This is a guest post written by David G. McAfee. He is author, most recently, of The Belief Book.
Regardless of your beliefs, if you have children, you will eventually have to talk to them about religion. When should you do it? The short answer: probably sooner than you think.
Some non-believers, perhaps in disdain for religion, say they want to keep their kids completely isolated from the subject or that they want to wait until they are much older before discussing it. Not only is this position wrong in that it promotes ignorance over knowledge, it’s also nearly impossible to maintain. Religion comes up early and often because it’s one of the most popular constructs ever created by human beings — a cultural universal. Religious myths have helped shape the world human beings live in (for better or worse) for as long as we have had the ability to tell stories, and they continue to do so today.
Whether it’s from a friend at school, a family member, a television show, a bumper sticker, or a coin, your child will probably hear about religion and gods sooner rather than later. So when is a good time to broach the subject? And how should you do it?
As soon as they can understand the basics
If you’re a believer, there’s a good chance you will teach your children that yours is the “one true religion” before they are even old enough to understand what that really means. But that doesn’t have to be the case.
If you don’t want to indoctrinate your child with religious beliefs, all you have to do is wait until your little guy or girl can comprehend religions at their most fundamental level. They don’t have to be capable of reading the Bible and the Qur’an from front to back, but they should be able to be taught about beliefs and rituals. They might even be familiar with Hercules, Zeus, or other religious figures made into cartoon form, which could help you relate the information to them.
Answer their questions
Even if you don’t preemptively educate your children about religious beliefs, there’s a good chance they will let you know when they are ready to learn. This might come in the form of an innocent question, such as “Who is Jesus?” or “Why does grandma talk to her food before eating?” or it could be a much scarier question, like “Am I going to Hell?”
If you are prepared to answer your children’s questions about religion as they arise, and you provide them with the tools they need to learn more if they’re interested, you’re on a good path.
When it comes to talking to your children about religion, figuring out when to do it is definitely important — but deciding how to educate them on such a controversial topic is even more crucial. So, what is the best way to teach kids about religion?
Teach facts and how to think
While I don’t have children, I did deal with them extensively while researching for The Belief Book. And I can say for sure that I wouldn’t teach them to be atheists — or to be religious. I would present them with facts and teach them how to ask questions, look for reliable answers on their own, and reach good conclusions. I would then let them apply those lessons to religion and other topics, all while promoting ethical development.
If you’ve done this well, you can encourage religious education in a healthy way. You can introduce your children to a variety of religions early in life and help them understand their context — making them less likely to identify with one. When a religious parent teaches only his or her religious tradition, on the other hand, the child will usually grow up believing it. After all, what reason would the child have to doubt his or her parents? Why would they lie?
Follow the results
In many areas in Europe, formal religious education classes are required for public school students. They learn about the great faiths from a secular and academic perspective in schools in the same way that they learn about geography or chemistry.
What are the results? In the United Kingdom, a 2008 European Social Survey asked the question, “Which religion or denomination do you belong to at present?” and 52.68 percent selected “No Religion.” In contrast, in the United States — where religion is a topic largely left to the parents — just over ten percent identify as atheist, Agnostic, or “secular unaffiliated.”
Looking at the statistics, it should be clear exactly why we should teach children about religions from a historical and phenomenological approach: by learning about the origins of myths and the histories of various religious institutions, they can see all religions as part of the same phenomenon — and not see one as inherently superior to all others.
I’ve often said that, if we don’t teach our children religion from an objective and historical perspective, they’ll learn about it on the streets. What I mean by this is that, without a basic knowledge about world religions, kids may be more susceptible to accepting one as inherently true. If this happens to any of your children, whether you’ve done your part or not, it’s important to love and respect them all the same.
No matter what your child ends up believing or rejecting, I think it’s important not to condemn, insult, or berate them as a result. Even if your child’s beliefs differ greatly from your own, you should recognize that a person’s actions are more important than what they believe. All that matters is that he or she is a good person.
(Image via Shutterstock)
David G. McAfee is a Religious Studies graduate, journalist, and author of The Belief Book, a children’s book explaining the origins of beliefs and religion, and Mom, Dad, I’m an Atheist: The Guide to Coming Out as a Non-believer. He is also an editor for Ockham Publishing and a contributor to American Atheist Magazine. McAfee attended University of California, Santa Barbara, and graduated with bachelor’s degrees in English and Religious Studies with an emphasis on Christianity and Mediterranean religions.