Questions and Answers

Q: Why is it important for my children to be religiously literate?

A: There are four main reasons religious literacy—knowledge ofreligion, as opposed to belief in it—is crucial:

1. To understand the world. Ours is a religiously inflected world. An overwhelming portion of the news—including medical, political, legal, military, and educational issues—include a large religious component. Add to this the fact that 90 percent of our fellow human beings express themselves and their understanding of the world through religion, and it becomes clear that ignorance of religion cuts our children off from understanding what is happening in the world around them—and why.

2. To be empowered. In the U.S. presidential election of 2004, candidate Howard Dean identified Job as his favorite book of the New Testament. That Job is actually in the Old Testament was a matter of small concern to many of us. But to an enormous swath of the religious electorate, Dean had revealed an unconscionable ignorance about the central narrative of their lives. For those people, Dean was instantly discounted, irrelevant. Because we want our children's voices heard in the many issues with a religious component, it is vital for them to demonstrate knowledge of that component.

3. To make a truly informed opinion. Nonreligious parents who claim their children are free to think for themselves about religion but never expose their children to religion or religious ideas are undermining their own stated values and shortchanging their kids. For kids to make a truly informed judgment about religion, they must have access to it.

I'd Like to Buy a Consonant

Went with Delaney to the "Dads 'n' Donuts" event at her school the other day. A fine selection. We finished eating and socializing in the gym a bit early, so we sauntered back to her kindergarten classroom. A couple of dads were already there, being toured by the hand around the classroom by their progeny. Laney grabbed my hand and we joined the conga line.

"This is where alllll of the books are," Laney said. "And that's the whiteboard. Here's the globe, and the puppets . . . and this," she gestured proudly, "is my desk!"

I barely heard the last two, since I was still riveted on the whiteboard, in the middle of which was the headline "THIS WEEK!!" — and under it, a glorious, radiant cross.

And what a cross it was! Every color of the rainbow! I'd have burst into a chorus of Crown Him with Many Crowns if not for eleven or twelve things.

It was only four weeks since we'd made the move to Atlanta, and here I stood in my daughter's public school classroom, gazing at church and state, locked in passionate embrace.

I was completely frozen and trying to stay that way. Time stopped, looked at me funny, then continued on its way. I knew that if I came to, I'd leap onto a chair and point and squeal "CROSS! CRAWWWWWWSSSSS!!" I'd have no choice: The point-and-shriek is mandated for all encounters with crosses in the bylaws of the AtheistVampire Accords of 1294.

A little girl entered my periphery, guiding her father by the hand. "And this," she said, pointing to the cross, "is what we're learning about this week!"

She paused for dramatic effect, then announced, with pedantic precision, "Lowercase t!"

—Dale McGowan, from the blog The Meming of Life

4. To avoid the "teen epiphany." Struggles with identity, confidence, and countless other issues are part and parcel of the teen years. Sometimes these struggles can add up to a genuine personal crisis, at which point well-meaning religious peers often pose a single question: "Don't you know about Jesus?" Jesus is presented as the answer to all problems, even those that seem insurmountable. A child with little or no exposure to religion can experience a kind of emotional hijacking in moments of personal crisis. The resulting conversion is more often than not to evangelical fundamentalism. A little knowledge about religion allows the teen to say, "Yes, I know about Jesus"—and to know that reliable answers to personal problems are better found elsewhere.

Q: It seems to me that there are different degrees of literacy. What should kids know to be religiously literate?

A: First, keep in mind that it is religious literacy we're after, not just Christian literacy. Comparative religion of many traditions is the difference between broad knowledge and indoctrination to a single point of view. Here are some of the things your kids should eventually know:

• The basic stories and characters in the Bible (see below).

• The basic tenets of the five major religions (Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, and Hinduism) and where in the world they are mainly practiced.

• Which religions believe in higher deities and which do not.

• The religious backgrounds of your extended families and what your relatives believe and why you do or don't believe as they do.

All of this should be presented as information, not as raves for or against various worldviews. Your children have the right to sort through the facts for themselves, but it is your responsibility to make sure that they have access to material on religion.

Because Christianity constitutes the dominant religious expression in our culture, some additional detail in that tradition will serve your children well. At minimum they should eventually know the following stories:

• The creation story with Adam and Eve.

• Moses and the Ten Commandments.

• The exodus of the Jews from Egypt.

