Everything You Need to Know About Islam to Get Your Kids Up to Speed (Okay, Maybe Not EVERYTHING)

Islamic girlYou know what my life is missing? A Muslim kid.

There’s no doubt that if I had Muslim friends with a Muslim child, I would be telling my 8-year-old a lot more about Islam than I do — not just because I would want her understand her friends’ beliefs, but because it would naturally just “come up” more often.

Having a living, breathing religious person in our midst really is the perfect invitation for religious literacy I’ve ever found. And vice versa! That’s part of the reason I’m glad some of my friend’s children know about my lack of religious beliefs; it gives those families an opening to talk about atheism and agnosticism in a compassionate way.

That Muslims so far have been given short shrift in my household is particularly disappointing given that Islam is one of the most widely misunderstood of the world’s religions. So, starting today, which happens to be Muhammad’s Birthday, I’m determined to find a few new ways to work Islam into our conversations. Anyone want to join me? If so, here are the basics:

Islam

Founded: 610

Deity: Allah (“The God” in Arabic)

Famous Dogma: There is only one true Allah, and this Allah neither begets nor is begotten. (This is  different from Hinduism, which encourages the worship of many gods, and Christianity, which encourages the worship of Jesus as Allah’s “only begotten son.” Muslims revere Muhammad, but they do not worship him.)

Prayer rugs

Methods of Worship: Prayer (required five times a day, using prayer mats that face a building called the Kaaba in the middle of Mecca), reciting/singing the Qur’an, almsgiving, and fasting during the month of Ramadan. Formal services occur at mosques every Friday at noon.

Symbol: Star and the crescent

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Major Sects: Sunni and Shia

Sacred Texts: The Qur’an and the Hadith

Life-Cycle Celebrations: Naming ceremonies, marriages, pilgrimages to Mecca  — which are called Hajj.

Traditional Views of Afterlife: Righteous believers — those who pray, donate to charity, read the Qur’an and believe in one true Allah — are said to go to Paradise, a garden-like place of pleasure. Hell is depicted as a fiery place where those who do not conform to the teachings of the Qur’an will be banished forever.

BurkasClothing: The Qur’an encourages all Muslim men and women to dress modestly, but some Muslims have interpreted parts of the Qu’ran in a way that requires women to wear hijab (pronounced hee-JOB), clothing that covers the head and/or body. Most American Muslim women wear only head coverings as their hijab, while more devout Muslim women may be seen in face veils and abayas — long cloaks worn over their clothing. Only in very strict countries (such as Afghanistan) do women wear hijab in the form of full burkas, which cover their entire bodies, head to toe, including their eyes.

MuhammadMajor Narrative: Muḥammad was born in 570 CE in the Arabian city of Mecca. He was orphaned at age 6 and placed with family members — first his grandmother and then his uncle. He was a merchant and a shepherd and was known around Mecca as a man of high character. As an adult, Muhammad regularly took a few weeks off to meditate by himself in a nearby cave. During one visit, made when he was 40, Muhammad said he heard a voice speak to him. It was, he later learned, the angel Gabriel (yes, the same Gabriel from Christianity) acting as a sort of liaison to Allah and delivering messages intended just for him. Allah, Muhammad said, told him that there was only one true Allah, and that Muhammad should call himself a prophet and deliver messages about how to be a good Muslim — to be forgiving, charitable and empathetic to those less fortunate. Muhammad did as he was told, and was said to receive messages from God throughout the next two decades. Those messages eventually were compiled into the Qua’ran.

Interesting Fact: Depicting the prophet Muhammad is expressly forbidden in Islam, which is why Arabic calligraphy is such a popular art form in Islamic countries.

Important Holidays: Ramadan (a month of fasting celebrating Allah’s first contacted Muhammad), Eid ul-Fitr (a feast celebrating the end of Ramadan), Eid al-Adha (celebrates the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son for Allah), and Mawlid al-Nabi (Muhammad’s birthday.)

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Recommended Reading: My First Ramadan by Karen Katz (ages 3-5); The Best Eid Ever by Asma Mobin-Uddin and Laura Jacobsen (5 and up); Night of the Moon: A Muslim Holiday Story by Hena Khan and Julie Paschkis (6 and up); Celebrating Ramadan by Diane Hoyt-Goldsmith (7 and up); , Muhammad by Demi (8 and up)

Recommended Viewing: Muhammad: The Last Prophet, an animated film about Muhammad’s life, is intended for small children. For slightly older children, there’s Koran by Hearta touching HBO documentary that follows three 10-year-old Muslim children.

