Quick! What the Hell is Hajj?

Virtually all major religions have holy lands — places they consider to be especially important to their faith — and visiting those places often is deemed to be a crucial show of devotion. For Christians and Jews, that place is Jerusalem; for Hindus, it’s the Himalayas; and for Muslims, it’s Mecca in Saudi Arabia

These religious travels are called pilgrimages, and for Muslims, the pilgrimage (or Hajj) is not just recommended but required of all able-bodied Muslims. Every year, millions of Muslims from throughout the world visit Mecca during Hajj to pray to Allah, ask for forgiveness for they’re wrongs, meet and commune with those who share their faith, and recommit themselves to Islam. This year’s Hajj (pronounced “Hodge”) began yesterday and ends on Monday.

When it’s over, they’ll celebrate Eid al-Adha. You’ll see my rundown on that holiday below.

Hajj is such an interesting pilgrimage because it’s so f’ing huge, first of all, and also because there are so many specific things the pilgrims must do to complete it correctly. Firstly, there are rules about what can be worn (white, seamless clothing) and not worn (perfume, deodorant), what must not be done (flirting is a huge no-no) and what rituals must be performed. Arguably, the most important of the rituals is circling the Kaaba counter-clockwise seven times. The Kabaa is the black, cubed-shaped building in the center of Mecca. It is the most holy site in Islam, and when Muslims pray — no matter where they are in the world — they turn their prayer rugs to face that building. I can only imagine what a powerful experience it must be for people who have been praying toward the cube all their lives to finally see it up close. (You’ll notice in the picture above the swirl of people around the building. A very cool image, I thought.

Other interesting things about the Kabaa:

• The ancient, brick-and-mortar building is shrouded in a black curtain.

• Inside, it is held up by pillars.

• According to Muhammad, it was built by Abraham himself, with the help of Abraham’s son, some 2,000 years ago.

• On one side is the famous “Black Stone,” now set in gold. Muhammad was said to have kissed this stone, which is why people touch or kiss it as they pass.

Anyway, the other rituals of Hajj are: walking back and forth between Al-Safa and Al-Marwah (which is now enclosed in a long hallway) seven times, drinking from the Zamzam Well, and visiting  Mount Arafat  (where Muhammad gave his final speech after performing Hajj himself on March 9 in the year 632.)

Now that you know what Hajj is, check out these fantastic pictures of this year’s event. I really would love to visit Mecca someday — but probably will never have the chance. For years, the city has been closed to non-Muslims, and something tells me the Arabs aren’t going to make an exception for me.

Click here for What the Hell is Eid al-Adha?

Armstrong: ‘If I wasn’t a liar, a cheat, or a thief, then I believed that should be enough’

Now that cyclist Lance Armstrong has been stripped of his seven Tour de France titles, dropped by his mega-corporate sponsors, and proven to be a profoundly effective liar and cheat, it seems as good a time as any to talk about how a man’s beliefs (religious or otherwise) mean precisely nothing when contrasted against his actions. Armstrong could have grown up atheist, Muslim, Roman Catholic, or Mennonite (as one of his cheating teammates did), and those labels would have told us little of the man he’d become. Morality is linked to people’s religious beliefs in the same way it’s linked to their preferred brand of paper towels; it’s just not.

But you know me: I was curious. I had to know. So I Googled “Lance Armstrong’s religious beliefs.” What I found was a quote taken from his book, It’s Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life:

“I asked myself what I believed. I had never prayed a lot. I hoped hard, wished hard, but I didn’t pray. I had developed a certain distrust of organized religion growing up, but I felt I had the capacity to be a spiritual person, and to hold some fervent beliefs. Quite simply, I believed I had a responsibility to be a good person, and that meant fair, honest, hardworking and honorable. If I did that, if I was good to my family, true to my friends, if I gave back to my community or to some cause, if I wasn’t a liar, a cheat, or a thief, then I believed that should be enough. At the end of the day, if there was indeed some Body or presence standing there to judge me, I hoped I would be judged on whether I had lived a true life, not on whether I believed in a certain book, or whether I’d been baptized.”

