Converting a 10 year old Christian to atheism through books.
July 30, 2012 3:15 PM   Subscribe

Converting a 10 year old Christian to atheism through books.

My aunt's family is deeply religious to the point that my atheism seriously offends them. They also live in a place where English books are hard to come by for their young sons (my cousins), so they've relied on book donations from the rest of the family.

Which is why I think it'll be fun to try to convert their 10 year old son to atheism through books, or at least try to expose him to different perspectives on religion.

The 10 year old is a voracious reader. As long as the title of the book isn't explicitly anti-religious, or if it doesn't look like it's aimed for girls (don't ask) his parents won't care. He really likes books with adventure (e.g Tintin) and science, but he'll read anything.

So, Mefites, what are some atheistic-leaning children's books? Were there any books you read as a child that changed your perspectives on religion?

Some ideas:
* His Dark Materials
* Cosmos, by Carl Sagan
posted by facehugger to Religion & Philosophy (40 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
"I think it'll be fun to try to convert their 10 year old son to atheism"

This is probably a very bad idea for so many reasons. I would be deeply offended if someone attempted to change my child's beliefs because it would be "fun".
posted by HuronBob at 3:18 PM on July 30, 2012 [150 favorites]

I'm all for giving the kid lots and lots of reading material. My brothers and I loved Isaac Asimov's children's books when we were kids.

But I am not down with trying to turn your aunt's kid into an atheist. How would you feel if she tried to convert your kid to Christianity?
posted by peacrow at 3:20 PM on July 30, 2012 [18 favorites]

Chariots of the Gods (as BS as it is) is what did it for me.
posted by bottlebrushtree at 3:21 PM on July 30, 2012

I realized I didn't believe in god around 7 or 8 years old.

May I suggest feeding him books that will foster a love of science and healthy skepticism, rather than trying to "convert" him to atheist? When I was a kid, I read tons of sciencey things (both through magazines, nonfiction books, and fictional things like Michael Crichton) and books that present the world as not always awesome (Animal Farm, Brave New World), frequently at ages that would probably be considered highly inappropriate by most people.

I would approach it from the angle of "broadening his horizons" rather than shoving another type of dogma down his throat. Give him enough information to come to his own conclusions.
posted by phunniemee at 3:21 PM on July 30, 2012 [31 favorites]

phunniemee said what I should have said. There's nothing wrong with fostering a love for science (unless, of course, this plays deeply into their beliefs in some way), but approach it with a positive spin, not a "change" or "that's all wrong" spin.
posted by HuronBob at 3:23 PM on July 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

Although I am dubious about the aim, as stated above, I nonetheless strongly suggest Small Gods by Terry Pratchett. I enjoyed that book very much for years before I became an atheist.
posted by Countess Elena at 3:29 PM on July 30, 2012 [6 favorites]

It'd be fun to manipulate a child's worldview in a way that aligns it more to your own solely out of spite for what his overzealous parents believe? I hope you've misrepresented the flippant nature of your intention here, as the way you've written it makes you sound like a world-class goon.

Giving you the benefit of the doubt, however: my father bought me a Funk and Wagnall's picture encyclopedia when I was a little kid. I can think of no one thing that got me more excited about science and the world around me than that book. I poured over the 'Creatures of the Deep Sea' section in particular for untold hours.

Maybe a get membership to a local science museum would also be appreciated.
posted by Pecinpah at 3:34 PM on July 30, 2012 [11 favorites]

Please please don't. As a 10 year old raised UU/agnostic, I encountered some adults who tried to convert me to Christianity without my parents' knowledge and in their absence. I felt deeply offended, and I imagine that a Christian child would feel the same about the reverse kind of attempt. 10 is not too young to see what's going on when your cousin sends you only books that attempt to discredit your belief system. I think you will lose your cousin's respect and trust if you "try to convert" him.

phunniemee and HuronBob are right: foster a love of science, and an interest in argument and debate. And then maybe when he's a little bit older, 16 or 17 or so, you can approach him as an adult and as an equal and have a discussion about why you think his family's beliefs are wrong.
posted by snorkmaiden at 3:36 PM on July 30, 2012 [27 favorites]

This seems like a good way to alienate their whole family so that you'll never be allowed to send anything to this child again (or potentially even have contact with the child). If you feel you must do this, stick to books about science and the world. But please reconsider this.
posted by McPuppington the Third at 3:39 PM on July 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

Don't do this.

