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...]

“Mommy, What’s a Soul?”

Not long ago, I began a series called “Mommy, What’s That?” — which give secular parents quick and easy ways to describe complicated (or potentially disturbing!) religious concepts to young children. So far, we’ve covered angels, catechism, confession and everybody’s favorite dude, Satan. Today, we’ll cover souls. Because, really, what the fuck are those things anyway? A-Childs-Prayer-Dear-God-vinyl-wall-design

The Short Answer:

A soul refers to everything about you that’s not your actual body. Your body includes your eyes, ears, arms, legs, bones and heart. Your soul includes everything that you feel and think and remember. It’s the part of you that you can’t touch. [Read more...]

7 Reasons Bill Maher and Sam Harris May Be Hurting Their Own Cause

MaherHarris1-600x367If you’ve been avoiding social media lately you might not be aware of the HUGE debate going on right now regarding Islamophobia — what it is, what it’s not, and whether it’s a fair or valid label for anti-Islamic remarks.

The debate started with a clash between comedian Bill Maher, who stars on Real Time with Bill Maher, and religious scholar Reza Aslan, who wrote Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.

Now, it must be said that Maher is anti-Islam (and anti-religion!) in the same way that he’s pro-marijuana; that is, he doesn’t mince words, and he’s not afraid to shout his views from the rooftops. So after one of his many schpiels against the violence and civil rights violations inherent in Islamic politics, Aslan appeared on CNN, calling  Maher’s views on Islam “unsophisticated” and accusing him of painting all Muslim countries with a broad brush. That was followed up with an appearance by author and “New Atheist” Sam Harris on Maher’s show, where both men put on a united front against Islam and accused liberals of making matters worse by usiUnknown-1ng “Islamophobia” (which Harris called “a meme”) to silence anyone who tries to criticize Islamic extremism or other fucked-up cultural ideologies prevalent in some Muslim countries.

Taking the squabble to a whole new level of publicity, actor Ben Affleck, who is politically active and happened to be on Maher’s show with Harris, called shenanigans on the whole discussion. Among other things, Affleck said the comments were tantamount to ugly racism and that stereotyping Islam actively harms millions of Muslim families throughout the world who are just trying live their lives. [Read more...]

A Veritable Orgasm of Religious Holidays (Part I)

As I mentioned Wednesday, there are few better ways to introduce secular kids to a little theology than by using religious holidays as your guides. And there is no better month to start doing this than October. Because holy shit, people — this month has a lot of holidays. One might even call it a holiday orgasm! Well, you wouldn’t, probably. But that’s only because you’re not a boring blogger trying to bait people with sexy headlines. That, and you are just a better person in general.

Anyway, here’s a quick run-down on the first five of this month’s major religious holidays, along with one very simple thing you can do or say to make each holiday an educational experience for your kid.

Oct. 2-5: Hajj Day (Islam)
The Muslim’s annual pilgrimage to Mecca. (One of the Seven Pillars of Islam is to attend Hajj at least once in your life.) It’s pronounced “Hodge.” You can read what I’ve written about it here.

WHAT TO DO: Show your child a picture of the Kabaa, the box-like building in the middle of Mecca. Explain that Muslims pray toward the Kabaa five times a day and then, once a year, millions of them visit it in person. Then maybe show them the live feed streaming on youtube. It’s pretty cool.


Oct. 3-4: Yom Kippur (Judaism)
The “Day of Atonement” for the Jewish people. Hugely important. Pronounced “Yom Ki-POOR.” You can read my summary of Yom Kippur here.

WHAT TO DO: Tell your child that Yom Kippur is the most important holiday in the Jewish religion. Explain that it is a day that Jews drink no food or water and spend a lot of time thinking about all the things they have done wrong and could do better in the future. Tell them that the point of all this is to be forgiven by God. [Read more...]

Make Your Kid Religiously Illiterate in Five Easy Steps

All_Religious_IconsAmericans are famously bad at passing on knowledge about religion to their kids. Religious parents are bad at passing on religious knowledge outside their own faith groups; non-religious parents are bad at passing on anything at all.

As a result, relatively few of the nation’s children are in a position to truly understand those who believe differently than they do. And it means that they are more likely to be humiliated in public by their lack of basic knowledge.

And that’s just plain awesome.

Now you might assume that instilling a high level of religious illiteracy would be difficult. On the contrary! There are plenty of ways to ensure your kid has no interest whatsoever in spiritual beliefs. You could go out of your way to avoid any and all religious references in popular culture; you could be super-serious and somber about religion all the time; you could FREAK OUT every time Grandma sends your child a Bible or a Torah for Christmas. The list is endless.

But here are five of my personal favorite avenues to religious illiteracy.

1. Wait as long as possible to talk about religion with your kids. If you introduce religion when kids are young — ages five to eight, say — they are likely to be quite interested in what you have to say and to ask questions that will undoubtedly deepen their knowledge. Wait until they’re teenagers, and your discussions will be contrived and difficult. Plus, they already will have formed their opinions, which may very well be unfair, inaccurate or unkind. Exactly what every parent wants. [Read more...]

Religious Literacy Means Getting Kids Up Close & Personal

I always knew that I wanted my kid to know about religion.

Even though I’m completely nonreligious and not raising my daughter, Maxine, in a spiritual manner, I still want her to understand religion, to understand religious people, and to be intellectually prepared when she sees theological concepts pop up in the world around her.

