A new book for secular parents: how to tell your kids about God and religion

August 12, 2015 • 12:30 pm

This book, which came out in March, may be useful for secular parents. It’s by author and journalist Wendy Thomas Russell, and called  Relax, It’s Just God: How and Why to Talk To Your KidsWhen You’re Not ReligiousIf you click on the secreenshot below, you’ll go to an interview on PBS between Russell and Jeffrey Brown:

Screen Shot 2015-08-12 at 10.47.29 AM

Thomas’s description sounds reasonable, but also a tad accommodationist, and I am a torn about the interview. On one hand, I don’t think kids should be indoctrinated with any belief, whether that be atheism or religion. Russell does seem to agree, urging parents to explain to their kids what different people believe in a neutral way.

On the other hand, she doesn’t discuss, at least here, any evidential basis behind those disparate beliefs. She says, correctly, that what people actually do matters more than what they believe, but she also emphasizes teaching kids critical thinking. That, then, neglects both emphasizing critical thinking in assessing different worldviews, as well as the role of religion in conditioning people’s behavior: “Mommy, why do so many people hate gays?”

Has anybody read this? Curiously, the book ranks pretty high on Amazon, both in terms of ranking and customer reviews, but there are extraordinarily few of the latter.

h/t: Karl

47 thoughts on “A new book for secular parents: how to tell your kids about God and religion

  1. “…explain to their kids what different people believe in a neutral way.”

    I don’t go along with her here. There are plenty of bat-shit crazy religious ideas and unless saying “that’s bat-shit crazy” is a “neutral way”, I say no. Honesty is a much better strategy.

    1. Small kids will often substitute parental authority for thinking. If you tell them 8+5=13, they won’t think about it or learn math, they’ll just memorize it and move on. To get them to think and learn, sometimes you have to let them figure it out for themselves…even if you know there is one right answer, and even if they get it wrong a few times.

      In this respect, learning to use your brain isn’t that much different from learning fine motor skills. The five year old who watches his parent hit home runs with perfect form is going to get their butt kicked in baseball by five year old who spent the same amount of time swinging the bat themselves, even if they missed 90% of the time during practice. Even if their form is crappy. When you tell your kid all the rational reasons why there is no God, you’re hitting home runs with perfect form…and they aren’t batting. Let them bat. In the short run they will have a crazy stance (crazy beliefs) and miss the ball a lot. But in the long run, they’ll be much better off for it.

      1. Teaching critical thinking from an early age is crucial as kids will also parrot their peers. Case in point, my daughter is in pre K and was evidently involved in a theological discussion with other 4 year olds. One child, from a religious family, was talking about how God made people and another child objected indicating that people are made of chemicals. My daughter’s take away from the discussion was that “God doesn’t make people”.

        Shortly after that we attended a family funeral where my daughter asked where the deceased had gone. She was told by family members that he was ” now in heaven and with God “. To which she would reply, much to the amusement of my wife and I, that “God doesn’t make people”, which is all she knows on the subject!

        Of course the family now probably thinks we are indoctrinating her despite our best efforts to teach critical thinking and allow her to arrive at her own conclusions.

        1. [i]You[/i] are indoctrinating her? That’s a good one.

          Anyway, thanks for making my already happy morning even happier. 🙂

        2. That’s a cool story – ‘made of chemicals’ is quite poetic. I don’t remember ever thinking about any of that when I was small(although I must have). It was mainly Transformers and Lego that held my attention.

  2. Have not read it, but applaud any effort encouraging parents to offer a broader view to their kids. It may be important to remember that most parents have not evolved from their youthful religious orientation.

    I was fortunate to have parents, social Methodists, who participated in the church community, but I don’t recall them ever being “religious.” Dad always said our church was a social enabler due to its charity work.

    My greatest memories were the Sunday night covered dish dinners where the women tried to outdo others with their best cooking, but then, I was a teen who loved to eat and don’t remember being full.

  3. Wendy interviewed me a few years ago while doing research for the book. As far as I know I’m not directly quoted or anything, but I’ve been reading her blog pretty regularly since.

    I’m embarrassed to admit that after promising her a review, I only made it about half way through ‘Relax’ before I got distracted by other books (including FvF). It’s not that it was bad- certainly not. She writes very well on this and other subjects. I guess for the most part talking to my son about God is something I’m already relaxed about.

    I think it’s safe to say she’s farther toward the accomodationist end than I am, but not by all that much.

  4. I find in general secular parenting books are accommodationist. They seem to come from the idea to teach children about all religions, science, and secularism as equally valid propositions and then let children make up their minds.

    Personally, I took the approach of only teaching my son what’s true, and explain religion as just stories with no basis in reality that bring comfort to some people.

