Bonus Blog: Responding to a Reader About the 'M' Word

A friend told me recently that the people who read my blog are really smart. Don't worry, I thanked her on your behalf.

She noted that the comments I receive are always so articulate and thoughtful, the commenters composed and respectful. And it's true! Last night, was a great example.

A reader named Derek offered his thoughts on our ongoing debate over whether we should call religious stories "myths." I’ve written about this twice so far (Should Kids Be Told Religious Stories are 'Myths' and Respecting Things We Don't Believe). And, although controversial, I stand by my premise that we ought to use the word “stories” instead of “myths” when talking to children.

But Derek's comment yesterday so concisely summed up the argument in favor of the "M" word, that I thought I'd include it as a bonus blog — along with my own comment to his comment. Enjoy! And, you know, feel free to comment.

Derek said:

"I’ve been thinking a lot about this question of whether we should tell our children that religious stories are myths. Many people seem to be saying that we shouldn’t because it would be prejudicial or judgmental. But isn’t everything we say prejudicial or judgmental in some way? We aren’t concerned about saying “Some people think it’s wrong to eat other people, but others think it’s ok.” or “I don’t think the easter bunny is real, but we can’t know for sure.” So why do we have to feel that way about other myths? Thor, Ra, Zeus, earth on the back of a turtle, we feel no compunction about labeling these all as myths because that is what they are. It seems to me then that there are only two reasons one would be concerned about labeling religious beliefs myths. The first is if you aren’t actually sure they’re myths yourself. The second is if you’re worried about other people’s feelings. For the former honesty seems to be the way to go, starting with being honest with oneself. For the latter I don’t spend a lot of time pussyfooting around any incorrect beliefs. I don’t encourage my children to be mean about it but at the same time I don’t encourage them to “make up their own mind” about facts. Facts are facts whether they like them or not."

For me, the issue is not one of uncertainty. There is no doubt in my mind that supernatural religious stories are myths. I intend no offense to my  beloved believer-readers, but I don't buy for a minute that God created a flood that wiped out most of the world, or that Abraham had one-on-one conversations with the creator of the universe, or that Jesus was born of a virgin and later rose from the dead.

My husband and I were talking a couple of nights ago, and we ended up likening the belief in God to the belief in Santa Claus. No, I don't believe in Santa Claus. I know Santa Claus is not real. But lots of children do believe in Santa. Why don't we make it a point to call the Santa Claus stories "myths" when we talk to children? I think it's because their belief in Santa brings them pleasure; because we don't want to hurt them; because we know that they'll outgrow their childish belief on their own; and because, frankly, it doesn't matter.

So what if some of the adults you know believed in Santa? Let's say these are good people, with hundreds of positive attributes, but they just happened to believe in the magical powers of St. Nick. How would you handle that? Would you make it a point to tell them that Santa isn’t real, that the “Night Before Christmas” is a mythical poem? Would that be important to you?

And why?

Why is it important to make other people believe what is really true?

I don't mean to be too flippant here. I can already hear the masses saying, "Santa is different than God!" Some will say I'm not giving God enough credit when I compare him to something childish like Santa. Others will say I'm giving God too much credit — that Santa doesn't make people do terrible things, the way God does.

As for the latter, that gets back to the difference between belief and action. If people beat their children in the name of Santa Claus, that would be just as bad as beating them in the name of God, which is just as bad as beating them for no reason at all. Beating kids is wrong. I don't care if my daughter thinks Santa Claus comes down the chimney, and I don't care if she believes Noah really had an ark. But she will be raised to know right from wrong. I'll teach her that you don't beat children. Ever.

Make no mistake, I don’t have a problem with adults calling religious stories myths to one another, as long as they agree on it and no one is offended. But I think it’s important to use less judgmental language with our kids, and here’s why:

  1. It doesn’t feel good to offend people or have people mad at you. And when you saddle your kid with language that is likely to offend some of their peers, you’re putting your child in a position to suffer the consequences. If they decide someday that it's worth the suffering, so be it. But let's be sure it's their choice, not yours.
  2. Being nice to nice people is important. It’s part of living a decent life. You can think whatever you want, you can believe whatever you want (This is what I’m on about!), but how you speak and act affects those around you. There is no shame in being sensitive to others’ feelings. It’s how I’m able to hang out with my religious friends. Because they are sensitive to my feelings.
  3. The more respect we give to all religions, the better the example we set for others to follow suit. It’s not possible to get rid of religion; but it is possible to reduce rhetoric, animosity and intolerance, and, in doing so, make the world a better place.
  4. Chances are, if you’re reading this blog, you are raising a freethinker. In my opinion, that’s one of the greatest gifts you can give to a child. Because, under your gentle guidance, they will be making up their own minds about the world, and becoming their own person thanks to their own thinking. You don’t need to persuade them that the sun is in the sky, or that God isn’t real. Trust me. And if you do find yourself having to persuade them, it might be a clue that you need to stop talking — and start listening.

P.S. Thanks again to Derek for such a thoughtful comment.

P.S.S. I really do appreciate my readers.

P.S.S.S. It’s not okay to eat people.