Earth Day ‘A Waste of Time,’ Says Freethinking Third-Grader

I volunteer in my daughter’s third-grade classroom every Thursday morning, and it’s always one of the highlights of my week. I like watching my kid — all the kids, honestly — interact with the teacher. I like listening to their chitter-chatter. And I like being reminded of how children are quick to laugh at pretty much anything remotely humorous (even, frankly, when it’s totally not that funny).

Anyhow, I was sitting there grading some papers yesterday when I came across something worth sharing.

The assignment was about Earth Day, and each child had to draw a picture of what the world might look like if Earth Day hadn’t been invented. It was effective, and 23 of the 24 children had the same general prediction: The Earth would be way dirtier. The drawings, then, were of trash piling up and of people getting sick and of fish dying in the polluted water — that sort of thing.

EarthDayAssignmentExcept one.

The 24th child went is another direction entirely, filling up the little globe with close to 200 little stick figures (which looked remarkably like gravestone markers.)

“Until we control Earth’s population,” the child wrote below the drawing, “Earth Day is a waste of time.” [Read more...]

‘Mommy, What’s Religion?’

Maxine's idea for the cover of my book. Being able to write "religen" is not the same as knowing what it means.

Maxine’s idea for the cover of my book. Being able to write “religen” is not the same as knowing what it means.

I was telling my 9-year-old daughter, Maxine, about a series I was doing for this blog — “Mommy, What’s That?” — which sets out to give super-simple, age-appropriate ways to explain not-so-simple religious concepts to young children.

“So far,” I told her, “I’ve done ‘Mommy, What’s Satan?‘ and  ‘Mommy, What’s an Angel?’ — stuff like that.”

Then I told her I wanted to write some more. “What do you think I should I do next?” I asked. “Are there any religious words that you don’t really understand?”

She thought for a minute and then, a bit sheepishly, replied: “Mommy, What’s Religion?”

“Oh, that’s a good one,” I said. “I haven’t done that one yet.”

At which point her whole body seemed to relax and she came up with a few more to throw on the pile: Jewish, Muslim and Catholic.

Judging from the way she said religion, though, I’m pretty certain she was expecting a different reaction from me. Something like:  Seriously, Maxine? You don’t know what religion is? But you use it in sentences all the time!

I admit something like that did cross my mind.

But that’s the thing about childhood, isn’t it? There are so many new words floating around. Asking adults to define all the words kids hear but don’t know would take all damn day. So kids make do with their limited understanding; they piece together meaning from context, or they assume it’s not important. Only occasionally do they actually ask for definitions. [Read more...]

So THIS is Why 13-Year-Old Boys Read the Bible

k2-_73285ab8-8cfb-4acd-9a05-ab89fda83a71.v1My friend’s 13-year-old boy has been reading the The Brick Bible by Elbe Spurling (formerly Brendan Powell Smith). The Brick Bible is a collection of Old Testament stories illustrated entirely with LEGOs, and Spurling is a goddamn genius at breaking down the Bible into a  graphic novel of sorts. The whole thing is highly accessible (using more modern language), completely accurate (nothing is exaggerated) and funny as hell (because LEGO people, that’s why.)

My friend is not religious, so this is her son’s first real exposure to Biblical stories, concepts and teachings. (Not a bad way to go for a 13-year-old boy!)

Anyway, this weekend, I was at a baby shower alongside this friend, and she told me that her son had recently, rather out of the blue, used “prostitution” in a sentence. My friend had been a bit taken aback, never having had that particular talk with him.

“Do you know what prostitution is?” she asked.

“Yes,” he said.

“Really? What is it?” she asked.

“It’s when you pay a woman and stuff happens,” he said.

“Stuff?” she asked. “Like she washes the dishes for you?” [Read more...]

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

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

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

Field of Sheep

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

Jack: No.

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

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

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

Jack: Yeah.

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

6 Reason Secular Parents Shouldn’t Wait Until Kids are ‘Older’ to Discuss Religion

DSC_1395-2How we talk to our kids about religion is an evolving skill.

It used to be that parents just passed onto their kids what they themselves were taught as children. But as more and more Americans move away from religion — 7.5 million of us in the last two years alone — many are having a tough time broaching the topic with the little ones.

We don’t want to indoctrinate our kids, but we don’t want anyone else to indoctrinate them, either. Too often, parents handle the challenge by saying nothing at all. They simply ignore religion, treating it as something to talk about “later” when kids get “older.”

That’s not necessary – or helpful.

