I talk a lot in my book (and this blog) about the importance of introducing secular kids to religious concepts, ideas and people. In my view, and maybe yours too, this is the only way kids can build compassion, literacy and genuine tolerance for the religious in their midst.
But the same is true in reverse.
As America becomes more secular — 23 percent of us are Nones, according to the most recent Pew Research figures — it’s becoming increasingly important that religious parents talk to their kids about us. Religious kids need to be introduced to nonreligious concepts, ideas and people so that they, too, can build literacy and tolerance for the nonbelievers in their midst.
Okay, I realize this may be a hard sell.
Many religious parents will undoubtedly see this line of tolerance-building as opening doors that they want to keep closed. Some have hell to contend with, after all. Some worry about what Grandma will say. Some would rather not open themselves up for tough questions (not to mention doubts).
I get it.
But this is important. Kindness is important. Tolerance is important. Talking to kids about subjects that seem tough to you is important. Sex. Death. Racism. Transgender rights. Religion. And, yes, atheism.
So here are four simple things you can say to your kids to build a little tolerance for me and my family — and the millions of others like me. (Thank you in advance, by the way. Seriously.)
- Tell kids nonbelievers exist. It’s amazing how many of my daughter’s friends have been downright floored by the fact that she doesn’t know whether she believes in God. It had never occurred to them that religion was a set of beliefs at all; in their minds, religion — their religion — was just, you know, the truth. You might say: “Some people believe in God; some don’t. Some people believe in Jesus; some don’t. Some people believe in Muhammad; some don’t.” (You get the idea.) Also, do me a huge favor and introduce the A-word by saying, “Atheists are people who don’t believe in God.” Too often atheism gets lumped in with anti-theism, and I’d love to see that change.
- Tell kids that most nonbelievers — like most believers — are good people. This goes hand-in-hand with No. 1. Because religious people often use their religion as a framework by which to teach morality, kids might assume that only people who believe in God (or Buddha or Shiva) are good people. Let’s rectify that. Morality is, after all, taught in many different ways. Talking point: “Just because someone doesn’t believe what you do doesn’t make them a bad person.”
- Tell kids to treat people kindly, no matter their beliefs. Many religious parents don’t do this — not because they want their kids to be intolerant jerks, but because it honestly doesn’t occur to them. They are focused on wanting their own kids to be good people (and believing in God is a part of that!) But the words parents use get repeated in mixed company, and that can (ironically) end up hurting people. To prevent this, say something like: “It’s important to me that you believe in God for all kinds of reasons, but I also recognize that not everyone is the same, not everyone’s brains work in the same way, and everyone deserves to be treated kindly – no matter wht they believe.”
- Tell kids that everyone has a right to their beliefs — and they don’t need to be “talked out” of those beliefs. I do realize that evangelizing is a part of some religions, and some kids will very much want to “save” their friends. But kids need to understand that talking about religion should be reserved for kids who WANT to talk about religion. Try this: “I know it can be hard, but you need to respect other people’s boundaries. You wouldn’t want a friend to convince you Jesus isn’t God; so don’t try to convince others that he is.”