"Mommy, What's Satan?"

Of all the religious concepts that I've discussed with my 8-year-old daughter, Satan has been one of the toughest — partly because it seems awkward to speak of something so nasty and awful in a matter-of-fact way. But that's precisely what makes it a great addition to "Mommy, What's That?" a new series I launched last week, where you can find simple, straightforward and age-appropriate language to explain religious ideas to children in a non-religious way. So here goes. Satan: The short answer:

Satan is the "bad guy" in the Bible.

The long answer:

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In the Hebrew Bible, God is the hero who wants people to be good, and Satan is the villain who tries to tempt people into being bad. (Think Batman and the Joker.) Some people believe Satan is just a fictional character. Some people believe Satan is a real being who changes forms so he can trick people into doing bad things. (Like the serpent in the Garden of Eden.) Some people think Satan is just a symbol of the "bad" parts of human beings — because no one is perfect, and everyone is bad sometimes. Some people believe Satan is a "fallen" angel who turned against God and now lives in a place called hell. You will sometimes hear people talk about "the devil" — they're talking about Satan.

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.

'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?

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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!

'Golden Rule' — Beautiful, Universal and Very, Very Old

Golden rule cover

It is a common misconception that the Golden Rule began with Jesus. In fact, it's part of the reason some Christians think of their religion as synonymous with morality. After all, to treat others the way you want to be treated is the essence of moral conduct. And it was Luke 6:31 in the New Testament that quotes Jesus as saying: "As ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise." (Matthew 7:1-5 also addresses the topic.)

But Jesus didn't invent the ethic of reciprocity anymore than did Muhammad, who said: "The most righteous of men is the one who is glad that men should have what is pleasing to himself, and who dislikes for them what is for him disagreeable." (circa 570-632 AD)

No, the Golden Rule existed long before Christianity or Islam. In fact, no one is quite sure when the idea was first written, much less conceived — it's that old. All we know is that the general idea is as ubiquitous as it is beautiful — having existed in virtually every culture on Earth for thousands of years.

The Golden Rule

Here's Plato: "I would have no one touch my property, if I can help it, or disturb it in the slightest way without my consent. If I am a man of reason, I must treat other's property the same way." (circa 387 BCE)

Confucius said: "What you do not like if done to yourself, do not do to others." (circa 500 BCE)

The Sutrakritanga, part of the Jain Canons, put it quite succinctly: "One should treat all being as he himself would be treated." (circa the 4th Century BCE)

Even the Mahabharata, an ancient Indian epic written in Sanskrit, included the passage: "The knowing person is minded to treat all being as himself." (circa 800 BCE)

Then there's the Jewish Torah, written in 1280 BCE: "Take heed to thyself, my child, in all they works, and be discreet in all thy behavior; and what thou thyself hatest, do to no man."

Undated is this charming African Bush proverb: "If your neighbor's jackal escapes into your garden, you should return the animal to its owner; that is how you would want your neighbor to treat you."

This sort of hilarious version is a Nigerian Yoruba proverb: "One going to take a pointed stick to pinch a baby bird should first try it on himself to feel how it hurts."

And a Sioux prayer puts it this way: "Great spirit, grant that I may not criticize my neighbor until I have walked a mile in his moccasins."

Among the oldest known references appears in the story of The Eloquent Peasant, an ancient Egyptian story that dates back to The Middle Kingdom: 2040–1650 BCE (!): "Now this is the command: Do to the doer to cause that he do thus to you."

The Golden Rule (so named sometime in the 17th Century, by the way) is arguably the greatest wisdom human beings have ever offered the world. It's universally known, pondered  and accepted. And it's a hallmark of virtually every major religion, philosophy and ethical perspective.

So... why don't we follow it?

"We have committed the golden rule to memory, let us now commit it to life." — Edwin Markham, 1852-1940.

[Most of the information in this post came from Sandra and Harold Darling, who compiled a wonderful ruler-shaped book called The Golden Rule  in 2006. It costs $7 on Amazon.]

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.

7 Tips for Dealing with Religious Relatives

I'm lucky to have a supportive family. Even my religious family members respect and accept me for who I am. But that’s not always the case. Some of us are facing relatives who are heartbroken about our lack of faith — incredulous, fearful, maybe even angry. For parents, this is an area that weighs especially heavily. We want so much to encourage our children to have open, meaningful relationships with our loved ones, but we worry our kids will be pressured to believe things that aren’t true, or may even be harmful. No one wants to expose kids to the "family tension," or say something that will make the the tension even worse. So what can be done? How can nonreligious types deal with religious relatives?

