Should Kids Be Told All Religious Stories are ‘Myths'?

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I'm facing some deadlines over the next few weeks that are going to make it very tough to generate new blogs of any merit. But I'm hoping — PRAYING! (but not really) — that you guys will stick around anyway. Subscribers, I'm talking to you here. BEAR WITH ME. PLEASE DO NOT UNSUBSCRIBE. IT'S ONLY THREE WEEKS. Starting today, I'm going to run six of my most well-read and/or controversial blogs of the last two years. I've chosen them based on number of page views, number of comments, or the level of contentiousness within the response. I hope you enjoy them. And, even if you don't, I hope you will stay.

We'll start with one of the most controversial to date... Should Kids Be Told All Religious Stories are 'Myths'? (Reprinted from Oct. 31, 2011):

Two weeks ago, I gave away three copies of Richard Dawkins’ new book, the Magic of Reality: How We Know What's Really True, a highly acclaimed book seeking to introduce youngsters to the science behind some of life's biggest mysteries: Who was the first person? Why do we have night and day? When and how did everything begin? The book is fascinating, easy to read and full of beautiful illustrations. Truly, there is so much about our world that is awe-inspiring, and Dawkins shows us how fun it can be to explore.

But because Dawkins is Dawkins, he doesn't stop there.

Before each chapter, he outlines various myths adopted through the ages as a way to explain scientific phenomena. He reasons that, before scientific exploration, people needed ways to make sense of these seemingly supernatural occurrences— so they invented stories and passed them off as fact. It's a clever technique, and it’s interesting the way  Dawkins lays Greek myths, Native American traditions, and Biblical stories side-by-side, and then allows science to tell its version of the story.

Clever and interesting and accurate? Yes. Condescending and arrogant? Which is a problem. For us open-minded, nonreligious parents struggling to find the "right" language with which to approach religion with our kids, his dismissive attitude disappoints.

If we tell our children that present-day religious beliefs — particularly those described in the Bible, the Torah or even the Book of Mormon — are all just mythical stories, we're teaching them that religion is a bunch of fairytales. And we're teaching them that the 70-odd percent of their neighbors and friends who buy into these fairytales are, therefore, emotionally immature and intellectually inferior. I don’t care how subtle Dawkins tries to be, that’s his book's subtext, and we all know it.

Now, how in the world does that kind of instruction set our kids up to be open-minded, freethinking individuals? How does it encourage them to embrace people with different beliefs and opinions? How does it show our kids that they are free to choose their own religious or nonreligious paths in life?

I’ll be the first to acknowledge that science often butts heads with religion. But there are a huge number of people in our society that believe in science and religion. And it doesn't matter whether it makes sense to Richard Dawkins. It doesn't matter whether it make sense to me! What my neighbor believes and how he rationalizes that belief is 100 percent not my concern. Whether he brings his own beer to my barbecue, on the other hand…

Here’s the thing: I do not believe — and I sincerely hope you don’t either — that pious people are stupid; in fact, many of the smartest people I know are pious. And that their faith may involve nonscientific stories does not make me superior. It doesn't make you superior. And it doesn’t make our kids superior.

There is an intolerance in Dawkins' insistence on calling these stories myths. Dismissing religious stories as archaic or absurd adds nothing to his book. In fact, for people like me, it takes away. And for church-going folks in Middle America? Well, forget it; they'll never buy it. And didn’t Dawkins see the potential to educate all children — not just those whose parents subscribe to his exact point of view?

I know he wanted to break things down in the simplest way possible. I understand he wanted to present facts alongside of beliefs, and point out their roots and differences. There is merit to that.

But not everything is about science. Some things are about respect.

I will absolutely read The Magic of Reality to my daughter  — or, rather, show her the super-cool iPad app! But I'll first let her know the book was written by an author who believes religious stories are myths. I'll remind her that the author is just one person; and that lots of other people in the world believe those stories are real. I'll tell her, as I do often, that it's up to her to decide for herself what makes sense, what feels right.

