Thursday, September 9, 2010

Culture, Religion & Adoption

In a scene in Wo Ai Ni Mommy, newly-adopted 8-year-old Faith is shown kneeling in a Buddhist Temple in Guangzhou, China.  Many adoptive families visit this temple in Guangzhou to receive a Buddhist blessing of their newly adopted babies, some out of respect for Chinese culture, some because it's a "touristy" thing to do, some, I assume, because they are Buddhist.

But what struck me in the scene is that Faith knew what to do at the temple.  Certainly, she could have kneeled because someone off camera told her to, or she could have kneeled because she saw other Chinese people doing so.  But it could be that her foster family was Buddhist and regularly visited Buddhist temples. It got me thinking -- in older child adoption in particular, what obligation, if any, does a new adoptive family have to continue the child in his or her faith tradition?

In the matchy-matchy days of adoption, where all aspects from hair color & texture to social class of the child and the parents had to "match" before an adoption was approved, this issue wouldn't come up.  Social workers would never have placed a Catholic child in a protestant home, or vice versa. Only Jewish parents would be allowed to adopt a Jewish child. Even for newborn adoption (like newborns HAVE a religion?!), religion had to match.

We're much less matchy-matchy these days, in all aspects including race and religion.  Children from Haiti, which is overwhelmingly Catholic, are commonly adopted by non-Catholics.  Children from China are rarely adopted by Buddhists in America.  And what about children raised in an orphanage run by a Christian charity, presumably raised Christian -- should a Jewish family be permitted to adopt those children? What about an atheist family?

We frequently talk about the importance of maintaining "culture" for internationally/transracially adopted children -- how does religion play into this, especially for older children who have been raised in a particular faith tradition?  Certainly, religion is a subset of culture, but it is much more than that, too, isn't it?

So what do you think?  Should adoptive families, especially those with older children, work to keep their children connected to their original faith traditions?  Why or why not?  Discuss thoroughly!


Bukimom said...

I think any family who takes their religious beliefs seriously would find it nearly impossible to nurture a child in a faith other than the one the family believes. For one thing, it would require teaching a child beliefs that are in many cases incompatible with the family's.

Since religious beliefs deal with the nature of truth, it would be hard to teach my child something that I didn't personally believe to be true. So, if a child has a strong religious faith prior to adoption, the child should have a say-so in the family that adopts him/her.

That being said, I think many Chinese may be nominally Buddhist, meaning they may go to the temple once in a while, but not really adopt all the worldview that the faith espouses. In that case, a child probably wouldn't have trouble adapting to a different faith tradition.

Anonymous said...

Great post. I frequently have Ethiopians ask me if my Ethiopian children have been to the Ethiopian Orthodox church in our area, and I sheepishly say no, but that they attend our Episcopal church instead which has much in common with the Orthodox worship. The questioners are usually satisfied by this (though my kids would just as soon skip church.) My daughter from India was born a Hindu but lived in a Catholic orphanage until age 5. I do feel it's important for her to learn about Hinduism, so we look at images of the gods and goddesses, talk about what they represent, and discuss some of the stories associated with them. For now, it's more about stories vs. spiritual beliefs, but as she gets older we will discuss these also. I do not expect her to follow our faith as an adult. My hope for all my kids re: attending church regularly is that they will recognize the importance of having an intentional spiritual life and follow the path that calls them in their maturity. Most faith traditions offer the same truths when you get down to the core.

Mom~Mommy~Mama said...

I am atheist. One of my daughters was adopted as an infant and is only 3 so we don't talk much about religion (although she loves the prayers and songs she's learning at her Jewish school).

My other daughter is almost 10 and was adopted from Ethiopia just over 2 years ago. The day I met her she put on a headscarf in a Muslim style then said her bedtime prayers and crossed herself. She believed that all of her familiy was Muslim and told me she would be Christian in America (I think someone told her she should be?) and Muslim in Ethiopia. We have since learned that her family is not completely Muslim, which has freed her up emotionally to look at religion in a different way.

We have talked a lot about the difficulty of being Muslim in the US because of the strong anti-Muslim sentiment these days. I've tried to encourage the idea that she can choose any religion she wants as long as it's what she believes and not just that someone told her she should be that religion.

What I've seen in her so far is that belief in God is important but the form that takes is less important right now. I assume that will change as she gets older. She knows that I don't believe in God but that kids and parents don't have to agree (my mom is Christian) and that friends don't have to agree (she goes the same Jewish school as my younger daughter with many Jewish friends).

My goal as her mom is to allow her to explore all religions and, when she's old enough to really get it (how old is that), choose the religion that fits her own personal beliefs.

kyburg said...

