12 Simple Differences Between Catholics and Protestants

The rapid rise of the “Nones” — those unaffiliated with religious groups — was back in the news this week, when the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released its most recent study on American religiosity. Here’s what Pew had to say:

The number of Americans who do not identify with any religion continues to grow at a rapid pace. One-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under 30 – are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling… Their ranks now include more than 13 million self-described atheists and agnostics (nearly 6% of the U.S. public), as well as nearly 33 million people who say they have no particular religious affiliation (14%).

In addition, the group emphasized that, for the first time in history, there is no Protestant majority in the United States. That is, Protestants have dropped to 48 percent, whereas they comprised 53 percent of the public as recently as 2007 — a drop of 5 percent in five years. (Catholics, by comparison dropped 1 percent during the same time period — to 22 percent). As you all know, Protestants are Christians who broke off from the Catholic Church 500 years ago. Although there are more than 33,000 (!!) Protestant denominations, all of them still operate in ways that are separate and distinct from the Catholic Church. But what are the differences, really? I mean, all Christians Churches hold the same core value: Jesus Christ was the son of the God who died for our sins, arose from the dead, and ascended to heaven. Isn’t the rest just window-dressing?

Well, here, you decide.

Twelve Differences Between Catholics and Protestants:

1. The Pope. Catholics have a Pope, which they consider a vicar for Christ — an infallible stand-in, if you will — that heads the Church. Protestants believe no human is infallible and Jesus alone heads up the Church.

2.  Big, Fancy Cathedrals. Catholics have them; Protestants don’t. Why? Well, Catholicism says that “humanity must discover its unity and salvation” within a church. Protestants say all Christians can be saved, regardless of church membership. (Ergo… shitty, abandoned storefront churches? All Protestant.)

3. Saints. Catholics pray to saints (holy dead people) in addition to God and Jesus. Protestants acknowledge saints, but don’t pray to them. [Note: There is much debate about the use of the word "pray" in this context, so let me clarify: Saints are seen by Catholics as an intermediary to God or Jesus. Although Catholics do technically pray to saints, they are not praying for the saints to help them directly but to intervene on their behalf. They are asking the saints (in the form of a prayer) to pray for them. It's like praying for prayers. Hope this helps.]

4.  Holy Water. Catholics only.

5. Celibacy and Nuns. Catholics only.

6. Purgatory: Catholics only.

7. Scripture: The be-all, end-all for Protestants is “the Word of God.” For Catholics, tradition is just important as scripture — maybe even more so.

8. Catechism: Protestant kids memorize the Bible. Catholic kids get catechism.

9. Authori-tay: In Catholicism, only the Roman Catholic Church has authority to interpret the Bible. Protestants hold that each individual has authority to interpret the Bible.

10. Sacraments: Catholic are the only ones to have the concept of the seven sacraments (baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist, penance, anointing of the sick, holy orders, and matrimony). Protestants teach that salvation is attained through faith alone.

11. Holidays: Catholics have 10 Holy Days of Obligation (which mean they must go to Mass). Protestants are more like, “Just come to church on Christmas, that’s all we ask.”

12. Communion: In Catholicism, the bread and wine “become” the body and blood of Jesus Christ, meaning that Jesus is truly present on the altar. In Protestantism, the bread and wine are symbolic.

This post originally appeared in October 2012.

It’s Not a Competition: 8 Tips for Interfaith Parents

In America at least, “mixed-religion” families are becoming a norm. And that’s a great thing in many ways — great for couples, great for kids, and great for society. But it comes with a fair share of complications, too. And figuring out how to talk to children about these different beliefs is one of them. It can be hard, for instance, to field questions of faith when your answers collide with those of your partner’s — “Mommy’s going to heaven, and Daddy is — well, he’s going to the ground.” But these talks (not to mention these marriages) need not end badly — whether you’re a Jew married to Muslim, a Hindu married to Buddhist, or a Catholic married to an atheist.

The trick is to remember to love your partner the way you love your children: unconditionally. You fell in love with someone who sees the world a certain way; embrace her journey, even if you give no credence to her religious beliefs.

Here are eight tips:

1. Show shame the middle finger. Sharing your religious beliefs, or lack thereof, with your child is important — even if it means letting your child know that this is one area where you and Daddy don’t agree. Remember, no matter what you believe — or don’t — there is no shame in having your own thoughts about how the world works. And that’s a lesson you want to teach your child, right? So model it. Don’t hide what you are — even if certain other people think you’re wrong or weird or downright evil. You know differently; be sure your child does, too.