Here’s why:

1. Kids aren’t idiots.

Little kids can handle a lot more than we think they can. At 5, for instance, my daughter was able to easily grasp the differences between fact, fiction and belief. She understood that “belief” was something some people believed to be “fact” and that others believed to be “fiction.” And she wasn’t the least bit unusual in that. Sometimes parents underestimate their kids’ intelligence as a subconscious excuse to get out of uncomfortable situations.

2. They can hear you.

Yep, that’s right. In addition to having brains, children also have ears. You may not talk about religion directly to your young kids, but it doesn’t mean they aren’t hearing what you think. You make occasional comments. You watch TV shows and movies (or have books in your bookshelf) that reference religion in certain ways. You offer up your opinions in the company of friends. Make no mistake: You are sending messages about religion, whether you intend to or not.

 3. Religious tolerance is a learned behavior.

Building understanding and compassion between groups of people who oppose each other’s ideology isn’t just some feel-good idea. It’s essential to creating a better, more peaceful, less divisive future. But if kids don’t learn about religious diversity, we can’t lay a foundation for religious tolerance. We wouldn’t ignore the fact that people are different races or ethnicities. Or that people come from different socio-economic backgrounds? Or that people have different political perspectives? So why ignore religion? No matter what someone looks like, where they come from, how much money they have, who they vote for, or what god they worship (or don’t), they are people. And people deserve compassion. The earlier we drill that into our children, the more time they have to live that message – and spread it around. [Read more...]

12 Best Philosophical Picture Books for Kids — And How to Get the Most Out of Them

StellalunaAs a secular parent, I am constantly searching for books meant to get my child thinking more deeply about morality, ethics  and the nature of the universe. Written stories are so powerful in getting children — heck, all of us — to think more deeply about what is important in life and how we can be better human beings. That’s why the Bible and so many other religious texts are so compelling; Jesus’ parables alone have laid the foundation for the moral compass of millions of people on this planet.

But Biblical literature is the tip of the iceberg, as far as I’m concerned. And, although it may come across as blasphemous, some of what you find in the New Testament pales in comparison to the philosophical lessons that can be culled from secular literature these days, if only we take the time to see it.

That’s why I reached out to Jana Mohr Lone, founder and director of the University of Washington’s Center for Philosophy for Children, to share her favorite children’s books. Lone has an incredibly cool blog (where I’ve spent many hours of my life) and is expert at pointing out exactly why certain books are so good for kids — and how to get the most out of them. Such a gift to us busy, working parents!

I cannot tell you how excited I am to publish this list. Thank you, Jana.


Jana Mohr LoneGuest Post
By Jana Mohr Lone

Picture books often raise essential questions about topics like fairness and justice, art and beauty, ethics, life and death and the nature of reality, social and political issues, and the nature of knowledge. Clearly children’s authors know that children are philosophically capable!

Although we think of picture books as being for young children, I have found that picture books also inspire li
vely philosophical exchanges with older K-12 students as well as college undergraduates. Listening to stories being read aloud, an experience many of us had when we were children, is conducive to creating an open and relaxed atmosphere for thinking about deep and fundamental questions.

Here are 12 of my favorites in no particular order. After reading one of these books with your children, try asking them, “What are you wondering about after hearing this story? What questions did this make you think about?”

1. Frog and Toad Together
by Arnold Lobel

All five stories Frog and Toadin this book are philosophically interesting, as is true of all of Arnold’s Lobel’s work. These stories, through the amusing adventures of the likable friends Frog and Toad, raise questions about the meaning of bravery, where dreams come from, the nature of willpower, cause and effect, and more.


2. The Big Orange Splot by Daniel Manus Pinkwater

The_Big_Orange_SplotMr. Plumbean lives on a street where the houses are all painted exactly the same. He and his neighbors all like this, characterizing their street as a “neat street.” One day, a seagull drops a can of bright orange paint on Mr. Plumbean’s house, leaving a big orange splot on the house. This leads to Mr. Plumbean deciding to repaint his house in a rainbow of colors, and story describes the resulting effects on the neighborhood. The story inspires conversations about conformity and independence and our obligations to our communities. Was Mr. Plumbean was right to paint his house in a way different from his neighbors, when part of the community agreement was that they would keep their houses looking the same? Does Mr. Plumbean have the right to have his house look the way he wants it to look, even if it offends his neighbors?


3. Frederick by Leo Lionni

frederickA family of five field mice is gathering food for the winter and everyone is working hard to bring in as much food as they can, except Frederick. Frederick seems to spend his time staring at the meadow and half-asleep, dreaming. When the other mice ask him what he is doing, Frederick replies that he is gathering sun rays, colors and words. Once winter sets in, the five mice hide away in an old stone wall, and as time goes on there is less food and more cold. Then they remember Frederick’s fall activities and ask him about his supplies. Frederick proceeds to describe the rays of the sun and colors, and begins reciting poetry.

