10 Commandments for Talking to Kids About Religion

By Wendy Thomas Russell | November 21, 2011 | 19 comments

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: When you’re not religious, talking about religion with kids can be a serious challenge. The words don’t come naturally. Little things can freak you out. And, about the time your kids learn to ask questions, you begin to notice how much of our society is informed by religious faith, and how many people around us believe things we don’t. Panic has a way of setting in.

Hopefully, you aren’t like me. Hopefully you’re less anxiety-prone, more level-headed. Good for you. But, for the rest of you: It’s going to be fine. Stay focused. As the Brits say, “Keep Calm and Carry On.” Kids will remember your attitude more than your words. Act like talking about religion is no big deal, and very soon talking about religion will be no big deal.

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 you kids one cool thing about the real world. Evolution, the stars and planets, you name it. Atheist scientist Richard Dawkins’ book, “The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True,” is a great new resource. 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 a 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 believing in a higher power

Faith in a higher power 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, nonjudgemental 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.” (This is a great tip for parents in mixed-religion marriages, as well.) 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 dick

Putting the word “dick” into the adultery commandment is probably not the most PC thing ever — which is ironic because this commandment sort of embraces political correctness. Here’s the thing: When it comes to religion, most humans believe their way is the best way, the right way. And for non-theists, who have science on their side, their conviction may be all the stronger. 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 everything you know about religion. 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 good and happy adults. Or is it?

9. Don’t lie about your own beliefs

Everyone has the right to to their 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.


19 comments

  1. Jodie says:

    I am so glad that I found this website. Curious when you think is an appropriate age to start teaching kids about different religions?

    • Hi Jodie! I’m so glad, too! You are raising an excellent question, but the answer is a bit complicated. It depends a bit on the personality of the child, his/her interest level, and the type of information you’re looking to share. But the easy answer is: Right now. (Caveat: Aside from holiday stories, though, I’d save any real talks about the existence of God until 4 or 5.) How old is your child?

  2. Sarah says:

    I’m so glad I started looking for secular parenting blogs!! I feel so much better seeing other people’s concerns and reading other people’s thoughts. Thank you! I have to say, for the sake of being able to write it to someone (yea!) that I don’t know about number 7 and 8. Granted, I am new to all of this and I am still fresh in my feelings of not believing, but I am actually not okay with my son becoming a believer. Honestly, I would consider having him committed if he believed that the tooth fairy was real…so why would I be okay with him thinking that a man was born of a virgin and then died on the cross as the ultimate sacrifice to save us all from sin? I mean, a belief in the tooth fairy doesn’t usually result in also believing that people who do not believe in the tooth fairy are going to burn for all eternity, so it might be an improvement. If I, as a parent, have come to the conclusion that the Bible is full of immorality and made up stories, why would I be okay with my child accepting the Bible literally? I can’t say that I would be alright with it. I didn’t walk away from Christianity easily. I struggled for more than a decade with making that choice. I couldn’t have done it if I had any doubt that it could be beneficial to my child to be raised with the same faith I was taught. Much like my mother is now devastated that two of her children are skeptics, I would be pretty devastated if my son became religious. I understand my mom’s feelings…if she wasn’t upset, to me, it would mean something about her belief. If you really believe what she has stated that she believes as a Catholic Christian, she really has to think that I’m going to hell. I get that and I respect it. I’d feel the same way…does that make any sense?

    • Hi Sarah! I’m so glad you found my blog! Thrilled to have you. I’m really interested in hearing your views on my list — I assure you, you’re not alone in your discomfort with a few of those commandments. People who have had negative experiences with religion, or have turned away from it, are more likely to object to my (as Derek says below) “rather more conciliatory” attitude. It’s understandable. There’s a delicate balance to be had, but it’s often hard to discuss in a “general” way. Sometimes, when we talk in specifics, we find we’re all on the same page after all.

