Comparative Religion Books for Kids?

Question from Crystal:
Hello! Hoping you can help me. I am an atheist and my son, who is 7, is, without knowing the word, already an atheist. Not because of me but just because he is smart, logical, scientific. Which is great! But I want to teach him to be tolerant of others’ beliefs. Also I want him to be able to understand, on some level, some of the biblical references in literature. Can you recommend a comparative religion book for kids that is NOT written from a Christian perspective? he is very bright and not a typical 7-year-old boy so can understand “young reader” type books. I’m looking for something written at a higher level than a kid’s picture book. thanks!

Answer by SmartLX:
That’s the right question to ask. Many books on comparative religion are written by Christian theologians, who can’t resist adding to the basic message: “These are all the major religions and what they believe…and here, here and here is why each of the others is wrong.” We get a lot of visitors from people in Christian courses that use these kinds of books.

A good start is Our Religions, which covers seven major religions and has seven different authors (plus one collator). The section on Christianity is written by a Christian theologian, the section on Islam is by an Islamic scholar, Taoism is covered by a Taoist and so forth. The authors are there to write introductions, so while they may state their cases against each other they are still required to provide good information. While it’s not specifically aimed at kids, its introductory nature encourages simplicity.

Beyond that one, I can’t recommend any books as neutral with much confidence, but that doesn’t mean good books aren’t out there. An Amazon search can be very enlightening, though. Each of the books featured has a few bad reviews saying what people don’t like about it; people of a given religion are quick to point out when a book appears biased towards one of the others, or gives incorrect information about their own. If you want something not Christian-centric, look for the one fundamentalist Christians hate.

Finally, I should mention The Heathen’s Guide to World Religions by William Hopper, which is basically an atheist humourously tearing them all down equally and not even trying to be neutral. At least it’s honest.

Religious Education and Religious Schools

Question from Dean:
Brief background:
I am a Christian. When I was raising my Children we went to Church occasionally and my kids went to Summer Camp (religious one) every year until their early teens. (I know, very brief but it should do)
My Son is now in his 30’s with two beautiful children and I am a proud Grampa!

My Daughter in law wants to enrol the kids in a religious based school as opposed to the public system…mainly due that she feels they offer a higher quality education, I agree. And NO…the school is not a wacko young earth type group…and yes…they teach evolution and proper science.
Anyway….my Son flat out refuses and has informed me that he thinks religion is nothing but bullshit.

I respect his choice but I have explained to him that his children should have some religious education like he did, after all, he was free to make his choice and I love him just as much regardless.

I have always felt that exposure to religion is part of a well rounded education.
Free will is a very important part of my Faith, but to have free will and the freedom to choose you should also have exposure to your choices.

Am I wrong?

Answer by SmartLX:
I completely agree with you that exposure to religion is important, because it’s a huge part of everyday life even if you’re not religious, but religious education in a religious school usually goes beyond exposure and is seldom comprehensive.

The issue from your son’s perspective is likely that even a moderate Christian school will not only expose his children to Christianity but actively indoctrinate them into it to some extent at least, and it will not expose them to other religions (that is, other choices) as well. For both your sakes, it’s worth finding out what the RE curriculum is at this particular school, if only to confirm that you have something to fight about.

It’s always a dilemma for non-religious parents when the private, religious schools are the ones with the resources to offer the best education, which happens a lot. I was in exactly the same position myself, but as the child; my Catholic mother won out over my atheist father and I went to a liberal Catholic primary school. It didn’t stop me from questioning Christian doctrine at about age 11, and fading to agnosticism before I reached high school. Based on that alone I can assure you and your son that his kids’ ultimate positions are not foregone conclusions based on the choice of school, especially if it isn’t “wacko”.

I and a lot of other atheists see “comparative religion” as the ideal religious education: “This is what Christians believe, and how they worship. Now this is Hinduism…” and so on. It lays out the undisputed facts and the known history of the major world religions, without endorsing any particular view. That’s the kind of course that gives kids the most information, the most understanding and the widest choice. Sadly, only religious schools tend to be seriously interested in religious education at all, and they have a vested interest in not being impartial. (It’s certainly not the kind of class I had. I had to find it all out later.) This need not be a guaranteed deal-breaker for non-religious parents, but they do feel the need to take it into account.

My regards to you and your family. Good luck with sorting this out.

Religious Education

Question:
Do atheists want religious education to be removed from schools, especially public and other secular schools?

Answer by SmartLX:
Generally not, though it depends on the type of religious education.

Like it or not, participate in it or not, religion is a huge part of modern life. Kids need to learn about it so they can understand where people are coming from, and of course keep the multitude of religious literary references whizzing around from going right over their heads.

Atheists tend to object to religious education only when it becomes religious indoctrination, particularly indoctrination of young children. The difference in a nutshell:
– Religious education is, “This is what people of this religion believe.”
– Religious indoctrination is, “This religious doctrine is the truth.”

There’s nothing wrong in principle with proclaiming what you believe to be true, but the reason why a lot of people believe in religious doctrine is that it was taught to them as fact before they developed the faculties to judge it on its merit. That makes it very difficult to examine objectively, even later on.

An approach which would make most atheists happy would be for schools to teach comparative religion: the beliefs, practices and known histories of all major religions (and as many minor ones as possible). Then it’s all in the open for the kids, and when they’re ready they can make their own decisions about what faith to identify with, if any.

One issue with comparative religion is impartiality. The person teaching it has to be very aware of his or her own bias in the matter. This also applies to the texts; there are plenty of books comparing religions, and some of them are better in this respect than others.
The Universe Next Door by James Sire is heavily biased towards Christianity and theism in general, which is why it’s used in a lot of Christian courses.
The Heathen’s Guide to World Religions by William Hopper is basically an atheist’s irreverent view of the different faiths. The difference from the above book is that this one doesn’t bother to claim impartiality. (It’s really very funny, so I can recommend this book for your own recreational reading.)
Our Religions takes an excellent approach from an educational perspective: the section on each religion is written by a scholar and adherent of that religion, so every faith featured can represent and defend itself.

Most atheists learn about religion, and in fact many of us were indoctrinated into various religions and denominations as children (including me – I sometimes refer to myself as a “cultural Catholic”). There’s no reason why the genuinely educational part of this shouldn’t continue into the foreseeable future, for as long as religion is so prominent in our daily lives. It would simply be nice to see religions compete with each other and with non-belief on a level playing field, letting people come to them with their eyes wide open.