Today I started a non-sectarian Sunday School for my kids, ages 7 and 4. The goal is to teach them the main stories and teachings of the great world religions. They know that we don’t believe in any one particular religion, but I hope that they learn to understand and respect them, even if they are raised to be personally skeptical of organized religion. I also think that knowledge of the biblical tradition is very important in western culture — it amazes me these days how so many young people know so little about the Bible. More and more people are being raised in agnostic households, or by people who don’t regularly attend church. When a reference to Jonah and the whale, Daniel or even Moses goes over peoples’ heads, they are disconnecting from their cultural heritage. I also think respect for and knowledge of Islam is exceedingly important, lest they fall victim to those who propagandize that Islam is somehow an inherently violent and dangerous faith.
Part of this is to help assure our kids have the tools to avoid falling for the temptation of “conversion” if things are going bad in life. People with no knowledge of religion often grasp at it when they hear the promises, not having worked through and understood the issues involved. On the other hand, I don’t want them to be like Christopher Hitchens, hating religion and disrespecting the faith of those who believe. Religion may be a barrier to individual liberty, but it’s also going to be a major part of our world for the foreseeable future. To try to demonize it and those who believe is to be the moral equivalent of those who demonize agnostics and atheists — it’s attacking those who think differently. I hope my kids learn to respect those who think differently. Finally, there are issues for which science has no answer. There is a place for the spiritual; in my opinion, the world is essentially spirit, though I’m not yet sure what that means. I am a philosophical idealist (meaning I think ideas rather than matter is the essence of reality) and thus while I am skeptical of organized religion, I am open to religious thought and experience. Embracing a faith of materialism makes no sense to me either.
I’m going to start with the stories. Having told them that Jews, Christians and Muslims all believe in the same God, but just have very different beliefs about God, and some different stories, I’m starting with the stories they have in common, those of the Old Testament. Today we talked about Adam and Eve (our 7 year old cynically said “we evolved from things like apes, people weren’t made…” Yes, I replied, but we’re learning what people who believe these religions think. ) They liked it — they took to the story about how God had angels as helpers, the most beautiful of whom was named Lucifer. But then Lucifer wanted power, and led a rebellion against God and lost. I then tried to get them to guess on what other names Lucifer had, and I liked how a light bulb went off when Ryan realized it was “the Devil.” Again, he pointed out that there really wasn’t a devil, and I assured him we were dealing with what I consider to be like fairy tales.
But, I pointed out, they have meaning. There are reasons these religions developed these stories — there are morals behind them, lessons about life. I tried, as best I could for a seven year old, to convey the value of such symbolism. Anyway, they liked how Lucifer pretended to be a snake, got Eve and Adam (Ryan struggled a bit to remember their names at first) to try the forbidden fruit (he then remembered a Simpson’s episode based on the story), and were kicked out of the garden. Dana (the four year old) was a bit sad that they were kicked out. I briefly told them about Cain and Abel, but Dana looked at me sternly, “Daddy, that is not a good story to tell kids, it’s not appropriate.”
Finally, since it was a rainy day, I told them about Noah and the Ark, quizzing them afterwards. Ryan correctly deduced the reason for a male and female of each animal to board the ark (to have babies so they can have more), and I tried to look up Jewish interpretations of the story (as opposed to Christian) to tell it. They each thought God was really being bad by killing so many people. I said God was angry that people cared only about money, didn’t want to help others, thought only about themselves, and lied and cheated each other. They realized that young kids shouldn’t be punished for that, and decided this wasn’t a very good deity. I reminded them it was a story, symbolizing the same thing the snake in the garden symbolized — good and bad ways of living, with the idea that bad ways get punished. (“But that’s what karma does,” Ryan interjected — OK, I guess he’s already had some eastern thought). Yes, this is just a story, remember?
They were relieved when I told them that God felt bad about what was done, and sent a symbol to promise never to kill everyone in the world again. I started describing it, and soon Ryan yelled out “a rainbow!” I then quizzed him on the stories, and he had them down pat (the kid has a great memory for details). He said he didn’t think he’d like this “Sunday school” idea because he knows church is boring (though he’s never experienced it), and thought it would just be about stories of what people thought of God (which in his mind is a Simpsons version of God and church). He’s now looking forward for more.
My plan over the next few years is just go over the basics of the major religions — the myths, stories, and individuals. Then we’ll go back as the kids get older and get into the philosophical questions, comparing the religions, and finally as they get towards their teens go into the various sects within each faith. I hope they emerge with a spiritual consciousness, an understanding of their own and other cultures, an immunity from religious indoctrination, but an openness to diverse ideas. At the very least, we’ll go over the moral and ethical issues that religions address, and make them relevant even if we don’t have a belief in a particular God. We’ll see how this goes!