My Kid’s New (And Adorably Diplomatic) Theory of Evolution

Friends
Friends

My daughter has this tendency to go all existentialist on me while riding in the car. I’m not sure what it is about this particular setting that motivates these sorts of talks. Is it sitting still with nothing else to do? Is it gazing up at the sky? Do all kids do this? Anyway, the other day, while driving Maxine and one of her friends to the pool, I listened as the two struck up a conversation about God. I can’t remember how it started (I didn’t turn on the voice recorder until later), but at some point they exchanged belief systems: The friend — a girl from a vaguely Christian, though not outwardly religious, family — said she believed in God. Maxine said she went back and forth on the matter.

When I’m adult, she told her friend, I probably won’t believe in God.

Really?, her friend asked, with equal parts surprise and confusion.

Here’s where the conversation went from there.

FRIEND: Well then how did we get here?

MAXINE: Oh I know how we got here. Long story.

FRIEND: Then I want to hear it. Tell me.

MAXINE: Okay. Well, there was this really little animal and that became a bigger animal and that became a bigger animal, then it grew to be a person. And the first person in the universe was that. Probably a cave person.

FRIEND: No, I know who the first person on Earth was: Adam.

MAXINE: Yeah.

FRIEND: And I know who the second person in the universe was. It was a girl. Eve. Adam gave birth to Eve…

MAXINE: No, I don’t think Adam gave birth to Eve.

FRIEND: No. I know that’s not true.

MAXINE: Adam and Eve had children and then they had children and then there was a bunch of universe of children. Ta-dah! Like my explanation?

FRIEND: Yes.

[Long pause]

FRIEND: But did…? How…? Wait. Okay, I don’t get this… If our families are different, who started our family? Like because there’s a big, huge generation — but how did it start?

MAXINE: Well, I think it started with cavemen before Adam. Because he’s probably the first person—like human being— and it probably started with cavemen. And then there was a weird caveman who probably gave birth to a person. Adam.

FRIEND: Adam.

MAXINE: Adam.

[Brief pause]

MAXINE: Hey, do you want to play Adam and Eve?

FRIEND: No.

MAXINE: Yeah, me neither.

I've always found it curious, as I'm sure you have, as to how some devoutly religious people can find factual truth in the Biblical story of Adam and Eve within the context of evolution.

Leave to second-graders to reconcile the irreconcilable.

From the Mind of an 8-year-old: 'Who Made Up God?'

Rope SwingMy daughter is on her rope swing, looking out into the blue sky just beyond the fence line of our front yard. She is thinking quietly. And deeply, as it turns out. "Who made up God?" she asks.

"What?" I say. Because I am inside and can barely hear her.

"Who made up God?" she asks again. I walk to the open door, pondering the question. It sounds as though she might expect me to name someone — an actual person responsible for the creation of this great character that she's heard so much about.

"Quentin Tarantino," I think about saying, but don't.

I go back to my old reliable: Some people believe... It's imprinted in my brain by now.

"Well, you know," I say, "some people believe God is not made up at all—"

"—yeah yeah yeah, I know," she says, totally interrupting me.

She is 8, see, and 8-year-olds do not need to be told things they've been told before. Because 8-year-olds have brains like steel traps. They remember everything. Except, you know, where they last left their backpack. And their lunch box. And their homework and shoes and every hand-held electronic they own. But, like, everything else.

"I mean," she continues, "who was the first person to have the idea of God?"

"Okay, that's a really great question," I say, because it is, isn't it? Incidentally, I do not know how to answer this particular question, but I do know precisely where she last left her backpack, lunch box, homework, shoes and Kindle.

This is 40.

Anyway, I say something about how the idea of God and gods has been around for many thousands of years. No one knows who the first believers were, but the idea might even go back to the first humans. Probably, I tell her, it wasn't just one person but a bunch of people who started believing around the same time.

"Why?" she asks.

Another great question. "People believe in God or gods for all sorts of reasons," I say. "It makes them feel good to not be alone. It makes them feel good to believe that something larger is out there, watching over them. And it makes some people feel good to believe that they'll live on after they die."

The answer satisfies her — she moves on to something else — but it doesn't satisfy me. I start wondering: How far back does belief go? What exactly were those early believers lacking or longing for? What is it that led them to spirituality?

So I did some Googling.

unesco5Here's what I found out:

1. There's no telling for sure when belief in the supernatural first took root. What we do know is based on archeological finds that point to ritual behaviors. Rituals = supernatural beliefs, or at least that's the idea.