Darn. I had kind of hoped he wouldn’t land so close to me on that one. Now I feel icky.

Seriously, I can’t help but think that, for Lance Armstrong, “the end of the day” he talked about is now. “The Body” is us. And the immeasurable shame of his own making is far worse than any hell that could be conceived for him in some elusive afterlife to which, right about now, he probably feels like escaping.

Tip of the Day: Religious Barbie!

Okay, I’m not necessarily suggesting that Mattel come out with Buddhist Monk Barbie or Sikh Leader Ken, but religious Barbies would sure make religious literacy more fun for Barbie-obsessed little girls, wouldn’t it?

Catholic Nun Barbie could keep her long, beautiful hair hidden beneath a habit. Mormon Elder Ken would come with his own bike and, whenever you pressed the button on his back, would say “May I talk to you about the Book of Mormon?” (To which Nun Barbie would decline politely before shutting the abbey door.) Point is, religious literacy isn’t nearly as daunting as people make it out to be. Simply saying religious words out loud and in context goes a long way: God. Gods. Bible. Heaven. Meditation. Baptism. Mosque. Sabbath. 10 Commandments…

My daughter is 7, and I’m realizing she is at an ideal age to drop these words. She’s like a sponge, rejecting virtually nothing — absorbing it all. She’s a captive audience, too. When we’re in the car and she’s literally strapped into her back seat. Or at bedtime, when she still adores been read to. Or at playtime, when she still invites me to share in her imaginative games. Slipping religious concepts her way is just so darn easy.  (And a little scary when you consider how easy it would be to abuse this natural openness.) Anyway, the point is, if you want to discuss religion with your kids in an easy-breezy manner, working it into honest play is a great way to do it. “Pray” is one word I want Maxine to understand, so this week, after we made a house of blocks for her Barbie family, I put the dad in a prayer posture and announced to Maxine, “He’s religious!” She loved it. She laughed at first — because she had no idea he was religious! — but then she sort of studied his posture and helped me keep him balanced so I could take a picture for you guys.

I’m certainly not the first to have this idea. A few years ago, an Episcopal priest came out with Episcopal Priest doll, which is no longer being sold. There is also a rather huge market of Fulla dolls — Barbie-like fashion dolls for Muslim girls. And let us not forget the fleeting controversy over Barbies in full burkas being auctioned off for Mattel’s 50th anniversary in 2009. (Whether or not you agree that Burka Barbie was a good idea, the last line of this Jezebel column says it all:

“At the end of the day,” the column read, “all Barbies are going to end up in the same place — naked and spread-eagle on the floor.”

How true.

Washington Post Blog Spotlights ‘Relax, It’s Just God’

This isn’t so much a blog as brag, so if you are my close friends, family, or just really kind readers who don’t mind if I bend your ears for a few minutes, please stick around. The rest of you: I totally understand. Enjoy our day.

So this morning, I was featured in the Washington Post’s On Parenting blog. The blog is written by Janice D’Arcy, an amazing parenting blogger whose work I’ve followed for a long time. She contacted me because of the Pew Research Center’s new study finding that 20 percent of Americans belong to the ever-widening circle of “nones” — that is, people who do not adhere to any specific religion. D’Arcy asked me to share some general thoughts about why parents should introduce religion/faith to children even when they don’t believe or aren’t particularly religious themselves.

Here’s the piece:


Explaining God without belief


Americans are increasingly less religious and less inclined to identify themselves with a particular faith, according to a fascinating new poll and survey. Among those without ties to a religious institution are many parents of young children, a group that can struggle with how to present the concepts of religious faith to children.

The Pew Research Center found that the number of people who said they are “unaffiliated” with a religion has grown to 20 percent of the population. The percentage includes more than 33 million who say they are atheist or agnostic.

A companion survey, produced by Pew and the PBS show Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, found that the unaffiliated, or “nones,” frequently report belief in God or an embrace of spirituality. However, their faith in particular religious institutions has waned. “Overwhelmingly, they think that religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules and too involved in politics,” the survey found.