As always, there is a balance to be struck. And, as always, love and levity go along way.

1. See that big chip on your shoulder? Knock it off.

Okay, so you've been disrespected, condescended to, verbally attacked or even threatened. That shit will get under anyone's skin. But if religion is ever going to become a non-subject in your house, you're going to have to own your part in it. Approaching religious loved ones adversarially is that part. Often, we see religious exposure and treat it as religious invasion, or we hear words of faith and interpret them as acts of war. Try shedding your armor before you walk in the door. Adopt a loving posture, instead of a defensive one. Make jokes. Be self-effacing. And if all else fails, do what most families do and find a third-party to vilify. Far more dysfunctional families than your own have been saved simply by identifying a common enemy.

2. Relaaaaaaax

Do you honestly think your relatives’ religious views are going to succeed in “indoctrinating” your child. Not a chance. Children may go to church every Sunday with their grandparents, but they’ll still look to their parents for true religious guidance. So stop worrying so much. Explain to your kids that people have all sorts of religious beliefs, and encourage them to explore and ask lots of questions. Give your child a preview of what they might hear from relatives or friends at school. Tell them it’s okay to believe in God or not believe in God, and that people have lots of different ideas about how the universe was made and what happens after we die. Some people have such strong beliefs that they try very hard to convince others that their way is the right and only way. Encourage your children to listen and be respectful and that they have plenty of time to make up their own minds.

3. Encourage religious talk.

People love to talk about themselves. It makes them feel good. And if a person’s interests center on his or her religion, then allowing them to talk about his or her religion is a really nice thing. Think about how touched your mom would be if you invited her to tell your children about her faith. She’d no longer have to sneak around you (as much), or feel (as) resentful, or worry (as intensely) that you’re dragging your child to hell. Let your mother know that, as long as she doesn’t say anything hurtful, hateful or scary, she is welcome to expose your children to religion as much or as little as she likes. Be sure to encourage your children to engage in these discussions, too.

4. Lower your expectations.

If you have an especially vocal family, and find yourself getting stressed out easily, you may need to lower your expectations a bit. Try promising yourself you won’t get annoyed until you hear X number of religious remarks or stories. Then set the X number kind of high. I used to do this when I travelled long distances with my toddler. If I resolved not to get stressed until she had three meltdowns, for instance, I didn’t exhaust myself trying so damn hard to prevent just one. My relaxed attitude made all the difference, and the trips always exceeded by expectations.

5. Understand that ‘rational’ has nothing to do with it.

Why are we non-theists so outraged, indignant and disgusted when we learn new things about religion? When we pick up the Bible or the Qur'an or the Book of Mormon, for example, and actually read some of what's in there? “People can’t possible believe this stuff,” we nonreligious types say. “This book doesn’t make any sense, and it contradicts itself all over the place!” Right, sure. But religious people aren't concerned about that. If God works in mysterious ways, every single supernatural and incongruous event in religious history can be justified. Can they be justified through rational thought? Of course not. That’s why it’s called faith. Let's move on.

6. Avoid debate (especially when liquor is involved).

Because religion is often irrational, arguing about religion is usually pretty pointless. When was the last time you changed someone's religion by arguing a point really well? I rest my case. If you find it fun to discuss or debate religious beliefs, and can do so respectfully, then have at it. But if you’re going to end up feeling frustrated or angry or thinking less of the person you’re debating, then leave it. This is one area where keeping your trap shut will reward you in spades.

7. Tell them to go suck a bag of dicks — but, you know, more nicely.

The sad fact is that some relationships are not strong enough  — and never were — to withstand the divide caused by religious differences. Either the dogma and rhetoric is too thick to see through, or the religious belief has  becomes intertwined with out-and-out bigotry. If you no longer feel you get anything good or positive from a certain relationship, then you are within your right to limit visits or stop them altogether. Just be sure you think it through first, and that you've tried your best to make things work. Giving family members a chance to right their wrongs and correct their offensive behavior is a must if you are to feel good about your decision down the road.

This post originally appeared in February 2012.

