Reading Time: 5 minutes

s22001hortly after the release of Parenting Beyond Belief, I mentioned on the PBB Discussion Forum that I think religious literacy is an important thing for our kids (and ourselves) to have. Many agreed, as did most of the contributors to the book, but I received an email from one parent who asked,

Why should I fill my kids’ heads with all that mumbo-jumbo?

Here are my four reasons that religious literacy (knowledge of religion, as opposed to belief in it) is crucial:

1. To understand the world. A huge percentage of the news includes a religious component. Add the fact that 90 percent of our fellow humans express themselves 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 trivial thing to most of us, but to a huge whack of the religious electorate, Dean had revealed a forehead-smacking level of ignorance about the central narrative of their lives. For those people, Dean was instantly discounted, irrelevant. Because we want our kids’ voices heard in the many issues with a religious component, it’s important for them to have knowledge of that component.

3. To make an informed decision. I really, truly, genuinely want my kids to make up their own minds about religion, and I trust them to do so. Any nonreligious parent who boasts of a willingness to allow their kids to make their own choices but never exposes them to religion or religious ideas is being dishonest. For kids to make a truly informed judgment about it, they must have access to it.

4. To avoid the “teen epiphany.” Here’s the big one. Struggles with identity, confidence, and countless other issues are a given part of the teen years. Sometimes these struggles generate a genuine personal crisis, at which point religious peers often pose a single question: “Don’t you know about Jesus?” If your child says, “No,” the peer will come back incredulously with, “YOU don’t know JESUS? Omigosh, Jesus is The Answer!” Boom, we have an emotional hijacking. And such hijackings don’t end up in moderate Methodism. This is the moment when nonreligious teens fly all the way across the spectrum to evangelical fundamentalism.

A little knowledge about religion allows the teen to say, “Yeah, I know about Jesus”—and to know that reliable answers to personal problems are better found elsewhere.

So should you take your kids to a mainstream, bible-believing church? Hardly. They shouldn’t get to age 18 without seeing the inside of a church, or you risk creating forbidden fruit. Take them once in a while just to see what it’s all about and to see that there’s no magical land of unicorns and faeries behind those doors. But know that churchgoing generally has squat to do with religious literacy.

In his (fabulous) book Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—And Doesn’t, Stephen Prothero points out that faithfully churchgoing Americans are incredibly ignorant of even the most basic tenets of their own belief systems, not to mention others. Europeans, on the other hand, are religiously knowledgeable and rarely darken the door of a church.

Coincidence? I don’t think so. Most European countries have mandated religious education and decidedly secular populations. Unless they attend a UU or Ethical Society, U.S. kids have almost no religious education. Faith is most easily sustained in ignorance. Learning about religion leads to thinking about religion—and you know what happens then.

Mainstream churchgoing also exposes kids to a single religious perspective. That’s not literacy—in fact, it usually amounts to indoctrination.

So how do you get religiously literate kids?

1. Talk, talk, talk. All literacy begins with oral language. Toss tidbits of religious knowledge into your everyday conversations. If you drive by a mosque and your four-year-old points out the pretty gold dome, take the opportunity: “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 kids mature, include more complex information—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. You can’t grasp 9/11 without understanding Islamic afterlife beliefs. And the founding of our country is reframed by 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, Hopi, Inuit, Zulu, Indian, 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. Keeping kids entirely separated from the experience of church can make them think something magical happens there. 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 effective and enjoyable ways to expose your kids to religious ideas is through movies. For the youngest, this might include 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, and Kundun. High schoolers can see and enjoy Seven Years in Tibet, Romero, Schindler’s List, Jesus Camp, Dogma, and Inherit the Wind. This list alone touches eight different religious systems (seven more than they’ll get in a mainstream Sunday School) and both the positive and negative influences of religion in history (one more than you get in Sunday School).

Special gem: Don’t forget Jesus Christ Superstar, a subversive and thought-provoking retelling of the last days of Christ. 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 a personality cult.

Dale McGowan is chief content officer of OnlySky, author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies, and founder of Foundation Beyond Belief (now GO Humanity). He holds a...