When I first set out to write a book about how secular parents could and should address religion with their kids, I emailed the communications director of an atheist group in New York. I was in search, I explained, of secular parents who might talk about how they had introduced their own kids to religion.
“As an atheist,” she wrote back, “I did not introduce my children to religion. And nobody I know [in this group] would introduce their kids to religion.”
Too often, it seems, parents (both religious and non) equate religious literacy with religious indoctrination and simply dismiss or ignore concepts they don’t personally believe to be true or valuable. It’s a shame.
Not only is religious literacy a necessary part of being an educated citizen in today’s world, but it’s also an important part of instilling in our kids empathy and genuine tolerance for people who hold different worldviews.
Perhaps no one knows this better than E. D. Hirsch, the renowned author of the Dictionary of Cultural Literacy. “A religiously diverse society like ours should encourage students to range outside of their religious comfort zone in order to encourage respect for other faiths,” Hirsch wrote. “Religious literacy is, in part, crucial so we have the necessary knowledge and motivation to actively welcome those of other faiths and particularly religious minorities.1”
Some years ago, a consortium of 17 major religious and educational organizations released the handbook Religion in the Public School Curriculum: Questions and Answers, which made a strong case for the importance of religious studies. “Omission of facts about religion,” it says, “can give students the false impression that the religious life of humankind is insignificant or unimportant. Failure to understand even the basic symbols, practices, and concepts of the various religions makes much of history, literature, art, and contemporary life unintelligible.2”
Religious literacy has other advantages as well. Several nonreligious parents I interviewed have made clear, for example, that religious knowledge can serve a more practical purpose: It can prevent embarrassment and even bullying. One woman raised within the pantheistic Eckankar religion told me her ignorance of mainstream religion made her feel isolated as a child.
“Having grown up with a parent in a religion far from the norm,” she said, “I have an idea about the feelings of ‘otherness’ my kids could experience. At the age of 12, I had no idea what the word ‘priest’ meant. . . . I hope to do things a bit different than my parents, and give my kids lessons in religious literacy so they don’t feel so foreign at times.”
A mom told me her family was “accused of being devil worshipers” because her daughter didn’t know who Jesus was when asked about him on the playground. Had the little girl simply been familiar with the concept of the Christian messiah, the entire episode might have been avoided.
This is not to suggest that children should feel compelled to lie or cover up their families’ belief systems just to avoid conflict—not at all! But knowledge is powerful, particularly for kids growing up among very religious peers. When kids have shared knowledge of holidays, stories, characters, or beliefs, they often are better equipped to focus their attention on what they have in common with religious kids rather than what they don’t. That can go a long way toward cooling tensions.
“So far my son’s religious literacy is hiding the fact that we don’t believe,” said one mother, who was making it a priority to teach her son about Christianity. “Plus, he may very well end up believing—so if and when any negative impacts occur [among peers], it will be as a result of his actions and decisions.”
When people hear the words religious literacy, their eyes tend to glaze over. It sounds like work—work for the kid, work for the adult. So let’s start with a little demystification.
First, you do not need to be a religious scholar to give your kids a foundation for the vast network of beliefs and customs that we call religion. In fact, you don’t need a formalized plan at all. Religious literacy requires only that you look for opportunities in your everyday life to point out religious symbols, explain religious concepts, or ask religious questions. In this way, you relate religion to the here and now, and you set yourself up as your child’s go-to person for religious and spiritual inquiries. You are the person your child approaches when he confronts religion in the world around him; you are the guide who sets things straight, talks through confusion, and supports him as he reaches his own conclusions about supernatural beliefs.
Second, the importance of religious literacy lies not in what you say but in how you say it. When you speak about religion factually—that is, you try your best to keep your personal biases and judgments out of your talks—and when you make your conversations fun and engaging, you show your child that you see value in discussing religion openly and in the spirit of kindness. You encourage children to treat people on the content of their characters, not the fundamentals of their faith. And you show your little ones that you don’t view religion as something threatening or boring or beneath you, all of which can sabotage religious literacy, not to mention religious tolerance.