      • Sarah says:

        Wendy, I was thinking about number 7 and I was realizing I abide by that “commandment” all the time without even realizing it. Recently, my aunt and I arrived at the hospital about ten minutes after my grandfather died (he was with my mother at the time). At that time, I had already come to the conclusion that I was a skeptic. But I still started the Our Father. Of course I would never say anything negative about religion in that context, but, without even thinking, I turned towards what I knew would bring them some comfort. It was not the time to get up on my soapbox…and I want my kids to know that they can choose to discuss religion or to just let it go. They don’t have to discuss their feelings about it to remain “honest” about their beliefs. I’m always pretty gentle when I talk to my mom or aunt about my changing feelings about the supernatural/God. And I respect my husband’s decision not to discuss it at all with his parents. In fact, I might just choose the non-confrontational path too frequently when it comes to religion. I know I CAN, in theory, respect the people without respecting everything they believe, but in practice religion is soo deeply personal to believers that its hard, if not impossible, to separate their beliefs from their identity. When I think about it that way, its kind of depressing because it makes me think that we can never discuss our (mine and my husband’s) feelings with my in-laws without it turning into a blow out fight.

        • “I know I CAN, in theory, respect the people without respecting everything they believe, but in practice religion is soo deeply personal to believers that its hard, if not impossible, to separate their beliefs from their identity.”

          Yes! I find this to be true as well, at least much of the time. I’ve been obsessed lately with figuring out what we really mean when we use the word “respect,” and how we can separate belief from identity without playing word games and/or employing some sort of cognitive dissonance.

          Love this post, Sarah. Thank you.

          • Keith says:

            Hi. I found this article as a result of a great piece in the current issue of Pyschology Today.

            I’ll confess right now (isn’t that an ironic turn of phrase) that, with apologies to the Monkees, I’m a believer. But that doesn’t mean that I’m a snarky, obnoxious one who believes that all of you non-believers or not-sure-about-believers are going to burn in Hell. It bothers me when all Christians are tarred with the same brush probably as much as it bothers you when all atheists and agnostics are similarly tarred.

            I’m a nice, rational, logical, scientific person who just happens to believe that there may just be room in the universe for the existence of God…especially after reading a bit of theoretical and quantum physics. After all, the simultaneous statistical certainty and individual UNcertainty of quantum seems to me to be the place where “miracles” can occur, and where God can operate without violating the laws of the universe as we understand them.

            But I’m not trying to convince you of anything here. To me it’s as simple as some people’s brains are just wired a certain way. Some people are color-blind and others have synaethesia, and it is arrogance of the most DOGMATIC kind for each group to insist that what they experience is what others should.

            Garrison Keillor once said that there are only Lutheran Atheists in Lake Wobegon, because that’s the variety of belief that they’re rebelling against. It bothers me that we’re more adept at shopping for mp3 players than at looking at religion. If we have a bad experience in one congregation or denomination, we assume that all of Christianity is like that, and then toss the whole thing, never discovering that there are varieties of it that AREN’T judgmental and that see on conflict with science.

            Now, having said all that, let me say once again, explicitly, that I have no problems with atheists and agnostics. I figure that if God hasn’t made the POSSIBILITY of his existence clear enough to them, that’s a failure on HIS part, and not something to blame them for…especially since HE wired them that way. But having said that, I remain a believer, albeit one with a lot of questions.

          • Thanks so much for writing, Keith! You’re definitely speaking my language. I’ve often said that I have more in common with progressive believers than I do with extreme atheists, and I can tell the same is true for you in the reverse. It’s so interesting that you use the color-blind analogy; I likened faith to eyesight in a blog a few months ago. (http://wendythomasrussell.com/true-religion-is-in-the-eye-of-the-beholder). Thanks again, and I’m glad to hear the article turned out well. I haven’t had a chance to see it yet.

        • Keith says:

          It’s funny, because while I’ve known about color-blindness for years, I didn’t know about synaesthesia (seeing color for sounds and numbers) until my daughter self-diagnosed herself with it recently. So now, to me THOSE are the two opposite ends of the (pun not intended) spectrum, not color-blindness and “regular vision.”

          To be sure, there are many things I question about my religion, but I hang on tenaciously, figuring that there must be an answer somewhere, echoing the words of Jacob as he wrestled with the angel, saying “I will not let go until you bless me.” I figure that if I just walk away from this wrestling match, I’ll miss getting the answers I’ve been looking for. But I said it much better in this old sermon from 2001:

          http://www.gatling.us/keith/sermons/011021-Wrestlemania.pdf

          And since you mentioned belief in your “Eye of the Beholder” entry, I’ll point you to my own blog entry on belief:

          http://wordfromg.blogspot.com/2009/08/most-important-english-lesson.html
          And by the way…I’m gonna start reading your stuff on a regular basis!

          • Thanks again, Keith!

