New Blog: Natural Wonderers

Pack your bags, folks. We're hittin' the road. As of this week, I'll be hosting a brand-spanking-new blog over on Patheos called Natural Wonderers: Raising Curious, Compassionate Kids in a Secular Family. The idea for the blog came from Dale McGowan, who is now a managing editor there and invited me to take on the project this summer. The timing is perfect, as I've just wrapped up my book (due for release in March) and will tasked with promoting it over the next six or eight months.

The archives from this blog have already been moved over to the new digs and, at some point, I'm told, you'll be automatically diverted there whenever you try to come here. (Kind of like being forced onto one of those parking lot trams at Disneyland. You won't really have a choice.) Also, I'll be sending subscriber updates from the new blog, so try not to freak out when that happens.

I think this is going to be a great change for two main reasons:

1. Secular Parenting will get more exposure. Patheos, if you've never heard of it, a humongous network of, like, 400 blogs on all kinds of different faiths (and non-faiths.) It's often called the "WebMD of religion and spirituality." So, basically, I'm a doctor now.

2. You'll get more voices. Although I'll be hosting and running the blog — and continuing on with the work I've started here — Natural Wonderers will have lots of guest contributors, as well.  In fact, I hope that many of you will offer to write for a regular segment I'm planning to call "Bragging Rights," in which nonreligious parents will tell about how they successfully tackled a challenging issue or question arising from their lack of belief. (Please e-mail me if you're interested!)

I'm exceedingly happy about the opportunity and can't thank you all enough for supporting me these last four years. Hope to see you on the other side.

xo WTR, MD

Relax, It's Just God: Last Call!

Big news! I finished my book!

Relax, It's Just God: How and Why to Talk to Your Kids About Religion When You're Not Religious is slated for release March 31, 2015 — just in time to not be given out as Christmas gifts. What timing! I'm super excited, and grateful to all of you who have stuck with me all this time. How did four years go by? Jesus Christ. My kid is old now.

I'll be updating you as regularly as I can, but in the meantime, let this serve as last call: If you'd like something specifically to be covered in the book — or have a particularly nagging question or concern — let me know that now! It's not too late, but will be soon.

"Mommy, What's Confession?"

confessionalLast week, I gave you some simple language with which to explain Catechism in a non-religious way. Today, because it's sort of related, we'll tackle one of the specific rites of passage taught at CCD: Confession.  First, let me say this, rites of passage are massively important parts of organized religion. Without rites, there would be nothing to be affiliated with, nothing to conform to, nothing to hold a group together. Beliefs are important, too — don't get me wrong! — but beliefs are more like the foundation. Customs are the framework. They make religion religion, rather than just spirituality.

The type and number of religious rites, AKA sacraments, observed vary from one religion to the next religion. Catholics have, arguably, the most sacraments — seven of those suckers! — but others have only two or three. Examples of religious rites would be baptism, circumcision, coming of age ceremonies, marriage, pilgrimages, communion, confirmation, confession and death.

I recently had the occasion to explain confession to my daughter—a pub we visited in England had an old church confessional inside, and she was playing in it—so that's why I chose to start with this particular sacrament. (I promise to cover baptism and circumcision soon.)

So what is confession?

The short answer:

Confession is telling someone all the bad things you do.

The long answer: 

If you steal a cookie from the cookie jar, and then you come and tell me about it and apologize, that's a confession. You have confessed to me. Well, some religious people believe that instead of just confessing to your mom or dad or friend or grandma about the bad things you do, you must confess to God, too. They believe God knows and cares about all bad deeds (which are sometimes called "sins"), and therefore confessing is a very important part of their religion. Some people confess directly to God or Allah or Buddha during their prayers; others confess to  a religious leader; still others get together in a group and confess their bad deeds as a group.

If appropriate, and the child is old enough, you might even engage in a conversation about the possible benefits and drawbacks of religious confession. Because there are many.

As always, if you'd like to see something specific addressed as part of the "Mommy, What's That?" series, I'd love to hear them!

"Mommy, What's Catechism?"

1959catechism_class

This segment of "Mommy, What's That?" — a series where you can find simple, straightforward and age-appropriate language to explain religious ideas to children in non-religious ways — comes courtesy of a reader, Chris. Chris told me that some of his daughter's friends are in CCD — short for the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine AKA "Catechism" — and he is having a little trouble coming up with the language to explain it to his little one.