2. Take ‘hell’ off the table. It’s one thing to dangle heaven as a reward for a life well-lived; it’s another to threaten hell as a punishment for faithlessness. If your partner, for instance, insists on telling your child that there is a fiery place where people go if they don’t embrace a certain set of beliefs, your partner is suffering from some major cognitive dissonance and should be asked — as nicely as possible — to lay the fuck off.

3. Be respectful — even if you have to fake it. Agree in advance that you will not intentionally denigrate or disrespect each other’s beliefs in any way. Make a deal that your children be allowed to embrace one belief over the other, but that both parents get to be honest about their beliefs (or, again, lack thereof). Promise not to put down your partner’s views in any way, but rather encourage your children to seek honest answers for themselves.

4. Find stuff you agree on. There are a great many things that nonreligious and religious parents have in common. Many religious people believe, for instance, that the Bible is not literal, that the world is not 6,000 years old, and that there are no such things as ghosts. Many nonreligious people believe that the world was created by some supernatural force, which they may or may not call “God.” As a couple, decide what you agree on, and what you don’t, so you know exactly what areas need to be traversed sensitively.

5. Speak up! Allowing one partner to “take over” the religious upbringing of a child happens a lot — and it’s not the worst thing in the world. But it’s also a kind of sad when you think about it. The existence/nonexistence of God and what happens after we die figures so heavily in the Big Questions of the universe — the questions that each and every child will, at some point, want to explore. If you don’t share your views, you can’t share with your child all the wonderful philosophies and theories and wisdom about human nature that you’ve collected during your experience as a human being. And that’s robbing your child of something special; it’s robbing them of you.

6. Say ‘I believe’ a lot. You can avoid a lot of stress with your partner (and vice versa) simply by adding “I believe” in front of whatever you say. It’s the concrete statements — “People who support abortion are disappointing God” — that make nonreligious parents bristle. But adding: “I believe…” or “My interpretation is…” to religious statements can go a long way toward taking the edge off. (So can whiskey, by the way. But that’s probably not going to help your marriage. On the other hand, maybe it will.)

7. Perfect your shrug. Your child may not know what to make of having parents with different religions at first. It might spark more questions than usual, and that’s just fine. Encourage these questions, and try to answer them as a couple as often as you can. But do let your child know that this stuff is super-confusing and neither parent has all the answers. You can say: “No one really knows for sure. That’s what allows us to have different opinions about this stuff.” This is one area where not having all the answers is not just okay — it’s sort of required.

8. Acknowledge your lack of control, and embrace it. Think of your family as points on a grid, standing equidistance from one another. The goal is not to invite your child to join you on your exact point on the grid (that’s never going to happen), but rather to encourage your child be comfortable and confident on her own unique grid point. That your child is kind to other people is your concern; whether she believes in the prophet Muhammad is not. If you’re curious what your kid believes, ask in the most neutral way you can: “What do you think? What makes sense to you?” And be sure she knows that however she responds is fine by you. Oh, and never try to pressure a child into believing the way you do — it rarely works, and might even backfire. Oftentimes, the harder you push a child to your way of thinking, the more distance the child puts between you — until, eventually, she’s off your grid altogether.

This post originally appeared in July 2012.

7 Tips for Dealing with Religious Relatives

I’m lucky to have a supportive family. Even my religious family members respect and accept me for who I am. But that’s not always the case.

Some of us are facing relatives who are heartbroken about our lack of faith — incredulous, fearful, maybe even angry. For parents, this is an area that weighs especially heavily. We want so much to encourage our children to have open, meaningful relationships with our loved ones, but we worry our kids will be pressured to believe things that aren’t true, or may even be harmful. No one wants to expose kids to the “family tension,” or say something that will make the the tension even worse. So what can be done? How can nonreligious types deal with religious relatives?

As always, there is a balance to be struck. And, as always, love and levity go along way.

1. See that big chip on your shoulder? Knock it off.

Okay, so you’ve been disrespected, condescended to, verbally attacked or even threatened. That shit will get under anyone’s skin. But if religion is ever going to become a non-subject in your house, you’re going to have to own your part in it. Approaching religious loved ones adversarially is that part. Often, we see religious exposure and treat it as religious invasion, or we hear words of faith and interpret them as acts of war. Try shedding your armor before you walk in the door. Adopt a loving posture, instead of a defensive one. Make jokes. Be self-effacing. And if all else fails, do what most families do and find a third-party to vilify. Far more dysfunctional families than your own have been saved simply by identifying a common enemy.

