I was raised in a Christian home and was taught very little about other religions. I also attended a Christian school for a number of years where I was taught a great deal of misinformation about other beliefs, most of which revolved around their rejection of Jesus Christ as the Lord, or that even that some Christians who didn’t understand the Bible correctly and wanted to lead me astray from my faith, guaranteeing me a place in hell.
Had I not taken an interest in world religions later in life, I would not have questioned the misinformation I was given and would have a drastically different view, likely thinking the worst of other religions.
And so when I began researching subjects for my latest book Parenting Without God, one popular question from parents was how to teach religion, or whether they should teach it at all. Many felt religion was harmful to society so they should avoid the subject altogether.
It didn’t take long to discover that it is not only non-religious parents who confront this dilemma. Religious parents struggle with teaching their children about other religions in the same way. Christian parents, Muslim parents, Jewish parents, you name it, they all face a time when they have to address what others believe, and the common response I found was that they just tell their children everyone else is wrong.
Parents should avoid this didacticism because it relies on teaching our children what to think when we should actually be teaching our children how to think. As an atheist, I believe that Christianity is the wrong worldview, but simply telling my child this accomplishes nothing expect making him agree with me because he doesn’t know any better. Instead, I should foster his inquisitive mind and encourage him to learn and explore belief systems from around the world.
This approach encourages children to think critically by comparing and contrasting ideas. If they find religions with conflicting beliefs they can ask how both could be right, how both could be wrong, and how would you go about finding out the truth?
The search for the truth is not easy and can mean being critical of many beliefs. I encourage others to be critical of all religion, but I believe criticism should be based on statements of fact, not biased misinformation, much like the information I received growing up.
However, before you approach the subject of religion you will need to decide how much your child can handle at his or her age. I am of the belief that starting the conversation around 10-years-old is a good age when a child is inquisitive and excited to learn, though some situations may force you to start the discussion earlier as school kids, family members or other parents could bring the subject up. As a parent you will have to use your best judgment about how much your child can handle and what ideas they can understand and process. If you’re a parent who doesn’t believe in the concept of Hell, the last thing you want to do is then put that fear in them when they are too young to realize Hell may in fact be a myth.
Determining your child’s ability to comprehend different subjects will have to come from your own observation, there is no magic age when your child will suddenly be capable of processing ideas critically. Are they questioning Santa? If so, they are starting to think and question claims that sound too good to be true and this may be a sign that they can handle a slightly more serious discussion. If, on the other hand they still have a hard time telling real and fictional characters apart on television or in books, they clearly are not ready to delve into the metaphysics of religious belief.
Teaching your child about religion is no easy task though, and be prepared for an onslaught of questions, but also encourage such questions, even those that question the fundamentals of your own beliefs. Start with the religion you know best, either the one you belong to, or perhaps belonged to and explain why people believe this to be true and what they hope to gain from this belief, for Christianity is often the reward of an everlasting life or fear of eternal punishment. If the child is old enough you can review the history of the religion both good and bad, and address modern day issues of when groups inside the religion have done good deeds and bad.
Once you have laid a foundation for a single belief, you can build off that by showing how this belief conflicts with another, or how they align with others. Christianity and Islam both believe in a God and in reality it is the same Abrahamic God, but they have different prophets and they believe in different methods of connecting with and spending eternity with their version of God. Doing this encourages them to be critical of beliefs, others and their own.
We should all be critical of our own beliefs and question them often. Physicist and host of the Cosmos series, Neil deGrasse Tyson, was quoted as saying, “My view is that if your philosophy is not unsettled daily then you are blind to all the universe has to offer.” This is a good philosophy to teach our children. Of course, as parents we naturally hope our children follow our beliefs. Letting go of that kind of control is not easy, but we must understand that raising our children to be critical thinkers has long-term benefits not only for their future, but also for society as a whole.
Parents should accept that teaching religion is not simply a tool to help children have a better understanding of belief. Because it will encourage critical thinking skills in all aspects of life, it will also help them better understand local and world conflicts between religious groups.
Look at a situation like ISIS and use this as a teaching example of moderate versus extremist religious beliefs and how groups can use religious doctrine to justify evil actions. This is the same way moderate Christians differ from groups like the Westboro Baptist Church.
So if you have taken the time to explain to your child what the Islamic religion is, you can look at the beliefs and actions of the moderate believers around the world and compare those with those like the members of ISIS, do the teachings of Islam permit the actions ISIS is carrying out? Ask your child what he or she thinks and why. You’re not necessarily looking for the “right” answer here, religious scholars cannot even agree to what degree ISIS represents Islam, but you want your child to be able to explain to you why they think as they do. Too often opinions are formed because children appeal to authority. Someone on the news says ISIS is an Islamic organization, but then someone like President Obama goes on television and says they are not. We know both cannot be right, so how does your child feel about this?
Imagine a culture that has little insight into Christianity and only managed to glean what they know from the media– they would see hateful signs and scientific illiteracy, something we know is not representative of Christians as a whole. Just as we don’t want other groups spreading misinformation about our own views, we owe them the same respect.
As an atheist I spend a lot of time defending atheism, not from its disbelief, but from others preconceived notions of what being an atheist means. Often it is thought atheists have no basis in morality and therefore anything goes, or they believe that atheists are simply people angry with God. So in the same way I do not want people to have the wrong information about atheism, I don’t want my child to have wrong information about people’s religions.
Teaching our children about everyone’s beliefs allows belief to be discussed critically and without xenophobia. It removes the stigma of discussing or criticizing religion by both those inside and outside the faiths. Finding the common ground between religious and non-religious groups can only happen when these groups understand each other, and their differences can be more easily understood when they are based on facts. So we don’t simply owe it to our children to educate them in world religions, we owe it to society.