CHILDREN / Those Almighty questions: Religion is hard to explain, writes Anne Woodham, but parents cannot avoid it at Christmas

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The Independent Culture
ALL OVER Britain, moist-eyed parents are watching tinselled angels and tea-towelled shepherds gather round the crib with its baby Jesus doll and Virgin Mary, she of the longest, blondest hair. Lumps rise in a thousand throats as childish trebles pipe 'Away in a Manger' - for this is the season of the Nativity Play and the School Carol Concert, when all doubt and disbelief is suspended in a magical aura of doting pride and nostalgia.

Later come the questions. 'If Joseph isn't Baby Jesus's daddy, is it Santa Claus?' 'Who made God?' 'Why does Rajiv say Jesus isn't true?' and, a stickier issue still: 'If God is good, why does he let children die? Why do people kill each other?'

Fundamentalist Christians are fortunate here; they have hard and fast answers and there is no prevarication. Jesus is the Son of God, born to save us from our sins. Yes, there was a star, and angels, and wise men, just as in the Bible. 'Christmas was never a problem,' says one mother who is an evangelical Christian. It's her 15-year-old son's angry rejection of belief that worries her now.

But the majority, the doubters, the agnostics, in trying to be honest and clear of conscience, find themselves wrestling with evasions and half-truths, face-to-face with their own buried superstitions and prejudices. Patricia Mowbray, brought up a Roman Catholic, for sentimental reasons keeps a statue of the Virgin Mary in her bedroom, and likes the idea of miracles and guardian angels. But when her daughters, twins of seven and a nine-year-old, ask her if she believes in God, she finds it hard: 'I'll say 'Oh look at the pussy cat', change the subject, anything. I won't say I do and I won't say I don't'

Patricia's nine-year-old daughter, Kate, is eager for religious instruction. Her mother is happy to comply. 'How can children make up their own minds about God without information? It requires no more effort from me than taking her to a weekly ballet lesson.' The immediate challenge, she says, lies in finding a sympathetic priest. 'I don't want her coming home saying, 'Mum, you're living in sin' because I'm divorced and remarried.'

Barbara Dale, a counsellor, who has four children aged from nine to 21, and fosters three Muslim boys, describes herself as 'interested' in an eclectic mixture of Buddhism, the Christian mystics and psychoanalyst Carl Jung: an unaligned spirituality with wide appeal for those uncomfortable with organised religion.

'I make a point of not being dogmatic and admitting my own confusion. I might say, 'Some people understand God as a man in the sky, and that's okay, but for me it's about energy and spirit. I try to tie it in with mythology - the virgin birth as a concept of purity rather than a reality. Children are very close to spirituality through being close to nature.'

Even Christian parents can find the going tough. The Reverend Stephen Shipley, precentor of Ely Cathedral, and father of three, aged 12, 11 and six, admits to finding it 'quite difficult' to talk to his own children about God. He is conscious that too much so-called indoctrination may lead to rebellion later. 'Questions about church, rather than religion, are more challenging. Like 'Why is worship so boring?' ' He sees the theatricality of the Christmas festival, shadowy cathedrals lit with candles and resounding with music, as an opportunity to introduce children to the wonder and mystery of the divine.

The necessity of imparting a sense of morality, of right and wrong, is shared by all parents irrespective of religious belief. For most it boils down to a bottom line of 'Do as you would be done by', of not harming others or oneself. 'I like to think we're more moral than many Christians I know,' declares Julie Norris, an active member of the British Humanist Association. 'You have only one life and you must make the best of it, we tell the children. When you die, you're gone.'

'When we buried the cat in the garden,' says Julie, 'they were very interested that her body would rot and put some goodness back in the earth. That led to a discussion about what happens to people as well.'

She and her husband live in Swansea where, she claims, unlike the rest of an increasingly secular Britain, even the local state school is a hotbed of Baptist proselytising, forcing them into a defensive stance on atheism. Rather to her disgust, their four-year-old daughter Isobel has swallowed the nursery school version of Christmas 'hook, line and sinker'. But Thomas, seven, thinks it's all nonsense. 'We told him it was a mid-winter pagan festival long before Christianity monopolised it,' says Julie, although, somewhat inconsistently, she condones his belief in Father Christmas.

But what should non-Christian parents tell their children about the Christmas story? Gwen Palmer, chairwoman of the Religious Education Council for England and Wales (a body that includes representatives of all major faiths) offers this advice: 'It's a significant story for the world today, with great themes of loving, giving and receiving. If you describe Jesus as a man who was prepared to give his life for what is right and good, then you're not getting into theological difficulties.'

Hugh Jenkins, director of the Institute of Family Therapy, agrees that a child's questions should be answered as truthfully and openly as possible. 'This can include acknowledging that one does not have the answer. It is important and reassuring for children to see that their parents have uncertainties or doubts, and that they are able to deal with them.'

Children's questions about religion can go to the core of parents' own uncertainties, but it's important, says Jenkins, that even non-believers treat the subject respectfully. 'What the child will learn from the parent is how to tolerate beliefs which are perhaps different to one's own. You could say, for example: 'I do not believe the Christmas story as fact, but many do, and what they believe is . . . ' '

Ultimately, as Anne Borrowdale, author of several books on Christian family values, points out, it's the parents' responsibility to embody those concepts of right and wrong, the sacredness of life, and a sense of moral order: 'One of the most challenging things a parent discovers,' she says, 'is how quickly children pick up the difference between what you say and what you do.'-

(Photograph omitted)