2. Relaaaaaaax

Do you honestly think your relatives’ religious views are going to succeed in “indoctrinating” your child. Not a chance. Children may go to church every Sunday with their grandparents, but they’ll still look to their parents for true religious guidance. So stop worrying so much. Explain to your kids that people have all sorts of religious beliefs, and encourage them to explore and ask lots of questions. Give your child a preview of what they might hear from relatives or friends at school. Tell them it’s okay to believe in God or not believe in God, and that people have lots of different ideas about how the universe was made and what happens after we die. Some people have such strong beliefs that they try very hard to convince others that their way is the right and only way. Encourage your children to listen and be respectful and that they have plenty of time to make up their own minds.

3. Encourage religious talk.

People love to talk about themselves. It makes them feel good. And if a person’s interests center on his or her religion, then allowing them to talk about his or her religion is a really nice thing. Think about how touched your mom would be if you invited her to tell your children about her faith. She’d no longer have to sneak around you (as much), or feel (as) resentful, or worry (as intensely) that you’re dragging your child to hell. Let your mother know that, as long as she doesn’t say anything hurtful, hateful or scary, she is welcome to expose your children to religion as much or as little as she likes. Be sure to encourage your children to engage in these discussions, too.

4. Lower your expectations.

If you have an especially vocal family, and find yourself getting stressed out easily, you may need to lower your expectations a bit. Try promising yourself you won’t get annoyed until you hear X number of religious remarks or stories. Then set the X number kind of high. I used to do this when I travelled long distances with my toddler. If I resolved not to get stressed until she had three meltdowns, for instance, I didn’t exhaust myself trying so damn hard to prevent just one. My relaxed attitude made all the difference, and the trips always exceeded by expectations.

5. Understand that ‘rational’ has nothing to do with it.

Why are we non-theists so outraged, indignant and disgusted when we learn new things about religion? When we pick up the Bible or the Qur’an or the Book of Mormon, for example, and actually read some of what’s in there? “People can’t possible believe this stuff,” we nonreligious types say. “This book doesn’t make any sense, and it contradicts itself all over the place!” Right, sure. But religious people aren’t concerned about that. If God works in mysterious ways, every single supernatural and incongruous event in religious history can be justified. Can they be justified through rational thought? Of course not. That’s why it’s called faith. Let’s move on.

6. Avoid debate (especially when liquor is involved).

Because religion is often irrational, arguing about religion is usually pretty pointless. When was the last time you changed someone’s religion by arguing a point really well? I rest my case. If you find it fun to discuss or debate religious beliefs, and can do so respectfully, then have at it. But if you’re going to end up feeling frustrated or angry or thinking less of the person you’re debating, then leave it. This is one area where keeping your trap shut will reward you in spades.

7. Tell them to go suck a bag of dicks — but, you know, more nicely.

The sad fact is that some relationships are not strong enough  — and never were — to withstand the divide caused by religious differences. Either the dogma and rhetoric is too thick to see through, or the religious belief has  becomes intertwined with out-and-out bigotry. If you no longer feel you get anything good or positive from a certain relationship, then you are within your right to limit visits or stop them altogether. Just be sure you think it through first, and that you’ve tried your best to make things work. Giving family members a chance to right their wrongs and correct their offensive behavior is a must if you are to feel good about your decision down the road.

This post originally appeared in February 2012.

A Nonbeliever’s Near-Death Experience

So can we talk about near-death experiences for a minute? You know — the whole tunnels-and-bright-lights thing?

I bring it up because a good friend recently shared with me a YouTube video featuring an 18-year-old with heart disease. In the video, the high school senior, whose name is Ben Breedlove, uses index cards and music to tell the story of his life, his illness and his three near-death experiences.

Viewed more than 2 million times, the video seems to be Breedlove’s way of explaining what it’s like to pass from one world to the next and back again. He describes the journey in somewhat mystical terms — bright lights, a white room, a feeling of deep peace and calm. He also reports feeling proud of himself, of all he’s accomplished in his life. And he marvels at how good it had felt to be in that calming, bright-white place — so good, in fact, that he never wanted to wake up.

“Do you believe in angels or God?” Breedlove asks his audience just before the video ends. “I do.”

This young man’s experience, and his words, are meant to be affecting — and they are. Especially knowing that only a week after Breedlove uploaded that video to YouTube, his heart stopped again. Only this time it didn’t start back up. Ben Breedlove died on Christmas day.

As I watched the video, I was touched by Breedlove’s courage, optimism and humor. He’s clearly a good person who deserves to be happy. And that he appears to find happiness, even in the grip of death, is both sweet and uplifting.

But to answer Breedlove’s question: Do I now believe in God or angels?

No. The answer is no. Not even a little.

While I truly believe Breedlove saw those bright lights and felt that deep sense of calm, I don’t believe that what he saw and felt were “evidence” of another realm. Rather, they were the dreams and hallucinations so often brought on by brain malfunctions, powerful drugs and our own rich imaginations in the midst of life-threatening illness or trauma.