The family realizes that he is a poet. The story beautifully raises questions about what constitutes work and whether some forms of work are more important than others, whether Frederick was pulling his weight in the family, and what responsibilities family members have to each other.

4. Harold and the Purple Crayon
by Crockett Johnson

HaroldHarold decides, “after thinking it over for some time,” to take a walk in the moonlight. No moon is out, so Harold takes his purple crayon and draws one, and then he draws something to walk on. Harold goes on to draw a forest in which he wanders, a dragon that ends up frightening him, an ocean in which he almost drowns and a boat which saves him, a beach, a lunch to eat, and so on. The story inspires conversations about what it means to pretend and why we do so, whether what Harold draws is real and how it can scare him, and whether we can create our own realities. [Read more...]

4 Reasons I’m Glad I Came Out as an Atheist

I wrote this for AlterNet, but it also ran in Salon (tweeted out under a ridiculously inaccurate headline) and is slated to run in the next issue of the Freedom from Religion Foundation’s newspaper, Freethought Today

Jim Morrison Coming out of any proverbial closet can be hard. For those of us who have hidden part of our identities from people we know and love, finally revealing that thing can be daunting. Fear and anxiety, no matter how ungrounded, have a way of clutching our hearts.

When I decided four years ago to write a book aimed at secular parents, I knew that it would require that I disclose my atheism to my friends and family. My own parents were comfortably secular themselves, which no doubt made the task a whole lot easier. But I had plenty of other loved ones who felt strongly about their faith and would surely be offended or uncomfortable with my stance — not to mention worried about my daughter’s eternal soul. So I definitely felt that sense of coming out of a closet.

I took a few days to send a bunch of e-mails and make a few phone calls. And while no one disowned me in the process, the revelation did hurt some people I love, at least a little. And that made it hard.

But now, four years later, I can candidly say that, for me personally, being “out” has been one of the most surprisingly gratifying choices I’ve ever made. Here’s why.

1. It turns out I really enjoy shattering people’s assumptions. I don’t fit the media’s stereotype of a non-believer — who does, right? — so it’s nice to be able to spread the “good word” that atheists, agnostics and other “nones” are just as likely as the next guy to be engaging people, good parents and involved community members. I particularly enjoy slipping my atheism into conversation with religious people who already know and like me; it forces them to confront any stereotypes they might have. Always a good thing.

2. I like religious people more now. When I was closeted, it was way too easy to sit back and become preemptively resentful. I sometimes felt a little pissed that others were “free” to share their views while I had to keep mine to myself. I assumed, as many do, that people’s reactions would be negative if I were to inject my views into these conversations. But once I was out — and because I only brought up my atheism in truly neutral ways, not as a point of conflict — the reactions from religious people have been overwhelming positive. Some quietly disapprove, sure. But, in my experience, religious people have been, outwardly, very lovely about my lack of belief. (As lovely, incidentally, as I am about their belief.) They don’t insult me or shy away from me. They don’t avoid the subject (well, some do, and that’s okay!) or make snide comments. They don’t try to change me. And with every positive experience I have, I am more open and less judgmental of “religious people” myself.  I find that the more open I am about myself, the better I feel about the people around me. [Read more...]

Religion Lost 7.5 Million Americans in Two Years—But Why?

Abandoned Pews 1Sometimes it seems like America is hemorrhaging religion.

According to the 2014 General Social Survey, 7.5 million adults—about 3 percent of all adults in this country—severed religious ties between 2012 and 2014. Think of that. In 2012, these folks checked a box identifying their religious identity as “Protestant,” “Catholic,”  “Jewish,” “Muslim,” — or some other religious group. Then, just two years later, they marked: “no religion.”

So what gives? Why the sudden switch?

The short answer is that no one knows for sure why Americans are abandoning the pews. But, likely, it is a combination of factors. A perfect storm of religion-undermining elements.

Barry Kosmin, founding director of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture and author of the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), observes that religious convictions fluctuate on a societal level in direct relation to a perceived need for external comfort. It’s the reason “comfortable” people tend to be less religious than those whose lives are in chaos. Kosmin cited affluent Japan, where some 84 percent of the population claims no personal religion, versus impoverished Haiti, where the figure is 1 percent.

“The more your life is helpless,” he told me, “the more you look for external assistance.”

But the economy is not the only factor in religion’s losses. [Read more...]

