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.

Brief Tribute to Obscure Children’s Book (P.S. #Giveaway)

I’ve got a book recommendation for you. It’s not religious in nature, but it’s funny and quirky and carries a really great moral that certainly dovetails with some of my blogs about children and belief. The book is called “No! That’s Wrong!” and was written in 2008 by Japanese author Zhaohua Ji and illustrated by Cui Xu.

It tells the tale of a bunny who finds a pair of underpants blowing in the wind. (See now, that’s what you call a solid premise.) Anyway, this particular bunny has never seen a pair of underpants before, so he looks them over and determines that they must be a hat; after all, his ears fit perfectly through the little leg holes. The bunny is thrilled with his find, and proceeds to hop around the animal kingdom, where his friends comment on what a marvelous hat he’s wearing.

But, of course, the bunny has underpants on his head. And we, the readers, are expected to help point out  our hero’s obvious mistake. “No, that’s wrong,” we inform the wayward bunny. “It’s not a hat.” (This interactive element of the book is very fun for kids — and reminiscent of Mo Willem’s Pigeon series.) At one point, the bunny runs into the most educated, humanized of his friends — a donkey — who backs us up. “What are you doing?” he says. “Why are you wearing underpants on your head? It’s not a hat. They’re underpants.”

When the bunny tries puts the underpants on correctly, though, they don’t look right. His tail doesn’t fit, and the underpants are uncomfortable. After getting feedback from his friends — who think he’s crazy for wearing his hat that way — and looking at himself in the glassy surface of a lake, the bunny takes off the underpants and puts them back on his head.

“No, I was right!” he says, hopping merrily along. “It’s a wonderful hat!”

This message can relate to so many facets of life (and even be read literally), but I always think of religious belief when I read it. Sometimes you have to see what’s right FOR YOU, even if others think it’s silly or stupid or embarrassing or sad or flat-out wrong. Does your belief make you happy? Is it hurting anyone? Great. And if those around you are supportive and happy with your decision — well, all the better. The moral: A happy, non-conforming bunny is better than a unhappy, uncomfortable bunny who does what every Tom, Dick or Donkey tell him to do. Can’t get much better than that.

Interested in the book but don’t want to pay for it? Cheap bastards. (Not that I blame you.) Next week, I’ll (randomly) choose one of my awesome subscribers to receive the book for free. Don’t mind paying? You also can find it on Amazon here. Great for ages 3 to 9.


A Political Side Note: Relax, Democrats, It’s Just ‘God’

Have y’all been following the buzz over the decision to drop the word “God” from the Democratic Party’s 2012 platform? The drop caused a minor uproar a the convention this week, mostly among non-Democrats, who also objected to the platform’s failure to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Both positions were reversed yesterday by a much-disputed two-thirds vote by convention delegates. Watch how things went down:

DNC officials have tried to pass off the God thing as a mistake more than a decision, but that’s hard to buy — especially when you see this Fox News interview with Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, who went defensive in the extreme when asked about the change. He kept saying the word change was a minor issue and distracting from the real issues. That may be true, but I still don’t understand why he didn’t just answer the damn question.

Durbin was right about one thing, though: The Democrats are far from being a godless party. In a survey conducted last year, not one single member of the 112th Congress of the United States self-identified as nonreligious (at least not publicly). And the majority of registered Democrats still believe in God, studies show.

Despite all this, though, secularism is clearly gaining a foothold in this country. Almost 20 percent of us are unaffiliated with religious groups, according to recent studies. And that ratio — one-fifth of all Americans! — is impossible to ignore. So would it be out of character for the Democratic party, which touts itself as valuing inclusivity, to leave religion out of its platform? After all, leaving the word “God” out of this one document doesn’t make religion less important or valuable to certain Democratic voters — just as leaving the word “fellatio” out of the document doesn’t make sex any less important or valuable to certain Democratic voters. As I see it, it wouldn’t be outrageous for DNC officials to simply acknowledge that these things are personal matters, not public requirements.

Is that a starkly different position than the Republican party? Well, yes! But that’s okay. The fact is, lots of evangelical/fundamentalist Christians have welded together their religion and politics (politigion? religitics?), and the Republican party happens to be home to most of them. The way I see it, the presence of God as a major player in the Republican platform doesn’t make the Republicans bad, or the evangelicals bad (not necessarily at least!). Leaving “God” out of the Democratic platform would simply have highlighted one of the many, many differences between the two parties.

In July, Pew Research for People and the Press conducted a survey that showed, at that time, Gov. Mitt Romney trailing President Barack Obama by a 10-point margin. Broken down by religion, though, the numbers were quite different. Protestants preferred Romney 48 percent to 45 percent; Catholics preferred Obama 53 percent to 40 percent. And those unaffiliated with any religion preferred Obama 65 percent to 27 percent.

The interesting thing about that last number is that it mirrors, in reverse, the poll results for Caucasian evangelical protestants. Among these evangelicals, 69 percent said they’d vote for Romney, and 27 percent said they’d vote for Obama. Guess it all balances out in the end, right?