1959catechism_class

If you don't know already, CCD is basically Catholic instruction for kids who attend secular schools. It's meant to 1) teach about the Catholic faith and 2) ready children to become Catholics. In a sense, it's indoctrination in its most classic form: Teaching children to believe, through "classes" — because, you know, it's educational! Like school! — to adopt one, single perspective to the exclusion of all other perspectives. I'm not a big fan.

BUT, hey, other people I like and admire see it as a harmless way to introduce kids to the Catholic culture. And if balanced out at home with other perspectives and the assurance that Catholicism is a choice, like any other choice, then I think it's just fine. My aim is not to keep secular children away from religion — or from people who wish to indoctrinate them! — but rather to teach kids to think critically, value science, and to take charge of their own belief systems.

Now back to Chris' question. How can you explain Catechism in your secular home?

The short answer:

CCD is a school that teaches kids how to be a part of a religion called Catholicism.

The long answer:

Many people think it's important for their children to grow up to know about and believe they way they believe, so they will send their children to special schools to learn these things. Jewish kids might go to Hebrew School, Catholic kids might go to Catholic School, etc. CCD is a special type of Catholic school that is only held on weekends and week nights, and where kids can learn all about Catholic beliefs and what it takes to be a Catholic.* Any child can take CCD classes — including you! — but the kids who take them usually feel pressured to believe what they learn there. And we want you to learn about lots of different religious — rather than just one — and make up your own mind about what to believe. If you want to know more about the classes, though, why not ask your friends what they are learning? I bet they'd love to share that with you."

* If you want to take a minor tangent, Chris, you might tell your daughter that Catholics have sacraments, which means that they believe God wants them to take part in certain activities — and then give her an example or two. I'll touch on some of them — baptism, confession and communion — in the coming days. So look for that!

And let me know in the comments if this answers your question!

Quick! What the Hell is Vesak Day?

Man, I loves me some Buddhism.

It's all just so common sensical. By following even one tenant in the Buddha's Noble Eightfold Path — or at least trying — you are almost guaranteed to improve your life. If the Buddha were alive today, I'm certain he would be a self-help guru. He'd make a damn good one, too.

Although Buddhism is unlike any other religion (in that you don't need to believe in a deity at all), it's still got some of the classic markers, and the celebration of holidays is one of them.

So here's a brief rundown on a biggie in the Buddhist world: Vesak Day.

Holiday: Vesak (pronounced VEE-sak)

AKA: Wesak or Vesākha

Religion Represented: Buddhism

Celebrates: The life, enlightenment and death of the Buddha.

Date: Most countries celebrate Vesak on the 15th day of the fourth month in the Chinese lunar calendar. In 2014, it falls on May 14, although it's being celebrated the 15th and 16th in other parts of the world.

On a Scale of 1 to 10: Vesak scores a perfect 10, according to my friend Tracey Nguyen, the granddaughter Buddhist monks. There is nothing more important than the life and times of the Buddha.

Star of the Show: Siddhartha Guantama, AKA the Buddha

Back Story: Siddhartha Guantama was the Hindu-born son of an Indian king born somewhere between 400 and 560 BC. Although stories of his birth vary, most sacred texts hold that Siddhartha was born in a field, in the foothills of the Himalayas. He was said to have magically sprung from his mother's side, bathed in golden light. Siddhartha's mother died only days later, and Siddhartha was raised by his father and his aunt inside the sprawling walls of the king's palace. Siddhartha did not see suffering — illness, old age and death — until he was well into adulthood; and, when he did, it deeply affected him. Before the age of 30, he left his home and his crown behind and became an ascetic, or "holy man" — which meant he would wander his country, meditating, and relying on the kindness of strangers for food. His goal was singular: to find an end to human suffering. At one point during his years-long journey, Siddhartha stopped eating and grew desperately thin and weak. When he became too weak to meditate, he finally accepted food. It was at this point that he experienced his "Enlightenment" and became known as the Buddha.

What's the Deal with Enlightenment?: According to scripture, the Buddha was sitting beneath a Bodhi tree, meditating, when he devised of the Four Noble Truths (the cause of all human suffering) and the Noble Eightfold Path (the solution). This is what is referred to as his Enlightenment. His realization was rather simple: If people followed the Eightfold Path, they could eliminate their suffering (as he had done!) and thereby achieve Nirvana. It was an extraordinary conclusion, and he spent the next 40 to 50 years expanding on it so that others could practice it for themselves. Much revered, Buddha died at the ripe old age of 80(ish.)