For these Americans, the question of how to explain religion and religious institutions gets complicated. How to translate to a child an adult’s intellectual or ideological differences with concepts most others hold to be sacred? How to not talk about it when religious references are all around?

For insight into this struggle, I turned to Wendy Thomas Russell, the author of a blog on secular living and the forthcoming book, “Relax It’s Just God,” on the subject of secular parenting.

I asked her for some guiding principles for secular parents. She said that it’s essential these parents talk about religion in depth and with frequency. Here’s why:

“Parents can’t shield their kids from religion. It’s impossible. Despite the somewhat rapid proliferation of ‘nones’ in this country, we are still the minority. Four of every five kids in our children’s classrooms have parents who self-identify as religious. So the chances are really high that our kids are going to be ‘introduced’ to religion, if not on the playground, then through TV shows, music, architecture, politics, history books, literature, bumper stickers, you name it. And our language! Our language is steeped in religious references. ‘I’d move heaven and earth,’ ‘God-forsaken town,’ ‘devil-may-care’…

But let’s say you’re a parent who has some baggage. Religion freaks you out a little; it makes you tense. So why should you go out of your way to expose your kid to other peoples’ religious beliefs? And who cares if you share your own anxiety over the subject?

First, and most importantly, religious tolerance doesn’t just happen. Parents have to teach it.

It’s human nature to be scared or skeptical of people we don’t understand; it’s why we parents have no qualms talking to our kids about people with disabilities. We don’t want our kids to treat disabled people badly; we want them to know that disabled people may be different from us, but they are people, and they deserve respect. Likewise, if we don’t tell our kids about religious people in a respectful way, we can’t possibly expect them to learn how to treat religious people with respect. It’s that simple.

Second, just because religion isn’t important to us personally doesn’t mean it isn’t important.

The chances are very good that my kid will meet people who are devoutly religious. Some of those people will be in her circle of friends. Some of them will be in her own family. Understanding religion and why it’s important means that she will be able to former closer bonds to the people she loves. She’ll also be more likely to judge people on the content of their character, rather than the “accuracy” of their beliefs.

Third, be the change you want to see.

I’m a nonreligious parent who wishes that more of my kid’s friends were being exposed to the idea of agnosticism and humanism and even atheism in a non-biased way. I can’t make that happen, but I can damn well live by the Golden Rule and treat others the way I want to be treated. Eventually, it’s bound to catch on, right?

Fourth, it may save your kid a lot of embarrassment.

In researching my book, I’ve learned that a lot of kids with little to no religious literacy begin to feel embarrassed about their lack of knowledge right around the time middle school begins. Which, with so many other things going on, is pretty much the worst time in a kid’s life to have to deal with embarrassment…

I don’t think any parent sets out to pass their anxieties on to their kids. If anything, parents think they’re being rightfully protective, not irrationally anxious. But when it comes to religion, anything short of encouraging kids to make up their own minds is probably going to translate as anxiety. And there’s just no need for it. Our kids shouldn’t have to fight our battles.”

What do you think? Might her advice apply to all parents? Is exposure to all religions the best way to give perspective and teach tolerance?

What Does Your Kid Really Know about Religion?

Most parents, I’ve found, want their kids to know about religion. Maybe the reasons are strictly educational, or maybe they’re cultural, practical, even political. Regardless, most of us — whether religious or nonreligious — live in a diverse and complicated society whose collective beating heart is powered by the Internet; our children, we know, will be more successful at living if they understand the nature of faith and its role in people’s lives.

And, yet, so few of us are willing or able to teach our kids about religion. Why is this? We’re busy, of course. We’ve got priorities, and all that. But isn’t more of it a simple lack of knowledge? Wouldn’t most of us be willing to say something if we knew what to say or where to start? It’s not like we can reduce “religion” to some simple concepts, right? The whole subject seems to run wild and far and resist any kind of containment. So where does that leave us?

