Studying Children's Religion

Robert Orsi, Harvard University

Date: March 24, 2006

Event Recap

Our final luncheon of the spring featured Robert Orsi, Charles Warren Professor of the History of Religion in America at Harvard Divinity School. Orsi shared his latest research concerning the religious lives of children in the post-World War II era. With this project, Orsi is once again pioneering a new field of historical inquiry. Very little exists on the nature of children’s religion, even though they, as Orsi emphasized, have always constituted a large portion of the churchgoing population. He noted the special peculiarity of their absence from Catholic historiograhpy. Catholics not only had more children, but also provided them with more institutional guidance than other faith traditions. The parochial school system that expanded after World War II represented the most obvious intersection of the Catholic faith and Catholic children.

Orsi devoted the early part of his talk to explaining the lack of understanding of children’s religion in accounts of American religious history. The gap in knowledge, according to Orsi, has several explanations. Although adults spent a lot of time grooming the religious imaginations of children in the 1950s and 1960s, rarely did they solicit feedback from their young pupils, so it is difficult to track how young people experienced their Catholic faith. Furthermore, children’s religion is often naturalized; that is, we assume that the spiritual lives of young people fit the patterns of the religious instruction given to them. Finally, the lack of historical sources specific to children, Orsi surmises, has kept scholars from exploring the religious sensibilities of children in the past.

Orsi admitted the difficulty of capturing the religious experiences of children because of the lack of traditional historical evidence. In response to this problem, he has drawn from four types of evidence: memory groups, popular periodicals, material culture, and archival documents. Since archival materials are scarce, Orsi described the vast array of periodicals, children’s literature, Catholic comic books, Catholic board games, and other religiously-themed toys as a way to unlock the religious world of young people. The memory groups, consisting of adult Catholics from around the country, were of particular interest to the audience. Orsi explained that although one must always be guarded about the reliability of memory, he has nevertheless gained valuable insights about Catholic childhoods from the recollections of these groups.

He closed by commenting on the moral and ethical implications of his study. He focused on the question of religious expectations and pressures placed on children by adults. Children, he argued, are extremely vulnerable in religious contexts. The close proximity to adults and the seriousness of religious ceremony and language are not easily digested by children. Such issues are worth considering, Orsi contended, in the wake of, but also independent of, the recent sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church.