15 Secular Songs to Share With Your Kids

Not long ago, I suggested that nonreligious parents share religious music with their kids. I put together a Christian playlist and, later, a Hanukkah playlist. I also recommended some Cat Stevens songs about Islam, including one I love called “Ramadan Moon.” 

Some readers voiced concern about the ways in which religious songs have been used to indoctrinate children. They argued that the potential downsides to sharing such music outweighed the benefits. But I still think that, as long as we do it right, these musical journeys can be excellent ways to develop religious literacy, learn tolerance for other cultures, and give nonreligious children a way  — should the need arise — to connect with religious children without engaging in all the belief stuff.

But how exactly do we do it right? Well, the same way we approach any other religious knowledge.

wondwo

First, we act as chaperones. We don’t just play religious music. We explain what the songs are about, define unknown terms and concepts, and talk about why each song may hold meaning to the religions whence they came.

And, second, we balance out the religious with the secular. In addition to sharing other people’s religious songs, we share our own secular songs — and then talk about where these songs came from and why they hold so much meaning to us.

Now, you might be thinking: What the hell is a “secular song?” Is it anti-God music, or just 95 percent of rock-n-roll?

The secular songs I’m talking about are songs that inspire or comfort us; that bring us closer to humanity; that touch on the purpose, meaning and joys of life — without religion.

We all have our favorite secular songs — and I spent a long time paring mine down — but here are the ones I’ve chosen for my daughter’s Secular Playlist. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do — and please don’t forget to weigh in with your own secular favorites in the comments!

[Full disclosure: I had to edit this list after I published it because I realized some of the songs actually had religious connotations. This was harder than I thought!]

1. What a Wonderful World by Louis Armstrong (Thanks, Dad!)

 

2. Ain’t it Enough by Old Crow Medicine Show (Thanks, Jenny!)

 

3. Imagine by John Lennon

 

4.  Life’s a Happy Song, written by Bret McKenzie

 

5. In My Life by The Beatles

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zI0Q8ytD44Y

 

6. Don’t Worry, Be Happy by Bobby McFarin

 

7. White Wine in the Sun by Tim Minchin (Thanks, Derek!)

 

8. Rainbow Connection by Kermit the Frog

 

9. My Favorite Things by Julie Andrews

 

10. Lean on Me by Bill Withers

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zU97n-HuAJA

 

11. That’s Life by Frank Sinatra

 

12: Rocky Mountain High by John Denver

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OwARpaKHx_w

 

13. I Will Survive by Gloria Gaynor

 

14. Think for Yourself by the Beatles

 

15. You Are my Sunshine by virtually everyone on the planet (but my favs is Willie Nelson’s version)

 

God’s (Alleged) Gender Proves Problematic for Some Parents

god

About a year ago — when my daughter was six — I noticed that she had been sitting in silence for a surprisingly long time.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

“I’m sad,” she said.

“Why are you sad?” I asked.

“Because,” she said, “God is a boy and not a girl.”

“How do you know?”

“I just know,” she said, glumly.

“And why does that make you sad?”

“Because,” she said. “I’m a girl.

Featured-on-BlogHer

I don’t spend a lot of time complaining about religion. Usually, I just don’t see the point. Religion is so big and broad and amorphous. One person’s going-to-synogogue-on-Saturday is another person’s whipping-kids-for-talking-back. One person’s giving-to-charitable-causes is another person’s picketing-the-funerals-of-gay-soldiers. Just try to get two people to agree on the nature, purpose or value of “religion.” But some things are just plain hard to swallow — in a universal sense. And, ever since that conversation with my daughter, the “gender” of God is one of them. Rarely, if ever, do children hear “Her” as a pronoun or “Mother” as a descriptor for God. Even “It” — which is the gender-neutral way that Muslims describe Allah in Arabic — sounds completely foreign to us.

This isn’t to say, of course, that all religions conceptualize God as a man. They don’t — not literally anyway.

Christianity describes God as a Trinity: the father (God), the son (Jesus) and the Holy Spirit (who the heck knows). The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes clear that “God is neither man nor woman.” Yet, that statement is immediately followed by: “He is God.”

There’s that He again.