Middle Eastern foodRecommended Eating: “Haram” refers to foods not permitted under Islamic law (alcohol and pork being the main prohibitions) “Halal” refers to foods that are permitted — including any meat which has been slaughtered according to Sharia law (for example, the animal must be treated well, must not suffer during death, and must face Mecca at the time of slaughter). Other good stuff: hummus, Baba ganoush, tabbouleh, pita bread, rice, kebabs, chicken shawarma…

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After writing this post, I realized that I do know a Muslim child. In a way, we all do. Malala Yousafzai, who is fighting for the rights of all children to receive an education in Afghanistan, could well be considered the new face of Islam. Non-Muslims may not agree with her religious beliefs, but her actions as a human being transcend all of that. What we hold in common is far more powerful than what what sets us apart. Let’s make sure we let our children know that.

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Quick! What the Hell is St. Valentine’s Day?

Holiday: St. Valentine’s Day

Religion Represented: Christianity

Date: Feb. 14

Celebrates: A Christian martyr who lived in ancient Rome.

What it is, really: A day people celebrate romance and love by giving each other flowers, cards and candy hearts.

On a Scale of 1 to 10: St. Valentine’s Day ranks at about .5, religiously speaking. This, according to my sister’s Catholic in-laws, who said St. Valentine is rarely, if ever, mentioned at Mass. In fact, Valentine’s Day is widely considered a secular holiday.

Stars of the Show: St. Valentine

Back Story: No one really knows. In fact, it’s probably that Valentine referred to not one saint, but several. Sometimes you’ll hear that St. Valentine was a priest killed for continuing to perform marriages even after Emperor Claudius II outlawed them in 3rd century. Supposedly, according to this story, Claudius thought single men made better soldiers and prohibited marriage for a time. But this is legend, rather than belief.

Associated Literary Passages: There are none.

So what’s a saint?: The word “saint” has different meanings. But usually when we hear the word, we’re talking about a Catholic who has been dead a number of years and who now serves as a sort of liaison between people and God. Catholics often pray directly to certain saints in hope that their prayers are more likely to be heard. And many saints — “patron saints” — have specialties, relating to the places where they lived, the professions they held, or some particular malady or situation they encountered during their lifetimes. Here’s a list of patron saints, broken down by their specialties. I found one, St. Drago, who is the patron saint of unattractive people. Poor guy. Jesus is considered the first and best saint.

The difference between Christian and Catholic: A Catholic is a Christian whose church is led by the pope. Catholics believe that their church alone was “founded” by Jesus Christ, and that the pope is the sole successor to Simon Peter (St. Peter), who features prominently in the New Testament and was pivotal in the spread of early Christianity. Click here to find out more about Catholicism.

Becoming a saint: Sainthood used to be rather informal. Christian martyrs  — those who refused to turn against their religion and were killed for it — and other pious people were often “sainted” after they died. In more recent years, however, the Vatican has imposed specific requirements to canonization. In order to be considered a saint, one must perform two miracles after they’re dead. Yes, you heard me right: After.

Conveying meaning to kids: Use the holiday to explain a little bit about Catholicism. You might start off by explaining that although all Christians traditionally believe that Jesus was the son of God, Catholics have other beliefs and special rules they follow. You can tell them that many Catholics believe that God has helpers in heaven, called saints, and that these helpers listen to people’s prayers and ask God to answer them. You might ask your child to pay attention to all the places “saint” appears in their everyday life — from the name of the New Orleans football team, to the names of cities and islands and universities, skin products and watches. You might find out if there’s a saint who shares your child’s name.

That and, of course, Valentine’s cards.

 

 

 

Are Mormons Christian? Here’s the Simple Answer

This weekend I was sitting in the living room with my daughter, listening to music on my iSomething-or-Other, when a song from the Broadway musical The Book of Mormon came on. The song was “Hello,” the musical’s perfectly executed opening number (and the one featured at the 2012 Tony Awards, below.)

Maxine was fascinated by the song. She loved all the doorbell-ringing, and the goofy voices, and the part when Elder Grant asks, “Are these your kids?” She must have replayed the song four or five times before moving on to something else. But, all the while, I knew she didn’t really “get” any of it.  She’d never seen a Mormon missionary. She’d never even heard of Mormons.

So I gave her a quick run-down. I told her Mormons were part of a religious group, and that Mormons are known for going door-to-door to talk about their religion.

“Oh!” Maxine said. “I thought everyone was coming to their house.”

Nope, I said, the other way around. Mormons ring other people’s doors to tell them about the Book of Mormon, which is kind of like their Bible. Sometimes, I told her, you’ll see them in our neighborhood. You can tell they’re Mormon because they usually wear white shirts with black ties.

