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. 

god_is_disappointed_05

 

"Mommy, What's an Angel?"

From Leonardo Da Vinci's Virgin of the Rocks AngelShortly before Christmas, I got a text from a friend: "What's an angel?" she wrote. How do I explain this to a 3yo from an agnostic POV? I told him I had to get back to him!

In mixed-faith and non-faith families, the simplest questions can jam up our thinking. Even the most straightforward answers can cause massive confusion.

"According to the dictionary, honey, angels are spiritual beings believed to act as a messengers of God, conventionally represented in human form with wings, a halo and long robes."

Um, like, no.

At the same time, we kinda gotta say something.

That's why, beginning this week, I'll be running a new series, where you can find simple, straightforward and age-appropriate language to explain religious ideas in a non-religious way.

Miracles, sin, salvation, dharma — they'll all be covered in the coming months. Please feel free to suggest concepts to explain, or to share how you have gone about explaining these things.

In each segment, I'll start with the most basic, abbreviated answer — the one appropriate for my friend's three-year-old. Then I'll add some context. (How much explanation is appropriate depends on the age/maturity of each individual child.)

Sistine Madonna, detail

"What's An Angel?"

The Short Answer:

An angel is like a person with wings, kind of like a fairy.

The Long Answer:

Angels are a part of many religious legends and stories. They are said to live with God and do only "good" things. That's why people might use the word "angel" when talking about a person they think is very good. (Parents sometimes call their children "little angels.") Some stories say God has special angels, called "guardian angels," who watch over the people of Earth and help keep them safe. Some religious people believe human beings become angels when they die. 

Some people think angels are real. Other people think angels are fun to think about and read about, but that — like fairies — they don't really exist. 

 

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.

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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.

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.

One Set of 'Footprints in the Sand' is Plenty for This Kid

Footprints in the sand on beach near San José del Cabo, Mexico at sunrise When I was growing up — Missouri, 1980s — half the kids I knew had a framed copy of "Footprints in the Sand" somewhere in their house. Usually hanging in the living room.

That poem was as meaningful to these families as Rudyard Kipling's "If" was to ours. (My mom gave me a poster-sized copy of "If" right before I entered adolescence. I must have read it 500 times.)

The point is, although it wasn't in my own home, "Footprints in the Sand" was a part of my childhood. I have vivid memories of staring into the ubiquitous pictures of sandy beaches and thinking what a comforting, beautiful sentiment that was. Or maybe it was just the thought of a beach that I found so comforting and beautiful. (This was Missouri, after all.) I assume most of you have read it, but here it is:

Footprints in the Sand 

One night I dreamed I was walking along the beach with the Lord. Many scenes from my life flashed across the sky. In each scene I noticed footprints in the sand. Sometimes there were two sets of footprints, other times there was one only. This bothered me because I noticed that during the low periods of my life, when I was suffering from anguish, sorrow or defeat, I could see only one set of footprints, so I said to the Lord, “ You promised me Lord, that if I followed you, you would walk with me always. But I have noticed that during the most trying periods of my life there has only been one set of footprints in the sand. Why, when I needed you most, have you not been there for me?” The Lord replied, “The years when you have seen only one set of footprints, my child, is when I carried you.”

author unknown

This notion of always having someone with us to keep us going is among the most common reasons people desire religious faith. It's also, I've discovered, a reason that secular parents who were raised in religious households sometimes feel a sense guilt for not introducing their kids to this potentially friendly presence in their lives.

But telling a child that God is in the room with them is not nearly as compelling as it sounds. Kids' minds are far more active than ours, their imaginations are rich and vibrant. If they want or need company, they have no trouble finding it. They hug their stuffed animals. They invent imaginary friends. They cling to their blankets. They talk to themselves.

I know I'm getting into "blasphemous" territory here, but kindly bear with me... Whether or not kids think there's a God above doesn't change the fact that they must solve their own problems here on Earth. In my personal experience, whether we talk things through with God or with Paddington Bear has absolutely no influence on the outcome.

As I've said before, my 7-year-old is very much on the fence about God. She believes sometimes and not other times — and that's fine by me. But she said something recently that inspired this post and made certain that, whatever she ends up believing, she likely won't ever feel the need for "Footprints in the Sand."

"I'll never be lonely," she told me, "because I'll always have myself."

Now THAT I'd hang in the living room.

God's (Alleged) Gender Proves Problematic for Some Parents

god About a year ago — when my daughter was six — I noticed that she had been sitting in silence for a surprisingly long time.

"Are you okay?" I asked.

"I'm sad," she said.

"Why are you sad?" I asked.

"Because," she said, "God is a boy and not a girl."

"How do you know?"

"I just know," she said, glumly.

"And why does that make you sad?"

"Because," she said. "I'm a girl."

Featured-on-BlogHer

I don't spend a lot of time complaining about religion. Usually, I just don't see the point. Religion is so big and broad and amorphous. One person's going-to-synogogue-on-Saturday is another person's whipping-kids-for-talking-back. One person's giving-to-charitable-causes is another person's picketing-the-funerals-of-gay-soldiers. Just try to get two people to agree on the nature, purpose or value of "religion." But some things are just plain hard to swallow — in a universal sense. And, ever since that conversation with my daughter, the "gender" of God is one of them. Rarely, if ever, do children hear "Her" as a pronoun or "Mother" as a descriptor for God. Even "It" — which is the gender-neutral way that Muslims describe Allah in Arabic — sounds completely foreign to us.

This isn't to say, of course, that all religions conceptualize God as a man. They don't — not literally anyway.

Christianity describes God as a Trinity: the father (God), the son (Jesus) and the Holy Spirit (who the heck knows). The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes clear that "God is neither man nor woman." Yet, that statement is immediately followed by: "He is God."

There's that He again.

Similarly, in Sikhism, Guru Granth Sahib is known for saying God was indescribable, but then the guru repeatedly referred to this indescribable being as "He" and "Father." Even Hindus, which have goddesses out the yin-yang, still describe their top god — Brahma — in entirely masculine terms. Judaism's God is, perhaps, the least manly of the bunch. Still, though, Jews — like Christians — are pretty tied to the language of the Torah/Old Testament. And, there, as we know too well, references to God are overwhelmingly male-dominated.

I Googled "God" today, and guess how many images of women came up?

Now, let me be clear: I am not weighing in on the debate over whether God is a man, woman, both or neither. That is one debate that will always be completely irrelevant to me personally. But there is no denying that we, as a society, continue to couch God in male terms. Even those of us who don't believe in God do it. At very early ages, American children are encouraged to form their images of God as a man. Specifically, an old man. Even more specifically, an old man with a beard.

Now, if you're a little boy, this is probably a nonissue. No big deal. Completely innocuous. But if you're a girl — well, one need only look at the conversation with my daughter to see that the distinction is a huge deal. Just huge.

When girls hear — and they all hear it — that the entity in charge of the whole universe, the one who has all the power, is a boy (more boy than girl, at the very least!) it changes things for her. It gives her a new perspective on her life and life in general. It limits her. It may even sadden her.

And that — on a very personal level — saddens me.

I dare say, it should sadden us all.

Anyone else have similar experiences or thoughts on this? If so, I'd really love to hear them.