Nothing Not Cool About ‘Day of the Dead’

Looking at all the Halloween decorations in our neighborhood yesterday, my daughter points to the 1,657th fake gravestone with “R.I.P.” etched on the front and asks, “Why do people do that?” “Because,” I say, “it’s scaaaary.” “It’s not scary,” she says. “It’s sad. People die, and it’s sad.” I laughed at her insight, but now that I’ve been researching the “Day of the Dead” (which begins today! Happy Day of the Dead!), I realize I missed an opportunity for what could have been a pretty fascinating talk about death. In other words, I blew it. Not the first time. Death is one of those subjects that can trigger a million emotions. Sadness is one, but so is fear, anxiety, guilt, excitement, love and even laughter. I know laughter seems out of place — my daughter would give me one of those “Mom, that’s crazy talk” looks if she were here — but it’s true. And we need look no further than the Mexican Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) to see that. Although based on a rather serious idea, honoring our dead loved ones, the Day of the Dead has been infused with sheer, unadulterated fun for thousands of years. Gifts for the dead? Yes! Candy skulls, face paint and costumes? Check. Parties and dancing? Most definitely. That’s not to say the meaning is lost. Not at all. The Day of the Dead is still a time to think about lost loved ones; wash and decorate grave sites; build shrines to the dearly departed. Often, the shrines include things that the dead people loved or enjoyed during their lives — which is probably why tequila gets poured on top of so many gravestones. This is all kind of genius when you think about it. It gives us a chance to pay homage to people’s lives, rather than focus on their deaths. It associates death with positive memories, not tears. It encourages us to stay connected to the dead in ways that make us feel good, not bad. It’s all incredibly healthy-sounding, isn’t it?

Of course, all this — as well as Halloween — now carry religious connotations, as they are celebrated in conjunction with All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day (Nov. 1 and 2).

Halloween is literally translated as “All Hallow’s Eve” or “All Saint’s Eve,” which refers to All Saint’s Day (which is today! Happy All Saint’s Day!). This is a mostly Catholic holiday honoring all dead saints, as opposed to all the days scattered throughout the year that celebrate individual saints (St. Patrick, St. Valentine, etc). All Soul’s Day is tomorrow (Happy All Soul’s Eve! Okay, now this is getting ridiculous…) and celebrates all non-sainted but faithful Christians.

As for how the Day of the Dead became a religious holiday, the Arizona Republic offers the brief but fascinating back story here.

More than 500 years ago, when the Spanish Conquistadors landed in what is now Mexico, they encountered natives practicing a ritual that seemed to mock death. It was a ritual the indigenous people had been practicing at least 3,000 years. A ritual the Spaniards would try unsuccessfully to eradicate. A ritual known today as Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. Although the ritual has since been merged with Catholic theology, it still maintains the basic principles of the Aztec ritual, such as the use of skulls… The skulls were used to symbolize death and rebirth. The skulls were used to honor the dead, whom the Aztecs and other Meso-American civilizations believed came back to visit during the monthlong ritual. Unlike the Spaniards, who viewed death as the end of life, the natives viewed it as the continuation of life. Instead of fearing death, they embraced it. To them, life was a dream and only in death did they become truly awake. “The pre-Hispanic people honored duality as being dynamic,” said Christina Gonzalez, senior lecturer on Hispanic issues at Arizona State University. “They didn’t separate death from pain, wealth from poverty like they did in Western cultures.” However, the Spaniards considered the ritual to be sacrilegious. They perceived the indigenous people to be barbaric and pagan. In their attempts to convert them to Catholicism, the Spaniards tried to kill the ritual. But like the old Aztec spirits, the ritual refused to die. To make the ritual more Christian, the Spaniards moved it so it coincided with All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day (Nov. 1 and 2), which is when it is celebrated today.

Religious or not, I would love love love it if people would include me in their Day of the Dead rituals after I die. Just for the record, though, I prefer scotch over tequila. P.S. Thanks to my photographer-friend Veronica Jauriqui for her amazing photos from a 2010 Day of the Dead celebration in Los Angeles. This post originally appeared on Nov. 1, 2012.

