Atheist Christianity Instruction
December 19, 2011 6:30 PM   Subscribe

Secular, but socially sensitive, ways to teach five-year-old about Christianity?

I am an atheist living in the Bible Belt of Georgia, but my daughter gets along well with others and I want to keep it that way.

Most of my daughter's friends are Christian. For this reason, I think she should have some idea what her friends are talking about; enough anyway that she will understand the gravity of the situation, and at least know not to laugh.

I am really torn about how to teach the topic to her.

So far, my best idea is to tell her about some of the ethical claims that Jesus made, such as the Golden Rule and the idea that rich people should share, and to follow it up by saying that some people think he had magic powers, such as to turn water into something else.

How does that sound? Any other advice? Thanks.
posted by Eiwalker to Education (28 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
My kids have some pretty basic Bible story books, and we talk a lot about Jesus in the sense of being a good person to emulate in many ways (when my older daughter was in kindergarten, she got the idea that he was a lot like Martin Luther King, Jr.).

We are atheist but also Unitarian Universalists so our kids have a vague sense of what it means to be religious and to be respectful of people's faith, although they haven't yet studied Christianity specifically in their religious education courses. I feel it's important to fill in the blanks as I can, because I grew up in a very religious household and remember my agnostic best friend having a hard time with symbolism and theme in AP English, in situations where I found the answers as obvious as breathing. So I think the stories are important as folklore, just like you can't really understand a lot of Western literature without a grasp of Greek or Roman mythology, you need to know Bible stories inside and out, too. But my kids also have books of fables and books of mythology from different cultures.

I haven't hit all the marks yet; I learned just this evening that while my younger daughter totally gets the Christmas/Jesus, Christmas/Santa dichotomy she had no idea that Easter had a Jesus connection, and figured we went to Grandma's church on Easter just because it happened to be Sunday and we happened to be visiting.
posted by padraigin at 6:40 PM on December 19, 2011 [9 favorites]

My gut tells me this is the sort of thing parents think might be an issue but won't be an issue at all for kids. I'll wait until my kid asks who Jesus was to explain Christianity to him. When he asks, I'll probably hew closely to what you're saying -- he was a teacher from 2000 years ago and some people think he was the son of God. I might leave out the magic part -- that sounds disrespectful, and I'd like my kid to have some respect Christianity (as well as every other religion). I have no idea how I'll explain who God is. Watch Star Wars with him again? Man. I will be interested in the other responses here, let me tell you.
posted by incessant at 6:41 PM on December 19, 2011

Do you know for a fact that your daughter is hearing things about Christianity that she doesn't understand, and that this troubles her? Because in my experience, when kids this age hear about things that are outside their worldview, they don't make too much of it. In particular, I really doubt your daughter would laugh at a Christian kid absent your intervention.

My son is six, we are Jewish, and we live in a mostly Christian city. He knows that a building with a cross on it is a church, and he knows that Jesus was a guy who lived a long time ago who was very wise and gave people a lot of good advice like "be kind to other people" and "give charity to people who don't have enough," and that Christmas is his birthday. I don't see any need for your daughter to have any more acquaintance with Christianity than that for now, unless her friends are actually quizzing her about whether she's saved -- are they?
posted by escabeche at 6:44 PM on December 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

North Carolina atheist here - we treated the question of God and Jesus in much the same way as we treated Santa Claus: "Most people around here believe in this, we don't, but the people who do believe it take it really seriously, so don't talk to your friends about it, because they'll be upset to hear that you don't think it's real." This was when he was about 4 - 6; he's now 9 and happy to let his atheist flag fly (he tells all his classmates and teachers that we celebrate Winter Solstice in our house instead of Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa.)
posted by Daily Alice at 6:45 PM on December 19, 2011 [8 favorites]