    1. That was my attitude. Although we actually never talked about religion much with our kids there was never the flavor that “all are fine, pick one”. But I always just assumed that they were smart enough to figure out that they were all pretty much hokum if they weren’t indoctrinated with any of them by us. They got some exposure when they attended a Catholic school, but that just put them in the mind to argue against religion. I was greatly pleased when a teacher tried to “break it to us easy” that our son was not acting like a believer. One of my proud parental moments.

    2. Yikes. YMMV but that’s too close to just telling them the answer and getting them to accept it on my authority to me. We don’t say anything much about God or Jesus to our kid. We tell the stories but don’t editorialize. We also read lots of stories about gods and nature spirits. About Thor and anansi and Thomas and Odysseus vs. Polyphemus. We point out that ancient people used myths like “mountains are Ymir’s bones” to explain things they didn’t understand. How stories about anansi teach lessons about how laziness can lead to bad outcomes and thinking and being clever can lead to good ones (the Polyphemus stories teaches the importance of treating guests nicely…and not to be arrogant). We talk about how trains don’t really talk, sometimes people just make up stories for fun and enjoyment (and that that’s wonderful and cool). We talk about how the Greeks discovered mammoth skulls with the big giant hole in the middle and thought “hey, that must have come from a one-eyed giant person” because they didn’t know about mammoths…but you do my son, because I just took you to the museum yesterday and showed one to you.

      …and after all this, when my kid encounters people who talk about how Jesus rose from the dead, he naturally and entirely on his own figures out that this claim should be put in the “moral teaching story, myth and talking trains” category rather than the “fact” category.

      1. “YMMV but that’s too close to just telling them the answer and getting them to accept it on my authority to me.”

        You have to teach children how to think but you also have to teach them what is true.

        Why do you feel you need to teach so many supernatural tales rather than just saying how mountains work?

        I understand myths are beautiful and can have meaning besides truth but this can also be stated clearly.

        1. You have to teach children how to think but you also have to teach them what is true.

          I have taught the former enough that I don’t really have to teach the latter any more when it comes to myth and magic. You know, fishing vs. giving a fish.

          Why do you feel you need to teach so many supernatural tales rather than just saying how mountains work?

          I do teach him plate tectonics. And the stories are for fun as well as learning, because he loves them. Because one of the things we think is important (and have been fairly successful at) is instilling a love of myth, legend, and fiction even as he knows its fiction.

          I understand myths are beautiful and can have meaning besides truth but this can also be stated clearly.

          I no longer have to state that. How’s that handing-your-kid-the-fish going?

    3. I’m careful to separate teaching what people believe from “equally valid propositions”. Teaching what people believe is an anthropology lesson, not an endorsement or setting them equal. Teaching that people beleived the Earth was flat, or that the sun went around the Earth, isn’t to endorse them. Instead I explain why people beleived those things and why it was reasonable given the available evidence at the time.

      With religion, I think teaching what people actually believe, and even why, and even why that belief might have started from a reasonable proposition at the time, is actually telling the truth. It also leads to answers about why they belief is likely wrong, given what we now know. It gives them understanding without endorsing.

    4. I am 73 and a life long atheist, though attempted to be taught Methodist and Christian Church doctrine. I taught my son, 47 now, what I thought was true by my own reading and interpretation. I did not try to teach him what other christians believed strictly speaking. I did try to teach how to think critical and to demand evidence to back all his beliefs. I taught him about evolution and how it worked based on our current knowledge at the time. I send him links to a variety of articles on a number of issues over the years. He seems to read them and will comment sometimes. I really do not agree that we should just “teach them about all religions” and then let them make up their own minds. I believed in teaching the critical approach to religion as a learning method as how they should be approached!

  5. Kids deserve to be taught the probable truth – that both God and Santa Claus are “make-nelieve”, not real, and they don’t know you are sleeping, know when you’re awake, or know when you’ve been bad or good. The best evidence says they don’t exist.

  6. When our kids were little we would occassionally go to the Easter Mass, or some such special gathering (the wife having insisted), and we would chat with the kids about what it all supposedly meant. Our kids have asked many questions about god and why we do not go to church. These questions clearly would come up b/c we are not like the other families that they know, and naturally it has been a concern for them b/c they want to fit in.
    I explain that there are many different religions, and that people practice the religion in which they are raised. They learned early that religion is very important to other people since it gives them comfort and ties them to their family and community, but also that many people really believe that there is a god. But their mom is a closeted atheist (she will not admit it but she is) and i am an all-out atheist, and we do not believe in god of any kind. They know that if they want to believe in god then that is ok. We will try to help them explore that. These conversations often wander into evidence for evolution, evidence for the age of the earth, cosmology, and the big picture which is that we are unique, as far as we know, but that there are likely other intelligent beings out there somewhere.
    My kids are often invited by friends to go to church, or to some ‘youth carnival’ where they have climbing walls, paint ball wars, and prayer. I say ok, go if you want to go and have fun.
    I am raising 3 kids, and so far all 3 are somewhere between atheist and spiritual agnostic — whatever that means. If any of them wants to become more religious, then I am resolved to accept it.