If you know what that religious background is! Hoo. Our child came to us at the age of 3.5 years of age, after being in a foster family from the time he was taken home from the hospital.

I *think* they were either Catholic or Protestant - we were given a lot of photographs at placement (they are PHENOMENAL people) but very little information on themselves was given. There are pictures of weddings, churchs at Christmas and my kid loves piano music (I think foster Mom was the church pianist) - those are my clues.

As far as continuing those traditions, it wasn't much of a stretch as I was already a member of that community and we just start attending a church locally after getting settled.

But yeah - the multiple religious beliefs are definitely going to be part of his education, much as it was for me.

Reena said...

Interesting post-- I'm kind of surprised at how cool this dicussion is going so far-- this is usually a hotbead type of discussion.

It is my understanding that religion is a big reason why several Mid-Eastern countries will not allow IA and why it is so difficult to adopt from India. I am no expert so I could be completely wrong.

We consider ours to be a Christian family (by our own definition). Others will strongly disagree with us.

We are liberal and we (DH and I) disagree with some basic tenents of the Christian Creed the biggest being-- we do not believe in Original Sin and we do not believe that a person has to believe that Jesus is the Son of God (or even believe in God) in order to go to Heaven (whatever Heaven may be).

Really, some of the nicest people I have known in my life were/are atheist.

We beleive there is a lot of room for interpretation in the Bible-- it was written during a different time and it was translated from some chosen scrolls and likely there was some agenda going on in the translation.

I've been told more than a few times that I am not really Christian-- that is fine. I am happy with where I am at spiritually.

We figure that God is a super big entity (whatever God acutally is) and that as a big entity there are many roads to get to enlightenment.

We are members of an Episcopal church-- we attend regularly-- but not religiously. We are comfortable with Western Religion-- it is our preference, although, DH is also very interested in Islam and knows a few prayers.

Both of our daughters, adopted from China, are quite young. We have no idea if they were exposed to Buddhism or not. We did have them blessed by the Buddist Monks while in China.

We also had them Baptised and a family Church ceremony to welome them into our family at our church. This service was followed by a Red Egg and Ginger party -- A chinese tradition for babies-- not toddlers but we wanted to incorporate it.

TBO, I had not really thought about the religion part of culture. Our guide in China had told us that Communism is the biggest religion in China. We don't really plan to promote that.

I do want to incorporate the Ghost Festival into our family celebrations and I believe that is a Buddhist tradition.

Our kids are welcome to explore any religion they like-- we will be happy to support them and even join them in the exploration if they are interested.

I think this post may have had a differnt meaning for me if we had adopted an older child who clearly exhibited beliefs-- I think we would do our best to honor and respect those beliefs.

Reena said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Patty said...

Nominal Buddhism is common in China, just as nominal Christianity is common in the US.

And by nominal, I mean that they know the basic routine, and expectations for behaving inside a temple compound.

Personally, I would not read any more then this into what was observed of Faith in the documentary.

As for expression or practice of religion within a family, it is my feeling that a family should be open and supportive, even encouraging, to their children to choose the path they desire, NOT force a "family doctrine" upon the children. After all, if you get past the pretenses that most world religions hide behind, they all have very similar core foundations of compassion, charity, and love of others.

Anonymous said...

I wrote about this last year. Reena, there's some info in it about the topic you raised about adoption restrictions because of religion. I tend to agree that children old enough to understand their faith should be having a say in how it can continue.

Bukimom said...

"After all, if you get past the pretenses that most world religions hide behind, they all have very similar core foundations of compassion, charity, and love of others."

This is an interesting idea that many responders to Malinda's question have directly or indirectly supported. I would like to share something from a book I am now reading called "The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism." In it, the author Timothy Keller, now a pastor of a large church in New York, shares about a time he was asked to be on a panel with a representative from Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, and Hinduism. One student that night posed a question to the panel along the lines that it would seem their differences are really superficial and insignificant because they all teach belief in the same God.

Keller responded: "But when I asked him who that God was, he described him as an all-loving Spirit in the universe. The problem with this position is its inconsistency. It insists that doctrine is unimportant, but at the same time assumes doctrinal beliefs about the nature of God that are at loggerheads with those of all the major faiths. Buddhism doesn't believe in a personal God at all. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam believe in a God who holds people accountable for their beliefs and practices and whose attributes could not be all reduced to love. Ironically, the insistence that doctrines do not matter is really a doctrine itself. It holds a specific view of God, which is touted as superior and more enlightened than the beliefs of most major religions. So the proponents of this view do the very thing they forbid in others."

Food for thought.

Sandy said...

