Addressing 'God' in Secular Families: When is the Right Time?

When my daughter was 2, and barely out of diapers, she had her first Potty Emergency. We'd been having lunch when suddenly she rose and sprinted to the bathroom with the speed and determination of a hunted deer. I'd been hopeful she made it in time, but when I arrived several seconds later, she was standing in front of the toilet, fully clothed, staring down at a puddle on the floor. Her little shoulders had fallen. Without looking up at me, she shook her little head and said exactly what I would have said in the same situation:

"Jesus Christ."

I'm sure my Presbyterian ancestors would have been charmed to know the only thing my daughter knew about the Christian Messiah was that he made for an effective expletive.

In many nonreligious families, there aren't a lot of opportunities for religious references to arise outside of idioms, proverbs and occasional profanity. Few of us visit churches or attend mosque or synagogue or temple. We don't pray before meals. We don't emphasize the religious aspects of national holidays. We don't have Bibles or Qur'ans lying around. God just doesn't come up.

As a result, sometimes we don't know how to start the conversations. How do we kick things off? And when, exactly, are our kids ready to have these talks?

GodTalks

"I don't want to make a big deal of telling her I don't believe in God," one atheist mom told me, "but there never seems to be a right time to say it."

There is no magic age for God talk, and it depends a lot on the personality of the child, but kids are generally ready to start exploring ideas of spirituality around ages 4 or 5. This is when blossoming imaginations welcome supernatural ideas, and when concepts like good and evil come into focus. It's about this time, too, when inquisition replaces demand as the rhetorical tool of choice:  Why did this happen?" "What happens if someone does that?" And it's during these years they are first exposed to the reality that mom and dad don't have exclusive control of the thought process: kids at preschool and daycare also have ideas to share.

Watch carefully, and you'll see the signs of mental development, and a readiness for thoughts unrelated to immediate needs and wants. You may notice a new interest in how plants and insects die, curiosity about the sunshine, and a knack for picking up on anything "out of the ordinary." They'll pretty soon notice that people have different answers, different explanations, and that some of them will undoubtedly involve faith.

Even when you know the timing is right, the thought of broaching the subject of religion can be intimidating — even paralyzing. Many parents fret that they waited too long. Their children begin to "act" on what they hear without the benefit of context. They may assume that the religious ideas voiced by relatives or peers are absolute truth. They may learn to phrase things in ways that make their parents uncomfortable, which causes the parents to try to "undo" the children's learning.

Focus-on-Religion_14496806

"My son overheard a discussion that I was having with another adult," one mother told me. "When he heard me mention 'God' he asked: 'Do you mean the ‘One True God?' Apparently, his public school kindergarten teachers were praying with the kids in class."

This is not to say it's imperative that we parents are the ones to bring up religion. More than 50 percent of parents surveyed said their kids had brought up the subject themselves. Don't be surprised when the moment arrives. Accept the opportunity, and dive right in: "I'm glad your Uncle Joe brought it up!" you might say. "This is interesting stuff."

The trick, if there is a trick to this, is to let children's curiosity be your guide. Try not to tell them more than they want to know, or answer questions they're not asking. There's no need for a boring dissertation or a nervous oratory. Nothing needs to be forced or coerced.

Seriously, if talking about religion is anything other than natural and interesting, you're probably trying too hard.

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..."

When 'Religious Jokes' Cross a Line

On Facebook, you see a lot of religious memes. They are posted (and reposted and reposted) by religious people with genuine reverence. On the Facebook group for secular mothers that I belong to, you see a lot of religious memes, too. Only they're posted ironically, and for the express purpose of being skewered. The contrast can be refreshing.

religious-mind-joke

Now, to be fair, the group is much more about connecting with a like-minded community of women. Most posts seek parental advice or share the latest on someone's health scare or fertility problems or battle with cancer. But there are jokes to be had, too. Lots and lots of jokes.

It's a good group.

But sometimes, in good groups, bad things happen. And a few days ago, there quite the dust-up around a member who posted a picture joke that ended up offending a good number of people. I didn't see the joke myself — it was taken down before I logged on — but the controversy continued into a follow-up post that I did see.

From what I gather, the picture depicted the Last Supper (original, right?) and featured a joke about the cost of the Last Supper and who would be footing the bill for all that food. The joke was apparently a play on the stereotype that Jews are cheap. And it used that word, too: Jews.

36gv0u

Tempers flared immediately.