    1. Please don’t be offended but in what sense would you be ok if they believe in god? You know it isn’t and they would be deluding themselves. Wouldn’t you be upset? Even a little? Wouldn’t you try to talk them out of it?

      1. I wouldn’t be particularly offended if my kid believed. I’m not particularly concerned about santa claus, the easter bunny, or the tooth fairy either.

        I’m teaching him to think critically. Eventually he’ll start applying those lessons to his own beliefs. Its hard for a little kid to do that for a belief he’s emotionally invested in, but he’ll get there. Doesn’t have to be today, any more than learning to ride a bike or subtract two digit numbers has to ‘take’ today. For little kids IMO its the habit of practice that matters, not the success rate.

        1. The phrase “my kid” is ambiguous. It makes a huge difference if we’re talking about a 3 year old, an 8 year old, or a 18 year old. My kids are 26 and 29. If they believed in the Easter Bunny I’d be pretty concerned.

          1. Mark started his post with “when our kids were little” so I answered Somite in terms of little kids. I very much doubt Mark was talking about 26-year-olds. But hey, if you think that’s what he was talking about, you can always ask him if he was.

            1. Unless I’m mistaken, this discussion is about kids in general and my point is that age matters. Your definition of “little” and mine may not be the same. And the nature of conversations with children can vary enormously depending on context. But hey, if you think that conversing with 3 year olds is the same as talking with 7 year olds…

              1. I agree age matters. But I have a hard time understanding how anyone could read either Mark’s post or my post and get “26 year old” out of it. Mark mentioned ‘youth carnival’ and I mentioned ‘little kid’ twice, as well as the easter bunny. But you’ve made me curious; after reading my post, what age do you think my kid is? 18? 26?

              2. Please, Eric. One obviously doesn’t get “26” directly out of it. But it takes something weirdly perverse to not recognize that an absurdly high number at the end of a range of numbers serves the purpose of pointing out that “kid” is ambiguous.

                I have no idea what age your kid is. Is that relevant? Is this conversation just about your kid? Is the experience of parents whose kids are now adults irrelevant? What is the magic number for “kid age” that your grievance centers on?

              3. “in their 40s and 50s … “

                Point taken. I’ll stop now. The Roolz are probably being stretched anyway.

        2. The phrase “my kid” is ambiguous. It makes a huge difference if we’re talking about a 3 year old, an 8 year old, or a 18 year old. My kids are 26 and 29. If they believed in the Easter Bunny I’d be pretty concerned.

          1. I think a combination approach probably works better, in that kids need to at least understand that it’s a difficult, complicated, divisive question and not every wise or intelligent person comes to the same conclusion. What’s important are the reasons. Are they good reasons? Do they stand up to scrutiny? Have they considered alternatives? Or is the solution preferred because it’s easy.

            The problem isn’t that there “isn’t any evidence.” It’s that the evidence supernaturalists use all the time isn’t good evidence. It’s poor — on multiple levels. If kids aren’t taught how to evaluate the distinction then they’re probably just going to translate your flat declaration into “that’s Mommy’s (or Daddy’s) opinion” as soon as they grow up enough to meet up with a wise, intelligent apologist who sounds plausible and appeals more to their sense of fair play, “reason,” and “thinking outside the box.”

            Don’t let them frame you as the box.

      2. I will try not to be disappointed, but you are right in that my heart would sink a bit. But they are becoming their own persons and I should resolve to let it go. I should clarify, then, that it would be ‘ok’ in the sense that I would not try to stop them. At least I say that now.
        Truth is, saying this is relatively easy for me since they show no signs of being at all religious.

    2. Sounds very similar to our household. Except my wife is not closeted. She is rather scornful of religion. But then, she was raised by old school Catholic parents and she has serious issues with authority in general.

      Our kids so far seem pretty comfortably atheist. They go to church with friends on occasion much as you described. They tend to think that the adults that try to indoctrinate the kids before letting them loose to play are idiots and that religion is ridiculous, and they are definitely not copying me. It hasn’t been until fairly recently, since they have come to a point of view of matter-of-fact atheism, that I have let them hear me ridicule religion.

      Heck one of my proudest, and most embarrassing, kid moments was when my son, at about 5 or 6, teased his grandmother (wife’s side), with a grin on his face and a laugh in his voice, about “Grandma and her Jesus,” after finding a picture of Jesus while rooting around in her purse. I was astonished. I nearly laughed out loud. I seem to remember snorting some stuff out of my nose. I had no idea at all where he aquired that. It certainly wasn’t from me.

