My best friend and his family are the full package: creationist fundamentalist evangelical Protestants. My wife and I are flat out atheists, with no ounce of superstition. We had a bbq with two families over. The kids were everywhere, having fun. After dinner I walked into one of my boy's bedrooms. Their 7 and my 6 year old were alone in there. My son had his favourite space book open to the "mythology" page, with gorgeous paintings of the Norse and Hindu heaven-earth-underworld myths.

I asked how they were enjoying the book, suspecting some verbalisation of differing beliefs may have already occured. I said "great painting". Other child: "we don't believe in that." Me: "I don't either. Those myths are interesting, but none of them are true." OC: "we believe in god." Me: "I know". OC: "Do YOU believe in god?" Me: "No, I don't." OC: "Why not?" Me: "I don't see any evidence that any gods are any different than these Norse or Hindu ones, like in these paintings."

I then changed the subject to fudge brownies for dessert, assuming that my friend would appreciate me continuing the conversation about as much as I would appreciate him doing the same from his perspective. However, the conversation between the boys wasn't over. After informing my friend of the exchange so that there would be no misunderstanding. I went back to the room, and listened a bit before I entered.

OC: "So, if you don't believe in god, how was the earth created." MC: "Oh, I have a great book here that's called 'In the Beginning'. Would you like to look at it?" OC: "Sure!"

In the Beginning is a picture and description book that covers many topics - houses, clothes, jobs, weapons, bridges, ships, trains, etc through their historical changes. It also has a section on the origin of the cosmos. This may be the first time my friend's child has been exposed to such scientific information without the filter of fundamentalist Christian disinformation.

I was so proud that my son's response was not to be stopped by a question that the religious seem to think is so persuasive; but to instead immediately help his friend to find answers by consulting a reputable and informative source. I think the likelihood of my children becoming theists (a thought that does concern me) is very small, but it was heartening to see that my eldest is already learning to look for evidence in forming his views and opinions.

After they left I used the exchange as a teaching moment, and a chance to tell my son how impressed I was with both his respectful methods and his choice of answering the question. However, my wife mentioned that she had also overheard the OC talking about "sin", and how "if people 'sin' they are punished with death".

I haven't discussed this with my son yet, as "sin" is not something we talk about (since it is religious nonsense). However, I'm going to have to discuss it now. My wife and I both noticed how, as soon as the religious child was given an answer to his question, he switched to trying the same fear tactics on my son that his parents had already used on him. Extremely sad, but important to know when counter-acting such nonsense.

It was encouraging how easy it was to put religion and its motives into terms and context that my child could understand. Discussing that all religions and gods are fake is easy when you have taught your children the Greek, Norse, Roman etc pantheons.

Discussing how people use religion to cope with their fear of death is what we have done, though I know some parents wouldn't do this. We have discussed such concepts (and where babies come from) already with our children, and don't see any value in "shielding" them from reality. We notice that some parents who have "shielded" their kids have children who are afraid of the dark, ghosts, etc - which none of our children are.

Lastly, discussing the reasons why some people want simple answers rather than complicated ones is something they grasp very clearly, because they are still asking so many questions!

Comments or similar situations appreciated.

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Replies to This Discussion

I love stories like this, thank you for sharing. It really helps me to read about how other people approach these dialogs with their children. My 5 year old has not been posed with questions like that yet from friends but I can imagine the time will come.

"Discussing that all religions and gods are fake is easy when you have taught your children the Greek, Norse, Roman etc pantheons."
I so agree with this. Exposure to what other cultures, both past and present believe makes it hard to fall into the belief that any one of them is more true than the rest.

Can you provide a link to the book you mentioned. I'm always on the lookout for books. I couldn't find that specific one on Amazon but there are quite a few called "In The Beginning".
Hi Dawn. I'll bring "ITB" to work tomorrow and give you the details. It's an older book, from one of those British companies which does a lot of drawing/caption books, and then Americanises the spellings for sale in North America (much to my Canadian chagrin). I bought it second-hand, so I bet it will be hard to find.

But there are many books like it. We have a LOT of books about Egypt, Greece, Rome, Medieval Europe, etc that have pull-away tabs that reveal hidden things, cross-sections, etc. They are VERY popular with boys.

I think it's also very important to be pro-active in discussing the Judeo-Christian god. I NEVER legitimise it or show deference to it by calling it "God". I always call it "Yahweh", or "Yahweh the Jewish Bull god", just as I would say "Thor, the Norse Thunder-god". The early references in the Bible all describe Yahweh in terms of bulls. My hypothesis, without really caring enough to research this, is that Yahweh must have been the bull totem of the family that became king of the Jewish tribe. All early hunter-gatherer societies had family or clan animal totems of this kind. The evolution from clan animal totems to tribe-wide anthropomorphic gods is easily seen in the Egyptian pantheon with their animal heads on human bodies. The early comments of Yahweh that he was jealous of other gods make more sense when we realise that he wasn't jealous of the gods of other tribes; he had supplanted all the other gods that the Jewish tribe had previously worshipped, and "his" writings were to make clear to Jews not to go back to their family totems, but to worship the bull-god of the royal family only. And thus the shift from polytheism to monotheism was made, much to the pain and misery of the world.

My children are already aware that Yahweh began as the Babylonian sun-god, and that Allah is just the Arabic moon-god (notice all those Muslim nation flags). I particularly enjoy using these terms in conversation with Christian adults, as it makes them EXTREMELY uncomfortable, and is effective in getting them to want to change the subject, and never mention their religious beliefs again.

