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.

Two Items of Business for Secular Parents

calendar-1Okay, people, a couple of items of business on this fine Monday morning. 1. Mixed Marriages: If you happen to be in an "interfaithless" marriage — one partner is religious, the other isn't — you'll want to keep an eye out for Dale McGowan's newest project, a book called "In Faith and In Doubt." McGowan, who announced the book title on his blog last week, promises to show "how religious believers and nonbelievers can create strong marriages and happy families." The book is slated for release around July 2014, but McGowan (author of Parenting Beyond Belief: Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion) will be blogging about the process in the meantime. Best of luck, Dale!

2. Secular Parents: For those who live anywhere near Long Island, the local branch of the Ethical Humanist Society and Long Island Center for Inquiry are hosting an all-day seminar for secular parents on Sept. 21.  The seminar, titled "Raising Kids to Be Good Grown-Ups," is focused particularly on instilling kids with strong moral character. Segment titles include: "Without God, Will My Kid Grow Up to Be a Criminal?" and "Morality, Religious Concepts and the Cognitive Development of Children." The conference is billed as helping to "foster a society that encourages open debate and critical thought, as well as investing in the future for our children." Speakers include Lenore Skanazy, author of Free Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry), Dale McGowan (!!!), and Dr. Alison Pratt, a clinical psychologist specializing in cognitive therapy and behavioral analysis, among others. For a schedule, visit: secularparentingforum.org.

It's Not a Competition: 8 Tips for Interfaith Parents

In America at least, "mixed-religion” families are becoming a norm. And that's a great thing in many ways — great for couples, great for kids, and great for society. But it comes with a fair share of complications, too. And figuring out how to talk to children about these different beliefs is one of them. It can be hard, for instance, to field questions of faith when your answers collide with those of your partner's — "Mommy's going to heaven, and Daddy is — well, he's going to the ground." But these talks (not to mention these marriages) need not end badly — whether you're a Jew married to Muslim, a Hindu married to Buddhist, or a Catholic married to an atheist. The trick is to remember to love your partner the way you love your children: unconditionally. You fell in love with someone who sees the world a certain way; embrace her journey, even if you give no credence to her religious beliefs.

Here are eight tips:

1. Show shame the middle finger. Sharing your religious beliefs, or lack thereof, with your child is important — even if it means letting your child know that this is one area where you and Daddy don't agree. Remember, no matter what you believe — or don't — there is no shame in having your own thoughts about how the world works. And that's a lesson you want to teach your child, right? So model it. Don't hide what you are — even if certain other people think you're wrong or weird or downright evil. You know differently; be sure your child does, too.

2. Take 'hell' off the table. It's one thing to dangle heaven as a reward for a life well-lived; it's another to threaten hell as a punishment for faithlessness. If your partner, for instance, insists on telling your child that there is a fiery place where people go if they don't embrace a certain set of beliefs, your partner is suffering from some major cognitive dissonance and should be asked — as nicely as possible — to lay the fuck off.

3. Be respectful — even if you have to fake it. Agree in advance that you will not intentionally denigrate or disrespect each other's beliefs in any way. Make a deal that your children be allowed to embrace one belief over the other, but that both parents get to be honest about their beliefs (or, again, lack thereof). Promise not to put down your partner's views in any way, but rather encourage your children to seek honest answers for themselves.

4. Find stuff you agree on. There are a great many things that nonreligious and religious parents have in common. Many religious people believe, for instance, that the Bible is not literal, that the world is not 6,000 years old, and that there are no such things as ghosts. Many nonreligious people believe that the world was created by some supernatural force, which they may or may not call "God." As a couple, decide what you agree on, and what you don't, so you know exactly what areas need to be traversed sensitively.

5. Speak up! Allowing one partner to "take over" the religious upbringing of a child happens a lot — and it's not the worst thing in the world. But it's also a kind of sad when you think about it. The existence/nonexistence of God and what happens after we die figures so heavily in the Big Questions of the universe — the questions that each and every child will, at some point, want to explore. If you don't share your views, you can't share with your child all the wonderful philosophies and theories and wisdom about human nature that you've collected during your experience as a human being. And that's robbing your child of something special; it's robbing them of you.

6. Say 'I believe' a lot. You can avoid a lot of stress with your partner (and vice versa) simply by adding "I believe" in front of whatever you say. It's the concrete statements — "People who support abortion are disappointing God" — that make nonreligious parents bristle. But adding: "I believe..." or "My interpretation is…" to religious statements can go a long way toward taking the edge off. (So can whiskey, by the way. But that's probably not going to help your marriage. On the other hand, maybe it will.)

7. Perfect your shrug. Your child may not know what to make of having parents with different religions at first. It might spark more questions than usual, and that's just fine. Encourage these questions, and try to answer them as a couple as often as you can. But do let your child know that this stuff is super-confusing and neither parent has all the answers. You can say: "No one really knows for sure. That's what allows us to have different opinions about this stuff." This is one area where not having all the answers is not just okay — it's sort of required.

8. Acknowledge your lack of control, and embrace it. Think of your family as points on a grid, standing equidistance from one another. The goal is not to invite your child to join you on your exact point on the grid (that's never going to happen), but rather to encourage your child be comfortable and confident on her own unique grid point. That your child is kind to other people is your concern; whether she believes in the prophet Muhammad is not. If you're curious what your kid believes, ask in the most neutral way you can: "What do you think? What makes sense to you?" And be sure she knows that however she responds is fine by you. Oh, and never try to pressure a child into believing the way you do — it rarely works, and might even backfire. Oftentimes, the harder you push a child to your way of thinking, the more distance the child puts between you — until, eventually, she's off your grid altogether.