I’m intimately familiar with the phenomenon because I, too, had a near-death experience 16 years ago. Only I experienced it as a nonbeliever.

My own story begins in a restaurant in Lincoln, Neb., on the evening of May 20, 1995. I was in college at the time, and that night I was having dinner with my mom and my boyfriend, Charlie. (If the name rings a bell, that’s because I eventually married him.) I started off the meal by informing our waitress that I had a serious allergy to peanuts and tree nuts. But, by the time we ordered dessert, she’d forgotten. I took one bite of our cheesecake and knew immediately there must be nuts in the topping. Soon, I began feeling sick to my stomach. The waitress apologetically confirmed there were crushed almonds on top of the cheesecake, and we left.

About 30 minutes later — after my mom had begun her two-hour drive home and Charlie had headed to a video store to get us a movie — my face swelled up and I began having trouble breathing. Nothing like that had ever happened before, but I sensed that something must be terribly wrong. I called 911, then ran to the porch to wait for help. Charlie met me there, video in hand. Within seconds, I was lying down, struggling against my ever-shallowing breath. The effect was terrifying. I can still feel the chipping paint on the wood slats below me as my body thrashed around, desperate for air. “Try to relax,” I remember Charlie saying, as he held me in his arms. “You’re breathing. You’re breathing. You’re breathing.”

And then, suddenly, I wasn’t breathing anymore.

I immediately lost consciousness. As Charlie tells it, my body went rigid and my lips turned blue. He tried to administer CPR, but my tongue had swelled to the point where he couldn’t do anything. From the look of it, he said, I was either dead or dying.

By the time the paramedics arrived, I was in full respiratory arrest. Their first rule of business was to get a tube down my throat so they could push air to my lungs; but it wasn’t easy. According to the paramedics’ report, the first several efforts failed. And when they finally did intubate me, it didn’t do much to improve my situation. By the time I got to the emergency room at Lincoln Memorial Hospital, I was still in respiratory arrest. There, I was injected with all kinds of drugs, fitted with a chest tube for a collapsed lung, and given a rather grim prognosis. As I lay in a coma, breathing only with the aid of a respirator, doctors brought up the distinct possibility of severe brain damage.

Obviously — or maybe not so obviously if you believe Fox News fans — I made a full recovery. I remember coming out of my coma, but still not able to speak (or even swallow) because of the tube running down my throat.

The only way to communicate with my parents was to trace out letters with my finger. At first, they didn’t know what I was trying to do, but then my dad figured it out and offered me his palm to write on.

GET THIS DAMN THING OUT OF MY MOUTH, I scrawled.

When I got to the word “damn,” the smile that spread across my dad’s face said it all: Not only was I alive and awake. Not only was I able to form words. But, by God, I was cursing again. All was right with the world.

This is the wristband I wore during my hospital stay. When my brother saw it, he asked: “Is that your allergy or your diagnosis?”

 

Now, about that near-death experience…

I can’t tell you exactly when this happened, other than to say it was sometime after I lost consciousness and before I was stabilized in the hospital. But, just like Breedlove, I had a vision that accompanied an extreme sense of calm. I didn’t see angels or bright lights or tunnels or staircases to heaven, though. What I saw was my own funeral. Or, more specifically, I saw the feet of the people at my own funeral. (Kooky, I know.) It was as though I were sitting under a table. That was my vantage point as I watched these black dress shoes shuffle back and forth on a wooden floor. There was no question that it was my funeral, but instead of feeling depressed or scared or even very sad, I felt a peaceful acceptance. In fact, it was kind of nice seeing all those people getting together to remember me.

And that was it.

Feet. Then nothing. Then cursing on my dad’s hand.

I don’t tell this story to undercut or minimize Ben Breedlove’s experience. I think his visions were profound and beautiful and life-changing and remarkably comforting. Just like mine, but in a different way.

I say it only to show that near-death experiences are colored entirely by our own unique backgrounds, philosophies, personalities and values. When faced with our own mortality, Breedlove and I both imagined what comes after death.

He’s religious; I’m not.

He saw an after-life. I saw a funeral.

This post originally appeared in January 2012.

Should Kids Be Told All Religious Stories are ‘Myths’?

I’m facing some deadlines over the next few weeks that are going to make it very tough to generate new blogs of any merit. But I’m hoping — PRAYING! (but not really) — that you guys will stick around anyway. Subscribers, I’m talking to you here. BEAR WITH ME. PLEASE DO NOT UNSUBSCRIBE. IT’S ONLY THREE WEEKS.

Starting today, I’m going to run six of my most well-read and/or controversial blogs of the last two years. I’ve chosen them based on number of page views, number of comments, or the level of contentiousness within the response. I hope you enjoy them. And, even if you don’t, I hope you will stay.