If anything, just be that one person in this kid's life who'll give him Secular Books. Devoutly religious kids tend to grow up with a lot of Illustrated Children's Bibles, The Chronicles Of Narnia, and the like. More and more -- and you mention English books are hard to come by, so I'm not sure if this applies to the kid in question -- there's a whole parallel world of Appropriate Reading Material in fundamentalist families.

So you can be on the side of good here without directly attempting to make the kid an atheist, simply by being the one adult who's going to give him Harry Potter and Bridge to Terabithia and My Side of the Mountain, while everyone else is giving him things that are Christian Approved.
posted by Sara C. at 3:42 PM on July 30, 2012 [10 favorites]

Were there any books you read as a child that changed your perspectives on religion?

I was raised in a fundamentalist church full of angry, miserable, dysfunctional people who did their best to inculcate me with beliefs that women are naturally inferior and should be submissive to men (and a boy becomes a man at 13 so adult women should be submissive to male 13 year olds), that gay people are disgusting, etc.

I was not allowed to read any atheist material (or anything on any other religions) so atheist material had no bearing at all on my perspective on that church as I grew up.

Two things formed my perspective:

1. Being a logical, intelligent person and being irritated by things that were illogical. And being irritated when demonstrably false statements were held out to be true. (Like being told I was inferior to my male peers, who were a bunch of barely literate pubescent doofuses into hitting each other with sticks). So, I would say that building up your cousin's capacity for logical thinking and irritation towards untruth will be a good thing in this scenario.

2. Seeing the life I wished I had for myself. Encountering the sorts of adults I wished I could spend time around, that I wished I had in my family, that I hoped to become like when I grew up. I encountered these people in real life in my town, and I read about them in books.

I watched these people and I thought about them, and I saw the kinds of values that they had. I saw the things they approved of and I saw the things they disapproved of. As a child, when you see the hateful, spiteful, and dysfunctional people who are making your life absolutely miserable are the ones ranting about their superiority to everyone else who's not them, while the people who you wished were your parents were openminded, thoughtful, tolerant, emotionally stable, and kind to others, you learn a lot from that.

So I would say, maybe think about what kind of life your cousin might like to have, and see if you can find him examples of people who are living that way. Those people might be Christians. And if so I think you should respect that. I think you should reframe this in your mind into - you are trying to help your cousin grow into a good man who is happy. Not necessarily someone who subscribes to your own ideas of the truth.
posted by cairdeas at 3:46 PM on July 30, 2012 [22 favorites]

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Haven't read it since age 10, but it's still my paradigmatic case for Why We Can't Have Nice Creator-Gods.
posted by feral_goldfish at 3:47 PM on July 30, 2012

I don't think you should frame this as "converting him to atheism through books." A lot of smart kids are really sensitive to any hint of preachiness (of any sort) or any perception of an adult shoving something on them "for their own good." You don't want to make reading a chore by weighting it with family and religious baggage. Also, there's no need to make this an antagonistic thing where you shove books at him in direct opposition to his parents' beliefs. Part of being a voracious reader as a kid is reading broadly, and having that inform your world view in a natural, organic sort of way. You don't need to pepper him with the best of anti-religious children's literature for him to question his parents' beliefs. For example, for me, reading the ostensibly Christian Chronicles of Narnia made me less religious. I cried over the Last Battle, then got angry: I thought it was fucked up what happened to Susan, and I was intensely dissatisfied with the general tone of the ending.

