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.

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.

Back When We Were Funny: 10 Religious Costumes for Kids

3dbcdf585c1faf54278852bf7274fac2.image.350x350

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.

'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

Inspiration for the Day: Walt Whitman's Eulogy

Before he died in 1892, the great American poet Walt Whitman asked his friend and fellow secularist Robert Green Ingersoll to deliver a eulogy at his funeral.

Ingersoll was a political leader and orator known as "The Great Agnostic," and the pair had been friends for a long time. Whitman once said of Ingersoll: "It should not be surprising that I am drawn to Ingersoll, for he is Leaves of Grass... He lives, embodies, the individuality, I preach. I see in Bob the noblest specimen — American-flavored — pure out of the soil, spreading, giving, demanding light." After reading a bit about Ingersoll and Whitman last night in Susan Jacoby's book "Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism," I decided to find the eulogy online. It didn't disappoint.

In my experience, the best eulogies do two things. First, they sum up the essence of a dead person both accurately and artfully. And, second, they inspire the living.

Ingersoll's eulogy, which I've included in full below, did that. After reading it, I had half a mind to CafePress a What Would Walt Whitman Do? sticker for my car. Although the whole thing is worth reading, the most (nonreligiously) relevant paragraph is this one:

You know better than I what his life has been, but let me say one thing. Knowing, as he did, what others can know and what they cannot, he accepted and absorbed all theories, all creeds, all religions, and believed in none. His philosophy was a sky that embraced all clouds and accounted for all clouds. He had a philosophy and a religion of his own, broader, as he believed — and as I believe — than others. He accepted all, he understood all, and he was above all.

Beautiful, right? It reminded me a lot of a quote by revolutionary writer Thomas Paine, author of The Age of Reason.

"My own mind," Paine wrote, "is my own church."

this-is-what-you-should-do-whitman

                   
                    A TRIBUTE TO WALT WHITMAN 
                    by Robert Green Ingersoll
                  Camden, N.J., March 30, 1892

     MY FRIENDS: Again we, in the mystery of Life, are brought face
to face with the mystery of Death. A great man, a great American,
the most eminent citizen of this Republic, lies dead before us, and
we have met to pay a tribute to his greatness and his worth.

     I know he needs no words of mine. His fame is secure. He laid
the foundations of it deep in the human heart and brain. He was,
above all I have known, the poet of humanity, of sympathy. He was
so great that he rose above the greatest that he met without
arrogance, and so great that he stooped to the lowest without
conscious condescension. He never claimed to be lower or greater
than any of the sons of men.

     He came into our generation a free, untrammeled spirit, with
sympathy for all. His arm was beneath the form of the sick. He
sympathized with the imprisoned and despised, and even on the brow
of crime he was great enough to place the kiss of human sympathy.

     One of the greatest lines in our literature is his, and the
line is great enough to do honor to the greatest genius that has
ever lived. He said, speaking of an outcast: "Not till the sun
excludes you do I exclude you."

     His charity was as wide as the sky, and wherever there was
human suffering, human misfortune, the sympathy of Whitman bent
above it as the firmament bends above the earth.

     He was built on a broad and splendid plan -- ample, without
appearing to have limitations -- passing easily for a brother of
mountains and seas and constellations; caring nothing for the
little maps and charts with which timid pilots hug the shore, but
giving himself freely with recklessness of genius to winds and
waves and tides; caring for nothing as long as the stars were above
him. He walked among men, among writers, among verbal varnishers
and veneerers, among literary milliners and tailors, with the
unconscious majesty of an antique god.

     He was the poet of that divine democracy which gives equal
rights to all the sons and daughters of men. He uttered the great
American voice; uttered a song worthy of the great Republic. No man
ever said more for the rights of humanity, more in favor of real

democracy, of real justice. He neither scorned nor cringed, was
neither tyrant nor slave. He asked only to stand the equal of his
fellows beneath the great flag of nature, the blue and stars.

     He was the poet of Life. It was a joy simply to breathe. He
loved the clouds; he enjoyed the breath of morning, the twilight,
the wind, the winding streams. He loved to look at the sea when the
waves burst into the whitecaps of joy. He loved the fields, the
hills; he was acquainted with the trees, with birds, with all the
beautiful objects of the earth. He not only saw these objects, but
understood their meaning, and he used them that he might exhibit
his heart to his fellow-men.

     He was the poet of Love. He was not ashamed of that divine
passion that has built every home in the world; that divine passion
that has painted every picture and given us every real work of art;
that divine passion that has made the world worth living in and has
given some value to human life.