We’ll start with one of the most controversial to date… Should Kids Be Told All Religious Stories are ‘Myths’? (Reprinted from Oct. 31, 2011):

Two weeks ago, I gave away three copies of Richard Dawkins’ new book, the Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True, a highly acclaimed book seeking to introduce youngsters to the science behind some of life’s biggest mysteries: Who was the first person? Why do we have night and day? When and how did everything begin? The book is fascinating, easy to read and full of beautiful illustrations. Truly, there is so much about our world that is awe-inspiring, and Dawkins shows us how fun it can be to explore.

But because Dawkins is Dawkins, he doesn’t stop there.

Before each chapter, he outlines various myths adopted through the ages as a way to explain scientific phenomena. He reasons that, before scientific exploration, people needed ways to make sense of these seemingly supernatural occurrences— so they invented stories and passed them off as fact. It’s a clever technique, and it’s interesting the way  Dawkins lays Greek myths, Native American traditions, and Biblical stories side-by-side, and then allows science to tell its version of the story.

Clever and interesting and accurate? Yes. Condescending and arrogant? Which is a problem. For us open-minded, nonreligious parents struggling to find the “right” language with which to approach religion with our kids, his dismissive attitude disappoints.

If we tell our children that present-day religious beliefs — particularly those described in the Bible, the Torah or even the Book of Mormon — are all just mythical stories, we’re teaching them that religion is a bunch of fairytales. And we’re teaching them that the 70-odd percent of their neighbors and friends who buy into these fairytales are, therefore, emotionally immature and intellectually inferior. I don’t care how subtle Dawkins tries to be, that’s his book’s subtext, and we all know it.

Now, how in the world does that kind of instruction set our kids up to be open-minded, freethinking individuals? How does it encourage them to embrace people with different beliefs and opinions? How does it show our kids that they are free to choose their own religious or nonreligious paths in life?

I’ll be the first to acknowledge that science often butts heads with religion. But there are a huge number of people in our society that believe in science and religion. And it doesn’t matter whether it makes sense to Richard Dawkins. It doesn’t matter whether it make sense to me! What my neighbor believes and how he rationalizes that belief is 100 percent not my concern. Whether he brings his own beer to my barbecue, on the other hand…

Here’s the thing: I do not believe — and I sincerely hope you don’t either — that pious people are stupid; in fact, many of the smartest people I know are pious. And that their faith may involve nonscientific stories does not make me superior. It doesn’t make you superior. And it doesn’t make our kids superior.

There is an intolerance in Dawkins’ insistence on calling these stories myths. Dismissing religious stories as archaic or absurd adds nothing to his book. In fact, for people like me, it takes away. And for church-going folks in Middle America? Well, forget it; they’ll never buy it. And didn’t Dawkins see the potential to educate all children — not just those whose parents subscribe to his exact point of view?

I know he wanted to break things down in the simplest way possible. I understand he wanted to present facts alongside of beliefs, and point out their roots and differences. There is merit to that.

But not everything is about science. Some things are about respect.

I will absolutely read The Magic of Reality to my daughter  — or, rather, show her the super-cool iPad app! But I’ll first let her know the book was written by an author who believes religious stories are myths. I’ll remind her that the author is just one person; and that lots of other people in the world believe those stories are real. I’ll tell her, as I do often, that it’s up to her to decide for herself what makes sense, what feels right.

From what I gather, Richard Dawkins wants parents to help their children put religious belief in a context of science. Fair enough. But I do hope that, before cracking open The Magic of Reality, parents will help their children put Richard Dawkins in a context of religion.

[You may read the follow-up this post here.]

Quick! What the Hell is Pentecost?

From a historical perspective, Christianity didn’t start with Jesus’ birth, his death, or even his storied ascension to heaven. It started with Pentecost — the day the “Holy Spirit” entered a room holding Jesus’ apostles and entered each of them, an event which — as my minister uncle tells me — “makes the church the church.”

Although Pentecost is chock full of religious significance, it is a holiday not widely celebrated. Sort of the opposite of Hanukkah, which is widely celebrated but not religiously important. My uncle says Pentecost is a bigger deal in liturgical churches, which follow a formal, standardized order of events (like Catholics). “Non-liturgical” refers to churches whose services are unscripted (like Baptists).

Pentecost is Sunday. Here’s the rundown:

Holiday: Pentecost

AKA: “Birthday of the Church”

Religion Represented: Christianity

Date: 50 days after Easter

Celebrates: The day the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles, causing them to speak in tongues.

