Addressing ‘God’ in Secular Families: When is the Right Time?

When my daughter was 2, and barely out of diapers, she had her first Potty Emergency.

We’d been having lunch when suddenly she rose and sprinted to the bathroom with the speed and determination of a hunted deer. I’d been hopeful she made it in time, but when I arrived several seconds later, she was standing in front of the toilet, fully clothed, staring down at a puddle on the floor. Her little shoulders had fallen. Without looking up at me, she shook her little head and said exactly what I would have said in the same situation:

“Jesus Christ.”

I’m sure my Presbyterian ancestors would have been charmed to know the only thing my daughter knew about the Christian Messiah was that he made for an effective expletive.

In many nonreligious families, there aren’t a lot of opportunities for religious references to arise outside of idioms, proverbs and occasional profanity. Few of us visit churches or attend mosque or synagogue or temple. We don’t pray before meals. We don’t emphasize the religious aspects of national holidays. We don’t have Bibles or Qur’ans lying around. God just doesn’t come up.

As a result, sometimes we don’t know how to start the conversations. How do we kick things off? And when, exactly, are our kids ready to have these talks?

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“I don’t want to make a big deal of telling her I don’t believe in God,” one atheist mom told me, “but there never seems to be a right time to say it.”

There is no magic age for God talk, and it depends a lot on the personality of the child, but kids are generally ready to start exploring ideas of spirituality around ages 4 or 5. This is when blossoming imaginations welcome supernatural ideas, and when concepts like good and evil come into focus. It’s about this time, too, when inquisition replaces demand as the rhetorical tool of choice:  Why did this happen?” “What happens if someone does that?” And it’s during these years they are first exposed to the reality that mom and dad don’t have exclusive control of the thought process: kids at preschool and daycare also have ideas to share.

Watch carefully, and you’ll see the signs of mental development, and a readiness for thoughts unrelated to immediate needs and wants. You may notice a new interest in how plants and insects die, curiosity about the sunshine, and a knack for picking up on anything “out of the ordinary.” They’ll pretty soon notice that people have different answers, different explanations, and that some of them will undoubtedly involve faith.

Even when you know the timing is right, the thought of broaching the subject of religion can be intimidating — even paralyzing. Many parents fret that they waited too long. Their children begin to “act” on what they hear without the benefit of context. They may assume that the religious ideas voiced by relatives or peers are absolute truth. They may learn to phrase things in ways that make their parents uncomfortable, which causes the parents to try to “undo” the children’s learning.

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“My son overheard a discussion that I was having with another adult,” one mother told me. “When he heard me mention ‘God’ he asked: ‘Do you mean the ‘One True God?’ Apparently, his public school kindergarten teachers were praying with the kids in class.”

This is not to say it’s imperative that we parents are the ones to bring up religion. More than 50 percent of parents surveyed said their kids had brought up the subject themselves. Don’t be surprised when the moment arrives. Accept the opportunity, and dive right in: “I’m glad your Uncle Joe brought it up!” you might say. “This is interesting stuff.”

The trick, if there is a trick to this, is to let children’s curiosity be your guide. Try not to tell them more than they want to know, or answer questions they’re not asking. There’s no need for a boring dissertation or a nervous oratory. Nothing needs to be forced or coerced.

Seriously, if talking about religion is anything other than natural and interesting, you’re probably trying too hard.

Quick! What the Hell is Yom Kippur?

I read a fascinating article in the Los Angeles Times this morning about local protests against the sacrificial slaughter of chickens being conducted this week in Jewish enclaves throughout Los Angeles — and, indeed, throughout the world. The ritual, as kaparotkapparot or kaparos, is supposed to help “cleanse” people of their sins. It’s an orthodox Jewish thing.

More progressive Jews are calling the ritual archaic and meaningless, and point to the treatment of the chickens before their deaths as further reason to stop the killings. Faith leaders have joined with animal-rights activists in the protest.