     He was the poet of the natural, and taught men not to be
ashamed of that which is natural. He was not only the poet of
democracy, not only the poet of the great Republic, but he was the
Poet of the human race. He was not confined to the limits of this
country, but his sympathy went out over the seas to all the nations
of the earth.

     He stretched out his hand and felt himself the equal of all
kings and of all princes, and the brother of all men, no matter how
high, no matter how low.

     He has uttered more supreme words than any writer of our
century, possibly of almost any other. He was, above all things, a
man, and above genius, above all the snow-capped peaks of
intelligence, above all art, rises the true man, Greater than all
is the true man, and he walked among his fellow-men as such.

     He was the poet of Death. He accepted all life and all death,
and he justified all. He had the courage to meet all, and was great
enough and splendid enough to harmonize all and to accept all there
is of life as a divine melody.

     You know better than I what his life has been, but let me say
one thing. Knowing, as he did, what others can know and what they
cannot, he accepted and absorbed all theories, all creeds, all
religions, and believed in none. His philosophy was a sky that
embraced all clouds and accounted for all clouds. He had a
philosophy and a religion of his own, broader, as he believed --
and as I believe -- than others. He accepted all, he understood
all, and he was above all.

     He was absolutely true to himself. He had frankness and
courage, and he was as candid as light. He was willing that all the
sons of men should be absolutely acquainted with his heart and
brain. He had nothing to conceal. Frank, candid, pure, serene,
noble, and yet for years he was maligned and slandered, simply
because he had the candor of nature. He will be understood yet, and
that for which he was condemned -- his frankness, his candor --
will add to the glory and greatness of his fame.

     He wrote a liturgy for mankind; he wrote a great and splendid
psalm of life, and he gave to us the gospel of humanity -- the
greatest gospel that can be preached.

     He was not afraid to live, not afraid to die. For many years
he and death were near neighbors. He was always willing and ready
to meet and greet this king called death, and for many months he
sat in the deepening twilight waiting for the night, waiting for
the light.

     He never lost his hope. When the mists filled the valleys, he
looked upon the mountain tops, and when the mountains in darkness
disappeared, he fixed his gaze upon the stars.

     In his brain were the blessed memories of the day, and in his
heart were mingled the dawn and dusk of life.

     He was not afraid; he was cheerful every moment. The laughing
nymphs of day did not desert him. They remained that they might
clasp the hands and greet with smiles the veiled and silent sisters
of the night. And when they did come, Walt Whitman stretched his
hand to them. On one side were the nymphs of the day, and on the
other the silent sisters of the night, and so, hand in hand,
between smiles and tears, he reached his journey's end.

     From the frontier of life, from the western wave-kissed shore,
he sent us messages of content and hope, and these messages seem
now like strains of music blown by the "Mystic Trumpeter" from
Death's pale realm.

     To-day we give back to Mother Nature, to her clasp and kiss,
one of the bravest, sweetest souls that ever lived in human clay.

     Charitable as the air and generous as Nature, he was negligent
of all except to do and say what he believed he should do and
should say.

     And I to-day thank him, not only for you but for myself, --
for all the brave words he has uttered. I thank him for all the
great and splendid words he has said in favor of liberty, in favor
of man and woman, in favor of motherhood, in favor of fathers, in
favor of children, and I thank him for the brave words that he has
said of death.

     He has lived, he has died, and death is less terrible than it
was before. Thousands and millions will walk down into the "dark
valley of the shadow" holding Walt Whitman by the hand. Long after
we are dead the brave words he has spoken will sound like trumpets
to the dying.

     And so I lay this little wreath upon this great man's tomb. I
loved him living, and I love him still.

                          ********

                         Bank of Wisdom
                  Box 926, Louisville, KY 40201

 

Addressing 'God' in Secular Families: When is the Right Time?

When my daughter was 2, and barely out of diapers, she had her first Potty Emergency. We'd been having lunch when suddenly she rose and sprinted to the bathroom with the speed and determination of a hunted deer. I'd been hopeful she made it in time, but when I arrived several seconds later, she was standing in front of the toilet, fully clothed, staring down at a puddle on the floor. Her little shoulders had fallen. Without looking up at me, she shook her little head and said exactly what I would have said in the same situation:

"Jesus Christ."

I'm sure my Presbyterian ancestors would have been charmed to know the only thing my daughter knew about the Christian Messiah was that he made for an effective expletive.