Similarly, in Sikhism, Guru Granth Sahib is known for saying God was indescribable, but then the guru repeatedly referred to this indescribable being as “He” and “Father.” Even Hindus, which have goddesses out the yin-yang, still describe their top god — Brahma — in entirely masculine terms. Judaism’s God is, perhaps, the least manly of the bunch. Still, though, Jews — like Christians — are pretty tied to the language of the Torah/Old Testament. And, there, as we know too well, references to God are overwhelmingly male-dominated.

I Googled “God” today, and guess how many images of women came up?

Now, let me be clear: I am not weighing in on the debate over whether God is a man, woman, both or neither. That is one debate that will always be completely irrelevant to me personally. But there is no denying that we, as a society, continue to couch God in male terms. Even those of us who don’t believe in God do it. At very early ages, American children are encouraged to form their images of God as a man. Specifically, an old man. Even more specifically, an old man with a beard.

Now, if you’re a little boy, this is probably a nonissue. No big deal. Completely innocuous. But if you’re a girl — well, one need only look at the conversation with my daughter to see that the distinction is a huge deal. Just huge.

When girls hear — and they all hear it — that the entity in charge of the whole universe, the one who has all the power, is a boy (more boy than girl, at the very least!) it changes things for her. It gives her a new perspective on her life and life in general. It limits her. It may even sadden her.

And that — on a very personal level — saddens me.

I dare say, it should sadden us all.

Anyone else have similar experiences or thoughts on this? If so, I’d really love to hear them.

On ‘Hell’ and ‘Evil’ — and the Uselessness of Both Concepts

Dr.-EvilThere is no stronger theme in story-telling than the struggle between good and evil. And there are few better ways to drive home a point than to invoke hell as a benchmark.

Think, for example, of the power behind Huckleberry Finn’s words when he said, “All right, then, I’ll go to hell.” Mark Twain may have been an atheist, but he was a writer first. All things devil-related make exceptional literary, cinematic and poetic devices.

But out here in the real world? Oh, hell no.

When I was a news reporter, I covered hundreds of court cases, many of them criminal felony cases involving some highly depraved human beings. I’ve seen serial rapists, child molesters and murderers up close. I’ve looked many of them in the eyes.

And one of the things I’ve taken from that experience is how utterly goofy and useless these notions of “evil” and “hell” can be.

It’s easy to see why these terms originally came about. Thousands of years before mental illness became widely understood as something separate and distinct from the soul or morality, humans needed a way to compartmentalize deeply disturbed people — to explain their behavior and to set them apart from everyone else. Not just for a while, but forever. Calling these individuals “evil” and damning them to “hell” was simply de rigueur.

But we live in a different day. Thanks largely to Sigmund Freud, we know better.

Touch_of_Evil

Evil is no explanation, and hell is no punishment. Most people do disgusting, terrible things for one of two reasons. Either they have mental disturbances in their brains, or because they were taught to do disgusting, terrible things as children. Sometimes, it’s both.

[Now, I'm not saying these two explanations account for every "bad" thing people do. Cheating, stealing or lying about whether you took performance-enhancing drugs can come about through any number of channels. I'm talking here about the kinds of crimes for which the death penalty was invented.]

Research shows us that, as adults, we tend to recreate for ourselves what felt familiar to us as small children. If we felt loved, valued, safe, calm, accepted, happy and confident as kids, we are very likely to have those feelings as adults. If we experienced stress, worry, criticism, dissatisfaction, instability, crime, anger, hatred, pain, violence, drug use, alcoholism or sexual abuse as children, we are likely to somehow incorporate these things into our adult lives.

So, you see, the nature of “evil” isn’t some scary devil guy. That you were constantly neglected, insulted and abused when you were a child and then went to prison for rape as an adult is not some mysterious, extreme aberration in humanity; it’s a natural consequence of terrible modeling.

To me, hell is a necessary threat only when parents fail to meet their obligations as parents.

9780958578349_p0_v1_s260x420When children are brought up in households that make them feel unconditionally loved, valued, important and powerful, then — short of mental problems — they won’t need the threat of some scary, awful place to keep them from doing “bad” things. They will do “good” because that’s what feels normal to them.

