Some brief and poorly thought-out considerations about religious education

I went looking, and this was the most heinous Sunday School graphic I could find. I’m sure there are worse ones out there, but this is good enough for me.

Some background, before I get to the actual reason I’m writing this: I am, if such a thing actually exists, biologically Catholic. What I mean by that is that my family on both sides is Catholic, and while I was not raised to be religious (and have, in fact, considered myself to be an atheist since about 2nd grade) the type of religion I am most familiar with is Catholicism, and I actually taught at a Catholic school for three years with no particular problems. I can fake Catholicism to a degree that I can’t with other religions, to say nothing of other forms of Christianity.

I also have undergraduate degrees in Religious Studies and Jewish Studies, and a Master’s degree in Biblical studies, with a concentration in the Old Testament.

This means that I don’t believe a single thing about your religion or your holy book and I know more about it than you do. Which is a dangerous combination, frankly.

My wife attended a Catholic school until high school, and went through all of the traditional accoutrements of growing up Catholic. We got married in a greenhouse with my best friend using her Universal Life Church ministry credential to officiate, so it … uh, didn’t stick? And honestly by now she might be more anti-Catholic than I am, to be honest. I’ve mellowed as I’ve gotten older, which seems weird to say but is actually true.

On the way home from his birthday shopping trip yesterday, the boy pipes up that he has a question for us. We agree to hear said question.

“What’s the name of the guy from the Bible again?”

I avoided having a stroke while driving out of sheer willpower, folks. My wife cracked up so hard she could barely breathe.

He meant Jesus, of course.

Christians (and I assume members of other religions, but I live in America, so it’s mostly Christian sources that I see this from) love to pretend that kids are somehow naturally religious and can sort of intuit the existence of God on their own, and my kid has been the closest thing I’ve ever seen to a pure refutation of that idea. He knows nothing about religion. We don’t go to church, we didn’t have him baptized (I was strapped, packed, and ready for that fight with my mother-in-law, and it never happened) and no one in the family is the type to pray before meals. He’s been to a couple of funerals, and I’m pretty sure that’s been his whole and entire exposure to religion, whether Christianity, Judaism or anything else. I think he has a vague conception that Jesus was generally a pretty nice guy but beyond that? He thinks Easter is a bunny holiday (my Mom always got him a basket, but that’s fallen away since she died) and Christmas is when your parents buy you presents. That’s it.

(For the record, if forced at gunpoint to join a religion, I would be a Muslim, but that’s an entire separate conversation.)

Anyway, a long lead-in to a pretty basic question: all of this has me wondering where exactly my responsibilities lie to at least give the kid a basic familiarity with at least some of the beliefs that nearly everyone he encounters throughout his day holds. Like, I’m not religious, and I don’t especially want him to be religious, but I’m also not entirely sure that I want him living in a pit of ignorance about what religion is, at least well enough that he can recognize some of the more culturally relevant Bible stories and maybe sketch out some of the differences between some of the major world religions. And that he doesn’t refer to Jesus as “the guy from the Bible” again. I was fervently hoping that he meant Moses; I don’t think he’s ever even heard of Moses.

(I also don’t want him to get a little bit older and get sucked into some sort of fundamentalist horseshit somehow because he doesn’t have any inoculation against it.)

I’ve always said my parents’ big mistake was throwing dinosaur books and Greek mythology at me before my grandmother got me a book of Bible stories; I couldn’t see why the Bible didn’t mention dinosaurs or why I should take these myths any more seriously than those myths, and absent any parental pressure to the contrary that was it for religion for me. Maybe I should toss a book of Bible stories at him to see how he reacts. I mean, other than ducking and getting out of the way.

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Luther M. Siler

The author of SKYLIGHTS, THE BENEVOLENCE ARCHIVES and several other books.

4 thoughts on “Some brief and poorly thought-out considerations about religious education

  1. He is old enough to be exposed to the idea of religion and given basic inoculation against being brainwashed by a fundamentalist sect. After that, let his questions lead the discussion.
    Disclaimer: I am in name a Methodist Christian. I haven’t been to church in decades except with my dad about 3 times a year. Not too fond of where the church has gone in the last years.

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  2. One needs to know enough about the Christian origin story to understand why Monty Python’s Life of Brian is funny.

    My friend raised her kids pagan and they didn’t get it at all. She was very disappointed. Personally, I was in high school before I found out Easter was a Christian holiday; I knew some Bible stories but only in the same context as any other stories you read/get read to you in childhood. Enough to make Life of Brian funny, anyway.

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  3. Lovely post! When our pre-school daughter asked for Simon bread, it took us a head-scratching while to discover it was pittà bread and wondered where she had picked this up. We got married in a registry office (Fluke House!) and our two girls were not baptised. Their local primary school was Church of England, so they were exposed to hymns and simple church services from five to eight years. So yes, they got told bible stories and asked questions. We told them different people believed different things and they would be able to make up their own minds about this. When pressed, we admitted that although some of the people in the stories may have been real, we didn’t believe in the stories that had grown up around them – no angels or devils, no hell or heaven etc. The results have been fine and none of the angst from my 3 years of Belgian Roman Catholic convent boarding school has troubled them.

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