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...]

Moving Day: Introducing… Natural Wonderers

Hello, and welcome to Natural Wonderers!

I don’t know about you, but this is all pretty surreal to me. For the last four years I’ve been blogging about secular parenting at Relax, It’s Just God. Today, officially, I have moved over to the Patheos channel, where I join something like 400 other bloggers who write about any and all iterations of faith and non-faith.

MovingDayBoxIf you are new here, Patheos is considered the WebMD of religion and spirituality. Started in 2008 by Leo and Cathie Brunnick, Patheos now boasts 11 different channels — and is host to Friendly Atheist blogger Hemant Mehta and my personal favorite secular columnist Richard Wade.

For a little-known blogger like me, moving to Patheos is a bit like moving from the Denver suburbs to downtown Manhattan.

Except I know how to pronounce Manhattan

The most surreal part of this is that the good folks at Patheos have imported all my posts from Relax over to Natural Wonderers. I feel like all my furniture has been put in someone else’s house. It’s familiar but seriously weird, too. Some stuff doesn’t look right over here.

I’m sure I’ll get used to it. [Read more...]

Last Call!

My finished manuscript and the bourbon that celebrates it.Big news! I finished my book!

Relax, It’s Just God: How and Why to Talk to Your Kids About Religion When You’re Not Religious is slated for release Jan. 6, 2015 — just in time to not be given out as Christmas gifts. What timing! I’m super excited, and grateful to all of you who have stuck with me all this time. How did four years go by? Jesus Christ. My kid is old now.

I’ll be updating you as regularly as I can, but in the meantime, let this serve as last call: If you’d like something specifically to be covered in the book — or have a particularly nagging question or concern — let me know that now! It’s not too late, but will be soon.

Oh, and look for a subscriber-only special offer in the coming months. I plan to lavish you guys accordingly.



When the ‘Best’ School is a Religious School

Christian childrenThis is an issue that comes up a lot in secular families. (So much so that I’m not sure why I’ve not written about it sooner.) In so many areas of our country, religious organizations have cornered the preschool market. (I remember when I was school-shopping for my daughter, religious preschools outnumbered Montessori-based programs 5-to-1.)

Which brings me to a letter I received recently from a reader who lives in the Chattanooga area — not exactly the country’s secular epicenter. Not surprisingly, the most convenient, affordable and trustworthy preschool in her area is at a Baptist Church, which offers, as she puts it “pre-writing, Spanish and… Bible verse memorization.”

Here’s what she said:

I don’t feel this is going to ruin her, but I’m not sure I’m ready for the discussions being in this environment will bring (at her age).  Also, I don’t know if I should mention my lack of religion with the teachers. Or if, because of that lack, I should even be taking advantage of this school. If I did mention it, would they try to proselytize my little daughter? The folks in this area are fervent about their religion.

So what do you think, folks? Anyone else been in the same boat? Any advice for this momma?

After doing some research into the matter myself, here is my two cents. [Read more...]

‘Mommy, What’s Confession?’

confessionalLast week, I gave you some simple language with which to explain Catechism in a non-religious way. Today, because it’s sort of related, we’ll tackle one of the specific rites of passage taught at CCD: Confession. 

First, let me say this, rites of passage are massively important parts of organized religion. Without rites, there would be nothing to be affiliated with, nothing to conform to, nothing to hold a group together. Beliefs are important, too — don’t get me wrong! — but beliefs are more like the foundation. Customs are the framework. They make religion religion, rather than just spirituality.

The type and number of religious rites, AKA sacraments, observed vary from one religion to the next religion. Catholics have, arguably, the most sacraments — seven of those suckers! — but others have only two or three. Examples of religious rites would be baptism, circumcision, coming of age ceremonies, marriage, pilgrimages, communion, confirmation, confession and death.

I recently had the occasion to explain confession to my daughter—a pub we visited in England had an old church confessional inside, and she was playing in it—so that’s why I chose to start with this particular sacrament. (I promise to cover baptism and circumcision soon.)

So what is confession? [Read more...]

‘Mommy, What’s Catechism?’

This segment of “Mommy, What’s That?” — a series where you can find simple, straightforward and age-appropriate language to explain religious ideas to children in non-religious ways — comes courtesy of a reader, Chris. Chris told me that some of his daughter’s friends are in CCD — short for the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine AKA “Catechism” — and he is having a little trouble coming up with the language to explain it to his little one.


If you don’t know already, CCD is basically Catholic instruction for kids who attend secular schools. It’s meant to 1) teach about the Catholic faith and 2) ready children to become Catholics. In a sense, it’s indoctrination in its most classic form: Teaching children to believe, through “classes” — because, you know, it’s educational! Like school! — to adopt one, single perspective to the exclusion of all other perspectives. I’m not a big fan.

BUT, hey, other people I like and admire see it as a harmless way to introduce kids to the Catholic culture. And if balanced out at home with other perspectives and the assurance that Catholicism is a choice, like any other choice, then I think it’s just fine. My aim is not to keep secular children away from religion — or from people who wish to indoctrinate them! — but rather to teach kids to think critically, value science, and to take charge of their own belief systems.

Now back to Chris’ question. How can you explain Catechism in your secular home? [Read more...]