Living with Religion


Religion is an understandable response to being human. It’s not always a good response—sometimes it’s counterproductive, and often downright dangerous—but it is an understandable impulse. Our brains have evolved to seek patterns and find causes. This pattern- and cause-finding is a good thing, something that has served us well for millions of years. And when we don’t know the answer, we guess—also a good thing, as long as you stay open to whatever new and better answers might float by.

I loved “religion” growing up and spent countless hours reading about it—though it wasn’t the religion of my neighbors and relatives I was soaking up, but the religion of ancient Greece and Rome, better known now as myths. I found the stories fascinating and recognized them as creative attempts to understand the world. They revealed something not just about being Greek or Roman or ancient, but about being human. The ancients marveled at the stars, just as I did, and feared death, and wondered why spring came so reliably, year after year, why Africans and Europeans look different, how the world began, how spiders got so good at weaving, why we go to war and fall in love. They didn’t reveal much about the world, these myths, but they spoke volumes about humanity.

The similarities between cultural myths can be striking. A deity miraculously impregnates a mortal woman, who then gives birth to a great leader and deliverer of men. A father, on divine instructions, prepares to sacrifice his only son, only to be stopped at the last moment by the arrival of a ram. A little guy defeats a giant with one blow. A divine one miraculously turns a paltry plate of food into a banquet to feed the many. If you were born into Western civilization after the fourth century, you’ll clearly recognize these as stories from the Jewish and Christian scriptures. If you were born before then, however, you’d have recognized them as Greek and Roman myths. They are both.

Cultural legends and myths are among our greatest inheritances from the past. They are real treasures, insights into the human condition, diminished not one whit by the fact that most were once thought true by the great majority of those who heard them. Persian, Greek, Roman, Sumerian, Norse, Celtic, and Egyptian mythologies passed into the category of recognized fiction, while the Abrahamic mythologies are still considered religions by many. They too will most likely pass into recognized fiction, whether 10 or 10,000 years from now, almost certainly to be replaced by new religions, most of which will borrow mythic archetypes from their predecessors—and on turns the great karmic wheel.

I sometimes claim that I have “set religion aside.” Actually, that’s a bit like saying someone who rides a bike to work has set traffic aside. I’m still in it, still surrounded by it, and I always will be. For better and worse, religion is likely to be a permanent part of the human world. Our job as secular parents is not to work toward some fantasy of a world free of religion, but to help our kids learn to coexist with religion.

Coexistence does not mean silent acceptance of all consequences of religious belief. On the contrary, silence and inaction in the face of dangerous immorality is itself immoral. We have to engage religious people and institutions in just the way we wish to be engaged ourselves, as co-participants in the world. We should reasonably but loudly protest the intolerance, ignorance, and fear that are born of religion while at the same time reasonably and loudly applauding religious people and institutions whenever charity, tolerance, empathy, honesty, and any of our other shared values are in evidence. An important part of this is recognizing that not all expressions of religion and not all religious people are alike. Be sure to help kids recognize that the loudest, most ignorant and most intolerant religious adherents—whether raving radical Muslim clerics or raving radical Christian televangelists—do not represent all believers, nor even the majority. Though institutional religion itself is an unfortunate thing, the majority of individual believers are decent and thoughtful people with whom we have more in common than not. Saying that to yourself once in a while, and to your kids, can move the dialogue further forward than just about anything else.

The vision we should encourage in our children is not a world free of religion but one in which no idea or action is granted immunity from discussion and critique—including, of course, our own. That is the vision of living with religion to which this chapter is devoted.

Some of the authors in this chapter warn against the ill effects of religious evangelism, including the demonization of honest disbelief and the erosion of our religiously nonpartisan public schools. Others are optimistic about the prospects of cooperation, right down to the sharing of a home and marriage between a believer and a nonbeliever.

New to this edition is Wendy Thomas Russell, author of Relax, It’s Just God, who addresses both the how and why of teaching children about things in which we ourselves do not believe. Neil Carter, creator of the popular Godless in Dixie blog, describes the heartrending experience of becoming an atheist while the children he had taught to believe continue to do so—and now with the added worry that Dad is destined for hell.

Libby Anne of the blog Love, Joy, Feminism writes about a situation that most nonreligious parents know all too well: the challenge of raising freethinkers in the shadow of grandparents who are fervently religious.

Living with religion is a literal reality for a nonreligious parent with a religious partner. I have some experience with this myself, having married a Southern Baptist who remained a Baptist for the first 13 years of our marriage. It’s more common than most people think: 59 percent of the religiously unaffiliated who are married have a religious partner. In this chapter, I offer an essay about the specific parenting challenges that arise from the religious/nonreligious mixed marriage and some strategies that have worked well for many such couples.

The chapter finishes with two returning favorites from the first edition, Stu Tanquist and Ed Buckner, on what church-state separation does and doesn’t means for kids in public schools.

The “Additional Resources” section includes several resources for religious literacy. One of the most enlightening and gentle ways to help children accept myth for its insights into humanity while keeping it distinct from fact is to steadily trace the patterns of the complete human mythic tapestry. Buy a good volume of classical myths for kids, and buy Chrystine Trooien’s Christian Mythology for Kids. To whet kids’ appetites and introduce the pantheon of gods, read a few of the basic myths: Cronos swallowing his children, Zeus defeating the Titans and dividing the tripartite world, Icarus, Phaeton, and so on. Then begin interweaving Christian and Jewish mythologies, matched if you can with their classical parallels. Read the story of Danae and Perseus, in which a god impregnates a woman, who gives birth to a great hero; then read the divine insemination of Mary and birth of Christ story. Read the story of the infant boy who is abandoned in the wilderness to spare him from death, only to be found by a servant of the king who brings him to the palace to be raised as the king’s child. It’s the story of Moses—and the story of Oedipus. No denigration of the Judeo-Christian stories is necessary; kids simply see that myth is myth.

Ideally, kids can come to a view of our mythic inheritance, including Judeo-Christian myth, as a creative attempt to understand an incomprehensible world when there were few other means to do so. With the rise of science, our real understanding has dwarfed even our richest mythic creations for pure wonder and awe inspiration, but the myths remain dazzling, mesmerizing tributes to our collective imagination, to be admired and enjoyed. A child whose exposure to the explosive wonder of science grows in parallel to his or her engagement with myth is unlikely to allow them to mix. Our creative fictions and our marvelous facts are each too precious in their own domains for us to do without either. The more we bring children to a real understanding of religious belief, the greater chance they will have of coming to terms with it, of living with it—and of having believers learn at last to live with and understand them in return.


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