Teach the Children?


I am well acquainted with the debate about how to teach your children about your religion and if it is better to let them find whatever they believe completely on their own, so as not to influence them unduly. I have heard many views and angles on the question (as a moderately religious parent, it is an important issue for me), but now I have found a very cogent essay about the opposite…the ethics of sharing your lack of religion with your children.

While I disagree with many points the author brings up, they are all very well stated and supported and they have given me a lot to think about. As a man who considers himself both religious AND a humanist, the concept that Humanism is by it’s very nature the opposite of religion is strange to me, but makes sense on some levels.

So what do you think…is there a right and wrong way to share your belief system with your children? Should you do it at all, or perhaps strive to inculcate your children thoroughly in your world view? Maybe in the end, we should all just get dogs?

The following is reposted from The Humanist.

Good books?

What can humanist parents use in the battle against religious indoctrination? Danny Postel investigates

by Danny Postel

"Daddy, why did Jesus invent butterflies if they die after two weeks?"

I just about hit the panic button when my six-year-old son Theo put this question to me not long ago. His mother, who is a Christian, had taught him that Jesus was God. When Jesus’s visage appears in a painting or on television, Theo sometimes exclaims, "That’s God!" In his butterfly question he seemed to reason, syllogistically, that if Jesus was God, and God created the world and its life forms (butterflies being one of them), Jesus "invented" the winged creatures. Either that or God and Jesus are simply interchangeable in his mind.

"First, Theo, your question presumes that Jesus was God," I responded. "Many people, like mommy, believe he was, but many others don’t. It also presumes that there is a God – we don’t know for sure that there is." "I think there is," he retorted. "There may very well be a God, Theo. But not everyone agrees on that – there are many people who doubt there is a God. We might never know for sure if there is or not," I told him. "When we die we’ll know," he came back. "Maybe," I said. "But maybe not."

The literalism packed into Theo’s question alarmed me, but this was by no means my first encounter with the influence of religion on my progeny. My ten-year-old son Elijah enjoys going to church with his mother – not every Sunday, but not infrequently. I’ve never discouraged it. One Monday morning a few months ago, though, I saw him reading the Bible, a children’s Bible he’d been given at his mother’s church. In no way did I discourage him from reading it. But I confess (as it were) that I went to work that day a bit preoccupied.

To be sure, I’d always been comfortable with our familial arrangement: our boys have parents with very different views on religion – their mother a Catholic, their father an agnostic humanist. This is only one of the several ways in which our family is "mixed": Nilsa is from Puerto Rico, I from the Midwestern US; she grew up in a working-class family in the countryside, I in a middle-class one in the suburbs; she speaks to the children in Spanish, I in English. Our differences regarding religion must therefore seem, to the kids, par for the course, no?

I’ve also sensed (hoped?) that having one religious parent and one secular one could be healthy for the boys ("hmm, if mom believes x but dad doesn’t, I guess there are multiple perspectives to consider, and who knows which one is right? Maybe none has a monopoly on truth…").

Nonetheless, the sight of Elijah reading the Bible that morning did leave me with an uneasy feeling. Of course it was wonderful to see him reading. And the Bible is in any case a seminal world-historical text: familiarity with it is an essential form of cultural knowledge. Churches, however, don’t typically dispense Bibles merely as cultural texts but rather as the Word of God. It was in this register that I worried a bit about Elijah’s engagement with the book. And it made me ask myself what exactly I was doing to share, or impart, my secular worldview to Elijah, as a counterbalance to the Catholicism he was imbibing from his mother. She takes him to services. What do I take him to? She has him reading the Bible. What do I have him reading?

I have read all sorts of books with Elijah that I think of as humanistic, broadly speaking: lots of poetry (particularly Pablo Neruda, whose Book of Questions is ideal for children); books like David A White’s Philosophy for Kids, and its sequel, The Examined Life: Advanced Philosophy for Kids. I recall feeling especially proud one evening after doing a chapter of Philosophy for Kids, which is designed for discussion between parent and child – I think it was a chapter on the meaning of friendship – followed by some verses of Neruda. I put Elijah to sleep that night thinking to myself, a diet of Aristotle and Neruda for my eight-year old – how cool is that?