You might want to think about some way to prepare her for the moment when unbeknownst to you, some well meaning Christian adult tries to scare her into believing by telling her (and probably a whole group of kids that she's with) that people who don't accept Jesus into their heart spend eternity in the fires of hell. I can remember this happening to me a few different times when I was around 5 years old or so, and I remember a period of a couple of weeks or so during which I was worried that my parents were going to end up in hell because I thought they didn't know about Jesus. When you're a kid, and and adult starts telling you that kind of stuff, and you look around and all the other kids appear to be taking it seriously, it's hard not to also take it seriously. Well, that was a long time ago (1970s), maybe people don't try to surreptitiously scare little kids with hellfire anymore.
posted by smcameron at 6:46 PM on December 19, 2011

I'm a liberal Christian, my husband is an atheist-leaning agnostic. I told my 5-year-old daughter that Christians believe that God is a force in the Universe that wants us to be nice to each other, and that Jesus was a man who had some good ideas about how to implement that suggestion. I also told her that most Christians believe that Jesus was the son of God, like God put on a person costume to walk around on Earth, but that I don't think that's as important as listening to what the dude purportedly had to say. I'll get into the miracles stuff in a couple of years.
posted by KathrynT at 6:49 PM on December 19, 2011 [6 favorites]

Well, that was a long time ago (1970s), maybe people don't try to surreptitiously scare little kids with hellfire anymore.

The nine-year-old next door tried it with my kid, so sadly they do.
posted by KathrynT at 6:51 PM on December 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

I don't have kids didn't come from a Christian background (raised Muslim, one of maybe 3 in my whole elementary school. Two of which were my sister and I).

Generally, I think it's best to avoid details. Tell your daughter that there are many ways people try and understand the world. Ultimately, everybody's doing the same thing - Atheist, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, etc. Everyone, even atheists, all have the same goal - we're all trying to understand what the world is about. But people just come up with different ideas.

I wouldn't try and place things in a binary system of just Atheism and Christianity, but explain that that there are so many different people, and naturally, different people will have different ideas of what all this "stuff" means. Remind her that it's ok to think differently, as long as you try hard to respect people's differences.

I think explaining god vs. non god stuff is more difficult to explain than the different god-based religions. I struggle with this when my deistic-raised nieces and nephews ask auntie-athiest-me about how I figure things out without believing in god(s). I mostly just say that some people need different religious books to give them guidance. For others, their heart is enough. In general, I would avoid details and keep things very broad unless your daughter asks for specifics.
posted by raztaj at 6:58 PM on December 19, 2011 [6 favorites]

"I don't have kids (AND) didn't come from a Christian background "
posted by raztaj at 6:59 PM on December 19, 2011

You can probably find some good support for the sort of attitudes I suspect you're hoping to cultivate here in your local UU congregation. I'm quite certain the RE teachers there have books that'll be helpful.

I do not recommend you use the word "magic," because chances are she'll repeat it at some point and that will almost certainly start a fight.
posted by SMPA at 7:07 PM on December 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

I might add that it would be a good idea to coach the kids in how to respond when they tell people they/you are atheists.
posted by elizeh at 7:09 PM on December 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

I don't believe in god, but my parents are practising Catholics. When my daughter stays with them in the summers, she sometimes goes to church with them. She knows they believe in God and I do not. When she asks questions about their religion, I just tell her what I know (10 years of Catholic school, I have some answers) and say "That's what most Catholics believe. That's probably what your grandparents believe, but you can always ask them about it." And I let her know that it's not what I believe. What I don't ever do is say "That's not what we believe." She's her own person, she can decide what she believes on her own. (When last we checked in, she told me she half believes what my parents believe and half believes what I believe. I figure she's just trying to be diplomatic.)

I tend to agree that it's the kind of thing that isn't terribly problematic for the kid. Don't worry so much about what you should be teaching her about christianity, just answer her questions when she asks them. My standard preface to any question I know the answer to is "Some people believe..." I answer neutrally and factually about the belief. If I don't know the answer, I admit that I don't know. If she wants to look it up, we look it up. A lot of the time, she drops it.