Daddy, Daughter Discuss God (Again); More Cuteness Ensues

Charlie_Maxine_MountaintopMy husband and 7-year-old daughter had another totally awesome conversation about God a few days ago. They used to do that from time to time, but it's been a while since the subject has come up in much detail. I sure love it when it does. The talks are always fun, insightful, thought-provoking and, frankly, cute as hell. They also present Charlie with golden opportunities to teach Maxine about honesty, diversity  and the importance of kindness. Anyway, this one's particularly good, so I wanted to share:

Maxine: Where do you think God is? Like, which house or school...

Charlie: I don't think God is anywhere. I don't believe there is such a thing as God.

Maxine: But if you did, where do you think he is?

Charlie: Well, people who believe in God believe he is everywhere and see everything. They believe he is with everyone, watching over you.

Maxine: Is he with bad guys?

CharlieThey think he is everywhere.

Maxine: God is with bad guys?

CharlieYeah. They think God wants you to make good decisions, and even if you are making bad decisions, God is with you so when you are ready to do good things, he'll be there. They think God is there to help you and protect you. (Pause.) Other people who believe in God think he made the world and then kind of stepped back. He just watches from heaven to see what we'll do, but he doesn't interfere or help. Like the whole word is a big science experiment.

Maxine: A HUGE experiment.

CharlieWhat do you believe?

Maxine: (Exasperated, like "I've told you a hundred times") I believe in God on Wednesdays and Sundays.

Charlie: But what do you believe about God? Is he everywhere?

Maxine: (Pause) I think he stepped back.

(Pause.)

Maxine: I believe in God on Sundays and Wednesdays because Sunday is the day for church, and Wednesday so I can have a school day.

(Pause.)

Maxine: Is God good or bad?

Charlie: Everyone who believes in God believes he is good.

Maxine: I wish the biggest policeman in the world climbed a huge giant ladder up to heaven and there was a huge microphone as big as five million houses stacked on top of each other and the policeman said into the microphone, "God is real!" or "God is not real!" and then everyone would know and everyone would believe the same thing.

Charlie: It's hard not knowing, isn't it?

Maxine: Yeah.

Charlie(Pause.) What I think is it doesn't really matter what you believe. What you think doesn't matter. It's what you do that matters.

Maxine: Or say.

CharlieRight. You can think whatever you want. I can think someone is stupid —

Maxine: But don't say it to them. "Hey, you're dumb!"

Charlie: Right. It's what you do and say that matter. Think whatever you want.

Maxine: Because we don't want to hurt their feelings.

Charlie: Right.

The Best Thing About Being a Secular Parent? You Tell Me!

Not long ago, my sister and her husband invited an old friend over for dinner. The friend is a talker, so their nights with him usually require a lot of generosity on their parts. He tends, my sister tells me, to drone on endlessly about inane topics — including, but not limited to, good meals he's eaten recently. You know that guy too, don't you? Yeah. Well all do.

Anyway, on this particular night my sister's 4-year-old son was sitting at the table with them. He apparently had taken his cue from his parents because he was being very patient and respectful throughout most of the meal. But finally he'd had enough. In his adorable little 4-year-old voice, he started saying BOOORING as the friend was talking. Luckily (or not), the friend is a loud talker, too, so he kept going, oblivious to the review he was getting. But at least three times Little Guy punctuated this man's story with BOOORING before my sister was able to quietly  hush him.

goodstuff1

I talk a lot here about the unique challenges of being a secular parent — from interacting with judgmental or aggressively religious relatives to dealing with religious bullies at school to just knowing how to approach religion with little ones — and I don't often focus on the good stuff. The fun stuff. The easy stuff. Because, well, as Little Guy would say: BOOORING.

But today I'm making an exception. The truth is, for all the challenges that come with it, being a secular parent is so damn fulfilling. It can make many conversations so much simpler and easier. And secular parenting seems to have so much in common with good parenting, too. The way we respect all of our children's feelings, for example, not just those that embrace a certain God. Or the way we encourage kids to think independently and follow no one without question — whether it be Jesus, Muhammad, the local drug dealer, or a libidinous high school boyfriend.

But before I drone on and on — BOOORING — I want to hear from you:

What do you think is the single best thing about being a secular parent?

Feel free to comment below — or on Reddit or Stumbleupon, Facebook or wherever else you see this post pop up. Or you can e-mail me privately at relaxitsjustgod@gmail.com.

Then be sure to check back! I'll publish the list in May.