Atheism through the holidays, part 2: What to do about baby Jesus

My parents homeschooled me in part to “shelter” me – to keep me from what they considered “bad influences.” They carefully monitored what movies we watched, who we were friends with, what we read and learned, and where we went or what we saw. The goal was to raise us to share their beliefs, unadulterated by potential corruption from ideas and beliefs they considered “wrong.”

Having been raised this way, I have to avoid falling into the same pattern. Sometimes it’s tempting to think that I need to shield Sally from any mention of God or religion, to “shelter” her from the theistic beliefs I personally believe to be “wrong.” Except that while my parents’ goal was to raise a Christian daughter, my goal is not to raise an atheist daughter. My goal is to raise a daughter who is open minded, a critical thinker, and able to choose for herself what she believes. And that, quite simply, is why I’m not afraid of baby Jesus.

My goal as a parent is not to close Sally’s mind, it’s to open it. I will never tell her what to believe. I will tell her what I believe, and that she will need to choose her own beliefs. And in that vein, I plan to expose her to a variety of different religious traditions. We will read books about world religions, learn the mythology of different religions past and present, and probably even visit different houses of worship. We will go to international festivals and learn about different people groups’ traditions and beliefs.

The other day Sally and I passed a large manger scene display in a store. She asked what it was, and I told her, quickly because we were in a hurry, that it was a manger scene. In the future I’ll tell her that the manger scene is part of a story some people believe about Christmas, a story about a special baby born in a barn and shepherds and kings who came to visit him. Children hear many stories: Jack and the beanstalk, Thomas the tank engine, Harry Potter, Peter Rabbit, etc. Similarly, every religion has its own stories, its own mythology. I’m not going to shield her from the stories, I’m just not going to tell her they’re real.

Have you ever noticed that if you hide something from kids, they’re suddenly especially interested in it? Sex, for instance. The more you try to hide it, the more kids are curious. And so, even if I wanted to shelter Sally from any mention of religion – which I don’t – it would probably backfire. Suddenly religion would be this really fascinating thing because it’s forbidden. If I forever whisked her away from manger scenes and refused to answer her questions in an attempt to keep her ignorant of them, she would almost certainly become more fascinated and more determined to learn about this thing her mommy is hiding.

The truth is, we live in a nation where the vast, vast majority of people are religious, and the vast, vast majority of them are Christian. Sally will come in contact with religion in all sorts of ways as she grows up, and that’s not a problem. But because of this I would argue that in order to function well in our very religious world some degree of religious literacy is necessary. If I want Sally to be able to understand those around her, whether Christian or Muslim or Jewish or what have you, she needs to have some understanding and knowledge of religion.

I will teach Sally about the various traditions that surround Christmas, both religious and secular, and, yes, pagan. We will delve into the history and the richness of tradition. I love the ways in which holiday celebrations tie us to our forebears through common practice and common custom. If I lived in a Muslim country, I would teach Sally the history and roots of Ramadan, or if we lived in Israel I would do the same with Purim, etc. And actually, I’ll probably teach her about those religious holidays as well even as I teach her about the history, beliefs, and traditions of different religions. We already have one picture book on world religions, and we will purchase more as time goes on. We may even make crafts or foods based on these holidays, or try out some of their traditions just for fun. It’s the same with Christmas.

I don’t yet have a lot of experience with explaining different religions or religious traditions to Sally, because she’s still young. I don’t think she has a concept of “god” yet. As time goes on, though, I anticipate using the phrase “some people believe” a lot. “Some people believe that the world was made by an all powerful being they call ‘God.’” And so on. When it comes to Christmas, I will need to explain that “some people believe that an all powerful being they call ‘God’ had a son, and this son became a human being and was born on earth two thousand years ago, and they celebrate his birthday on Christmas.”  Then, if she asks what I think, I’ll tell her that I think it’s just a story.

Am I worried about this confusing her? Not really. The “some people believe” line won’t just be used to tell Sally about what Christians believe, but also what Muslims, Jews, or Hindus believe. We’ll read loads of religious mythology, from the ancient Roman mythology to Hindu mythology to Catholic stories of saints’ lives. My goal is for Sally to learn about the different religious traditions in a way that avoids giving any one of them special footing. There are many religions, many religious holidays, and many religious mythologies. And from there, Sally can make up her own mind.