Your children should know the difference between the Old and New Testaments. They should know that Jesus was raised a Jew and that it was the Roman government under a man named Pilate who sentenced Jesus to death.

Q: How can I help my children to be religiously literate without exposing them to indoctrination?

A: We think of indoctrination as the default, but indoctrination is actually harder to achieve than literacy and openness. Indoctrination is hard work. It requires cutting off information from other points of view and denying the right to question and to doubt. Including many cultures and traditions in your religious literacy plan and specifically inviting questioning and doubt is the antithesis of indoctrination. Do that and you're well on your way to a truly honest exploration.

Like other types of literacy, religious literacy comes in small bundles over time. It's not about sitting down with your children and reading the Bible—a plan that never works terribly well in any case. Instead, try these literacy boosters:

1. Talk, talk, talk. As Lucy Calkins notes in Raising Lifelong Learners, all literacy begins with oral language.9 Toss tidbits of religious knowledge into your everyday conversations. If you drive by a mosque and your 4-year-old points out the pretty gold dome, take the opportunity to fill in some blanks: "Isn't that pretty? It's a kind of church called a mosque. People who go there pray five times every day, and they all face a city far away when they do it." No need to get into the Five Pillars of Islam. A few months later, you see a woman on the street wearing a hijab and connect it to previous knowledge: "Remember the mosque, the church with that gold dome? That's what some people wear who go to that church."

As children mature, include more complex information—including good, bad, and ugly. No discussion of Martin Luther King, Jr., is complete without noting that he was a Baptist minister and that his religion was important to him. Likewise, no discussion of the American Revolution is complete without noting that the majority of the founders were religious skeptics of one stripe or another. Talk about the religious components of events in the news, from the stem cell debate to global warming to terrorism to nonviolence advocacy.

2. Read myths of many traditions. Myths make terrific bedtime stories. Start with creation myths from around the world, then move into the many rich mythic traditions—Greek, Roman, Norse, Native American, Pacific Islander, African, Asian, and more. And don't forget the Judeo-Christian stories. Placing them side by side with other traditions removes the pedestal and underlines what they have in common.

3. Attend church on occasion with trusted relatives. It is essential that children see the inside of a church—not necessarily every Sunday, but many times. Keeping them entirely separated from the experience leaves them open to the claim that something magical happens therein, a potent claim indeed during moments of emotional vulnerability. If you'd prefer not to go yourself, put them in the hands of churchgoing relatives who can be trusted to respect your position and to refrain from proselytizing.

If your children are invited by friends, say yes—and go along. The conversations afterward can be some of the most productive in your entire religious education plan.

4. Movies. One of the most potent and effective means of achieving religious education painlessly is through movies with religious elements. For the youngest children this might be Prince of Egypt, Little Buddha, Kirikou and the Sorceress, and Fiddler on the Roof. By middle school, it's Jason and the Argonauts, Gandhi, Bruce Almighty, Evan Almighty, and Kundun. High schoolers can see and enjoy such meaty fare as The Last Temptation of Christ, Seven Years in Tibet, Romero, Schindler's List, Jesus Camp, and Inherit the Wind. A more extensive list of suggested films can be found in the Appendix, but this abbreviated list alone brings a child into contact with eight different religious systems and both the positive and negative influences of religion in history.

Special gem: Whatever you do, don't forget Jesus Christ Superstar. Nonreligious parents may roll their eyes at the thought of seeing this movie, forgetting how subversive and thought-provoking this retelling of the last days of Christ is. There are no miracles; the story ends with the crucifixion, not the resurrection; and Judas is the hero, urging Jesus not to forget about the poor as the ministry becomes something of a personality cult. Put it in your Netflix queue. You'll thank me!

Q: My sister-in-law babysits my 6-year-old daughter at her home once a week, and I do the same for her son once a week. I am grateful for the help, but my daughter has begun coming home full of Bible stories and religious ideas. It turns out they watch religious videos every time. I feel as if my sister-in-law is crossing a boundary, even if her intentions are good. What can I do to protect my daughter from indoctrination without being disrespectful?

A: First, I would make sure that my sister-in-law is aware of my beliefs about religion. This might seem a scary prospect, but it's a necessary step and almost always goes better than we think it will. She may be showing the videos without realizing that you are not comfortable with these activities. If she asserts the right to show and talk about whatever she wants to, you have a choice: Find other daycare arrangements or begin the discussion with your child about the variety of beliefs and her right to make her own decisions. Depending on your child, it might not be a bad thing after all—an opportunity to practice early engagement with a variety of ideas.