Discussing all this with children reduces Christianity to exactly what it is - just one more Bronze Age cult. I suspect that my children will have virtually no chance of being conned by it, since I have discussed it early and often with them in these terms.

Cheers!

We have lots of neat & enjoyable kids' books on mythology - have you ever seen a kids' book on the monotheistic religions that treat them in this matter-of-fact way? My girl knows a heck of a lot more about Thor and Trickster Raven than she does about Yahweh, in large part because I personally am less familiar with and don't enjoy the Abrahamic stories, but I don't necessarily want to impart this distaste to my child. I'd like her to be able to enjoy the middle-eastern myths as she does other myths. 

Hi Dawn.
In The Beginning, Brian Delf & Richard Platt, Dorling Kindersley Ltd, London, 1995.
Dorling Kindersley do LOTS of this type of book - illustrated with captions. Highly recommended. This book is fantastic - page one says, paraphrased: "how was the world created? A giant fish bringing up sand from a river bottom to form the earth? A creator god? Big Bang 15 BYA? Maybe we'll never know, but as long as we don't, many groups will have creation mythologies. However, on the next pages, you'll see the scientific version of what happened in the beginning . . . "
The next pages are cosmos, earth, volcanoes, dinosaurs, mammals, etc. It's a great book that is merely factual. The anti-religion and pro-science feel of the book is there because good factual information is by nature both of these things. Good luck finding it at your book store, or on EBay.
I'm going to give the library a shot. I wonder how their collection of DK books is... DK does have a lot of good stuff.

Thanks for getting that for me Drew.
A valuable lesson to many from the mouth of babes there as well. I thin that maybe sometimes when discussions about origins and evolution and the like come to loggerheads that people (myself included) may tend to start disputing the opposition's argument or predict where they're going. Since your son has probably never had such encounters before he just honesly tried to help the other kid understand how he does. I wonder how well it'd work on adults who as incredulously "Well where do you think all of the complexity in the world comes from without a god?" to ask them honestly if they'd like you to show them. It'd take longer, but would probably work better.

I really like the idea of using no longer disputed pantheons as a way of explaining the underlying reasons and history of religion. Learning Greek mythology in 3rd and 4th grade really primed the pump for me. I enjoyed the stories, but didn't mess with religion or mythology much until my late teens after that, but that acted as a fantastic base to work from. Asking questions to fill in gaps I didn't know about how Christianity came about came like second nature when I'd already been shown that such complex storylines and moral tales can have a history other than the story itself and can be made with good reason by people.

Sounds like you're doing a good job Drew. Keep it up. How do you think your friend would react to his children getting "too" inquisitive about your views to such things though? I've got friends who are of a similar persuasion, and I'd probably shy away from seeding their kid's minds with too many questions if they had any for fear over how the my friends would react to myself and their kids. Being told that listening to someone will get you burnt forever isn't something I'd like to put on the mind of a small child.
Hi Ronnie.

Like all real people, my friend is complex. What we share (music) allows me to see him use teaching methodology in action. On some topics his use of evidence-based reason is excellent. That's why these real life examples are much more complex than internet alias "debates" with theists half a world away.

So, my friend is used to serious questions. Interestingly for a young earth creationist in a family which contains evangelicals who have done missionary "work" abroad, he surprises me by doing things like read Dawkins "Blind Watchmaker", etc. Yet he's also only high-school educated, so he lacks a lot of the framework that a university degree provides. I think he welcomes questions for his kids; as he said to me during this incident "they'll figure it out". I think I was more concerned about the damage his child would do to mine than he was the other way.

And maybe that's with good reason. Like you point out, we are concerned about the "fear and guilt" that is how religion persists. We have since spoken a few times with our boys about how "hell" and "sin" are fictions created by religions to scare people. They understand this, but what makes me a bit sad is that, to ensure I protect my kids from the fear and guilt getting any hold over them, I have to go beyond "we have different beliefs than our friends"; I actually have to point out the very negative, very false, and very hateful tenets of the belief of our friends. Saying "but we love them anyway" at the end, because of all the fun we have doing things together, still doesn't seem like a balanced equation. Yet there is no way I'm going to sugar coat this to my children, and no way I'm going to legitimise religious belief for them as a rational world view.

It's tough!

Great story, Drew!  

I know what you mean about fearing that the religious child will inadvertently damage your child more than vice versa.  As much as religious fundamentalists like to claim persecution at the hands of a godless, secular society, I think it's pretty clear that non-religious families have quite a challenge in this respect, too.  In some ways, I wonder if atheists and fundamentalists are bookends, by which I mean that both groups are outside the mainstream.  My sense is that the real majority consists of vaguely religious people who take their religiousity and are equally appalled by hard-right fundamentalists and atheists.  This leads the fundamentalists to view the majority as being "unfaithful", the atheists to view the majority as "religious", and both groups to view themselves as oppressed.  There's variations to this scheme when broken down by region.  In New England there are fewer fundamentalists, while in the Southeast there are far more fundamentalists.  That said, there have been a lot more fundamentalist presidents than atheists ones.  

Great story. I'm going to look into that book.
Wonderful! Early exposure to Greek and Roman (etc) myths is just about all it takes to put the Judeo-C myths on an even playing field. Worked for me as a kid, and it's working for my own kids. And obviously yours!

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