Cool though it may be, does it actually counterbalance the influence of the churchgoing and Bible-reading? Or does it operate on a parallel track from it altogether? Does Elijah juxtapose whatever he may be taking away from the philosophy and poetry with the stuff he hears at church? Does he consider one in relation to the other at all? Seeing his head buried in that Bible that morning really made me wonder if I was perhaps approaching the matter too sideways. Maybe I needed to tackle the situation head-on.

But how? Are there any children’s books, I wondered, that directly address religious questions from a humanistic point of view? Not necessarily an anti-Bible, but a strong alternative or counterpart in a secular key.

I called a friend of mine, who works for a humanist charity and is a parent too, feeling sure he would have some sage advice. His response surprised me. Not only did he not know of any good humanist children’s books, he said, he didn’t like the idea of such a thing. Rather than attempt to counter-indoctrinate kids with explicitly anti-religious messages, he argued, far better simply to expose them to the widest range of reading as possible – weren’t Roald Dahl and Dr Seuss essentially humanistic? – and expose them to the manifold religions and philosophies in the world in order to nourish their imaginations and sense of wonder about the Universe, and help them view religion in a comparative context. The antidote I was seeking, he suggested, was to be found in books of evolution and science fiction, not didactic manifestos.

Sounded wise, though I didn’t expect to hear it from a full-time, professional humanist. And I was disappointed that he didn’t have a ready-made list of books of the sort I had in mind.

The dilemma remained: what if all the science and fantasy and comparative metaphysics fail to do the trick, and Christian literalism, despite my efforts, works its magic on my children’s minds? Call me intolerant, but I’ll admit it: I don’t want to tell my children what to believe or not to believe, but I would be displeased and disappointed if they were to embrace conventional religious views. I just would be. Isn’t there a more direct way, I thought, to militate against that outcome?

I turned to Amazon and found that there are several books in this register. Many of them are published by Prometheus Books, an American press with a long history. Within minutes I had found books such as Humanism, What’s That? A Book for Curious Kids by Helen Bennett and Dan Barker’s Maybe Yes, Maybe No: A Guide for Young Skeptics. I particularly liked the title of this one. Could I have found what I was looking for?

I had liked the idea about exposing the kids to the array of religious traditions. Wouldn’t this naturally tend to weaken the notion that any one religion holds the key to Truth? Another friend of mine had challenged this idea – wouldn’t this, he asked, merely sanction or naturalise the religious frame of understanding the world? Isn’t the message, in effect, "Look at these various religious beliefs and practices – you are free to pick among them"? "What about the millions of people who live without religion?" he asked. "Why not present secular modes of thought alongside the religious traditions?"

He had a point, but since I was already getting some explicitly secular books I added The Kids Book of World Religions to my shopping cart.

Well, we’ve read the books, but I’m afraid there’s nothing terribly interesting to report either about the texts as such or about my children’s reactions to them, which have been rather quiet, if not altogether bored – tough to tell, and I’m strongly disinclined to go fishing for their thoughts. I’ve been tempted, but better, I think, to let them process it all in their own way (assuming the books made an impression at all). The books themselves are a mixed bag: at turns poignant and clunky, clever and awkward. I might re-read them with the boys at some point. Or maybe they’ll pick them up themselves and read them on their own. We’ll see.

And I might look for other humanist books that engage my children more than this first batch did. Raising my children as a secular father in a society saturated with religion, and in a home that is itself mixed (up?) on the religious question, creates anxiety. But maybe I should just relax. "Kids mostly just want to play with their friends, and religion isn’t that big a deal – though it is, unfortunately, to parents," writes Emily Rosa, one of the contributors to the book Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion, in an essay evocatively titled "Growing Up Godless: How I Survived Amateur Secular Parenting".

All parents must confront the prospect that if we raise our children to be free, self-confident individuals, they may make choices that we don’t like. Tough. The companion volume to Parenting Beyond Belief bears the title Raising Freethinkers. Sounds appealing – I’d like to raise freethinkers. But what if raising my kids to be truly free in their thinking results in their becoming religious? What if my efforts to instill scepticism in them lead them to become sceptical of my humanism? So be it.

