"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!

When Opinions Expressed Are Not Your Own

Opinionated GuyFor many of us, strong opinions are like pheromones. They attract us. They lure us in. People who believe what they believe with passion, and who aren't afraid to state their truth — these people hold certain powers. The power to make us laugh. The power to make us think. The power to move us to share our own opinions.

Of course, we're not going to agree with all these opinions — or even find them valid! (Even Einstein expressed some bullshit opinions now and again.) We may even be offended and put off by certain assertions.

But the point remains: There is an underlying attraction that many of us feel to people who possess the courage of their convictions — perhaps because so many others lack it. I find this is particularly true in my relationships with women. It's incredibly hard for me to connect with passive women who soak up what others say and offer little of their own, who look to please others rather than challenge themselves. But when I meet a woman with a strong, clear voice and the willingness to share it, I'm very likely to want to take that woman out for dram of Pappy Van Winkle's.

Of course, there are caveats. (Pappy's is too expensive for their not to be caveats.) Certain things will flat-out "ruin the mood." Hate and bigotry are two of them; aggression, ridicule and ill-humor are three more. Also, in my opinion, in order for a loud, proud assertion to hold any "pheromonic" power at all,  it must truly belong to the opinionated. If someone is simply regurgitating what they heard, without thinking critically about it, it doesn't count. That's just gullibility masquerading as opinion. And, forgive me, but gullibility never got anyone laid. (Not well anyway.)

So where do religious opinions fall in all this? Are strong expressions of of religious views an automatic turnoff for an"unaffiliated" type, such as myself?

Not at all. Most of us are open-minded enough (in the real world, not the one that exists online) to move right past opinions we don't care for and focus on other things.

But it is complicated. Not because of the nature of the opinions, but because so many really wonderful, kind, compassionate, generous and strong people believe in their religion because they were told to believe in their religion. They were raised to believe it. They were never given a chance not to believe it.

And when a person has been indoctrinated to hold a certain opinion, is it really their opinion at all?

I really am attracted to people with strong viewpoints on a whole matter of subjects — including religion. I just wish I could be sure the beliefs and opinions of the religious were truly theirs to share.

'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!

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.

12 Reasons We Indoctrinate Kids — and Why We Shouldn't

Jesus Camp

In nonreligious circles, “indoctrination" has become a pejorative. Something to resist and avoid. The way secularists see it, instructing children to accept any religious faith uncritically deprives them of their own unique reflections, observations and opinions. At its worst, indoctrination is a requirement to blindly follow, to believe without question, to respect and obey authority figures simply because they have been branded as such. Yet, millions of parents throughout the world indoctrinate their children. Why?

1. Comfort: The idea of heaven can be undeniably comforting, especially to children with anxieties about death or dying. By instilling a child with belief in an afterlife, parents may feel they are protecting him from existential pain. And, indeed, in the short-term at least, they might be right.

2. Fear: Devoutly religious parents who believe in hellfire and damnation will indoctrinate, in whole or in part, out of fear for their children's eternal well-being.

3Calling: Those who feel they've been "called" by God to fulfill a duty may see it as their divine obligation to bring children into their faith.

4. Morals: Despite reams of evidence to the contrary, many people still believe there is a necessary connection between religion and moral acts. Parents who have been brought up in a religious household may not know how to instill morals without the aid of religion.

5. Community: Parents who derive a sense of belonging from their religious community may deem it in their children's best interest to be members of that community, too.

6. Tradition: For some families, religion acts as an heirloom — something of personal value handed down from one generation to the next. Religion can provide a structure for family get-togethers, a way to pass on memories, and a vehicle to understand one another.

7. Protection: Places of worship can be safe havens from the less desirable sides of the youth experience — early sex, drugs, alcohol. Getting children involved in a church, mosque, synagogue or temple can be a parent's attempt to stave off those things.

8. Ignorance: Sometimes the blind lead the blind. Those who have been brought up to believe a certain way just because may not think twice before doing same thing with their kids.

