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. 

god_is_disappointed_05

 

A Book American Kids Aren't Reading — But Should

A couple of weeks ago, I interviewed British philosopher and author Julian Baggini, who wrote a fantastic book for kids called Really, Really, Big Questions about God, Faith and Religion (2011, Kingfisher). While I found it at my public library, it's not one you're likely to run across in major book stores. While very well-received in Britain, the book has flown largely under the radar here in the U.S. And that's too bad for us — because it's a great starting point for kids ready to explore religious issues. Each section of the book seeks to answer a question that could easily come from a child. The questions include: What is religion? Can we criticize religion? Should we fear God? Why do people worship? What if there is no God? Does religion cause wars? Do I have a soul? and What should I believe?

Great questions, right?

Big Questions

The answers are equally compelling, mostly because Baggini — himself an atheist — writes from a perspective that is, as he puts it, "basically, genuinely open-minded." The book, which I included in this years' holiday gift guide for secular families, differs from faith-based books of its ilk in two main ways. First, Baggini constantly urges children to make up their own minds about how to answer these questions and what to believe. And, second, he makes clear those who don't believe in any religious notions live perfectly happy, fulfilling lives.

It's that second point that makes this book so special — and so important. It's also the reason that the British have embraced it more than Americans; the British are far more secularized as a nation than we are.

Really, Really Big Questions about God, Faith and Religion is part of a series and, therefore, was not conceived by Baggini, who has no children himself. Still, the straightforward tone and broad knowledge he brings to the project is perfect for kids.

One of the more interesting aspects of our conversations centered on the notion of interfaith dialogue. Although the idea that people of varying religious backgrounds can come together and cooperate with each other is a lovely and refreshing and progressive in many ways, "interfaith" repeatedly fails atheists and agnostics. Sometimes there is an illusion that we secularists are involved in these dialogues, but we're not. Not really.

Julian Baggini"Multi-faith isn’t really open-minded," Baggini says, "because the (central focus) is that we should be religious in some way.”

Make no mistake: Baggini's book is not exclusively for nonreligious kids. It's appropriate for all kids and all families. There is no bias against faith, just as there is no bias against non-faith. The book takes an approach of true compassion for all. And that, Baggini says, is because there is still so much mystery in the universe. Why paint a picture of "truth" when some truths cannot be known.

"Some of us are going to turn out to be wrong," he says, "and some of us are going to turn out to be right.”

In the meantime, let's be nice to each other.

While some parents stumble through those first conversations about religion, it's the basic questions — Who is God? What is religion? — that may require the most attention. Baggini theorizes that Culture Wars could be tamped down considerably if  people would simply stop defining certain concepts so narrowly.  The term religion, for example, means so many different things to different people, he says. "Part of the reason atheist-vs.-religious debates aren't very fruitful is because there is too narrow of a view about what religion is."

In making it clear that these terms are wishy-washy at best, then we leave plenty of ideas open to interpretation by the children who are exploring them for the first time.

"You’re too young to settle on the view that you’ll have when you're an adult," Baggini says, "but that's no reason not to start thinking about this."

Baggini is the author of many books on philosophy, including The Pig that Wants to be Eaten: 100 Experiments for the Armchair Philosopher (2006) and is co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Philosophers' Magazine. His new book, just out, is called The Shrink & The Sage: A Guide to Modern Dilemmas. You can follow him on Twitter at @microphilosophy.

•••

Giveaway #3In other news, many congratulations to the winner of Relax, It's Just God's final holiday giveaway. A subscriber named "John" — highly suspicious, I know — will be receiving a bag full of good stuff just in time for the winter solstice. Thanks for your support, John! And thanks, too, to everyone who participated in all the giveaways this month. Great things will be coming in the new year, so I do hope you'll stick around.

15 Holiday Gift Ideas for Secular Families

Generally speaking, gift ideas geared toward us non-religious types tend to fall into three basic categories: Snarky T-Shirts & Bumper Stickers, Comedic TV Shows and Movies and Books Espousing Atheism. There is some variation in there, of course. Sometimes books espouse freethinking. Sometimes the movies are more satirical in nature. Sometimes snarky comments come on wearable pins. (Like this one!) That said, this list is a bit different. These particular gifts are not meant to arm nonbelievers with ways to out-logic religious people, or to advertise non-belief, or to reinforce feelings of superiority. They're just simple items likely to appeal to the science-loving sensibilities of the skeptical mind. Most are things that anyone could display in their homes (or around their necks) as quiet, graceful nods to their own wonderful, awe-inspiring and decidedly secular world views — and they won't even offend Grandma.

