Dear Dr. Wes & Kelly: I am a retired teacher and social worker, also past CASA advocate. I’ve spent a half-century evolving my spiritual beliefs after studying most of them to some extent. I was raised Protestant. It is my strong belief that teaching children that there is a Hell and that they might go to it is emotionally abusive and intellectually irresponsible. This is not a popular view here in the Bible Belt — north of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. What are your views on this subject?
Wes: I got my start working with kids in United Methodist youth ministry, where my father had served for more than 40 years. I was tagging along on high school youth camps while still in grade school. Many of those groovy teens were dead center in the good, bad and ugly of the late ’60s and early ’70s. Even as a child I noticed my father meeting them as they were and accepting them with an unconditional love that forms the foundation of the New Testament. At no point do I recall him mentioning Hell as a central theme in his outreach to teenagers.
Your question is for me less about theology than it is about methods of successfully engaging and communicating with teenagers. Kids are pretty savvy consumers of information, quite capable of turning off good messages presented in a way they consider demeaning or derogatory. Whether the threat of Hell is abusive or irresponsible I’m not here to judge, but I can tell you it’s is not a particularly effective method of conveying the richness of several thousand years of religious thought and tradition.
I think your question comes at a particularly interesting moment. Some believe that religious extremism (I’ll let you decide exactly what that term means) has reached its worldwide zenith and is creating a wave of backlash arguing there is really NOTHING good about religion. Faith is at the root of all problems of humanity. I find that a sad and daunting perspective largely because I grew up seeing firsthand the value of the spiritual journey you describe. I understand the critics, but I personally hope that the best aspects of religion, spirituality and theology will win out in the end. For my money, an emphasis on Hell won’t draw many young people in that direction and will instead simply feed the backlash.
In 1990 over 400 people came to my dad’s funeral, a high percentage former members and families of those youth groups. Some had themselves gone into ministry. Eulogizing my father before a standing-room only congregation, I realized just how successful he’d been in reaching out to young people with a message of grace.
Kelly: Although I am agnostic, I find all religion particularly interesting. I don’t believe that in my 18 years of living that I’m ready to choose and follow a religion. I haven’t experienced enough for that to be determined. Perhaps when I grow older I will be able to decide. Also, I find that a lot of the religions I have looked into are very male-dominated, which I strongly dislike. But that’s for another discussion.
I do see some very positive points in having a religious faith. Religion gives people a strong identity and sense of being. It gives them guidance and teaches them values and morals, a sense of right versus wrong. Religion provides a security blanket for those who want to know what is beyond this world. Yet, it depends on one’s perspective. Some may look at one religion with delight, while others are shocked at what they see and hear of it.
Fortunately, we are all entitled to our opinions and to worship freely. These rights have been embedded within our Constitution and echoed throughout our history. Once you take away someone’s right to worship however or whomever they please, you’re taking away something so powerful and strong that people may lose their foundation and sense of being.
There are religions that tend to go against the grain of what we may perceive is right. When is it OK to put a foot down and oppose these beliefs? What gives us the power to choose for others what they can and cannot believe? You may not agree with what is being preached, but neither can you stop it. It is their faith and they can choose what to teach to their congregation. Unless the religious group physically threatens or harms someone, there isn’t much you can do. You may not respect what is being taught, but you do have to tolerate it.
In a perfect world we would be able to live peacefully with no conflicts. But that will likely never happen. Instead, we must try to do our best to resolve conflict to keep peace between each other.
— Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. Kelly Kelin is a senior at Free State High School. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues (limited to 200 words) to firstname.lastname@example.org. All correspondence is strictly confidential.