Relax, It's Just God: Last Call!

Big news! I finished my book!

Relax, It's Just God: How and Why to Talk to Your Kids About Religion When You're Not Religious is slated for release March 31, 2015 — just in time to not be given out as Christmas gifts. What timing! I'm super excited, and grateful to all of you who have stuck with me all this time. How did four years go by? Jesus Christ. My kid is old now.

I'll be updating you as regularly as I can, but in the meantime, let this serve as last call: If you'd like something specifically to be covered in the book — or have a particularly nagging question or concern — let me know that now! It's not too late, but will be soon.

When Opinions Expressed Are Not Your Own

Opinionated GuyFor many of us, strong opinions are like pheromones. They attract us. They lure us in. People who believe what they believe with passion, and who aren't afraid to state their truth — these people hold certain powers. The power to make us laugh. The power to make us think. The power to move us to share our own opinions.

Of course, we're not going to agree with all these opinions — or even find them valid! (Even Einstein expressed some bullshit opinions now and again.) We may even be offended and put off by certain assertions.

But the point remains: There is an underlying attraction that many of us feel to people who possess the courage of their convictions — perhaps because so many others lack it. I find this is particularly true in my relationships with women. It's incredibly hard for me to connect with passive women who soak up what others say and offer little of their own, who look to please others rather than challenge themselves. But when I meet a woman with a strong, clear voice and the willingness to share it, I'm very likely to want to take that woman out for dram of Pappy Van Winkle's.

Of course, there are caveats. (Pappy's is too expensive for their not to be caveats.) Certain things will flat-out "ruin the mood." Hate and bigotry are two of them; aggression, ridicule and ill-humor are three more. Also, in my opinion, in order for a loud, proud assertion to hold any "pheromonic" power at all,  it must truly belong to the opinionated. If someone is simply regurgitating what they heard, without thinking critically about it, it doesn't count. That's just gullibility masquerading as opinion. And, forgive me, but gullibility never got anyone laid. (Not well anyway.)

So where do religious opinions fall in all this? Are strong expressions of of religious views an automatic turnoff for an"unaffiliated" type, such as myself?

Not at all. Most of us are open-minded enough (in the real world, not the one that exists online) to move right past opinions we don't care for and focus on other things.

But it is complicated. Not because of the nature of the opinions, but because so many really wonderful, kind, compassionate, generous and strong people believe in their religion because they were told to believe in their religion. They were raised to believe it. They were never given a chance not to believe it.

And when a person has been indoctrinated to hold a certain opinion, is it really their opinion at all?

I really am attracted to people with strong viewpoints on a whole matter of subjects — including religion. I just wish I could be sure the beliefs and opinions of the religious were truly theirs to share.

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..."

Turning 40 in 'The City of Love'

"My sister is turning 40, and she feels that that's going to be easier to do in Paris." That's how my sister, Jen, explains why a bunch of my family is spending my birthday in Europe this year. We're leaving today, as luck would have it, flying first to London, then Paris and then down to France's Burgundy region for a week's worth of R&R.

Paris

Here's the back story: About three years ago, in a cafe, I noticed a middle-aged woman at the table over. She had just returned from Paris and was giving out souvenirs to her little cast of friends. As she pulled from her bag a few pieces of art that she'd purchased on her trip, something awakened in me. Like a particularly beautiful musical chord being struck for the first time. I no longer recollect the chord, nor the feeling; too much time has passed. But the result of it I remember. It was in that moment that I resolved to spend my 40th in Paris.

Of course, give me three years to plan a trip and it's going to get complicated.

A trip to Paris became Paris AND a stay in a château south of Paris. Soon after that, I'd invited my whole family to join me — including my parents and sister's family — as well as my best friend's family; they live in Stockholm. Before long, we had added London as another leg of the journey and orchestrated a reunion with a bunch of our English relatives. A big trip had became a big, BIG trip.

Honestly, I don't  have a "thing" about getting older. I don't stress out about the every-deepening lines between my eyebrows or the wrinkles in my forehead or the slackening skin in my neck. And I'm one of the .2 percent* of American women who is actually embracing gray hair. So when my sister says turning 40 will be easier for me if I'm in Paris, she's exaggerating a bit. (Hey, she writes fiction! What do you expect?)

Paris isn't a way to ease the aging process. It's a way to celebrate the fact that I'm still alive to age.

Looking back, I'm keenly aware of how things could have gone the other way: First, there was the car accident. I was 16 and riding in the backseat of a friend's car. We were driving on Interstate 29 in Missouri. She swerved to miss a dog, the car flipped and I was thrown out the back window.Then there was the coma — I was 21 and went into anaphylactic after eating almonds. I already told you about that. Then there was childbirth. CHILDBIRTH, PEOPLE! Do you know what I had to do to get that baby out?!

So yeah. I've lived to the age of 40 and, dammit, that's no small thing. It's also no small thing that everyone I love most in the world is also still alive. Nor is it a small thing that most of them — these wonderful, beautiful individuals who have given me the best days of my life — will be gathered together in the same room very, very soon. In fact, that's the biggest goddamn thing I can imagine.

So yeah, turning 40 will be a piece of cake.

Paris is just the icing.

* Note to demographers: I made up that percentage. (It's probably smaller.)