      Well, actually things like that are hard to determine. Kids are superlative at learning, much better than adults, and they pay attention to absolutely everything even when you’re sure they aren’t. So really, there is no way that I couldn’t have influenced him with respect to religion no matter how careful I was to avoid it. I had tried hard to be neutral about religion. Answering questions as matter of fact as I could, and instead of giving them answers to “is that true” kind of questions, asking them questions in return to lead them to evaluate it themselves.

    3. This is similar to our experience with our son (now 11).

      We have explained to him, very clearly, why we don’t believe:

      1. No evidence, no reason to believe it
      2. Doesn’t make sense, based on how the world is
      3. It’s harmful in many ways

      We’ve also done our best to tech him to think clearly, critically, and logically. He does very well.

      We’ve also done our best to make sure he knows how to walk in the world of believers all around him, safely. (He was in class with his best friend, when the teacher asked something like how did whales get their fins/flukes/flippers; and his best friend chimed in, “God made them that way!”)

      We’ve told him how important religion is to most of the people around him (Minnesota); and that he risks being very poorly thought of if he let’s on that we are not religious (at all!). So he tip-toes around the subject (or just ignores it) if it comes up. We’ve also equipped him with a truthful reply: “We read the Bible at home.” Which is true, we do (I’ve read aloud very brief bits of it to him and my wife) but very, very little. Still true however.

      We have also educated him about other religions (I’ve read up on all the main ones he might encounter). We did not, however, say, “you decide”. I told him: See all these strange beliefs? None of them are true. At best only one could be; but since the many thousands are false, and they all resemble each other in some ways and all take things as true for which there is no evidence, you shouldn’t believe any of them.

      Your grandparents are not in Heaven. They are simply gone. Cherish their memories and enjoy your parents while you have them: memento mori. And: carpe diem.

      1. We have explained to him, very clearly, why we don’t believe:…

        Excellent. Telling them what you believe is not the same as telling them what they believe. I would also be clear that someday they will be making their own decisions on this question.

  7. Accommodating title. This book will sell well to the not-fully-congealed atheists who struggle to interpret how their children should deal with social engagements with other religious kids and adults.

    I could write books on the (mostly negative) experiences that my children have experienced with Christians. And they are still in elementary school.

    My advice to kids is simple: live, be honest and be on time. My kids are too busy playing, swimming, learning science and music to be bothered with incoherence. And the religious kids they interact with always prefer to do real things than to proselytize.

    Hands down, Make-believe always loses to McDonalds. McDonalds is real and all kids know it.

  8. I found the segment in the interview regarding indoctrination to be a tad accomodationist. There are religious beliefs that are, “less worthy of our respect, less intelligent, less moral” and one can make a logical and factually evinced argument to that end.
    Seven accused witches were burned to death in Tanzania last October. Superstitious beliefs that compel one to burn people alive or hack them to death with machetes are, in fact, less worthy of our respect, less intelligent, less moral.

    1. Yes, respecting religion is a lot like respecting other people’s “culture.” If we’re talking about hospitality, dancing, or food — there ya go. Letting your daughter drown so she will not be “dishonored” by being touched by male lifeguards? No. No fuckin’ way.

      Please excuse the profanity. I’m still reeling from a friend telling me, just this morning, that she’s tolerant and would never judge another culture’s ways or interfere even when I gave her this very example!!! The father was not “wrong” and should not be condemned. We just have different “opinions” on this and I need to respect hers as she respects mine.

      No. Nope. Nuh uh. Human rights, like truth, transcends tribes or we’re only tolerant of intolerance. Some spiritual views are just as dangerous as some cultures — and I’m pretty sure I encountered one of them today. Again.

      1. “The father was not “wrong” and should not be condemned.”

        People like this astound me, and I’ve encountered my share too, although I don’t believe I have any decent friends that fit the bill. I always can’t help but think that these people haven’t lived, that their breadth of experience must be so shallow , that they have never experienced oppression or suffering, have never felt powerless. How else can people justify to themselves such an abstract and practically ludicrous worldview where another person’s death caused by the conscious negligence of another (and a family member no less) is excused, and even *validated*? Moral relativism at its most insidious.

  9. Why not teach them by taking them to see a variety of Sunday performances at different religious venues?
    I’m sure the experience of witnessing the absolute certainty each spokesman has that he or she is 100% right and all the others are totally wrong would be most instructive.

    1. I’m not so sure. Wouldn’t they tend to reason “it must all be true or Daddy wouldn’t have taken me to see it?”


  10. Also make sure to expose kids to stories where people exploit fears of the unknown or supposed supernatural to get something they want in a nefarious way. The older Scooby Doo episodes, for example. Is 3-2-1 Contact still around anywhere? I remember how “The Case of the Cackling Ghost” and others from The Bloodhound Gang segment had that theme too.

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