"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!

"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. 

 

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! 

'Very Religious Parents' Trying to Indoctrinate Their Grandkid

I got a letter from a reader today. Raise your hand if you can relate.

Looking for some advice on how to deal with my very Christian parents and my daughter. She'll be 2 in January and is already saying "Amen" and "Yay God." I am not Christian and feel disrespected by this. They know that I have COMPLETELY different beliefs. Any advice on how to "respectfully" get them to stop?

baby-mother-grandmother

Pretty typical, right?

I started to write this mom a private response but, with her permission, decided to make it public. I'd be curious — and I'm sure she would be, as well — to hear advice from anyone else who has had some "success" in dealing with this particular problem. In the meantime, here's my two cents:

1. Be brief, be direct, and be nice. Brief because this is a can of worms that can get cray-cray pretty quickly. Direct because this is important and you need to make sure there are no misunderstandings. (No one wants to have to have this damn conversation more than once.) And nice because that’s what’s going to keep tensions from escalating.

2. Try to get your parents' buy-in. This is the goal. If your parents understand where you are coming from, and genuinely want to help you out, you won't have to worry that they will try to indoctrinate your kid behind your back.

3. Be ready to lay down the law. If, after stating your case, your parents refuse to cooperate, you need to let them know — as briefly, directly and nicely as possible — that there there will be consequences. Then you need to tell them what those consequences will be.

You might start out this way:

Mom and Dad, I’ve noticed you’ve been sharing your religious views with Jane and I’m glad to see that. Your Hinduism/Buddhism/Christianity is important to you, and I want you to feel comfortable talking to her, and me, about anything that is important to you. That said, because I don’t share all your beliefs, it’s really important to me that Jane gets to make up her own mind about what to believe. So when you’re talking about your faith, I would really appreciate it if you’d be clear with her that these are your beliefs, and not just straight facts. (You can do this really easily by just adding “I believe” or “we believe” onto statements about your religion.) Again, I’m not asking you to withhold your beliefs, but rather to put them into a context that allows for other belief systems to be respected, as well.

If you get an “Okay,” that’s a success. Done and done. Move on. If not:

The thing is, if you aren’t willing to temper your language, it puts pressure on me to use strong language, too. Every time you teach Jane something as though it's the only truth, I have to balance out — or even "undo" — what you’ve said. And that's not good for your relationship with Jane, or with me. I'll feel disrespected and even antagonized. But if you speak in a way that leaves room for Jane to make up her own mind, I'll feel more comfortable with the whole thing.”

Again, if you get an "Okay," great. If they still don't cooperate, you might ask: “Well, what would you be comfortable saying?” See if, after a little back and forth, you can agree on an approach.

If that fails, then your parents are being overbearing a-holes. Here's where those consequences figure in:

If you want to continue to have one-on-one time with Jane, you will have to agree to an approach that works for all of us. I’ll give you some time to think about it. Let me know what you come up with.

That ought to get their attention.

Also, a quick reminder: Richard Wade, the incredibly wise "Ask Richard" columnist over at the Friendly Atheist has some great advice for secularists dealing with religious family members. You might check out his archives sometime!

'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

Measuring the Space Between Indoctrination, Brainwashing

"I don't want to brainwash my kids with my own views. I want them to decide for themselves what they believe."                                                                           — Pennsylvania mother of three

In secular circles, indoctrination and brainwashing are used almost interchangeably. It's not all that hard to understand why. Instructing young, vulnerable children to pledge their blind allegiance to certain authority figures can, especially for the most cynical among us, evoke rather disturbing images. (Karl in A Clockwork Orange, anyone?) And because hell is so often dangled as a punishment for disbelief, religious indoctrination possesses a fear factor that seems, well, kind of mean.

Clockwork BrainwashBut, for all the sometimes-unpleasant underpinnings of indoctrination, there is a significant difference between what happens to children in CCD and what happened to Karl in Room 23. In short, indoctrination is not brainwashing. And I think that's worth talking about — because parents who blow indoctrination out of proportion will hinder their kids' ability to understand the difference between most religions and harmful cults. And I think that's important — really important — especially if they don't want to, ahem, indoctrinate their kids.