I believe, as cheesy at it sounds, that Anne Frank was right: People really are good at heart. We want to do the “right thing.” It’s just that we’re human beings with different brains and experiences and temperaments. We’re never, ever going to agree about what that “right thing” entails.

The best we can do is to show others, and ourselves, a great amount of compassion. Being a human is hard. And it’s harder for some than for others.

In a way, the threat of hell — when leveled on anyone in any situation — is the opposite of compassion. It allows us to distance ourselves from those who act in unacceptable ways. It lets us see people as one-dimensional creatures. It simplifies what is too complicated to simplify. It’s an easy out, and in the worst possible way.

If other people choose to believe in hell and evil and mortal sin, and to teach their kids these things, I will be compassionate toward them. They are, after all, recreating the familiar. But I strongly disagree with it. Teaching these things isn’t necessary to make children “good.” And it carries the potential to hurt and scare them. And remember what happens when we make fear a part of a child’s life, right? Fear becomes familiar and natural to them, and they, subconsciously, look for ways to invite that emotion into their adult lives.

I know it will be a long way off, but I look forward to a day when “evil” and “hell” are only used as hyperbole, and any notions of their true existence are left to the fiction writers.

A Few Changes Around Here

I am writing this from my sister’s car, so this will be brief. I just wanted to flag everyone to a few changes to the site. Mostly they revolve around improved search capabilities. To the left of the blog, you’ll find posts broken down by category and by religion. Also, on the Blog Library page, you’ll find a full list of posts  broken down by month.

Hopefully this will allow you to access past posts more quickly and efficiently. But if anyone runs into issues, or has suggestions for me, please don’t hesitate to speak up. I’m always grateful for the feedback.

Now: Back to bumper-to-bumper traffic.

What’s Wrong with a Nativity Scene Made out of Dead Cats?

When my mom was in college at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, she had a sorority sister who interned for the local newspaper. One day, the intern was rummaging through the morgue (which, in pre-Internet days, is where they kept old  clips) when she found a file labeled “Funny Brides.” The file was pretty self-explanatory; it was filled with stories about tasteless weddings and photographs of homely, unseemly or otherwise humorous-to-look-at brides and their grooms. Of course, she wasn’t about to keep this find to herself, so she brought the file back to the Sorority House, where the sisters pissed themselves laughing. And, thus, a tradition was born.

Today, some 55 years later, my mom and a close circle of her old friends have a Funny Bride Book of their own. It’s filled with clippings from newspapers around the country. Sometimes, it’s just the photos that are funny. But more often it’s details of the ceremonies that prove the most hilarious. One couple, for instance, were married in front of a water fall. During their vows, a rock flew out of the water fall and hit the groom in the groin.

“It was reported,” my mom told me, “that the bride and groom were able to consummate the marriage…. Now, isn’t that more information than you really want to know?”

It wasn’t just Funny Brides that caught her fancy, though. The Des Moines Register used to print “Funny Names” as a regular column. Both my parents have committed a great number of those to memory. Let’s see, there’s Tackaberry McAdoo, Munsing Underwear Johnson, and my least favorite of all of them, Mary Moist.

The point is that my mother’s fascination with goofy newspaper stories is why I have in my possession a 1999 article about a school-sanctioned high school nativity scene in Elizabethton, Tennessee, made completely out of cat cadavers.

The Elizabethton Star, Tennessee

The Elizabethton Star, Tennessee

 

I know, I know. Christmas was so last month. And yet, I couldn’t help but share this one with you. If you’re not able to read it, click here — where I found an online-version of the story. And here, you’ll even find a Letter to the Editor about the thing. Apparently PETA eventually awarded its annual Kind Student Award to the boy who was SUSPENDED FROM SCHOOL for daring to take the scene down. And what, you ask, would lead him to vandalize such a holy display?

Well, because it smelled bad, the boy said. And because it was disgusting to look at.

Sacrilegious little shit. They should have expelled him.

Favorite line from the editorial: “That students in Elizabethton placed a formaldehyde-soaked dead cat in a cradle as baby Jesus and inserted sticks into the rectums of cats to make them stand up as Mary, Joseph, and the wise men is shocking…”

Especially when superimposed over this line from the Elizabethton Star:

“The decorating contest ‘gave students an opportunity to work as a team with their homeroom teacher with a holiday spirit activity,” Alexander (the principal) said in a press release. He said most reaction so the cat cadaver display were positive.”

