5 Reasons to 'Design Your Own Deity'

Paleolithic Buddha Goddess

FridgeWhen I first found this "Design Your Own Deity" magnetic play set, I was a little pissed at you. Yes, you. All 15 of you.

Because if you guys would have just TOLD me that this existed, I would not have been forced to find it, completely randomly, behind a bunch of other cheese-ball stuff at a warehouse-sized gift emporium in Palm Springs this weekend.

"Seriously," I thought, holding this priceless* item in my hands and trying to conjure each of your 15 faces. "Do you guys even know me anymore? There is literally nothing I want more in this world than to make a house of worship on my refrigerator."

Then  it occurred to me that maybe you guys weren't fuckwits at all.

Maybe — just maybe — YOU didn't know this existed, either. It's a theory that was reinforced once I got up to the counter and even the store clerk acted shocked about my purchase. "That's great!" he said, turning it over to inspect the back. "Where did you find it?"

Anyway, I'm really sorry about the fuckwits thing. That was wrong. I love you guys more than you know.

Warning

Now, a little about the magnets: Made by the Unemployed Philosopher's Guild, the set includes the following deities (I've linked to their Wiki definitions): Ganesha, Jehovah, Paleolithic Goddess, Cocijo, Tlingit Eagle,  Jesus, Medusa, Yeshe Khandro, Xenu (Xenu!), Isis, Zeus, Buddha, Satan, Flying Spaghetti Monster, the Burning Bush, and a bunch of "divine paraphernalia." Now, please, go buy one for yourself.

Here's why:

1. Diversity. "God" is not the only god in town. Humanity in general is very fond of deities, and has been for a long time. All of us — particularly Americans, and even more particularly, Americans with children —would do well to be reminded of that once in a while.

DYI Deity2.  Tolerance. I know I'm beginning to sound like a broken record on this, but we parents need to be looking everywhere for chances to inject religious literacy into our kids' lives. Children are far more likely to show tolerance/ kindness/compassion for those who believe differently than they do, if  they're exposed in a genuinely interesting way to what others believe.

3. Culture. Whether deities exist or not, the stories behind them are born of people who live in a specific time and place. The look and feel of each deity reflects the culture of those who created them. Showing interest in religion is a way to show interest in other people's cultures — always a good thing.

DYI Deities

4. Independence. According to a survey I conducted for my book, 90 percent of secular parents truly do want their children to make up their own minds about what to believe. But how can kids be expected to do that unless they know what the options are? What core beliefs do each of these deities represent? And what's stopping our kids from mashing these deities together — or inventing their own? It's terrific food for thought.

5. Humor. Religion needs to lighten up a little; it always has. And there are few better ways to force that issue than to put a Jesus head onto a Flying Spaghetti Monster torso with Zeus legs. Period. 

I'd imagine that, in my home at least, some of these little magnets will soon fall and get lost behind the fridge — or get taken down because they're ugly or creepy. (Medusa and Satan are not long for this world, I'm afraid.) But I am determined to keep most around long enough to explain to my daughter what they are and what they represent.

And at least one deity will stay for even longer... Paleolithic Buddha Goddess.

Paleolithic Buddha Goddess

She's all mine.

*$14.95

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?]

15 Secular Songs to Share With Your Kids

Not long ago, I suggested that nonreligious parents share religious music with their kids. I put together a Christian playlist and, later, a Hanukkah playlist. I also recommended some Cat Stevens songs about Islam, including one I love called "Ramadan Moon."  Some readers voiced concern about the ways in which religious songs have been used to indoctrinate children. They argued that the potential downsides to sharing such music outweighed the benefits. But I still think that, as long as we do it right, these musical journeys can be excellent ways to develop religious literacy, learn tolerance for other cultures, and give nonreligious children a way  — should the need arise — to connect with religious children without engaging in all the belief stuff.

But how exactly do we do it right? Well, the same way we approach any other religious knowledge.

wondwo

First, we act as chaperones. We don't just play religious music. We explain what the songs are about, define unknown terms and concepts, and talk about why each song may hold meaning to the religions whence they came.

