Thursday, November 17, 2016

Fundamental Values and Talking to Kids about Religion

First, in election response news: 

There's an effort underway to get the House Oversight committee to have a bipartisan review of Trump's plans for resolving his many conflicts of interest. Apparently, they're tabulating the calls they get and plan to decide before the Thanksgiving break, so call now if you're interested. This should, in my opinion, be a fairly non-controversial and bipartisan thing. It won't be, but it should. One of the great tragedies of our current political temper is that we've lost the ability to remember what values we truly share across the political spectrum. Unsurprisingly, we don't even agree on what has led us to this sad state of affairs. I don't know, but I'm going to keep acting as if it really were still possible to have bipartisan consensus on things pertaining to my government, hence this note at the opening of this post.

Trump's plan to pass control over his companies to his kids and then have his kids still involved in his Presidency is... unprecedented and really problematic. Presidents and Vice-Presidents usually handle the potential conflict of interest caused by their financial holdings by putting the holdings into a blind trust. Trump has called his proposed arrangement a blind trust, but it is not one. The people running the company won't be blind to what the government is up to (heck, so far, they've been in the meetings!) and I have serious doubts that Trump will be blind to what his business holdings are up to. I won't go into more detail here, if you're curious, the NY Times has a short opinion piece on the matter. The ranking Democrat (Elijah Cummings) has already requested a hearing, but that needs agreement from some Republicans on the committee to go anywhere. I don't know what Trump should do with his business holdings, but I do know he shouldn't be allowed to wave away the question. The job of the Oversight committee is to prevent members of the executive branch from waving away questions like this.

So anyway, if that is something you're concerned about, too, the phone number for the House Oversight committee is 202-225-5074. People are reporting trouble getting through, so you can also consider calling one of the members, particularly if that member is your representative.

But I don't really want to talk about the election right now. I've come to realize I need to do some healing over what this entire election- not just the result- did to me. I am going to take a little time to do that. I may blog about it, I may not. 

For tonight, I want to tell you a story, and then ask for your help.

Last Friday, Petunia called me into the bathroom as she was drying off after her shower to tell me that on New Year's Day she would say happy birthday to the Earth, because it would be 2017 years old. I laughed and explained that no, the earth was much, much older than 2017 years. She wanted to know why we said it was 2016, then. So I explained about how we count years from the year in which we think Jesus Christ was born. And then she wanted to know more about why we'd pick his birth year as our Year 1. 

So I tried to explain... and somehow we ended up with me trying to explain about Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. I did my best, but I am afraid that the main things she got from that discussion were the names of the houses of worship and the days of worship.

I'd like to do better. I can do a decent job of explaining the history of each religion. The course I took for my "Civilizations" requirement in college was called Near Eastern Civilizations, and covered the rise of all three of those religions, and then some. I really enjoyed that course, and amazingly, a fair amount of what I learned has stuck. But she wasn't really asking about the history.

One of my fundamental values is that we should respect everyone's religious beliefs, no matter what we ourselves believe. I am on the atheist-leaning end of agnosticism. My husband is an atheist. But I still try to teach my kids about religions, and I expect them to respect their friends' beliefs.

So, here's my request for help: If you practice a religion, use the comments to tell me what you'd want my kids to know about your religion. 

It is only fair that I go first. I'll tell you what I'd want your kids to know about agnostics and atheists: That not believing in a religion doesn't mean not believing in a value system, and that it doesn't even mean not believing in meaning higher than yourself. What I do believe in is respect for all people and for our earth. I believe that humans can create things of transcendent beauty, and that when they do we should revel in that. I believe it is our duty to try to help our fellow people, not because that is what any god commands, but because that is what our humanity commands. And I believe in the Golden Rule.

So, now: your turn, if you'd like. What should I tell my kids about your religion?

Update: The post is about "peoples of the Book" because that is where the questions came from. But I'd like to talk to my kids about all religions, so if you are Buddhist, Hindu, or any other religion, please feel free to answer!


  1. Many people want to reduce Christianity to truisms such as the Golden Rule (the Beatitudes are a much better alternative). However, the defining event of Jesus's life, his execution on the Cross, came to due his radical and nonviolent demonstration against Empire. Authorities do not commonly execute somebody whose message abounds with benign banalities: be kind, be nice, be good. A persuasive image of Jesus must make sense of why he was crucified by the powers that ruled his world.

