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.

When Opinions Expressed Are Not Your Own

Opinionated GuyFor many of us, strong opinions are like pheromones.

They attract us. They lure us in. People who believe what they believe with passion, and who aren’t afraid to state their truth — these people hold certain powers. The power to make us laugh. The power to make us think. The power to move us to share our own opinions.

Of course, we’re not going to agree with all these opinions — or even find them valid! (Even Einstein expressed some bullshit opinions now and again.) We may even be offended and put off by certain assertions.

But the point remains: There is an underlying attraction that many of us feel to people who possess the courage of their convictions — perhaps because so many others lack it. I find this is particularly true in my relationships with women. It’s incredibly hard for me to connect with passive women who soak up what others say and offer little of their own, who look to please others rather than challenge themselves. But when I meet a woman with a strong, clear voice and the willingness to share it, I’m very likely to want to take that woman out for dram of Pappy Van Winkle’s.

Of course, there are caveats. (Pappy’s is too expensive for their not to be caveats.) Certain things will flat-out “ruin the mood.” Hate and bigotry are two of them; aggression, ridicule and ill-humor are three more. Also, in my opinion, in order for a loud, proud assertion to hold any “pheromonic” power at all,  it must truly belong to the opinionated. If someone is simply regurgitating what they heard, without thinking critically about it, it doesn’t count. That’s just gullibility masquerading as opinion. And, forgive me, but gullibility never got anyone laid. (Not well anyway.)

So where do religious opinions fall in all this? Are strong expressions of of religious views an automatic turnoff for an”unaffiliated” type, such as myself?

Not at all. Most of us are open-minded enough (in the real world, not the one that exists online) to move right past opinions we don’t care for and focus on other things.

But it is complicated. Not because of the nature of the opinions, but because so many really wonderful, kind, compassionate, generous and strong people believe in their religion because they were told to believe in their religion. They were raised to believe it. They were never given a chance not to believe it.

And when a person has been indoctrinated to hold a certain opinion, is it really their opinion at all?

I really am attracted to people with strong viewpoints on a whole matter of subjects — including religion. I just wish I could be sure the beliefs and opinions of the religious were truly theirs to share.

Quick! What the Hell is Diwali?

Here’s the Diwali installment of Relax, It’s Just God’s beloved* Holiday Cheat Sheet, a series offering parents the quick and dirty run-down on major religious holidays, so that they might come across as intelligent beings to their kids. I’m sure you guys remember all this stuff from last year, but rest assured, Diwali is just as cool and fun as it has always been. Why? (C’mon, you don’t remember this?) Let me count the ways:

1. Fireworks

2. Bollywood music

3. Poker

4. Cool back story

5. Curry

6. Candles

7. Shopping

 * too strong?

Holiday: Diwali

Pronounced: Di-VAH-li

AKA: “Festival of Lights”

Religion Represented: Hinduism

Date: Corresponds with the new moon that falls between the 7th and 8th months of the Hindu lunisolar calendar.

Celebrates: The Hindu New Year

On a Scale of 1 to 10: Diwali is a 10.

Star of the Show: Lord Rama

The Back Story: Diwali celebrates the conquest of good over evil. There are lots of legends of how it began, but one of the most common is that Lord Rama — said to be an incarnation of the supreme god Vishnu — was exiled from his father’s kingdom for 14 years. While in exile, Rama’s wife was kidnapped, precipitating an epic journey to rescue her and defeat her demon captors. Following Rama’s victory, he returned to the kingdom to be crowned king and, eventually, emperor. His rule was a time of joy, peace and prosperity, and his people marked the happy homecoming by lighting rows of clay lamps, setting off fireworks and celebrating with family.

Associated Literary Passages: This story of Lord Rama is part of the Ramayana, one of the longest poems ever written and a “national epic of India.”

The Food: There is not a set menu for Diwali, but dinner tends to be elaborate and vegetarian: curry, samosa, paneer, sabzi, rice and naan, among other yummies.  And sweets are a necessity, so plenty of desserts.

The Fun: Diwali celebrants often give their houses a deep cleaning, decorate their front doors and leave their wallets out during parties to encourage Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, to enter the home and bring them — what else? — wealth. They also light firecrackers, dance to Bollywood music and play poker late into the night. Oh and also? You are required — REQUIRED — to wear new clothes. Sign me up.