From what I gather, Richard Dawkins wants parents to help their children put religious belief in a context of science. Fair enough. But I do hope that, before cracking open The Magic of Reality, parents will help their children put Richard Dawkins in a context of religion.

[You may read the follow-up this post here.]

Taking the 'Myth' out of the Bible

B-I-B-L-E

Oh, Bible. You do confound us so. You are so very dense, complicated and repetitive, not to mention confusing, contradictory, outrageous and far too long-winded to actually read. And yet you are so wise, textured and powerful. You are surprising and exciting and flush with cultural references. In fact, you make it almost impossible for any of us to understand who we are as a civilization without at least getting your Cliffs Notes.

As author E.D. Hirsch Jr. tells children in The First Dictionary of Cultural Literacy:

The Bible is by far the best-known book in our culture. Hundreds of its sayings have become part of our everyday speech. Biblical stories are frequently referred to in books, newspapers, and magazines, and on television. Many paintings and other works of art portray people or scenes from the Bible. Furthermore, the Bible is the basis of some of our most important ideas about law and government. Because it is such a basic part of our culture, it is important for you to know something about the Bible, regardless of your individual religious belief.

 Unfortunately, when it comes to talking with kids about the Bible, some nonreligious parents categorically dismiss the entire the thing by calling it "a book of myths" — akin to Greek and Roman mythology — which is both short-sighted and completely inaccurate. (Ironic, as most these parents seem to value broad-mindedness and truth so very highly.)

The Bible's focus is a single god (AKA God) and, as such, is used as scripture for the three main monotheistic religions — Islam, Christianity and Judaism. And, yes, there are myths in the Bible. But there is quite a lot of history there, too, and some really great stories about how to live that have been handed down from generation to generation. Certainly, we can tell kids that the Bible has lots of fiction inside it, but we must tell them, too, that it contains truth — and interpretations of truth. And there are many things whose historical accuracy is simply unknown because the stories were corroded by time and endless retellings. It's a like the game of telephone; something always get changed from one end to the other.

It's for this reason that the first three gospels of the New Testament — Matthew, Mark and Luke — all contain the "same" story of Jesus' life, and yet all of them are different — sometimes strikingly different. [Warning: This next part is a bit of a tangent] History tells us that the Gospel of Mark was written first, and that Luke and Matthew borrowed from Mark in telling their own versions. History also tells us that there was another, unknown source of information about Jesus' life — sometimes called Q — which is why Luke and Matthew have some overlapping stories that cannot be found in Mark. (There's a great diagram here that explains this much better than I do, if you're interested.)

Anyway, I think it's best to describe the Bible as a book of many genres. It's fiction, nonfiction, biography, genealogy, letters, poetry, wisdom, proverbs, songs, prophecy and apocalypse. It's also one of the world's most important works of literature. Right up there with Shakespeare's stuff, if you ask me.

Did Jesus really exist? Yes. Did Moses really exist? No one is quite sure. Did Moses introduce the 10 Commandments to the Jewish people? Not likely. Did Jesus feed 4,000 people with seven loaves of bread and a few fish? Not on your life. Is the following verse one of the most beautiful ever written?

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

— 1 Cor 13:4-13

You bet it is.

 

Bonus Blog: Responding to a Reader About the 'M' Word

A friend told me recently that the people who read my blog are really smart. Don't worry, I thanked her on your behalf.

She noted that the comments I receive are always so articulate and thoughtful, the commenters composed and respectful. And it's true! Last night, was a great example.

A reader named Derek offered his thoughts on our ongoing debate over whether we should call religious stories "myths." I’ve written about this twice so far (Should Kids Be Told Religious Stories are 'Myths' and Respecting Things We Don't Believe). And, although controversial, I stand by my premise that we ought to use the word “stories” instead of “myths” when talking to children.

But Derek's comment yesterday so concisely summed up the argument in favor of the "M" word, that I thought I'd include it as a bonus blog — along with my own comment to his comment. Enjoy! And, you know, feel free to comment.