“And bicycle helmets,” my husband added, because he’s helpful like that.

We left it there; I’ve learned not to over-do it when it comes to religious literacy. But ever since then I’ve been thinking about how, if asked, I would frame the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Would I categorize it as Christian or non-Christian?

mormon_christian_pinback_buttons-r8d2c999466724c59a514028d6bab01bd_x7j3i_8byvr_324That question has been the source of great debate since shortly after the church was founded in the 1820s. Mitt Romney would tell you that LDS is most definitely Christian. My Presbyterian uncle would tell you the opposite. images

Romney, who ran for president in 2012 and had a vested interest in being perceived as part of the majority, would surely emphasize that Mormons believe Jesus is the son of God and their savior, and that the only way to heaven is by following his example. (Pretty Christian-sounding, right?)

Yet LDS has adopted a whole manner of other beliefs that go far beyond what lies in Christian doctrine. The main one, of course, is that a guy from Vermont named Joseph Smith became a prophet of God who, with help from an angel, unearthed the ancient writings of other prophets, which all but instructed him to establish a new church. (Decidedly non-Christian.)

It doesn’t matter to me personally whether Mormons are Christian or not. In the eyes of non-believers, most religions operate on the same planes of being anyway. Hindus could call themselves Zoroastrian, and I wouldn’t have much of an opinion about it.

But I do want to be able to answer my kid’s questions as accurately as I can, so… Are Mormons Christian? After some consideration, here’s a simple answer:

Most religions evolve from other religions: Someone longs for something different, or learns something new, and starts spreading a different message than the one that came before. When enough people pay attention to that message, a religion is born. One could argue that Western religions — including Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Mormonism — all grew out of the same basic principal: There is one God. When you remove all the special customs and “side-beliefs,” one might say that Judaism is basically Christianity without the Jesus; Christianity is Islam without the Muhammad; and Mormonism is Christianity with the Joseph Smith.

Is Mormonism its own distinct religion? Definitely. Is it based in Christianity? Definitely. Done and done. Next house— er, question.

4 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Heading into a Confrontation

Confrontation

Confrontation: (n.) a face-to-face meeting; the clashing of forces or ideas; a situation in which people fight, oppose,or challenge each other in an angry way.

Like most people, I have sort of a love-hate relationship with confrontation. I’m drawn to it and repelled by it in almost equal measure.

On the one hand, confrontation is a necessary byproduct of honesty, integrity and self-worth. To be capable and willing to confront that which we find offensive, unacceptable or harmful is the mark of a strong character, is it not? Those who shrink from confrontation may well be considered “nice,” but are just as likely to be considered “weak.” Plus, sometimes, confrontation is a great release; by holding back our feelings, opinions or fears, we are quite likely to become victims of our own spinelessness. (That, or maddeningly passive-aggressive.)

On the other hand, confrontation can be — and often is — a wholly obnoxious thing to behold. In the wrong hands, confrontation becomes selfish, foolish, reckless and hurtful. I know more than a few people whose confrontational demeanors are motivated not by any real passion or concern, but by their own low self-esteem and desire for attention. Confrontational people are as likely to be labeled “strong,” as they are to be labeled “overbearing.” Indeed, without forethought or reflection, confrontation is merely wasted energy that damages relationships and accomplishes nothing.

I suppose it’s obvious why I’m writing about this. In the Land of Confrontation, Religion is a frequent visitor. (Or is it the other way around?) In the last few years, as I’ve blogged my way through any number of religious issues, I’ve had to evaluate and reevaluate what I am willing to confront, and when, and how. It’s made me think a lot about confrontation in general, too.

In my 40 years on the planet, I haven’t always gotten it right. I’ve said things I wish I hadn’t. I’ve made big deals out of nothing. I’ve intimidated people, hurt their feelings unintentionally, come away feeling guilty and remorseful. Likewise, I’ve chosen not to confront things that I should have. I’ve opted for status quo in order to avoid discomfort. My own fear of hurting peoples’ feelings or of getting an angry reaction have kept me from saying things that might have “freed” me of pain, fear or frustration; from understanding others’ perspectives; from strengthening bonds with those I love; or from making myself a better, more honest person.

These days, though, when it comes to confrontation, I seek a middle path. I try to confront others with deliberation, consideration and kindness, with an eye on what can be gained and what can be lost. It’s been my experience that aiming for the center gets me closer to becoming the person I want to be — and the person I want my daughter to be. After all, how we confront our differences with other people, religious or otherwise, says an awful lot about who we are.

But what does a middle path look like? Every confrontation has the potential for failure or success, so how do we know who and what’s worth confronting? How do we measure the risks versus the rewards? When should we go big, and when should we just go home?