So, here’s the deal: The sacrifices all tie into the Jewish High Holy Days leading up to Yom Kippur. This period is meant to be a period of “atonement” — asking God to forgive your sins. The chicken is supposed to “accept” all the sins of those present and then be killed (knife to the throat) in one, big, bloody symbolic gesture.

Anyhoo…. in anticipation of Yom Kippur, which lasts exactly 25 hours beginning tomorrow evening, here is the latest addition to your friendly neighborhood Holiday Cheat Sheet.

Holiday: Yom Kippur (pronounced Yom Ki-POOR)

AKA: The Day of Atonement

Religion Represented: Judaism

Date: The 10th day of Tishrei in the Hebrew calendar.

Not To Be Confused With: Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

On a Scale of 1 to 10: Yom Kippur is a heavy 10.

What It Is: Yom Kippur is the last and most important of Judaism’s 10 High Holy Days, which begin on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. As you might recall, the New Year is a time to reflect on one’s life and resolve to be a better person in the coming year. On Yom Kippur, God is said to take a look at the deeds of the Jewish people and to seal each person’s fate in the “Book of Life.” More than anything, Yom Kippur is a day of seeking forgiveness and giving to charity. (And, um, slaughtering chickens.)

Associated Literary Passages: Leviticus 16:29 and 23:27; Numbers 29:7-11 and Mishnah Tract Yomah 8:1

The Sabbath of All Sabbaths: Saturday (“the sabbath”) is to Jews what Sunday is to Christians; it is the “day of rest” when synagogues hold their weekly worship services. Yom Kippur is considered the “Sabbath of all Sabbaths” because, not only is it a day of complete rest (no work, no driving, etc.) but it’s a day of fasting and other restrictions: no washing or bathing, no perfumes or deodorants, no wearing leather shoes, and no sex. Services run all day on Yom Kippur — from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. — with a break around 3 p.m. People wear white, and services generally end with a long blow from the shofar.

Coolest Thing about Yom Kippur: During their ever-so-long day of synagogue services (decidedly NOT the coolest thing about Yom Kippur, given the no-deodorant rule), participants take part in a “group confession.” They confess to being aggressive, slanderous, acting callously, and a number of other things — usually involving behaving badly toward others in speech or deed. The cool thing is that the sins are confessed in the plural — “we” have done this, “we” have done that — emphasizing “communal responsibility for sins.” Now, I don’t believe in “sins,” AT ALL, and I know that, in this sense, they are only talking about the Jewish people. But I think if more human beings could adopt even a little of this attitude, “we” could kick up the world’s compassion level a notch or two. Minus the chickens, of course.

Appropriate Greeting: “Have an easy fast.” (“Happy Yom Kippur” is not considered appropriate, as Yom Kippur is not a “happy” holiday.)

Can the Bible Help Kids Think Critically?

max-bibleOnce upon a time, I would have choked on my own vomit at the idea of buying a children’s Bible for my daughter. The way I saw it, the Bible was an indoctrination tool. I no more wanted to crack that book open than I wanted to get her baptized or plan her Bat Mitzvah or teach her to pray toward Mecca five times a day. It was all the same to me. In my mind, only religious people read the Bible.

But, times have changed.

Today, I don’t equate the Bible to religion; I equate it with religious literacy. It is the quickest and most effective way to expose kids to Western belief systems. When it comes to knowledge of Judaism and Christianity and — to a slightly lesser extent — Islam, you can’t do better than to read some key Bible passages. Judaism relies heavily on Moses and the book of Exodus. Christianity revolves around the Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. And Islam loves it some Genesis-bred Abraham.

Of course, kids are too young to understand the language in the Bible, so it’s definitely best to go with a children’s version. Yes, they over-simplify things. Yes, they white wash. Yes, they take out all the language that makes the Bible at all enjoyable to read, frankly. But the greater good is that the kids will understand the stories and be drawn into them enough to actually remember them. And memory is sort of key in the education business.