And, second, we balance out the religious with the secular. In addition to sharing other people's religious songs, we share our own secular songs — and then talk about where these songs came from and why they hold so much meaning to us.

Now, you might be thinking: What the hell is a "secular song?" Is it anti-God music, or just 95 percent of rock-n-roll?

The secular songs I'm talking about are songs that inspire or comfort us; that bring us closer to humanity; that touch on the purpose, meaning and joys of life — without religion.

We all have our favorite secular songs — and I spent a long time paring mine down — but here are the ones I've chosen for my daughter's Secular Playlist. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do — and please don't forget to weigh in with your own secular favorites in the comments!

[Full disclosure: I had to edit this list after I published it because I realized some of the songs actually had religious connotations. This was harder than I thought!]

1. What a Wonderful World by Louis Armstrong (Thanks, Dad!)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E2VCwBzGdPM

 

2. Ain't it Enough by Old Crow Medicine Show (Thanks, Jenny!)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DhzEHtADP-Y

 

3. Imagine by John Lennon

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yRhq-yO1KN8

 

4.  Life's a Happy Song, written by Bret McKenzie

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aDnTo2S2BrA

 

5. In My Life by The Beatles

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zI0Q8ytD44Y

 

6. Don't Worry, Be Happy by Bobby McFarin

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d-diB65scQU

 

7. White Wine in the Sun by Tim Minchin (Thanks, Derek!)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Le1sDyai-JM

 

8. Rainbow Connection by Kermit the Frog

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jSFLZ-MzIhM

 

9. My Favorite Things by Julie Andrews

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E3aBB-J9vhg

 

10. Lean on Me by Bill Withers

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zU97n-HuAJA

 

11. That's Life by Frank Sinatra

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KIiUqfxFttM

 

12: Rocky Mountain High by John Denver

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OwARpaKHx_w

 

13. I Will Survive by Gloria Gaynor

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZBR2G-iI3-I

 

14. Think for Yourself by the Beatles

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yXGSBgr8sbg

 

15. You Are my Sunshine by virtually everyone on the planet (but my favs is Willie Nelson's version)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jDNDELFF1ok

 

Washington Post Blog Spotlights 'Relax, It's Just God'

spotlight

This isn't so much a blog as brag, so if you are my close friends, family, or just really kind readers who don't mind if I bend your ears for a few minutes, please stick around. The rest of you: I totally understand. Enjoy our day. So this morning, I was featured in the Washington Post's On Parenting blog. The blog is written by Janice D'Arcy, an amazing parenting blogger whose work I've followed for a long time. She contacted me because of the Pew Research Center's new study finding that 20 percent of Americans belong to the ever-widening circle of "nones" — that is, people who do not adhere to any specific religion. D'Arcy asked me to share some general thoughts about why parents should introduce religion/faith to children even when they don't believe or aren't particularly religious themselves.

Here's the piece:

 

Explaining God without belief

 

Americans are increasingly less religious and less inclined to identify themselves with a particular faith, according to a fascinating new poll and survey. Among those without ties to a religious institution are many parents of young children, a group that can struggle with how to present the concepts of religious faith to children.

The Pew Research Center found that the number of people who said they are “unaffiliated” with a religion has grown to 20 percent of the population. The percentage includes more than 33 million who say they are atheist or agnostic.

A companion survey, produced by Pew and the PBS show Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, found that the unaffiliated, or “nones,” frequently report belief in God or an embrace of spirituality. However, their faith in particular religious institutions has waned. “Overwhelmingly, they think that religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules and too involved in politics,” the survey found.

For these Americans, the question of how to explain religion and religious institutions gets complicated. How to translate to a child an adult’s intellectual or ideological differences with concepts most others hold to be sacred? How to not talk about it when religious references are all around?

For insight into this struggle, I turned to Wendy Thomas Russell, the author of a blog on secular living and the forthcoming book, “Relax It’s Just God,” on the subject of secular parenting.

