Why Does Religious Literacy Matter in Secular Families?

Even if you’re raising your kids without religion, you may have wondered whether or not you should teach your kids about religion.

Is it worth filling their heads with mythology when we know there’s no truth behind it?

Dale McGowan, author of Parenting Beyond Belief and Raising Freethinkers, suggests four reasons why you should teach them about religion:

  • So they can better understand the world
  • To empower them
  • To help them make their own informed choice
  • To prevent the “teen epiphany”

He explains each of those reasons in depth in this very helpful video:

Is there any case to be made for why atheist parents shouldn’t teach their kids about basic religious beliefs that other people may have?

  • SarahH

    Those are great reasons for any parent to make sure their kids are familiar with at least the basics of religious thought and literature.

    It’s always important to remember that, just as it’s not fair to indoctrinate a child by teaching them religion as absolute truth, it’s not fair to teach them to be little atheists without equipping them with the tools and information they need to make their own decisions about what’s believable and what isn’t.

    And the “Teen Ephiphany!” IMO, it’s a horrible, unethical way to take intellectual advantage of a person who’s in a vulnerable position. Teens aren’t fully mature (to different degrees) and they go through some rough, rough times. Evangelicals prey on kids like this (although they obviously don’t see it that way) and can be quite successful. Kids from moderate and liberal religious families can be vulnerable to this sales pitch as well.

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  • Efogoto

    I had something to say, but not as well as SarahH put it. I would say “Ditto!” except I know I would hear within my head the sneering voice of Hedley Lamarr “‘Ditto,’ you provincial putz?!” D’Oh!

  • Ubi Dubium

    We are absolutely teaching our kids about religion. They need to recognize religious metaphors and references in literature, and they need to be equipped to resist the god-bots also. But we are teaching it to them right alongside of Greek and Norse mythology, and any other we can find good materials on.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff

    My kids exposure to religion turned out to be an inoculation.

    I’m married to a religious moderate and for years we never went to church. My wife was kind-of always wanting to go somewhere. One of my wife’s friends (who happens to be a fundamentalist Christian) convinced her to go and take our kids to her evangelical Baptist church. I went along for sake of family unity and just to see what it was all about. We attended services and weekly adult small group bible study for about 2 years. Many in the congregation are Young Earth Creationists. They believe in demons and bible literalism. You find this stuff out in bible study small group (not in the services). To make a long story short, my wife and kids now have a very negative opinion of organized religion. We have recently told the church that we won’t be going there anymore. Ironically, I had lunch with my wife’s friend’s husband to tell him why we aren’t going there anymore. He confided to me that he was thinking of changing churches… but because the church in question wasn’t conservative enough. The congregation is to the right of the pastor. It’s funny.

  • http://darknova.net Ender

    I’ll be teaching my kids about the Greek gods. They have the best stories.

  • http://themousesnest.blogspot.com Mouse

    I agree whole-heartedly with teaching my 6-year-old about religion without indoctrination. He’s been exposed to some myth from a number of cultures, but we’re about to start doing it systematically. We’ve held off a little longer than we might have otherwise, but because our son is on the cusp of the autism spectrum (likely Asperger’s, still not diagnosed) and is prone to taking things literally. We’ve focused first on approaching things scientifically so that he’ll get some practice in thinking about what makes sense before we tell too many of these stories.

  • http://abandonallfear.org.uk Lex Fear

    It amuses me no end when atheists subconsciously acknowledge the power of the gospel.

    Seriously, they decry something as a myth, a fairytale, but then they are afraid to let their little one’s eyes fall upon the ‘fairytale’ as though it was some kind of magical spell that once read would come to life.

    You have to admit, there is some weight and some truth in something when you feel the need to suppress it.

    I’m surprised the free-thinkers here even need to discuss this kind of thing or be given this advice.

    Perhaps a better question is “Is it worth letting your kids go watch Star Wars or Harry Potter in case they come back believing it’s all real?”

    If your child expressed desire to learn more about the Star Wars Universe would you freak out?

    If something is only a myth or story, then there should be no fear in letting your child read or show interest in it.

    Flame away… =)

  • http://humanistmama.blogspot.com Humanist Mama

    We have tried to teach our kids about as many of the religions and gods people believe in as we can. This has served them well.
    When my niece tried to talk to my son about Jesus he asked her why she believed in Jesus and not the other gods. She asked what other gods he was talking about and he said, “You know, like Zeus and Hercules.” He was amazed that she didn’t know who they were :)

  • elf_man

    Uh, Lex, it isn’t the power of the Gospels, it’s the power of the sales pitch that these people spend so much time fine tuning to their “audience” that’s the problem. And the symbolic content resonates greater than that of other religions precisely because it’s so ingrained in North American culture.