This Blog Has Been Flagged as Inappropriate

annetaintoryouropinionA couple of weeks ago, a Texas mother named Deborah Mitchell wrote a guest blog for CNN’s iReport that quickly became one of the citizen-journalism site’s most widely read pieces. The blog received more than 750,000 page views, 9,000 comments and 64,000 Facebook recommendations.

And as a testament to its controversial nature, the entire essay was flagged as “inappropriate.”

Well, you know, I like to stay on top of current events, so I decided to check out the story that was causing all this grief and strife over at CNN. I clicked on over and, well, what I found can only be described as outrageously offensive and ill-suited to any and all adult audiences. In fact, I had to take a couple of beta blockers just to get through the thing without vomiting or passing out. To me, the fact that CNN would print something so utterly disturbing makes me question whether people associated with CNN should be allowed to live in our country anymore.

Of course, I want to tell you what the story was about, but first, I need to give you some fair warning: This blog has been flagged as inappropriate. People who are pregnant, elderly or suffering from heart conditions may want to look away.

Deborah Mitchell’s report was… wow … hold on… breathing into paper bag…

Deborah Mitchell’s report was about being an ag—

An ag—

AN AGNOSTIC PARENT!

Deep breaths! Deep breaths, people!

Everyone still with me?

Oh, thank God.

So here’s the deal: Mitchell, who has a blog called Kids Without Religion, wrote about how she had decided not to “gift” her child God because she didn’t think the God that most people worship is much of a gift. Then she laid out seven reasons why the traditional notion of “God” didn’t do it for her. It’s an interesting take on the whole “to-God or not-to-God” debate, not to mention a flash of glitter in the often-overlooked world of nonreligious parenting.

If you aren’t one of the 700,000 who have already read it, be sure to check it out here.

Editors over at iReport have been quick to explain that some readers — not anyone from CNN — had flagged the story as inappropriate. But the reaction was clearly so out of the ordinary that CNN blogger Daphne Sashin felt compelled to report about the controversy for CNN’s Belief Blog — a story that itself garnered 14,000 comments.

Fourteen. Thousand. Comments.

Which is precisely why I will be flagging my blogs as inappropriate from now on.

A Newer (And More Laid Back) Brand of Atheism

Religiously speaking, this is an unusual time in our history. Secularism is clearly on the rise, and yet religion maintain a stronghold over our society and politics. That science has boldly answered so many “mysteries of the universe” has not stopped supernatural beliefs from influencing how most Americans think and live. Every day I read headlines about how God is on the way out; every day I read headlines about how God is on the way up.

For us nonbelievers, it’s hard to know where we stand, where the country stands — and what the future holds.

We are a nation that revels in extremes. We watch with fascination as religious zealots (Christian Fundamentalists, Islamic Fundamentalists, etc.)  duke it out with anti-religious zealots (New Atheists). But most of us — theists or no — thankfully reside in the broad in-between. We see no need for zealotry, and we certainly don’t support it.

As a person living during America’s “secular boom,” I personally have been accused of “turning away” from God. Many of us have. But the truth is, to say I have “turned away” from God is like saying I’ve “turned away” from rugby. I’m fine with the fact that other people play rugby. They seem to really enjoy it. It’s just not my game.

Now, of course, naysayers will argue that religion is not at all like rugby. Rugby is not known for hurting people, causing wars, embracing elitism, inciting hate. And I get that. But I’d just ask anyone reading this to picture a beloved friend or relative who also happens to be deeply faithful. We all have at least one. Someone we love not just despite his or her spirituality, but maybe even because of it.

That’s the rugby I’m talking about.

The atheists I know don’t wish to offend nice people or cause our families pain. We wouldn’t dream of trying to stamp out our grandmothers’ faith. We, much like Jesus, do not wish to throw stones. Much like the Buddha, we prefer a middle path. And much like virtually every major religion in the world, we strive to take care of our families, do right by our communities, and live by the Golden Rule.