Derek said:

"I’ve been thinking a lot about this question of whether we should tell our children that religious stories are myths. Many people seem to be saying that we shouldn’t because it would be prejudicial or judgmental. But isn’t everything we say prejudicial or judgmental in some way? We aren’t concerned about saying “Some people think it’s wrong to eat other people, but others think it’s ok.” or “I don’t think the easter bunny is real, but we can’t know for sure.” So why do we have to feel that way about other myths? Thor, Ra, Zeus, earth on the back of a turtle, we feel no compunction about labeling these all as myths because that is what they are. It seems to me then that there are only two reasons one would be concerned about labeling religious beliefs myths. The first is if you aren’t actually sure they’re myths yourself. The second is if you’re worried about other people’s feelings. For the former honesty seems to be the way to go, starting with being honest with oneself. For the latter I don’t spend a lot of time pussyfooting around any incorrect beliefs. I don’t encourage my children to be mean about it but at the same time I don’t encourage them to “make up their own mind” about facts. Facts are facts whether they like them or not."

For me, the issue is not one of uncertainty. There is no doubt in my mind that supernatural religious stories are myths. I intend no offense to my  beloved believer-readers, but I don't buy for a minute that God created a flood that wiped out most of the world, or that Abraham had one-on-one conversations with the creator of the universe, or that Jesus was born of a virgin and later rose from the dead.

My husband and I were talking a couple of nights ago, and we ended up likening the belief in God to the belief in Santa Claus. No, I don't believe in Santa Claus. I know Santa Claus is not real. But lots of children do believe in Santa. Why don't we make it a point to call the Santa Claus stories "myths" when we talk to children? I think it's because their belief in Santa brings them pleasure; because we don't want to hurt them; because we know that they'll outgrow their childish belief on their own; and because, frankly, it doesn't matter.

So what if some of the adults you know believed in Santa? Let's say these are good people, with hundreds of positive attributes, but they just happened to believe in the magical powers of St. Nick. How would you handle that? Would you make it a point to tell them that Santa isn’t real, that the “Night Before Christmas” is a mythical poem? Would that be important to you?

And why?

Why is it important to make other people believe what is really true?

I don't mean to be too flippant here. I can already hear the masses saying, "Santa is different than God!" Some will say I'm not giving God enough credit when I compare him to something childish like Santa. Others will say I'm giving God too much credit — that Santa doesn't make people do terrible things, the way God does.

As for the latter, that gets back to the difference between belief and action. If people beat their children in the name of Santa Claus, that would be just as bad as beating them in the name of God, which is just as bad as beating them for no reason at all. Beating kids is wrong. I don't care if my daughter thinks Santa Claus comes down the chimney, and I don't care if she believes Noah really had an ark. But she will be raised to know right from wrong. I'll teach her that you don't beat children. Ever.

Make no mistake, I don’t have a problem with adults calling religious stories myths to one another, as long as they agree on it and no one is offended. But I think it’s important to use less judgmental language with our kids, and here’s why:

  1. It doesn’t feel good to offend people or have people mad at you. And when you saddle your kid with language that is likely to offend some of their peers, you’re putting your child in a position to suffer the consequences. If they decide someday that it's worth the suffering, so be it. But let's be sure it's their choice, not yours.
  2. Being nice to nice people is important. It’s part of living a decent life. You can think whatever you want, you can believe whatever you want (This is what I’m on about!), but how you speak and act affects those around you. There is no shame in being sensitive to others’ feelings. It’s how I’m able to hang out with my religious friends. Because they are sensitive to my feelings.
  3. The more respect we give to all religions, the better the example we set for others to follow suit. It’s not possible to get rid of religion; but it is possible to reduce rhetoric, animosity and intolerance, and, in doing so, make the world a better place.
  4. Chances are, if you’re reading this blog, you are raising a freethinker. In my opinion, that’s one of the greatest gifts you can give to a child. Because, under your gentle guidance, they will be making up their own minds about the world, and becoming their own person thanks to their own thinking. You don’t need to persuade them that the sun is in the sky, or that God isn’t real. Trust me. And if you do find yourself having to persuade them, it might be a clue that you need to stop talking — and start listening.