My daughter has had her children’s Bible for almost three years now. She’s been known to take it out and look at the pictures, but lately — within the last year — she has taken to reading it in the car. She skips around a bit, but is always fascinated most by the moral aspects of each tale. I think this is the age where kids really start to think more about “right” and “wrong” and Biblical stories are larger-than-life tales with big-name characters, and so the degrees of rightness and wrongness are heightened.

The shocking thing about it all is that — contrary to the common assumption — reading the Bible seems to be helping to hone her ability to think for herself. She reads the stories with genuine interest and serious consideration — but without the reverence, deference and praise associated with faith-based Bible classes. It’s remarkable, really, especially when I think back on the pure lack of critical thinking I employed when I heard the same stories as a kid.

The other day, for example, while reading in the car, she got to the 10th of the 10 Commandments and read (aloud): “Never want what belongs to others.” Then she stopped and corrected Moses. “Well, you can WANT what belongs to others,” she said. “You just can’t HAVE it. You can buy one for yourself.”

In the story about Joseph’s dream coat, the passage read: “Joseph was one of Jacob’s twelve sons. Jacob loved him more than all of his other sons…”

Maxine looked up at me: “THAT’S SO MEAN!” she said.

When Jacob is thrown in jail, and one of the other prisoners asks Jacob — quite out of the blue — to decipher the guy’s dream, Maxine was all: “Well how would HE know what that means?!” And when a father (I can’t recall who) tells his son that he must marry who the father chooses, Maxine declared that to be “dumb” and explained to me that, of course, the son can marry whoever he wants.

But my favorite bit was when her Bible told her that “goodly people” would go to live in heaven.

“I am a goodly person,” Maxine said, “but I don’t want to live in heaven.”

And then she added: “Where do all the BADLY people live, that’s what I want to know…”

When ‘Religious Jokes’ Cross a Line

On Facebook, you see a lot of religious memes. They are posted (and reposted and reposted) by religious people with genuine reverence.

On the Facebook group for secular mothers that I belong to, you see a lot of religious memes, too. Only they’re posted ironically, and for the express purpose of being skewered. The contrast can be refreshing.

religious-mind-joke

Now, to be fair, the group is much more about connecting with a like-minded community of women. Most posts seek parental advice or share the latest on someone’s health scare or fertility problems or battle with cancer. But there are jokes to be had, too. Lots and lots of jokes.

It’s a good group.

But sometimes, in good groups, bad things happen. And a few days ago, there quite the dust-up around a member who posted a picture joke that ended up offending a good number of people. I didn’t see the joke myself — it was taken down before I logged on — but the controversy continued into a follow-up post that I did see.

From what I gather, the picture depicted the Last Supper (original, right?) and featured a joke about the cost of the Last Supper and who would be footing the bill for all that food. The joke was apparently a play on the stereotype that Jews are cheap. And it used that word, too: Jews.

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Tempers flared immediately.

It was offensive, people said. It promulgated a harmful stereotype.

No, said others, it was totally benign. And, plus, plenty of religious jokes are posted and tolerated on the site. Why not this one?

But it didn’t poke fun at a religion. It poked fun at an ethnicity. That’s different. 

It was funny. Sorry it offended you.

It was harmful. And you’re not really sorry.

And so it went.

Finally, the member took down the joke.

The controversy interested me on a couple of levels. On one side, I had to roll my eyes at this idea that poking fun at religious groups is A-okay, while posting jokes about other groups — ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation — is not. Talk about a sweeping double-standard.

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But then there was this ridiculous notion that because some people thought the joke was funny, the joke deserved to be seen in that light. In short, this woman didn’t mean to offend people, so why were people so bent out of shape?

The whole thing reminded me of the whole “rape-joke” controversy last summer. Remember that? When comedian Daniel Tosh was talking about rape jokes at the Laugh Factory and a woman in the audience heckled him by saying, “Actually, rape jokes are never funny!” And he responded by saying: “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by, like, five guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her…”

Well, as you can imagine, that thing blew up, too — BIG TIME. Tosh got hammered by feminist groups. Meanwhile, tons of big-name comedians lined up to defend Tosh’s right to tell jokes about rape. They turned it into a censorship issue.