Isn’t it a shame that this sort of narrative — a new and, dare I say, improved brand of ‘New Atheism’ — doesn’t garner more headlines?

And, now, this picture of a monkey — living the dream. Enjoy your weekend, everyone!

Squirrel Monkey, Costa Rica, photo by Wendy Thomas Russell

The Game-Changer: ‘I Have a Dream’

I saw Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech” for the first time earlier this month. I’d seen and read bits and pieces of it before, but watching it in its entirety was something quite different. I had always thought of King as a courageous man, but the Dream speech, given during the March on Washington August 28, 1963, reminded me of his extraordinary confidence and grace, as well.

It was his unshakable confidence that struck me the most. The way he spoke to all those supporters lining the National Mall, it was as though he was guaranteed to succeed where others had failed, as though his dream were guaranteed to come true.

Of course, King couldn’t have known what changes would come. And he certainly couldn’t have known that 46 years later — the day before the country celebrated his birthday — a black man would be sworn in as president of United States. King couldn’t have known that nearly 4 million people would flood the National Mall, the way his supporters had, to witness the event.

No, he couldn’t have known. But as forward-thinking as he was, I get this sense he wouldn’t have been surprised, either.

I don’t think I’ll ever forget casting my ballot for Barack Obama on Nov. 4, 2008, or seeing those election returns roll in. I don’t think I’ll ever forget how emotional I was to see the newspaper the next day, or to watch the new First Family greet supporters after the inauguration. Although Obama was the one doing most the waving and smiling during those first few days, the victory didn’t belong only to him. It belonged to Martin Luther King, Jr., too. And, in a way, it belonged to us all.

Sometimes it still seems like a dream.

This post originally appeared on Jan. 16, 2012

3 Must-Reads for Secular Parents

The last month has produced an incredible little selection of articles relating to secular parenting, and I wanted to make sure you didn’t miss them. The pieces are, in turn, educational, insightful, funny and heartwarming. And all of them are written by women — which seems significant because the secular community is, we are told, still dominated by menfolk.

[To read the articles, just click on the titles below.]

1. Why My 7-Year-old is an Atheist (And Why I’m Okay With That) by Carolyn Castiglia

Castiglia, a comedian, writes about her daughter’s “conversion” to atheism, despite her own rather open-minded approach to religion. The piece is very funny but also has some nice advice to impart.  A friend found this on Jezebel but it was originally posted to Babble. Here’s a particularly good bit:

The way I imagine God has changed over the years – He’s gone from being a person, a man, to being more of a Thing, a notion. Goodness. The Oneness of the Universe. With something female in there. The energy that keeps the whole thing afloat. God as I know it now when I know it is kind of a cocktail made from a shot of Buddhism, a shot of feminist activism and a splash of ginger ale (because that, my friends, is something you can always count on). My daughter, on the other hand, at the ripe old age of 7, is convinced that there is no God. Not even a god. Yup, my kid’s an atheist. And she pretty much has been since she was 5. It’s not for lack of exposure to God or god or even gods and spirituality, because she has attended Church and church and a UU “church” and it has made no impact. We’ve prayed together. I talk about God sometimes, in a good way. When I asked her recently why she doesn’t believe in God she told me, succinctly, “Because I know too much about science!”

2. Losing Our Religion by Katherine Ozment.

Ozment is a writer who turned her attention to nonreligious parenting in this fun and honest Boston Magazine piece. Many parents are sure to find her situation all too familiar. Here’s the nut-graph:

Like most upper-middle-class parents, my husband and I have worked out a strategy for every aspect of our children’s lives, from cord-blood banking and on-demand breastfeeding to extracurricular math classes and strict limits on screen time. Religion is the big exception. It’s something he (raised Jewish) and I (raised Protestant) keep meaning to address, yet year after year we manage to avoid it. Most days I can shrug this off. Who has the time? I think. And does it even matter? But as ambivalent as I am about organized religion, I recognize there is something to it. Participation in a religious community has been correlated with everything from self-esteem and overall hopefulness to the avoidance of substance abuse and teen pregnancy. So I worry: Am I depriving my children of an experience that will help shape their identities in a positive way and anchor them throughout their lives?