Conveying Meaning to Kids: Consider throwing a Diwali Party! Tell the Wikipedia-version of the Rama story, program your Pandora to Classic Bollywood, and let your child decorate the front door. Light as many candles as you can find (remember it’s a festival of lights!), serve Indian food and sweets (recipes here), and break out the playing cards for a few games of Go-Fish or, depending on the age/gambling penchant of the child, a little Five-Card Stud.

Originally appeared Oct. 26, 2011

 

 

Back When We Were Funny: 10 Religious Costumes for Kids

il_570xN.302185289When you’ve been blogging for a while, you run the risk of becoming lame. I might be there, I’m not sure. Would someone tell me if I were? The truth is, I don’t have the time I once did to dedicate to each and every blogpost, and sometimes in my quest to JUST GET IT DONE AND GET IT POSTED, certain things get sacrificed. One of those things? My sense of humor.

And it really is a damn shame. Because I have a glorious sense of humor! You should hear me be funny. I’m a riot.

The thing is: When I started out, I really believed that if one of you folks could get through my posts without laughing  — and by “laughing,” of course, I mean “thinking about smiling” — that was a failure. But so often these days I feel like my sense of humor gets left on the cutting-room floor — or doesn’t make it onto the reel at all. What has happened to me?

I notice it most when I re-read old stuff — like the one I wrote a couple years ago about Halloween costumes. That’s some good shit right there! Let’s take a look, shall we? Oh, and Happy Halloween!

•••

Top 10 Religious Costumes for Kids

Originally appeared in October 2011.

I don’t blame the Jesus Ween people for declaring war on Halloween. Little kids dressing up in cute costumes, going door to door to get candy from their neighbors…well, it’s just so insidious. But you’ll be glad to know that where there’s conflict, there’s a potential for a happy medium. And clearly — CUH-LEAR-LEE — this year’s happy medium resides squarely in religious costuming for kids. Because the staff here at Relax, it’s Just God aim to be helpful, above all else, we have amassed the 10 best religious costumes based on factors much too complicated and nonexistent to enumerate here.

1. Jesus of Nazareth

Christianity still reigns supreme here in the United States. According to the Association for Religious Data Archives, 76 percent of the population ascribe to one of literally hundreds of Christian denominations — making Jesus the top choice in faithwear. Who needs Jesus Ween when you can dress as Jesus for Halloween? Oh, and also: How cute are those shoes? (Amazon, $22.67)

2. Nun

When asked “What Would Jesus Wear?” (for Halloween), nine out of 10 Catholics with a sense of humor said “Nun.” Also, there’s nothing risqué about this little number, making it a crowd favorite among dads. Get one while supplies last. (BrandsOnSale, $29.99)

3. Torah Boy

We were sorry not to see this guy rank higher on the list. I mean, it’s a kid dressed as a Torah, people. A Torah. There is literally nothing in the history of time cuter than this costume. Unfortunately, Judaism carries a much smaller percentage of the vote than Christians (1.7 percent), and Little Torah Boy’s ranking reflected that. (Amazon, $31.84)

4. Islamic Girl

Maybe it’s the hot weather in the Middle East, but Muslims have the comfort thing down pat. If you’ve got one of those kids who just wants to trick-or-treat in her pajamas, this costume may be the ticket. Check out the Islamic Boy outfit, too. Just as cute, and well-worth the extra shipping to have it sent from the UK. Happy Allaween! (Pretend to Bee, 12.95 British Pounds)

5. Buddha.

Technically, Buddhists are more prevalent than Muslims in the United States. But this Gold Buddha Costume got docked some points because it only comes in adult sizes. I know, we were shocked and outraged, as well. The CEO of Go4Costumes ought to know that when Gold Buddha isn’t offered in toddler sizes, children suffer. (Go4Costumes, $88)

6. Hindu Girl

Unfortunately, the controversy over supermodel Heidi Klum’s Shiva costume a couple years back has sent children’s shops retreating from Hindu god and goddess costumes. So this year we we’re limited to regular Hindu wear. Luckily for us, saris tend to be pretty spectacular, and this Bollywood Princess costume is no exception.(Amazon, $24.89)

7. Atheist

We’d hate to leave would-be atheists out in the cold on Halloween, so here’s the closest we could come to dressing as, well, Nothing. It’s not a bad likeness as likenesses go, really. And morphsuits have great reuse potential. Outline the whole thing with purple cord and you’ve got one half of a fantastic Harold and the Purple Crayon costume for next year. (Party City, $29.99)

8. Scientologist

Sure, most kids would rather go as Nothing, but we’re all about offering options. FYI, Scientologist costumes are best pulled off by strikingly handsome little boys with great hair and big teeth. Not saying it’s easy, but with the right look, it’s crazy cool. Don’t forget your Dianetics book and E-Meter!