Q: How can I help my kids respond to pressure from religious peers—from "You're going to hell" to "You need to accept Jesus"?

A: You don't want their first exposure to such ideas to be from peers. It's important that your kids hear about hell from you first. Inoculate them from fear by dismissing the idea, not just as wrong, but also as the profoundly silly idea it is. "Would God really send good people to hell just because they didn't believe in him?"

Second, give them specific language by modeling at home. Responses should be short and delivered calmly and with confidence. "I don't believe that." "I believe that Jesus was just a good person." "It's okay for people to believe different things." "I can change my mind a thousand times if I want." "A good God wouldn't punish people for honest doubts."

It's also important to moderate your own reaction. We parents tend to worry about these things much more than the kids do.

Q: My extended family all lives in the area. Each week we have Sunday dinner at one of our houses. An extended religious grace is said before every meal, and my kids' eyes always go to me to see what I'm doing during grace. I don't want to appear hypocritical, but I also want to model respect for the benign traditions of others. What is the best way to deal with this—and what should I suggest to the kids?

A: Whatever you do, decide ahead oftime what is appropriate when you go to other people's homes who pray before eating. Talk about this with your children so they are not at a loss as to what to do and so they can be involved in deciding what's best. Do you think we should bow our heads? Say Amen? Sit quietly? Be very specific so that your children feel comfortable. No need to all respond alike: Allow them to find their personal comfort level. Talk about the precise issues you just raised (personal integrity versus respect for others).

Most nonreligious parents choose to bow their heads as a sign of respect for a benign tradition. Many choose to forgo the "amen" at the end, since the word literally means "I agree." There is no single best approach, and the working out of the issues is great practice for kids.

Q: What about when the family comes to our completely secular home? I've begun to feel the need to express my preference that we do something different when dinner's in our space. What are my options?

A: You are right: In your home you should do what seems appropriate to you, just as they do in theirs. Otherwise, you risk demeaning your own values and views by appearing to be ashamed of them. If this means not going along with the family's extended prayer at mealtimes, then I would suggest you create alternate ways to begin the meals in your home—a toast, applause for the cook, a ritual where everyone says what they value about the gathering, a moment of silent reflection, or a secular blessing that is appropriate for your family. Announce with enthusiasm that you have created this especially for your family gatherings in your home.

It's best to make the announcement before someone else has offered or invited a prayer. Ask for a moment of silence immediately when people are at the table and then launch into what you have prepared. Do this with the pleasant confidence that you are doing something good, then just continue on with the festivities. If negative comments are made, frame your answer in terms of fairness: You can have your way at your home, I will do it my way in my home, and all should be fine!

Nonreligious parents across the country report, to their surprise, that the reaction is better than they had expected and often downright positive—including such surprised responses as, "My goodness—that was so beautiful!" The unspoken additional thought is, "And it didn't even mention Jesus!"

If a relative continues to insist that a group prayer be said, you might protest that you simply have too much respect for the words of Jesus to allow it: "When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corner to be seen by men. . . . When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father in secret" (Matthew 6:5-6).

That often ends the debate—and constitutes a fine display of religious literacy on your part!

Many secular families adopt everyday mealtime rituals that serve the same emotional purpose as grace—slowing down, reflecting, acknowledging—with-out the religious overtones. See the Activities section at the end of this chapter for some ideas.

Q: Wednesday night is "church night" in our town, and our son is constantly being invited by his friends to the local church youth group. He is told that it "rocks" with lots of cool music, and the leader is "awesome!" This comes up in the summer too, because the camp "all" the kids go to is religiously based. What should I do? Do I let him go to these activities?

A: Start by remembering your goal—not to protect your child from all religious experience and information, but to protect them from an emotional hijacking that interferes with their own reasoned decision making. Much depends on the maturity and developmental level of your child. Is he devel-opmentally ready to make decisions on his own, to sort out thoughts and feelings without succumbing to peer pressure? Would your relationship with your child permit an open discussion afterwards?

It's also important to learn what you can about the program in question. Can your child ask questions and voice disbelief? Is there a stated attempt to "win souls for Christ"? Regardless of the answers, children 12 and under should generally be accompanied by a parent. Any program that prohibits this—and there are many—is specifically seeking to proselytize the child and should be declined.