I asked her for some guiding principles for secular parents. She said that it’s essential these parents talk about religion in depth and with frequency. Here’s why:

“Parents can’t shield their kids from religion. It’s impossible. Despite the somewhat rapid proliferation of ‘nones’ in this country, we are still the minority. Four of every five kids in our children’s classrooms have parents who self-identify as religious. So the chances are really high that our kids are going to be ‘introduced’ to religion, if not on the playground, then through TV shows, music, architecture, politics, history books, literature, bumper stickers, you name it. And our language! Our language is steeped in religious references. ‘I’d move heaven and earth,’ ‘God-forsaken town,’ ‘devil-may-care’…

But let’s say you’re a parent who has some baggage. Religion freaks you out a little; it makes you tense. So why should you go out of your way to expose your kid to other peoples’ religious beliefs? And who cares if you share your own anxiety over the subject?

First, and most importantly, religious tolerance doesn’t just happen. Parents have to teach it.

It’s human nature to be scared or skeptical of people we don’t understand; it’s why we parents have no qualms talking to our kids about people with disabilities. We don’t want our kids to treat disabled people badly; we want them to know that disabled people may be different from us, but they are people, and they deserve respect. Likewise, if we don’t tell our kids about religious people in a respectful way, we can’t possibly expect them to learn how to treat religious people with respect. It’s that simple.

Second, just because religion isn’t important to us personally doesn’t mean it isn’t important.

The chances are very good that my kid will meet people who are devoutly religious. Some of those people will be in her circle of friends. Some of them will be in her own family. Understanding religion and why it’s important means that she will be able to former closer bonds to the people she loves. She’ll also be more likely to judge people on the content of their character, rather than the “accuracy” of their beliefs.

Third, be the change you want to see.

I’m a nonreligious parent who wishes that more of my kid’s friends were being exposed to the idea of agnosticism and humanism and even atheism in a non-biased way. I can’t make that happen, but I can damn well live by the Golden Rule and treat others the way I want to be treated. Eventually, it’s bound to catch on, right?

Fourth, it may save your kid a lot of embarrassment.

In researching my book, I’ve learned that a lot of kids with little to no religious literacy begin to feel embarrassed about their lack of knowledge right around the time middle school begins. Which, with so many other things going on, is pretty much the worst time in a kid’s life to have to deal with embarrassment…

I don’t think any parent sets out to pass their anxieties on to their kids. If anything, parents think they’re being rightfully protective, not irrationally anxious. But when it comes to religion, anything short of encouraging kids to make up their own minds is probably going to translate as anxiety. And there’s just no need for it. Our kids shouldn’t have to fight our battles.”

What do you think? Might her advice apply to all parents? Is exposure to all religions the best way to give perspective and teach tolerance?

Religious Charm Bracelet, Anyone?… Anyone?

All-Religions Charm Bracelet

Okay, I suspect you guys are going to make fun of me a little bit for this, but, hey, what the hell. So, let me preface this by saying that, growing up, my mother had a charm bracelet she wore on special occasions. I was FASCINATED by this bracelet, which strung together all kinds of little golden goodies symbolizing some of my mom's greatest memories. There was a child's ring, a graduation cap, a locket. But my favorite charm was a little money box containing the tiniest folded-up dollar bill I'd ever seen in my life. A little door on the top opened and closed, and I must have opened and closed it hundreds of times. That bracelet mesmerized me. I remember asking (often) what all those symbols meant to my mom, where they came from. What's more: the bracelet was so darn pretty — and jangly. Very jangly. That was definitely a draw.

So fast forward, like, 25 years, and I'm in a bead shop for no apparent reason (I do not make jewelry and have no interest whatsoever in beadwork), and I happen upon what can only be described as a fuckload of religious symbols. There must have 200 different kinds in this shop. Most were Christian (I live in America, after all), but some other religions were represented, as well.

So I got this hair-brained idea to, you know, make a charm bracelet for my daughter, Maxine.

