A question posed on the PBS Facebook page earlier this month asked parents: How young is too young to talk to your kids about religion? More than 1,100 people weighed in with their answers — and many of them answered with some variation on this comment:
Teaching religion to a child is a form of child abuse in my opinion… It sets up their prejudices and guilt… the invisible sky daddy is no different than other mythologies.
In other words: Any age is too young. Parents should not talk to their kids about religion.
This, in my opinion, is among the top three mistakes secular parents are making when it comes to addressing religion with kids. (The others are 1) returning to religion “for the kid’s sake” and 2) indoctrinating kids against religion.)
Just to clarify, talking to kids about religion is not the same as teaching them to be religious. Religious literacy does not equal religious training.
The following is an excerpt from my book. It does a better job than I could do now in explaining why, I believe, giving religion the silent treatment in secular homes is fraught with potential problems.
Kids uninformed about religious matters have no frame of reference when they hear the term “Garden of Eden” or see a Star of David hanging in a car window or groups of people putting fresh fruit before a Buddhist shrine. They may be confused about why their friends seem to have been given a set of facts that they haven’t. Some children end up feeling self-conscious, left out, even embarrassed by their lack of knowledge. They don’t understand why Jesus died on a cross, why Muslims pray on the ground, or why a thing isn’t kosher. And when religion is avoided, there’s no chance to talk about religious tolerance.
Christine Tsien Silvers, a doctor and mother of three small children was among a number of people I’ve interviewed who have been raised within the cone of religious silence and wish they hadn’t been.
Silvers believed for years that Easter was simply a time to go on egg hunts and celebrate bunnies. “I didn’t know until college—at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, no less—that Easter was a religious holiday at all.”
Elizabeth Claire, a retired mother and grandmother from Virginia, had a similar experience.
“My mother said to tell, if anyone asked, that we belonged to the ‘interdenominational church,’ which I couldn’t pronounce—so never had a chance to say.”
When she was twelve, Claire’s sick grandmother—whom she’d only seen a handful of times—called her to the bedside and asked Elizabeth to “always read the Bible.”
“I had no idea what a Bible was or where to get one—until years later, my sister’s boyfriend swiped a Gideon’s Bible [from a hotel] and gave it to me as a gift,” Claire said.
She read it when she was eighteen, and it astounded her. Adam and Eve, The Coat of Many Colors, Daniel and the Lion’s Den. She knew all these stories by heart—having found them among the other children’s books at school. But she’d had no clue they’d come from “the book that Christians believe is the word of God.”
Lauren Covello works in a publishing house outside Philadelphia. Her father wasn’t just non-religious; he was openly anti-religious. Instead of talking with his children about different beliefs, he dismissed all of it as brainwashing. As a result, Covello told me, she never had a chance to understand religion—what attracts people to it, what makes it so meaningful.
“My parents claimed we could be anything we wanted to be,” Covello recalled, “but they never exposed us to religion, and I’m pretty sure they would have laughed if I said I wanted to be a Buddhist.”
Now, she said, she and her three siblings “don’t know much about any particular religion and find it hard to see the value in other people’s beliefs. . . . When people are against or for something in the name of religion, it’s impossible for me to have any empathy at all for them.”
Unfortunately, the consequences of silence are not limited to ignorance, embarrassment, and intolerance. Gaps in a child’s cultural knowledge may become the proverbial vacuum that nature abhors, waiting to be filled with any number of errant ideas and, yes, even beliefs.
Ignoring religion can quickly turn religion into the elephant in the room—the child’s room.
Austin Cline, once a regional director for the Council for Secular Humanism who writes about atheism and agnosticism for about.com, told me he was deeply concerned about the number of non-religious parents whose instincts are to gloss over the topic with their children.
“Avoiding discussions about religion is like avoiding discussions about sex,” Cline said, totally stealing my metaphor from me. “The parent isn’t made to feel uncomfortable, but the child is left on their own without rudder or guidance.”
The most extreme cases, Cline said, involve situations in which children are dissatisfied with the guidance they’re getting at home and go elsewhere for answers. Some children pick up religion from their friends and believe it without question; they may even venture into fundamentalist sects that jeopardize their physical or mental health.
Dale McGowan, co-author and editor of Raising Freethinkers: A Practical Guide for Parenting Beyond Belief, told me that he regularly talks with non-believing parents whose children join evangelist Christian groups or fundamentalist churches as teenagers. These parents come to him desperate for answers, wondering how such a thing could have happened when religion was never a topic of conversation in their families.
“That,” McGowan always tells them, “is what you did wrong.” Avoiding the topic of religion may make religion into something myste- rious, and even enticing for some children. “It’s the forbidden fruit,” he said. “It’s this thing that sort of freaks Mom and Dad out.”
Angsty teenagers depressed about poor grades, unhappy with their friends, or uncertain about their places in the world may become especially susceptible to outside influences, when religion has never, or rarely, been discussed in their homes. All that some of them need is to be told the secret to happiness is behind Church Door Number 1; suddenly, they turn away from the practical support of their parents in favor of something completely different—a promise of something better, something bigger, something . . . supernatural.
McGowan calls this process “religious hijacking.”
Some parents have told me that they don’t wish to talk about religion in their secular homes because they don’t want to make a big deal out of something that, to them, isn’t a big deal.
“It’s just not a very important subject,” one parent said.
I asked McGowan about this. He said he sympathized with these parents, but pointed out that the question isn’t whether religion is important to certain individuals, but whether it’s important, period. And the answer, of course, is an unequivocal yes. Religion is worth talking about precisely because it’s so important to so many people—people our children know and love.
Simply put, religion is everywhere we want to be. It’s in our art and architecture, music and literature, plays, poetry and movies. It’s steeped in our language, expressions, and clichés. It fills our history books and guides our politics. It’s the reason we get our weekends off. It’s on our money.
More broadly, religion is blamed for violence, wars, racism, sexism, child abuse, ritualistic killings, suicide cults, intolerance, hatred, and acts of terrorism. At the same time, it’s credited with enormous acts of charity and goodwill, for bringing help to the desolate and meaning to the lost, for creating communities, reminding people of what’s important in life, and for giving human beings hope, purpose, and joy. Even for those of us with no emotional attachments to faith, religion is an integral way of understanding our history, and of learning about and benefitting from the people in our lives. So, yes, religion is important.
To deny that is, in a way, to deny reality—an irony given that most secularists pride themselves on doing just the opposite.
When it comes to religion, there is sometimes a disconnect between wanting and doing. In an effort to protect children, we scare them. In an effort to teach them, we confuse them. In an effort to be honest with them, we indoctrinate them. Too often, kids are left to fend for themselves when it comes to understanding religion and religious people. They get glimpses of “the other side” but aren’t able to see the big picture. And, as the world becomes more global, the big picture is mattering more and more.
One of the most unfortunate things I learned from Manning’s study was that parents who take it upon themselves to provide religious guidance at home often fail. They don’t necessarily know how to steer the discussions, she said, and quite often end up abandoning their efforts. Silence, again, becomes the reigning winner in the realm of non-religious parenting.
It doesn’t have to be that way.
This is the third part of a three-part series in response to some of the more common criticisms of my work. Be sure to read Part I: ‘It’s Not What You Believe, But What You Do in Life That Matters’: An Explainer and Part II: Does Raising Kids Without God-Induced Morality Require Moral Relativism?