  2. >What should I tell my kids about your religion?

    That it is a fundamental aspect of human life and that you shouldn't default to thinking a person is a fool/a troglodyte for actually practicing his.

    It has happened to me. I was in group therapy with a hardcore atheist; I only mentioned that I was in a church choir and later he chastised me for getting my morality from an "imaginary being."

    Funny that it took decades of Muslims having a backbone for your kind to realize that maybe you should respect people's religion. You may even start respecting Christianity again too.

    1. That was deeply unfair. If you scroll back through my Twitter timeline, you'll find some tweets talking about the fact that my oldest friend is a fundamentalist Christian. I have always had a great deal of respect for religion and have never thought that someone is a fool for practicing their religion. I have in fact wished at times that I had faith, but I do not and I cannot force that.

      I have as little patience with atheists like Richard Dawkins as I do with religious people who want to impose their religion on others. I believe religion is a private matter for each individual to decide.

      Please be respectful to me in your comments and answer in the spirit of respect in which the question was asked.

    2. Anonymous6:46 AM

      When I was a kid, I believed that only old illiterate people went to church. Because in Soviet Union of the '70s and '80s, that's what we were taught to believe.

      Learning to respect people of faith had nothing to do with Muslims for me. It had everything to do with growing up and realizing this is a big world full of fascinating, complicated people.

    3. Ingemar's comment seems deeply unChristian to me. Just sayin'.

      I really don't like the way so many Christians seem to use it as a reason to feel superior or falsely persecuted (seriously, Christians are persecuted in the US? seriously?).

      Tell your daughter that some Christians have an outward looking focus that is about spreading the Good News via Good Works. Some religions grant a responsibility to help people because we were put on earth to make it a better place and provide an organized way to go about providing that help through the Church. In this view, we are servants of God doing his Will to make the world more perfect. (Obviously people can have these feelings of responsibility without being told to by religion.)

      And some people use religion as an excuse to attack people who are different or to feel superior. That's deeply unChristian, but unfortunately characteristic of a subset of pretty much all organized religions, including, as you note, organized atheism. On some level, it must be human nature to pervert any kind of organized group.

    4. More than one Christian I respect has told me that many Christians feel their faith is under attack in the US. I am shocked by that, but have been investigating it to see why. I believe they feel attacked, I would like to understand why when not a single atheist I know would ever want to "outlaw Christianity" or anything like that. Is it the Fox News faux-outrage about the "war on Christmas" or something deeper? I've only started thinking and reading about this, so I don't know yet.

  3. Faith without action is not enough. Good Works are necessary. (Episcopal but also [supposedly] true of Catholics).

  4. Anonymous6:37 AM

    I would prefer my kids' friends to not care what our religion is at all. For kids' parents - I would say something along the lines that we believe that there is one G-d. The only thing that would truly bother me is if someone would try to proselytize my kids.

    As a parent, I find the religious questions from my kids to be very challenging (and unnerving). As an agnostic/atheist, how do you deal with questions from your kids about afterlife, heaven, and whether or not there was someone who created everything? I've been skirting around these issues, saying something along the lines that "some people believe a,b,c, but I believe xyz... when you grow up, you will have to figure things out for yourself." My kids really don't like the idea of "when you die - you die and there is nothing else" and start coming up with their own explanations. The older kids (8 and 6) have fascinating conversations about what came first - G-d or the Big Bang. I've been giving them scientific facts, but other than that, I honestly admit to them I believe there is G-d but have no idea how G-d fits into the equation.

    If you have any recommendations about books that provide clear scientific reasoning that deals with the formation of the early universe, evolution of life, etc for early elementary school age - I would love to hear.

    1. I'll try to write a post later about how we talk about the "big questions." There is a kids book from NZ called Old Hu-Hu that was really great for talking about what happens after we die.

      My kids don't care what religion their friends are, and neither do I. This is all coming from honest curiosity on their part, and my bumbling attempts to answer!

  5. Dammit, comment eaten. Tldr: There is only LOVE. Think about how you love your children, God loves you like that, only MORE. Even if you do something wrong, even if you think you don't deserve it, even if you don't believe in "him" (though I feel God is non-gendered)

    ELCA Lutheran Sunday School teacher of the middle school kids. Masters in Biochemistry, former Catholic and agnostic.