That said, His Dark Materials is a good place to start, if you're not worried about your cousin instantly running to his parents as soon as he hits the first really sacrilegious bits. I loved those books at that age, and while I find them a little too stridently anti-religious now, the conclusion of the series made a big impact on me.

I'll also second the recommendation for Terry Pratchett, but I wouldn't suggest starting him off with a Discworld book. I'd suggest Pratchett's stand-alone YA novel Nation instead (male and female protagonists, deeply humane and compassionate worldview, respect for science, and hilarious as a bonus).

But seriously, don't be that asshole trying to score points in an intra-familial religious debate by sucking a kid into it. You don't need to give him "atheist" books, you just need to give him books that will expand his horizons, and secular classics or YA favorites will do that just fine.
posted by yasaman at 3:48 PM on July 30, 2012 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: I guess I am a world class goon.

When the idea first popped into my head (an hour ago) I thought it was funny, but after reading through the comments I understand how manipulative and condescending it is.

Won't be doing it.

Let's change this question into: Were there any books you read as a child that changed/broadened your perspectives on religion?
posted by facehugger at 3:51 PM on July 30, 2012 [16 favorites]

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series, believe it or not, when I was 12. Its effect wasn't immediate but I think it did a lot for me in the long run of making any worldly religion seem a little too small for the whole universe. It wasn't until adulthood that I found out about the Adams/Dawkins/Sagan triangle (they all reference each other at some point).
No nefarious intent needed - the books are just great, regardless.
posted by hypersloth at 3:59 PM on July 30, 2012 [9 favorites]

You don't get it, you are still doing it.

How about just getting them age-appropriate reading material, with no ulterior motive than helping them to learn, and to broaden their perspectives. People above have made good suggestions.

Even kids have the right to grow up without being manipulated, and I suggest you show a bit more respect for them and their right to make decisions, and for their parents.
posted by GeeEmm at 4:07 PM on July 30, 2012 [9 favorites]

Hey look, you've got a kid wholoves to read doesn't have access to books. Go to a used bookstore, pick up whatever is cheap, and send him everything you can. When I was a kid, I was an avid reader and each book broadened my worldview and changed my perspective. Send him a ton of options and he will love you. Don't do this with a religious motive - do it because you are fostering a kid's ability to learn and love books. You can send him a boxfull for probably $20 is you send through media mail and buy used books.
posted by DoubleLune at 4:10 PM on July 30, 2012 [18 favorites]

Response by poster: re: GeeEmm

I'm only trying to change the direction of the question, so that it becomes more general interest. I'm not going to try to "convert" my cousin anymore, with words or books.
posted by facehugger at 4:17 PM on July 30, 2012 [3 favorites]

The goal of broadening his horizons is a fine one, especially if he's in a place where he's unlikely to have a good English library to rifle through. Send the kid some great books! A good education with a solid respect for critical thinking and knowledge of other cultures is valuable regardless of whether he grows up to be religious or not.

Genres to consider:
-Hands-on science experiments for kids
-Books of science facts, big glorious pictures, etc - anything compelling related to where he lives too
-How to do magic tricks
-Detective stories - Encyclopedia Brown, Sherlock Holmes, other
-Mythology (eg Greek or Norse myths)
-Bio's of great scientists, inventors, people from other cultures

A few specific things that come to mind:

People by Peter Spier, with lovely large illustrations of people from all different cultures and places. (mainly a picture book)

Seconding Pratchett for a humanist angle on things.
Nation by Terry Pratchett - note, features death prominently, possibly a bit old for a 10 year old; might be more suitably for a 12 year old
Wee Free Men, by Terry Pratchett, the first novel in the Tiffany Aching series (she is a young witch who learns the importance of self-reliance)

You might try sending The Hobbit? since the movie will be coming out soon, might be a good time for him to get into that world.