Consider this:

A U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey conducted in September 2010 found that a little over half of the American public knew that the Golden Rule was not part of the 10 commandments, the Qur’an was the Islamic holy book and Joseph Smith was a Mormon. Even less knew than the Dalai Lama was a Buddhist, Martin Luther inspired the Reformation, the Jewish Sabbath begins on Friday and the Four Gospels are Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

This is not to show how ignorant we are as a society — in fact, I was sort of impressed by some of the percentages — but to offer a starting point. We parents aren’t expected to teach our kids everything; but we should at least cover the “basics” — the basic events, the basic people, the basic places, the basic meanings.

For the next week, I’ll be finishing up a chapter for my book on how parents can “teach religion” without knocking themselves out. (You’re welcome.) My plan is to single out the need-to-know stuff from the rest of it, and suggest lots of painless (if not fun) ways to deliver the need-to-know stuff to your kids’ amazing brains.

So, now’s the time I ask for you input:

What have you done to introduce your child to religion so far? What (if anything) about the subject interests your kids the most? What gets their attention?

And what about you? What has been the biggest challenge in promoting religious literacy in your house? Where do you falter? What tools are you missing?

In short, help me help you.

Thanks, guys!

Oh! And, by the way, congrats to Megan Parker, who won the copy of No! That’s Wrong! in my book giveaway.  See? Subscribers to my blog get cool stuff. (That’s a hint, people.)

And now this:


‘The God Talk’ Makes Prime Time

Any Parenthood watchers out there? A couple of weeks ago, the NBC series aired an episode involving a nonreligious couple who discovers their young son praying at his bedside, which leads them to confront the issue for the first time — not only with their son, but also with Grandma (who has, of course, inspired the prayer) and with each other.

The story arc rings very true, and I was thrilled to see the discussion come up on Prime Time.

If you’re interested, you can stream the episode on Netflix. The story line starts in earnest at 9:45 and picks up again at minutes 17, 20, and 39. If  you don’t mind ads, you also can watch it here:

Here’s my synopsis:

Surprised by their son’s newfound spirituality, Jasmine and Crosby Braverman (played by Dax Shepard and Joy Bryant) decide to broach the subject with Jasmine’s mother after dinner one night.

“Mom,” Jasmine says, “we noticed that Jabbar has been praying,”

“That’s wonderful!” exclaims the mother.

And so it begins.

The grandmother freely admits to introducing the boy to God, heaven and prayer, and seems shocked to hear that Jasmine and Crosby haven’t taken up the topic themselves already. The conversation sets in motion some back-and-forth between the couple over what they believe and whether it’s important that their son believe the same thing. Both are nonreligious, but — as it turns out — not on exactly the same page. Jasmine believes in God, and thinks their son should be able to explore religion because “it was a comfort” to her when she was a child. “It wasn’t about God, or even church,” she tells her husband. “It was about community.”

But Crosby wasn’t raised to be religious (“C’mon, geez, we gave you baseball,” his own father, played by Craig T. Nelson, offers at one point) and he doesn’t particularly want Jabbar to be, either.

“If you don’t have that belief you’re not going to be a part of that community,” he says. “And I don’t want my son to be a part of some club I’m not a member of. I mean, maybe that’s a little selfish, but…”

“Maybe a little?” the wife interjects

“Maybe a little,” he admits.

In the end, Crosby decides to tell his son a bit about his own beliefs in a way that complements the grandmother’s religion, rather than undermining it — which is some darn good role-modelling right there. My only complaint is that I wanted more. “The Talk” was far too brief for my taste. I wanted to hear what came next.

But, you know, I’m totally biased. I wish everyone would talk about this stuff more.

BlogHer Spotlights Religious Charm Bracelet

BlogHer Spotlight featured one of my posts today — the one on religious charm bracelets, and they called the idea “brilliant.” So, you know, I love them now. You can check out the BlogHer bit here, but this is what they wrote:

All Religions In One Charm Bracelet

Reflecting on her own childhood fascination with her mother’s jangly charm bracelet, Wendy hatched a brilliant plan — create a sparkly, shiny charm bracelet featuring a variety of religious symbols as a teaching tool for her daughter:

“I’d like for Maxine to recognize religious symbols and have some sense of their back stories. It’s a challenge sometimes, though, to introduce the basic concept of religion without, you know, boring her to tears. I figured if Maxine had a bracelet with religious symbols in her jewelry box, she might drag it out every once in a while and look at it. If I got lucky, maybe she’d even ask a question or two.”

