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.

What's the Real Nativity Story? Kid, You Don't Want to Know

Giveaway 1Last week, my daughter was looking at a copy of The Christmas Story: The Brick Bible for Kids, author Brendan Powell Smith’s LEGO depiction of the Christian nativity (which I'll be giving away as part of a promotion next Monday). The book is fun and funny, and I figured she'd love it. But, when she got to page 11, she slammed it shut.

“I don’t like this book,” she announced.

“You don’t like the story?” I asked.

“No," she said. "I like the story."

“You don’t like LEGOs?” I asked.

"No," she said. "I like LEGOs.”

"Then why don’t you like the book?”

“Because," she said. "It's not right. Mary came to Bethlehem ON A DONKEY.”

I opened up the book. Sure enough, there was Mary and Joseph walking to Bethlehem.

The Christmas Story

“Actually," I explained, "the Bible never says anything about a donkey. That part was added in later by other people.”

“No!" she said, all pissed off. “MARY RODE A DONKEY!"

Then she slammed the book shut again.

Wow, kid, I thought. You’re going to have a hard time when I tell you the rest of it.


Historically speaking, it’s highly — and when I say highly, I mean HIGHLY — unlikely that Jesus was born in a stable, or placed in a manger, or visited by three magi. Because it is highly unlikely that Joseph and Mary made that trek to Bethlehem in the first place — on a donkey or otherwise. According to scholarly research on the subject, Jesus was probably born near his hometown of Nazareth, and it was probably not in December, and the birth was probably pretty unceremonious. After all, historically speaking, Jesus didn't rise to prominence until he grew up and started his traveling ministry.

In fact, there is surprisingly little we know for certain about Jesus. Some would say that nothing is certain, but exhaustive scholarly research suggests otherwise. Most scholars agree on these three facts:

1. Jesus lived. 2. Jesus was baptized by John (the, um, Baptist). 3. Jesus was crucified by the Romans near Jerusalem.

But, dude, that’s it. That’s all we know. Even taking the supernatural stuff out of the equation (that he was the son of God, that he performed miracles, that he rose from the dead, that he ascended to heaven), there is still so much open to interpretation, speculation and guesswork.

The most fascinating part to me is that, according to many scholars, numerous details from Jesus' life were invented after his death in order to match him up with the Old Testament version of the Jewish Messiah. Written 500 to 700 years before Jesus' birth, the books of the Old Testament mention a coming Messiah something like 300 times. And let me tell you: They got really specific. So all the New Testament stories about Jesus weren't creative storytelling so much as they were a recounting of these old messianic stories. For example, the Old Testament said the Jewish Messiah would:

 Be born of a virgin: "Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel." Isaiah 7:14. 

• Preach the 'good news': "The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners." Isaiah 61:1-2

• Enter Jerusalem on a donkey: "Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey." Zechariah 9:9

• Be betrayed by a friend: "Even my close friend, whom I trusted, he who shared my bread, has lifted up his heel against me." Psalm 41:9

• Be crucified: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning? All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads... He trusts in the LORD; let the LORD rescue him. Let him deliver him, since he delights in him." Psalm 22:1,7-8

Now, most Christians would say that the scholars have it all wrong. Jesus' story "matches up" to the Old Testament because Jesus was the Messiah. But some of it is just too convenient. In a historical context, it doesn't fly.

Let’s go back to the nativity, for example.

In the Old Testament, the Messiah is described as being from Bethlehem — the birthplace of Jerusalem, the place where King David established his kingdom, and the city in which the "People of Israel" got their start. It was said that the Messiah would be a descendent of David himself and therefore have a rightful claim to the throne. Consider Micah 5:2, written in 750 BCE: "But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times."

In other words, it was vital that Jesus have a connection to Bethlehem if he were ever going to be passed off as the true Messiah.

The thing is, it makes no sense whatsoever that Joseph and Mary would leave Nazareth and head to Bethlehem to register for a Census when Mary was 9 months pregnant. Not just in the dead of winter — but ever. Jesus' family hadn't lived in Bethlehem in hundreds and hundreds of years; to trace his family back to the city of David, Joseph and Mary would have had to go back 42 generations. (If you've ever tried to map out your own family tree, you know how unlikely that is.) Furthermore, as researchers have pointed out, even if they could trace their family heritage back that far, no emperor would force all his people to return to their ancestral cities to register for the Census. It's not rational. And the emperor at the time, Emperor Augustus, apparently was known as a rational man.


So who was Jesus? A charismatic leader? A philosopher? An activist? A prophet? A man with a mental illness? Anything is possible, I suppose. But one thing is all but certain: The Christmas nativity, as we know it, didn't happen.

Maxine is going to be crushed.