It was offensive, people said. It promulgated a harmful stereotype.

No, said others, it was totally benign. And, plus, plenty of religious jokes are posted and tolerated on the site. Why not this one?

But it didn't poke fun at a religion. It poked fun at an ethnicity. That's different. 

It was funny. Sorry it offended you.

It was harmful. And you're not really sorry.

And so it went.

Finally, the member took down the joke.

The controversy interested me on a couple of levels. On one side, I had to roll my eyes at this idea that poking fun at religious groups is A-okay, while posting jokes about other groups — ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation — is not. Talk about a sweeping double-standard.

Remember+when+religious+people+could+take+a+joke+_66ca48d81de92718e5de8cde9546359a

But then there was this ridiculous notion that because some people thought the joke was funny, the joke deserved to be seen in that light. In short, this woman didn't mean to offend people, so why were people so bent out of shape?

The whole thing reminded me of the whole "rape-joke" controversy last summer. Remember that? When comedian Daniel Tosh was talking about rape jokes at the Laugh Factory and a woman in the audience heckled him by saying, "Actually, rape jokes are never funny!" And he responded by saying: “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by, like, five guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her…”

Well, as you can imagine, that thing blew up, too — BIG TIME. Tosh got hammered by feminist groups. Meanwhile, tons of big-name comedians lined up to defend Tosh's right to tell jokes about rape. They turned it into a censorship issue.

In the midst of the ongoing debate, a woman named Lindy West, a comedian herself, printed her response on the website Jezebel. And talk about nailing it. First off, West is a funny, funny lady. Second off, West is smart, smart lady. In a nutshell, her point was this: Comedians have every right to say whatever they want, make whatever joke they want, no matter the subject, no matter how dark. Will it offend someone? Of course. Most jokes would offend someone. But just as comedians have the right to tell any joke they want, WE have the right to respond any way we see fit. If we want to stand up and say, "That is a joke that harms women," and call for that person to be fired from Comedy Central, then that's what we should do. It's not about the subject matter; rape jokes can be funny. So can jokes about molestation and cancer and race and ethnicity and religion. It's about the specific joke. We're not talking about government censorship; we're talking about audience regulation. Democracy.

Religious_fc7036_2240321I'm not, as my friends can attest, easily offended. I love edgy humor, the edgier the better. Shock value is a value I admire. But just because SOMEONE finds something funny — or that someone told it TO BE funny — doesn't mean it's a good joke. Or that they should telling it. Sure the line is hard to see sometimes; but we are human beings. We should care enough to look for it. And if we don't, we should be prepared to be, forgive the expression, bitch-slapped.

In the end, Tosh got scolded in a very effective way. He was the object of national criticism, apologized to his fans on Twitter. Democracy.

In the end, the Facebook user got scolded in a very effective way, too. She took down her joke and dropped out of the group.

God Bless America.

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.

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.

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.

A Newer (And More Laid Back) Brand of Atheism

Religiously speaking, this is an unusual time in our history. Secularism is clearly on the rise, and yet religion maintain a stronghold over our society and politics. That science has boldly answered so many "mysteries of the universe" has not stopped supernatural beliefs from influencing how most Americans think and live. Every day I read headlines about how God is on the way out; every day I read headlines about how God is on the way up. For us nonbelievers, it's hard to know where we stand, where the country stands — and what the future holds.

We are a nation that revels in extremes. We watch with fascination as religious zealots (Christian Fundamentalists, Islamic Fundamentalists, etc.)  duke it out with anti-religious zealots (New Atheists). But most of us — theists or no — thankfully reside in the broad in-between. We see no need for zealotry, and we certainly don't support it.

As a person living during America's "secular boom," I personally have been accused of "turning away" from God. Many of us have. But the truth is, to say I have "turned away" from God is like saying I've "turned away" from rugby. I'm fine with the fact that other people play rugby. They seem to really enjoy it. It's just not my game.

Now, of course, naysayers will argue that religion is not at all like rugby. Rugby is not known for hurting people, causing wars, embracing elitism, inciting hate. And I get that. But I'd just ask anyone reading this to picture a beloved friend or relative who also happens to be deeply faithful. We all have at least one. Someone we love not just despite his or her spirituality, but maybe even because of it.

That's the rugby I'm talking about.

