My Kid is Ignorant — Isn’t That Hilarious?

By Wendy Thomas Russell | May 7, 2012 | 10 comments

After I wrote my blog last week about cute conversations nonreligous parents have with their kids, a reader sent me a link to a post on the Friendly Atheist website about actress Julia Sweeney. Run by a guy named Hermant Mehta, the Friendly Atheist is a great site — mostly because of its Ask Richard segment — but isn’t always very “friendly,” if you ask me.

The post told of a recent experience Sweeney (Letting Go of God) had while introducing her 9-year-old daughter, Mulan, to the movie Jesus Christ Superstar.

Sweeney wrote:

I thought maybe it was a good way for her to learn about Jesus. HA. She was so bewildered. I realized that since she hasn’t been inculcated with religious behaviors, everything just seems weird to her. Things I would have never had the naive open-mindedness to even ask. For example, at one point she asked me, “Why do those sick people want to touch Jesus?” I said, “Because they think he’s magic and can heal them.” Mulan said, “Why would anyone think that?” Me: “Because they didn’t have very much scientific information.” Mulan: “That’s crazy.” Then I had to stop the film and tell her that lots of people in the world still believe things like that.

Later she asked, “Why are all those women putting oil on Jesus’ head, and sort of leaning on him like that?” I said, “Well, one — Mary Magdalene, is like Jesus’ girlfriend. The other women — well, when you’re a cult leader, or actually this can be true of any very high status man — women fawn all over you.” “Creepy.” Mulan said. Then she fell asleep and I didn’t wake her up.

Is it just me, or does Sweeney seem to be bragging about her kid’s religious ignorance?

I know I’m biased, but I just don’t get it. What about this story is interesting or funny? Would it interest you to know that my daughter doesn’t know how to do the laundry because I haven’t taught her? Would you write about how funny it is that your 4-year-old son has no idea how babies are born? There are elements of surprise and humor in a great many of the stories parents tell. But ignorance alone just doesn’t cut it. And it’s not just Sweeney; more and more parents these days voice a certain pride when their children reach a certain age and still haven’t heard religious concepts.

So, yeah, in the end, I wasn’t impressed with Sweeney’s story. But it was Mehta’s comment that threw me over the edge.

When summarizing his post on Sweeney, Mehta asked his (many) readers:

“Have any of you had similar teaching experiences with your children?”

No, wait, I’m sorry, did he just say teaching experiences?

As in, learning?

Dude, since when does showing a 9-year-old child Jesus Christ Superstar — a terribly funny but outlandish, outdated comic musical — pass off as teaching? Especially when, like Sweeney, all you do is pause the show to say: “And you know what, kid? People ACTUALLY BELIEVE this stuff! Hahahahaha! Isn’t that hilarious?”

Like I said, it’s not that I don’t think these sorts of conversations can be funny — obviously I do! — or that I don’t recognize that the fantastical elements of religion are going to seem downright wackadoo to any non-indoctrinated child. I just don’t think it should be a point of pride when your kid dismisses religion as crazy because you’ve presented it as crazy. Maybe it’s the arrogance of it all? The indoctrination factor? I don’t know. But it’s very off-putting to me — especially when it comes from atheists I admire, and who are in a position to influence others. And, dammit, if Sweeney didn’t miss a golden opportunity.

I guess it comes down to this: Conferring with your very young children about how dumb religious beliefs can seem isn’t nearly as funny as some people think. And I certainly don’t think it’s anything to brag about.

Then again, I wouldn’t be writing this book if I did.


10 comments

  1. Karen Loe says:

    You know, I have an idea. Instead of teaching her by focusing on the Christian stories, why not step away from “teaching” and simply experience mythology in a fun way. Go to the library children’s section. Bring home a stack of mythology, folklore, Anansi books, and the like. Read them all. Talk about how most of those mythologies were created in these stories to explain what the people then didn’t understand (like weather, good crops, life and death, where did people come from).
    You will read about the ant people, Ganesh, constelation stories, Noah, witches, fairies, fire gods, gods of the mountain, etc… All kinds of mythologies, once believed as fact.
    Enjoy the funny stories, maybe even make up some of your own.
    No need to push the lesson…she will get it!
    She will get it that now that we have science and a better understanding of how our world works, we no longer need cute stories to explain things.