Teenagers, on the other hand, will often see a request to accompany as an indication that the parent does not trust the child, even if it is the program or event that is really in question. In general, it is far wiser to let your child go and then talk about the experience than to present the youth group as "forbidden fruit." If you have developed both religious literacy and critical thinking skills over the years, your teenager should be entirely capable of processing the experience and even gaining a great deal from it.

You can also find interesting and FUN secular or religiously low-key alternatives to religious camps and youth groups. Camp Quest, the first residential summer camp for the children of nonreligious parents, now has six locations in North America and a new program beginning in the U.K. The Unitarian Universalist denomination has nonsectarian family camps and youth group programs for teens, and countless local youth organizations are available that include no religious component whatsoever. (For more on secular community alternatives, see Chapter 8, "Finding and Creating Community.)

Q: My 8-year-old daughter has told us that she wants to go to church like the rest of her friends. Now what?

A: Ahh, the power of peer pressure. We can write this off as parents, but children wanting to go to church and be like their friends is powerful and must be addressed directly. There are several options:

1. Give children something to say that you do on Sunday as a family (even as simple as going to the park or having a big Sunday breakfast together).

2. Seek out a religiously liberal church like Unitarian Universalism, Humanistic Judaism, or Ethical Cultural Society, all of whom can provide the community your child is seeking without indoctrinating them with dogma.

3. Help them recognize and articulate the endless benefits of not going to church on Sunday.

4. Talk about the ways in which meaning and reflection are woven into your everyday lives—and that they do not require a special place and time.

As noted above, you can also allow children to attend church with their friends, assuming you are comfortable with the program in question and/or attend with them. This alone will often put the fascination to rest.

Q: My preschooler told me that she believes in God. How should I respond to her?

A: A preschooler who does not experiment with a variety of beliefs would be very unusual. Depending on the age and maturity of the child, a simple, "That's interesting" might suffice, or you might ask why—the time-tested beginning of many fabulous conversations.

Don't feel the need to jump-start skepticism or debunk claims too vigorously at this point. It's more important that children at this age develop a love of questioning and hypothesizing than be shepherded toward "the right answers." Let them take positions, change positions, try on different hats. It's good practice.

Children will come back to you when they are ready and ask what you think, at which point you can explain your beliefs. Avoid saying, "Our family doesn't believe in God." Families don't believe; individuals do. Instead you might say, "I believe such and such, but a lot of people believe differently, and that's okay."

It is also good to give children permission to change their minds. Remind children that they have permission to change their beliefs a thousand times if they wish as new evidence and experience present themselves. They should keep thinking about religious questions, gather information as they grow up, and keep an open mind. You will always be interested in what they are thinking! It's the parent's job to keep an open mind as their children verbalize various beliefs or disbeliefs. Don't be upset as children try out various thoughts. A complete and varied exploration of ideas will have the firmest foundation.

Q: What's wrong with simply raising my children as atheists? Why must I pretend that I think religion might also have valid answers?

A: Two different questions. Let's dispense with the second one first.

There is never a need for you to pretend about what you think. Quite the contrary: It is impossible to parent from a place of genuine integrity if you pretend to have convictions you don't really have—or worse yet, pretend to have none at all. You will and should have an influence on your child's own developing worldview, but influence and indoctrination are two different things. Only the former is good.

I came to my own conclusions about the big questions as a result of long reflection, introspection, study, and discourse. I'm proud to have worked my way toward it. It's that effort that makes my worldview a deep and valued part of who I am. I not only know what I believe—I know why I believe it, because I was present and active every step of the way. I'll bet it's the same for you. So do we really want to deprive our kids of the journey that makes that final choice so meaningful?

Now there are times when a parent must substitute his or her judgment for the judgment of the child. You have to decide whether a bag of chips is really a wise replacement for dinner. You have to set and enforce boundaries, define household responsibilities, and insist on honesty and fair play. As kids get older, you'll want to involve them more and more in these decisions, but until their developing judgment is up to the task, a parent must make certain decisions for the child.

