Religious Picture Books Have Much to Offer Secular Families — But Choose Wisely

I’m assuming most of you atheists didn’t read your kid a religious bedtime story last night. But it might be time to start.

In terms of introducing young kids to certain culturally important religious concepts or stories, or familiarizing them with the fact that people all over the world believe different things (and that none of those things have any more or less validity than the ones practiced by their friends and family members), you can do no better than picture books.

But how do you choose?

As you can imagine, kids’ religious titles run the gamut. Many focus on religious holidays — Rosh Hashanah, Diwali, Christmas, Eid. Others contain more over-arching material — stories about Buddha or Muhammad or the parables of Jesus. Some are meant to “educate” and are much too comprehensive, dated or dry for most little ones to enjoy; others are beautifully illustrated and clearly written with children’s interests in mind. And because a good number are written for religious children, not all of them are a good match for secular families. The worst of the bunch are indoctrination materials, which — in my opinion at least — pose far more questions than answers. But the best can be quite good. They offer fun stories, interesting settings and clever text — and they do it so well that they don’t feel like “learning experiences” — even though that’s exactly what they are.

Of course, it’s sometimes hard to tell the good from the bad and the bad from the ugly. So I here are some tips for choosing titles that won’t confuse your child, offend you, or bore either of you to tears. [Read more...]

5 Reasons Not To Indoctrinate Kids Against Religion

My post last week on speaking about religion with kids in neutral terms has definitely ruffled some feathers. The comment thread features some folks who believe quite strongly that religion should be treated like the enemy — and that atheist parents are misleading their kids by speaking objectively about the subject. Interestingly (or maybe not), it’s a perspective I encounter far more often in people who have not yet had children. In a post today by fellow Patheos blogger Kaveh Mousav (the pseudonym used by an ex-Muslim atheist living in Iran — brave chap!), Kaveh argues that he plans to teach his children (when he has them) that religion is nonsense, period. And others have chimed in that indoctrinating kids into atheism is A-Okay as long as it doesn’t involve abuse.

Now, there’s no doubt that there are some striking differences between religious and non-religious indoctrination. With non-religious indoctrination, kids are never threatened with hell, for instance, or made to worry that an all-powerful being is judging their every move. (Thank God for that.) But there are plenty of negative consequences nonetheless. More and more, for example, as atheism goes mainstream, we run the risk of creating a generation of anti-religious zealots — children who grow up with no understanding of why anyone would hang on to religious beliefs, no empathy for those who do, and no ability to explore those beliefs for themselves.

For the purposes of my book, Relax, It’s Just God, which comes out in February (yes, you just witnessed shameless self-promotion), I define indoctrination as the halfway mark between simple suggestion and full-on brainwashing. You can be reasonably sure you are indoctrinating your kids if you teach them: [Read more...]

Is It Possible to Be ‘Neutral’ When Talking About Religion?

Female JournalistLast week I suggested that the world would be better off if more people presented religion to children not from a standpoint of indoctrination, but from a standpoint of education — that is, in a relatively neutral way. The post prompted a skeptical commenter to question whether this was possible. He said:

How do you ensure that your representation of the different religions out there is “neutral”? Given your atheism, how do you make sure you’re representing other faiths accurately?

This is an important question, and I’m glad he asked it.

For 15 years, I was a reporter for various newspapers. Most of that time was spent covering criminal courts: arraignments, preliminary hearings, trials, sentencings, you name it. I covered hundreds of them. So many that by the end of my career, I was on a first-name basis with most of the prosecutors, public defenders and judges in my local courthouse. Did I have opinions about these individuals? Yes. Did I have opinions about their cases? Yes. Did I ALWAYS believe, by the end of each case, that I knew whether a defendant was guilty or innocent? Oh, yeah.

But did my own personal opinions prevent me from writing about each of these cases in a fair, balanced and accurate way? Absolutely not. Presenting a balanced story so that people can make up their own minds about the truth is what good reporters do, and, frankly, it’s not that hard.

Listen, there is a difference between unbiased thinking and unbiased reporting. It would be silly to suggest that news reporters don’t make judgments about their subjects on a regular basis. It would also be silly to suggest that only mindless robots could deliver fair and accurate reporting.

When I suggest approaching religion from a relatively neutral standpoint, I am suggesting that you put your own opinions to the side and present religion in the most fair, balanced and accurate way you can. Here are some tips for how to do that.