The Phantom Tollbooth is great for that age and full of amusing nonsense, critical thinking, and puncturing of pretensions.

A few philosophically-themed books:
A Wrinkle in Time
Tuck Everlasting
Green Futures of Tycho

Beyond that, you can find lists of great books for kids that age (eg Newbury winners).

Also, The Cartoon History of the Universe series is great, and begins with the scientific picture of the Big Bang etc. Not sure if this would antagonize them; possibly too heavy-handed? But the whole series is very fun and informative.
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:24 PM on July 30, 2012 [5 favorites]

Not religion, but for skepticism that his parents won't object to, TV commercials are great. I can't remember the exact book I read around that age, but it broke down a bunch of rhetorical tricks and used examples from TV commercials. I admit this isn't much help without a title, and that specific book is probably also pretty dated by now. My attempt to search for it turned up "Selling It" by Leslie Ware which isn't too academic, and you can keep an eye out for other good examples.
posted by RobotHero at 5:04 PM on July 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

I sincerely admire your ability to look at what you were planning to do and see that it might have been the wrong thing.

Right now he is in a foreign country, with his immediate family as his only support system, and he may suspect in his heart of hearts-- from the way they've treated you, if nothing else-- that his parents' love for him is not necessarily unconditional, but may depend on his profession of faith.

Those circumstances make it extremely unlikely that he would be able, much less willing, to entertain any doubts about his faith right now, and in fact would make it more likely that he would reject all possibility of doubt if anything you send him were to succeed in raising questions in his mind-- which I think means that your original project was likely to backfire anyway.

When I was ten, I was fascinated by archaeology, and it sounds as if he may be somewhere interesting archaeology is to be had. Maybe you could send him something in English about the human history of the country he's living in, and how it was discovered.
posted by jamjam at 5:58 PM on July 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm glad to see your update. I grew up religious and became an atheist as an adult, but I would have been creeped out by any grownup who tried to push their ideology on me, and my parents would have confiscated those books anyway.

I *did* love adults who gave me things to read that aligned with my interests, and who cared about what I thought about those books and would discuss them with me. Find out what your cousin is curious and passionate about, and give him books that will fuel those interests. Even if they are about bugs, or girls, or cars.

For the record, the books that changed my mind about Christianity were things like The Bible, Little Women, and the Chronicles of Narnia. Books that were obviously antagonistic towards religion I just felt uncomfortable with. But books that showed me that my ultra-strict version of Christianity was not the only one, and that people outside my religion also had profound religious experiences and good character, got me started on thinking. And surely BETH of Little Women could not be going to hell! When I was ready to branch out, I did it on my own, or with help that I directly requested.

I have cousins who are very smart and very well-read and who have no intention of becoming non-Christians. I have to love them as they are. So it might be good to just think of this as trying to give him the building blocks that will help him be the best person he can be, and as aware of his options as possible - without you making the judgment call of what "the best he can be" would look like.
posted by bunderful at 6:02 PM on July 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Books that made me think outside the box as a child and fostered in me a desire to think for myself (some of these might be inappropriate for a 10 year old, but I remember loving some of these even at that age):

Matilda and The BFG by Roald Dahl
The Giver by Lois Lowry
Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli
The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg
Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell

And for pure pleasure reading, if you want to get him to laugh so hard he can't breathe:

Sideways Stories from Wayside School by Louis Sachar
Tales of a Fourth-Grade Nothing by Judy Blume (and the other "Fudge" books).
posted by sallybrown at 6:20 PM on July 30, 2012 [5 favorites]

Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha
posted by XMLicious at 6:37 PM on July 30, 2012

Small Gods is great.
posted by Sebmojo at 7:04 PM on July 30, 2012

I am with those that say you shouldn't be actively trying to "convert" your cousin....

...however, I don't think there's anything wrong with encouraging his critical thinking and broadening his exposure to other cultures (which will likely have the same effect you are looking for, but many other intellectual benefits, so it won't be as creepy).