9. Moses

You had me at the 10 Commandments. It’s all about the accoutrement, and Moses always did have the best stuff. In addition to the commandments, kids also might consider carrying a burning bush, a brass serpent or just a shitload of stone. (That guy loved him some stone.) If you’re looking for group-costumes, you might consider going as the 10 plagues. Incredibly, plague masks are easy to find. Just be sure that no matter who joins Little Moses in trick-or-treating, he gets to lead the way. Ha ha. (Costume Discounters, $16.97)

10. The Virgin Mary

Originally, the Confucius facial hair was on the list at No. 10, but we just couldn’t do it. It was so flippin’ lame. And there was something offensive about the whole thing, too. (Shut up. Don’t say it.) So we settled on Little Mary with her baby Jesus. Again, perfectly acceptable for Jesus Ween, and heart-meltingly sweet. I just want to scoop this little girl up in my arms right now and bring her home. It would totally be worth having Jesus call me Grandma.

So there you go. Hope you all have a swell holiday. Just remember, no matter what faith you’re representing, keep it clean out there, okay? Halloween is supposed to be scary, but not, like, religious-war scary. And if you live in my neighborhood, don’t forget to knock on my door. I’ll be the one dressed as the Irreverent Blogger in Danger of Being Shot By a Fundamentalist.

‘Very Religious Parents’ Trying to Indoctrinate Their Grandkid

I got a letter from a reader today. Raise your hand if you can relate.

Looking for some advice on how to deal with my very Christian parents and my daughter. She’ll be 2 in January and is already saying “Amen” and “Yay God.” I am not Christian and feel disrespected by this. They know that I have COMPLETELY different beliefs. Any advice on how to “respectfully” get them to stop?

baby-mother-grandmother

Pretty typical, right?

I started to write this mom a private response but, with her permission, decided to make it public. I’d be curious — and I’m sure she would be, as well — to hear advice from anyone else who has had some “success” in dealing with this particular problem. In the meantime, here’s my two cents:

1. Be brief, be direct, and be nice. Brief because this is a can of worms that can get cray-cray pretty quickly. Direct because this is important and you need to make sure there are no misunderstandings. (No one wants to have to have this damn conversation more than once.) And nice because that’s what’s going to keep tensions from escalating.

2. Try to get your parents’ buy-in. This is the goal. If your parents understand where you are coming from, and genuinely want to help you out, you won’t have to worry that they will try to indoctrinate your kid behind your back.

3. Be ready to lay down the law. If, after stating your case, your parents refuse to cooperate, you need to let them know — as briefly, directly and nicely as possible — that there there will be consequences. Then you need to tell them what those consequences will be.

You might start out this way:

Mom and Dad, I’ve noticed you’ve been sharing your religious views with Jane and I’m glad to see that. Your Hinduism/Buddhism/Christianity is important to you, and I want you to feel comfortable talking to her, and me, about anything that is important to you. That said, because I don’t share all your beliefs, it’s really important to me that Jane gets to make up her own mind about what to believe. So when you’re talking about your faith, I would really appreciate it if you’d be clear with her that these are your beliefs, and not just straight facts. (You can do this really easily by just adding “I believe” or “we believe” onto statements about your religion.) Again, I’m not asking you to withhold your beliefs, but rather to put them into a context that allows for other belief systems to be respected, as well.

If you get an “Okay,” that’s a success. Done and done. Move on. If not:

The thing is, if you aren’t willing to temper your language, it puts pressure on me to use strong language, too. Every time you teach Jane something as though it’s the only truth, I have to balance out — or even “undo” — what you’ve said. And that’s not good for your relationship with Jane, or with me. I’ll feel disrespected and even antagonized. But if you speak in a way that leaves room for Jane to make up her own mind, I’ll feel more comfortable with the whole thing.”

Again, if you get an “Okay,” great. If they still don’t cooperate, you might ask: “Well, what would you be comfortable saying?” See if, after a little back and forth, you can agree on an approach.

If that fails, then your parents are being overbearing a-holes. Here’s where those consequences figure in:

If you want to continue to have one-on-one time with Jane, you will have to agree to an approach that works for all of us. I’ll give you some time to think about it. Let me know what you come up with.