Still, when I first pictured myself “showing” religion to Maxine, it was always, you know, from a distance. A safe distance. This may sound odd, but I used to picture religion as a country rodeo, and me and Maxine as these city slickers who would sort of sneak in through the back entrance, take our seats on the top level of the bleachers, and observe everything from afar. We’d munch on our secular hotdogs and look down on the rodeo ring (everyone in it looking quite tiny from where we sat), and then I’d explain what I could about what was happening down there. A lot of the rodeo events wouldn’t make sense to her. (We’d be limited by my own meager knowledge.) Nor would it be all that fun. (We would be so far removed from anything remotely interesting).

But it would be safe. And that was the thing. Maxine would see that religion existed, but feel no compulsion to join in.

Then I had what some might (ironically) call a “come-to-Jesus moment.” [Read more...]

Quick! What the Hell is Rosh Hashanah?

This post originally appeared in September 2011.

I’m one of those people who forgets stuff, especially stuff that’s the least bit complicated or unusual. I’m just challenged that way. To retain much of anything, I have to write it down — and, even then, there’s a shelf-life to my knowledge. I think that’s why I take such copious notes and then keep those notes for pretty much my entire life.

I still have my diary from when I was 12. And even though nothing remotely complicated or unusual is written there, I can report to you that I really, really, really hearted Billy when I was 12. I also hearted Jason when I was 12. And Joel. And Dustin. And then Billy again. And then Dustin again. I was such a whore.

Anyway, the point is I’m bad about remembering lots of things, and religious holidays are among them. As much as I want to remember what they represent, I never do. I keep having to ask over and over and over again. Are you like that? No? I hate you now. Please go away.

For the rest of you, Happy Rosh Hashanah! Because, apparently, it’s that time of year. Which brings me to this — the first installment of my Holiday Cheat Sheet for Nonreligious Parents, a series that will give parents the quick run-down on major religious holidays so that they might come across as intelligent beings to their kids. Also, and most importantly, religious holidays are a fantastic way to convey an openness about religion in your family while helping your kids become religiously literate.

Holiday: Rosh Hashanah

Pronounced: ROE-sha-SHA-na

Religion Represented: Judaism

Date: The 1st and 2nd of the month of Tishrei in the Hebrew calendar.

What It Is: The Jewish New Year

Not To Be Confused With: Yom Kippur, which occurs 10 days later.

How Important Is It?: I asked my friend and former editor Jason Gewirtz. Here’s what he said: “Rosh Hashanah is a big, big deal. It’s the start of [Read more...]

World Religion Teacher ‘Pollutes the Minds of Children’ By Telling Them Facts (Damn Him!)

This post was written by Jim Morrison, who teaches World Religion at Red Wing High School in Minnesota. An agnostic, Morrison pushes no specific agenda, neither celebrating nor disparaging any specific religion. At the same time he courageously encourages students to question their own assumptions and to think about God and religion both critically and broadly. He also shares facts as facts.

As you can imagine, not everybody thinks that’s cool. But we sure do. 

Jim Morrison

I am not your typical teacher.

For 17 years I have been teaching an elective course that critically examines religion.  (And yes, the photo in this post is an actual photo of me on the first day of class this year.)  As you can see, what I do is extremely rare and controversial in public education.  However, it is not illegal (despite what my critics may say).  And, more importantly, it is something that all public schools should be doing. Religion cannot and should not be ignored in a child’s education. It is my firm belief that it must be objectively, critically, and honestly examined and dissected in the same way frogs are dissected in biology classes.

I know that many parents are raising their children without religion. I have no problem with that. I have done the same with my children.  However, I have gone to great lengths to make sure my children, and my students, fully understand what religion is all about.Religion is clearly a titanic social phenomenon that continues to move and shake the world.  Spirituality (including such things as Buddhist practices, yoga, meditation, etc.) is also a growing cultural phenomenon that students should learn about, and more importantly, what science and academia has to say about it. [Read more...]

Survey Finds Conservative Parents Value Faith Over ‘Empathy for Others’; But Is It Misleading?

new study out by Pew Research seeks to illustrate the difference in “values” important to conservative parents versus those important to liberal parents. Among other things, the study showed, conservatives value religious faith far higher than “empathy for others” — a factoid that doesn’t exactly reflect nicely on conservative parents (at least according to most liberals!) And, as someone who blogs pretty frequently about tolerance, I admit to being turned off by the low priority conservatives gave to tolerance in the survey.

But, on second reading, I think these numbers may be misleading.

First, though, let’s take a look at the data:


Here’s how the survey was conducted, as explained on Quartz. com:

The survey asked Americans about the importance of teaching various values to children. Most of the respondents said children should learn all 12 of these values. The numbers in the chart reflect what “consistently liberal” and “consistently conservative” people—the ones on opposite ends of the spectrum—identified as one of the three most important traits to pass on.

Of course, the opinionated among us have found it to be great fodder. Quartz, for instance, went on to say. [Read more...]

‘Me & Dog’: A New Children’s Book About Atheism

Me & DogIt will come as a surprise to absolutely no one that children’s books about atheism are few and far between. Maybe it’s because there are still so few avowed atheists in this country. Or maybe it’s because there’s just so dang little to say about it.

Either way, it’s beyond disappointing to be a parent looking in vain for ways to introduce young children to all different ways to view the world — including a more existential take on things. In the children’s section of my local library, for instance, there are tons of Biblical books, a fair share of world religions books, and dozens upon dozens of books about various religious holidays — from Easter to Passover to Eid al-Adha.

That’s all to say I am pleasantly surprised that a new children’s book about atheism hit the market this week. Written by Washington Post humor columnist Gene Weingarten and published by Simon and Schuster (not too shabby!),  Me & Dog tells the story of a little boy whose dog assumes his master is the Almighty Creator of the Universe. (And why wouldn’t he?)

In a column about his book, Weingarten offers up the book’s “plot, such as it is.” [Read more...]