            Love this:

            Mr Delaney taught us the difference between belief and knowledge, and that since it’s not first-hand knowledge, belief by definition has to imply some room for doubt. He taught me that when I say that I believe something, I’m also admitting the possibility that I could be wrong. He said that when we believe something, we don’t know that it’s true, but we’re willing to act as if it is until we get convincing evidence to the contrary.

  3. Derek says:

    It’s me again. Thanks for the kind words, I’ll try not to disappoint.

    I’ve continued to think about this issue. You are rather more conciliatory towards, and accepting of, religion than I am. You’ve said that religion is only as bad as the people who wield it. While I agree that people are the ultimate problem I think there is another dimension to this.

    Religion inevitably colors people’s decisions on a wide range of topics. If those decisions are based on a fundamental misunderstanding of reality (and religion is such a misunderstanding) they’re more likely to be poor decisions, incorrect decisions.

    We can come up with a ton of examples from the cliche of the salem witch trials to the teaching of abstinence-only sex education. Some examples will be obvious and clearcut others will be more subtle. In the end though bad premises lead to bad decisions and bad decisions are harmful. For this reason I disagree with you that there is nothing inherently wrong with religion.

    Science is a search for empiracle, testable, demonstrable truth. A striving to replace ignorance and superstition with as accurate and true an understanding of the universe as we can achieve. As such I think science and religion are diametrically opposed despite attempts by the religious to reconcile them.

    Once more I must make clear that this should not be considered carte blanche to be abusive towards those with religious views. Being respectful of people is important. However misinformation and untruth should not be respected.

    Derek

    • Hey Derek! Welcome back. I definitely hear you, loud and clear. It’s part of the reason I love having this blog is that I can work all these things out before I publish the book. At the very least, I need to understand how people feel and while they feel that way. And, luckily, I have the ability to change my own opinions at any time. (My 10 Commandments aren’t set in stone.)

      I do think it might be pertinent to mention that knowledge and science also lead to some pretty terrible things. The atomic bomb is a great example, and one Neil DeGrasse Tyson has talked about. Is it a bad thing that Einstein discovered the science behind something so terrible? Tyson would say no. I know it’s not the same thing, but it’s similar. I think one could argue that some positive things have come from religion in addition to, you know, all the bad stuff.

      • Derek says:

        Oh absolutely on the “my commandments are not set in stone”. That’s such an important thing.

        I also agree that correct data can lead to bad outcomes and bad data can lead to good outcomes. On balance however my contention is that good data is more likely to lead to positive outcomes while bad data is more likely to lead to negative ones.

  4. Penguin Pete says:

    Thank you! That was a very well-presented, thoughtful post. In retrospect, I have followed this list more or less anyway. I could of course debate #4 until the cows come home – I am very convinced that there *is* something inherently wrong with a brain which wants to conjure unseen supernatural beings, be they all-powerful or not. But that’s just me.

    • Thanks so much for the feedback! It’s a funny thing about that #4. Lots of people getting hung up on that one. I do think it may come down to how you define religion. I certainly agree that there are lots of thing inherently wrong in certain religious sects. I think I may need to parse this one out better.

  5. Michael McQueen says:

    Great post Wendy.

  6. Eileen says:

    Well done! I’m UU, and my kiddo is attending a Catholic preschool. I sometimes feel shocked at what my little one has learned. She told me the other day Jesus saved us. I asked her from what, she didn’t know. I told her what I believe, and she challenged me with, “But he was a good man, right?” I suppose that was my wake-up – my “dick” moment. I will relax. Thanks for reminding me about tolerance from all angles – especially my own.

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Due out in March 2015, Relax, It's Just God: How and Why to Talk to Your Kids About Religion When You're Not Religious offers a well-researched look at a timely subject: secular parenting. With chapters on avoiding indoctrination, talking about death, vaccinating kids against intolerance, dealing with religious baggage, and getting along with religious relatives, the book offers a refreshingly compassionate approach to raising religiously literate, highly tolerant and critically thinking children capable of making up their own minds about what to believe. The book may be pre-ordered by visiting Brown Paper Press.
 

      Natural Wonderers is a new blog hosted by Wendy Thomas Russell and published by the Patheos faith network. An extension of Russell's previous blog — Relax, It's Just God — Natural Wonderers offers stories and advice on raising curious, compassionate children in secular families.
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