1. Darwin's Tree of Life Necklace. In 1837, Charles Darwin first sketched how species evolved along branches of an imaginary tree. Here, it is engraved in a silver necklace. (Etsy, $45)

2. Women of Science Coasters. Made of poplar wood, these beauties will enhance your living room, inspire your daughters and make great conversation starters. Included in the set: Grace Hopper (programming, computer science), Rachel Carson (ecology), Mary Edwards Walker (surgery), Jane Goodall (primatology), Marie Curie (radiation/chemistry) and Rosalind Franklin (genetics). (Etsy, $35.)

Women of Science Coasters

3. Bang! How We Came to Be by Michael Rubino. One of the best books available for introducing children — and maybe some adults — to the science of evolution. (Amazon, $14.53.)

Bang! How We Came to Be

4. Neil deGrasse Tyson Prayer Candle. Why no one has mass marketed these things yet, I have no idea. That's Bill Nye the Science Guy standing behind him, by the way. (Etsy, $15.67.)

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5. 'We Are All Stardust' Bracelet. Hand-stamped on metal, this bracelet is inspired by a famous Carl Sagan quote: The cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star stuff. (Etsy, $12)

Stardust Bracelet

6. The Golden Rule by Ilene Cooper. Hands-down one of my favorite children's books. This book teaches kids the importance of the Golden Rule and makes clear that treating others the way you wish to be treated is a concept much older than any religion in existence today. (Amazon, $13.21.)

Golden Rule

7. Carl Sagan artwork. Another great quote by Carl Sagan anchors this original print: If we are merely matter intricately assembled, is this really demeaning? If there's nothing here but atoms, does that make us less or does that make matter more? According to the artist, who describes his work as "art and prints inspired by science and curiosity," this piece was done using water color, ink, Mohawk Paper, pen, pencil and Photoshop. (Etsy, $25.)

Carl Sagan artwork

8. Bill Nye the Science Guy: Evolution DVD. Bill Nye is like the Mr. Rogers of science — making the subject fun and interesting and totally accessible to kids. Of course, all his DVDs are worth recommending, but for this list, his show on evolution is the episode du jour. (Target, $14.49.)

Bill Nye the Science Guy: Evolution

9. Atheist Shoes. They're shoes. For atheists. What else do you need to know? Comfortable and cool-as-hell, these shoes are made by a German company and sold in Euros. The soles say "Ich Bin Atheist" or "I Am Atheist." If you lean more agnostic (or just aren't willing to out yourself), you might prefer the Darwin version — whose soles declare "Darwin Loves." (Atheist Shoes, about $200.)

Ich Bin Atheist

Atheist Shoes

 

 

 

 

 

10. Tim Minchin Plushie Doll. This thing sells itself, but a few things: It's made out of wool and felt; it comes in two sizes; and because the Tims are made to order, the seller is open to changing his outfit upon request. I'd put him in a pair of Atheist Shoes because HE ACTUALLY WEARS THEM. (Etsy, $30 for small Tim, $40 for large Tim.)

Tim Minchin Plushie Doll

11. Painting of Darwin's Finches. There is only one of these ink-and-watercolor paintings for sale, and it took A LOT OF RESTRAINT for me not to take it off the list and buy it myself. I adore everything about it. (Etsy, $55.)

Darwin's Finches

12. Heroes of Science Canvas Tote. By the same shop that brought you the Women of Science Coasters above, this bag is another fantastic nod to all things science. It's got Stephen Hawking on there, for God's sake. (Etsy, $18.)

 Heroes of Science Tote

13. Really, Really Big Questions About God, Faith and Religion. British writer Julian Baggini brings us this absolutely fantastic children's book — the best I've seen for getting kids to think about matters of faith. In addition to spelling things out in the most straightforward way possible, it encourages kids to reach their own conclusions. Perfect for kids in nonreligious families. (Amazon, $14.39.)

Really, Really Big Questions about God, Faith and Religion

14. Darwin Quote on Oversized Book Page: Handmade in England, this is a typographic art print on an upcycled page of Darwin's On the Origin of Species. The line, There is Grandeur in this view of life, comes toward the end of Darwin's book. (Etsy, $40.61.)

There is Grandeur

15. Flying Spaghetti Monster Ornament. Okay, maybe this isn't the most graceful idea on the list. But he is adorable, isn't he? As an alternative, I also love this hand-carved FSM stamp, but it's hard to beat the ornament. (Etsy, $18.)

Flying Spaghetti Monster Ornament

Happy Holidays, everyone! And for chances to win some secular gifts yourself, be sure to subscribe to check out this month's giveaways — starting with this one! 

