Religion can be a tricky topic. People are theists, atheists, agnostics, and all hues and shades that fall in between. Taking things further, India is a diverse country with people of many religious faiths living here. Our friends and colleagues and sometimes even our family may come from different places and celebrate different traditions. How do we raise our children in this multi-cultural, interfaith world?
How do we handle questions about god, who he is and what he does? Obviously, this depends on what 'god' means to us as parents. When I have asked these questions to other parents, the most common reply I've gotten so far is: "We have no approach. We have decided to let our child figure it out for himself when he is old enough." Other families follow every ritual in the book, teaching their kids about religion and god early on. As with a lot of things in parenting, there is no fixed approach.
Religion at school
Most parents I know rarely obsess over religion at school. It is normal and a part of daily life for the kid. However, those who do not believe in god, do have a few doubts and reservations, and worry about their kids while choosing a school for them, because they are apprehensive that the school may go overboard with their prayers, rites and rituals, that the parents personally don't agree with at all. Matters get complicated when these parents know that getting admission in a good school can be tough and a lot of good schools are run by religious trusts that follow a strict protocol every day. That is something that these parents will have to deal with.
Once the child is in school-and assuming it has a religious bearing-the early religious grounding of the child will be in the customs and tradition followed at school. For example, I studied in a convent school run by Jesuit priests, where there were daily prayers and occasional visits to the church. And we have a grand, beautiful church! As kids, we would just sit there all by ourselves and enjoy a really peaceful time. The fact that I am a Hindu did not make any difference then and does not make any difference now. Similarly, my friends studied in schools, where you had to recite the Gayatri Mantra every day and attend a havan every week. I am sure different kids in different schools have similar stories. Fact is, kids do not care. If anything, these prayers and rites and rituals are times when all the kids come together and are an opportunity for them to have fun on the side (read mischief).
Religion at home
Unlike your child's school, where you cannot control the environment, your home is the best possible place for you to talk about religion and faith to your child. There is no manual here and as a parent, you need to first ask yourself what god means to you. After all, religious beliefs, and therefore religious tolerance, begin at home. Your child will not get a download of religious beliefs from the Internet. It has to be taught to him. Religion might not be important to you, but it is so pervasive in society that your kid is bound to run into it at some point of time. He might run into it within your own family where (say you are not as religious as your parents) it might lead to a difference in your child's and his grandparents' views. Remember, your child's beliefs will be shaped by yours. So, theist or atheist, your conversation will shape your child's ideas. Be accepting, be tolerant, be open-minded, if that is what you want your kid to eventually become when he grows up.
Who is god?
Go figure. No really. I have no answer to this and I do not know yet what I will tell my son when he asks me this question. As if he does not have enough on his plate when he learns that (spoiler alert!) there is no Santa Claus! My point? Clarity helps. If you know what god means to you, then tell him exactly that. Leave the rest for him to learn as he grows up. I know that all the ideas my parents taught me about god changed eventually in life. I went through my own phase of belief and disbelief. And all this was before I saw the movie OMG!: Oh My God. Ok, I am just kidding. Here is the thing. Your child will figure it out. Kids are awesome. Kids are intelligent and kids grow up. We did. And we turned out just fine. So, use whatever story you want to teach your kid about god. God knows we have got enough gods in India, so there is a rich library to choose from. Walk a fine line though. If you think faith can move mountains, teach your child accordingly. If you are an atheist, there's a beautiful letter by Richard Dawkins to his daughter when she turned 10 that is doing the rounds. Do look it up.
All of us love holidays. In India, the many religion-based festivals and places of worship across different religions provide enough fodder to teach your child about multiple faiths and beliefs. Use these occasions to celebrate tradition. Call friends over and have a good time. Even if you do not believe in god, you do not have to ban these traditions at home. Find a way to celebrate what is good in our culture and what binds us together as people of different beliefs, without comprising on your core beliefs. Do not be a sourpuss. Your kids could land up wondering why his friends are having such a good time decked up in festive clothes and bursting firecrackers (yes, the environment-friendly ones), while he is at home like it is just another day. Remember, festivals are also about family and love and sharing. Even if they are mere stories, they are a reminder of all that is good in us as humans. And those beliefs are universal in nature and transcend a particular god or a particular religion.