It is true that my era tried to match religions and was a specific question my mom asked as they practiced a different religion than my mothers family. It was glossed over by the SW as okay with my not really a sticking point they could simply say they asked if the religion had to match...other agencies would change the documentation to suit who requested a baby so the religion matched...adoptees have found at reunion for example that they aren't Jewish ancestry at all...

Anonymous said...

Going to a temple "once in a while" doesn't mean that a Chinese family is just "nominally Buddhist." Even devout Buddhists don't generally attend weekly religious services like Christians.

Anonymous said...

I think children should be free to make their own determination about what they believe or do not believe. As such, I don't think a religion practiced in a country of birth or practiced once adopted matters any more or less than the other.

What does matter, though, is that parents give their children the opportunity to learn about a variety of belief systems and, when they are comfortable (if they are ever comfortable) make a choice.

And for those who are curious, my husband and I are Atheists. Our daughter (adopted from China just before she turned 8 months old) knows our beliefs. We also teach her about her best friend's beliefs (Christian), her good friend's beliefs (Sikh), her auntie's beliefs (Catholic), etc.

We feel it is our responsibility as parents to provide her with information and experience and options. It is her responsibility (or, rather, right) to decide what she believes.

Anonymous said...

All faiths invite one to be faithful—that is what it means to have faith. I suspect God knows this and encourages many pathways because faith is powerful. Faithfulness may have already settled on the shoulders of the adopted child, especially the older child. That is the question. One may believe that one's faith is “the truth” but what if the adopted child has another experience? What do you do? How do you nurture your child in your family faith if it is different from your child's faith (especially if the child if older) without creating a lot of doubt and repudiation? I don't know the answer to this question.

Anonymous said...

What an interesting discussion! I totally agree about the importance of learning about various spiritual traditions and choosing one's own beliefs. That is why we currently attend a Unitarian church. For those who are atheist or have mixed spiritual ideologies in your family, a Unitarian church is a place where you can have all the benefits of a church community without having to believe anything in particular. It works for us! Living in the "bible belt," I suspect my opinion is in the minority in this part of the U.S. Many families feel it is their moral obligation to raise their children in their chosen faith.
Sue (aka anonymous)

Bukimom said...

It's surprising to me how many people have a belief that it is really important to expose their children to a variety of religious beliefs and let them make up their own minds.

How how many of us really believe this when it comes to our children deciding if they believe in bathing regularly, going to school, doing their homework, showing kindness to others, being honest, etc. We don't have a problem imposing our beliefs on our children in these areas. It gets sticky when we're taking about bigger questions like is there a God? If so, what does he expect of me? What's my purpose for being here? etc.

I suspect many people want to just leave it up to the kids to decide because it isn't easy to sort through the different answers to these questions offered by different religions. But just because the answer isn't easy doesn't mean that an answer doesn't exist.

Can anyone claim to know the absolute truth where these questions are concerned? No, but that doesn't mean that all belief systems are equally true either. I think we have the ability to evaluate different belief systems to see how much sense their answers actually make when superimposed over the reality of life. And I think we would have to conclude that some belief systems really do a better job of answering the questions than others.

If I have an examined belief system that seems to answer those big questions better than any others, why would I not want to share that with my child? Of course, I can't force my child to believe anything, but I can certainly explain the reasons why I believe the way I do.

Sandy said...


The very concept of religion is free will so parents exposing their children to a wide variety of beliefs provides them with the very core component of religion and faith - that it be accepted with free will. Any parent must teach their child that it is not okay to act like sheep and follow what their religious society dictates is right but only after carefully considering all facets of that religion and determining if it is right for you. That lesson in not just following how their religious society dictates will also allow them the forethought in any societal dicate and they will have the basic skill to stand up when something in society is wrong and not be the sheep that goes along. That life lesson has to be taught.

Even though my parents were devout to one religion they freely discussed other religions in depth and were very specific that you had to believe in the religion you chose to practice or not because that is what faith is. Not that one religion is better than another or that theirs was the one true religion although it was for them.

Teaching children about how to take care of themselves and be polite and have manners is so very different in my mind than telling them that your religion is the only religion.

Very good conversation.

YoonSeon said...

This is a really thought-provoking post, and a topic that I've thought a bit about here and there. I've wondered myself: with all the religious APs you see, where does that leave the religion that the child came from? I was adopted from Korea which is (now) a very Catholic country and my family is Catholic and I was raised Catholic. But Korea wasn't always this way, so what of the heritage I came from?

I think this is a good example of why religion shouldn't play such a huge role in adoption, because a lot of the time, religion comes off as preaching, and I so often see people almost forcing religion down others' throats. Where does that leave adoptees who are already struggling to find their identity between their adoptive lives and their birth heritage?

Like I've said before, religion and adoption do NOT match. If anything, it only poses more problems and divides people needlessly.

*Waits to get flamed*