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

 

Can the Bible Help Kids Think Critically?

max-bibleOnce upon a time, I would have choked on my own vomit at the idea of buying a children's Bible for my daughter. The way I saw it, the Bible was an indoctrination tool. I no more wanted to crack that book open than I wanted to get her baptized or plan her Bat Mitzvah or teach her to pray toward Mecca five times a day. It was all the same to me. In my mind, only religious people read the Bible. But, times have changed.

Today, I don't equate the Bible to religion; I equate it with religious literacy. It is the quickest and most effective way to expose kids to Western belief systems. When it comes to knowledge of Judaism and Christianity and — to a slightly lesser extent — Islam, you can't do better than to read some key Bible passages. Judaism relies heavily on Moses and the book of Exodus. Christianity revolves around the Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. And Islam loves it some Genesis-bred Abraham.

Of course, kids are too young to understand the language in the Bible, so it's definitely best to go with a children's version. Yes, they over-simplify things. Yes, they white wash. Yes, they take out all the language that makes the Bible at all enjoyable to read, frankly. But the greater good is that the kids will understand the stories and be drawn into them enough to actually remember them. And memory is sort of key in the education business.

My daughter has had her children's Bible for almost three years now. She's been known to take it out and look at the pictures, but lately — within the last year — she has taken to reading it in the car. She skips around a bit, but is always fascinated most by the moral aspects of each tale. I think this is the age where kids really start to think more about "right" and "wrong" and Biblical stories are larger-than-life tales with big-name characters, and so the degrees of rightness and wrongness are heightened.

The shocking thing about it all is that — contrary to the common assumption — reading the Bible seems to be helping to hone her ability to think for herself. She reads the stories with genuine interest and serious consideration — but without the reverence, deference and praise associated with faith-based Bible classes. It's remarkable, really, especially when I think back on the pure lack of critical thinking I employed when I heard the same stories as a kid.

The other day, for example, while reading in the car, she got to the 10th of the 10 Commandments and read (aloud): "Never want what belongs to others." Then she stopped and corrected Moses. "Well, you can WANT what belongs to others," she said. "You just can't HAVE it. You can buy one for yourself."

In the story about Joseph's dream coat, the passage read: "Joseph was one of Jacob's twelve sons. Jacob loved him more than all of his other sons..."

Maxine looked up at me: "THAT'S SO MEAN!" she said.

When Jacob is thrown in jail, and one of the other prisoners asks Jacob — quite out of the blue — to decipher the guy's dream, Maxine was all: "Well how would HE know what that means?!" And when a father (I can't recall who) tells his son that he must marry who the father chooses, Maxine declared that to be "dumb" and explained to me that, of course, the son can marry whoever he wants.

But my favorite bit was when her Bible told her that "goodly people" would go to live in heaven.

"I am a goodly person," Maxine said, "but I don't want to live in heaven."

And then she added: "Where do all the BADLY people live, that's what I want to know..."

'Golden Rule' — Beautiful, Universal and Very, Very Old

Golden rule cover

It is a common misconception that the Golden Rule began with Jesus. In fact, it's part of the reason some Christians think of their religion as synonymous with morality. After all, to treat others the way you want to be treated is the essence of moral conduct. And it was Luke 6:31 in the New Testament that quotes Jesus as saying: "As ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise." (Matthew 7:1-5 also addresses the topic.)

But Jesus didn't invent the ethic of reciprocity anymore than did Muhammad, who said: "The most righteous of men is the one who is glad that men should have what is pleasing to himself, and who dislikes for them what is for him disagreeable." (circa 570-632 AD)

No, the Golden Rule existed long before Christianity or Islam. In fact, no one is quite sure when the idea was first written, much less conceived — it's that old. All we know is that the general idea is as ubiquitous as it is beautiful — having existed in virtually every culture on Earth for thousands of years.

The Golden Rule

Here's Plato: "I would have no one touch my property, if I can help it, or disturb it in the slightest way without my consent. If I am a man of reason, I must treat other's property the same way." (circa 387 BCE)

Confucius said: "What you do not like if done to yourself, do not do to others." (circa 500 BCE)

The Sutrakritanga, part of the Jain Canons, put it quite succinctly: "One should treat all being as he himself would be treated." (circa the 4th Century BCE)

Even the Mahabharata, an ancient Indian epic written in Sanskrit, included the passage: "The knowing person is minded to treat all being as himself." (circa 800 BCE)

Then there's the Jewish Torah, written in 1280 BCE: "Take heed to thyself, my child, in all they works, and be discreet in all thy behavior; and what thou thyself hatest, do to no man."

