How Much Religion Should You Expose Your Children To?

The folks at Penny Arcade, the Series just released some bonus content from their Season 2 DVD and it involves an interesting discussion about how much (if any) religion you should teach your children:

Just to be clear, the argument isn’t about teaching your children that religious beliefs are true — we know that’s absurd and no one should be advocating that.

This is about religious education. Kids should know the basics about faith — the stories referenced in pop culture, the major beliefs held by their friends’ parents, whatever they can handle at that young age — but you may not want to expose them to some of the horrors in the Bible (rape, genocide, God killing his creations, etc.) before they’re old enough to handle it. How much is too much?

(Thanks to Jeremy for the link)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • http://twitter.com/dalestaines dalestaines

    I think that making your kids aware of the world (especially our flaws) is a great thing.  There are so many ways to use superstition for teaching critical thinking skills

  • http://annainca.blogspot.com/ Anna

    I wish I didn’t have to worry about my children acquiring supernatural beliefs. If only they could remain the way they were born: default atheists. But since that’s not the kind of world we live in, I want them to be aware of history and culture. I don’t necessarily plan to expose them to religion. It’s my hope that they can spend their earliest formative years unaware of the god-concept. My own brain was “god-free” until I was around 7, so I know it’s possible. But once they do become aware of what the majority believes, I plan to expose them to as many different religions as possible. I don’t ever want them thinking that one god is more important or more likely to be real than another, or than monotheism makes more sense than polytheism or animism. I want them to be aware of all the different deities and religions that human societies have created.

    • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/DJRVGKGG36KNLNMZAVT4EXOF3M Ed-words

      Know your enemy.

  • Claudio Ibarra

    I got *zero* religious education _from my parents._ From popular media, friends, etc is where it all came from. My parents took a strict “you decide for yourself” approach.

    • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/DJRVGKGG36KNLNMZAVT4EXOF3M Ed-words

      The best decisions are informed decisions.

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/FDGYHBEWVNGUG763L5X4TON3JQ Nazani14

    My Daughter learned to read pretty well by age 7, so I gave her a big anthology of myths and gods of the world.  Her knowledge has allowed her to be vastly amused by the names of characters in Japanese video games.  She also enjoyed trips to art museums, since she already knew most of the stories depicted in painting and sculpture.  Her principal criticism of the bible was that it didn’t have enough dragons.  If you read myths of various cultures mixed in with fairy tales and Just So stories, they get the idea.  I let her English teachers deal with the Joseph Campbell heroes and Billy Budd symbolic stuff.

    • Anonymous

      lol, ‘not enough dragons.’ i agree. and way too much raping and killing, and god is mad, like, all the time. far too many of the stories don’t make any sense.

      that’s what i thought of the bible at her age. still do. i got educated about religion in the context of philosophy and history. there were greek myths, native american myths, christian and jewish myths… i found the latter two boring in comparison and had little interest in them until much later in life, and even then that was because i was motivated to understand some political realities. 

      i’ve been arguing that the ‘pagan’ nature of a lot of youth culture today is slowly killing monotheism. it makes me happy, knowing that the bible can’t compete with potter, LOTR and anime. 

      • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/FDGYHBEWVNGUG763L5X4TON3JQ Nazani14

        You’re right, Judeo-Xian myths are boring in comparison.  I know folks in the “holy land” had a hardscrabble life, but their stories are so materialistic, for lack of a better term.  It’s all about getting land, getting food, getting power, and almost no celebration of nature or beauty.

  • Anonymous

    The most important thing is probably to stop them from believing in hell. Knowing the concept is one thing, but I’ve read some stories of atheists parents whose kids got told about it from others and then were afraid of it. It’s not going to happen on everyone and not everyone will start to show fear, but it’s possible.

  • Thomas Farrell

    “How much religion should you expose your children to?”

    I’m going to give you a slightly flippant but actually useful answer. Substitute the word “penis for “religion” and it makes it easy to think about so that you get the right answer to both. Serioously:

    “How much penis should you expose your children to?”