Running through the following series of questions can help you get some clarity:

1. How important is this issue?

Whether you’re on the giving or receiving end, confrontations can be emotionally exhausting. Confronting people over every problem or concern will quickly turn you into a high-maintenance drama queen. That said,  it’s a mistake to believe that only “big issues” are worth confronting. Small issues often deserve our attention, too. If you find yourself thinking about a problem for an extended period, unable to “move on” in your mind, then it’s probably an issue worth confronting. Will it go your way? Maybe, maybe not. But your feelings are important; treat them that way. Otherwise, you risk selling yourself, and your relationships, short.

2. How important is this person?

The closer you are to a person who has, say, offended or hurt you, the more likely it is that you’ll need to confront them head-on. It’s why we argue with our spouses and partners more than just about anyone else; those arguments may be painful, but they’re usually worth it. That’s not necessarily the case when offensive comments or hurtful behavior come from those in your “outer circle” — distant relatives, occasional acquaintances, Internet friends. If people don’t matter to you in your day-to-day life, confronting them on much of anything will hold little long-term value. And it may send the message that they’re more important to you than they really are.

3. Have I had time to reflect?

We all have triggers — subjects that take our stress levels from zero to 60 in under a second. When triggered, we are likely to react emotionally, rather than to respond rationally. If this is the case, take a giant step back. Breathe for a while. Your initial reaction may or may not be the right one. And, either way, giving yourself a day — hell, even an hour! — to recalibrate won’t weaken your position and may very well strengthen it. With a cool head, you’re likely be perceived as someone with a legitimate, thoughtful concern rather than dismissed as a hot head with anger-management issues.

4. What do I hope to accomplish? 

Every confrontation should have a stated purpose. Maybe you need to know something, for instance, or you need something to change.  Maybe you want to educate people, or be heard and understood. Maybe you need to admit something you did or will do or want to do. Whatever the reason for seeking out confrontation, try to do so appropriately and deliberately. If a confrontation holds the potential to hurt someone’s feelings, or make you sad, or damage your friendship, be doubly sure that your purpose is noble, necessary and worth the risk. That way, you’ll have no regrets — even if things don’t go your way.

Oh, and one more thing: Don’t forget to accept confrontation graciously when it comes your way. When approached with kindness, confrontation is a gift. It signals your importance to the person doing the confronting, and your reaction will either encourage or discourage the person from sharing their feelings with you. Be a role model. That way, when the situation is reversed, you’ll have laid the groundwork for a mature and compassionate meeting of the minds.

Happy New Year, everyone!

Dynasty defenders: Religion no excuse for bigotry

Duck DynastyLast Christmas, it seemed like everyone in my family and my husband’s family was talking about Duck Dynasty. We are all from the Midwest, which may be why the hunting, back-woods feel of the show held a certain charm. And there really were some funny parts. It seemed like mere mention of the show incited laughter from one corner or another.

This Christmas, the families are still talking about Duck Dynasty. But this time no one is laughing.

In case you’ve been in a coma for the last week, here’s a brief recap: Phil Robertson, the patriarch of the millionaire family featured on the A&E show, caused a shitstorm when he made homophobic remarks publicly. In an interview with GQ Magazine, he said the following:

It seems like, to me, a vagina — as a man — would be more desirable than a man’s anus. That’s just me. I’m just thinking: There’s more there! She’s got more to offer. I mean, come on, dudes! You know what I’m saying? But hey, sin: It’s not logical, my man. It’s just not logical.

Later, he added:

Everything is blurred on what’s right and what’s wrong. Sin becomes fine. Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men. Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers — they won’t inherit the kingdom of God. Don’t deceive yourself. It’s not right.

And if all that wasn’t bad enough, a 2010 sermon conducted by Phil Robertson surfaced, in which he said:

Women with women, men with men, they committed indecent acts with one another, and they received in themselves the due penalty for their perversions. They’re full of murder, envy, strife, hatred. They are insolent, arrogant, God-haters. They are heartless, they are faithless, they are senseless, they are ruthless. They invent ways of doing evil. That’s what you have 235 years, roughly, after your forefathers founded the country. So what are you gonna do Pennsylvania? Just run with them? You’re doing to die. Don’t forget that.

Oh, boy.

The reaction to all this was about what you’d expect. A lot of people went apeshit. A&E television suspended Robertson from the show for an undisclosed period. Then a lot of other people went apeshit, accusing A&E of unfairly reprimanding the man for his religious beliefs.