I have exactly zero investment in her being an atheist, though. If it's important to you that your daughter be an atheist, or eschew Christianity, you might want to take a different approach.
posted by looli at 7:26 PM on December 19, 2011 [4 favorites]

Also, I don't know if this will help, but to riff on raztaj's good advice, I once explained my Christian nephew (who was bilingual) that religions were like languages, and the way "agua" means "water" to someone in Mexico but not the U.S. (oversimplifying it, I know), each religion is just a different language trying to say the same thing in different words. Then I told him that atheism was a little different, because atheists use experiments and math instead of going to church, but that it was just their way of doing the same thing: understanding how the world works.

He seemed to accept it. He was about 5 at the time.
posted by elizeh at 7:27 PM on December 19, 2011 [3 favorites]

The thing about being five is, if you say something offbeat or unexpected at that age — especially about a Grown Up Topic like religion — adults will do two things: first, they laugh at you, and then they tell you "don't worry" and refuse to explain what was so funny.

So for little five-year-old agnosticly-raised me, things like "Is God real?" or "What happens after death?" or "Am I going to Hell?"... well, I might have worried about them at that age, but I don't remember it. My concerns were more like "If So-and-so's parents ask me to say grace before lunch again, what can I say that won't make them snicker and whisper about me?" Or "So-and-so thinks it's weird that I can't remember the name of our church. What's so weird about that? We only go once a year!"
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:34 PM on December 19, 2011

I was raised in a religiously diverse environment, and the line my parents took was, "Different families believe different things." When I asked my parents what my Mormon/Hindu/Jewish/atheist/Buddhist/Muslim/Lutheran/whatever friends believed, I generally got brief, factually accurate answers within their certain knowledge (i.e., don't make stuff up), always speaking as if my friends' beliefs were reasonable and benign. (Just use the word miracle, not magic, and say some people believe they occur, but our family doesn't.)

"Different families believe different things" was plenty of information for me, most of the time, at five. Be careful not to overanswer what your child isn't asking. "Why does Sarah celebrate Hannukah instead of Christmas?" -- the answer I needed was, "Because her family's Jewish." I was looking for the category name. I didn't need the whole story of Hannukah, and why PEOPLE IN GENERAL might celebrate Hannukah. Those questions came later on, and I would ask, "But why is Hannukah special?" or whatever.

I recall the specifics began to become more important around 9 or 10.

The "different families believe different things" had the side effect of making me understand, as a small child, that this was a parental issue and that if someone asked me questions about MY religion, that was something they ought to be talking to my parents about. Not that in my very diverse town there were many converter-types -- it would not have been comfortable or welcoming for them -- but it was standard practice to ask in advance if you had church plans Sunday morning after a Saturday sleepover, or if you wanted to tag along (in case your parents made you go but would "count" it if you went with a friend), and I understood to refer those questions to my mom.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:34 PM on December 19, 2011

So far, my best idea is to tell her about some of the ethical claims that Jesus made, such as the Golden Rule and the idea that rich people should share, and to follow it up by saying that some people think he had magic powers, such as to turn water into something else.
I'd include the part about how Jesus claimed to be God's son, as well as a bit about who they believe God is. Between that and what you've mentioned, you'll have covered most of what the five-year-old set will be discussing vis-à-vis Jesus. I probably wouldn't use the word "magic" to describe his powers.
posted by BurntHombre at 9:15 PM on December 19, 2011

I don't think it's a subject you have to broach. In terms of causing offence, children pretty quickly adjust to their surroundings, and I think it's quite unlikely they'd laugh, for instance.

Other than that, I'd find a good children's version of the bible and read it to them. I enjoyed the old testament blood and thunder stuff when I was growing up, in much the same way as I enjoyed Grimm's and Aesop. Apart from being pretty fun they're important for understanding a lot of cultural references.
posted by Marlinspike at 9:25 PM on December 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

Ditto some sort of children's Bible stories book - it's just something people should be culturally literate in, like Greek mythology or something (you do have a D'Aulaire's Book of Greek Myths, right?) - but also it might be an means of easing into conversations about what people believe, which you've gotten some great advice on above.
posted by naoko at 10:00 PM on December 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

I told my grandmother's devout Catholic caregiver:" We Jews know he existed, we know he was a rabbi, but we don't believe he was the Messiah"
posted by brujita at 11:10 PM on December 19, 2011

Some people on this thread have asked whether my daughter's friends have quizzed her about religion, or threatened her with Hellfire. The answer to both of these questions is yes. Furthermore, there has been speculation on this thread that a five-year-old probably wouldn't laugh about religion, although that's not true her in case: she has laughed about it, which has offended her peers.