  6. This is interesting. My husband and I are both atheists and we're both raised in very Christian households (weekly church/Sunday school, prayers before meals etc).

    What I struggle with is how to give my kids the stories and contexts of the major religions, particularly Christianity and Judaism (which far from being persecuted, in my opinion dominates American cultural norms!). My husband disagrees but I really appreciate my religious education both for general culture (literary references and nuance etc) and also because I feel it gives me an insight into how a large part of our country believes as well as what their motivations/rationale are or should be (treatment of women, Sodom and Gomorrah, beatitudes as mentioned above etc etc). I am a bit stuck how to impart this to my kids in a meaningful way. (The birth to 18 weekly Sunday school being out!)

    Ditto for the beautiful choral music and hymns - at least I could play those for the kids myself.

  7. Alexicographer8:46 AM

    Could not contact the House Oversight Committee or its Chair, Jason Chaffetz', office -- no human response, both voicemails are full. But I did connect immediately with a person by calling his Utah office, 801-851-2500. And yes, it was quick and simple (once I found the number).

    1. Anonymous9:47 AM

      I tried the Utah office number and the voicemail is also now full.

    2. Pick another member of the committee and call them? Or try again later, I've heard that some of the "voice mail full" messages are just "line is busy."

    3. Oh, there is also a fax number on the committee website: (202) 225-3974

      And there are internet services that will send a fax for you. Here's the first one that came up when I googled:

  8. I would like your children to know that I am a follower of Jesus Christ, the deity I believe to be the only son of God. I believe (as many do) that Jesus calls us (through the Bible) to love God with all of our heart, and with all our soul and with all our mind; that can be expressed many ways, through prayer (talking to God), through reading the Bible (which we believe to be God's word) and through other acts of worship. I believe also that Jesus calls us to love others as we love ourselves.

    I would like your children to know that Christianity is ancient and that humans are very fallible, and we often fail to love ourselves and love other people as Jesus might, but that most Christians (myself included) are try daily to follow Jesus' example in thought, word and deed.

  9. Anonymous10:24 AM

    I am now old enough to have read a great deal of history, and my reading tells me that the landscape of belief is littered with corpses: Men, women, and children have been slaughtered by the hundreds of millions in the name of belief. I would tell your children that they must be very careful about belief and its potential for evil, about how when it gets its grip on people, it turns them into machines for harm. It isn't a particular religion or political ideology that is the true problem, it is belief itself. For the sake of everyone, let go.

    1. I understand where you're coming from, but I've read a lot of history, too. And I think you're overlooking the beauty and good that beliefs can inspire in people. We cannot know the counterfactual here, because humans have always tended to organize their thinking around beliefs. I for one do not think that a world in which no one believed in anything would be any less murderous.

  10. As a very liberal Christian, what I would want your kids to understand (and what I often tell my own) is that Jesus himself was a radical man fighting the good fight against an oppressive "man". The idea of a conservative christian is kinda of hilarious to me because if you look closer at the works of Jesus and his teachings, he is all about challenging the status quo, fighting for the marginalized and oppressed and trying to bright about a more just society for all.

  11. Bring not bright

  12. Anonymous12:53 AM

    Hmm... I'm finding the framing of "what I want your children to know" offputting to me as I read through the comments. I'm too tired to unpack why. So instead I will say that I do not care what your children know, but here is what I believe is distinctive about Judaism:

    * we do not believe being Jewish makes one more morally pure or deserving of a place in the World to Come. Jews have special obligations as children of the commandments, but people of all faiths are equally obligated to and rewarded for basic acts of goodness and kindness.

    * we believe G-d doesn't care about what we think--only what we do.

    * debate is awesome! Thought is awesome! We should all think for ourselves and come to our own beliefs about life and G-d, informed by the lessons of Torah and the Talmud.

    * We don't believe in Hell. I think we do believe in Purgatory, but honestly I'm not even sure. There's a World To Come, and there will be consequences for behaving badly (temporary, I think?), but mostly, we should be good, decent people because we should be good, decent people.

    * G-d wants us to be happy and to feel loved. G-d does not want us to suffer.

    * Ritual helps us feel connected to G-d.