In the midst of the ongoing debate, a woman named Lindy West, a comedian herself, printed her response on the website Jezebel. And talk about nailing it. First off, West is a funny, funny lady. Second off, West is smart, smart lady. In a nutshell, her point was this: Comedians have every right to say whatever they want, make whatever joke they want, no matter the subject, no matter how dark. Will it offend someone? Of course. Most jokes would offend someone. But just as comedians have the right to tell any joke they want, WE have the right to respond any way we see fit. If we want to stand up and say, “That is a joke that harms women,” and call for that person to be fired from Comedy Central, then that’s what we should do. It’s not about the subject matter; rape jokes can be funny. So can jokes about molestation and cancer and race and ethnicity and religion. It’s about the specific joke. We’re not talking about government censorship; we’re talking about audience regulation. Democracy.

Religious_fc7036_2240321I’m not, as my friends can attest, easily offended. I love edgy humor, the edgier the better. Shock value is a value I admire. But just because SOMEONE finds something funny — or that someone told it TO BE funny — doesn’t mean it’s a good joke. Or that they should telling it. Sure the line is hard to see sometimes; but we are human beings. We should care enough to look for it. And if we don’t, we should be prepared to be, forgive the expression, bitch-slapped.

In the end, Tosh got scolded in a very effective way. He was the object of national criticism, apologized to his fans on Twitter. Democracy.

In the end, the Facebook user got scolded in a very effective way, too. She took down her joke and dropped out of the group.

God Bless America.

Two Items of Business for Secular Parents

calendar-1Okay, people, a couple of items of business on this fine Monday morning.

1. Mixed Marriages: If you happen to be in an “interfaithless” marriage — one partner is religious, the other isn’t — you’ll want to keep an eye out for Dale McGowan’s newest project, a book called “In Faith and In Doubt.” McGowan, who announced the book title on his blog last week, promises to show “how religious believers and nonbelievers can create strong marriages and happy families.” The book is slated for release around July 2014, but McGowan (author of Parenting Beyond Belief: Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion) will be blogging about the process in the meantime. Best of luck, Dale!

2. Secular Parents: For those who live anywhere near Long Island, the local branch of the Ethical Humanist Society and Long Island Center for Inquiry are hosting an all-day seminar for secular parents on Sept. 21.  The seminar, titled “Raising Kids to Be Good Grown-Ups,” is focused particularly on instilling kids with strong moral character. Segment titles include: “Without God, Will My Kid Grow Up to Be a Criminal?” and “Morality, Religious Concepts and the Cognitive Development of Children.” The conference is billed as helping to “foster a society that encourages open debate and critical thought, as well as investing in the future for our children.” Speakers include Lenore Skanazy, author of Free Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry), Dale McGowan (!!!), and Dr. Alison Pratt, a clinical psychologist specializing in cognitive therapy and behavioral analysis, among others. For a schedule, visit: secularparentingforum.org.

Crucifixion Story, As Told By a Freethinking 7-Year-Old

A couple of weeks ago, while walking along a gravel road in the French countryside (!!!), my 7-year-old daughter, Maxine, decided to tell her 4-year-old cousin the story of Jesus’ death. It hadn’t been a recent topic of conversation in our house or anything, but we’d just passed by a very old, very Christian cemetery, so that must have been what prompted the storytelling. The narrative was classic Maxine — relatively accurate, deliberately paced, full of distractions and incredibly amusing, with an editorial comment or two thrown in along the way.

After the story was over, my nephew had A LOT of questions for his mom. I’d like to apologize for that, Jen. But what could I do? It was blogger gold! Oh, and a special thank you to the iPhone for allowing me to both record the conversation and get this shot of Maxine in a field of sheep.

Field of Sheep

Maxine: Once upon a time, Jesus… well, you know the story of Christmas. Do you know the story of Christmas?