Newsflash: Most Atheists Don’t Want Their Kids to be Dicks

realkidOkay, guys. We’re going to visit indoctrination one… last… time. My previous posts about talking with kids about religion from a relatively neutral perspective so they are capable of making up their own minds about what to believe is still getting some of my fellow bloggers here at Patheos bent out of shape. The most recent: Daniel Fincke of  Camels with Hammers, who has spent most of the week slamming me for my views. But another is Khaveh Mousavi of On the Margin of Error who has written about the subject both here and here.

First, let’s start with the points on which we all seem to agree:

1. Science is true. Telling children what we know to be true from science is important.

2. Children should learn about religion (if for no other reason than its cultural value).

3. We all want to raise critical thinkers — kids who can analyze a situation for themselves, who have strong bullshit detectors, and who question authority.

4. We all share a similar worldview: That is, we do not personally believe in God, heaven, hell, miracles, prophets or supernatural events.

5. We all think it’s important to share our own worldviews with our children.

What we disagree on is whether atheists are right to indoctrinate their children into atheism (that is, leave them no real choice but to disbelieve), and whether religion should be dismissed as fairytales/nonsense/boogieman stuff when talking to our kids.

I am clearly in the “No” camp on both these points. And I’m not alone. The vast majority of the nonreligious parents I’ve interviewed or surveyed agree with me on this one. Here’s why:

1. We want our kids to make up their own minds. As Dale McGowan, of The Secular Spectrum eloquently stated in a post Wednesday, raising freethinkers means letting kids explore reality for themselves and come up with a belief system that makes sense to them. When you tell kids that God is a myth, and a pretty dumb one at that, you aren’t letting kids reach their own conclusions. And you are shutting the door on a perfect opportunity to hone their critical thinking skills. [Read more...]

Religious Picture Books Have Much to Offer Secular Families — But Choose Wisely

I’m assuming most of you atheists didn’t read your kid a religious bedtime story last night. But it might be time to start.

In terms of introducing young kids to certain culturally important religious concepts or stories, or familiarizing them with the fact that people all over the world believe different things (and that none of those things have any more or less validity than the ones practiced by their friends and family members), you can do no better than picture books.

But how do you choose?

As you can imagine, kids’ religious titles run the gamut. Many focus on religious holidays — Rosh Hashanah, Diwali, Christmas, Eid. Others contain more over-arching material — stories about Buddha or Muhammad or the parables of Jesus. Some are meant to “educate” and are much too comprehensive, dated or dry for most little ones to enjoy; others are beautifully illustrated and clearly written with children’s interests in mind. And because a good number are written for religious children, not all of them are a good match for secular families. The worst of the bunch are indoctrination materials, which — in my opinion at least — pose far more questions than answers. But the best can be quite good. They offer fun stories, interesting settings and clever text — and they do it so well that they don’t feel like “learning experiences” — even though that’s exactly what they are.

Of course, it’s sometimes hard to tell the good from the bad and the bad from the ugly. So I here are some tips for choosing titles that won’t confuse your child, offend you, or bore either of you to tears. [Read more...]

5 Reasons Not To Indoctrinate Kids Against Religion

My post last week on speaking about religion with kids in neutral terms has definitely ruffled some feathers. The comment thread features some folks who believe quite strongly that religion should be treated like the enemy — and that atheist parents are misleading their kids by speaking objectively about the subject. Interestingly (or maybe not), it’s a perspective I encounter far more often in people who have not yet had children. In a post today by fellow Patheos blogger Kaveh Mousav (the pseudonym used by an ex-Muslim atheist living in Iran — brave chap!), Kaveh argues that he plans to teach his children (when he has them) that religion is nonsense, period. And others have chimed in that indoctrinating kids into atheism is A-Okay as long as it doesn’t involve abuse.

Now, there’s no doubt that there are some striking differences between religious and non-religious indoctrination. With non-religious indoctrination, kids are never threatened with hell, for instance, or made to worry that an all-powerful being is judging their every move. (Thank God for that.) But there are plenty of negative consequences nonetheless. More and more, for example, as atheism goes mainstream, we run the risk of creating a generation of anti-religious zealots — children who grow up with no understanding of why anyone would hang on to religious beliefs, no empathy for those who do, and no ability to explore those beliefs for themselves.

For the purposes of my book, Relax, It’s Just God, which comes out in February (yes, you just witnessed shameless self-promotion), I define indoctrination as the halfway mark between simple suggestion and full-on brainwashing. You can be reasonably sure you are indoctrinating your kids if you teach them: [Read more...]