    1. Thanks for the answer! I'm sorry if the framing was offensive. If you figure out why later, please send me a note, and I will try to do better in the future. For what it is worth, there was no subtext in my question. My kids ask questions about people's beliefs, and I'd like to answer based on what people who have those beliefs feel is most important about their religion, not based on my own fuzzy thoughts from the outside.

    2. Anonymous6:25 PM

      Oh no! It was nothing about your framing in your post. It was seeing it repeated comment after comment when I was reading through that was offputting to me. I'm still not sure exactly why. I didn't even mean it as a critique--it was more stream of consciousness typing.

    3. OK, that's good! Since my posts are mostly stream of consciousness I'll never complain about stream of consciousness comments. :)

  13. This comment has been removed by the author.

  14. I'm a Hindu and I'd tell my kids (and their friends that are curious about my religion) that
    1) Its a religion that allows people to follow God(or Truth or Light/Dark) in the way they see fit. People can choose how they want to follow it and can change it based on the stage of life they are in as well. For example, Hindus think God resides everywhere and so everything is a form of God. So there are those that pray to human form and those that pray to animal form and even those that pray to just a spirit or sound or thought. Also, people in the same family can choose to follow different Gods because Hinduism believes religion is deeply personal and individualized. I follow a male God, my husband follows a female Goddess and my kid follows an elephant-God.
    2) One cannot be converted to a Hindu, they are either born into it or decide to become one (and they are one).
    3) Hinduism recognizes atheism and accepts they choose to believe in Truth and values as they see fit and don't follow a particular form of God.
    4) Though there are rituals and ceremonies, none of them are needed to feel close to God.
    5) Its a very joyful religion filled with colors (in keeping with Indian culture) and has a number of religious holidays that are filled with fun :)
    6) Even though there are sects of people that perform violent acts (animal sacrifices, etc), Hinduism believes its their way of showing respect to God who is in everything.
    7) There are myriad stories that connect most of the well-known Gods and Goddesses because in olden days, these stories were used to teach moral values to common public. Even though belief in those stories is not needed, its just a cheat sheet to good moral values and most Hindus follow those values in daily lives.

    I can talk more about it if you want to know more :)

  15. Things I think people should know about Judaism...
    *It is both a culture/heritage/ethnicity and a religion. Some people who are born into and identify with the former are atheists or agnostic. Many people who are religiously observant don't believe in specific tenants. The emphasis on "how to be a good Jew" is about living a certain way and treating people well, and only tangentially about specific beliefs.
    *There is no central authority (like a Pope). There is a non-scripture but centrally important document (the Talmud) that essentially consists of scholars debating various complex questions of how to live and why. Whether that results in a distinctive attitude toward debate and opinion is a good question.
    *It's 5776 by our count- whether that implies a longer frame of reference for history is also a good question.
    *You can convert to Judaism, but see above about the ethnicity/culture/heritage aspect. Also we make it hard on purpose. Seeking to convert people is looked upon as either tacky, or baffling/meaningless, or unwise (Judaism has often been a minority religion). This is only really crucial to understand if you are contrasting with evangelicalism.

  16. Elodie4:27 PM

    Things I would like people to understand about my faith (liberal Lutheran):
    I believe Love is bigger than our ability to understand, and that all human attempts to understand mystery end up being somewhat flawed.
    That God/Love attempts to connect with us and connect us to the story of the world.
    God is too big for us to understand, but we try to understand it by recognizing 3 ways God interacts with us in the world: the Creator God, through a person named Jesus Christ, and through the Holy Spirit. Sometimes we also call these 3 energies creating, redeeming,and sustaining.
    My faith is something that makes me strive to be a better person. It reminds me to be humble, it reminds to be look and see who is suffering, and it reminds me I have a place and a role in bringing about peace on earth.
    I understand the story of Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection as a story that reminds us that LOVE WINS in the end. That nothing can separate us from love (unless we want to be separated)...that we know the end of the story is always love.
    I've very proud of how much work Lutheran's have done in this refugee crisis. Lutheran Family Services is a wonderful charity.

    Sometimes it is very very hard to hear only more conservative Christian voices shouting out their interpretation of "Christian Values". My faith is very very important to me, yet for me, it makes me more liberal,and less judgemental. Also, I'm not interested in converting being me is hard enough, I certainly don't need to tell you how to do you, too!:-P


Sorry for the CAPTCHA, folks. The spammers were stealing too much of my time.