So here's the deal: The Oxford English Dictionary defines brainwashing as pressuring someone to adopt radically different beliefs by using systematic and forcible means. It often implies mind control, and other unethically manipulative methods of persuasion. Some religious sects and many cults are famous for employing classic brainwashing techniques. In his book Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief, author Lawrence Wright touches on a number of them. He writes of policies that prohibit church members from reading articles, essays or blogs that criticize Scientology, and he describes incidents of violence, threats and systematic punishments employed by church leaders to keep members from speaking — or even thinking — ill of Scientology themselves.

Robert Jay Lifton, an American psychiatrist, has devoted his life to the study of mind control. His books include The Nazi DoctorsCults in Our Midst and Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism. In the latter, Lifton lays out "Eight Criteria for Thought Reform." They are:

  1. Milieu Control — The control of information and communication, resulting in extreme isolation from the outside world.
  2. Mystical Manipulation — Experiences that appears spontaneous but are actually planned and orchestrated to demonstrate divine authority, spiritual advancement, or other insight.
  3. Demand for Purity — The requirement to conform to the ideology of the group and strive for perfection. Guilt and shame are often employed.
  4. Confession — Ways to monitor the personal thoughts (“sins”) of individual members — which are then discussed and exploited by group leaders.
  5. Sacred Science — The idea that the group’s ideology is beyond questioning or dispute.
  6. Loading the Language — The use of jargon and terminology that the outside world does not understand as a means of gaining thought-control and conformity.
  7. Doctrine over Person — Subordinating all personal experiences to the ideology of the group.
  8. Dispensing of Existence — In order to be saved or enlightened, individuals must convert to the group’s ideology. If they are critical of the group, or decide to leave the group, they are rejected by all members.

It's clear that, under Lifton's criteria, few religious parents are actually brainwashing their children. They may be employing one or two of these methods — I know quite a few Catholics very familiar with No. 3, for instance, and a few Mormons familiar with No. 8, and, Oh My God, can we talk about the broad employment of No. 5?— but not more than a few, and certainly not all.

I'm not saying indoctrination is a good thing. To be honest, any degree of intentional indoctrination makes me twitchy, whether it's associated with religion or with atheism. But, after viewing Lifton's list, it's clear that what most parents are doing — on both sides of the aisle — falls far outside the bounds of brainwashing. And that, at least, is a relief.

Survey: Nearly Half of All Parents Uncomfortable Talking to Kids About Religion

nervous mommaIn my two years of blogging, I've never before seen a study measuring the comfort level parents feel when talking to their kids about religion. I guess it's too specific of a question to be addressed directly in mainstream religious surveys. But, the other day, buried in a report about life insurance, of all things, I found an answer.

In a report called (yawn) "Public Affairs Life Strategy Survey" and funded by State Farm, surveyers found that 62 percent of parents in America are uncomfortable talking to their kids about life insurance. Harris Interactive revealed its findings after examining the opinions of 2,000 U.S. adults. Then it offered some comparisons.

According to the study, as reported by PR Newswire: 

When it comes to life's most important topics, higher percentages of parents feel comfortable talking with their children about drugs and alcohol (55 percent), religion (53 percent) and politics (44 percent) than discussing life insurance (38 percent), family finances (36 percent) or sex/puberty (30 percent). 

Did you see that? Blink and you missed it.

Forty-five percent of parents in the United States say they are at least somewhat uncomfortable talking about religion with their children.

Wow wow and wow.

It's easy to see why nonreligious parents (who make up no more than 20 percent of all parents) would have issues with talking to children about religion — oh, boy, is it easy — but these findings go directly against the common assumption that religious people know just what to say to their kids because they are guided by the well-practices teachings of their faith. The truth is, it's as uncomfortable for some of them as it is for some of us.

And considering there are something like 150 million parents in the United States, that's a whole lot of discomfort.