The most serious example is from two days ago. Not only did she get threatened will Hellfire by an 11-year-old girl who she looks up to, but that girl said that the Devil is what makes me not believe it. So, my daughter has not only been told that she is Hell-bound if she doesn't accept Jesus into her life; she has also been told that her dad's beliefs are driven by the Devil.

I am not sure how to handle this.

I teach philosophy for a living, so it's like having a nightmare about being tortured by F students.

Several people on this thread have recommended that I teach my daughter with a kid's Bible. However, I do not like that idea, as I think it's such a misleading way to introduce a person to the Bible. For those kid's Bibles omit most of the bad parts. They only include stories that appeal to kids, which makes them a kind of pro-Bible brainwashing. As a literary text, however, one must face the fact that unabridged Christian Bibles have thousands of "anomalies", many of which are cataloged in the "Skeptic's Annotated Bible".

Do I want my daughter to be a Christian? Honestly, no. I would prefer that she stay friendly and generous, and develop other talents. With that said, I like the idea of teaching her about many religions, and letting her decide whether to believe one or none at all. She already has Hindu friends, and at least one Jewish friend. I think it would help to give them as examples. That way she (a) won't feel so outnumbered by Christians, and (b) won't depersonalize non-Christian religions, in which case the decision to be Christian or something else will be more fair. I also like the idea of the Unitarian Universalist church, as they are so accepting of diversity. My wife and I got married in one, officiated by an atheist math professor.
posted by Eiwalker at 1:23 AM on December 20, 2011

So, my daughter has not only been told that she is Hell-bound if she doesn't accept Jesus into her life; she has also been told that her dad's beliefs are driven by the Devil.

When I was about 5, I was told by a kid at school that I would go to hell for eating a ham sandwich at lunchtime (this was in the UK, and we were both Muslim). My mom, when I told her about this, just said that was what he believed but that didn't mean it was true, and that no one was going to hell. She was so un-flustered by it that it calmed me down too. I think your kid probably looks up to you MUCH more than she does this other girl at school, and as long as you reassure her and make it clear that everyone has different beliefs and, sadly, some people can be obnoxious about it, she will be fine.

But I came into this thread to heartily second the suggestion of giving your daughter lots of child-friendly books about different religions. It's not only entertaining and educational, but it will help her put things into context and really help her to become a citizen of the world in the way that the other "hellfire and damnation" kids would find more difficult.

My mom is Muslim, but very liberal and doesn't follow any of the traditional strictures, and my dad is vehemently atheist. I grew up basically absorbing their beliefs but not really being told what to believe. (I identify as Muslim now, of the same stripe as my mom.) I learned about religion through kids' books about different beliefs - tales from Christianity (I remember really enjoying the Old Testament but being bored to death by the New), Islam, Hinduism (my favourite) and Buddhism.
posted by Ziggy500 at 2:50 AM on December 20, 2011 [4 favorites]

Not only did she get threatened will Hellfire by an 11-year-old girl who she looks up to, but that girl said that the Devil is what makes me not believe it.

Wow, OK. So I think my earlier answer doesn't really apply.

My new answer is to teach your daughter do things the proper Southern way. She should respond to every such remark with a friendly and completely disengaged "You don't say!"
posted by escabeche at 5:50 AM on December 20, 2011

In terms of what tone to take when teaching your daughter about what other people think -- this is gonna sound weird, but you may want to take a page from what a nun from one of my Sunday School classes did when she was teaching us 7-year-olds about Judeo-Christian relations. She actually boiled it down in a really fair and equitable way -- Jews and Christians had their roots in the same stuff, she said, it's just that Christians thought that Jesus was the Messiah that had been promised, and Jews didn't. She didn't imply that they were wrong or bad or misguided or anything like that, the tone was like -- "we think He's the Messiah, they don't. No big. God loves us all anyway."