But is selecting a belief system one of them? If it was necessary for children to declare a personal worldview at the age of 5, parents would indeed have to choose it for them. And that's the way it's been done for millennia, of course:

A child is simply informed that she is a Christian, or a Hindu, etc. Richard Dawkins's reaction to a photo caption in The Guardian several years ago, in which three children in a Nativity play were referred to as "A Sikh child, a Muslim child, and a Christian child," illustrates this perfectly. "No one bats an eye," he noted in a recent speech. "But just imagine if the caption had read 'a Monetarist child, a Keynesian child, and a Marxist child.' Ridiculous! Yet not one bit less ridiculous than the other."10

By the time she is old enough to begin searching for her own place in the world, it's difficult for a labeled child to think objectively about the declaration she's worn like a robe for as long as she can remember. If she decides to take it off, it becomes an emotionally charged act of defiance, a rejection of something given to her. And in some cases, the natural urge to separate from her parents can lead the teenager to throw it off because her parents gave it to her.

If there is one highest value in freethought, it must surely be the freedom to think for oneself—and something as personal and all-defining as a world-view is most meaningful and enduring when it is freely chosen.

Teach your child tolerance, critical thinking, empathy, and a love of the truth, then trust him to decide what those values add up to. They will not, I'll wager, add up to a person who speaks in tongues and believes that Jesus appears in tortillas and hates homosexuals. They may add up to one of the more benign religious expressions—a liberal Anglican, for example, or a Congrega-tionalist, Unitarian, or Quaker. Or they may add up to secular humanism. Regardless, you owe it to your child to preserve the space around her to make her own choice without having to deal with someone else's idea of the right choice—even if that someone else is her loving parent.

Q: How can I help my children think critically about religion without indoctrinating them to my point of view?

A: Children should indeed be invited to think critically about religion. Make it clear that the factual claims of religion and science alike are hypotheses and that hypotheses stand or fall on their ability to withstand scrutiny. This isn't indoctrination—it simply removes religion from the protected category it has traditionally demanded.

Beyond that, here are three ingredients for an indoctrination-free home:

1. Make a serious effort at evenhandedness. In addition to causing undoubted harm, religion has at times had a positive influence on people and events. Just as a child of Christian parents is unlikely to hear much about the ill effects of religion, a child of nonreligious parents will often grow up in an environment skewed hard in the opposite direction. It requires a conscious effort on the part of a nonreligious parent to keep the playing field as level as honesty permits—to balance dinnertable mutter-ings about televangelists and praying presidents with an occasional reference to Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Elizabeth Fry, Gautama Buddha, and Corrie ten Boom, all of whom were energized by, and made positive use of, religion and religious ideas.

Why make the effort? Because genuine critical thinking calls for finding and hearing the best advocates of both sides of an issue. If critical thinking is a sincere value for you as a parent, giving equal opportunity to the best of religion is a no-brainer.

2. Provide unfiltered access to religious ideas. Do you have a religious friend or relatives, or two, or twelve? Find one you trust (i.e., one who will forgo the threats of hell) and arrange a time for the kids to ask him or her questions about beliefs. If the kids ask to see what church is all about, take 'em! In short, build up their critical thinking skills, then trust them to use them. Follow up with a chat about your own convictions, then invite them to think for themselves.

3. Specifically invite them to doubt and to question your conclusions. I

give myself permission to express my convictions in no uncertain terms. But I specifically invite my kids to question my ideas, to think all they want about them, to disagree with them, and to change their minds a thousand times as they consider them. I have told them that I would rather have them think for themselves and disagree with me than share my opinions only because I hold them.

The introduction of doubt is not an insignificant accomplishment. It has the power to achieve precisely what you are seeking. This is why doubt is such a serious sin in orthodox religious traditions—and why we must champion it as the highest intellectual virtue. Parents who honestly make these efforts will influence their children without indoctrinating them. More importantly, they will earn their children's respect and gratitude in the long run for having allowed their minds to breathe freely and without fear as they grew.

Q: I am a secular humanist who recently married a devout Lutheran. We plan to have a family soon. How do we create a cohesive family unit with these differing faith issues? Do we need to be on the same page about religion as we do about discipline? Are there techniques for sorting out this question?

A: In many areas of parenting—discipline, for example—it is essential for parents to be on the same page. But it is entirely possible to raise children in a family with a variety of religious perspectives. What it does require is that parents set up ground rules to live by. Rule Number 1: No proselytizing! The fine art of active listening and communication has to be perfected. Use of "I" statements is an integral part of this communication ("I believe that there is a heaven") as is the invitation to seek other points of view ("but your father believes differently").