Read more from All Religions In One Charm Bracelet at Relax, It’s Just God

Special thanks to BlogHer’s Heather Clisby, and to my mom — who inspired the post and whose birthday is tomorrow.

The Inheritance of Anxiety

Sometimes, in looking through the responses to my Survey for Nonreligious Parents, I’m faced with perfect examples of What Not To Do. Here’s one from a mom:

My child just yesterday stormed out of her classroom telling the teacher that she was ‘indoctrinating’ her in the telling of the Christian Easter story. I was very proud my child was so confident, assertive, and sure of her own non-belief that she was able to do this.

Confident and assertive? You bet! But sure of her own non-belief? In elementary school? Hell no. Most likely, this child was simply repeating what she’d heard at home — that talking about religious stories is called “indoctrination.” (Ain’t irony grand?)

In trying to protect her daughter against religious pariahs, this mother has managed to set her child on high alert over the freakin’ Easter story. Religion is an unescapable part of our country and our world, so why try to escape it? Teaching our kids to be tense, anxious or sensitive about religion does little more than set them up for a lot of tension, anxiety and hurt feelings. God is a part of our culture’s language, its songs, its poetry, its monuments and its works of art. God is a part of human history, and many of us happen to live in a Christian-majority country.

The trick is to get some perspective.

Is it really all that terrible that our kids hear about Easter in school? Or Passover or Eid or Diwali? Who does it hurt? I can think of many situations in which schools (particularly those with a religious bent) could play a role in influencing our kids. But, generally speaking, secular schools with irregular exposure to religious ideas aren’t going to make a damn bit of difference, unless the schools are getting some serious “backup” at home.

Sometimes it helps to think of religious references, events and activities as “cultural” rather than “religious.” Would it anger us to know that stories about Native American traditions were being shared in the classroom? Or if a teacher from Turkey talked a lot about the customs and beliefs of her home country?

Just as there’s a difference between learning and being indoctrinated, there’s also a difference between behavior and belief. We need not load everything with meaning. Kids may pledge their allegiance “under God” (or say they’ll “try to serve God” as part of the Girl Scout Promise) not because of religion but because of tradition, the same way they may sing Christmas songs or say “Bless you” when someone sneezes. Why not just explain to kids that the pledge and the Girl Scout Promise have God in them because their authors believed in God? Why not tell them that that people sing Christmas carols to celebrate the birth of Jesus, but that non-Christians can appreciate the carols, too. Why not say that schools may decorate for certain holidays because those holidays are important to so many people in this particular country?

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: If our kids want to a draw battle lines for themselves on these matters, so be it. But (for the love of God!) let’s not nudge them toward the battle.

‘We’ll Miss You When We’re in Heaven and You’re Not’

Religious breaks in any family structure can be painful. People who find out beloved relatives have “left the faith” can feel heartbroken, even angry. In a survey earlier this year, I asked nonreligious parents whether they had “come out” to their own families, and, if so, whether they’d received support. About 28 percent of the respondents answered yes and yes: They were open about their beliefs, and most of their family members had been supportive. About 18 percent answered yes and no: They were open about their beliefs, but most relatives had been unsupportive. The highest percentage — 37 percent — said they were open about their beliefs to some, but not all, thereby gaining support from those who were able to offer it, and minimizing tension with those who were not.

It’s not a bad strategy, really, considering that parents and grandparents scorned in matters of religion can be such a vocal sort. Consider these common refrains:

We just don’t understand.

What did we do wrong?

How can you be a moral person and not believe in God? 

Aren’t you afraid of what will happen after you die?

Why do you hate God?

We’re disappointed in you.

You don’t know what you’re talking about.

You’re confused.

You’re rebelling.

You’re extreme.

You’re unhappy.

You’re wrong.

This is a crisis of faith.

This is a phase.

This must be part of God’s plan.