How many times do we need to say it? Religion may be a reason for a person’s bigotry — but it’s not an excuse. There is no excuse for bigotry. Just as infanticide is not an acceptable behavior — even though God did it in the Bible — so it goes for bigotry. Hate and prejudice are not luxuries afforded by religion, or by anything else for that matter. You don’t get to be a dick just because you belong to a certain church or because you’re old, or because you’re from Louisiana, or because you just don’t know any better.

Now, let’s be clear: Thoughts are not behavior. If Phil Robertson thinks bigoted things because he thinks God wants him to think bigoted things, that’s none of our business. But when those thoughts become behaviors (and, yes, speech is a behavior), then it’s his responsibility — and his employer’s — to answer for that behavior.

Now, some might say, “Fine. Phil Robertson’s comments weren’t ‘protected’ by his religion. And, fine, his speech is behavior. But what about free speech? What’s the point of the First Amendment if we’re not going to let people express their thoughts in a public forum without fear of reprisal?”

Well, the point of the First Amendment is to ensure that no one in this country is censored or arrested or prosecuted or executed by the goverment of the United States for anything they say. Of course there are some exceptions — incendiary speech that implies or incites certain behavior, for example. But, without question, Phil Robertson’s remarks are protected by the First Amendment. Government shouldn’t take action, and it hasn’t.

But if you believe that the First Amendment protects Robertson from being publicly chastised, or from losing a job on a TV network, you are cheapening the freedom of speech. You are insulting all those people who are or have been imprisoned for stating their beliefs openly.  Free speech is one of our most important rights, as citizen of this country, and it’s nothing less than terrifying to think about countries, such as North Korea, that offer no such freedoms.

No one is putting Robertson in jail for saying homosexuals are evil, just like no one put comedian Daniel Tosh in jail for making jokes about gang raping an audience member at one of his gigs, and just like no one put MSNBC’s Martin Bashir in jail after he told his viewers that someone should urinate and defecate in Sarah Palin’s mouth.

Our country gives us the right to say some truly terrible things without fear of reprisal.

But A&E is not the government.

If I’m a public figure who says on the radio that black people are the source of evil because my Bible tells me so, I might very well lose fans, or get nasty mail, or be fired from my job. Why? Because I’m a racist, and because, just as I have the right to state my beliefs, my fellow citizens have a right to speak out against my racism.

And what kind of a precedent would my employers be setting if they allowed that sort of hateful speech to go unchecked? It would be like saying, “Yes, our employee stated her racist views publicly, and we’re fine with that. So, hey, all you other racists out there, have at it! Say all the hateful comments you want! And to hell with all those men, women and children who hear your remarks and go home feeling demoralized, frustrated, saddened and tormented at the end of the day.

Any responsible company isn’t going to let that behavior go. The company is going to reprimand me, at the very least. “Hey, no more of that, okay?” And that’s what A&E did. They suspended Phil Robertson. A good hard slap on the hand to say, “No, we don’t tolerate hate.”

How we react as a society to celebrities who behave badly matters. We don’t have to hate the celebrities, of course. We can understand that they come from different backgrounds or cultures or religions. We can understand their bigotry is rooted in ignorance. We can even forgive them and move on. But we mustn’t respect that behavior, or excuse it, or let it go.

The government doesn’t punish bigotry. But that’s precisely what makes it so important that we do.

A Book American Kids Aren’t Reading — But Should

A couple of weeks 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 U.S. 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, which I included in this years’ holiday gift guide for secular families, 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.

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Giveaway #3In other news, many congratulations to the winner of Relax, It’s Just God’s final holiday giveaway. A subscriber named “John” — highly suspicious, I know — will be receiving a bag full of good stuff just in time for the winter solstice. Thanks for your support, John! And thanks, too, to everyone who participated in all the giveaways this month. Great things will be coming in the new year, so I do hope you’ll stick around.

What’s the Real Nativity Story? Kid, You Don’t Want to Know

Giveaway 1Last week, my daughter was looking at a copy of The Christmas Story: The Brick Bible for Kids, author Brendan Powell Smith’s LEGO depiction of the Christian nativity (which I’ll be giving away as part of a promotion next Monday).

The book is fun and funny, and I figured she’d love it. But, when she got to page 11, she slammed it shut.

“I don’t like this book,” she announced.

“You don’t like the story?” I asked.

“No,” she said. “I like the story.”

“You don’t like LEGOs?” I asked.

“No,” she said. “I like LEGOs.”

“Then why don’t you like the book?”

“Because,” she said. “It’s not right. Mary came to Bethlehem ON A DONKEY.”

I opened up the book. Sure enough, there was Mary and Joseph walking to Bethlehem.