P.S. Thanks again to Derek for such a thoughtful comment.

P.S.S. I really do appreciate my readers.

P.S.S.S. It’s not okay to eat people.

Respecting Things We Don't Believe

First of all, thank you all for your great comments on Monday’s blog! You made my day. It's clear, of course, that I’ve got some 'splaining to do — if only to clarify my position. But I truly think that, although we may be taking slightly different routes, we’re all headed to the same place — a place of open communication with our kids. And that's all I'm really on about. So the way I read the comments, many of you disagreed with my contention that we, as parents, ought not be adopting the language of atheist scientist Richard Dawkins when he refers to religious stories as "myths." You pointed out that science and faith are different, that faith is often irrational, and that there’s nothing wrong with teaching our kids to disrespect irrational beliefs. You also said there’s no reason to separate religious myths from other types of myths. And, if we aren't meant to call them myths, you asked, what do we call them?

In other words: For God’s sake, Wendy, what is your fucking problem?

Unfortunately, there is no way to condense the array of my fucking problems into one problem. I would if I could, of course. Hell, I'd do just about anything for you guys.

I will say, though, that there are some good reasons I’m proposing that we be respectful of things we don’t believe. And it has nothing to do with ignorance or weakness or a lack of progressive thinking on my part. What I’m proposing is a common language that all of us — no matter what our religious leanings — can adopt. Couples in interfaith marriages. Those who want to avoid indoctrinating their kids. Skeptical parents who aren’t yet sure where they stand. Agnostics who want to raise their children around religious family members without suffering tension or awkwardness. And, yes, staunch nonbelievers, too.

So why do I find "myth" objectionable? Three reasons.

1.  Getting Along is a Good Thing

First off, I don’t think anyone believes that all religious stories are myths. It’s very possible — and historically probable — that some religious stories are true, and that many others have truth in them. The supernatural stuff? Well, that’s a different matter. But I think we should acknowledge that lumping all religious stories into one general category of “myth” is almost certain to confuse and mislead our kids.

But let’s assume we’ve been very clear with our little whippersnappers that “myths” are stories that run counter to what we know scientifically. If it's supernatural, we tell them, it's myth, which is not to be respected. Take it one step further and the message is this: Because most major religions are based on supernatural (mythical) higher powers, most religions as a whole are not worthy of our respect.

I know what some of you are thinking. You're thinking: "Right! I don't respect religion. What's the problem?"

The problem — if you see it as a problem — is that we live in a diverse society.

I suppose if I lived on an island full of clones of myself, all of whom shared my upbringing, my race, my nationality, my financial status, my friends, my opinions and beliefs, every one of my experiences, every piece of my knowledge, all my joyful memories, and all my pain, too — I wouldn't worry at all about calling things just as I see them.

“No need for God, kid,” I'd say. “The here and now is gorgeous, and it’s all you’ll ever need.”

And kid would probably be fine with that. After all, on my island, there wouldn’t be much exposure to organized religion. Or algebra, for that matter. Or derivative romantic comedies, or appletinis, or clothing that makes little girls look like hookers. Or dickies.

For sure, no dickies.

But I don’t live on a deserted island, and there is a lot of stuff (most notably dickies) that I don’t particular need in my life but that the people around me do need or want to be a part of their lives. And those things may help them to be happier people, kinder people, healthier people, better people. And rather than disrespect something that those people hold dear, I’d rather be, you know, nice about it. Gracious about it. Respectful.

