Knight Ridder/Tribune
The Dallas Morning News

DALLAS -- Michael Ball was 5 years old when images of the Federal Building bombing in Oklahoma City flashed across a television screen. He absorbed everything: the rubble, the carnage, the tear-streaked faces of grief.

When a tornado rumbled near his Texas home that night, Michael asked his mom, "Is it a bomb?" He became terrified of death, to the point of crying when flowers wilted. He wanted to know, "What happens when we die?"

Linda Ball of Garland, Texas, didn't rely on the answers given by the world's religions to help her son. She's part of a burgeoning segment of the U.S. population that defines itself as "spiritual but not religious."

Dr. Robert Fuller of Bradley University in Peoria, Ill., said that 20 percent of Americans identify themselves in that way, according to sociological studies. Many care deeply about raising spiritual children but want to do it outside a structured religion.

"Spirituality means all kinds of different things to these people," said Fuller, who has a forthcoming book on the topic. "For some, spirituality remains more philosophical. For others, it means being actively involved in a meditation group. Or it could be nothing more than pausing occasionally and reflecting on whether they are living their lives the best they can."

Organized religions offer seemingly unlimited resources and programs to help foster a child's spirituality. But parents outside the structures are often left to their own devices.

Ball tells Michael, now 10, stories about Jesus, the Buddha and other religious figures. Sometimes they pray and meditate together. But rather than indoctrinate Michael into any religion, she tries to foster the spirituality that she feels is already within him. "You give children a chance and they have beautiful perceptions about what they believe and where they come from," said Ball, 38, who leads workshops on nurturing children's spirituality.

After the bombing, Ball told her son that people die, but their spirits live on. But it wasn't until watching a television show on dinosaurs that Michael understood what she meant. "Something clicked for him," Ball said. "He saw the dinosaurs' bones and said, `Everything else must go somewhere else.' After that, he wasn't afraid of dying."

Barbara Bianco, the New Age guide for the Internet site About.com, explains the difference between spirituality and religiosity this way:

"Spirituality is really a state of being that comes from the inner core of a person," she said, "whereas religion is the kind of code that people agree on to be spiritual."

Her advice to parents who don't want to raise their children in a religion is to trust the "innate spirituality" of the children. "That's a very difficult thing for people conditioned in a religion to do," she said. "But the goal is to allow your child to experience a lot of different things and trust that their natural spirituality can guide them without harm."

Karla Marie, a feng shui consultant from Dallas, helped to develop a coming of age ceremony for her nephews and nieces to honor "the spirit within them." The ceremony is held for the children as they're becoming teens. "People are led to believe that the only place they can find God is in a church," said Marie, 52. "That's just not true. God is already in our hearts, and most people are too busy to listen."

At Marie's family reunion in California last summer, the men in the family held a ceremony for her nephew, while the women held one for her niece, 13-year-old Becca Krauss of Minnetonka, Minn. Becca was taken to a room where her mom and three aunts painted her fingernails, gave her a massage and braided her hair with flowers symbolizing love, passion and joy. They shared stories of their childhood.

"The whole thing was pretty cool," Becca said. "My mom said they were honoring me becoming a woman. I felt honored. But I'm still sort of getting to the being a woman part." Becca also was taken to a vineyard, where each woman presented her with a gift, told her how special she was and shared their wisdom about being a woman. Her Aunt Karla Marie gave her a tiny rosary that belonged to Becca's deceased grandmother, who was a Catholic.

"I wanted to pass on the feminine lineage in some way," Marie said. "My point to her was there is tremendous spiritual guidance for us and it's always there and it's always available to us." Marie doesn't adhere to a religion, but prays and meditates daily. Her niece, who's a Catholic, describes her aunt as spiritual but "unorthodox," a word that Becca said she learned only a few days ago. "She's different from other people because she wants to be her own person," Becca said. "She's very spiritual, but carries herself in a different way than people in a religion."

Children learn about spirituality mostly by example, Bianco said. It's not just what their parents do, but also how they respond to life. "If you're doing yoga and your child starts imitating you, then invite them to participate," she said. "If you're meditating and they ask about it, then explain it at their level. But to force a child to do things almost always backfires and certainly doesn't respect their own inner spark." ...

Ashley Shores, 14, of The Colony, said that the hardest thing about not having a religion is dealing with students who try to convert her to a religion. “It can be really annoying," said the eighth-grader. "I tell them it's OK if they want to believe in a religion, but that I'm already spiritual."

Ashley's mom, Leann Shores, grew up in foster homes and was shuttled from church to church as a child. She didn't feel comfortable in any of them and today is carving her own spiritual path. "What I teach my daughter is that God is not somebody making a checkmark every time we mess up," she said. "God is like inner goodness."

When Ashley asked about heaven, Shores told her it's a spiritual place within her soul. When Ashley asked about God, she told her not to think about a supreme being, but everything that is living and good. And when Ashley asked about death, she told her about reincarnation. Every life provides a new lesson to learn, Shores said.

"I like not having a religion," Ashley said. "My mom always tells me that's what important is who you are on the inside and how you show that on the outside."

Fuller said many "spiritual but not religious" people, including himself, were part of religious institutions at one time and got turned off.

"They are deeply interested in religious issues and revere the sacredness of life," he said. "But they do not believe organized religion has any monopoly on truth."

Their spirituality may be influenced by 12-step programs, alternative medicine, or human potential psychology, which stresses "inner knowledge." Or by blockbuster books such as "The Celestine Prophecy" and television programs such as "The Oprah Winfrey Show," which features "honoring your spirit" segments on every program.

"These parents are more interested in shaping their child's spirituality than vesting them in a theology," Fuller said. "Their children may grow up being more biblically illiterate than others, but they may be gaining a more cosmopolitan view of the world."

Tensions exist between spirituality and doctrine in many religions, but that doesn't mean believers must choose one over the other, said Sister Helen Rolfson, who teaches spirituality at St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn. In fact, retreat centers are overflowing with people from organized religions interested in deepening their spirituality, she said.

"Spirituality is at the heart of most religions," she said. "People who only see doctrines and rules when they look at a religion, maybe should look a little deeper."

Rolfson said it isn't enough to say that God is within. True spirituality, she said, draws people beyond their own experiences and into those of others, a community of believers.

Ball said she doesn't consider religion anti-spiritual even though she and Michael don't embrace one. In fact, she tries to hand down the best teachings. "When I studied religions, I saw a common thread," said Ball, who attended church occasionally as a child. "There's the principle of love. And the concept of honoring others as you want to be treated. And basically, belief that there's a power greater than we from which all things are created. That's what we believe."

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