The atheists I know don't wish to offend nice people or cause our families pain. We wouldn't dream of trying to stamp out our grandmothers' faith. We, much like Jesus, do not wish to throw stones. Much like the Buddha, we prefer a middle path. And much like virtually every major religion in the world, we strive to take care of our families, do right by our communities, and live by the Golden Rule.

Isn't it a shame that this sort of narrative — a new and, dare I say, improved brand of 'New Atheism' — doesn't garner more headlines?

And, now, this picture of a monkey — living the dream. Enjoy your weekend, everyone!

Squirrel Monkey, Costa Rica, photo by Wendy Thomas Russell

3 Must-Reads for Secular Parents

IMG_1444

The last month has produced an incredible little selection of articles relating to secular parenting, and I wanted to make sure you didn't miss them. The pieces are, in turn, educational, insightful, funny and heartwarming. And all of them are written by women — which seems significant because the secular community is, we are told, still dominated by menfolk. [To read the articles, just click on the titles below.]

1. Why My 7-Year-old is an Atheist (And Why I'm Okay With That) by Carolyn Castiglia

Castiglia, a comedian, writes about her daughter's "conversion" to atheism, despite her own rather open-minded approach to religion. The piece is very funny but also has some nice advice to impart.  A friend found this on Jezebel but it was originally posted to Babble. Here's a particularly good bit:

The way I imagine God has changed over the years – He's gone from being a person, a man, to being more of a Thing, a notion. Goodness. The Oneness of the Universe. With something female in there. The energy that keeps the whole thing afloat. God as I know it now when I know it is kind of a cocktail made from a shot of Buddhism, a shot of feminist activism and a splash of ginger ale (because that, my friends, is something you can always count on). My daughter, on the other hand, at the ripe old age of 7, is convinced that there is no God. Not even a god. Yup, my kid's an atheist. And she pretty much has been since she was 5. It's not for lack of exposure to God or god or even gods and spirituality, because she has attended Church and church and a UU "church" and it has made no impact. We've prayed together. I talk about God sometimes, in a good way. When I asked her recently why she doesn't believe in God she told me, succinctly, "Because I know too much about science!"

2. Losing Our Religion by Katherine Ozment.

Ozment is a writer who turned her attention to nonreligious parenting in this fun and honest Boston Magazine piece. Many parents are sure to find her situation all too familiar. Here's the nut-graph:

Like most upper-middle-class parents, my husband and I have worked out a strategy for every aspect of our children’s lives, from cord-blood banking and on-demand breastfeeding to extracurricular math classes and strict limits on screen time. Religion is the big exception. It’s something he (raised Jewish) and I (raised Protestant) keep meaning to address, yet year after year we manage to avoid it. Most days I can shrug this off. Who has the time? I think. And does it even matter? But as ambivalent as I am about organized religion, I recognize there is something to it. Participation in a religious community has been correlated with everything from self-esteem and overall hopefulness to the avoidance of substance abuse and teen pregnancy. So I worry: Am I depriving my children of an experience that will help shape their identities in a positive way and anchor them throughout their lives?

3. The Curse of the Herd by Gwen DeWar

This is not a story about religion, per se, but it may as well be. DeWar is a writer and anthropologist fascinated by the strong pull humans feel toward conformity. The focus of this piece, published by Psychology Today, is how this sort of conformity can and does affect our child-rearing — and not in a good way. She writes:

It’s disturbing, and it should concern everyone. Yes, social conformity serves some helpful functions, and many people believe in the rights of various groups to enforce their own cultural norms. If a community wants to reject science in favor of folk remedies, or to punish people for teaching evolution, isn’t that their prerogative? But unless this group is composed solely of adult volunteers, there is a problem. Children don’t volunteer. They don’t choose their birthplace. They don’t choose their parents or the cultural setting in which they grow up....Is freedom of thought a human right? Do kids have a right to learn about the tools of critical thinking? Our need to question and tinker may be as primitive as our need for food and love.

And while I'm on it, two other worthy reads are:

• Molly Worthen's One Nation Under God, an opinion published by the New York Times, in which which she argues that "the temple of 'my personal opinion' may be the real 'established church' in modern America." (So true!)

•  Picture Books for Strong Girls, a list of book recommendations published by No Time for Flash Cards. The list has some great suggestions, to which I would add Big Momma Makes the World, a book that tells the Biblical creation story, more or less — only "God" is a Southern Momma with loads of laundry to do and a baby to take care of. (Don't worry. She can handle it.)\

Big Momma Makes the World