1. Keep your opinion out of it. You would be surprised by how much can be gained from removing judgmental language from your argument. For example, when you find yourself wanting to say, “Some people believe the world began 6,000 years ago, and those people are fucking idiots,” you might rephrase that to say, “Some people believe the world began 6,000 year ago.” See? Easy. [Read more...]

And the Religious Literacy Award Goes to… Design Your Own Deity Magnet Set!

FridgeWe all know that religious literacy has the potential to be a total bore. Some of you know this from personal experience. Some of your kids know it, too. Hell, even the Internet knows it.

Not long ago, I Googled “Making religion Fun.” Nine out of the ten sites that popped up were about “making fun of religion.” Society is on a kick right now, and a lot of non-believers are counteracting religious indoctrination by making light of theology as often, and as publicly, as possible. But for parents who want their kids to be religiously literate, that approach is incredibly short-sighted.

Take Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, for example. If you’re too busy explaining to your child that Adam and Eve weren’t really the first people and that those who believe such things are clinically insane,  you’re probably not telling the Adam and Eve story very well. And that’s a shame! Because it’s a really great story, as well as being a vital  addition to our kids’ cultural knowledge.

It’s funny because, once upon a time, I found myself annoyed at the sheer number of religious references, imagery and collateral in the world around me. It seemed almost creepy. As a parent, though, I use all these things to my advantage. Whenever I see a Mormon on a bike or a candle bearing the likeness of the Virgin Mary or a Buddha statue in Target’s garden section, I treat them like a micro-learning experiences. A quick mention is usually all that’s required. “Look, there’s Buddha. He’s meditating.”

Longtime readers of this blog know that I’m also on the lookout for other fun ways to make religious literacy a little less painful. There was the time I made an All-Religious Charm Bracelet for my daughter, or the time I marveled at the thought of an entire line of Religious Barbies, or the time I created a two-part Shopping Guide filled with quality stuff that could help introduce kids to various philosophies and world religions without making you feel icky. [Read more...]

5 Ways to Help Kids Embrace Their Religious Differences

The following is a guest post by the fabulous Homa S. Tavangar, the author of Growing Up Global: Raising Children to Be At Home in the World, and appears in anticipation of the Birth of the Báb (Oct. 20), one of the 10 High Holy Days in the Bahá’í faith.

1bcd51c88da0b42dafc43210.L._V192256425_SX200_A few years ago, when my daughter mentioned that she’d be missing school for a day because of a Baha’i holiday, the boy sitting next to her asserted in horror, for the whole class to hear: “That’s not a thing. You’re making that up!”

At that moment my already reserved girl shrunk further in her chair, regretted her openness and wished she had just told her teacher she didn’t feel well to excuse the absence and avoid talking about her lesser-known faith with her classmates.

Growing up in America’s heartland I experienced similar episodes many times in my childhood, too, where I’d rather stay silent or disappear than talk about the Birth of the Báb or the Declaration of Baha’u’llah. And my three daughters have had to build a thicker skin to carry around their different-ness, too. So I felt a familiar pang in my heart when my daughter told me of being “SO embarrassed,” fighting my desire to simply report her absence as a sick day.

As I overcame my conformist impulse, I mentally pulled together some of the strategies I’ve used at home and in my work advising others about culture, diversity and inclusion. During my travels to talk to parents, educators and executives about issues connected to global citizenship, I’ve found that everyone, EVERYONE, even those who seem “mainstream” on the surface, have felt that pang of different-ness. Keeping this in mind helps us start from a position of empathy rather than defensiveness, while demographics and global awareness continue to radically shift during our lifetimes — and we all feel “different” at some point. So, whether your family is agnostic, atheist, Adventist, Bahá’í, Buddhist, Catholic, Charismatic, Muslim, Mormon or mixed, here are a few ways we’ve stood a little taller, owned our different-ness, and been able to laugh through ignorance, parochialism, or well-intended — but painfully awkward — comments. [Read more...]

You Know What This World Needs? More Godless Godparents!

Erik and his Godless Godmother, 2006.

Erik and his Godless Godmother, 2006.

Godparenting is kind of an archaic concept.

In the olden days, godparents were appointed to provide children moral guidance by way of spiritual instruction. But over the centuries, the custom has become increasingly secular in nature — in part because religion is not a prerequisite to morality and in part because modern godparents tend to be chosen based on personality and character, not the vastness of their religious knowledge or their dedication to Jesus Christ.

Case in point: Me.

Eight years ago, I was asked to be the godparent of my best friends’s firstborn son, Erik. Fortunately, my friend is Swedish (read: completely non-religious) and the position was one of a general mentor, rather than a religious guidance counselor. I flew to Sweden, and we all planted a tree together. Now, I send Erik gifts on special occasions, and he calls me his Godless Godmother. You know, the standard fare.