You’ll snap out of it. 

You’re a great person, except for this one thing.

We blame ourselves.

How can you do this to us?

It’s not fair.

Even if you don’t believe in God, God believes in you.

You should believe in God “just in case.”

You shouldn’t tell people.

You’ve been possessed by Satan.

We’ll miss you when we’re in heaven and you’re not. 

And the old stand-by:

We’ll pray for you.

Yep, sort of covers it all, doesn’t it? You’ve got guilt, anger, insults, incredulity, resentment, fear, disrespect and denial. Good times! The problem is that in so many families, there is no wiggle room: God means moral. God means good. God means happy. God means truth. God means heaven. And the lack of God means, well, exactly the opposite: evil, sadness, pain, ignorance and hell. With that lineup of adjectives, it’s no wonder parents are so desperate to stop the backslide.

If you’ve heard one (or more) of the above refrains, it probably means you’ve bitten the bullet and shared your beliefs. And that’s so very commendable, if not always pleasant. With exceptions, being honest about our lack of faith simplifies our lives and really does benefit those around us — particularly, as it turns out, our children.

‘Daddy, Tell Me a Story About Science’

I was never very good at science. Mostly because it was taught to me the same way math was taught to me: It wasn’t. I mean, it was, technically. But not in a way that inspired me or held my interest for very long. I found it all difficult and boring. I grew up in a time when math and science were “boy” things. The teachers I had (with the exception of one extremely awesome biology teacher) were men who seemed to aim their instruction right over my head. Everything struck me as dry and unemotional. I always felt I was missing something — some basic brain function. I learned things as though they were random pieces of information floating around me, rather than stacks of wisdom neatly piled on a solid foundation of understanding.

Later, at the University of Nebraska, I was able to avoid math and science for the most part (the journalism department was far more interested in language arts). I did take one astronomy class, but that was taught by a very old Japanese man whose heavy accent destroyed any chance I had at making sense of the universe.

He pronounced “star” like this: stah-waaaah. I barely scraped by with a C-.

Fast-forward two decades, and I’m a mother writing a book about religion whose central tenant is: teach science. No matter what our children grow up to believe in terms of God or religion, giving them a sense of how big and wondrous the right here, right now is will help them put their beliefs into a worldly context.

So how does a science-traumatized woman ensure that her daughter develops a fascination with and understanding of science? Well, if the woman is me, she marries a guy who possesses a fascination with and understanding of science.

Every night for the past couple months, my husband, Charlie, has a new bedtime routine with Maxine; he tells her one science story. Sometimes it’s about the stars and planets; sometimes it’s about bugs and other creatures; sometimes it’s about the human body — but he always manages to put a contemporary spin on the science, making it relevant to her little world. There are lots of stories about new findings and experiments that he read about in that morning’s paper. The Mars Rover provided lots of fodder.

A few nights ago Charlie brought our tree-stump cutting board into Max’s room and explained how each ring signifies one year in the life of a tree. Then he told her the story, which he’d originally heard on NPR’s Radio Lab (excellent show, if you’ve never heard it) about how a climatologist cut down a tree for research — only to find that the tree was 4,400 years old. “That’s 4,400 rings,” Charlie told Maxine. “Not only was it the oldest tree in the world, it was the oldest living thing.” No other continuously living organism had come close to living as long as that tree had lived. The climatologist, heartsick and haunted by his own mistake, never cut down another tree as long as he lived.

I couldn’t see Maxine’s reaction, but I, for one — listening through the door — was riveted.

Far from being bored or confused, Maxine gets so excited when it’s time for her “science story” with daddy. The whole thing makes me wonder if science, like food, tastes best when it’s homegrown. Hearing about the natural world from her dad, who is hand-selecting stories and talking just to her, must have an impact that Mr. Wheeler couldn’t have hoped to achieve with me in Chemistry 101.

It has also made me seek out my own “science stories,” and to challenge myself to wrap my mind around things that always seemed unknowable.

Hey, maybe there’s hope for me yet.

By the way, the Radio Lab show that Charlie had referenced? It was called Oopsand you can find it here.