Associated Literary Passages: The Buddha-carita of Aśvaghoṣa (A second translation is here), The DhammapadaThe Gospel of Buddha by Paul Carus, and The Life of Buddha by Andre Ferdinand Herold, among others.

The Food and Fun: Buddhists partake in any number of Asian dishes on Vesak, but consume no meat — a symbol of their compassion for all living things. They also visit monasteries, give to charity, hang lanterns, decorate with flowers, and listen to lessons offered by monks. Often, they'll  have parades of musicians, dancers, floats and dragons. A Baby Buddha statue is a commonality, and celebrants often pour water over the statue to symbolize, among other things, a pure and new beginning. Most importantly, Buddhists reaffirm their devotion to the Buddha's 10 precepts and teachings.

Conveying meaning to kids: It's never too early to introduce youngsters to the Buddha and his Eightfold path, and Vesak is a great excuse. You might also might consider making paper lanterns or drawing pictures of lotus blossoms. Show your child some pictures of Buddhist monks. Enjoy a vegetarian meal. Check out some books: I particularly like Buddha by Susan L. Roth. Make a Buddhist flag and fly it. If there's one thing I've learned about talking to kids about religion, it's that it really helps to have props: A menorah on the table during Hanukkah, a nativity scene at Christmas. Consider picking up a Buddha statue or statuette — something for your child to look at and touch while you talk about Buddhism. It’s the difference between books without pictures and those with; you're just more likely to hold the kid's attention if you present something interesting for them to look at.

This post originally appeared in April 2012.

My Kid’s New (And Adorably Diplomatic) Theory of Evolution

Friends
Friends

My daughter has this tendency to go all existentialist on me while riding in the car. I’m not sure what it is about this particular setting that motivates these sorts of talks. Is it sitting still with nothing else to do? Is it gazing up at the sky? Do all kids do this? Anyway, the other day, while driving Maxine and one of her friends to the pool, I listened as the two struck up a conversation about God. I can’t remember how it started (I didn’t turn on the voice recorder until later), but at some point they exchanged belief systems: The friend — a girl from a vaguely Christian, though not outwardly religious, family — said she believed in God. Maxine said she went back and forth on the matter.

When I’m adult, she told her friend, I probably won’t believe in God.

Really?, her friend asked, with equal parts surprise and confusion.

Here’s where the conversation went from there.

FRIEND: Well then how did we get here?

MAXINE: Oh I know how we got here. Long story.

FRIEND: Then I want to hear it. Tell me.

MAXINE: Okay. Well, there was this really little animal and that became a bigger animal and that became a bigger animal, then it grew to be a person. And the first person in the universe was that. Probably a cave person.

FRIEND: No, I know who the first person on Earth was: Adam.

MAXINE: Yeah.

FRIEND: And I know who the second person in the universe was. It was a girl. Eve. Adam gave birth to Eve…

MAXINE: No, I don’t think Adam gave birth to Eve.

FRIEND: No. I know that’s not true.

MAXINE: Adam and Eve had children and then they had children and then there was a bunch of universe of children. Ta-dah! Like my explanation?

FRIEND: Yes.

[Long pause]

FRIEND: But did…? How…? Wait. Okay, I don’t get this… If our families are different, who started our family? Like because there’s a big, huge generation — but how did it start?

MAXINE: Well, I think it started with cavemen before Adam. Because he’s probably the first person—like human being— and it probably started with cavemen. And then there was a weird caveman who probably gave birth to a person. Adam.

FRIEND: Adam.

MAXINE: Adam.

[Brief pause]

MAXINE: Hey, do you want to play Adam and Eve?

FRIEND: No.

MAXINE: Yeah, me neither.

I've always found it curious, as I'm sure you have, as to how some devoutly religious people can find factual truth in the Biblical story of Adam and Eve within the context of evolution.

Leave to second-graders to reconcile the irreconcilable.

5 Reasons to 'Design Your Own Deity'

Paleolithic Buddha Goddess

FridgeWhen I first found this "Design Your Own Deity" magnetic play set, I was a little pissed at you. Yes, you. All 15 of you.

Because if you guys would have just TOLD me that this existed, I would not have been forced to find it, completely randomly, behind a bunch of other cheese-ball stuff at a warehouse-sized gift emporium in Palm Springs this weekend.

