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.

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"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.

6 Things about Seventh-Day Adventists

7th-dayWelcome to my new series! At least once a week for the next couple of months, I'll be bringing you brisk overviews of popular, but widely misunderstood, religious groups operating within the United States. As always, the point here is to give parents just enough information that you can — at some point, when the time is right — pass on a little religious literacy to your kids. Because, seriously guys, your kids won't get it elsewhere else, and knowledge is our best weapon against so many bad things — including discrimination, intolerance, ignorance and just plain assholeishness.

Today, we tackle Seventh-day Adventists, a denomination of the Christian faith with about 17.2 million adherents worldwide. Like all faiths, there are liberal and conservative sects. In all of them, the “d” is lowercase; don’t ask me why.

1. They believe Jesus is coming… and soon. 

Okay, so here’s the deal: Seventh-day Adventism grew out of Millerism, a movement founded by William Miller in 1833 and based on the belief that Jesus was returning to Earth somewhere in the 1843-1844 vicinity. Okay, so yeah, Miller had to move the exact date of Jesus’ arrival a couple of times — Biblical math is hard to get right, okay?! — but EVENTUALLY he settled on Oct. 22, 1844. The problem was that — and this is going to totally shock you — nothing happened on that day either. Millerites called it “The Big Disappointment.” After that, the movement split up. The few folks who stayed changed their name to Adventists and found a way to save face: Actually, they reasoned, something DID go down on Oct. 22, 1844; just not the something Miller predicted. Instead, they said, Oct. 22 was the day Jesus moved into a certain sanctuary within heaven and began his process of “investigative judgement” — that is, judging human beings and deciding who deserves to go to heaven. Jesus is definitely still planning to come VERY SOON, they say, but this time no one claims to know just when. Smart.

2. The Jews are right: The Sabbath is Saturday.

According to Adventists, the seventh day of the week — Saturday — is the REAL Sabbath. (Not on Sunday, as other Christians maintain.) It goes back to creation times, when God worked his ass off for six days then rested on the seventh. Secular work and entertainment is discouraged on the Sabbath. If you want to work, people, do it when God did: Days 1 through 6. Also like the Jews, the Adventists don’t eat pork or any other “unclean” meats.

Ellen White3. They have a prophet, and she’s a woman.

Ellen G. White, co-founder the Adventists, was a prolific writer. But she also claimed to have lots of religious “visions” — which made her something of an SDA superstar. Today, many of White’s writings are given near-scripture status, and considered second only to the Bible in terms of credibility. Many have noted White’s “spiritual gift of prophecy.”

4. They want you to eat your Wheaties.

The Adventists are a religion very keen on health and diet. And, in a very real sense, they are the reason we have breakfast cereal. Dr. John Harvey Kellogg — who basically invented cereal along with his brother, William — was an early SDA leader who pushed the church to make health a major tenant. Sadly, Kellogg was eventually excommunicated after publishing a book in which he made some pantheistic statements: “God is in everything.” The Adventists, as it turns out, don’t go in for all that hippie stuff. There’s only one way to see God, and that's through Jesus. Still, health is uber-important, and many are vegetarians.

5. There is no hell. 

This is sort of unusual for Christians. Adventists believe that until the Second Coming, all dead people enter a deep sleep — a state of complete unconsciousness. As the story goes, upon Jesus’ return, he will bring all those suitable to heaven, while those who have been judged unworthy will simply be destroyed for eternity. See? No hell.

6.  They're cool with other religions.

Although Seventh-day Adventists could be considered evangelical, they also have a long history (100 years!) of advocating for the religious freedom for all people, regardless of faith.  In 1893 its leaders founded the International Religious Liberty Association, which is universal and non-sectarian.

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..."

'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?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maxine: Is he with bad guys?

CharlieThey think he is everywhere.

Maxine: God is with bad guys?

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

Maxine: A HUGE experiment.

CharlieWhat do you believe?

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

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

Maxine: (Pause) I think he stepped back.

(Pause.)

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

(Pause.)

Maxine: Is God good or bad?

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

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

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

Maxine: Yeah.

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

Maxine: Or say.

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

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

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

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

Charlie: Right.