The Christmas season, then, serves as an occasion to learn about Christian traditions, history, and beliefs. Given that Hanukkah occurs around the same time, it can serve as a similar impetus for learning about Jewish traditions, history, and beliefs. And given the holiday atmosphere in general and the time out of school, it might be an excellent time to learn about religious holidays in general. I’m not opposed to letting Sally make an advent calendar if she wants to any more than I am opposed to letting her play the traditional Hanukkah Driedel game. The holidays, then, can serve as a time for religious education rather than religious indoctrination.

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Why I Take My Kids to the UU Church
What Makes a Person an "Atheist" Parent?
I Have Never Seen a Supernatural Entity Create a Universe
About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Elin

    I think you are doing the right thing, information is never harmful.

  • Peter and Nancy

    Although I am a practicing Christian, we are raising our kids similarly. We want them to be good students of their world, which includes knowing what other people believe, and what other religions entail. The only thing that really bugs me RE: this kind of discussion is when people say, "But we're all really worshiping the same god, no matter what you call it." If they knew anything about the identities and personalities of the Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, pagan, etc. deities, they would realize how flawed that statement is.Nancy

  • boomSLANG

    "If they knew anything about the identities and personalities of the Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, pagan, etc. deities, they would realize how flawed that statement is."Yeah, in many ways, all those religions and their respective deities are far too unique to be synthesized into one. I think it's fair to say that they cannot all be right. But on the other hand, they can all be wrong.

  • Mommy McD

    I agree, and will add that another reason I will be sure to talk to the kids about Christianity is because I don't want the first time someone talks to them about it to go badly. In case it is a kid who can't believe they don't know (and teases them), or someone tries to scare them with it. I'd rather be the one to introduce the topic to them. We already have several books of children-ized myths and fairy tales and my 4 year old really likes them. She loves dragons and fairies right now, so she isn't at all interested in the type of stories in the bible. My problem is that I honestly don't think that most the popular stories are really age appropriate. Even the birth of Jesus, while being mostly non violent (except the slaughter of toddlers mentioned in one version) is out of context for her because she doesn't understand reproduction yet. In fact there is so little about the story that has context she can understand, it's basically just: this is the story of a magic baby who was born in a barn and an angel (fairy – as she insists) shows people where he is. He makes people very happy and so they celebrate his birth on Christmas. But I am pagan, and so she knows more about that than anything else so far. She isn't terribly interested in that either, and that's okay. It at least offers a foundation of multi-religious study. Perhaps Christianity can be more appealing to my kids since they won't be forced into it. I actually really look forward to talking with them when they are older about how they view Christianity as someone who came to it from the outside. It is something I can't really imagine.I can't even explain that we are celebrating the sun's return after the longest night of the year, so we mostly focus on having some fun and giving things to each other during a time that is otherwise cold and bleak.

  • Rosa

    Our biggest problem is teaching the six year old not to refer to other people's beliefs as "stories" to their face. But only because we solved the issue of him saying "well you think that but it's not really true," which he picked up from his atheist father.This goes in multiple directions – I'm pagan, and a lot of my friends believe in astrology. Guess what came up in discussion of the Christmas story? Those wise men, with the star – that's astrology.

  • Meggie

    Enjoy learning with Sally about all the different religions and their traditions. I am sure the world would be a far more peaceful place if we all took the time to understand each other people rather than seeing anything that is not ours as 'wrong'.My pet hate at Christmas is the kids, usually home schoolers but always super-Christian, who go along line of kids waiting to see Santa and tell them that Santa isn't real. Look around and you can usually see the home school Mum standing near a wall somewhere, looking quite proud of her little darlings. I always wonder why the parents don't teach 'these are our beliefs and these are the cultural practices in Australian society.'

  • Rosa

    What the hell, Meggie, that really happens? That's evil. I'm irritated at regular-Christian levels of arrogance (they get to occupy all of December, everywhere, and tell me how deprived my kid is because we don't have a Christmas tree and stuff, but saying "the story Christians believe is that God made Mary pregnant with a baby that was also God…" is a horrible offense because it's NOT A STORY IT'S THE TRUTH) but the fundamentalist version is so much more malevolent, it's hard to remember how bad the behavior they encourage is.