Monday, November 5, 2012

How to Explain Religion to my Child

I got a comment from a lovely mother who read my blog, out looking for some ideas on how to parent her freethinking and inquisitive daughter.  Mae asked me a question that is, by far, the most often question I ever receive. Online or in person!  I've been wanting to write a post on this subject, so I am including it here so you can find it again and again as you journey your way through parenting your own little skeptic!

Mae writes:

I love reading your little snippets, they are always very thought provoking and really reflect my parenting style. So glad that you are writing many of the things that other parents get nervous to discuss. I feel like if I voice my disbelief in religion that i will be viewed in a different way or as a bad parent, or even that I'll hurt another's feelings, and that is probably because I scoff or make fun of religion a lot. (mostly because I believe you have to disregard SO much information to believe it and it confuses me why more people don't QUESTION what they are being taught... thats on a different note.) because I SHOULDN'T make fun of those beliefs. And I get very tired of standing up for my opinions when others find out I don't teach my children religious things.

Also, what did/do you tell your children when they ask what praying is or god ? I have a four year old and I'm just getting into those questions that I simply don't have the answer for at times. I try to do my best saying that prayer is a way for people to voice things that they feel in order to help them work through it. But I truly don't want to dive in too deep since it will likely confuse her. She's SOOOOO smart though and I can hardly keep up!

And my reply to Mae and to ALL of the Maes out there in the world who are looking for some parenting guidance for raising an ethical, freethinking child:

Dear Mae, YAY for you for having one of those amazingly precocious children who ask questions!
I can't tell you "THE" thing to do regarding what to say or do, but I can tell you what *I* did and said.

First, from the library, again and again, I brought home creation and mythology stories. These books included the Christian religion stories. Side by side, the Christian stories, in no way, stand out as any more profound or "true" than any other mythology stories.

So, we read these stories, talking about why the stories were explain the these early people who didn't have the technology and science that we have today why things happened. Why did it rain today? Why is my camel sick? Where did people come from? Why do birds sing in the morning. Etc etc etc.

We talked about how people are very curious and smart and really wanted answers, but didn't have them. SO, in the absence of really knowing, people will often make up stories to explain things to themselves. (have you ever told yourself that thunder was someone bowling in the sky? ect)

WELL, eventually, the more people studied and observed and thought and experimented, the more we were able to answer these questions with real answers. (We get sick because of viruses and germs. We had a rain shower because of the rain cycle. Birds sing in the morning because they can sense the dawn about half an hour before it happens. Stars are beautiful balls of gas many light years away. And we evolved from earlier species.)

But, today, some people get comfort from these old stories. They have created complicated stories that include magical people in the sky (remember Zeus and Yahweh) who have powers. But you and I know that these stories, entertaining as they are, aren't truth or anything. Just stories told by people many many years ago to try to understand the world around them.

Eventually, Where did "we" come from and all of the major existential questions. And I am very comfortable saying "I don't know the answer to that. Let's see what we can find out from the knowledge base."

Parenting a child through these years is an AMAZING journey that you will LOVE! And that will challenge you.
But honestly is always the best way, in my opinion. Answer those questions at their level.

Maybe watch "The Lion King". Get that whole "circle of life" thing to refer to whenever you find tiny dead baby birds or even leaves from a tree...

Good luck and trust yourself! You will do fine!

And, I want to add, Mae and You, Dear Reader, you actually DO have the answers or you know where to find them.  Trust in the process of being honest instead of that knee-jerk reaction of passing along the myth stories.  It won't be long before we have generations of children who no longer have to find their way through the muck!

And THEN imagine what they will do.........!

(this is a copy/paste job!   All spelling and grammar errors are original.  
What a nerd I am to even write this part.  LOL)

If you enjoyed this post you might also try this one: 
Pillow Talk
Life, The Universe, and Whatnot
Barely Out of Tuesday


  1. Funny that you wrote this post, I was thinking this myself today. How do you teach them about all beliefs (religious, mythological, etc.) as facts not leaning one way or another? And at what age? Is there a book out there that covers this? :) Danica

  2. Ayep. Little bit of kismet there. I ordered D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths today, because when I was a kid, I can remember thinking how much cooler having 12 gods was, and since the one I was taught Clearly wasn't working, maybe 12 on my side would. :D

    Nice piece. :)


    1. Interesting timing...

      Just this afternoon my daughter and I were talking to her music teacher when Doctor Who reminded me of the time she was really into the Greek myths and had "decided to believe" in them. LOL She would talk about Zeus and the other gods...LOL. It was pretty cute.