A religious education plan must be agreed upon. Partners may want to seek out professional help to bring out all of the areas that need to be talked about surrounding this issue. (See Pete Wernick's essay in Parenting Beyond Belief to get an insight into Pete and his wife's journey as they raised their son in a religiously diverse family.)

Q: I have decided that I want to take our young children to church. Going to church was a positive experience for me growing up, but I have not gone as an adult. My husband is an atheist and can't stand the idea of his children going to church. Should I take them over his objections?

A: Goodness no. NEVER take your child(ren) to a religious organization over your partner's objections. Such an act would constitute a serious breach of trust and respect. If it became a point of contention with your husband, going to church would not be a positive experience for the children no matter how wonderful the experience itself might be.

At the same time, it wouldn't be fair to you for his position to become the default. Instead, try to talk it through together. What exactly is it that he hopes to avoid, and what is it you hope to achieve? Discuss the specifics of the program your child would be exposed to instead of simply talking about "going to church" in the abstract. It should be possible to find a denomination or program that satisfies you both—or at least represents a bearable compromise. If no compromise appears possible, seek professional counseling. It is not necessary for parents to have the same belief system, but it is mandatory that they agree on how to disagree and what the ground rules are for dealing with religion and the children.

tt I have known many good people who did not believe in God. But I have never known a human being who was good who did not believe in people.

—JohnLovejoy Elliott (1868-1942), Ethical Culture leader in New York

Q: My son is on a basketball team, and I was shocked when one of the captains asked that he be allowed to lead a team prayer before the game. The coach has agreed to it. How do I handle this?

A: Assuming your son is old enough to begin taking positions of this kind— generally age 12 and up—it is best if you facilitate your child's own decision making rather than substitute your own. Knowing in advance that this will happen can allow you to work though some scenarios with your child. Some kids won't care, preferring to simply kneel and remain silent. Faced with this situation, my own son just stood outside of the kneeling circle politely and did not participate. Others might choose a more active approach.

You might want to look at the religious diversity of the members of the team. If there are other players besides your son who are not participating, you might want to point out to the coach that the prayer is not comfortable for several members of the team. He might be sensitive enough to talk with the captain. In some cases, your son might be willing to take a stand even if he is the only one affected. If so, don't miss the opportunity to praise his willingness to stand on principle, then help him to approach it reasonably and well.

As for the legality of this activity, it depends on where and how the praying is initiated. Private institutions can do as they wish in this area. Public teams cannot have a coach or teacher lead or suggest a prayer, but the team members are permitted to institute the practice independently.

Q: My daughter is constantly being asked to pray around the flagpole at her school with her friends. How can I help her say no and still be in that social group?

A: A single request politely declined would be fine. But if your daughter has politely refused to pray around the flagpole and is still being asked, this can amount to harassment, depending on the way it is asked and the ardor of the group. If her friends are persisting because they mean well and genuinely seek her companionship, they might simply need to be thanked for their good intentions and informed that her decision not to join them is final.

If she feels comfortable with the group of friends, she could engage the question of why she will not be joining them. If the invitation is mean-spirited, I would suggest that she not try to fit in with this group but find another set of friends. Joining a sports team, singing group, journalism group, or any af-terschool program can help with switching groups. Talking with the school counselor may generate some ideas about how to handle this as well as different groups to join. It will also give the administration some information about how students are feeling about this activity.

Q: My son wants to become a Boy Scout like all of his friends. We think that the Boy Scouts are homophobic, theistic elitists and certainly don't want our son joining. What do we say to our son, and are there alternatives to the Boy Scouts?

A: Although it's a good rule to involve our children in ethical decisions that impact them, some important decisions are fraught with issues too advanced or complex for children to understand or grapple with until they are older. Weighing the moral costs of membership in a group with abhorrent social positions is one situation in which parents must make the decision for very young children, and whether to join the Boy Scouts is one of the most common. We were faced with this decision in our own family when our son asked to join the Boy Scouts in early elementary school. At the time, we simply said that we disagreed with a number of positions that the Boy Scouts of America take as a group and thus he wouldn't be joining. In the later elementary years, we talked to our son about the specific policies of the Boy Scouts that we believed were ethically wrong, such as excluding potential members and leaders on the basis of belief or sexual orientation.