This post originally appeared in July 2012.

On Tom, Katie and Interfaith Families

Tom_Cruise_Katie_Holmes_divorce_magazine_covers

To answer your first two questions: Yes, I'm going there; and, no, I'm not above it. Now, back to TomKat.

If media reports are to be believed — and let's say they are for the sake of this conversation, shall we? — actors Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes have split up based, in part, on a dispute over the religious upbringing of their 6-year-old daughter, Suri. In case you are reading this from under a rock somewhere, Cruise is the highest-profile Scientologist in the history of Scientology, and Holmes — well, she ain't. (I've read she was raised Catholic, which probably means she's a Buddhist by now — ha ha.)

There may well be much more to the divorce than this — always is — but what I wouldn't give to know how this pair has gone about discussing religion with that kid.

Suri's age sure seems significant. While the topic of religion may be blissfully avoided for the first several years of a kid's life, most children get God-curious around age 5 — which is about the time they start school and meet other kids. It's quite possible that, in the Cruise-Holmes household, religious differences played a supporting role until very recently, when Suri (through no fault of her own) pushed it front-and-center.

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A child changes everything.

That's what they say, and that's how it is. A new birth has a rather magical way of changing our lifestyles, interests, priorities, and relationships. Most of the time, of course, the changes are for the good — especially when it comes to the relationships part. Children can make us parents stronger, more resilient, more mature, more committed, more loving. But sometimes, the changes are…. well, let's just say challenging. Like how our "parenting styles" (which some of us didn't even know we had!) can bump up against each other, creating tensions and resentments where none existed before. Things we didn't think were important AT ALL now seem to matter A WHOLE FREAKING LOT. And compromise is especially hard to achieve when our little innocents are the ones who might suffer when we give up too much — or too little.

Interfaith marriage is so much more common than it's ever been. According to recent studies, upwards of 25 percent of American marriages are mixed. And, as religion loosens its grip on each passing generation, that percentage is expected to rise. In my own survey, which concluded a couple months ago, 20 percent of the nonreligious parents surveyed were married to people who held religious beliefs different from their own.

Of course, in a sense, this is wonderful news. America is, after all, the great melting pot. And the more couples comingle, the fewer divisions we'll have and (theoretically at least) the fewer conflicts we'll have.  But interfaith marriage isn't easy, either, and that is especially true when a couple bears children.

According to an excellent piece in the Washington Post (Interfaith marriages are rising fast, but they're falling fast too) many interfaith couples underestimate the importance that faith plays in their lives. And some of them intend to become more religious after marriage — something they may not share with their partner before the vows are taken.

The Post article cites a paper published in 1993 by Evelyn Lehrer, a professor of economics at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who found that divorce rates were higher among interfaith couples. A Catholic and a member of an evangelical denomination had (at the time at least) a one-in-three chance of divorcing, Lehrer found. A Jew and Christian had a greater than 40 percent chance of being divorced in five years. (Same-faith marriages, by comparison, divorced at a rate of one in five.)

"As Lehrer points out, a strong or even moderate religious faith will influence 'many activities that husband and wife perform jointly.' Religion isn't just church on Sunday, Lehrer notes, but also ideas about raising children, how to spend time and money, friendships, professional networks -- it can even influence where to live. The disagreements between husband and wife start to add up."

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One of my husband's heroes is Rev. William Sloane Coffin, Jr., a Presbyterian minister, civil rights activist, gay-marriage proponent and proud liberal. In his sermons, Coffin equated God with love, and love with God and didn't let anything dilute that one true meaning.

Sloane married plenty of interfaith couples in his day, and his personal contention (which he outlined during an interview with Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air) was that marriages could absolutely withstand differences in faith — especially when the parties shared the same "level" of faith. For instance, he said, a Jew and a Christian who are both slightly religious won't have any problem at all; the same with a Jew and a Christian who are both very religious. His reasoning: One's devotion to faith matters more than the underlying faith itself, as long as the couple share a genuine respect for the other's religion.

You notice who's left out of Coffin's feel-good scenario, though, right? Couples with different levels of faith.

Coffin contended that most problems arise when one parent is very religious and the other isn't; when one person wants to attend church or mosque or temple, for example, and the other wants to stay home. If a couple's religiosity is uneven, we're led to believe, couples may feel as though there's a "winner" and "loser" when it comes to deciding how much of one religion to bring into the house  — or keep out of it.

It's an interesting point. Especially when you relate it back to Tom and Katie. (Yes, dammit, I'm still writing about this shameful topic. Let it go.)

If it's true that Cruise came to the marriage holding firm to the, I don't know, staff? of Scientology, while Holmes came draped in the light mist of her parents' Catholicism, then they're level of devotions were certainly not aligned. Perhaps she thought they were stronger than the sum of their religious parts. Perhaps he thought she'd come around.

The point is, interfaith marriage can work, but it doesn't always work. And the more couples think about their faith/non-faith in the context of child-rearing BEFORE THE CHILDREN ARE BORN, the less likely they'll be to end up on the front of Us Magazine over a story about their impending divorce.