Jack: No.

Maxine: Well, we’re not going to tell the story of Christmas. Okay, so one time there were some men. Or maybe there was one man. Or some men. I don’t know. So this man was a mean man. He wanted to kill Jesus. And he wasn’t very nice. So he went after Jesus and got Jesus and he put him in … jail? Well, I think it was in jail. And he wanted to kill him, so this is what he did:  He nailed him to the wall. Nailed him to the WALL. He nailed his hands and he nailed his feet. I would think it would be really hard. And he left him there for three days, or five days, something like that. Three days, yes. Yes, three days.

[Gets distracted by a loose-gravel sign on the road.] 

So. They nailed him to the wall. They left him there for three days. He died. Of course. Well, it’s not the end of the story yet. You THINK it’s the end of the story. Don’t you think?

Jack: Yeah.

Maxine: Yeah. But it’s not. People believe in God. You believe in God. Also, even if you don’t believe in God, you believe that someone nailed him to the wall and he died. People HAVE to believe that because if they don’t believe that, they’re wrong. Okay, so whatever. Now.

[Gets distracted by a car driving by.] 

Okay. So. He, of course, he died. But some of his relatives, like his mom and…  I’m not sure if he saw his dad or not. Oh well. His mom and maybe his dad, I’m not sure, whatever, his dad, whatever, I’m not sure, and his relatives, his friends —

Jack: Or maybe Jesus didn’t have a dad.

Maxine: Yeah, Jesus had a dad. Mary and Joseph. Okay, whatever.

Jack: Hey, my grandma has a toy about that!

Maxine: Oh yeah! She does! She absolutely, positutely does.

[Gets distracted by a goat tied up in someone's yard.]

Okay. So, anyway, back to the story.

Jack: Is this a true story?

Maxine: Yes, true story. But some people don’t believe this part: Everybody put Jesus in a cave.

Jack: All the mean mans?

Maxine: Yes, there were mean men. Oh, who put him in the cave? Well his mom, his friends, his relatives, or even people who believed in him. Okay, so they put Jesus in a cave and they left him there for another three days. And guess what happened?

Jack: What?

Maxine: He came back alive! Remember, Jack, some people don’t believe this part. [Whispers] It’s probably not real, just to let you know. But people do believe in it.

Jack: When he came alive, is that true?

Maxine: Jack, I just told you the answer to that question. I’m not sure. People believe that it’s true. Also, people believe that it’s not true at all. My parents believe that it’s not true at all. But I believe in ghosts, so I believe it is. Maybe. I’m not sure. I still don’t believe in God, though.

Jack: My grandma has an angel in the Jesus toy.

Maxine: Yeah, uh-huh. Okay, so we’re getting to the end of the story. Jesus came back alive and — BABY COWS!

[Gets distracted by cows in a field.]

 Okay so then Jesus came back alive and said, ‘I’ll be back to visit you.’ And he floated up to heaven. The end. I can’t believe I memorized that whole — BULL!

Back In (Non)Action

I’m back! And, wow, what a trip. A part of me wishes I could regale you with stories and pictures, but I’m aware that I set off to write a blog about religion and kids — not a travelogue — so I’ll spare you the irrelevant. Begrudgingly.

I’m happy to report, though, that there was one relevant story from the trip to share with you. (A really good one, actually!) But that will need to wait until Thursday, when I’m not quite so overwhelmed by the backlog of emails and texts and bills and to-do lists piling up before me on this fine Monday morning. And do you know how long it’s been since I’ve looked at The Twitter?? I barely know what’s going on in the world at this point.

Suffice it so say, though, my 40s are off to a great start. And I owe it — as well all do, right? — to my family and friends. Those who were by my side as I traipsed through all those nauseatingly adorable French villages last week, and those who weren’t. I love you all.

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Turning 40 in ‘The City of Love’

“My sister is turning 40, and she feels that that’s going to be easier to do in Paris.”