Undated is this charming African Bush proverb: "If your neighbor's jackal escapes into your garden, you should return the animal to its owner; that is how you would want your neighbor to treat you."

This sort of hilarious version is a Nigerian Yoruba proverb: "One going to take a pointed stick to pinch a baby bird should first try it on himself to feel how it hurts."

And a Sioux prayer puts it this way: "Great spirit, grant that I may not criticize my neighbor until I have walked a mile in his moccasins."

Among the oldest known references appears in the story of The Eloquent Peasant, an ancient Egyptian story that dates back to The Middle Kingdom: 2040–1650 BCE (!): "Now this is the command: Do to the doer to cause that he do thus to you."

The Golden Rule (so named sometime in the 17th Century, by the way) is arguably the greatest wisdom human beings have ever offered the world. It's universally known, pondered  and accepted. And it's a hallmark of virtually every major religion, philosophy and ethical perspective.

So... why don't we follow it?

"We have committed the golden rule to memory, let us now commit it to life." — Edwin Markham, 1852-1940.

[Most of the information in this post came from Sandra and Harold Darling, who compiled a wonderful ruler-shaped book called The Golden Rule  in 2006. It costs $7 on Amazon.]

Should Kids Be Told All Religious Stories are ‘Myths'?

453px-TheMagicofReality_Dawkins_Bantam2011

I'm facing some deadlines over the next few weeks that are going to make it very tough to generate new blogs of any merit. But I'm hoping — PRAYING! (but not really) — that you guys will stick around anyway. Subscribers, I'm talking to you here. BEAR WITH ME. PLEASE DO NOT UNSUBSCRIBE. IT'S ONLY THREE WEEKS. Starting today, I'm going to run six of my most well-read and/or controversial blogs of the last two years. I've chosen them based on number of page views, number of comments, or the level of contentiousness within the response. I hope you enjoy them. And, even if you don't, I hope you will stay.

We'll start with one of the most controversial to date... Should Kids Be Told All Religious Stories are 'Myths'? (Reprinted from Oct. 31, 2011):

Two weeks ago, I gave away three copies of Richard Dawkins’ new book, the Magic of Reality: How We Know What's Really True, a highly acclaimed book seeking to introduce youngsters to the science behind some of life's biggest mysteries: Who was the first person? Why do we have night and day? When and how did everything begin? The book is fascinating, easy to read and full of beautiful illustrations. Truly, there is so much about our world that is awe-inspiring, and Dawkins shows us how fun it can be to explore.

But because Dawkins is Dawkins, he doesn't stop there.

Before each chapter, he outlines various myths adopted through the ages as a way to explain scientific phenomena. He reasons that, before scientific exploration, people needed ways to make sense of these seemingly supernatural occurrences— so they invented stories and passed them off as fact. It's a clever technique, and it’s interesting the way  Dawkins lays Greek myths, Native American traditions, and Biblical stories side-by-side, and then allows science to tell its version of the story.

Clever and interesting and accurate? Yes. Condescending and arrogant? Which is a problem. For us open-minded, nonreligious parents struggling to find the "right" language with which to approach religion with our kids, his dismissive attitude disappoints.

If we tell our children that present-day religious beliefs — particularly those described in the Bible, the Torah or even the Book of Mormon — are all just mythical stories, we're teaching them that religion is a bunch of fairytales. And we're teaching them that the 70-odd percent of their neighbors and friends who buy into these fairytales are, therefore, emotionally immature and intellectually inferior. I don’t care how subtle Dawkins tries to be, that’s his book's subtext, and we all know it.

Now, how in the world does that kind of instruction set our kids up to be open-minded, freethinking individuals? How does it encourage them to embrace people with different beliefs and opinions? How does it show our kids that they are free to choose their own religious or nonreligious paths in life?

I’ll be the first to acknowledge that science often butts heads with religion. But there are a huge number of people in our society that believe in science and religion. And it doesn't matter whether it makes sense to Richard Dawkins. It doesn't matter whether it make sense to me! What my neighbor believes and how he rationalizes that belief is 100 percent not my concern. Whether he brings his own beer to my barbecue, on the other hand…

Here’s the thing: I do not believe — and I sincerely hope you don’t either — that pious people are stupid; in fact, many of the smartest people I know are pious. And that their faith may involve nonscientific stories does not make me superior. It doesn't make you superior. And it doesn’t make our kids superior.

There is an intolerance in Dawkins' insistence on calling these stories myths. Dismissing religious stories as archaic or absurd adds nothing to his book. In fact, for people like me, it takes away. And for church-going folks in Middle America? Well, forget it; they'll never buy it. And didn’t Dawkins see the potential to educate all children — not just those whose parents subscribe to his exact point of view?

