Kooky Religions 101

By Wendy Thomas Russell | August 29, 2013 | 9 comments

Relax, It's Just a TypewriterI remember putting my kid in Kindergarten for the first time and wondering when religion would come up for the first time among her newfound peers. It was possible that she’d be the only child in her class being raised in a decidedly secular household. I wondered if that would make her feel alone or left out.

Then I met Courtney.

Courtney, a girl in Maxine’s classroom whose name is not really Courtney, was being raised in a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses. She didn’t come to school on Halloween. She didn’t celebrate her birthday. She wasn’t allowed to say the Pledge of Allegiance.

After Courtney entered the picture, I immediately relaxed. Because no matter how left out Maxine might feel about her family’s non-belief, Courtney was always going to feel 100 times more left out — thanks to the hierarchy of stigmatization.

In the few years since then I’ve heard whisperings on the playground about Courtney. Not by kids, mind you — I don’t think they care yet — but by parents. “What’s the harm in letting her participate in the Halloween parade?” a few asked. “That’s so sad that she doesn’t get birthday parties!” others lamented. I admit, I whispered a bit, too.

Which is partly why, beginning in September, I’ve decided to run a mini-series about kooky, eccentric or otherwise unconventional belief systems — specifically those that American kids are likely run up against at some point during their lives. The tone will be neutral-ish (hey, that’s the best I can do, people), and the purpose will be simple: to arm nonreligious parents with some basic facts about minority religions and the people who practice them.

My hope is that parents will pass a bit of that knowledge onto their kids if and when appropriate.

It’s one thing to think certain religious beliefs are weird, wrong or harmful. But when we subtly (or not-so-subtly) pass on these judgements to our children, their religious peers suffer. They feel different. They feel outcast. And it’s sad for our kids, too, because each of those religious children holds the potential to be a pretty great friend.

Now re-read the above paragraph and substitute non-religious for religious. Because all too often, it’s our kids who are in the victim’s seat.

The Golden Rule: Do unto others what you would have them do unto you. I don’t want people to judge me based exclusively on the fact that I don’t belong to a religious group, so I ought not judge others on the fact that they do.

It’s hard, I know. Some of the behavior within these religious groups is dumb-dumb-dumb-dumb-dumb. But let’s face it, all religions have some wackadoo in them. And this blog isn’t (usually) about affirming the vast amount of stupidity in our society (We have The Onion for that!), but about teaching our kids to be tolerant and compassionate toward people who are different from them.

The first is easy; the second requires some effort.

So you have a week to suggest specific sects to be represented in the series. Jehovah’s Witnesses are a gimme, but who else would you like to see? Mormonism? The Hare Krishna movement? Kabbalah?

And just FYI, Scientology will not be on the list; no cults will be on the list. But I will write a bit soon about differentiating for kids between religions and cults. Deal?


  1. Amber says:

    I would love to hear more about the Mennonites. We have all heard of the Amish & Mennonites but know very little about them. I moved to “da woods” of the upper peninsula of Michigan & was shocked to see so many Mennonites up here. And, u know, I love to invite the Jehovah Witnesses in every chance I get to philosophize with them but they still haven’t taught me the main differences in their religion to other christian ones. Thanks so much for posting such a great, diversified blog :) I have a 6 year old & I know the religion “talk” is coming soon. I will embrace it but, I am not gonna lie, it is going to be a task.

  2. How about the Rastafarians?


  3. Nancy Thomas says:

    Well, depending on your point of view, most religions have a kooky point or two, or three.. even the so-called mainline ones. You might want to be more inclusive in your approach… and you’ll have enough material for months and months.

    Just sayin’ ….

    • Leave it to my mom to give me a hard time! Ha! … Point taken, but I’m looking particularly for religions that are common enough kids might run into them at some point during their lives, yet rare enough that children are likely to know very little about them. And since I don’t think anyone wants this to be an 8-month-long series, so I’m going to have to pare it back at some point!

  4. Chris says:

    > I don’t want people to judge me based exclusively
    > on the fact that I don’t belong to a religious
    > group, so I ought not judge others on the fact
    > that they do.

    I totally get what you’re saying, but something about the issue of burden of proof still gives me pause. I dunno. But, on to the real purpose of this comment…

    Yes to all the ones you mentioned, and the other commenters. If I may, I would also like to add Jews for Jesus, Christian Scientists, Quakers, Mennonites, and Amish (and especially a compare/contrast of the latter two). I know I could look them all up on Wikipedia, but you do such a great job distilling all this stuff for us, I’m happy to continue to leave it to you, Wendy, for as long as you’re willing. Thanks! :-)

  5. Maryellen says:

    This is awesome! I can’t wait to read them. We have some kids’ “What People Believe” books (eyewitness series) that includes atheists in them. That really excited my son, “Mommy! We’re in here!” It may be my imagination but I would swear that book was biased to Atheism: “And now what the SMART people believe:” ha!

  6. Kimberly says:


    Unitarian Universalists (I am one!)? I don’t think they are kooky of course, but I have met so many people who have never even heard of UU’s.


    Seventh-day Adventist?

    Just trying to think of groups that I heard about, but had absolutely NO knowledge of when I was a kid.

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Relax, It’s Just God

A Blog for Secular Parents
For parents who aren’t religious, the task of talking to children about religion can be daunting. So daunting, in fact, that the entire subject often gets glossed over or ignored completely. Relax, It’s Just God is a blog (and soon a book) intended to help parents break their silence without breaking a sweat.
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