The Christmas Story

“Actually,” I explained, “the Bible never says anything about a donkey. That part was added in later by other people.”

“No!” she said, all pissed off. “MARY RODE A DONKEY!”

Then she slammed the book shut again.

Wow, kid, I thought. You’re going to have a hard time when I tell you the rest of it.

•••

Historically speaking, it’s highly — and when I say highly, I mean HIGHLY — unlikely that Jesus was born in a stable, or placed in a manger, or visited by three magi. Because it is highly unlikely that Joseph and Mary made that trek to Bethlehem in the first place — on a donkey or otherwise. According to scholarly research on the subject, Jesus was probably born near his hometown of Nazareth, and it was probably not in December, and the birth was probably pretty unceremonious. After all, historically speaking, Jesus didn’t rise to prominence until he grew up and started his traveling ministry.

In fact, there is surprisingly little we know for certain about Jesus. Some would say that nothing is certain, but exhaustive scholarly research suggests otherwise. Most scholars agree on these three facts:

1. Jesus lived.

2. Jesus was baptized by John (the, um, Baptist).

3. Jesus was crucified by the Romans near Jerusalem.

But, dude, that’s it. That’s all we know. Even taking the supernatural stuff out of the equation (that he was the son of God, that he performed miracles, that he rose from the dead, that he ascended to heaven), there is still so much open to interpretation, speculation and guesswork.

The most fascinating part to me is that, according to many scholars, numerous details from Jesus’ life were invented after his death in order to match him up with the Old Testament version of the Jewish Messiah. Written 500 to 700 years before Jesus’ birth, the books of the Old Testament mention a coming Messiah something like 300 times. And let me tell you: They got really specific. So all the New Testament stories about Jesus weren’t creative storytelling so much as they were a recounting of these old messianic stories. For example, the Old Testament said the Jewish Messiah would:

 Be born of a virgin: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” Isaiah 7:14. 

• Preach the ‘good news’: “The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners.” Isaiah 61:1-2

• Enter Jerusalem on a donkey: “Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” Zechariah 9:9

• Be betrayed by a friend: “Even my close friend, whom I trusted, he who shared my bread, has lifted up his heel against me.” Psalm 41:9

• Be crucified: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning? All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads… He trusts in the LORD; let the LORD rescue him. Let him deliver him, since he delights in him.” Psalm 22:1,7-8

Now, most Christians would say that the scholars have it all wrong. Jesus’ story “matches up” to the Old Testament because Jesus was the Messiah. But some of it is just too convenient. In a historical context, it doesn’t fly.

Let’s go back to the nativity, for example.

In the Old Testament, the Messiah is described as being from Bethlehem — the birthplace of Jerusalem, the place where King David established his kingdom, and the city in which the “People of Israel” got their start. It was said that the Messiah would be a descendent of David himself and therefore have a rightful claim to the throne. Consider Micah 5:2, written in 750 BCE: “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.”

In other words, it was vital that Jesus have a connection to Bethlehem if he were ever going to be passed off as the true Messiah.

The thing is, it makes no sense whatsoever that Joseph and Mary would leave Nazareth and head to Bethlehem to register for a Census when Mary was 9 months pregnant. Not just in the dead of winter — but ever. Jesus’ family hadn’t lived in Bethlehem in hundreds and hundreds of years; to trace his family back to the city of David, Joseph and Mary would have had to go back 42 generations. (If you’ve ever tried to map out your own family tree, you know how unlikely that is.) Furthermore, as researchers have pointed out, even if they could trace their family heritage back that far, no emperor would force all his people to return to their ancestral cities to register for the Census. It’s not rational. And the emperor at the time, Emperor Augustus, apparently was known as a rational man.

•••

So who was Jesus? A charismatic leader? A philosopher? An activist? A prophet? A man with a mental illness? Anything is possible, I suppose. But one thing is all but certain: The Christmas nativity, as we know it, didn’t happen.

Maxine is going to be crushed.

 

The Secularization of Christmas Isn’t Just Okay — It’s Great

Good Tidings Great JoyStart your engines, folks, the War on Christmas is here again!

This time it’s Sarah Palin leading the charge with her new book: Good Tidings and Great Joy: Protecting the Heart of Christmas. Released a couple of weeks ago, the book is apparently — brace yourself, this is shocking — really, really awful. The Daily Beast’s Candida Moss actually read the damn thing (bless her heart) and came away with a whole lot of nothing.

“Ultimately,” Moss wrote in her review, “this is a Christmas of no-bake cookies, half-baked theology, and pre-packaged Christmas stories.”