Fortunately there are now some alternatives to the Boy Scouts. Research Spiral Scouts or Earth Scouts online (see the Resources section for URLs), or create a program yourself after the model of the British Acorn Scouting Program.11

Q: Our first child is on the way, and I'm wondering if I should explain to my very religious mother that we will be parenting without religion—or should I just deal with it as issues come up?

A: You are going to have to address the issue of not raising your child in a specific religious faith sooner rather than later with your mother. The question of baptism will come up almost immediately, and you will have to lay your cards on the table at that point anyway.

Q: Okay, I'll take the initiative with Mom. What's the best approach?

A: Make a date specifically for this purpose. Sit down in person if at all pos-sible—and under no circumstances do this by email!

Most family conflict is not about disagreement, but about feeling dishonored and unheard. Approach with the intention to hear and honor each others' concerns, knowing that you may not actually come to agreement. Listen first, then restate your mother's concerns in your own words to let her know she has been understood. Avoid blame, avoid "but" statements ("I know you think church is important, but. . ."), and find common ground.12

For example, assure your mother that, although you are not raising your child in a specific religious tradition, you will not be excluding religious thought from the child's life—that you will, in fact, be pursuing a broad religious education, then allowing your child to decide for him- or herself what to believe when the child is old enough to do so.

Most important of all, encourage her help in this endeavor. Let her know that she will be invited to share her beliefs and traditions with the child, so long as she respects the child's right to question, doubt, and decide for herself. Knowing that she can share her faith and that you intend to raise the child with many of the values and ethics that you have been taught will go a long way in relieving tension and preserving relationships.

Q: My kids ask why people believe all these different things about religion and who is right and who is wrong. What should I tell them?

A: Depending on the developmental level of your child, there are different answers to these questions. When children are little, they might just be asking what you believe about religion. When they are in upper elementary and concerned with right and wrong and fairness, a utilitarian answer might be appropriate: "You can decide for yourself. Some would say that the religion that is right is the one that makes you the most tolerant, respectful, and good person." As they get older, you can go into religious claims that are demonstrably false (historical claims in the Bible, for example), those which are demonstra-bly true, and other claims which are completely nonempirical and will always be in question. But at every stage, in every way possible, underline the fact that she has the right to decide for herself.

Q: We have decided not to circumcise our newborn son, and my Jewish parents are really upset. How do I handle this?

A: The decision to not circumcise your child is often difficult for Jewish grandparents to accept. You should enter into the discussion with your parents so that they have a chance to air their opinions and you yours. It is likely that you will have to agree to disagree, but you will have some heavy hitters on your side: The Council on Scientific Affairs, the American Medical Association, and dozens of similar organizations around the world have issued statements calling the practice "not recommended" because of associated risks.13 The United

States is the only remaining developed country in which the practice of circumcision is still somewhat common. Even so, many American HMOs no longer cover it.

Q: We have raised our children without religion but lately I have heard them being disrespectful to people expressing religious beliefs. What should I say to them?

A: You should tell them that because your family respects people of different races and abilities and aren't rude to them, they also have to extend the same courtesy to people of various religious faiths. It's a matter of being a good person yourself. You can also make a distinction between respect for people and respect for ideas. Although ideas must earn respect, people are inherently deserving of respect.

Another way you might approach this is (if you'll excuse the phrase) by inviting he who is without sin to cast the first stone. A friend of mine once described a moment of arrogance from his preteen son: "I just don't understand how people can believe stupid things that make no sense," said the boy.

My friend thought for a moment, then said, "Uh huh. Say, could you go get me a soda from the basement?"

"I. . . but. . ." his son stammered. "I can't go into the basement by myself."

"Why not?"

"Oh," my friend said gently. "And does that make sense?"

The point was made: We all have irrational beliefs and fears. It's part of being human. My friend then shared some of his own irrational quirks with his son. There's nothing wrong with reasoned criticism, but before we throw too many stones, we have to acknowledge that no matter how thoroughly we think we've attended to our own rationality, we all live in glass houses. And that's not entirely bad. If nothing else, it can keep us humble.

I would also ask the parents to take a good hard look at what they are verbalizing about people of religious faith. Children often imitate parental behavior, and lessons about how to treat others start at home.

tt I feel no need for any other faith than my faith in the kindness of human beings. I am so absorbed in the wonder of earth and the life upon it that I cannot think of heaven and angels.

—Pearl S. Buck, human rights activist and Nobel Laureate for Literature

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