"Teaching" your children (about) humanism can be a fool’s errand, plagued by some the same pitfalls involved in raising children "in" a particular faith tradition. Richard Dawkins has provocatively argued that indoctrinating children with religion is a form of child abuse. But couldn’t secularism, as Jeremy Stangroom recently wondered, constitute its own form of indoctrination? Might the attempt to impart one worldview or another to one’s children – whether religious or secular – itself be ill-conceived?

And yet one doesn’t want to be passive, especially in the American context, in which religion in one form or another constitutes a kind of default position. One can certainly understand the impulse behind the humanism-for-kids books, whatever their faults and limitations, and the desire of secular parents to get their hands on them. They arise from and speak to a very real hunger, whether they satisfy it or not.

Adam and Eve ban



  1. Absolutely, we should all get dogs. And it’s also not a bad idea to remember that there is a lot more to religion than beliefs, world views and even ethics – it is also a matter of personal and family identity and of marking the rhythms of time (holidays – which are not always ‘about’ what they’re said to be about) and the rituals of joy and mourning and ways to be reminded now and again about the illogical and the immaterial and the power of dreams – and nightmares as well. And on my favorite holiday of the year, Sweeping Generalization Day, I can explain how humanism is a variety of Protestantism anyway, so — may as well enjoy the kugel and the ghee…. and pet your dog.

  2. I have, and always will see a difference between humanists and secular humanists. I am a secular humanist, but know a good number of people who are committed as much as I am to the cause of “humanity”, and can therefore be considered humanists. I also know a good number of people who disagree with me. But, well, I just don’t really care. :)

    As for how to teach my children religion properly… the question needs to be answered first, what is it about religion you want to teach your children? Do you want them to teach about Christianity and make sure they become good Christians? Or do you truly want them to be able to choose their path, and accept that Buddhism, Islam, or atheism will be their choice? In that case it would be your job to teach religion as if you were an outsider looking in. You cannot teach your religion as the ultimate one and expect them not to be influenced in their decision making. If you tell them that the Christian god actually does exist versus Buddha or Allah (of course Buddha is not really a god to begin with), then you have influenced them into a certain direction. YOU believe that others don’t exist… Hey, wait, does that make you an atheist? ;-)

    To finish this off… I grew up in Germany and took religious education in school, all the way through highschool. I read the Bible forward and back, know all the prayers, know the difference between Catholicism and Evangelism, and have over the years researched other religions as well. I have ended up the way I was born… a human being without any sort of religious belief. My children will learn about religion, all religions, and I’m hoping to send them to church with one of my friends, so they can experience the community of it. I also teach a Sunday School for secular families (read my article in the Humanist of June 09), and I am truly curious where the journey will lead my children.

    Nice reading you.

  3. Thank you for a good read and interesting, thought-provoking dialog. Having been raised in a very strict, religious family (Mennonite) and having changed into this no religion, highly spiritual being that I am, I share my thoughts.

    Because of my very strict upbringing and the mental pain it put me through as a young adult, when I had my children I vowed to not force religion upon them. oh sure, they went to various bible schools and a few Sunday schools ‘to give them exposure to ‘religiion’ as they grew up but nothing structured.

    Looking back in some ways I would change the way I handled this. I think they missed out on the ‘community’ of church, the closeness of family ties in this environment and learning about at least one religion. They have no basis for comparison and now IF they are going to delve into religious pathways where do they start?

    For most of them, they will never know one way or another. Have I done the right thing for them? I, at least, had a measure of understanding about religion and chose my path based on what I learned earlier in life. My children do not have this basic knowledge.

    Sure, they know of my deep spiritual beliefs and they have seen the way I live my life based on ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ In the ‘forest’ is my church, this includes in the flowers, the animals, the seasons of time and of one’s life. Hope, Charity and Peace in my heart and soul , belief in a higher power and helping achieve world peace is my religion. If I have taught them this, then perhaps it is as it should be?

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