"Seriously," I thought, holding this priceless* item in my hands and trying to conjure each of your 15 faces. "Do you guys even know me anymore? There is literally nothing I want more in this world than to make a house of worship on my refrigerator."

Then  it occurred to me that maybe you guys weren't fuckwits at all.

Maybe — just maybe — YOU didn't know this existed, either. It's a theory that was reinforced once I got up to the counter and even the store clerk acted shocked about my purchase. "That's great!" he said, turning it over to inspect the back. "Where did you find it?"

Anyway, I'm really sorry about the fuckwits thing. That was wrong. I love you guys more than you know.

Warning

Now, a little about the magnets: Made by the Unemployed Philosopher's Guild, the set includes the following deities (I've linked to their Wiki definitions): Ganesha, Jehovah, Paleolithic Goddess, Cocijo, Tlingit Eagle,  Jesus, Medusa, Yeshe Khandro, Xenu (Xenu!), Isis, Zeus, Buddha, Satan, Flying Spaghetti Monster, the Burning Bush, and a bunch of "divine paraphernalia." Now, please, go buy one for yourself.

Here's why:

1. Diversity. "God" is not the only god in town. Humanity in general is very fond of deities, and has been for a long time. All of us — particularly Americans, and even more particularly, Americans with children —would do well to be reminded of that once in a while.

DYI Deity2.  Tolerance. I know I'm beginning to sound like a broken record on this, but we parents need to be looking everywhere for chances to inject religious literacy into our kids' lives. Children are far more likely to show tolerance/ kindness/compassion for those who believe differently than they do, if  they're exposed in a genuinely interesting way to what others believe.

3. Culture. Whether deities exist or not, the stories behind them are born of people who live in a specific time and place. The look and feel of each deity reflects the culture of those who created them. Showing interest in religion is a way to show interest in other people's cultures — always a good thing.

DYI Deities

4. Independence. According to a survey I conducted for my book, 90 percent of secular parents truly do want their children to make up their own minds about what to believe. But how can kids be expected to do that unless they know what the options are? What core beliefs do each of these deities represent? And what's stopping our kids from mashing these deities together — or inventing their own? It's terrific food for thought.

5. Humor. Religion needs to lighten up a little; it always has. And there are few better ways to force that issue than to put a Jesus head onto a Flying Spaghetti Monster torso with Zeus legs. Period. 

I'd imagine that, in my home at least, some of these little magnets will soon fall and get lost behind the fridge — or get taken down because they're ugly or creepy. (Medusa and Satan are not long for this world, I'm afraid.) But I am determined to keep most around long enough to explain to my daughter what they are and what they represent.

And at least one deity will stay for even longer... Paleolithic Buddha Goddess.

Paleolithic Buddha Goddess

She's all mine.

*$14.95

It's a Gift from God, Y'all

God is Disappointed in YouWant to know what the Bible says but don't want to read the damn thing? Yeah, you're not alone. But Good News!

In his newly published book, God is Disappointed in You, author Mark Russell has managed to rewrite the Bible—in all its crazy glory—the way you and I and, frankly, anyone under age 80 would rather read it. While completely accurate, Russell uses layman's terms, contemporary metaphors, well-appointed slang and plenty of profanity to liven things up. And the best part? It's short. Like short-short. Like, the entire 2,000-page Bible is condensed into 192 pages. And that includes a whole bunch of illustrations by New Yorker cartoonist Shannon Wheeler.

My husband, WHO IS AWESOME (and reads BoingBoing religiously), had God is Disappointed in You delivered to my iPad yesterday. It was like a gift from God. Here's the beginning of Genesis:

In the beginning, God was lonely. He made the same mistake as a lot of men who live alone, he decided to go out and meet people. Only there weren’t any people, so he had to make his own. God created Adam and Eve to be his friends.

God built a beautiful garden in Iraq for Adam and Eve to live in. Adam and Eve spent their days running around naked and playing frisbee. They ate a lot of fruit. It was a lot like living at a Grateful Dead concert. God’s one rule was that they couldn’t eat the fruit from this magical tree he’d planted in the center of the garden. I don’t know why he put it there. It just tied the whole garden together.

"God built a beautiful garden in Iraq for Adam and Eve to live in." I mean, come on, people. That's a fine piece of comedy.

Anyhow, you can wait unit Christmas to get this sucker for yourselves. But I can't think of one single reason why you would. 

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