That’s how my sister, Jen, explains why a bunch of my family is spending my birthday in Europe this year. We’re leaving today, as luck would have it, flying first to London, then Paris and then down to France’s Burgundy region for a week’s worth of R&R.

Paris

Here’s the back story: About three years ago, in a cafe, I noticed a middle-aged woman at the table over. She had just returned from Paris and was giving out souvenirs to her little cast of friends. As she pulled from her bag a few pieces of art that she’d purchased on her trip, something awakened in me. Like a particularly beautiful musical chord being struck for the first time. I no longer recollect the chord, nor the feeling; too much time has passed. But the result of it I remember. It was in that moment that I resolved to spend my 40th in Paris.

Of course, give me three years to plan a trip and it’s going to get complicated.

A trip to Paris became Paris AND a stay in a château south of Paris. Soon after that, I’d invited my whole family to join me — including my parents and sister’s family — as well as my best friend’s family; they live in Stockholm. Before long, we had added London as another leg of the journey and orchestrated a reunion with a bunch of our English relatives. A big trip had became a big, BIG trip.

Honestly, I don’t  have a “thing” about getting older. I don’t stress out about the every-deepening lines between my eyebrows or the wrinkles in my forehead or the slackening skin in my neck. And I’m one of the .2 percent* of American women who is actually embracing gray hair. So when my sister says turning 40 will be easier for me if I’m in Paris, she’s exaggerating a bit. (Hey, she writes fiction! What do you expect?)

Paris isn’t a way to ease the aging process. It’s a way to celebrate the fact that I’m still alive to age.

Looking back, I’m keenly aware of how things could have gone the other way: First, there was the car accident. I was 16 and riding in the backseat of a friend’s car. We were driving on Interstate 29 in Missouri. She swerved to miss a dog, the car flipped and I was thrown out the back window.Then there was the coma — I was 21 and went into anaphylactic after eating almonds. I already told you about that. Then there was childbirth. CHILDBIRTH, PEOPLE! Do you know what I had to do to get that baby out?!

So yeah. I’ve lived to the age of 40 and, dammit, that’s no small thing. It’s also no small thing that everyone I love most in the world is also still alive. Nor is it a small thing that most of them — these wonderful, beautiful individuals who have given me the best days of my life — will be gathered together in the same room very, very soon. In fact, that’s the biggest goddamn thing I can imagine.

So yeah, turning 40 will be a piece of cake.

Paris is just the icing.

* Note to demographers: I made up that percentage. (It’s probably smaller.)

It’s a Fine Line Between Truth and Propaganda

Recently, on Hemant Mehta’s FriendlyAthiest blog, I came across a video done by a guy who runs a Facebook page called Religion Hurts Humanity. The video, titled What Religions Have Contributed to the World This Month, is nine minutes full of news clips and headlines detailing all the terrible things done in the name of religion during the last 30 days. The amount of material alone makes the video pretty compelling.

Here are some of the featured headlines:

Islamic militants kill 30 in Nigeria School attack 

Islamic states reject UN’s attempt to protect women: It violates Sharia Law

Boy killed for an off-hand remark about Muhammad

Female genital mutilation victim was ‘aged just seven’ 

Children report sexual abuse cases by Bhutan’s Buddhist monks

Scandal at the Vatican: Official Arrested in $26 million Corruption Plot

Serial sex offender priest told 7-year-old victim he could get dead grandfather into heaven

Exorcism Gone Wrong? Woman Goes Into Cardiac Arrest During Ritual

‘Spiritual healer’ George Goak guilty of groping patients

India villagers kill two for ‘witchcraft’

Now, truthfully, if I didn’t blog about religion, I probably wouldn’t have watched the whole video. It was a real downer seeing that many horrific headlines all strung together like that. Not that the video doesn’t have value. I think it’s important to point out the role religious beliefs are playing in the world, especially when religious organizations are given 501(c)(3) status and protected from prosecution in some cases.