    When they’re quite young you just let them know it exists and that some people have one. When they’re a little older you explain to them a few minor details. As they reach school age you give them factual information about what they’re likely to be exposed to from their peers so they’re armed with good knowledge. In later parts of grade school you make sure they are starting to have a clearer understanding and are better armed to just say no because it’s too early.In middle school you start to give them some of the more explicit details and have a frank conversation about your feelings about their involvement with it. In high school you get very blunt about it and assume that their peers are doing it  and try to ensure that your kid is the one whose attitude toward it is safe and sane. Then in college you let them know you’ll always be there to talk about it and hope for the best.
     

    • Erik

      Are you sure this is enough? It’s reasonable to expect your children aren’t going to be exposed to very much penis, and you can exclude most of the information until midway through elementary school.
      But religion they are going to be exposed to much earlier, by other kids, by media, and sometimes (unfortunately) by teachers. Their peers are going to be asking them if they believe in god and want to come to church, and telling them that Jesus loves them. Unlike penis, people think its okay to show kids your religion, so I think they need to be informed at an earlier age.

    • Rich Wilson

      The problem with this analogy is that the rest of society is pretty much in line with the idea of keeping one’s pens to one’s self.

    • Kenneth Dunlap

      Best answer possible!

    • Gus Snarp

      Talking about sex is absolutely analogous to talking about religion with my kids for me too.

  • Newavocation

    I think maybe teaching them the history of religion. FACTS. Also include all the things that were thought to be evil like epilepsy. Also don’t stop there include alchemy, blood letting, fortune telling and palm reading.  

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=553145445 Gordon Duffy

    I’m guessing I’d want to include the horrible bits.

    I’d probably include a bible story or two, but sandwich it with other myths, like the Greek or Aztec ones.

    “Today we are looking at human sacrifice in different myths… can you think of a modern day example?.. how about faith healing?”

    • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/DJRVGKGG36KNLNMZAVT4EXOF3M Ed-words

      How about the Catholic Mass? Anyone named Duffy
      must have slept through a ton of them.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=553145445 Gordon Duffy

        heh, I was an altar boy (unmolested – the local priest molested girls – no I am not joking) so I sat through a lot of masses. Honestly if you’ve seen one catholic mass you have seen them all.

        • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/DJRVGKGG36KNLNMZAVT4EXOF3M Ed-words

          Like the rosary. Religion likes sameness and repetition
          to keep its adherents from thinking too much.

  • Lamont

    I’m also a product of the totally hands-off approach.  It works fine.

    If the kids ask questions you need to know how to answer.  Otherwise there’s really no reason to need to ‘incoulate’ them or intervene in any way.

    Oh, do try to keep them away from batty-ass religious grandmas and relatives, and support them in keeping some distance.  That should come naturally for you though.  You don’t need to get freakishly overprotective, but do commiserate with them, and don’t drag them into the middle of family arguments (you should have figured out how to put that distance between you and anyone religious in your family by now — don’t use your kids as a weapon against your parents or anything stupid like that).

  • Annie

    When my daughter was about 8, I realized she didn’t know any of the stories of the bible.  Since then, she’s learned about the story of Adam and Eve, the flood, etc. (all the biggies).  We talked about how impossible these stories are and that most people believe they are fables meant to teach lessons, but some actually believe they happened.  I thought it was important for her to know these stories because she is a voracious reader and I didn’t want her to miss references to some of these stories in literature.  She has never, and will never, be taught by me that religion is something she can choose for herself later in life.  If she does, of course I will still love her, just as I would continue to love her if she became a drug addict or astrologer, but I certainly wouldn’t wish it for her or let her think it is a viable option.  I don’t really worry about this much though, as she is a more vocal atheist than I am.

    • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/DJRVGKGG36KNLNMZAVT4EXOF3M Ed-words

      Did your daughter read about that special miracle God sent
      to Noah and the arkhabitants?

      (It’s called the Immaculate Constipation.)

  • Walkerjoeann

    Our son goes to an episcopal day school with daily chapel (kill me now) but it is by far the best school available to us in our community.  With both my husband and myself being strong atheists and skeptics this has been very hard for us.  But another mother shared with me today what our 7 year old shared with a classmate “chapel is a waste of time” (said during chapel) and said about him by the same classmate “they don’t worship god”!  Happily the parents of said classmate have mostly the same feelings about religion and the quality of the school both.  I think he will turn out ok I hope.  But bottom line I do feel it is important to expose our children to religion and all the beliefs out there, if for nothing more than to have them not turn in to “born agains” as teenagers when they rebel and/or because it is mysterious.

