Secularism is on the rise. Between 2012 and 2014 alone, some 7.5 million Americans lost their religious faith. And a great many of them are parents — or will be someday. So how do we, as first-generation secular parents, go about talking to our kids about God and religion? What do we tell them? When? And how?
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 — whether it be Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, Sikhism, folk religions, or the great wide panoply of Christianity — we are left to chart a new course for our families.
The good news is that when we approach these conversations with compassion and open-mindedness, the “God Talk” is not nearly as challenging as it seems. Here are my 10 Commandments.
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 Rosh Hashanah, Diwali and Eid al-Ahda) 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 ‘graven image’ of science
A “graven image” is described as anything worshipped 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 a graven image. So be it. For every religious book you read, 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 may pledge their allegiance “under God” not because of religion but because of tradition, the same way they may 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.
5. Honor your mother’s faith
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, non-judgmental 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 Mohammed 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.
7. Don’t be a jerkwad
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 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 kid 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.
10. Respect the religious without tolerating intolerance
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 it in favor of people who are being mean.
Editor’s note: Wendy Thomas Russell’s book, “Relax, It’s Just God: How and Why to Talk to Your Kids About Religion When You’re Not Religious,” comes out today.