Is It Possible to Be ‘Neutral’ When Talking About Religion?

Female JournalistLast week I suggested that the world would be better off if more people presented religion to children not from a standpoint of indoctrination, but from a standpoint of education — that is, in a relatively neutral way. The post prompted a skeptical commenter to question whether this was possible. He said:

How do you ensure that your representation of the different religions out there is “neutral”? Given your atheism, how do you make sure you’re representing other faiths accurately?

This is an important question, and I’m glad he asked it.

For 15 years, I was a reporter for various newspapers. Most of that time was spent covering criminal courts: arraignments, preliminary hearings, trials, sentencings, you name it. I covered hundreds of them. So many that by the end of my career, I was on a first-name basis with most of the prosecutors, public defenders and judges in my local courthouse. Did I have opinions about these individuals? Yes. Did I have opinions about their cases? Yes. Did I ALWAYS believe, by the end of each case, that I knew whether a defendant was guilty or innocent? Oh, yeah.

But did my own personal opinions prevent me from writing about each of these cases in a fair, balanced and accurate way? Absolutely not. Presenting a balanced story so that people can make up their own minds about the truth is what good reporters do, and, frankly, it’s not that hard.

Listen, there is a difference between unbiased thinking and unbiased reporting. It would be silly to suggest that news reporters don’t make judgments about their subjects on a regular basis. It would also be silly to suggest that only mindless robots could deliver fair and accurate reporting.

When I suggest approaching religion from a relatively neutral standpoint, I am suggesting that you put your own opinions to the side and present religion in the most fair, balanced and accurate way you can. Here are some tips for how to do that.

1. Keep your opinion out of it. You would be surprised by how much can be gained from removing judgmental language from your argument. For example, when you find yourself wanting to say, “Some people believe the world began 6,000 years ago, and those people are fucking idiots,” you might rephrase that to say, “Some people believe the world began 6,000 year ago.” See? Easy. [Read more...]

And the Religious Literacy Award Goes to… Design Your Own Deity Magnet Set!

FridgeWe all know that religious literacy has the potential to be a total bore. Some of you know this from personal experience. Some of your kids know it, too. Hell, even the Internet knows it.

Not long ago, I Googled “Making religion Fun.” Nine out of the ten sites that popped up were about “making fun of religion.” Society is on a kick right now, and a lot of non-believers are counteracting religious indoctrination by making light of theology as often, and as publicly, as possible. But for parents who want their kids to be religiously literate, that approach is incredibly short-sighted.

Take Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, for example. If you’re too busy explaining to your child that Adam and Eve weren’t really the first people and that those who believe such things are clinically insane,  you’re probably not telling the Adam and Eve story very well. And that’s a shame! Because it’s a really great story, as well as being a vital  addition to our kids’ cultural knowledge.

It’s funny because, once upon a time, I found myself annoyed at the sheer number of religious references, imagery and collateral in the world around me. It seemed almost creepy. As a parent, though, I use all these things to my advantage. Whenever I see a Mormon on a bike or a candle bearing the likeness of the Virgin Mary or a Buddha statue in Target’s garden section, I treat them like a micro-learning experiences. A quick mention is usually all that’s required. “Look, there’s Buddha. He’s meditating.”

Longtime readers of this blog know that I’m also on the lookout for other fun ways to make religious literacy a little less painful. There was the time I made an All-Religious Charm Bracelet for my daughter, or the time I marveled at the thought of an entire line of Religious Barbies, or the time I created a two-part Shopping Guide filled with quality stuff that could help introduce kids to various philosophies and world religions without making you feel icky. [Read more...]

5 Ways to Help Kids Embrace Their Religious Differences

The following is a guest post by the fabulous Homa S. Tavangar, the author of Growing Up Global: Raising Children to Be At Home in the World, and appears in anticipation of the Birth of the Báb (Oct. 20), one of the 10 High Holy Days in the Bahá’í faith.

1bcd51c88da0b42dafc43210.L._V192256425_SX200_A few years ago, when my daughter mentioned that she’d be missing school for a day because of a Baha’i holiday, the boy sitting next to her asserted in horror, for the whole class to hear: “That’s not a thing. You’re making that up!”

At that moment my already reserved girl shrunk further in her chair, regretted her openness and wished she had just told her teacher she didn’t feel well to excuse the absence and avoid talking about her lesser-known faith with her classmates.