Okay, before you go off half-cocked, hear me out. Here was my thinking:

1. It's important to me that Maxine knows about religion in general, not just the one religion most prevalent in her culture. By stringing all these symbols together, side by side, I'd be putting all major religions on par with one another — with none of them more (or less!) significant than the next.

2. I'd like for Maxine to recognize religious symbols and have some sense of their back stories. It's a challenge sometimes, though, to introduce the basic concept of religion without, you know, boring her to tears. I figured if Maxine had a bracelet with religious symbols in her jewelry box, she might drag it out every once in a while and look at it. If I got lucky, maybe she'd even ask a question or two.

3. As you know, I love the idea of celebrating religious holidays with kids — rather than shying away from them, or even secularizing them. I see holidays as an opportunity to demystify religion, but also to promote religious literacy and religious tolerance. Symbols (the dreidel for Hanukkah or the Buddha for Vesak Day, for example) are fantastic memory aids. A bracelet, I thought, could come in kinda handy.

So there, in this cheesy bead store, I decided to go for it. With no trouble at all, I found a Star of David, a little dreidel and a charm imprinted with Mary and the baby Jesus. I also found  the Buddha and a yoga guy and about a million crosses — both with and without the crucifixion. I knew I wanted the former because the crucifixion is such an interesting (and ghastly) image, it can't help but be compelling. Carting all this stuff around definitely got the bead lady's attention. She asked me if she could help, and when I told her what I wanted — "to make an all-religions charm bracelet" is how I put it — she immediately got on board, tracking down the "Om" and yin/yang symbols to add to my pile

When I got home, I got out my pliers and put it all together.

The bracelet isn't nearly finished — there are so many other religious symbols out there! — nor is it as pretty, heavy, classy or valuable as my mom's. But it's a start. And it jangles real nice.

So what do you think, guys? A good idea? Potentially helpful? Or a total waste of money?

Holiday Cheat Sheet for Nonreligious Parents

All_Religious_Icons-300x300

We here at Relax, It's Just God believe that religious literacy and tolerance doesn't just happen. We parents have to make it happen.

Unfortunately, saying the word “Hanukkah” once a year and pointing out burkas in the airport just doesn't cut it. A true religious education requires context. Tolerance requires action. If you want your children to be interested in and respectful of those around them, you must knit a sense of interest and respect into your childrearing — today and throughout the year.

That's why major religious holidays are such fantastic vehicles for religious literacy. And the best part? Thanks to this here Holiday Cheat Sheet, you don't have to know a damn thing about any of them. We're one-stop shopping for on-the-go parents. Click on one of the links and in just a few minutes, you'll find out why that holiday exists, how it's celebrated and fun ways to convey its meanings to kids.

So stop letting those vaguely familiar-sounding holidays pass you by in a blur of Phineas and Ferb re-runs. Seize these small but wonderful opportunities to introduce your kids to religious concepts and figures — while also showing compassion for the people who hold these concepts and figures so dear.

September

Quick! What the Hell is Yom Kippur (Judaism)

Quick! What the Hell is Rosh Hashana? (Judaism)

October

Quick! What the Hell is Diwali? (Hinduism)

Quick! What the Hell is Hajj? (Islam)

Quick! What the Hell is Eid al-Adha? (Islam)

December

Quick! What the Hell is Hanukkah? (Judaism)

Quick! What the Hell is Christmas? (Christianity)

January

Quick! What the Hell is Epiphany? (Christianity)

Quick: What the Hell is Mawlid al-Nabi? (Islam)

February

Quick: What the Hell is St. Valentine's Day? (Christianity)

Quick: What the Hell is Ash Wednesday? (Christianity)

March

Quick! What the Hell is Purim? (Judaism)

April

Quick! What the Hell is Easter? (Christianity)

Quick! What the Hell is Passover? (Judaism)

May

Quick! What the Hell is Vesak Day? (Buddhism)

Quick! What the Hell is Pentecost? (Christianity)

July

Quick! What the Hell is Ramadan? (Islam)

Quick! What the Hell is Eid ul-Fitr? (Islam)

There's more to come, so please keep checking back!