So all that said, I would go with creation myth books. I spent many years in Catholic school and was great at science; my understanding of science (at the time) had no effect on my religious status. However when my Catholic English teacher mocked the Greeks and Romans for making up the fantastical mythologies we were reading in class, a switch went off in my head at the hypocrisy.

At the time I did not declare myself agnostic/atheistic, but it was at that time I realized you could simply make up stuff that was untrue, call it religion, and have many people believe it...and how could I know my religion was different?
posted by Lt. Bunny Wigglesworth at 7:52 PM on July 30, 2012

Why not send a little bit of everything the first time around, and get some feedback from him about what he likes and why? This will not only afford him some needed conversation about something important to him, will let you know what to send more of next time, and yes, maybe help develop critical thinking skills.

I was a big reader as a child, but never did more than skim the science books I was given. Couldn't get enough fiction, mysteries, poetry, biographies, and mythology. Some of us are born liberal arts majors, I guess...
posted by lily_bart at 8:08 PM on July 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Isn't there anything he's already into? My 10 year old niece is wild for mushrooms (not the edible kind- just all of them) and bats. I don't know why, but anything about those two subjects will get her excited enough to read about them. If I wanted to broaden her horizons I think I'd riff off of those two. History of people and bats, for instance. Or the Fungi in Mythology. (I made those up.)
posted by small_ruminant at 8:14 PM on July 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

So you can be on the side of good here

right, because Christianity is inherently evil? Come on, there is no "side of good". Christians think Christianity is good, Atheists think Atheism is good; everyone has a vested interest in their belief being the "good"side and that's not helpful for anybody. If there is a "side of good", it's the one that presents itself honestly when asked and steps back to let the viewer form their own opinion- and encourages that formation. So, as many posters have already said, just give the kid good books and be open to having that discussion if and when the kid wants to.

I think a ton of the books already mentioned are good books, ones that I treasured as a child (and I was raised Athiest and turned out Christian- people will turn out how they turn out). I think the proof of a great children's book is sometimes that it doesn't have a polarizing effect; it can be loved by both camps.

Some more book suggestions: classics like Oscar Wilde's fairy tales, Roald Dahl, William Goldberg's Princess Bride, anything by Michael Ende but especially Momo and The Neverending Story, Ray Bradbury, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Watership Down, etc, etc. At 10, he's not too young to start getting an exposure to some classics, especially if they're adventuresome tales that boys often like. Find some young-adult science fiction and adventure stories. I'm trying to remember the title and author of some of the ones I adored as a kid; if I remember, I'll let you know.

One thing I would say is, don't be afraid to get him books that are a little above his age in terms of difficulty or theme. Nothing crazy-unrealistically heavy, but kids are a lot smarter and a lot more perceptive than grown-ups give them credit for, and they can often handle and process more than the drivel that our society claims is right for their age. I think part of the reason that people don't develop as much as they could is that they're treated like idiots as children. If you really want to encourage the growth of a well-exercised intellect, give him a bit of a challenge. At ten, there are probably lots of junior-high or high-school curriculum type books that he could be getting exposure to soon. He might not be interested or ready or not get the full impact, but then again, he might surprise you. Use his personality as a guide to things he just might like.
posted by windykites at 8:22 PM on July 30, 2012 [3 favorites]

Another vote for the Phantom Tollbooth. One of the all time great books, and it's all about critical thinking.

The Harry Potter books need no intro. They deal at length with fallible authority figures and kids having to make their own decisions when their adult advisors screw up or turn out to be fascists.

Roald Dahl's autobiography - I think he published it as "Boy" and it's also a chapter in "the Fabulous Story of Henry Sugar and Six More" - talks about his experience at boys' schools in England in the 30s, and how the principal who beat him most sadistically was eventually appointed archbishop of Canterbury. All his books are fantastic and a treat to read.
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:22 PM on July 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Honestly, what changed my perspective on religion when I was a Christian at your cousin's age was reading the Bible, especially the books of Job and Revelation. Holy shit, I thought we were fucked after getting through Revelation a couple of times. No writing, music, or film since then has ever scared me as much as goddamn Revelation. It lead me to ask a lot of questions of myself, my parents, and Sunday School teachers after that.