On a Scale of 1 to 10: The importance of Pentecost depends on the person. My uncle, a Presbyterian minister put it like this: “To me personally, as religious observances go, Easter rates a 10, Pentecost a 7 and Christmas a 6. [But] the average member of my church would probably say Easter was a 10, Christmas an 8 and Pentecost a 3.

Stars of the Show: Jesus’ 12 apostles

Back Story: Pentecost, which means “fifty,” refers to a Jewish harvest festival that occurs 50 days after Passover. In Christianity, it refers to an event said to have occurred 50 days after Easter. (What a coincidence!) But let me back up: At his Last Supper, Jesus is said to have instructed his 12 disciples to go out into the world to minister and heal the sick on their own. It was at this point that they became “apostles.” Fifty days after Jesus’ death, as the story goes, the Holy Spirit (part of the Holy Trinitity — God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit ) descended onto the apostles, making them speak in foreign tongues. This Pentecostal experience allowed the apostles direct communication with God, which signaled a major shift and laid the foundation for what would become Christianity. You’ll notice that the disciples always are depicted in artwork as regular-looking men while the apostles are depicted with halos around their heads. (Several other apostles came later — namely the famous Paul who is credited with writing much of the New Testament.

Although all the original 12 apostles are important, some get top billing. Here’s why:

Peter (also called Simon Peter) established the first church in Antioch and is regarded as the founding pope of the Catholic church. Instrumental in the spread of early Christianity, Peter was said to have walked on water, witnessed the “Transfiguration of Jesus” and denied Jesus (for which he repented and was forgiven.) The Gospel of Mark is ascribed to Peter, as Mark was Peter’s disciple and interpreter.

John also is said to have witness the Transfiguration of Jesus and went on to pen the Gospel of John, the Epistles of John and Book of Revelation. He died at age 94, having outlived the other apostles — all of whom, according to legend/history/whatever, were martyred. John is often described as “Jesus’ favorite” and depicted as the disciple sitting to Jesus’ right at the Last Supper.

 Thomas (“Doubting Thomas”) is best known for questioning Jesus’ resurrection when first told of it. According to the Bible, Thomas saw Jesus himself several days later and proclaimed “My Lord and my God,” to which Jesus famously responded: “Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.” (John 20:28.)

Associated Literary Passages: The Biblal Book of Acts 2:1-47

Celebrations: Pentecost isn’t associated with feasts or elaborate traditions. Generally, it is a holiday marked in liturgical churches. Because the holiday’s liturgical color is red, to symbolize the apostles “tongues of fire” and also the blood of martyrs, sometimes Christians will dress in red or decorate churches with red. Many churches hold baptisms and confirmations on that day, as well.

What’s the Deal with Speaking in Tongues?: “Tongues” is generally believed to be a type of gibberish (although some say it’s God’s language) created when the Holy Spirit enters a person. Many followers of Pentecostalism  — a protestant denomination that emphasizes a direct, personal experience with God — still speak in tongues when they are baptized or “born again” into the faith. They believe that, at the moment of this second baptism, the Holy Spirit fills them, which causes them to speak in tongues — just as it did with the apostles some 2,000 years ago.

Fun Fact: Jesus was captured and crucified because one of his apostles, Judas Iscariot, betrayed him (that’s not the fun part). Within days, Judas committed suicide out of shame (also not the fun part). That left only only 11 apostles, so the remaining 11 voted in a replacement: Matthias. Matthias was there during the Pentecost, which means he became holy without ever having been a disciple. (Okay, maybe “fun” was the wrong word.)

Conveying Meaning to Kids: This idea that, under Christian doctrine, God is able to take several “shapes” — the Holy Spirit being one of them — is sort of interesting. In this way, many Christians believe that God lives inside them because they have allowed the Holy Spirit to enter them. Pretty esoteric stuff for very young kids, though. Speaking in tongues, although far more fun/funny, may be no less difficult to grasp. As far as books go: I haven’t yet read The Very First Christians by Paul Maier, but it’s gotten good reviews on Amazon.

Click here for more from the Holiday Cheat Sheet for Nonreligious Parents.

This post first appeared in May 2012

Daddy, Daughter Discuss God (Again); More Cuteness Ensues

Charlie_Maxine_MountaintopMy husband and 7-year-old daughter had another totally awesome conversation about God a few days ago. They used to do that from time to time, but it’s been a while since the subject has come up in much detail. I sure love it when it does. The talks are always fun, insightful, thought-provoking and, frankly, cute as hell. They also present Charlie with golden opportunities to teach Maxine about honesty, diversity  and the importance of kindness.

Anyway, this one’s particularly good, so I wanted to share:

Maxine: Where do you think God is? Like, which house or school…

Charlie: I don’t think God is anywhere. I don’t believe there is such a thing as God.

Maxine: But if you did, where do you think he is?