2. Evidence of rituals dates back at least 130,000 years; that's when we know homo sapiens intentionally buried their dead — suggesting that they may have believed in some sort of an afterlife. (Burials actually go back to the Neanderthal period, some 300,000 years ago, but we don't know whether those burials were intentional.)

3. These early rituals didn't involve gods, per se. (This was 125,000 years before Zeus even entered the picture.) According to scholars, the beliefs of these early humans probably resembled totemism or animism, both of which are practiced today and emphasize the spiritual essence of all living things. In totemism plants and animals are thought to possess supernatural powers, and totems are thought to "interact" with individual peoples or tribes, thus serving as their emblem or symbol. (Not unlike school mascots.) You can read more about totemism here and here. I plan to. It's fascinating stuff.

I still can't answer Maxine's questions about the when and the why of religious belief, but next time she asks, at least I'll be a little more prepared about the what.

Talking About Belief With Kids: When Logic Threatens to Overshadow Kindness

UnknownMy daughter, Maxine, is 8 years old and really getting the hang of logic these days. If A is true, then B must be true. If you believe A, you must believe B. If A doesn't exist... You get the drift. Anyway, Maxine's little cousin Jack  (4) is very into the movie Frozen right now, particularly the character of Elsa, the snow queen. Recently, when chatting about beliefs, he told his mom, "I believe in Elsa" — which is so cute it makes my heart hurt. But when I told Maxine about Jack's statement, she immediately went into critical mode.

"Jack can't believe in Elsa," she said.

If Jack believes in Elsa, she explained, he has to believe in Olaf (the snowman friend) and Sven (the talking reindeer). This was clearly illogical, and the whole thing bothered her. You could tell she wanted to call Jack up right that instant and tell him how wrong he was.

This is not to say that Maxine is free of her own irrational beliefs, of course; she has plenty of them, believe me. But she is, for the first time, beginning to make logical arguments of her own and experiencing a very strong desire to set people straight when they come to the "wrong" conclusions. (God help us all.)

Belief

The whole thing has made me realize that this is a great time and opportunity to talk with her a little about tolerance. After all, how kids respond or react when someone holds irrational or illogical beliefs is a huge indicator of their level of tolerance, is it not? How Maxine responds to her little cousin's announcement could easily indicate her ability to exercise restraint, compassion and kindness in the face of absurd testimony. And, let's face it, she will be hearing (and reading) a lot of that in her life.

We already know kids need to be encouraged to think critically about different beliefs, to weigh those beliefs against what they know to be true, and to figure out what makes sense to them. This is important stuff for kids.

But thinking critically about other's beliefs is very different from criticizing others' beliefs. We need to explain to our kids that people have lots of different reasons for believing the way they do and sometimes those reasons won't make any kind of sense. But everyone has a right to their own personal beliefs, and they don't deserve to be made fun of, or criticized, or talked into changing those beliefs. Unless their beliefs are hurting someone, people deserve to be left alone.

We all do.

If Maxine chooses not to believe in God, that's nobody's business but hers. If her cousin believes in Elsa, that's nobody's business but his.

Are Mormons Christian? Here's the Simple Answer

65th Annual Tony Awards - Show

This weekend I was sitting in the living room with my daughter, listening to music on my iSomething-or-Other, when a song from the Broadway musical The Book of Mormon came on. The song was "Hello," the musical's perfectly executed opening number (and the one featured at the 2012 Tony Awards, below.)

Maxine was fascinated by the song. She loved all the doorbell-ringing, and the goofy voices, and the part when Elder Grant asks, "Are these your kids?" She must have replayed the song four or five times before moving on to something else. But, all the while, I knew she didn't really "get" any of it.  She'd never seen a Mormon missionary. She'd never even heard of Mormons.

So I gave her a quick run-down. I told her Mormons were part of a religious group, and that Mormons are known for going door-to-door to talk about their religion.

"Oh!" Maxine said. "I thought everyone was coming to their house."

Nope, I said, the other way around. Mormons ring other people's doors to tell them about the Book of Mormon, which is kind of like their Bible. Sometimes, I told her, you'll see them in our neighborhood. You can tell they're Mormon because they usually wear white shirts with black ties.

"And bicycle helmets," my husband added, because he's helpful like that.