Coming Soon: Holiday Gift Ideas for Secular Families

RudolphA quick note to let you know that I'll be running my annual Holiday Shopping Guide (hey, twice makes it annual, people) on Monday, Nov. 11. And it's a doozy of a list, so don't miss it! Also, because it's been awhile since I've thanked a single, solitary one of you for your support, I'll be combining the guide with a chance to win some of the doozies for yourselves. At least one of the giveaways will be extended solely to my subscribers; and, for that one, you don't need to enter to win. I'll just randomly pick a name from the subscription list (Not sure how I'll do that, but 95 percent sure my parrot will be involved), and then I'll email you privately for mailing instructions.

Don't forget to meet me back here on Monday! And thanks again, guys. You are the awesomest.

Brief Tribute to Obscure Children's Book (P.S. #Giveaway)

I've got a book recommendation for you. It's not religious in nature, but it's funny and quirky and carries a really great moral that certainly dovetails with some of my blogs about children and belief. The book is called "No! That's Wrong!" and was written in 2008 by Japanese author Zhaohua Ji and illustrated by Cui Xu.

It tells the tale of a bunny who finds a pair of underpants blowing in the wind. (See now, that's what you call a solid premise.) Anyway, this particular bunny has never seen a pair of underpants before, so he looks them over and determines that they must be a hat; after all, his ears fit perfectly through the little leg holes. The bunny is thrilled with his find, and proceeds to hop around the animal kingdom, where his friends comment on what a marvelous hat he's wearing.

But, of course, the bunny has underpants on his head. And we, the readers, are expected to help point out  our hero's obvious mistake. "No, that's wrong," we inform the wayward bunny. "It's not a hat." (This interactive element of the book is very fun for kids — and reminiscent of Mo Willem's Pigeon series.) At one point, the bunny runs into the most educated, humanized of his friends — a donkey — who backs us up. "What are you doing?" he says. "Why are you wearing underpants on your head? It's not a hat. They're underpants."

When the bunny tries puts the underpants on correctly, though, they don't look right. His tail doesn't fit, and the underpants are uncomfortable. After getting feedback from his friends — who think he's crazy for wearing his hat that way — and looking at himself in the glassy surface of a lake, the bunny takes off the underpants and puts them back on his head.

"No, I was right!" he says, hopping merrily along. "It's a wonderful hat!"

This message can relate to so many facets of life (and even be read literally), but I always think of religious belief when I read it. Sometimes you have to see what's right FOR YOU, even if others think it's silly or stupid or embarrassing or sad or flat-out wrong. Does your belief make you happy? Is it hurting anyone? Great. And if those around you are supportive and happy with your decision — well, all the better. The moral: A happy, non-conforming bunny is better than a unhappy, uncomfortable bunny who does what every Tom, Dick or Donkey tell him to do. Can't get much better than that.

Interested in the book but don't want to pay for it? Cheap bastards. (Not that I blame you.) Next week, I'll (randomly) choose one of my awesome subscribers to receive the book for free. Don't mind paying? You also can find it on Amazon here. Great for ages 3 to 9.


Stereotypes Broken, A Winner is Chosen


On Monday, I asked the fine readers of this here blog if a religious person had ever surprised them. Not a jump-out-and-say-boo sort of surprise, but rather the kind where a religious person acts or believes in a non-stereotypical way. I also told you that one lucky commenter would be chosen at random to win a copy of The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies — How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths by Michael Shermer.

By "random," of course, I meant that my assistant, Isabella Bird, would draw the name. Because, frankly, it felt weird drawing the name myself. And also: It was way cuter this way.

The answers I received were great!

• One of the most touching to me was Karen, who wrote about her next-door neighbor, who is a devoted member of a local mega-church.

“She invited me to her Bible Study once,” Karen said, “but I declined, and without ever having a real conversation about it, she has picked up on the fact that I don’t have a spiritual bone in my body. She is a wonderful neighbor and would do anything for me, so I was afraid her realization would hurt our friendship. To my surprise, she is just as sweet as ever, and never brings up anything religious around me. One day when her teenage son had some friends over from his youth group, and he invited my son to come over as well, my neighbor was quick to assure me that they wouldn’t be sitting around talking about church stuff. I think she goes out of her way not to make me uncomfortable in any way. She has also surprised me by being quite liberal, and sharing many of my political views. I’m sure we’ll get around to talking about religion one day, and I think it will be an interesting conversation. But right now, I am just glad to have her next door.”

• "B" told about a pastor who once contacted her regarding her opinions on religious prayer at City Hall. She assumed the pastor would try to convert her, but it was the opposite: “He surprised me by genuinely wanting to understand why I do what I do, and what led me to not ‘believe,’” she wrote. “We have since met several times, and the conversations are always interesting.”