Charlie: Well, people who believe in God believe he is everywhere and see everything. They believe he is with everyone, watching over you.

Maxine: Is he with bad guys?

CharlieThey think he is everywhere.

Maxine: God is with bad guys?

CharlieYeah. They think God wants you to make good decisions, and even if you are making bad decisions, God is with you so when you are ready to do good things, he’ll be there. They think God is there to help you and protect you. (Pause.) Other people who believe in God think he made the world and then kind of stepped back. He just watches from heaven to see what we’ll do, but he doesn’t interfere or help. Like the whole word is a big science experiment.

Maxine: A HUGE experiment.

CharlieWhat do you believe?

Maxine: (Exasperated, like “I’ve told you a hundred times”) I believe in God on Wednesdays and Sundays.

Charlie: But what do you believe about God? Is he everywhere?

Maxine: (Pause) I think he stepped back.

(Pause.)

Maxine: I believe in God on Sundays and Wednesdays because Sunday is the day for church, and Wednesday so I can have a school day.

(Pause.)

Maxine: Is God good or bad?

Charlie: Everyone who believes in God believes he is good.

Maxine: I wish the biggest policeman in the world climbed a huge giant ladder up to heaven and there was a huge microphone as big as five million houses stacked on top of each other and the policeman said into the microphone, “God is real!” or “God is not real!” and then everyone would know and everyone would believe the same thing.

Charlie: It’s hard not knowing, isn’t it?

Maxine: Yeah.

Charlie(Pause.) What I think is it doesn’t really matter what you believe. What you think doesn’t matter. It’s what you do that matters.

Maxine: Or say.

CharlieRight. You can think whatever you want. I can think someone is stupid —

Maxine: But don’t say it to them. “Hey, you’re dumb!”

Charlie: Right. It’s what you do and say that matter. Think whatever you want.

Maxine: Because we don’t want to hurt their feelings.

Charlie: Right.

Benefits to Being a Secular Parent? Let Us Count the Ways

Shattered FaithNonreligious parenting has its challenges.

Being honest with our kids without indoctrinating them. Addressing conflicts with our religious parents and in-laws. Dealing with “hell” talk on the school playground. Talking about death without the possibility of heaven. Knowing when to bring up religion, how to bring it up, and what language to use. Dealing with our own religious baggage without heaving it onto our kids. Struggling with the knowledge that religious children really do fare better in certain areas than nonreligious children.

Yes, there’s a lot to consider.

But sometimes it’s important to remember: Parents who decide to raise children in secular households face far more benefits than challenges. No, secularists do not bestow upon our children the certainty of faith and all that goes with it. But what we do bestow may be of even greater value: compassion for others, the ability to think independently, and a willingness to be wrong.

Last month I asked parents: What is the best thing about being a secular parent? All the answers I received were great — but here are some of the best of the best:

I would say that the single best thing is to teach children to think for themselves — question everything, no topic is off limit — make your own choices and be responsible for them.

Knowing that my kid is ethical and makes good choices because that’s who he chooses to be, not because he thinks someone is watching over his shoulder to punish him if he trips up.

Not having someone else tell me what to think. Like the time my stepdaughter told me that Catholics are now allowed to “believe in evolution.” 

Sleeping in on Sundays.

I like being able to tell my kids answers to their questions that are logical and that make sense. Kids are natural scientists, wanting to know how the world works. Scientists need scientific answers!

The amazing conversations I have with my daughter about spirituality, and the fact that she embraces it all with curiosity and without prejudice.

Watching her develop an independent, internal moral compass.

 Living my own secular faith honestly.

Being able to be totally open about sexuality (when the age/time is right).

Their thoughts are private and not sinful. No superstitions.

The way your life goes isn’t all “God’s” plan. 

You have very little invested in being right or wrong.

Being able to answer with “I don’t know.”

Teaching my kids to appreciate themselves and what they accomplish. So many religous people are too quick to thank their god for their successes. I want my kids to pat themselves on the back when they accomplish something

I can stimulate and feed his curiosity and imagination, and allow him to think freely and form his own opinions and ideas about the world.

Being able to watch my son grow and learn without the fear of god/evil/heaven/hell in his decisions. He’s a little kid, and he gets to live like one. He doesn’t have a huge myth scaring him or guilting him into behaving a certain way (or “else”)

Teaching my kids that life is valuable because it’s the only one we have. 

Pretty much sums it up, doesn’t it?

Memory Candles a Secular Way for Kids to Honor Their Dead

This is how my good friend Katie describes herself: “A confused Catholic married to a cultural Jew, raising a moral, but interfaithless family.”

You love her too now, right?