It's a Fine Line Between Truth and Propaganda

Recently, on Hemant Mehta's FriendlyAthiest blog, I came across a video done by a guy who runs a Facebook page called Religion Hurts Humanity. The video, titled What Religions Have Contributed to the World This Month, is nine minutes full of news clips and headlines detailing all the terrible things done in the name of religion during the last 30 days. The amount of material alone makes the video pretty compelling. Here are some of the featured headlines:

Islamic militants kill 30 in Nigeria School attack 

Islamic states reject UN's attempt to protect women: It violates Sharia Law

Boy killed for an off-hand remark about Muhammad

Female genital mutilation victim was 'aged just seven' 

Children report sexual abuse cases by Bhutan's Buddhist monks

Scandal at the Vatican: Official Arrested in $26 million Corruption Plot

Serial sex offender priest told 7-year-old victim he could get dead grandfather into heaven

Exorcism Gone Wrong? Woman Goes Into Cardiac Arrest During Ritual

'Spiritual healer' George Goak guilty of groping patients

India villagers kill two for 'witchcraft'

Now, truthfully, if I didn't blog about religion, I probably wouldn't have watched the whole video. It was a real downer seeing that many horrific headlines all strung together like that. Not that the video doesn't have value. I think it's important to point out the role religious beliefs are playing in the world, especially when religious organizations are given 501(c)(3) status and protected from prosecution in some cases.

However — you knew that was coming, didn't you? — in seeking to influence our feelings about religion by presenting only one set of facts, this particular video amounts to little more than propaganda — pretty effective propaganda at that. As a viewer, I found myself  getting angry — angry at the people who have done these terrible things, angry at their religions for being a part of it, angry at religious people for having something in common with the those who had committed these terrible acts.

But then I thought critically about what I was watching. (Let's hear it for critical thinking!) Yes, religion provides a lot of headline fodder, but the stories in this one video don't share any of the good things that religious people do — and, perhaps even more importantly, they represent a fraction of the awful, terrible, tragic things that go in general  every month.

10030271_h23302287_custom-b36e0cb541df443cc59199e783c085119bd665c2-s6-c30Consider this: Moments after watching the video, I saw this headline from Reuters: Indian school lunch poisoning: doctors race to save children. It came with a picture of a grandmother, in anguish, over the loss of her grandson to a rice and potato curry tainted by insecticide. (That's her on the left; tears your heart out, right?) The story was just as horrible as anything you'll see on the video — and it has nothing to do with religion.

It's much harder to be sad and scared than to be angry — which is why so many of us are quick to turn to the latter. And it's much harder to be angry when there's nowhere to direct the anger. Would genital mutilation be easier to stomach if it were simply cultural, rather than religious? Is molestation and child rape less vile when committed by people born with mental illnesses? Which breaks your heart more: to hear about children who died senselessly because of an Islamic attack, or to hear about children who died senselessly because a vat of food was accidentally poisoned? How can we qualify that?

My hope is that someday religious belief won't need to be put under the microscope like this because more people will be willing to see religion as a human creation rather than a divine creation. No version of "God" gives people cart blanche to be morally reprehensible human beings — which, I do think, is the video's core message.

But let's at least shoot for honesty. For the sake of the next generation, let's try to view religion for what it is: something (like so many other things!) that compels and enables people to do really wonderful and truly terrible things.

No denials, no excuses, no special treatment. No exaggeration.

And — please, brothers — no more propaganda.

'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.]

'Jesus Gosh!': Explaining Religious Sensitivity to a 4-Year-Old

il_570xN.302185289When exactly is the right time to broach the subject of religion with children? It's a common question not easily answered. Kids are so different. The brain develops at different speeds and in different ways. What interests children at any given age runs the gamut of possibilities and is constantly in flux. So parents like me, we look for openings. We keep our ears open for conversation starters, and signs that our little ones might be ready to think a bit deeper about life and people and beliefs. We want them to be old enough to hear different perspectives and not take everything at face value; but we also want them to be young enough to listen to us. We want to make sure they'll interested in what we have to say — as opposed to what their friends have to say.

My sister, Jennifer, was driving to my house last week with her 4-year-old son in the back seat. Shortly after Jack had climbed into his car seat, he said to him mom: "I invented a new word."

"What is it?" Jennifer asked.

"Jesus Gosh!" he said proudly.

He explained that it's a word meant to be said when you're surprised by something.

Jennifer saw her opening.

"You know, Jack..." she began, "that word — Jesus — some people don't like to hear that word used in that way."

Jack seemed fascinated by that, so she went on.

She explained how Jesus was a man who lived a long time ago. She said he was an important man who many religious people believe was a prophet, but who Christians believe was the son of God. Then she talked a bit about how that distinguished Christians from other religions and about different cultures. She said Christians from Latin and South American often name their children Jesus (though it's pronounced differently), but that in the United States, the name is considered sacrosanct and is not, in Christian circles at least, to be used in any way other than to talk about or praise Jesus.

"I know Auntie Wendy uses that word sometimes," she said at one point, "but someone like Gramma would never use the word that way. And, if she heard you say 'Jesus Gosh,' she wouldn't like that."

Yeah. She threw me under the bus is what she did.

But I digress.

The point is, to Jennifer, it was breakthrough. And she felt great about it. She told Jack that it's important to understand how our words might offend some people. "We can say whatever we want," she said. "But it's good to think about how other people might feel about our words."

Later, she told me, "I know I was using some words he didn't understand, but he seemed fine with it. He seemed to be getting it. So I just went on and on."

For 10 minutes. Ten. Whole. Minutes.

Jack never said a word, but he was listening so intently, that she just knew this had been the right moment. She hadn't missed it.

Then finally, she paused. Would there be any questions, she wondered?

Just one, as it turns out.

"Mommy," came his little voice, "what did you say?"