In many nonreligious families, there aren't a lot of opportunities for religious references to arise outside of idioms, proverbs and occasional profanity. Few of us visit churches or attend mosque or synagogue or temple. We don't pray before meals. We don't emphasize the religious aspects of national holidays. We don't have Bibles or Qur'ans lying around. God just doesn't come up.

As a result, sometimes we don't know how to start the conversations. How do we kick things off? And when, exactly, are our kids ready to have these talks?

GodTalks

"I don't want to make a big deal of telling her I don't believe in God," one atheist mom told me, "but there never seems to be a right time to say it."

There is no magic age for God talk, and it depends a lot on the personality of the child, but kids are generally ready to start exploring ideas of spirituality around ages 4 or 5. This is when blossoming imaginations welcome supernatural ideas, and when concepts like good and evil come into focus. It's about this time, too, when inquisition replaces demand as the rhetorical tool of choice:  Why did this happen?" "What happens if someone does that?" And it's during these years they are first exposed to the reality that mom and dad don't have exclusive control of the thought process: kids at preschool and daycare also have ideas to share.

Watch carefully, and you'll see the signs of mental development, and a readiness for thoughts unrelated to immediate needs and wants. You may notice a new interest in how plants and insects die, curiosity about the sunshine, and a knack for picking up on anything "out of the ordinary." They'll pretty soon notice that people have different answers, different explanations, and that some of them will undoubtedly involve faith.

Even when you know the timing is right, the thought of broaching the subject of religion can be intimidating — even paralyzing. Many parents fret that they waited too long. Their children begin to "act" on what they hear without the benefit of context. They may assume that the religious ideas voiced by relatives or peers are absolute truth. They may learn to phrase things in ways that make their parents uncomfortable, which causes the parents to try to "undo" the children's learning.

Focus-on-Religion_14496806

"My son overheard a discussion that I was having with another adult," one mother told me. "When he heard me mention 'God' he asked: 'Do you mean the ‘One True God?' Apparently, his public school kindergarten teachers were praying with the kids in class."

This is not to say it's imperative that we parents are the ones to bring up religion. More than 50 percent of parents surveyed said their kids had brought up the subject themselves. Don't be surprised when the moment arrives. Accept the opportunity, and dive right in: "I'm glad your Uncle Joe brought it up!" you might say. "This is interesting stuff."

The trick, if there is a trick to this, is to let children's curiosity be your guide. Try not to tell them more than they want to know, or answer questions they're not asking. There's no need for a boring dissertation or a nervous oratory. Nothing needs to be forced or coerced.

Seriously, if talking about religion is anything other than natural and interesting, you're probably trying too hard.

It's a Fine Line Between Truth and Propaganda

Recently, on Hemant Mehta's FriendlyAthiest blog, I came across a video done by a guy who runs a Facebook page called Religion Hurts Humanity. The video, titled What Religions Have Contributed to the World This Month, is nine minutes full of news clips and headlines detailing all the terrible things done in the name of religion during the last 30 days. The amount of material alone makes the video pretty compelling. Here are some of the featured headlines:

Islamic militants kill 30 in Nigeria School attack 

Islamic states reject UN's attempt to protect women: It violates Sharia Law

Boy killed for an off-hand remark about Muhammad

Female genital mutilation victim was 'aged just seven' 

Children report sexual abuse cases by Bhutan's Buddhist monks

Scandal at the Vatican: Official Arrested in $26 million Corruption Plot

Serial sex offender priest told 7-year-old victim he could get dead grandfather into heaven

Exorcism Gone Wrong? Woman Goes Into Cardiac Arrest During Ritual

'Spiritual healer' George Goak guilty of groping patients

India villagers kill two for 'witchcraft'

Now, truthfully, if I didn't blog about religion, I probably wouldn't have watched the whole video. It was a real downer seeing that many horrific headlines all strung together like that. Not that the video doesn't have value. I think it's important to point out the role religious beliefs are playing in the world, especially when religious organizations are given 501(c)(3) status and protected from prosecution in some cases.

However — you knew that was coming, didn't you? — in seeking to influence our feelings about religion by presenting only one set of facts, this particular video amounts to little more than propaganda — pretty effective propaganda at that. As a viewer, I found myself  getting angry — angry at the people who have done these terrible things, angry at their religions for being a part of it, angry at religious people for having something in common with the those who had committed these terrible acts.

But then I thought critically about what I was watching. (Let's hear it for critical thinking!) Yes, religion provides a lot of headline fodder, but the stories in this one video don't share any of the good things that religious people do — and, perhaps even more importantly, they represent a fraction of the awful, terrible, tragic things that go in general  every month.