So anyway, the other day Katie and I were talking about a recent blog I’d written about the importance of talking with our kids about our dead loved ones in “happy terms.” She said she’d really struggled with this herself, having lost her mom nine years ago to cancer. She still experiences lingering pain, and sometimes the loss makes her profoundly sad. (I expect she’s not alone in this.) The anniversary of her mom’s death has always been a trigger. She remembers that first year and how she felt as though she ought to be “doing something” on that day, but didn’t know what that something should be. The unknowing, she said, actually made her more sad.

800px-Yahrtzeit_candle

Then her husband suggested a custom common in Judaism — a yahrzeit candle. Yahrzeit candles are lit by mourners on the anniversary of the death of a loved one. (The word literally means “anniversary.”) It typically burns for 24 hours. It also can be lit on holidays, such as Yom Kippur or the final day of Passover. Now, every year on the eve of her mother’s death anniversary, Katie lights a yahrzeit candle. It allows her a formal way to reflect and gives her permission to think (and to cry) and just generally miss her mom. She and her husband usually say a few words as they light it, too.

Just having a tradition, Katie said, is really comforting. Otherwise she’d feel “conflicted and unsettled about the ‘right’ way to acknowledge the day.” She said it’s so beneficial to her on a secular level, in fact, that she suggested I tell my readers about it.

So here I am, giving a bunch of atheists and agnostics an idea stolen by a Christian from a Jew. There’s got to be a Robin Hood metaphor in here somewhere.

I really do love this idea — especially as a way to involve children in the process of dealing with loss. It would be great to let kids pick out their own memory candles when they lose a loved one — a pet, a grandparent, a friend — and then urge them to light the candle (or have a parent light it!) whenever they want to remember or honor their loved one. Ideally, at least in my mind, the candle would come out at happy times, too. Kids could talk to the candle or just quietly reflect. What a wonderful way to encourage kids to feel the full range of their feelings about loss. And it doesn’t have to be intrusive either. You could light a candle for a holiday party, and no one would think twice about it unless you told them.

All places of worship have candles involved, and that’s not an accident. (The Book of Proverbs 20:27, for instance, says “The soul of man is a candle of the Lord.” This is where, I believe, the idea for the yahrzeit candle came from.) But fire is not just about religious symbolism. In a practical sense, fire brings a sense of calmness and serenity into a room. Fire is warm and comforting. Fire invites us to think — and think deeply. No wonder candles are the way Jewish people have chosen as their way to honor the dead. It makes perfect sense.

If you’re interested, I found this guy who makes yahrzeit candles and sells them on ebay. The ones he sells are super-affordable and very simple, much like the one pictured above, with no designs. In other words, secular-appropriate.

Fun Facts about Nones

I’ve been poring over data as it relates to religious “nones” for, well, far too long. The statistics are really fascinating — but not nearly as fascinating as bullet-pointed lists. So here’s both — a mashup, if you will. Read. Enjoy. Be fascinated.

nones We tend to lean left. Nones make up 20 percent of the nation’s registered Independents, 16 percent of its Democrats and 8 percent of its Republicans. In 1990, those numbers were 12, 6 and 6, respectively.

• We tend to be young. More than one-third of 18-to-24-year-olds claimed “no religion” compared to just 7 percent of those 75 and older.

• We generally avoid the Bible Belt. Geographically speaking, nones live around other nones. Statistically, Northern New England is the least religious section of the country, and Vermont is the least religious state.

• Many of us are first-generation secular. Only 32 percent of “current” nones reported that they were nonreligious at age 12. Almost a quarter of us are former Catholics.

 We have a shortage of women. Only 12 percent of American women are classified as nones, versus 19% of American men.

• Class and education is a non-issue. Nones mirror the general population in terms of education and income.

• Race is a declining factor. Latinos, for instance, tripled their proportion among nones between 1990 (4 percent) and 2008 (12 percent.)

• Kiss us; we’re Irish. Asians, Irish and Jews are the most secularized ethnic origin groups. One-third of all nones are of Irish descent.

• We’re sad and stressed. Research suggests religious people are happier and less stressed because of social contact and support that result from religious pursuits, as well as the feeling of well-being that come with optimism, volunteering and learned coping strategies.

• We’ve got brainpower. As individuals, atheists score higher on measures of intelligence, especially verbal ability and scientific literacy. They are also more likely to practice safe sex than the strongly religious and far more likely to value freedom of thought.

• We’re as moral as they come. Contrary to Psalms 14 — which says we’re all a bunch of corrupt, filthy ne’er-do-wells — nonbelievers actually score higher than their religious peers on basic questions of morality and human decency. Markers include governmental use of torture, the death penalty, punitive hitting of children, racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, environmental degradation and human rights.


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