Consider the words of Esther Boyd, a humanist working at Johns Hopkins University as an interfaith chaplain:
Religious literacy requires that we are not afraid to discuss religion in public, whether it is in the classroom or a cocktail party. It removes the taboo from discussing what we believe and why and how we live it out and how others respond to us and how we respond to the lived practices of others. Religious literacy is learning how to navigate the exploration of other faiths and traditions, of learning to be respectful and sensitive, and of learning to shed our preconceived ideas.3
I really love how she words that—“not afraid to discuss religion.” It makes for an excellent goal: to give kids enough understanding that they aren’t afraid to explore religion on their own.
Religious literacy, like religion, is no science. How you address the topic will depend largely on your child’s (and your own) personality and interests. So will the “when” and “where” of your talks. Personally, I’ve found car rides to be a great setting for conversations with my daughter—not just because we pass by so many things that prompt dialogue, but because we both tend to be more thoughtful in the car. The monotony lends itself to more existential questions and deeper conversations about a wide variety of beliefs. Bedtime also seems to be a natural fit for us, perhaps because I sometimes bring home library books relating to one particular religious belief or custom or legend or holiday.
Here are some more tips:
Start early. Sometimes parents underestimate their kids’ intelligence as a subconscious excuse to get out of uncomfortable situations; please don’t be one of them. If you open up discussions when kids are young—around, say, age four or five—they are likely to be quite interested in what you have to say and to ask great questions that will undoubtedly deepen their knowledge. No, they may not understand or remember everything, but the greater good is that you get the ball rolling. The longer you wait, the more likely discussions will become awkward, unnerving, contrived, or difficult. Waiting until kids are teenagers to talk about religion can backfire. By then, kids may already have formed some pretty strong opinions—opinions that may be unfair, inaccurate, or unkind. What’s more, you may miss your window. Most teens are far more interested in what their friends have to say than in what you have to say.
Get “faith literacy” out of the way first. Before there can be literacy in religion, there must be literacy in faith. Religion is a big word, entailing everything from dogma and life-cycle traditions to history and world politics. But the word faith entails only one thing: belief in things that cannot be proven. So start there. Tell your child the difference between fact, fiction, and belief. Explain why faith is personal and varies from person to person. Tell them that people often change their beliefs over time, and point out the many different reasons people have faith: because they were brought up that way, because faith gives them comfort, because they feel deep down that God is real and can’t imagine not believing, and so on. And remember to pepper these conversations with, “That’s what others think, but what do you think?” If we parents truly want our children to make up their own minds, we need to talk less and listen more.
Don’t overthink it. Being religiously literate doesn’t require a Ph.D. in religious studies. Much of what you want to pass on to your kids you know already; the rest you can look up as needed. (Wikipedia is your friend.) The very act of defining a religious word for your child—baptism, for instance—is literacy. Buying your kid a dreidel around Hanukkah is literacy. Pointing out Moses in a painting is literacy. Watching a YouTube video of whirling dervishes is literacy. Oh, and don’t beat yourself up if you don’t know or can’t remember an answer, or don’t know how to answer. Just say, “Great question, I’ll get back to you on that.”
Celebrate religious holidays. In my mind at least, the minimum religious literacy required of American parents involves giving kids some basic information about all major world religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The easiest way to do this? Mark your calendar. When Rosh Hashanah and Ramadan and Buddha’s birthday come around, don’t ignore them. Instead, find out a bit about them and then share the interesting stuff with your kids. You might eat apples and honey with your dinner on Rosh Hashanah (explaining that that’s how Jewish people bring in a “sweet” new year); go out and ponder the phases of the moon on Ramadan (explaining that Muslims do not eat or drink anything from sunup to sundown for an entire month); show your child a picture of the Buddha on his birthday (explaining that Buddha is always pictured in a meditation posture because meditation is how he devised the all-important Four Noble Truths). And don’t forget to make Fox News proud and put the Christ back in Christmas! This impossible-to-ignore and massively commercialized holiday is a perfect opportunity to share one of the world’s most famous stories, the Nativity, with our curious children.
Humanize religion. Make connections between your children and the people in their lives who believe differently than they do. Instead of telling kids not to talk about religion in mixed company, encourage them to show interest in other people’s customs and traditions. As long as you stay abreast of what your children are learning elsewhere, and remind them that it’s not okay for people to foist their beliefs onto them (or vice versa), you have very little to worry about. You can sit back and relax and know that you’re doing a great job as a parent. (And you really are. You know that, right?)