By way of the “half-baked theology,” Moss said, the former Vice Presidential candidate at one point talks about about placing a menorah on her Christmas table every year to “acknowledge Christianity’s Judeo-Christian roots.” That bit made me laugh out loud. God, she’s an idiot.

But back to the War on Christmas.

By my read, the War on Christmas has two main tentacles, or assumptions:

1. Christmas is becoming a secular holiday.

2. People are forcing it into secularization by killing off all mention of Christ.

Okay, first of all, Number 1? Flat-out true.

Christmas is becoming a secular holiday. Not for everyone, of course, but for some. Maybe even for many. Definitely for me. I love Christmas — the trees, the lights, the gift giving, all of it — but I took the Christ out of my Christmas a long time ago. Other than telling my daughter about the wonderful little legend of Jesus’ birth in a stable in Bethlehem, my version of Christmas is a season of entirely nonreligious traditions and celebrations. Sure, those celebrations are rooted in my Christian heritage, and I wholly acknowledge that. (The same way Palin acknowledges her religion’s Jewish roots with a menorah.) But do I attach some deeper personal meaning to Christmas? No, not at all. You could say I am a secular Christian in the same way some of my friends are secular Jews or secular Hindus. They’ll probably always celebrate Hanukkah and Diwali, but does that mean they actually believe in God, Brahman, or that dude with the elephant head? Uh, no.

So, yes, Fox News, I’ll give you No. 1. But you lose me at No. 2.

Apart from some civic-minded folks trying to make their public spaces more inclusive of other cultures by removing nativity scenes and the like, no one is forcing Christmas into secularization. Yes, mentions of Christ are dropping like flies. But that’s not because of injuries sustained in any damn war. It’s because more and more Americans — more than 20 percent of us — are nonreligious. Christmas is becoming more secular because we are becoming more secular.

The holiday isn’t dying. It’s evolving.

And isn’t that a good thing? Would Fox News rather we secularists stopped celebrating Christmas altogether? I wonder how Sarah Palin would feel if a quarter of her family and friends stopped showing up to her annual Christmas party? I wonder how all those corporations and business owners and stock brokers would feel if we stopped spending millions of our dollars on colored lights, blow-up Santas and gifts for our loved ones every year?

No, Fox News, I won’t be putting the Christ back into my Christmas. Ever. But if my family and friends will let me, I’ll continue to lug home pine trees from the local Christmas tree lot and obscure all but the scent of those trees with a heinous number of Christmas ornaments. I’ll hang the gorgeous, envy-inducing Christmas stockings my mother knitted for each member of my family. I’ll listen to the Christmas carols my grandmother used to play on the piano when I was a child. With my husband, daughter, parents, in-laws, siblings, nieces, nephews and friends always on my mind, I’ll wrap Christmas presents and watch Christmas movies and read Christmas books and bake Christmas cookies and attend Christmas parties. I’ll do it all.

And in doing so, I will indeed “protect the heart of Christmas.” It won’t be Palin’s exact version of Christmas, of course. But it will be Christmas just the same. And it will be great.

15 Holiday Gift Ideas for Secular Families

Generally speaking, gift ideas geared toward us non-religious types tend to fall into three basic categories: Snarky T-Shirts & Bumper Stickers, Comedic TV Shows and Movies and Books Espousing Atheism. There is some variation in there, of course. Sometimes books espouse freethinking. Sometimes the movies are more satirical in nature. Sometimes snarky comments come on wearable pins. (Like this one!)

That said, this list is a bit different. These particular gifts are not meant to arm nonbelievers with ways to out-logic religious people, or to advertise non-belief, or to reinforce feelings of superiority. They’re just simple items likely to appeal to the science-loving sensibilities of the skeptical mind. Most are things that anyone could display in their homes (or around their necks) as quiet, graceful nods to their own wonderful, awe-inspiring and decidedly secular world views — and they won’t even offend Grandma.

1. Darwin’s Tree of Life Necklace. In 1837, Charles Darwin first sketched how species evolved along branches of an imaginary tree. Here, it is engraved in a silver necklace. (Etsy, $45)

2. Women of Science Coasters. Made of poplar wood, these beauties will enhance your living room, inspire your daughters and make great conversation starters. Included in the set: Grace Hopper (programming, computer science), Rachel Carson (ecology), Mary Edwards Walker (surgery), Jane Goodall (primatology), Marie Curie (radiation/chemistry) and Rosalind Franklin (genetics). (Etsy, $35.)

Women of Science Coasters

3. Bang! How We Came to Be by Michael Rubino. One of the best books available for introducing children — and maybe some adults — to the science of evolution. (Amazon, $14.53.)