That ought to get their attention.

Also, a quick reminder: Richard Wade, the incredibly wise “Ask Richard” columnist over at the Friendly Atheist has some great advice for secularists dealing with religious family members. You might check out his archives sometime!

Quick! What the Hell is Eid al-Adha?

There are certain religions that seem to wear their differences on their sleeves. Stand a Hasidic Jew next to a Sunni Muslim, for example, and I know immediately which is which. The headgear, the clothing. One is praying to God, the other invoking the name Allah. It’s kind of a no-brainer.

But if you remove the clothing and the terminology, Judaism, Christianity and Islam are so darn similar. Allah is just the Arabic word for God, after all. Both the Qur’an and Torah have their roots in the Old Testament of the Bible. And, in all three religions, Abraham was pretty much the shit.

You remember Abraham. He’s the guy who was willing to sacrifice his son to prove his love, loyalty and obedience to God. Pretty heady stuff. Anyway, it’s Abraham’s sacrifice that inspired the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Adha – which occurred yesterday but was completely overshadowed by the damn debt ceiling brouhaha  A day late and a dollar short, as they say. Anyway: Happy Eid! Here’s your rundown:

Holiday: Eid al-Adha

Pronounced: Eed el-AH-dah. (Say it out loud, and you’ll find it sounds like “eat-a-lotta.” Given that this holiday is based on food — killing it, eating it and sharing it — this couldn’t be more apropos.)

AKA: “Festival of Sacrifice”

Religion Represented: Islam

Date: Eid al-Adha falls on the 10th day of the month of Dhu al-Hijjah in the lunar Islamic calendar.

Celebrates: The willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son for Allah.

On a Scale of 1 to 10: Eid al-Adha is a 9 or 10. It comes at the end of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia — which is incredibly important to Muslims.

Star of the Show: Abraham

Back Story: Although the entire story of Abraham is worth noting in its entirety, Abraham is perhaps most famous for being willing to sacrifice his son to prove his devotion to Allah. As the story goes, just as Abraham was about to do the deed, Allah revealed that there was no need — that Abraham’s willingness to make the sacrifice was enough. A ram was sacrificed instead. And Abraham said: “Phew.” (Or, you know, probably did.)

Associated Literary Passages: Genesis 22:1-17Qur’an 37: 100-111.

The Food:  To mimic the slaughter of the ram, many Muslims slaughter an animal — such as a sheep, cow, camel, or goat. Once cleaned and cut, one third of the animal is kept, one third is shared with friends and family, and one third given to the poor and less fortunate. It’s this last part —sharing your wealth with others by giving your meat away — that serves as the heart of this holiday.

The Fun: Here in the United States, Muslims pray, exchange gifts and hold feasts. Meat is distributed throughout the community. Many Muslims go where the needs are — soup kitchens, hospitals, homeless shelters — as well as to graveyards to pay their respects to the dead.

Why Eid al-Adha is Often Misunderstood: The word “sacrifice” causes images of bloody, nasty torture rituals. But that isn’t the case. Eid’s sacrifices are akin to the slaughter of turkeys at Thanksgiving — with one exception: In the Middle East, people traditionally kill the animals themselves, while we have slaughterhouses do it.

Conveying Meaning to Kids: Giving food away is a concept all children can get on board with. You can then explain that Muslims give food away in order to honor Abraham. Maybe listen to some Egyptian music on Pandora while making cookies and then give the cookies away to neighbors. Or donate toys and clothes to local shelters. Be sure to check these delicious-looking Eid recipes out, as well. They’ll make your mouth water.

For more from the Holiday Cheat Sheet for Nonreligious Parents, click here.

This post originally appeared Nov. 7, 2011.

 

‘My Dearest Daughter’: Letter from an Atheist Mom

Letter WritingAtheist scientist Richard Dawkins once wrote a letter to his 10-year-old daughter about the importance of scientific evidence in weighing the legitimacy of religious claims. “To my dearest daughter,” his now-famous letter began. “Now that you are ten, I want to write to you about something that is important to me… Evidence.” His mission: to explain the vast chasm between faith and science, and make clear that science will always hold the trump card.