Building understanding and compassion between groups of people who oppose each other’s ideology isn’t just some wishy-washy, feel-good idea. It’s essential to creating a better, more peaceful, less divisive future. We wouldn’t ignore the fact that people are different races or ethnicities, or that people come from different socioeconomic backgrounds or political perspectives. So why ignore religion? Kind people deserve to be treated with kindness. No matter what people look like, where they come from, how much money they have, who they vote for, or what god they worship, they are individual people—as we are—and will benefit from our open minds and willingness to see them that way. The earlier we share that message with our children, the longer they’ll have to live it.
Building understanding and compassion between groups of people who oppose each other’s ideology isn’t just some wishy-washy, feel-good idea. It’s essential to creating a better, more peaceful, less divisive future.
WENDY THOMAS RUSSELL is the author of Relax, It’s Just God: How and Why to Talk to Your Kids About Religion When You’re Not Religious (2015). A former newspaper reporter, Wendy hosts the blog Natural Wonderers for the Patheos network, writes an online parenting column for PBS NewsHour, and is cofounder of the independent publishing company Brown Paper Press.
WENDY THOMAS RUSSELL
Secular parents are by no means a cohesive unit; our struggles are hardly singular. But most of us—whether we consider ourselves atheist, agnostic, humanist, deist, or nothing at all—do share a common goal: to raise kind, happy, tolerant kids capable of making up their own minds about what to believe.
What many of us lack, however, is a clear path for how to get there. We can’t always rely on what we were told as children. We can’t always trust ourselves to handle things gracefully. Where our parents or grandparents were guided by the well-defined teachings of their faith, we are left to chart a new course for our families.
Here are 10 commandments to help clear the path.
1. Expose your kids to many religions.
Have you ever noticed how religion can get in the way of a religious education? Either children are schooled in one particular belief system, or they’re not being taught a damn thing. But a good religious education is one that covers the basics of many religions from a cultural and historical perspective, without a whole lot of emotional investment. What is religion? Why did it come about? And why is it so important to people? Pick up some books and educate yourself about various religions; tell your kids what you’re learning. Put major religious holidays (such as Diwali, Vesak, Rosh Hashanah, Easter, and Eid al-Adha) on your calendar, and use them as opportunities to talk about history and tradition. Point out signs and symbols, religious clothing. Seize opportunities to visit places of worship. Religious literacy is a gift; give it.
2. Embrace the “idol” of science.
Idolatry is described as valuing anything in place of God—whether it be other gods or demons, power, pleasure, or money. Because science is something that can be valued in place of God, it’s possible to consider science an idol. So be it. For every religious idea they hear, tell your kids one cool thing about the real world. Evolution, the stars and planets, you name it. But remember, you need not set up religion and science as opposing forces, the way religious people often do. Present the facts. Your kids likely will figure the rest out on their own, and it will mean more when they do.
3. Don’t saddle your kids with your anxiety over the word God.
The Pledge of Allegiance. The Girl Scout Promise. The motto written on American money. There is religion all around us, even in school. But it need not be a crisis. Let your kid know that God is a part of our culture’s language, its songs, its poetry, its monuments, and its works of art. God is a part of human history, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Not everything needs to be loaded with meaning. Kids might pledge their allegiance to “one nation under God” not because of religion but because of tradition, the same way they might sing Christmas songs or say “Bless you” when someone sneezes. If your kids prefer to draw battle lines for themselves on these matters, great! Just be sure you’re not nudging them toward the battle.
4. Keep in mind: there’s nothing wrong with faith.
Faith in the supernatural is only as good or bad as the people who possess it. Most of the people your kids will meet during their lifetimes will have something wonderful to offer the world; that something may be accomplished despite belief in a higher power, or it may be accomplished because of it. Religion has become a loaded word, referring more to dogma than the simple underlying belief in God, and that’s unfortunate in a way. Because religion is like a fingerprint; everyone’s is slightly different. Consider the chances, for instance, that any two people envision heaven in exactly the same way. Or interpret all the major biblical passages in the same way. Or inject religion into their politics and social mores in the same way. Not bloody likely. In the end, then, to say someone is Christian or Jewish or Muslim means very little. Knowing someone’s religion is a far cry from knowing her beliefs; knowing her label is a far cry from knowing her heart. So when you speak of religion around children, try to be as neutral as possible. And if you do choose to speak of religion in negative terms, be sure to explain exactly what you oppose and why. Rarely do people oppose faith itself, but rather the actions that can arise out of faith. It’s important that kids understand the difference.