Bang! How We Came to Be

4. Neil deGrasse Tyson Prayer Candle. Why no one has mass marketed these things yet, I have no idea. That’s Bill Nye the Science Guy standing behind him, by the way. (Etsy, $15.67.)

il_570xN.431330435_ohxh

5. ‘We Are All Stardust’ Bracelet. Hand-stamped on metal, this bracelet is inspired by a famous Carl Sagan quote: The cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star stuff. (Etsy, $12)

Stardust Bracelet

6. The Golden Rule by Ilene Cooper. Hands-down one of my favorite children’s books. This book teaches kids the importance of the Golden Rule and makes clear that treating others the way you wish to be treated is a concept much older than any religion in existence today. (Amazon, $13.21.)

Golden Rule

7. Carl Sagan artwork. Another great quote by Carl Sagan anchors this original print: If we are merely matter intricately assembled, is this really demeaning? If there’s nothing here but atoms, does that make us less or does that make matter more? According to the artist, who describes his work as “art and prints inspired by science and curiosity,” this piece was done using water color, ink, Mohawk Paper, pen, pencil and Photoshop. (Etsy, $25.)

Carl Sagan artwork

8. Bill Nye the Science Guy: Evolution DVD. Bill Nye is like the Mr. Rogers of science — making the subject fun and interesting and totally accessible to kids. Of course, all his DVDs are worth recommending, but for this list, his show on evolution is the episode du jour. (Target, $14.49.)

Bill Nye the Science Guy: Evolution

9. Atheist Shoes. They’re shoes. For atheists. What else do you need to know? Comfortable and cool-as-hell, these shoes are made by a German company and sold in Euros. The soles say “Ich Bin Atheist” or “I Am Atheist.” If you lean more agnostic (or just aren’t willing to out yourself), you might prefer the Darwin version — whose soles declare “Darwin Loves.” (Atheist Shoes, about $200.)

Ich Bin Atheist

Atheist Shoes

 

 

 

 

 

10. Tim Minchin Plushie Doll. This thing sells itself, but a few things: It’s made out of wool and felt; it comes in two sizes; and because the Tims are made to order, the seller is open to changing his outfit upon request. I’d put him in a pair of Atheist Shoes because HE ACTUALLY WEARS THEM. (Etsy, $30 for small Tim, $40 for large Tim.)

Tim Minchin Plushie Doll

11. Painting of Darwin’s Finches. There is only one of these ink-and-watercolor paintings for sale, and it took A LOT OF RESTRAINT for me not to take it off the list and buy it myself. I adore everything about it. (Etsy, $55.)

Darwin's Finches

12. Heroes of Science Canvas Tote. By the same shop that brought you the Women of Science Coasters above, this bag is another fantastic nod to all things science. It’s got Stephen Hawking on there, for God’s sake. (Etsy, $18.)

 Heroes of Science Tote

13. Really, Really Big Questions About God, Faith and Religion. British writer Julian Baggini brings us this absolutely fantastic children’s book — the best I’ve seen for getting kids to think about matters of faith. In addition to spelling things out in the most straightforward way possible, it encourages kids to reach their own conclusions. Perfect for kids in nonreligious families. (Amazon, $14.39.)

Really, Really Big Questions about God, Faith and Religion

14. Darwin Quote on Oversized Book Page: Handmade in England, this is a typographic art print on an upcycled page of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. The line, There is Grandeur in this view of life, comes toward the end of Darwin’s book. (Etsy, $40.61.)

There is Grandeur

15. Flying Spaghetti Monster Ornament. Okay, maybe this isn’t the most graceful idea on the list. But he is adorable, isn’t he? As an alternative, I also love this hand-carved FSM stamp, but it’s hard to beat the ornament. (Etsy, $18.)

Flying Spaghetti Monster Ornament

Happy Holidays, everyone! And for chances to win some secular gifts yourself, be sure to subscribe to check out this month’s giveaways — starting with this one! 

Coming Soon: Holiday Gift Ideas for Secular Families

RudolphA quick note to let you know that I’ll be running my annual Holiday Shopping Guide (hey, twice makes it annual, people) on Monday, Nov. 11. And it’s a doozy of a list, so don’t miss it!

Also, because it’s been awhile since I’ve thanked a single, solitary one of you for your support, I’ll be combining the guide with a chance to win some of the doozies for yourselves. At least one of the giveaways will be extended solely to my subscribers; and, for that one, you don’t need to enter to win. I’ll just randomly pick a name from the subscription list (Not sure how I’ll do that, but 95 percent sure my parrot will be involved), and then I’ll email you privately for mailing instructions.

Don’t forget to meet me back here on Monday! And thanks again, guys. You are the awesomest.


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