10030271_h23302287_custom-b36e0cb541df443cc59199e783c085119bd665c2-s6-c30Consider this: Moments after watching the video, I saw this headline from Reuters: Indian school lunch poisoning: doctors race to save children. It came with a picture of a grandmother, in anguish, over the loss of her grandson to a rice and potato curry tainted by insecticide. (That's her on the left; tears your heart out, right?) The story was just as horrible as anything you'll see on the video — and it has nothing to do with religion.

It's much harder to be sad and scared than to be angry — which is why so many of us are quick to turn to the latter. And it's much harder to be angry when there's nowhere to direct the anger. Would genital mutilation be easier to stomach if it were simply cultural, rather than religious? Is molestation and child rape less vile when committed by people born with mental illnesses? Which breaks your heart more: to hear about children who died senselessly because of an Islamic attack, or to hear about children who died senselessly because a vat of food was accidentally poisoned? How can we qualify that?

My hope is that someday religious belief won't need to be put under the microscope like this because more people will be willing to see religion as a human creation rather than a divine creation. No version of "God" gives people cart blanche to be morally reprehensible human beings — which, I do think, is the video's core message.

But let's at least shoot for honesty. For the sake of the next generation, let's try to view religion for what it is: something (like so many other things!) that compels and enables people to do really wonderful and truly terrible things.

No denials, no excuses, no special treatment. No exaggeration.

And — please, brothers — no more propaganda.

4 Reasons I Love Being 'Out' as Nonreligious

ODD_Atheist_Billboard_Church_022da I have no firm opinion, really, on whether people ought to "come out" as nonreligious. To me, religion doesn't matter very much — aside from, you know, it being a constant focus of my life right now — so whether people choose to talk about it openly or not isn't a concern of mine. Sure, there are reasons to do it. There are reasons not to, as well. Everyone has a million different factors — not the least of which is their geographic location — to consider before making that call for themselves.

Not believing in God is not like being a gay, lesbian or transgender. Sharing your "status" with others is not required to live a normal, healthy life. Unless you choose to be an activist, you probably don't adopt behaviors that make you stand out as a None. You don't necessarily know or want to know where your friends fall on the religious spectrum. And even if you do, you may just prefer to remain silent — keeping your ambivalence, uncertainty or lack of belief to yourselves.

Fine, I say. Who cares?

Having said that, for me personally, being “out” has been wonderful. Here's why.

1. I enjoy shattering people’s assumptions. I don’t fit the media’s stereotype of non-believer — who does, right? — so it’s nice to be able to spread the “good word” that atheists, agnostics and other Nones are just as likely as the next guy to be engaging people, good parents and involved community members. I particularly enjoy slipping my atheism into conversation with religious people who already know and like me; it forces them to confront their own stereotypes. Always a good thing.

2. I like religious people more now. When you’re closeted, it’s way too easy to sit back and become preemptively resentful. We might feel pissed that others are “free” to share their views while we must keep ours to ourselves. We might assume that people’s reactions would be negative if ever we were to out ourselves. But when you’re out — and when you’re truly nice about it — the reactions from religious people are far more positive than negative. People may be curious. They may be confused. They may quietly disapprove. But, in my experience, religious people have been, outwardly, quite lovely about my lack of belief. (As lovely, incidentally, as I am about their belief.) They don’t insult me or shy away from me. They don’t avoid the subject (well, some do, and that’s okay!) or make snide comments. They don’t try to change me. And with every positive experience I have, I am more open and less judgmental of "religious people" as a whole.  I find that the more “out” I am, the better I feel about the people around me.

3. I'm setting an example for my child. Not believing in God is nothing to be ashamed of, but being open about our disbelief does — I believe — require a bit of finesse. We ought not just blurt it out it anger. We ought not invoke it as a weapon. We ought not talk about it excessively, just because we "can." I don't want my child to ever feel ashamed to share her beliefs with others — whatever those beliefs — but I also want to be a good role model for how to go about it without being a dick.

4. I’m opening the door for others. You wouldn’t believe how many people in our day-to-day consider themselves nonreligious; and the look of relief on their faces when they learn you aren’t religious can be priceless. It’s like the floodgates open. There’s this whole, rather fascinating aspect of your life — and theirs — that can be tapped for great conversation. By being open myself first, I’m showing others that it’s okay to make the first move. In fact, it can make friendships — and maybe life — even better.