Maybe an approach like that - "some people believe this, we don't, but we're also different in some other ways too" (maybe talk about how we're all different hair colors or we all like different flavors ice cream or something), "and those differences don't matter as long as everyone still is nice to each other and knows how to get along."

Now, in terms of if other kids are picking on her for her beliefs -- I'd stress that it's not right for them to be doing that. Kind of like how it's not nice to tease people for different ice cream flavor preference or hair color or anything like that. So it's not fair for those kids to be picking on her, just like it also wouldn't be fair for her to be picking on them. KIds who do that are bullies, and it's okay to treat them like bullies.

As for the 11-year-old -- I think that may be something you want to handle yourself, because seriously, what the fuck is an 11-year-old doing trying to witness to a KINDERGARTENER? I mean, I actually do know -- Charismatic Christian witnessing combined with 11-year-old zeal can be pretty powerful. But asking your five-year-old to try to stand up to this 11-year-old may be a little beyond her grasp, and it may be time to get Mama Bear on the brat.

Or escalate it to HER mother. ("I understand your daughter means well, but she told me to my face that I was being mislead by the devil -- and I'm sure you wouldn't approve of your daugher doing something disrespectful to her elders, yes?....")
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:30 AM on December 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

Not only did she get threatened will Hellfire by an 11-year-old girl who she looks up to, but that girl said that the Devil is what makes me not believe it.

Aw, hell no. That is some bullshit. I feel like my approach suggested above is too fair and polite for this kind of proselytizing. For this, I think I would probably tell my kid that the other kid is just flat-out wrong. There might be some respectful way to couch that (like saying that it's an extreme take on the bible and most Christians don't feel that way or something) but the most important thing here is to reassure your child that she, and you, are going to be just fine.

I was coming here originally to post this link about Santa, which also kind of encapsulates the way I approach talking about God.

My heart goes out to you. I have a (punk rock, socialist, atheist) friend who lives in the Canadian bible belt (more of a loose fitting sash, really) and his older teenage son is born again. My friend and his wife would give anything to have the kid smoking pot and engaging in petty vandalism instead.
posted by looli at 8:33 AM on December 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

I grew up in a more or less non-religious household, surrounded mostly by Hindus (in India). My father's family was Christian and my mother's family was Hindu. I don't remember my parents ever explicitly teaching me to be non-religious (I'm an atheist now) -- it was just something that made sense, given all the other stuff that they taught me -- such as a love for science, philosophy, math. God was a non-presence in our lives, but I understood early on that religion was very important to other people and that I needed to respect that. So we celebrated Hindu festivals for the sake of my Hindu grandparents and Christian festivals for the sake of my Christian grandmother and aunts (my paternal grandfather was an atheist).

At the same time if someone had told me that I would burn in hell forever, I would have been told in no uncertain terms that that person was wrong. We would often have discussions about various Hindu epics, or Christian bible stories, from a theological point of view. I was taught to compare and contrast various religious beliefs, to know that pork was anathema to a Muslim or a Jew, that I needed to step over the temple lintels in Hindu temples, that I needed to attend Christian church services with my grandmother on my grandfather's death anniversary. And I was also taught that this was the way we got along with a religious world, that I could believe whatever I wanted, but that it was also important to be polite, let it go, not stand on principle all the time.

My parents were great at taking things that happened in the outside world and explaining them to me, taking away their sting a little, contextualizing them. Kids are capable of understanding a lot more than we give them credit for.
posted by peacheater at 11:18 AM on December 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

Several people on this thread have recommended that I teach my daughter with a kid's Bible. However, I do not like that idea, as I think it's such a misleading way to introduce a person to the Bible. For those kid's Bibles omit most of the bad parts. They only include stories that appeal to kids, which makes them a kind of pro-Bible brainwashing.