However — you knew that was coming, didn’t you? — in seeking to influence our feelings about religion by presenting only one set of facts, this particular video amounts to little more than propaganda — pretty effective propaganda at that. As a viewer, I found myself  getting angry — angry at the people who have done these terrible things, angry at their religions for being a part of it, angry at religious people for having something in common with the those who had committed these terrible acts.

But then I thought critically about what I was watching. (Let’s hear it for critical thinking!) Yes, religion provides a lot of headline fodder, but the stories in this one video don’t share any of the good things that religious people do — and, perhaps even more importantly, they represent a fraction of the awful, terrible, tragic things that go in general  every month.

10030271_h23302287_custom-b36e0cb541df443cc59199e783c085119bd665c2-s6-c30Consider this: Moments after watching the video, I saw this headline from Reuters: Indian school lunch poisoning: doctors race to save children. It came with a picture of a grandmother, in anguish, over the loss of her grandson to a rice and potato curry tainted by insecticide. (That’s her on the left; tears your heart out, right?) The story was just as horrible as anything you’ll see on the video — and it has nothing to do with religion.

It’s much harder to be sad and scared than to be angry — which is why so many of us are quick to turn to the latter. And it’s much harder to be angry when there’s nowhere to direct the anger. Would genital mutilation be easier to stomach if it were simply cultural, rather than religious? Is molestation and child rape less vile when committed by people born with mental illnesses? Which breaks your heart more: to hear about children who died senselessly because of an Islamic attack, or to hear about children who died senselessly because a vat of food was accidentally poisoned? How can we qualify that?

My hope is that someday religious belief won’t need to be put under the microscope like this because more people will be willing to see religion as a human creation rather than a divine creation. No version of “God” gives people cart blanche to be morally reprehensible human beings — which, I do think, is the video’s core message.

But let’s at least shoot for honesty. For the sake of the next generation, let’s try to view religion for what it is: something (like so many other things!) that compels and enables people to do really wonderful and truly terrible things.

No denials, no excuses, no special treatment. No exaggeration.

And — please, brothers — no more propaganda.

Quick! What the Hell is Ramadan?

As a kid growing up, whenever I heard about Cat Stevens, it was accompanied by such, I don’t know, disappointment. Cat Stevens used to be this wonderful singer, I was led to believe, until he “got weird” and left music.

“Got weird,” as it turns out, meant he converted to Islam.

I mention this because, for years, I pictured Stevens living in a cave somewhere — when actually he’s been raising a family in England. And the thing I’ve enjoyed most about researching Ramadan has been revisiting some of Stevens’ Islamic music. Stevens goes by Yusuf Islam now, and has put out a couple of really sweet children’s albums. One of them contains a song called “Ramadan Moon” (Click here to hear the recording and to watch a little video.) Another of my favorites is called “A is for Allah,” which he wrote to introduce his baby daughter to the Arabic alphabet. Both are definitely going on my next  religious playlist.

Anyway, Ramadan is the latest addition to my Holiday Cheat Sheet for Nonreligious Parents. By way of a reminder: “Allah” is the Arabic word for God, and refers to the same God worshipped by Jews and Christians. Muslims believe in both the Old Testament and New Testament, but they also believe that their prophet, Muhammad, was the last prophet — and that the Qur’an, which Muhammad penned himself, is as much the word of God as the Bible and Torah.

Holiday: Ramadan

Pronounced: Rah-muh-don

Religion Represented: Islam

Date: This holiday takes place during the Islamic calendar’s ninth month, which is called — you guessed it — Ramadan.

Celebrates: Charity, self-restraint and devotion to Allah.

Related Holiday: Eid ul-Fitr, which occurs at the end of Ramadan.

On a Scale of 1 to 10: The month of Ramadan is a solid 10, says Shahzad Chaudhry, a nonreligious dad raised in a Pakistani household (who also happens to be one of my favorite readers). “Not only does the entire country celebrate,” Chaudhry said of Pakistan, “but food-based businesses are even closed during the fasting hours to avoid temptation.” The Qur’an makes direct reference to Ramadan, and Muhammad himself celebrated the holiday until his death.