  • Stephanie

    Wow, I have to say I never expected this confluence of my interests.

  • Laura Lou

    Like many others here, I also received virtually no religious education from my family, not even secular representations of religious history. As an adult I am one of the strongest atheists and antitheists I know.

    • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/DJRVGKGG36KNLNMZAVT4EXOF3M Ed-words

      Even Richard Dawkins agrees with hoverFrog that kids should learn 
      ABOUT religion and make up their own minds.
      That’s a real religious education.

  • Anonymous

    Children should be exposed to all religions.  When my children were younger we went to Christingle concerts at the local church, the Hindu festival of Diwali, the Chinese New Year (not religious but still exposure to a different belief system), we checked out the summer solstice celebrations by the druids.  They’ve been to church and to mosque.  Mix in some exposure to spiritualism from a mad aunt and we have a nice blend.  The idea is that any one religion gets compared to other religions without any kind of indoctrination.  That makes then all look equally bonkers.

    Foster an interest in science and nature and provide honest explanations for those typical childhood questions (what makes a rainbow, why is the sky blue, where did all the dinosaurs go, can I go into space one day, etc) and you get a sceptic who wants to know why and wants to know what the alternative explanations are.

  • Trace

    “Atheist joo joo”…me like.

  • Robyman444

    What is with the guy on the right? Did he say he’s a Christian while using just as much profanity as the atheist, if not more?

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=553145445 Gordon Duffy

      do you think christians dont use profanity?

      • Robyman444

        No, not at all. In fact, I’ve known some very devout idiots who cursed whenever they wanted, and then turned right around and acted alarmed, offended and shocked when they heard other people use the same words. I’m simply pointing out that it’s a gross contradiction which exhibits a tremendous level of hypocrisy.

  • Babsva

    Kids should learn about religion(s) for many reasons but let me give you a big one right here: a lot like sex, if they do not learn about it from you, they will learn about it from peers. And when they get to be teens, and very much influenced by their friends, they will be recruited by one belief system after another. It is important that kids have some grounding in who they are, and education is a very important part of it.

    I speak from experience here. My teen, who like all teens, is very emotional and subject to being emotionally manipulated (just think about how teens are attracted to horror movies, for an example of the kind of emotional thrills they seek) was lured by friends who promised not only unconditional acceptance and love from a cool bunch of kids, many of whom were older high schoolers and college-aged, they also promised the answers to everything, absolutely everything: in the Bible. There are Christian groups that actively recruit your children, at school and at other places where your kids are out of your sight. They have no ethical qualms about doing this, either. They offer fabulous camps, with water skiing and parasailing and bonfires, all away from the influence of parents. If anyone is interested I can tell you more about this.

    So, if a kid has an idea of the many gods that have come and gone throughout history, they will be less likely to be sold on the current one so prevalent in this country. If they know someone who is Hindu, have met someone who is Muslim, read about those who are Catholic, etc etc, they will be more tolerant of differences.

    Comparative religion is a great thing for people of all ages to study and it is not too early to start with school aged kids. Have them be acquainted with the Bible. It is a source of much of Western literature, and an educated person should be familiar with the parables and great life lessons, and even the horrifying and nonsensical random episodes depicted in it, if only to immunize them from future evangelizers who will make all sorts of magical claims about its contents.

  • Gus Snarp

    My kids
    are 2 and 5. So far I’ve generally taken the same approach I’ve heard to take
    when talking about sex: answer questions openly, honestly, and in an age
    appropriate way and don’t try to have some big talk. Frankly, I’d rather my
    five year old not be exposed to religion at such a young age, and that he is
    reciting the pledge of allegiance every day at school really bothers me, but I
    haven’t bothered telling him not to or really talking about it, because he
    doesn’t really know what he’s saying, and he’d be listening to it every day
    anyway….