Well, the truth is that you're not going to turn your 5 year old into someone who rattles off a bunch of Bible contradictions in a theological argument with her Christian friends. At a certain point, all accessible texts for children that teach what the religion is all about are "pro-XYZ brainwashing." If you want to teach your child about any religion (even from an academic POV), ultimately the material is going to have a subtle undercurrent of pro-that-religion bias.
posted by deanc at 2:30 PM on December 20, 2011

Several people on this thread have recommended that I teach my daughter with a kid's Bible. However, I do not like that idea, as I think it's such a misleading way to introduce a person to the Bible. For those kid's Bibles omit most of the bad parts. They only include stories that appeal to kids, which makes them a kind of pro-Bible brainwashing.

A Bible story book isn't going to brainwash her. It didn't brainwash me. I loved this sucker when I was a kid, and I've been an atheist my whole life.

The same goes for her friends, by the way. They're not going to brainwash her. Now, after reading your update, it sounds like some of them are being real bullies, and that's definitely uncool. But it sounds to me like you could stand to worry less about the religious angle and more about the bullying angle. The real question here maybe isn't "How can I make sure she adopts the right attitude towards Christianity?" It might be more "How can I make sure she feels safe and supported and knows where to go for help when older kids are picking on her?"
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:10 PM on December 20, 2011

Ultimately, you're going to have to shape things around your child. At 4, I *demanded* to go to Sunday School because all of my friends were going and they were telling me weird, conflicting stuff and I was confused and school was supposed to be good so....

And my parents, extremely liberal, non-observant Jews, sent me to Jewish Sunday School even though they hadn't planned on doing so because....well, if I wanted it THAT badly and I was going to have to learn eventually, might as well. My sister decided to go much later, went for far fewer years and didn't go to Hebrew School (which yes, I am probably the only Jew in the history of the religion who insisted on going to Hebrew school). My brother didn't go until he was 9 or 10, which resulted in a fair amount of having to deprogram him from the Jesus-talk at home. But parents didn't like the Sunday School teachers for his age group so....we dealt with brother coming home at 4 and 5 and 6 telling us we were all going to hell and that he believed in Jesus (he's a perfectly happy agnostic with Jewish ethical tendencies now who can't remember ever saying any of that stuff, so it all turned out ok:) ).

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that you should let her lead. My parents ended up with one kid exactly like them, one fairly observant kid, and one who leans atheist but identifies as Jewish, so it worked out. My parents also pushed some comparative religion. Mostly they let us ask questions and answered honestly..and didn't tell us that we had to believe anything in particular (or do anything in particular--Sunday School was because Judaism is a religion where you are at a significant disadvantage if you've had no education early on, plus a way to make similar friends who could help deal with the proselytizing angle).

I actually got anti-missionary training in Sunday School, but I think that's something you could easily do at home as well. Just practice, role-playing with her, scenarios where she has to deal with this so that she has a script. I'll admit that I was uncomfortable with being told I was going to hell until I was 13 or so, when I started finding it funny. Honestly, I see nothing wrong with laughing at that (maybe not at age 5, but certainly in the teenage years). Laughter is powerful medicine against the Senses-Taker.

I'm going to agree with others that it's ok for her to not get the full 'and here's what's wrong with this story' version at age 5. She'll get there. That isn't to say you can't encourage her to ask questions about the stories and, if she comes up with them on her own, talk about the inconsistencies.

Anyway. Long-winded. Follow her lead. Give her what she needs, when she needs it. Give her resources so she has the material to ask intelligent questions. Try to find a scenario where she can meet like-minded friends. And practice ways of dealing with the missionary thing because unless she chooses one of the predominant forms of Christianity, she's going to be dealing with it her whole life. (It still happens to me at least once a year. I have a whole script down.) At that age though, I had the best luck treating pronouncements like that with the same sort of response you'd use for 'you're fat' or any other playground insult.
posted by eleanna at 11:51 PM on December 20, 2011

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