Star of the Show: Allah

Guest-Starring: The moon

 

Back Story: Ramadan is considered the holiest month because it was during Ramadan that Allah was said to have first contacted Muhammad. The Qur’an, as a result, makes direct reference to Ramadan and its rituals. Every year, from the first sight of the waxing crescent moon until the the last sight of the waning crescent, Muslims throughout the world remember what Allah is said to have told Muhammad about how to be a good Muslim — to be forgiving, charitable and empathetic to those less fortunate. In this way, Muslims are keenly aware of the moon’s changes throughout Ramadan.

Associated Literary Passages: The Qu’ran Chapter 2: Section 23

The Rituals: Although those who are unable to fast — kids, elderly, pregnant women — are specifically excluded from the requirement, the Qur’an makes clear the fasting period (which includes water) is to extend during daylight hours and that Muslims should also abstain from sex and other worldly temptations as a way to show thanks to Allah and understand what it’s like to “go without.” During this period, Muslims eat two meals a day during Ramadan — one before dawn and the other after sundown. They pray as much as possible above and beyond the usual five prayers a day, and they are encouraged to read the Qur’an all the way through. In addition, Ramadan is supposed to be about feeding the poor; forgiving those who have hurt you and asking forgiveness from those you have hurt; and trying to be a better person.

The Challenges: Ramadan is a much celebrated and revered holiday among Muslims, but — as my husband (who grew up in Saudi Arabia) said — it isalso very hard. People who fast get weak and fatigued easily. Keeping your mind on school or work is a challenge, to say the least, and often downright uncomfortable. The only life saver is, at the end of each day, when the sun goes down, Muslims break their fasts with dates and then eat meals that taste, well, flipping amazing after a whole day of nothing. (Dates are the way Muhammad himself broke his fast.) But, truly, the most “fun” part of the holiday occurs at the end of Ramadan — with Eid ul-Fitr.

Conveying Meaning to Kids: Ramadan is a great time to do some star-gazing with your kids, but more to the point, it’s a great time to give to food pantries and other charities that feed the poor. You might talk a little about the idea of fasting and point out how difficult it can be for people to go that long without food — and how millions of poor people around the globe must fast out of necessity. Also, for the fun of it, check out some Islamic music — “Ramadan Moon” and “A is for Allah,” for example — and look up some of the movies I recommended here. Oh, and I would absolutely check out a book about Ramadan. These are my favorites:

Night of the Moon, by Hena Kahan. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better narrative story for young children about Ramadan than this one — which tells the sweet story of a Muslim-American girl named Yasmeen at Ramadan time. The illustrations (by Julie Paschkis) are fun and beautiful, and there is an actual story involved — rather than a dry recitation of facts. The book also has the added benefit of teaching kids about the cycle of the moon — which often is lost on young kids and can spark lots of other interesting conversations.

Ramadan by Susan L. Douglass is good for kids ages about 6 and up — and, frankly, for adults as well. Although there is no narrative here, Douglass’ book still ranks high on my list, enhanced by interesting illustrations (by Jeni Reeves). So many holiday books seem more intent on teaching kids the proper language of the culture than making kids connect with the text. Douglass’ Ramadan does things just right. She packs in so much great (and accurate!) information but uses clear, gentle language appropriate for little ones.

Celebrating Ramadan, by Diane Hoyt-Goldsmith. This is an excellent introductory course for older children and, again, even adults. It’s illustrated with photographs from the life of a 9-year-old New Jersey boy at Ramadan. All the pictures are real, and depict he and his family as they make their way through the long period of fasting and the holiday Eid ul-Fitr. I really enjoyed this book, and the kid is so darn cute — I couldn’t help but fall in love with him.

 

Click here for more entries from my Holiday Cheat Sheet for Nonreligious Parents.

This post originally appeared in July 2012.


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