I learned from this morning’s paper (yes, I still get some of my news from the paper) that “God” was reinserted into the platform, and I was disappointed — but not because of the reinsertion (The whole issue really was becoming an unnecessary distraction). No, I was far more disappointed that DNC officials never took the time to formulate a clear-headed answer to why it was left out in the first place.

Blog Turns One Year Old

It’s a little awkward to tell you guys this, but it’s sort of my birthday.

It’s okay, don’t worry about it. You didn’t have it on your calendar, and you’re really bad about this sort of stuff anyway. And, yes, you’re right, I should have mentioned it sooner.

Anyway, as of four days ago, my blog is one year old. Happy Birthday, blog!

It’s strange how fast the year has gone by. There was a time when I was convinced I had three, maybe four, blogs in me max. I was terrified of not having anything to write, of running out of steam, of losing interest. But those fears never did get traction. I’ve learned so much from this crazy journey — and I’m grateful to every single one of you who is reading and who has given me feedback during the last year.

I’m not proud of every blog I’ve written here. There are some things I’ve gotten wrong — one of my posts I removed entirely after only a day — but, as learning curves go, this one has been gentle and kind to me. And so have all of you. I know I don’t meet eye-to-eye with all of you, but everyone has shown a lot of respect for my work here and I couldn’t ask for better. The most unexpected thing is that the people who seem to take issue with my positions are mostly hardcore atheists — not super-religious people. (Although, to be fair, I’m sure that’s only because the super-religious haven’t found me yet.)

Frankly, I’m good with criticism from both sides. I’m all about balance — or aim to be, anyway. And I hope that comes across in my writing.

As for the book (because some of you have asked), it’s coming along. Not coming along with an exclamation point (coming along!) but coming along with a jaw-tightening period. The thing about having a blog and a book going at the same time is that the entire process gets slowed considerably. The blog not only takes much more time and attention than one might think, but it demands that I look at the material a different way, take the time to revisit things again and again, and adapt my manuscript to what I see is needed. The book that will be finished will be the same book I set out to write — but better. Much, much better.

As for a finish date, I’m looking at December. (!) In the meantime, I hope to find the right home for the manuscript. When I do, you will be the first to know.

Thanks for a great year, everyone.

P.S. Your presence is your present, but if you wanted to really make my day, you can subscribe by clicking here.

Creationism vs. Evolution: Bill Nye Gets Folks Talking

Several months ago, my husband and I took our daughter to the Museum of Natural History in Los Angeles to see its new Dinosaur Hall. The trip didn’t disappoint. Not only was the dinosaur exhibit mind-bogglingly cool, right next door was an exhibit called the Age of Mammals, which led us through 65 million years of continental movement, climate change and mammal evolution. One of the neatest things, to me, was the row of skulls documenting the changes in human face and brain size over the last 2.5 million years.

Taken as a whole, the museum was one big, stunning homage to evolution. And, later, when talking about the experience, my husband said: “I felt like I’d found a church.”

Last week, Bill Nye (of Science Guy fame) made headlines when his youtube video, titled “Creationism is Not Appropriate for Children,” went viral. Recorded for bigthink.com, Nye urged parents to teach their children evolution — even if they, themselves, believed in the literal translation of the Bible’s Gensis. Here’s the video:

Since then, many have thanked Nye for using his unique position to educate parents on the need for science-oriented young people. Others have erupted in anger and called his video an attack on religion. Still others have found both good and bad things to say.

Valerie Strauss, who writes The Answer Sheet for the Washington Post, for example, applauded Nye’s message, but added:

“Unfortunately, Nye muddies his video by saying that one reason people shouldn’t force their kids to believe in creationism is that ‘we need engineers that can build stuff, solve problems.’ Why couldn’t a creationist be an engineer?”

She’s certainly right about that.

Responding to his critics, Nye appeared on CBS a couple of days ago.

“I’m not attacking anyone’s religion,” Nye said. “But if you go to a museum, and you see fossil dinosaur bones, they came from somewhere. And we, by diligent investigation, have determined that the earth is 4.54 billion years old, and the sun is a star like all the other stars you see in the sky, and we are made of the same stuff. This is wonderful. [These are] fantastic discoveries that fill me with reverence.”

Here’s the full interview:

Promoting evolution — or even attacking creationism — is not the same thing as attacking religion. Creationism does not equal religion, and religion does not equal creationism. Plenty of people — more and more every day — reject the literal truth of Genesis, and even those who don’t may still be open to discussing all possibililties. There are even some Americans who believe, somehow, both theories are true. “The Lord works in mysterious ways” and all that.

I don’t think it’s realistic to think that parents who believe in creationism will teach their kids anything but creationism. But maybe they will at least leave the door cracked open to other possibilities. And even if they don’t, I’m glad Nye said his piece.

At least it has gotten people talking.