Who knows what reaction he'll have, but encouraging him to read deeper into the source of his religion and going beyond what people at his church say will at least broaden his perspective, making him a wiser Christian, if he stays one.

There's a lot of great recommendations above, but I'd add:

- A Brief History of Time. Very accessible, and actually not a direct challenge to his beliefs. I'm afraid I'm not a great judge of what's over the heads of 4th graders, but I do remember enjoying books as a kid that I didn't even fully comprehend.

- Persepolis. It's the autobiography of a girl growing up in Iran during the Cultural Revolution. It is in part about secular families adjusting to rule under Islamic fundamentalists.
posted by ignignokt at 8:46 PM on July 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

I really enjoyed 1984, it's pretty classic high-school reading, and it made me realize that sometimes what The People In Charge say isn't always what's right or best. I mean, "ministry of truth?" Many churches call themselves ministries. There's a parallel right there.
posted by IndigoRain at 9:43 PM on July 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

The Long Secret, by Louise Fitzhugh. It's kind of a sequel to Harriet the Spy, but the main character in this story is Beth Ellen Hansen. I just love this story to pieces.
posted by emeiji at 9:57 PM on July 30, 2012

In addition to my previous "send them ALLLLLL" comment, I highly recommend both 1984 and Brave New World. They are my 2 favorite books and the best of the subgenre.

I just have to comment. it seems like what you're pushing for is a broader worldview. Any post-apocolytic novels would really work for this.
posted by DoubleLune at 10:08 PM on July 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Something by Tamora Pierce, perhaps?

Tamora Pierce is known for her strong female leads, and doesn't shy away from issues like sex/ birth control.
posted by oceano at 11:18 PM on July 30, 2012

Heinlein, but I wouldn't recommend it for a 10 year old. Heinlein had a huge impact on my teen self in making decisions about my life, and mostly positive I think. Though a more enlightened reader would absorb his conservatism and his chauvinism toward women, his non-juvey novels gave me the idea to make up my own rules about my sexuality, for example. His juvey novels were great about being responsible, and adventurous, and for the most part, I think, haven't lost their edge and interest - have spacesuit will travel, farmer in the sky, that sort of thing, really worth while.
posted by b33j at 4:53 AM on July 31, 2012

Speaking as a Christian who has raised my own children as Christians, I would never let you near my child again if you felt it was "fun" to try to convert them to atheism. Not a good idea at all.
posted by sybarite09 at 6:26 AM on July 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

So this is pretty different from most of the other suggestion, but what about some biographies or historical fiction from the (African American) civil rights movement? It will give your cousin some perspectives on Christianity that are potentially different from his own, without being all lol, invisible sky-fathers r dum. If you choose carefully, you can find books that portray women in an empowering way, which from your question it sounds like your cousin really needs.
posted by martinX's bellbottoms at 10:23 AM on July 31, 2012 [6 favorites]

Dawkins's "Magic of Reality"would seem worth a shot. It was aimed at kids of about that age.
posted by Decani at 11:17 AM on July 31, 2012

The question that most people (myself included) think you should really be asking is "What are some books that will teach a child to be open minded towards other beliefs and to be a kind, intelligent person?"

I want to tell you that I don't think atheism is a thing that just happens when presented with enough reading material. I firmly believe some people are meant to be religious and some aren't. If he falls into the latter category, he will find atheism on his own no matter what materials you do or don't send him.

If your problem is not with religion per se but rather with not being a rational, thinking individual I'd recommend The Phantom Tollbooth.
posted by Deathalicious at 9:45 AM on August 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

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