Growing up in America’s heartland I experienced similar episodes many times in my childhood, too, where I’d rather stay silent or disappear than talk about the Birth of the Báb or the Declaration of Baha’u’llah. And my three daughters have had to build a thicker skin to carry around their different-ness, too. So I felt a familiar pang in my heart when my daughter told me of being “SO embarrassed,” fighting my desire to simply report her absence as a sick day.

As I overcame my conformist impulse, I mentally pulled together some of the strategies I’ve used at home and in my work advising others about culture, diversity and inclusion. During my travels to talk to parents, educators and executives about issues connected to global citizenship, I’ve found that everyone, EVERYONE, even those who seem “mainstream” on the surface, have felt that pang of different-ness. Keeping this in mind helps us start from a position of empathy rather than defensiveness, while demographics and global awareness continue to radically shift during our lifetimes — and we all feel “different” at some point. So, whether your family is agnostic, atheist, Adventist, Bahá’í, Buddhist, Catholic, Charismatic, Muslim, Mormon or mixed, here are a few ways we’ve stood a little taller, owned our different-ness, and been able to laugh through ignorance, parochialism, or well-intended — but painfully awkward — comments. [Read more...]

You Know What This World Needs? More Godless Godparents!

Erik and his Godless Godmother, 2006.

Erik and his Godless Godmother, 2006.

Godparenting is kind of an archaic concept.

In the olden days, godparents were appointed to provide children moral guidance by way of spiritual instruction. But over the centuries, the custom has become increasingly secular in nature — in part because religion is not a prerequisite to morality and in part because modern godparents tend to be chosen based on personality and character, not the vastness of their religious knowledge or their dedication to Jesus Christ.

Case in point: Me.

Eight years ago, I was asked to be the godparent of my best friends’s firstborn son, Erik. Fortunately, my friend is Swedish (read: completely non-religious) and the position was one of a general mentor, rather than a religious guidance counselor. I flew to Sweden, and we all planted a tree together. Now, I send Erik gifts on special occasions, and he calls me his Godless Godmother. You know, the standard fare.

HOWEVER: Since I began writing about religion four years ago, I’ve become (as you well know by now) pretty committed to giving my own daughter a broad overview of various religions (including how they developed and why they exist). I do this not only so she will be in a position to choose a worldview that is right for her, but also so that she will learn the value of wisdom, freethinking and tolerance. [Read more...]

In 1492, Columbus Did Things One Ought Not Do

Columbus Day: the day we proud Americans get to celebrate murder, mayhem, torture, slavery, thievery, child rape and mass genocide by crafting adorable ships out of paper and glue and reading charming little picture books and learning rhymes about how Christopher Columbus discovered this land for you and me! (Thanks, Pinterest, for all the fantastic indoctrination ideas!)


Columbus book

Columbus previw

It’s all so very disturbing. [Read more...]

Don’t Just Talk About Religious Literacy — Try It On

It’s Day Ten of Religious Literacy Month here at Natural Wonderers, and today we get to hear from secular parent extraordinaire Dale McGowan, co-author of Raising Freethinkers: A Practical Guide for Parenting Beyond Belief and the managing editor of the Patheos Atheist Channel.


cross necklaceMy daughter Erin was 10 years old when she approached me just before school one day.

“Daddy,” she said, “I want to wear something to school tomorrow, but it makes me feel weird to wear it. I don’t know if I should.”

I can’t say I was surprised that she would be  puzzling over the morality of her clothing choices. She wouldn’t have been the first girl to ponder the implications of spaghetti straps or a too-short skirt. But this time, there was a twist.

“What are you thinking about wearing?” I asked.

She slowly revealed a pendant necklace, with a cross of pink plastic beads dangling at the end of it. She had bought the necklace for a dollar on vacation a previous summer.

“Why does it make you feel weird?” I asked, though I assumed she was feeling out the reaction of her secular dad. To be sure, there was a time when I would have frozen like a moose in the headlights at such a question. But this wasn’t some church-state issue. This was about letting my child explore the world for herself. It wasn’t about my views; it was about her ability to guide the development of her own views.

“I feel weird wearing it when I don’t really believe in God — like I’m not being honest,” she said. “But I just like to wear it.” [Read more...]