We left it there; I've learned not to over-do it when it comes to religious literacy. But ever since then I've been thinking about how, if asked, I would frame the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Would I categorize it as Christian or non-Christian?

mormon_christian_pinback_buttons-r8d2c999466724c59a514028d6bab01bd_x7j3i_8byvr_324That question has been the source of great debate since shortly after the church was founded in the 1820s. Mitt Romney would tell you that LDS is most definitely Christian. My Presbyterian uncle would tell you the opposite. images

Romney, who ran for president in 2012 and had a vested interest in being perceived as part of the majority, would surely emphasize that Mormons believe Jesus is the son of God and their savior, and that the only way to heaven is by following his example. (Pretty Christian-sounding, right?)

Yet LDS has adopted a whole manner of other beliefs that go far beyond what lies in Christian doctrine. The main one, of course, is that a guy from Vermont named Joseph Smith became a prophet of God who, with help from an angel, unearthed the ancient writings of other prophets, which all but instructed him to establish a new church. (Decidedly non-Christian.)

It doesn't matter to me personally whether Mormons are Christian or not. In the eyes of non-believers, most religions operate on the same planes of being anyway. Hindus could call themselves Zoroastrian, and I wouldn't have much of an opinion about it.

But I do want to be able to answer my kid's questions as accurately as I can, so... Are Mormons Christian? After some consideration, here's a simple answer:

Most religions evolve from other religions: Someone longs for something different, or learns something new, and starts spreading a different message than the one that came before. When enough people pay attention to that message, a religion is born. One could argue that Western religions — including Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Mormonism — all grew out of the same basic principal: There is one God. When you remove all the special customs and "side-beliefs," one might say that Judaism is basically Christianity without the Jesus; Christianity is Islam without the Muhammad; and Mormonism is Christianity with the Joseph Smith.

Is Mormonism its own distinct religion? Definitely. Is it based in Christianity? Definitely. Done and done. Next house— er, question.

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.

 

'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

Can the Bible Help Kids Think Critically?

max-bibleOnce upon a time, I would have choked on my own vomit at the idea of buying a children's Bible for my daughter. The way I saw it, the Bible was an indoctrination tool. I no more wanted to crack that book open than I wanted to get her baptized or plan her Bat Mitzvah or teach her to pray toward Mecca five times a day. It was all the same to me. In my mind, only religious people read the Bible. But, times have changed.

Today, I don't equate the Bible to religion; I equate it with religious literacy. It is the quickest and most effective way to expose kids to Western belief systems. When it comes to knowledge of Judaism and Christianity and — to a slightly lesser extent — Islam, you can't do better than to read some key Bible passages. Judaism relies heavily on Moses and the book of Exodus. Christianity revolves around the Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. And Islam loves it some Genesis-bred Abraham.

Of course, kids are too young to understand the language in the Bible, so it's definitely best to go with a children's version. Yes, they over-simplify things. Yes, they white wash. Yes, they take out all the language that makes the Bible at all enjoyable to read, frankly. But the greater good is that the kids will understand the stories and be drawn into them enough to actually remember them. And memory is sort of key in the education business.

My daughter has had her children's Bible for almost three years now. She's been known to take it out and look at the pictures, but lately — within the last year — she has taken to reading it in the car. She skips around a bit, but is always fascinated most by the moral aspects of each tale. I think this is the age where kids really start to think more about "right" and "wrong" and Biblical stories are larger-than-life tales with big-name characters, and so the degrees of rightness and wrongness are heightened.

The shocking thing about it all is that — contrary to the common assumption — reading the Bible seems to be helping to hone her ability to think for herself. She reads the stories with genuine interest and serious consideration — but without the reverence, deference and praise associated with faith-based Bible classes. It's remarkable, really, especially when I think back on the pure lack of critical thinking I employed when I heard the same stories as a kid.

The other day, for example, while reading in the car, she got to the 10th of the 10 Commandments and read (aloud): "Never want what belongs to others." Then she stopped and corrected Moses. "Well, you can WANT what belongs to others," she said. "You just can't HAVE it. You can buy one for yourself."

In the story about Joseph's dream coat, the passage read: "Joseph was one of Jacob's twelve sons. Jacob loved him more than all of his other sons..."

Maxine looked up at me: "THAT'S SO MEAN!" she said.

When Jacob is thrown in jail, and one of the other prisoners asks Jacob — quite out of the blue — to decipher the guy's dream, Maxine was all: "Well how would HE know what that means?!" And when a father (I can't recall who) tells his son that he must marry who the father chooses, Maxine declared that to be "dumb" and explained to me that, of course, the son can marry whoever he wants.

But my favorite bit was when her Bible told her that "goodly people" would go to live in heaven.

"I am a goodly person," Maxine said, "but I don't want to live in heaven."

And then she added: "Where do all the BADLY people live, that's what I want to know..."