    As far as teaching it or not, there are any number of reasons that have nothing to do with fear; namely, why teach your kids something so ridiculous? Why spread it around? Well, this discussion is about exactly that. Assuming fear as the reason is simply off base.

    Also, trolling works a lot better if you don’t directly ask people to flame you. ;)

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    Um… Lex Fear, so far every atheist in this discussion has said that they’re not afraid to teach their children about religion. In fact, they’ve all said that it’s important and valuable to do so. They don’t want to suppress it. They want their kids to be familiar with it. (I’d chime in with a similar sentiment, but I don’t have kids.)

    If you’re going to snipe at us, can you please at least do us the courtesy of listening to what we say, reading what we write, and criticizing things we actually believe and do? Criticizing us for saying and doing the exact polar opposite of what we actually say and do is very irritating. And it makes you look really, really silly.

  • Twewi

    Lex, has anyone here said they were keeping it from their kids? Looks like everyone seems to be of the opinion that keeping them informed will prevent them from being misled later in life.

    I’m not a parent yet, but I have an idea for a fun game. Tell the kids stories from Greek, Norse, and Christian (or Muslim, Scientologist, etc.) mythologies and see if they can guess which ones some people actually still believe. :P

  • beckster

    Seriously, they decry something as a myth, a fairytale, but then they are afraid to let their little one’s eyes fall upon the ‘fairytale’ as though it was some kind of magical spell that once read would come to life.

    Ummm, I know tons of atheist parents and not a single one is afraid to tell the bible stories to their children. So I have no idea what you are talking about. We will hold off on some of the gory ones until our son is old enough to question it, but otherwise our kid will be familiar with christian mythology. And unlike most children being raised as christians, he will also have a working knowledge of the stories of other religions.

    Lex, do you share stories from the book of mormon or the koran with your children? Do you plan to? If not, it must be because those stories have some weight and truth to them.

  • Heidi

    Perhaps a better question is “Is it worth letting your kids go watch Star Wars or Harry Potter in case they come back believing it’s all real?”

    Hey, that’s pretty funny, Lex. How many Christian groups have tried to get Harry Potter books banned, again? How many pieces of Christian hate mail has J.K. Rowling gotten accusing her of witchcraft? And how many Christian fundamentalists do I know who wouldn’t allow their kids to read the books or see the movies? Must be some weight to that, huh?

  • duhsciple

    let’s teach our children about people of faith and non-faith in a truly friendly, openhearted, gracious way

    let us reject the tyranny of fundamentalism whether it all its forms, religious and non-religious

    let us practice humility in matters of faith, seeking more to understand than to be understood

  • http://twitter.com/hary3hve Harry

    In my household we pretty much never brought religion up, not that our three children were not exposed to it by peers, TV, movies, etc. We have a church a short walk away and the kids, when they were young, occasionally would attend with friends from the neighborhood out of curiosity. This was never either discouraged or encouraged but only accepted without much comment. Today none of the children, all adults, belong to any religion and I really don’t know what their beliefs are because it has never been discussed.

  • littlejohn

    Lex, I think you’re being a little more defensive than you need to be. I think I can speak for most of us when I say I don’t hate believers.
    My parents, who I assume weren’t really religious (they’re gone now, so I can’t ask), had me go to church until my mid-teens. I didn’t enjoy it and a certainly never believed a word of it, but I learned a little more about western culture than if I hadn’t been exposed to it.
    I admit I wish they had let me quit church a little earlier than they did (I was forced to go until I was about 15, I was an atheist from birth until now, at 54. It all struck me as really, really obvious horseshit, even as a toddler; even when I still believed in Santa.
    But that’s a nitpick. If nothing else, it equipped me with information to throw back at believers who want to argue with me. I actually am quite familiar with the Bible. I just don’t believe a word of it.

  • Revyloution

    Were raising an adorable little freethinker, and I’m trying to expose her to as many different world views as possible. Tonight, we were discussing why women were protesting in Iran, and how they are required to wear the hijab.

    I really enjoyed reading her the tale of Noahs flood. We finished watching the Planet Earth series recently. The idea of putting two of every ‘kind’ just flew against the reason of our 6 year old. She had a hard time understanding that some adults really believe those stories literally.

