Ask a modern mother to explain to her child how babies are born, and she won’t flinch before launching into a cheek-reddening description of penises and vaginas. But ask her to address religion, and she might just end up at the nearest pharmacy refilling her Xanax prescription.
There was a time when S-E-X was the topic parents dreaded the most; today, for many, it’s G-O-D.
An estimated 60 million Americans, or 20 percent of the population, describe themselves as nonreligious. And for secular parents, particularly those who consider themselves atheist or agnostic, religion can be a fearsome topic — and one they may take pains to avoid for as long as they can. It’s understandable.
Religion offers so many opportunities for nonbelievers to get things wrong. Parents may not feel they have enough knowledge about religion, or feel they aren’t clear enough on their own beliefs to talk about them candidly with a child. After all, no parent wants to mislead or confuse children, or put them in a position to be teased or ostracized. Some nonbelievers worry that they’ll say something offensive about religion that will later be repeated by their children in the wrong company. Others worry that by saying the word “God” out loud, belief will somehow rub off on their offspring like a permanent marker — difficult to remove without some serious scrubbing and a lot of tears.
But children are curious little creatures. Kids who’ve not been introduced to religion pass by places of worship and wonder “What’s that building?” When a friend at school says, “God made me,” they want to know who this God person is. These children have no frame of reference when they hear the terms “Adam and Eve” or “Noah’s Ark,” or see crosses hanging in car windows or groups of people bowing their heads in prayer. They aren’t sure why their friends seem to have been given a set of facts that they haven’t.
Ignoring religion, or dismissing God as a myth, just doesn’t cut it. Whether you believe in a higher power or not, religion is and probably always will be a powerful, global cultural phenomenon — and our kids need a framework by which to understand it. Moreover, experts say, children who are not introduced properly to religion are, rather ironically, more susceptible to fundamentalist teachings down the road.
Relax, It’s Just God: How and Why to Talk to Your Kids About Religion When You’re Not Religious (Brown Paper Press, 2015) is a new book that aims to help nonreligious parents struggling to find the right time place, tone and language with which to talk about God. It encourages parents to promote religious curiosity, communication and diversity by lightening up and opening up about religion with their kids. By supporting our kids as they explore religion on their own, we ensure that they make up their own minds about what to believe, or not believe — and that they extend love and respect to those who may not agree with them.