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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 Ways to Help Kids Embrace Their Religious Differences

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

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

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

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

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

You Know What This World Needs? More Godless Godparents!

Erik and his Godless Godmother, 2006.

Erik and his Godless Godmother, 2006.

Godparenting is kind of an archaic concept.

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

Case in point: Me.

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

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

In 1492, Columbus Did Things One Ought Not Do

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


Columbus book

Columbus previw

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘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...]