    No Lex, I’m not afraid of the power of the gospel. Reading to my little one directly from it has just increased her skepticism. I’m also not afraid of the power of the Bhagavad Gita nor the Koran.

    People here have politely refuted your claim, I hope you have the courtesy to reply, and the courage to realize what those replies mean to your claim.

  • Erp

    I wonder what Hemant considers should be necessary knowledge about Jainism that any educated American who is not a Jain or raised as a Jain should know?

    Without checking sources and accuracy not guaranteed I know it started in India several centuries BCE. Adherents are vegetarian (though some vegetables are also not to be eaten) and ideally do not kill even insects. Some adherents will starve themselves to death. I recall nothing about their myths.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Hemant Mehta

    I wonder what Hemant considers should be necessary knowledge about Jainism that any educated American who is not a Jain or raised as a Jain should know?

    The basic tenet is non-violence in all forms (e.g. don’t eat animal products, don’t think ill of others, etc).

    Jains believe in heaven/hell/karma/reincarnation.

    Gandhi was not a Jain, but the religion helped shape his own philosophy.

    The most devout Jains (there aren’t many of them) will cover their mouths when speaking and dust the floor in front of them before they walk in order to minimize their impact on small insects.

    I think that’s good basic knowledge :)

  • http://atheistgravy.blogspot.com revatheist

    I’ve been gradually introducing my little girl to religious ideas and stories so that she’ll be familiar with them without the spin put on them that they are true. I have personally always loved reading about various ancient mythologies and I hope to share that love with my daughter: I simply intend to add Christian mythology into the mix. Interestingly, my daughter and I recently had a talk about what christians believe because she wanted to know what her cousins did in church and why they went there. My daughter is only 6 years old so I tried to give the simplest and nicest explanation without actually glossing over the bad stuff. Long story short, it still made her cry: the idea of people in hell scared the snot out of her, and though it wasn’t my original intention, I had to reassure her that it was only a story and not true to get her to settle down.

  • Justin jm

    Seriously, they decry something as a myth, a fairytale, but then they are afraid to let their little one’s eyes fall upon the ‘fairytale’ as though it was some kind of magical spell that once read would come to life.

    Christian Apologetics: Twenty centuries of making up stuff about atheists.

    Seriously, this ain’t us you describe.

    You have to admit, there is some weight and some truth in something when you feel the need to suppress it.

    Name an idea (upon which people have widely differing opinions) which hasn’t been suppressed ever in the history of forever.

    Perhaps a better question is “Is it worth letting your kids go watch Star Wars or Harry Potter in case they come back believing it’s all real?”

    The difference you don’t mention is that people don’t believe that Star Wars is real. You don’t see nerds fighting (violently) over whether C-level canon is true or not.

    If something is only a myth or story, then there should be no fear in letting your child read or show interest in it.

    If only people had a built-in logic-professor-like understanding of logical fallacies, maybe. Unfortunately, we do have to fear when people buy into myths when those myths (like WMD in Iraq or a literal interpretation of Deuteronomy) cause people to engage in destructive behavior.

  • Harknights

    Funny that Lex brings up Star Wars like there is no question. I have a 3 year old. When he is old enough what should I do about Star Wars? do I show them in the order I saw them? Start with 4 and end with 3? Start at 1? Show the New Hope where Han shoots first? How do I explain ewoks?

    Now if how I present Star Wars has this many questions and can effect my sons outlook on the films based on those choices. Religion has at least that many issues when it comes to presentation.

    I’m not affraid of what it says…I’m afraid of how it is presented.

  • gwen

    My parents introduced me to the mythologies of the world at a very early age. I loved reading the stories of the Greek, Norse, Roman, Egyptian etc gods. My parents also had a rule that we attend church until we were 11, any church. Mom told me that she didn’t give a damn if we believed or not, but we were going to know all about what we didn’t believe in. I think it was a good choice. I quickly linked the other mythologies and could see the similarities with the bible. There were no teen conversions. I have been atheist pretty much all my life. My mom was also an atheist and dad was agnostic, although I think if he had lived longer, he would have become atheist as well.

  • http://ramblingambulance.tumblr.com/ rabbitambulance

    This is a great point, especially as pertains to preventing the “teen epiphany”.
    For me, one of the foundations for my eventual belief system was laid at my highly catholic, rural italian kindergarden and elementary school (the kindergarden was actually run by nuns). The fact that the things I was taught there didn’t receive any reinforcements at home gave those Bible stories no more truth value than the Greek, Roman and Nordic sagas my mom exposed me to.
    So that’s what I have to thank for my unshakeable worship for the only true God, the Master of Thunder.
    Hail Thor!