3. The Curse of the Herd by Gwen DeWar

This is not a story about religion, per se, but it may as well be. DeWar is a writer and anthropologist fascinated by the strong pull humans feel toward conformity. The focus of this piece, published by Psychology Today, is how this sort of conformity can and does affect our child-rearing — and not in a good way. She writes:

It’s disturbing, and it should concern everyone. Yes, social conformity serves some helpful functions, and many people believe in the rights of various groups to enforce their own cultural norms. If a community wants to reject science in favor of folk remedies, or to punish people for teaching evolution, isn’t that their prerogative? But unless this group is composed solely of adult volunteers, there is a problem. Children don’t volunteer. They don’t choose their birthplace. They don’t choose their parents or the cultural setting in which they grow up….Is freedom of thought a human right? Do kids have a right to learn about the tools of critical thinking? Our need to question and tinker may be as primitive as our need for food and love.

And while I’m on it, two other worthy reads are:

• Molly Worthen’s One Nation Under God, an opinion published by the New York Times, in which which she argues that “the temple of ‘my personal opinion’ may be the real ‘established church’ in modern America.” (So true!)

•  Picture Books for Strong Girls, a list of book recommendations published by No Time for Flash Cards. The list has some great suggestions, to which I would add Big Momma Makes the World, a book that tells the Biblical creation story, more or less — only “God” is a Southern Momma with loads of laundry to do and a baby to take care of. (Don’t worry. She can handle it.)

Big Momma Makes the World

 

An Interview with the Guy Who Named the ‘Nones’

Barry KosminThere was a time, in the extremely recent past, when Americans with no religion were “the others.”

For decades, religious affiliation has fascinated researchers. Countless studies and surveys show document a painstaking analysis of each minor population shift. A switch from, say, Methodist to Baptist or Catholic to Protestant has been marked with great interest, year by year. Sure, the numbers of Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists have remained relatively small next to Christians — but they, too, have been counted. Their numbers seemed to matter.

Always absent from these studies and surveys was a specific category for Americans with no religion. Those of us who didn’t “belong” in an established group — for whatever reason. We were simply the “others.” Too few to name, much less care about.

But that all changed in the first years of the 21st Century.

After a decade (the 90s) in which religious affiliation dropped dramatically — by several percentage points (and, yes, that was considered dramatic) — the country’s top researchers realized they needed a new category.

Barry A. Kosmin was one of them. As the founding director of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and a professor at Trinity College, Kosmin had been helping to conduct the American Religion Identification Survey for nearly three decades. Once they’d evaluated data from the 1990s, Kosmin and his team were determined to name a new category.

“Nonreligious” was a possibility. So was “non-faith” and “non-affiliated.”

But Kosmin rejected all of these. The “non” part bothered him. “Non-affiliated” would be like calling people “non-white,” he said. “We didn’t want to suggest that ‘affiliated’ was the norm, and every one else was an ‘other.’”

“Nomenclature,” he added, ” is quite important in these things.”

So Kosmin began calling this group the “nones,” a shortened version for “none of the above” — which is what people often said when asked to name their religion. He never thought the term would stick.

“It began as a joke,” he said, “but now, like many of these things, it has taken on its own life.”

Indeed. Today, “nones” are everywhere. Both in a literal sense and a literary one.

“Nones” now make up an estimated 20 percent of the American population — or 60 million people. And most major research groups have given in to the verbiage, at least to some degree. (Some still prefer “unaffiliated” in their official questionnaires.) Journalists, especially, have embraced the word.

“Nones form Biggest Slice of Obama’s Religious Voters,” said an October headline in the Huffington Post.

“The ‘nones’ now form the worlds’ third-largest religion’ reported the Religion News Service  last month.

The list goes on and on.

That’s not to say the word is without its critics. For many on the more spiritual end of the “nonreligious” spectrum, “nones” sounds too dismissive. They liken it to “nothing,” and sometimes the response is: “I’m not nothing!”

Still, like Kosmin said, the word now has a life of its own. Even Gallup Poll, which published  a report today, saying that the number of people who prefer “no religion” leveled off a bit between 2011 and 2012, put “nones” in its headline.

[Special thanks to Hemant Mehta who referenced this blog on his website The Friendly Atheist.]


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