Benefits to Being a Secular Parent? Let Us Count the Ways

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Shattered FaithNonreligious parenting has its challenges. Being honest with our kids without indoctrinating them. Addressing conflicts with our religious parents and in-laws. Dealing with "hell" talk on the school playground. Talking about death without the possibility of heaven. Knowing when to bring up religion, how to bring it up, and what language to use. Dealing with our own religious baggage without heaving it onto our kids. Struggling with the knowledge that religious children really do fare better in certain areas than nonreligious children.

Yes, there's a lot to consider.

But sometimes it's important to remember: Parents who decide to raise children in secular households face far more benefits than challenges. No, secularists do not bestow upon our children the certainty of faith and all that goes with it. But what we do bestow may be of even greater value: compassion for others, the ability to think independently, and a willingness to be wrong.

Last month I asked parents: What is the best thing about being a secular parent? All the answers I received were great — but here are some of the best of the best:

I would say that the single best thing is to teach children to think for themselves — question everything, no topic is off limit — make your own choices and be responsible for them.

Knowing that my kid is ethical and makes good choices because that's who he chooses to be, not because he thinks someone is watching over his shoulder to punish him if he trips up.

Not having someone else tell me what to think. Like the time my stepdaughter told me that Catholics are now allowed to “believe in evolution.” 

Sleeping in on Sundays.

I like being able to tell my kids answers to their questions that are logical and that make sense. Kids are natural scientists, wanting to know how the world works. Scientists need scientific answers!

The amazing conversations I have with my daughter about spirituality, and the fact that she embraces it all with curiosity and without prejudice.

Watching her develop an independent, internal moral compass.

 Living my own secular faith honestly.

Being able to be totally open about sexuality (when the age/time is right).

Their thoughts are private and not sinful. No superstitions.

The way your life goes isn't all "God's" plan. 

You have very little invested in being right or wrong.

Being able to answer with "I don't know."

Teaching my kids to appreciate themselves and what they accomplish. So many religous people are too quick to thank their god for their successes. I want my kids to pat themselves on the back when they accomplish something

I can stimulate and feed his curiosity and imagination, and allow him to think freely and form his own opinions and ideas about the world.

Being able to watch my son grow and learn without the fear of god/evil/heaven/hell in his decisions. He's a little kid, and he gets to live like one. He doesn't have a huge myth scaring him or guilting him into behaving a certain way (or "else")

Teaching my kids that life is valuable because it's the only one we have. 

Pretty much sums it up, doesn't it?

Fun Facts about Nones

I've been poring over data as it relates to religious "nones" for, well, far too long. The statistics are really fascinating — but not nearly as fascinating as bullet-pointed lists. So here's both — a mashup, if you will. Read. Enjoy. Be fascinated. nones We tend to lean left. Nones make up 20 percent of the nation's registered Independents, 16 percent of its Democrats and 8 percent of its Republicans. In 1990, those numbers were 12, 6 and 6, respectively.

• We tend to be young. More than one-third of 18-to-24-year-olds claimed “no religion” compared to just 7 percent of those 75 and older.

• We generally avoid the Bible Belt. Geographically speaking, nones live around other nones. Statistically, Northern New England is the least religious section of the country, and Vermont is the least religious state.

• Many of us are first-generation secular. Only 32 percent of "current" nones reported that they were nonreligious at age 12. Almost a quarter of us are former Catholics.

 We have a shortage of women. Only 12 percent of American women are classified as nones, versus 19% of American men.

• Class and education is a non-issue. Nones mirror the general population in terms of education and income.

• Race is a declining factor. Latinos, for instance, tripled their proportion among nones between 1990 (4 percent) and 2008 (12 percent.)

• Kiss us; we're Irish. Asians, Irish and Jews are the most secularized ethnic origin groups. One-third of all nones are of Irish descent.

• We’re sad and stressed. Research suggests religious people are happier and less stressed because of social contact and support that result from religious pursuits, as well as the feeling of well-being that come with optimism, volunteering and learned coping strategies.

• We’ve got brainpower. As individuals, atheists score higher on measures of intelligence, especially verbal ability and scientific literacy. They are also more likely to practice safe sex than the strongly religious and far more likely to value freedom of thought.

• We’re as moral as they come. Contrary to Psalms 14 — which says we're all a bunch of corrupt, filthy ne'er-do-wells — nonbelievers actually score higher than their religious peers on basic questions of morality and human decency. Markers include governmental use of torture, the death penalty, punitive hitting of children, racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, environmental degradation and human rights.

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.