  • http://www.joshourisman.com Josh

    As a kid I really enjoyed reading Greek mythology. The stores of Hercules were awesome, and to this day my mental images of some of them (such as of the Hydra) come straight from the illustrations in the books I read as a child.

    That said, I’m not sure the bible has as much to offer in terms of entertainment, but it’s certainly had a lot of cultural influence extending all the way to English idiomatic expressions. Even now I still find value in occasionally cracking open a bible, if for no other reason than to provide fresh fodder for arguments with theists.

    If you’re going to live in a Western culture, familiarity with the bible is a useful thing. And I can’t think of anything that does more to damage the credibility of Christianity than actually reading it.

  • Benoit

    Harknights said:

    “Show the New Hope where Han shoots first?”

    There is no such thing. Han shoots first in Star Wars, not A New Hope.

    I made damn sure my son watched Star Wars***, then The Empire Strikes Back, before he saw the prequel crap, which has ruined the best coup de théâtre in cinema for generations to come.

    I’m all for teaching kids about Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and FSM-ism, but Episodes I to III are taboo in my house.

    *** If you ask “Which episode?”, you suck.

  • http://darwinsdagger.blogspot.com Darwin’s Dagger

    You should definitely expose your children to Star Wars, Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, all the great religions. But if the grow up and choose Star Wars over Star Trek you should kick them out of your house.

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  • TXatheist

    Hemant, months ago I saw a video of Jains who underwent a ritual of pulling their hair out of their heads. I was going to send the video and joke…”so this is why you left Jainism”.

  • http://notimefortrivia.com/ Don

    I live in the bible belt. My daughter felt left out because all of her friends went to Sunday School and she did not. I decided to start teaching her the bible. Forensically. We used to get out the bible, set up a grease board in my library and have Sunday lessons about the Old and New Testament and look at when the different scriptures were written, who wrote them, what was going on geo-politically to cause the writings and what was really being said.
    She understood that I felt God was a myth and there was no proof of the existence of Jesus. She really got into her lessons and would be ready when her friends regurgitated their brainwashing without any deeper understanding than “It’s in the bible.”
    I always encouraged her to seek for herself whether there was evidence of a God and whether the events described in the bible ever really occurred. I wanted her to be aware of the major themes such as creationism, Adam & Eve, Noah, Moses, the whole Jesus saga and so forth. I just wanted to make sure tha she looked at the stories from an inquisitive point of view and not from a blind acceptance perspective.
    I never told her to believe or not to believe, but unfortunately, brainwashing still begins in the crib and I am guilty of raising a very inquisitive free thinking young teenage girl. She actually went to a Christian summer camp (her best friend is a Christian) this year and due to her education was not swayed by the attempts to convert her. In fact, she is a committed atheist that finds all religions unnecessary. And I am very proud of her.

  • False Prophet

    I’m going to agree with @Josh: I was reading world mythology books about the same time I was getting my first Bible stories in Catholic school. I credit that with giving me my skeptical foundation: Why was I supposed to write off Zeus turning into a swan as fairy tales but take Jesus walking on water as the truth? It’s the old Emerson quotation: “The current generation’s religion is the literary entertainment of the next.”

    Moreover, I would count the Bible, Greco-Roman mythology, and Shakespeare as the three pillars of Western culture: I would expect my children to have a basic grounding in all three.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    My son and I recently finished Lord of the Rings for our bedtime reading, and it had an unexpected element for me. We do discuss religion, I don’t pull any punches about my atheism, but when we got to the end of LotR, I was able to explain to him the Messiah-archetype of which Frodo was representative. He put two and two together and said “That’s why you’re not a believer, huh?”

    BTW, we do occasionally pick through one of the two NIV bibles we have laying around when there’s a point needing support or clarification in our discussions.

  • http://gaytheistagenda.lavenderliberal.com/ Buffy

    If I had kids I’d make sure they had a basic knowledge of all the major, and some of the minor, religions. That way they’d be armed when the proselytizers came knocking and not be so likely to fall prey to them. There’s a reason people simply look at Greek and Roman mythology as mythology–because it’s taught as such and not as “truth”. Teach religion in the same way and children will grow up seeing it as just more mythology.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Hemant Mehta

    Hemant, months ago I saw a video of Jains who underwent a ritual of pulling their hair out of their heads. I was going to send the video and joke…”so this is why you left Jainism”.

