care (and it’s amazing how otherwise reasonable people suddenly care very much when children are involved), the child usually does not end up being raised in our traditions. Compromises are made and one should never, ever compromise on the integrity of one’s faith.
I suppose some people may also feel that they just don’t know enough. I would encourage those people to share in the exploration of their tradition with their children. None of us know enough, but we can still honor the Gods and celebrate the holy tides, and live as polytheists learning and letting your children see you engaging in that process of learning (and maybe getting things wrong and having to make reparation or unlearn/relearn, stumbling but persevering) is a really good thing. It will teach them that devotion and faith is a process and that just because mistakes are made, it doesn’t mean that one has to give up. Ours are not traditions that fetishize damnation after all. By sharing that process parents will be teaching their children how to live a faith in a healthy, human way, and that’s a powerfully valuable lesson.(4)
I’ve also heard parents say that they’re afraid that their children will be marginalized for having a ‘different’ religion when they go to school. Not to sound dismissive, but so what? Hindus, Muslims (in America), Sikhs, Wiccans, Shinto practitioners and any other non Christian or non-Jew in the US, depending where they’re located, may face discrimination and ignorance from fellow students and even teachers (and sometimes even Jewish students are harassed for their religion. Christian privilege really is a thing). That does not mean that we should deny our children our polytheisms, which are their birthright I would add, because people are assholes. People are always going to be assholes. That’s why I encourage parents to stay involved with their school, school board, PTA, etc. I encourage them to know their options, and to take proactive measures in educating the teachers. When problems do arise, there are legal steps that can be taken and while it may be an awful thing to have to go to those lengths, sometimes shit happens and this could just as readily be happening because your child were gay or trans or overweight, or not popular, or because the kid was very smart, or because some asshole bully took a dislike to them. I very much understand wanting to protect children from every possible harm, but the way to do that is not by causing more harm in the long run. Ready yourself with all the educational information you need, and be ready to fight like a pitbull if your child is discriminated against or bullied.
Monotheists aren’t shy about raising their children in their faith, sometimes rabidly so. It was the cutting off of avenues of intergenerational transmission in the community at large that contributed to its spread and eventual victory over Paganism and Polytheism, a victory from which we are only now beginning to recover. It is what gave their traditions, (just as it imbued ours once) longevity, growth, and strength. There is absolutely no point in doing this if it stops with us.
Hiding one’s faith, refusing to share it with the child, makes it seem like a shameful thing. If you don’t think your Gods are good enough for your children, if you don’t think that the traditions are wholesome and ennobling, why are you venerating Them and why are you practicing those traditions? In all things we should strive to be consistent.
- She also whines about everything she doesn’t know (despite apparently doing something she calls Hellenic polytheism for twenty years) and shares her belief that people who practice the more mystical or esoteric aspects of our traditions should be institutionalized. I’m purposely not sharing the link. It doesn’t need more traffic.
- This has come up with the subject of ‘feral’ children, or children raised without any language or without human contact. Apparently if they’re denied language very early, their ability to learn grammar and syntax disappears and they are incapable of learning it later. It’s really rather heart-breaking and horrifying.
- I didn’t always feel this way. When I first started working in the interfaith community, a great deal of attention was paid on training clergy up specifically in order to provide marriage resources for those of differing faiths who wanted to wed. It was only when I really looked at the consequences to the next generation that I came to hold a position adamantly against such a thing.
- It’s more complicated when one converts after having children. Then I suppose the best one can do is simply not hide one’s faith from older children; but if they are younger, I would bring them right along with me. It’s not as if one has to throw them into hard core esoteric practices. One can make very simple rituals: like “let’s give a portion of our food to the ancestors in gratitude now” or “let’s light this candle for Freya on Friday”.