9. Parenting style: A parent with an authoritarian parenting style is likely to demand certain behaviors of their children, and this bleeds over into the religious spectrum. Kids may be expected to obey God, just as they are expected to obey Mom and Dad.

10. Truth: Many parents believe they possess the "truth" about the universe — whatever that means. Some believe that the wisdom of their own life journeys not only can, but must, inform the beliefs of their children.

11. Politics: Those whose religion is completely wrapped up in their politics may indoctrinate their kids as a means to an end.

12. Fairness: Parents who perceive that others are indoctrinating their children may indoctrinate their own as a way of balancing things out.

Unfortunately, the problems with indoctrination are many and striking. Not only does it take advantage of children’s undeveloped brains, but it can hinder their ability to draw their own conclusions about the world, independent from their parents. And that’s a skill that relates directly to their self-esteem, self-confidence and self-worth — the very attributes that will enable them to resist peer pressure and make wise decisions in adolescence and beyond.

What’s more, indoctrination breeds religious intolerance. It's difficult to teach compassion and acceptance while sending a message that your child is obligated to believe the way you do. True tolerance starts at home. If you're going to tell your child it's okay for others to believe differently than you do, you've got to be okay with your child doing the same. Otherwise, you're kind of a hypocrite. And by "kind of,” I mean totally.

Kids Leaving Parents' Religion Certainly Gets People Talking

I'm hella busy today, but wanted to link to a few recent news posts about children leaving the faiths into which they were born. The first is informative, the second is instructive, and the third — well, the third is just trash. But watch it for the comedic value. Study: Religious Parents' Divorce May Cause Children to Leave the Church

The Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion released a study Tuesday finding that children who have two religious parents are twice as likely to lose that religion if the parents divorce. The journal does not offer an explanation — those studies will be next, apparently — but does hypothesize that one reason may be that religious guidance gets put on the back burner in divorce situations. Baylor University also wrote about the study, and you can find that story here.

When Your Child Rejects Your Religion: Dos and Don'ts

Aimed at religious parents, this column from KSL.com in Utah has some great advice for religious parents whose children drift away from the family's chosen faith. It's advice that I wish more religious parents would heed. And, certainly, nonreligious parents who "fear" their children will someday adopt a religious practice would be wise to give the list a quick read, too.

Talking to Kids and Religion/Spirituality

I almost feel guilty pointing this one out, because IT'S SO BAD. But for us "nones" in more liberal parts of the country, perhaps it's good to get a dose of the other side now and again. Here's the setup: A morning news anchor for  a segment called "Take 5" at WZZM13 in Michigan and a "doctor" called Clark (from a place called the Clark Institute) discuss how children are moving away from religion and how sad it is because they're so alone and because kids so clearly yearn for God. I'm calling shenanigans on the whole 5-minute interview, but here are some high points (and, by that, I clearly mean low points):

1:33 Clark says: "The kids who went through the Newtown shooting — the ones that had a belief in God or some kind of church attendance or religion in the family, they did better after the shooting incident." [Um...WTF???]

2:00 "Wow, you were a unique preschool teacher, let me tell ya!" anchor lady says when Clark reveals that, as a preschool teacher, he told his kids about Judaism, Islam and Kwanza. [And this is somehow shocking? Also, Kwanza: not religious.]

3:50 Clark suggests when a child discloses to his parents that he's lost faith, a "great response" would be to laugh at the kid. [Another great response would be to add a bunch of money to a therapy jar, because that kid's probably going to need a lot of it.]

4:15 Anchor lady asks if parents are supposed to "leave it" to children to discover their own beliefs — an option she says "scares me because what might they find?" [Hmm. Waldo wearing a devil costume? Isn't the real question, what might they not find?]

Yoga Class Indoctrinates Kids! (Um, Yeah, No)

Last week, some Christian parents in the Encinitas Union School District threatened to sue the district in an attempt to disband a twice-a-week yoga class offered to elementary school children. The yoga class, which has been touted as an excellent addition to the district's physical education curriculum, as well as drawing down the number of conflicts on the playground, is being viewed as a way to indoctrinate kids into the Hindu faith. The whole thing is both silly and sad, honestly, given the great success the district is having with the yoga program — but it's also based on a disingenuous premise.