     

    I have
    taken a few “teachable moments”. The first was watching Disney’s
    Hercules animated movie. Mythology is a great introduction to religion, because
    it’s very easy to tell that it is fiction right away, and without creating
    conflict at school or with friends. So we’re watching Hercules and he asks what
    gods are. I explained that ancient people didn’t understand things like
    lightning, so they made up Zeus, a god who throws lightning bolts, to explain
    it. They didn’t understand ocean storms, so they invented Poseidon,
    volcanoes, Hephaestus, etc. He took that just fine. That was at three. Later he
    came home from pre-school and (forgive me if you’ve seen me post this story
    before, it just cracks me up) very intently said a friend at school “thinks
    gods are REAL! I told her they’re not.” So much for avoiding conflict…

     

    Next came
    his belief in “Dod”. Another pre-school friend was apparently telling him about
    Dod (the friend couldn’t pronounce “god”), and he decided he believed in Dod. I
    don’t recall the exact conversation, but I asked him why he thought Dod was
    real and he said his friend told him so. “How did your friend know?” I asked. I
    have no idea what effect that had on him, he changed the subject and went off
    on another tangent. Which is a key thing with really little kids: they’re kind
    of like adults watching TV, you have to hit them with sound bites because they’re
    not going to think about these things for very long.

     

    Then
    there was the day he was proselytized on the playground by a sixish kid who had
    been taught to invite kids to vacation bible school which “is really cool and
    they play games and stuff”, and also to church. We sort of interrupted with a
    polite no thank you, because there’s no way my three year old was going to
    somebody else’s church, maybe later, but not at three. I don’t think he was
    interested anyway. Later he asked me what church was, and I let my snark fly a
    little bit. I said churches are often really beautiful buildings where some people
    go every week and listen to boring lectures. He asked why and I said some
    adults still feel the need to have people tell them what to do, and apparently
    they’re very forgetful because they need to do it every week. Can I just say
    that I hate the religious people are teaching their young children to go out
    and proselytize to other children. That’s just creepy.

     

    Finally,
    now that he’s in kindergarten he had a friend over from school and they were
    playing some game and decided that the bad guy ran off to the north pole. So my
    son announced that only Santa lives at the North Pole. His friend said that
    Santa came from God and that everything game from God, right?. This made me cringe
    a bit, but I said nothing as my son answered with a meaningless “yeah”. Then
    the friend said he was talking to me. I guess he needed a little approval on
    his God views? I was about to come out with the only answer I could think of: “what
    do you think?” when they simply moved on before I could speak. At this age I’m
    letting most of it go, but tossing a few “what do you think?”s and “how does he
    know?”s. I also give very simplified, but scientifically correct answers to the
    big why questions, and I make a point of saying animals and plants evolved to
    be the way they are, I avoid all the linguistic formulation we sometimes use
    that can be twisted by creationists, like any use of the word “design” in
    discussing nature.

     

    As he
    gets older I plan to only tell him about religion to the extent that he
    expresses interest. If he wants to go to church with a friend, I will let him,
    but I will have a discussion with him about it before and after and if it
    becomes a repeat occurrence, I will take him to other churches as well. The
    more he wants to go to a specific church, the more other churches we will visit
    together. There’s even a Buddhist temple and a Bahai center nearby. I will also
    expose him to some religious texts, humanist texts, and atheist philosophical
    texts. We will discuss how these religions differ and conflict and how we
    decide which is correct. I expect that he’ll be well inoculated with science
    and critical thinking by then. If he’s still interested in religion by middle
    school age I’m fully willing to bust out the rape, murder, and genocide verses
    and get him thinking about just how moral Christianity is if it’s holiest text
    advocated these things.

    • Gus Snarp

      Um crap, sorry about that formatting. Last time I compose in Word and cut and paste here.

  • CC

    Unitarian Universalists are generally good at the type of religious education you’re talking about.  UU RE involves teaching kids about various worldviews without the goal of indoctrinating them into any one of them.  As middle schoolers, they visit various religious organizations to see what they’re like. They also go through a process of defining their own beliefs.  

    I had the privilege of teaching a group of freethinking UU high schoolers.  They were able to talk about a good number of religious traditions cogently and critically.  I think it’s important for kids to at have some knowledge of other people’s worldviews so that they’re able to talk intelligently about them.  That knowledge also makes them relatively invulnerable to the recruitment tactics of christian groups.

    I realize that many atheists aren’t down with any type of churchy organization, but the UU fellowship works for me, especially because I live in a VERY religious part of the country and the UU congregation is really the only game in town for non-theists.   I also think that where religious education is concerned, they’ve got it going on.   

    • Babsva

      Same experience here (see my comments from earlier today on this thread)


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