• Elaine was able to name four people in her life whose open-mindedness has surprised her. One conservative friend, she said, “has told me she loves the fact that I know more about her Bible than she does, and that inspires her to learn more about her own beliefs.” And two Mormon friends “continuously support me, in every way” and “give me space to even discuss and ridicule their beliefs.”

• Ben said the two most religious people he knows are both people he respects: his father and a colleague. “I respect my father because of the consistency of his belief. He set up a foundational belief that God is first and the Bible is his word. Everything in his life rises and falls on that. Of course, I see this as a house of cards, but I admire his dedication and conviction. I respect my coworker for the humanity of her faith…[She] describes herself as a fundamentalist (Pentecostal) Christian. In spite of her conservative bent, she consistently surprises me with her tolerance and concern for others.”

• Lisa told a fantastic story about how her mother never experienced “faith” so much as she experienced “knowledge.” There wasn’t a part of her that doubted the existence of God or Jesus, or her relationship with them both. As a result, church was a place she went to be with God, not to prove herself to God — or anyone else. "She would sometimes nap during the sermon and when nudged by one of her four children would say, ‘I’m here for God. I can sleep during the sermon.’”

• Annie Neugebauer learned that you can’t tell a book buy it’s cover, or a man by his tattoo. She said she once met a guy with a “religious” tattoo but later found out he doesn’t believe in organized religion at all, but rather “faith and personal study.”

• Melissa said she is constantly surprised by a Christian missionary named Jamie Wright who writes a blog from her home in Costa Rica.You can find it at theveryworstmissionary.com. Perusing some of Jamie's old blogs, I found this paragraph:

“When I get out of the car and am walking up to the entrance of Target, it makes me physically happy. Like, I get this full feeling in my chest, and I get a little pep in my step, and by the time I get to the door a smile has spread across my face.”

That's when I knew, despite our vast religious differences, that she is my people.

Not all surprises, though, were of the pleasant variety.

• Michael Barton shared a sad story about a friend of his who ended their relationship over a Facebook remark.

"A long-time friend and I would always have interesting conversations about religion, I knowing he was a very devout Christian and he knowing I was an atheist. I thought it was great that he was interested in learning more about evolution. And understanding the viewpoints of non-believers. He moved on to Texas for school and I to Montana, and we stayed connected through Facebook, chatting all the time and commenting on each other’s posts. In 2010 (I think), when the National Day of Prayer was big in the news, I had made a comment about it on his page (responding to something he posted about it), and he basically said 'That’s it, Michael. We’re done.' And I haven’t heard from him since. It hurt. We had known each other for over a decade."

• John Holmes made a really intersting observation, too. He agreed that people may be incredible diverse in how they feel about and act on faith, but when they choose to belong to an organized religion, they must take “some responsibility for what religion does in their name. The fact that they don’t take everything in their religion literally doesn’t absolve them of this responsibility.”

John speaks from experience.

“My Catholic wife is always telling me that I should stop focusing so much on the negative things the priests say, but I am concerned that my children hear all the bad things, too.”

Thanks everyone so much for your excellent comments!

And now for the winner.

As it's important to me to do things as traditionally as possible, I pulled down my bowler from the hat rack and put all your names on slips of paper to be jostled about playfully. But, as I soon found out, my assistant was totally not into that. Which she let me know by flying off the table and damn-near ramming her face into the wall. So instead, we decided to put all the names out on the table and let her choose from the pile. She did a great job, too, especially if you're Lisa — because that's whose name she picked out and then shredded to pieces.

Congrats, Lisa! Send me an e-mail, letting me know if you’d like a hardcover or Kindle copy, and all the pertinent info. I’ll get it out to you today!

Thou Shalt Give Away Free Stuff


I apologize in advance. This is not so much a blog as a call to action. Over the next few months, I’ll be compiling a list of my cleverly titled 10 Commandments For Talking to Kids About God. And I’m eager to get your input.

I’m not going to lie to you, I’ve got 10 commandments lined up and ready to go. But they’re not — ahem — set in stone. (Sorry. Lame.) So, before it’s too late, please write and share with me your own, personal commandment(s): your best advice for introducing children to the concept of religious belief. It may be an overriding philosophy or a set of specific suggestions. Are there definite Dos and Don’ts in your mind? What are they? Have they changed over the years? Why? (Bonus points if you’ve put your commandment or commandments into practice and been successful. Double bonus points if you tell me how in the hell you were able to define “success” in this context.)

Because I’m a slave to pop culture, I’m planning to give away three copies of Richard Dawkins' The Magic of Reality: How We Know What's Really True to those with the best answers. Did you hear that, Twitterers? I said #giveaway!

Write a sentence, a paragraph or an essay. The length doesn’t matter; only the idea.

See you at Mt. Sinai!