I know he wanted to break things down in the simplest way possible. I understand he wanted to present facts alongside of beliefs, and point out their roots and differences. There is merit to that.

But not everything is about science. Some things are about respect.

I will absolutely read The Magic of Reality to my daughter  — or, rather, show her the super-cool iPad app! But I'll first let her know the book was written by an author who believes religious stories are myths. I'll remind her that the author is just one person; and that lots of other people in the world believe those stories are real. I'll tell her, as I do often, that it's up to her to decide for herself what makes sense, what feels right.

From what I gather, Richard Dawkins wants parents to help their children put religious belief in a context of science. Fair enough. But I do hope that, before cracking open The Magic of Reality, parents will help their children put Richard Dawkins in a context of religion.

[You may read the follow-up this post here.]

Quick! What the Hell is Purim?

I always think of the Bible as sort of dry reading — difficult to understand, weighted down by archaic language and vague descriptions, full of stories that just kind of go on and on. But, of course, that’s not always true. And it’s especially not true in the Book of Esther.

Reading more like a Shakespearean play, the 10-chapter Book of Esther tells one hell of an intriguing story. It's a story of honor, greed, deception, justice, irony, death and triumph. There is a clear beginning, a clear ending and even a climax and denouement. And, on top of it all, it's a relatively quick read.

All this is good new for any Bible reader, but it's fantastic news for our Jewish friends because, during the Jewish holiday of Purim, celebrants are asked to read the entire story of Esther aloud. Twice.

Purim begins tomorrow and continues through sundown Sunday.

So without further ado, here it is, your friendly neighborhood Cheat Sheet to Purim.

Holiday: Purim

Pronounced: POOR-im

Date: Purim falls on the 14th day of Adar in the Hebrew Calendar. In 2013, the date for Purim is Feb. 23-24, In 2014, it's March 15-16.

Celebrates: The escape of Persian Jews from extermination sometime around the 4th century BCE.

Religion Represented: Judaism

On a Scale of 1 to 10: Purim is maybe a 6 or 7, says my friend Jason Gewirtz, who acknowledges that Purim is pretty much the most kick-ass of all the Jewish holidays even though he, himself, suffered some childhood trauma around Purim. (Something about having to wear a cute little beard in a Purim play when he was 4. Sounds ghastly, doesn’t it?)

Star of the Show: Esther

The Back Story: Purim's back story (which comes to us courtesy of the Book of Esther) is one of my all-time favorites, and reads a lot like a melodrama — which is exactly how Jews treat it. The villain of the story is the Persian king’s advisor, Haman (BOO! HISS!), and the two heros are Esther, the queen, and her cousin, Mordecai — both of whom are Jewish. The story is absolutely wonderful. And if you know it, you’ll pretty much know everything there is to know about Purim. For your reading enjoyment (or not), I’ve included my version of the story HERE.

Associated Literary Passages: The Old Testament’s Book of Esther, and the Babylonia Talmud: Tract Megilla.

Why Feminists Should Love Purim: There are precious few Biblical stories that put a woman front-and-center and show her taking heroic actions. Not only is Esther willing to “out herself” as a Jew to save her people, but the king respects her boldness and advice so much that, by the end of the story, she’s calling virtually all the shots. You go, girl.

The Food: The most Purim-est of the foods is Hamantaschen, a pastry shaped like Haman’s three-corned hat. “Leave it to the Jews to develop a snack based on the hat of the villian Haman,” Jason quips.

The Fun: Celebrants read the story of Esther twice during Purim — once at sundown, and again the next morning. They give away food, donate to the poor and, of course, engage in some serious feasting and drinking. In fact, the Talmud literally demands that Jews get rip-roaring drunk at Purim. No shit. The Babylonian Talmud states, and I quote, “Rava said: A person is obligated to drink on Purim until he does not know the difference between ‘cursed be Haman’ and ‘blessed be Mordechai.’” How’s that for an excuse to party?

Conveying Meaning to Kids: This is a no-brainer, really. Just tell your kid the story! Either put it in your own (age-appropriate) words and tell it as a bedtime story, or check out a Purim picture book from the library. My favorite is Queen Esther the Morning Star by Mordicai Gerstein, but Queen Esther Saves her People and The Story of Esther: A Purim Tale also are good. You can also look online for videos about the story of Purim; Sesame Street has a good one. And I found this website with some very funny Purim-centered puppet videos and a slide show, among other things, that would be great for kids ages 8 to 12 or thereabouts. That and Hamantaschen, and you’re good to go.

 

A version of this post originally appeared in March 2012