  3. Richard Dawkins wrote a book for kids, or for adults to explore with kids. It's called "The Magic of Reality: How We Know What's Really True." It's really attractive--lots of cool art--but I haven't read it. However, it sounds like a good idea: It discusses questions such as "What is magic?" "Who was the first person?" "When and how did everything begin?" and "Why do bad things happen?" It explores several legends that "answer" the question, and then evidence and scientific discoveries that answer the question, least as far as we now know.

    I thought that Danice might be interested in looking through this book...

    1. That does sound great! I am reading Dawkins' "Unweaving the Rainbow" right now and it's such a good read.

    2. Also the book 'Maybe Yes, Maybe No'

  4. We found that teaching the energy cycle concept really early to the kids helped with a lot of the pain that comes up regarding death. Everything feeds something, one thing dying usually helps something else, etc. The kids jumped to reflecting our non-belief(despite me telling them that belief is something that they should think about when they're older and then decide what makes sense to them) so we've talked about how we can always be honest about what we believe while not "being mean" or unkind when others talk about their beliefs. Which hasn't stopped us from hushing them when they're talking about the impossibility of the Santa story in front of the Santa photo line at the mall. :) Thanks for the article! -Naomi

    1. Naomi, this is an EXCELLENT way to lay the foundation for critical thinking!
      So glad you commented!

  5. So you teach your children that people belive in lies because it gives them comfort? That is simply untrue. It is an atheist myth that all religious people are stupid and unreflected. Some people take comfort in their beliefs yes - just like your children apparently take comfort in the circle of life. Most people believe what they are told, that goes in a very religious country like the U.S.A, BUT it also goes in a very secular country like Denmark where I come from. Some religious people are unreflected, some are undoubtably stupid, but I dare say that is also true of some Atheists. And there are plenty of the other kind - Intelligent, reflected people who believe in God. People who know (and understand) all your arguments, who know, understand and respect/accept modern science, who know and understand about philosophy and psychology - but come to a different conclusion than you. Does that make them stupid and silly? Or does it just mean that while the facts are the same, the interpretation can be different? Do you think that people who have a different view of politics, despite having access to the same facts as you, are stupid? If you want to tell your children the truth you could tell them this (which you could also tell them if you were religious): Some people believe what they are told - that goes for both religious people and atheists. Some people think for themselves - that also goes for both sides. Some don't want to listen to what the other side has to say, while others will - that also goes for both sides. And some investigate both sides fairly and get to a conclusion that is either the same as or different from mine. I don't nessecarily understand how people come to a different conclusion than mine - but that does not make them stupid OR silly OR scared of reality OR evil - and that also goes for both sides.
    Lastly I want to say I am sorry if this comment comes of agressive. I am offended by the things you tell your children about people like me, but I don't mean to be unkind. I respect your right to draw your conclusions and I wish all good for you and your family. I just wish you would tell your children that there are also intelligent religious people - I actually have an intelligence test to prove that :)

    1. Eliza, thank you for your very thoughtful comment.
      I hope you see that I have not ever used the words "Stupid" or "silly" or "evil" to describe anything, nor did I imply them! Also, my kids have friends from many different religious and traditions. So they do deeply experience different views of life from wonderful and intelligent people that they love and respect. no IQ test necessary. ;-)

      And YES, I DID explain religion to my children as I stated in my post:
      "people are very curious and smart and really wanted answers, but didn't have them. SO, in the absence of really knowing, people will often make up stories to explain things to themselves."

      I, in no way, wish to offend you or your beliefs. Only to show the need for our early ancestors to find explanations for things in the natural world that they didn't understand. In looking for "explanations", often 'magical entity' was used in the place of 'unknown'.


Leave a comment!