    No pushing, no stress for you, and lots of fodder for future conversations!

    Peace

  2. Rich Wilson says:

    I think everyone (probably including Hemant) is getting the direction of the teaching moment backwards. As much as I know religious stories are silly, it’s still a huge eye opener when I see my son’s reaction to them- and that’s when he’s getting the religious version, not my “that’s batshit” interpretation. And no, it’s not funny. On at least one occasion I’d describe it as sad.

    • Weird and silly and sad and scary, all rolled into one! I’ll never forget trying to tell my daughter the story of Esther — a very tame version, as I recall. As soon as I got to the part about the gallows, she pulled her knees up to her chest and said: “I don’t want to hear anymore. I don’t want to hear anymore.” End of lesson. Thanks again, Rich, and I want to extend a personal apology to you for not getting a picture of Isabella Bird into this post.

  3. Hemant says:

    Hi, Wendy — This is Hemant from Friendly Atheist. Thanks for the response. If I made a mistake in my phrasing, you’re right to call me out on it. I didn’t mean to imply that watching the movie was a proper substitute for religious education (and I don’t think Sweeney meant that either). I firmly believe that children raised by atheists ought to be well-versed in what religious people believe. I didn’t see this anecdote as bragging about ignorance — it was more like the child wasn’t old enough yet to have informative discussions about religion, so this was one of her first actual exposures to what Christians believe and obviously she didn’t know what to make of it.

    Anyway, hope that makes sense!

    • Thanks, Hemant. Appreciate your input very much. I just think it’s unfortunate that this very popular voice in mainstream atheism would wait until her child was 9 years old (practically ancient!) to discuss Christianity for the first time, and then use a cheesy movie to do it. If we don’t offer respect and tolerance to others, how can we expect the same in return?

  4. Jennifer Hancock says:

    All I have to say is I agree. Yeah, it’s kind of cute when they question the stuff that doesn’t make sense, but our job as parents isn’t to tell them what to think. It’s to help them to be educated so they can make an informed decision for themselves. Keep up the good work.

  5. Angela says:

    I agree that by 9 years old a child should have some idea of what others believe and that Jesus Christ Superstar isn’t really a teaching tool. However, while I disagree with the condescending tone of Sweeney’s post, I do think that sometimes the experience of raising a child without indoctrinating them with religion can yield surprising results that seem humorous at the time. For example, the time I caught my five-year-old putting his Mario Bros. figurines in the nativity scene or the time he asked me why “that family” was all over town (the Nativity scene again) or when he asked me to explain Easter and I could not make the resurrection sound even halfway reasonable to him. However, though these things struck me as humorous at the time, I was careful to explain that although I don’t believe in them, lots of people do and that it isn’t something to laugh at. I do not want to raise my children with the idea that it is okay to disrespect cultural or religious beliefs, no matter how silly I find them personally. And, to the greatest extent possible, I want my children to choose their own beliefs or non-beliefs without my imposing them either directly or indirectly. Education, not ridicule, is the way.

    • “That family” made me laugh out loud. See, this is what I’m on about! There are so many truly funny things children say by way of understanding religion that our standards for what passes as funny and cute and pride-worthy might need to be higher than what they are. As for everything else here: well said.

  6. Angela says:

    I agree that by 9 years old a child should have some idea of what others believe and that Jesus Christ Superstar isn’t really a teaching tool. However, while I disagree with the condescending tone of Sweeney’s post, I do think that sometimes the experience of raising a child without indoctrinating them with religion can yield surprising results that seem humorous at the time. For example, the time I caught my five-year-old putting his Mario Bros. figurines in the nativity scene or the time he asked me why “that family” was all over town (the Nativity scene again) or when he asked me to explain Easter and I could not make the resurrection sound even halfway reasonable to him. However, though these things struck me as humorous at the time, I was careful to explain that although I don’t believe in them, lots of people do and that it isn’t something to laugh at. I do not want to raise my children with the idea that it is okay to disrespect cultural or religious beliefs, no matter how silly I find them personally. And, to the greatest extent possible, I want my children to choose their own beliefs or non-beliefs without my imposing them either directly or indirectly. Education, not ridicule, is the way.

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