2. Discrediting religion shuts a door that your kids might want to keep open — or shut for themselves.

I heard many commenters tell me that they are careful to teach their kids to respect the person, just not the belief. I rather like this idea in concept, but I can't quite wrap my head around the difference. If my dad was a business owner who wouldn't hire homosexuals, and my mom was driving down to Skid Row every night so she could kick homeless people in the balls, my respect for my parents would diminish considerably. Why? Because their beliefs would be driving them to harm people, and I'm not big on lending respect to people who harm other people.

On the other hand, let's say they're great people who believe they're going to see their dead loved ones in heaven someday. Um, yeah. Not harming anyone. Don't care so much.

But assuming you have had experiences in your life that have made it impossible for you to respect religious beliefs, how important is it to you to make sure your child feels the exact same way you do? Because when you openly denigrate faith, you're instructing your kids not to believe anything irrational or mythical. You might suggest that it's okay for OTHERS to do it, but you're making clear it's not okay for HER.

Hmm. Now this is where things get tricky.

I could write an entire blog — and probably will — about how we all, on some level, really want our kids to turn out like us, or mostly like us. There’s no shame in admitting it. And the chances are good, no matter what we do, that will happen to a certain extent. But how certain are you that your child will never, ever feel the need for a high power in his life? How confident are you that he’ll reject all the mystical aspects of the universe? And how much influence are you willing to wield now to ensure that he never does?

I’d urge everyone to think a bit about leaving some room for your kid to develop her own religious/nonreligious identity. How might he or she develop if you don't shut the valves on religion quite so tightly. I’m not suggesting that nonbelievers encourage their kids to join a religion, but each human being has a different way of exploring and understanding the world. What if your son's psyche, for whatever reason, begins to crave some sort of spirituality? What then?

My daughter thinks her old, tattered Payless shoes are her best look. She adores them. Wears them everywhere. Gets distressed when they go missing. I’m telling you right now: Those shoes are downright crappy. They literally stink up my car. They need to be thrown away. This is fact.

So what do I do? As a parent, what do I do? Throw them away? Make her wear other shoes? Tell her she has bad taste? No. I buy some shoe deodorizer, and let her wear the damn shoes. Because if we want our kids to have a modicum of self-esteem, sometimes we need to just shut the hell up.

Bottom line: If I bring my kid up to disrespect religion, it sets her up for some pretty serious self-doubting if she ever decides to explore religion for herself one day. And I never want my kid to worry that, by being a good person and true to herself, she risks losing my respect and admiration.

3. Your "myth" message, while well-reasoned, may hurt your kid

If we want to promote tolerance, we must adopt tolerant language. Not to put too fine a point on this argument, but I really do believe that using judgmental terms in relation to religion, no matter how accurate we think they may be, has the potential to bring emotional pain to your child.

  • My son wants to go to Vacation Bible School but assumes I'll be disappointed in him; so he doesn't ask, and loses out on a chance to make new friends.
  • My daughter falls in love with a devout believer but loses sleep over the thought of bringing him home to meet me.
  • My children offend people they admire because they find themselves falling back on words I taught them.

Those are some of the ways the "myth" message could hurt my child. But I can't think of one way it would really help.

I want to be clear: I’m not suggesting that parents be dishonest about their religious beliefs. By all means, if you think these stories are myths, tell your kids that you think they're myths. Explain that you just can’t believe in things that aren’t supported by evidence. But why not park your judgements at the door? Why not leave it up to your kids to figure out the rest for themselves? Why not tell them that, as long as they're not hurting anyone, you'll support them 100 percent.

As for what to call religious stories — how about stories? At our house, we call them all God Stories. Doesn’t matter the religion — could be the story of Ganesh or the story of Noah’s Ark, or any other story where God is a featured character. (Except for Greek myths, which we call Greek myths because, well, there's no reason not to.)

I really am confident that, under our guidance (and with a little help from Richard Dawkins!), Maxine will figure out the difference between faith and science. She'll come to understand that they are opposing forces — but that they are also important forces in a great many lives.

And I'm excited — really excited — to find out what my little independent thinker makes of these forces. Or whether she'll end up caring at all.