I’ve written before (rather poorly) about Dawkins’ letter and my own issues with it, but — as a non-believer, a parent and a writer myself — I can’t help but be drawn to the idea of putting my own feelings about religion in letter form. Instead of making a case for science — and, therefore, for atheism — I wanted to make a case for compassion, religious tolerance, and an appreciation of diversity.

The truth is, I’m not worried about science. Science is already a part of my daughter’s life; it comes up almost daily in our house. I don’t need to sell Maxine on biology or geology or meteorology or botany; she’s already a paying customer. I don’t need to sell her on the importance of evidence, either. She understands that evidence is something that is true, and faith is something that is believed. When you strip it down, the concept isn’t all that complex.

A dad once told me that he and his children didn’t often talk about religion directly in their house. “More often than not,” he said, “our conversations revolve around the ideas of evidence and logical reasoning. Religion hangs around the periphery of these conversations in the form of myth and magic.”

There’s nothing at all wrong with having conversations about evidence and logical reasoning. But if all religion does is “hang around the periphery,” there’s not a lot of room to give kids honest explanations for the belief systems of others, and not a lot of opportunity to send kids into the world ready to peacefully, confidently and happily interact with people from different cultures.

This was my thought, anyway — which was why, as a fun exercise, I wrote my own, decidedly non-Dawkinsian (!!) letter. I doubt I’ll ever give it to Maxine. My mission is to talk to her about religion, not write to her about it. Still, though, it could be a great reference point for me if I ever forget the point of all this. And maybe it will inspire others to put their own thoughts in writing.

To my dearest daughter,

I want to write to you about something that is important to a lot of people: Religion. As you know, religion is a a collection of beliefs, as well as views about how people ought to behave. Many beliefs involve a god or gods. Religion has been around for thousands and thousands of years. Many religions have faded with time, and many others have kept going. Some religions were formed quite recently.

Religion is very personal — meaning it varies widely from person to person — and people often feel strongly about it. So strong, in fact, that it often can lead to disagreements and hurt feelings — which is why you probably won’t learn much about it in school and why children aren’t often encouraged to talk about it on the playground.

Because your Daddy and I aren’t religious ourselves, and because nothing seems to be missing from your life, you might wonder why religion exists. Well, religion — all religions — were spread by human beings in response to certain questions and problems. The questions were things like: Why are we here?  What happens after we die? The problems were things like: death, suffering, sadness and abuse.

On a basic level, most religions are meant to make people’s lives better by giving them comfort and purpose and teaching them how to be good people. Most religions teach compassion, forgiveness, kindness and love. And those are all really great qualities, aren’t they? It’s no wonder so many people, including some of your own family members, are religious.

Of course, I know from personal experience that no one needs religion to be a good person, just as they don’t need religion to feel comfort or to have a purpose or to live a full and satisfying life.

Still, though, it’s important to me that you know about different religions and cultures for two reasons. First, I want you to make up your own mind about what you believe. And, second, I want you to be able to understand and appreciate all the different people you are going to meet during your life. Knowledge, awareness and curiosity are traits that tend to invite new and positive experiences — and I want nothing more than to see you fill your life with as many positive experiences as you can. In short, I think teaching you a bit about religion will help make you a happier person.

It’s also important that you know that religion has some downsides. Some people allow their religious beliefs to blind them. They use religious differences to justify war, even murder. They judge people who are different from them. Some people believe, for instance, that men shouldn’t fall in love with other men, or women shouldn’t fall in love with other women. Some people believe that women should not be allowed to have jobs, even if they really want them. Some people believe everyone should be forced to believe one particular thing or be put in jail, or even killed.

These things I mention are wrong because they hurt people who are just trying to live good lives and be true to themselves. And no one deserves to be hurt for that. In some ways, these kinds of actions seem very strange, because they go directly against the things I mentioned earlier: compassion, forgiveness, kindness and love.

In the next few years you will learn a lot about different religions and religious people. You may find you like the ideas in religion, connect to the beliefs, and want to try one out. You may also find you aren’t interested in religion, or that you don’t care for it at all. Whatever the case, I want you to know that what you believe and how you feel about religion doesn’t matter to me. Just like it doesn’t matter to me what other people in the world believe or think about religion. What does matter to me — and what I hope matters to you, too — is what’s in a person’s heart. What people do in life is what counts, not what they believe.

A lot of incredibly good people are religious, and a lot of incredibly good people are not religious. You can be either one, and, as long as you try to practice compassion, forgiveness, kindness and love, I’ll support you 100 percent. 

Thanks for listening,

Mom


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