    Hehe — Yeah, no “normal” Jains do this. Some devout people do. It has something to do with Jains not wanting any tools like scissors/trimmers because those are objects of vanity. No one I’ve ever known adheres to that.

  • http://anti-mattr.blogspot.com/ mathyoo

    avoiding teaching children about religion is just like avoiding teaching them about sex. Eventually they’re going to be curious, and if their only source of knowledge is from their peers, they’re going to end up in trouble. Not only is teaching children about religion important to give them cultural references, but it armors them against proselytizing. Teach your children about all the major religions, as well as about “dead” religions like those of the Greeks, Romans and Norse, and use that opportunity to weave in critical thinking lessons. They may choose religion later in life, but at least they’ll be able to do with their eyes open.

  • ME

    It was not until I read the Bible that I felt comfortable in rejecting it. I realized how the various Christian religions emphasize some parts and underemphasize others. For example there is very little about hell and damnation in the New Testament but a lot about false prophets. And Jesus’ words, far from ranting and raving that people are going to hell, instead say that if you forget everything I taught, just remember to love God and your fellow man. Reading the Bible innoculated me from believing it, because I can basically refute any manipulation or deliberate misinterpretation of it. I am not a believer but it is an important book, and should be read and understood on one’s own terms. Read it with your own mind, make your own interpretation of it as you would any other book. Ignorance is not bliss as Carl Sagan said, it is deadly. Innoculate yourself with knowledge.

  • AxeGrrl

    mathyoo wrote:

    avoiding teaching children about religion is just like avoiding teaching them about sex. Eventually they’re going to be curious, and if their only source of knowledge is from their peers, they’re going to end up in trouble.

    so simple…..and so true :)

  • http://www.ethicalfocus.org Ken Karp

    Dale gives great Parenting Beyond Belief seminars. He will be coming to northern New Jersey in October. Check out his website.

  • Kurt

    do I show them in the order I saw them? Start with 4 and end with 3? Start at 1?

    OK, we’re definitely getting off-topic here, but as I read somewhere else which I’m now shamelessly plagiarizing, here is the proper order to show the Star Wars episodes in:

    4

    :-)

  • http://thinkingshop.wordpress.com/ Jim

    I teach Religious Studies in a university and I think classes on World Religions should be mandatory in high schools. A bit about basic beliefs and practices and some of their history. Religion has been a major part of the human experience ever since there were humans, and to ignore it is unrealistic.

    Here in Alberta, the government just passed a bill that makes pulling one’s kids from school classes that deal with sex, sexuality or religion a primary human right. I think secularists should not be afraid of religion, nor should we expect that kids should be insulated from hearing about religions other than their parents’.

    I also think that kids (at least in upper grades) should be taught to draw parallels between religious rituals and myths and secular or political ones. People think through stories and affirm group identity, belonging and values through rituals, be they religious or secular.

  • http://weirdsanctuary.blogspot.com rodiel

    Reasons against:
    - danger of memetic infection
    The child might even use religion as an escape from reality when parental torture happens (and it always does – how many of you were not forced to do housework or were not punished for a “misbehaviour” or disobedience?), or as a coping strategy with other problems (e.g. school problems); memetic infection attacks when the person is emotionally vulnerable.

    - confusion over reality
    The child might ask the question, “how come that i’m told this or that myth is false, but whatever my science teacher tells me is true?” and may develop a paranoid distrust against anything told by adults. (Which is a good thing from the individual’s perspective but leads to conflicts with society later.)

    This doesn’t mean we should “shelter” kids from religion-related information, but that we should be very, very cautious with this.

  • http://mcwong1948.blogspot.com/ Mac McCarthy

    I sent my girls to Catholic high school for their safety’s sake, and bec. Catholics (in America) tend to be mellower than other mainstream religions. They are atheists, and I told them “don’t tease the Catholics!” They had to take religion classes. I am happy to say they are atheists to this day.

    I think I should write a book called, approximately, “The Secularist’s Guide to Bible Stories,” to summarize these stories, their key memes, how they are used in our society. My wife, raised a complete secularist, never heard any Bible stories and doesn’t know, for example, anything about the story of Noah, Sampson having his hair cut and losing his strength, all those stories. It would let secularists and their kids understand cultural references from this influential book without the religious mumbo-jumbo and propaganda. What do you all think?


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