Just because you’re a nonreligious parent doesn’t mean you have to shield your child from religious family members. If you give your child a context in which to hear about Grandma’s religion—or Cousin Suzie’s or neighbor Bob’s—you won’t mind so much when those conversations arise. It may benefit Grandma to be able to talk with your child about her faith, and it may benefit your child to hear about faith from someone he knows and loves. And as long as you’ve set the scene up front in a gentle, nonjudgmental way, there should be very little worry. For example, you might say: “Some people believe that a magic power, often called God, created the universe and is watching over us. And many people say that if you believe in God, you will go to live with God in a place called heaven after you die. That’s why it’s so important to Grandma that you believe what she does.” One caveat: If there’s a risk a family member will say something harmful or hateful to your child, the faith-sharing privilege is off the table. Luckily, I think most religious folks are capable of having conversations with children without invoking images of hell or condemning anal sex.
6. Don’t kill your kid’s good time.
One of the many problems with ardently opposing religion is that it’s so damn boring. If you’re preoccupied, for example, with explaining to your kids that Adam and Eve weren’t the first humans and that those who believe such things are irrational, you’re probably not telling the Adam-and-Eve story very well. And that’s a shame. Because it’s a really great story! A child’s age, certainly, will dictate the tenor of your conversations about God and which stories are appropriate to share. But don’t forget to have some fun. Go to the library and dig up as many interesting-looking books as you can. The more pictures the better. And don’t just offer flat readings of the stories; inject the stories about Jesus with all the drama and excitement with which they were probably intended. The same goes for tales of Abraham and Shiva and Muhammad and Zeus and all the other religious figures, both past and present. The more fun the stories are, the more your kids will want to hear them, and the more likely they’ll be to remember them. And that’s good. What kids don’t know can hurt them, and that’s especially true when it comes to religion.
Here’s the thing: When it comes to religion, most humans believe their way is the best way, the right way. But conviction need not translate into being snarky, arrogant, or mean. There is nothing at all wrong with criticizing people for saying hateful things or doing harmful things. But let’s cut the vitriol. You may discuss, oppose, even argue. But try to do it without name-calling, generalizing, or degradation—even when you see theists name-calling, generalizing, and degrading nonbelievers. Yes, it’s possible to fight fire with fire. But, in the end, it’s all just fire.
8. Don’t steal your child’s ability to choose.
If you’re going to teach children that it’s okay for people to hold religious beliefs, you must be willing to let your children hold religious beliefs as well. Otherwise the words sound hollow—and they are. There’s no shame in wanting your kids to believe the way you do. So guide them. Teach them the value of science. Explain the difference between fact and faith, between dogma and freethinking. Teach them morals and ethics. Tell them about religion from a dispassionate viewpoint. And then let them take it from there. Let them know they are free to choose what they want to believe, and encourage them to change their minds as often as they like. If they want to experiment with religion, support them. They’ll probably come around to your way of thinking eventually anyway. And if they don’t, it doesn’t matter. What does matter to you is that they grow up to be kind and happy. Right?
9. Don’t lie about your own beliefs.
Everyone has the right to his or her own thoughts and beliefs, and that includes you. Don’t hide them! Not only would you be sending a message that religion is an uncomfortable/scary/intimidating subject, but you’d be making it clear that it’s okay to be ashamed of your beliefs. You can put off the conversation for a while, but eventually your kids will ask. Admit when you are confused or don’t have all the answers. Tell them that the existence of God, in any shape or form, is something no one can prove or disprove, which is what makes it so easy to debate. Let kids know that yours is a household that talks openly and respectfully about tough subjects—including religion.
Teaching your kids to respect religious people is important. But that doesn’t mean they must respect religious intolerance. It doesn’t mean they must respect immoral, unethical, or hateful words and actions simply because they come under the heading of religious righteousness. Will kids say mean things on the playground? Yes. Do all those mean things need to be treated seriously? No. Fights will break out; feelings will be hurt. It’s a part of growing up. But hurting or terrorizing another child—or anyone—in the name of religion is no different than terrorizing a child for any other reason. Bullying is bullying and should be treated as such. The bottom line: Don’t hold religious beliefs against people who are being nice. And don’t hold them in favor of people who are being mean.