HOWEVER: Since I began writing about religion four years ago, I’ve become (as you well know by now) pretty committed to giving my own daughter a broad overview of various religions (including how they developed and why they exist). I do this not only so she will be in a position to choose a worldview that is right for her, but also so that she will learn the value of wisdom, freethinking and tolerance. [Read more...]

In 1492, Columbus Did Things One Ought Not Do

Columbus Day: the day we proud Americans get to celebrate murder, mayhem, torture, slavery, thievery, child rape and mass genocide by crafting adorable ships out of paper and glue and reading charming little picture books and learning rhymes about how Christopher Columbus discovered this land for you and me! (Thanks, Pinterest, for all the fantastic indoctrination ideas!)

ships

Columbus book

Columbus previw

It’s all so very disturbing. [Read more...]

Don’t Just Talk About Religious Literacy — Try It On

It’s Day Ten of Religious Literacy Month here at Natural Wonderers, and today we get to hear from secular parent extraordinaire Dale McGowan, co-author of Raising Freethinkers: A Practical Guide for Parenting Beyond Belief and the managing editor of the Patheos Atheist Channel.

•••

cross necklaceMy daughter Erin was 10 years old when she approached me just before school one day.

“Daddy,” she said, “I want to wear something to school tomorrow, but it makes me feel weird to wear it. I don’t know if I should.”

I can’t say I was surprised that she would be  puzzling over the morality of her clothing choices. She wouldn’t have been the first girl to ponder the implications of spaghetti straps or a too-short skirt. But this time, there was a twist.

“What are you thinking about wearing?” I asked.

She slowly revealed a pendant necklace, with a cross of pink plastic beads dangling at the end of it. She had bought the necklace for a dollar on vacation a previous summer.

“Why does it make you feel weird?” I asked, though I assumed she was feeling out the reaction of her secular dad. To be sure, there was a time when I would have frozen like a moose in the headlights at such a question. But this wasn’t some church-state issue. This was about letting my child explore the world for herself. It wasn’t about my views; it was about her ability to guide the development of her own views.

“I feel weird wearing it when I don’t really believe in God — like I’m not being honest,” she said. “But I just like to wear it.” [Read more...]

“Mommy, What’s a Soul?”

Not long ago, I began a series called “Mommy, What’s That?” — which give secular parents quick and easy ways to describe complicated (or potentially disturbing!) religious concepts to young children. So far, we’ve covered angels, catechism, confession and everybody’s favorite dude, Satan. Today, we’ll cover souls. Because, really, what the fuck are those things anyway? A-Childs-Prayer-Dear-God-vinyl-wall-design

The Short Answer:

A soul refers to everything about you that’s not your actual body. Your body includes your eyes, ears, arms, legs, bones and heart. Your soul includes everything that you feel and think and remember. It’s the part of you that you can’t touch. [Read more...]

7 Reasons Bill Maher and Sam Harris May Be Hurting Their Own Cause

MaherHarris1-600x367If you’ve been avoiding social media lately you might not be aware of the HUGE debate going on right now regarding Islamophobia — what it is, what it’s not, and whether it’s a fair or valid label for anti-Islamic remarks.

The debate started with a clash between comedian Bill Maher, who stars on Real Time with Bill Maher, and religious scholar Reza Aslan, who wrote Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.

Now, it must be said that Maher is anti-Islam (and anti-religion!) in the same way that he’s pro-marijuana; that is, he doesn’t mince words, and he’s not afraid to shout his views from the rooftops. So after one of his many schpiels against the violence and civil rights violations inherent in Islamic politics, Aslan appeared on CNN, calling  Maher’s views on Islam “unsophisticated” and accusing him of painting all Muslim countries with a broad brush. That was followed up with an appearance by author and “New Atheist” Sam Harris on Maher’s show, where both men put on a united front against Islam and accused liberals of making matters worse by usiUnknown-1ng “Islamophobia” (which Harris called “a meme”) to silence anyone who tries to criticize Islamic extremism or other fucked-up cultural ideologies prevalent in some Muslim countries.

Taking the squabble to a whole new level of publicity, actor Ben Affleck, who is politically active and happened to be on Maher’s show with Harris, called shenanigans on the whole discussion. Among other things, Affleck said the comments were tantamount to ugly racism and that stereotyping Islam actively harms millions of Muslim families throughout the world who are just trying live their lives. [Read more...]


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