A ‘Religious’ Book U.S. Kids Aren’t Reading — But Should

A little over a year ago I interviewed British philosopher and author Julian Baggini, who wrote a fantastic book for kids called Really, Really, Big Questions about God, Faith and Religion (2011, Kingfisher). While I found it at my public library, it’s not one you’re likely to run across in major book stores. While very well-received in Britain, the book has flown largely under the radar here in the United States. And that’s too bad for us — because it’s a great starting point for kids ready to explore religious issues.

Each section of the book seeks to answer a question that could easily come from a child. The questions include: What is religion? Can we criticize religion? Should we fear God? Why do people worship? What if there is no God? Does religion cause wars? Do I have a soul? and What should I believe?

Great questions, right?

Big Questions

The answers are equally compelling, mostly because Baggini — himself an atheist — writes from a perspective that is, as he puts it, “basically, genuinely open-minded.” The book differs from faith-based books of its ilk in two main ways. First, Baggini constantly urges children to make up their own minds about how to answer these questions and what to believe. And, second, he makes clear those who don’t believe in any religious notions live perfectly happy, fulfilling lives.

It’s that second point that makes this book so special — and so important. It’s also the reason that the British have embraced it more than Americans; the British are far more secularized as a nation than we are.

Really, Really Big Questions about God, Faith and Religion is part of a series and, therefore, was not conceived by Baggini, who has no children himself. Still, the straightforward tone and broad knowledge he brings to the project is perfect for kids.

One of the more interesting aspects of our conversations centered on the notion of interfaith dialogue. Although the idea that people of varying religious backgrounds can come together and cooperate with each other is a lovely and refreshing and progressive in many ways, “interfaith” repeatedly fails atheists and agnostics. Sometimes there is an illusion that we secularists are involved in these dialogues, but we’re not. Not really.

Julian Baggini“Multi-faith isn’t really open-minded,” Baggini says, “because the (central focus) is that we should be religious in some way.”

Make no mistake: Baggini’s book is not exclusively for nonreligious kids. It’s appropriate for all kids and all families. There is no bias against faith, just as there is no bias against non-faith. The book takes an approach of true compassion for all. And that, Baggini says, is because there is still so much mystery in the universe. Why paint a picture of “truth” when some truths cannot be known.

“Some of us are going to turn out to be wrong,” he says, “and some of us are going to turn out to be right.”

In the meantime, let’s be nice to each other.

While some parents stumble through those first conversations about religion, it’s the basic questions — Who is God? What is religion? — that may require the most attention. Baggini theorizes that Culture Wars could be tamped down considerably if  people would simply stop defining certain concepts so narrowly.  The term religion, for example, means so many different things to different people, he says. “Part of the reason atheist-vs.-religious debates aren’t very fruitful is because there is too narrow of a view about what religion is.”

In making it clear that these terms are wishy-washy at best, then we leave plenty of ideas open to interpretation by the children who are exploring them for the first time.

“You’re too young to settle on the view that you’ll have when you’re an adult,” Baggini says, “but that’s no reason not to start thinking about this.”

Baggini is the author of many books on philosophy, including The Pig that Wants to be Eaten: 100 Experiments for the Armchair Philosopher (2006) and is co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Philosophers’ Magazine. His new book, just out, is called The Shrink & The Sage: A Guide to Modern Dilemmas. You can follow him on Twitter at @microphilosophy.

Remembering Back to My Blogging Days… Last Week

I have started at least six blog posts in the last week and have published precisely none of them. Because my book. That’s why. Dumb book. Stupid book. Always-getting-in-the-way-of-other-stuff book. But, listen up: I  am really truly gonna try, very soon, to step up my game and put out some stuff that isn’t a) just a bunch of self-promotional bullshit, b) completely unrelated to secular parenting, or c) one big excuse for being lame. No, really. I am. Starting, like, tomorrow or something. Which I know is super helpful to you.

In the meantime, if you’re looking for something to read, look around Patheos! There are lots of people writing stuff worth reading. Like here — where Ryan Bell goes Head to Head with a Christian blogger over whether faith requires a “personal God.” Or here —where Epiphenom digs deeper into that Slate store about religious people taken more risks. Or here — where Dale McGowan shares his thoughts on the “reconciliation” of the Bible and evolution.  All these people? They’re blogging. Which is just what bloggers are supposed to do.

Oh! By the way, I have a book coming out. Did I mention that? Here’s what it looks like. It’s cute, right?FullSizeRender-2

You can totally buy it, too. Yep, it’s one of those sellable kinds. Nothing but the best for you guys.