These parents don't object to the district because yoga will indoctrinate their kids into Hinduism. They object because the district refuses to aid parents as they indoctrinate their children into Christianity.

By opening up children to a meditation-stretching practice with roots in another religion, the district is doing nothing more sinister than embracing multiculturalism. Unfortunately, multiculturalism is the enemy of indoctrination.

The way I see it, religious (or non-religious) indoctrination requires that we teach children two things:

1. There is only one right way to believe. 

2. People who disagree with that way are less moral, intelligent or worthy of our respect. 

Now, please note the use of the word right. In this context, right means "good, proper or just," rather than "accurate" or "free from error." It's virtually impossible to find a person on this planet who doesn't think her belief system is the correct one — the one that is factual and true. But there is a difference between "wrong" and "bad." As long as we acknowledge that there are other ways to believe that work well for other people, the first obligation is met.

Secondly, to avoid indoctrination, we must avoid negatively labeling people who disagree with our beliefs. Again, I'm not suggesting parents give equal weight to all belief systems, or back away from stating and/or celebrating their own beliefs. But if parents do not wish to indoctrinate, they must be willing to acknowledge that there are many ways to believe, and that the people who believe differently deserve just as much respect as anybody.

The problem in Encinitas isn't that the school is indoctrinating kids — not by a long shot. The "problem" is that by sharing a traditional Hindu practice in a positive way, the district might (but, sadly, probably won't!) undermine the indoctrination these kids are getting at home.

The Inheritance of Anxiety

Sometimes, in looking through the responses to my Survey for Nonreligious Parents, I'm faced with perfect examples of What Not To Do. Here's one from a mom:

My child just yesterday stormed out of her classroom telling the teacher that she was 'indoctrinating' her in the telling of the Christian Easter story. I was very proud my child was so confident, assertive, and sure of her own non-belief that she was able to do this.

Confident and assertive? You bet! But sure of her own non-belief? In elementary school? Hell no. Most likely, this child was simply repeating what she'd heard at home — that talking about religious stories is called "indoctrination." (Ain't irony grand?)

In trying to protect her daughter against religious pariahs, this mother has managed to set her child on high alert over the freakin' Easter story. Religion is an unescapable part of our country and our world, so why try to escape it? Teaching our kids to be tense, anxious or sensitive about religion does little more than set them up for a lot of tension, anxiety and hurt feelings. God is a part of our culture's language, its songs, its poetry, its monuments and its works of art. God is a part of human history, and many of us happen to live in a Christian-majority country.

The trick is to get some perspective.

Is it really all that terrible that our kids hear about Easter in school? Or Passover or Eid or Diwali? Who does it hurt? I can think of many situations in which schools (particularly those with a religious bent) could play a role in influencing our kids. But, generally speaking, secular schools with irregular exposure to religious ideas aren't going to make a damn bit of difference, unless the schools are getting some serious "backup" at home.

Sometimes it helps to think of religious references, events and activities as "cultural" rather than "religious." Would it anger us to know that stories about Native American traditions were being shared in the classroom? Or if a teacher from Turkey talked a lot about the customs and beliefs of her home country?

Just as there's a difference between learning and being indoctrinated, there's also a difference between behavior and belief. We need not load everything with meaning. Kids may pledge their allegiance “under God” (or say they'll "try to serve God" as part of the Girl Scout Promise) not because of religion but because of tradition, the same way they may sing Christmas songs or say “Bless you” when someone sneezes. Why not just explain to kids that the pledge and the Girl Scout Promise have God in them because their authors believed in God? Why not tell them that that people sing Christmas carols to celebrate the birth of Jesus, but that non-Christians can appreciate the carols, too. Why not say that schools may decorate for certain holidays because those holidays are important to so many people in this particular country?

I've said this before, but it bears repeating: If our kids want to a draw battle lines for themselves on these matters, so be it. But (for the love of God!) let's not nudge them toward the battle.