Shortly after the release of Parenting Beyond Belief, I mentioned in a secular parenting 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 a message 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 US 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.

Once I understood the reasons, I had to figure out how to go about it—and my first attempt was a complete failure.

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.