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Inoculating Children Against Supernaturalism

I was asked to write a guest post for the Parents Beyond Belief blog. It’s up now, so go take a look.

Kids Without God

I went through the “kids” section of the American Humanist Association’s new Kids Without God website in just a few minutes. I applaud the effort and hope that it greatly expands. The videos section contains five video clips from Bill Nye and a purple dragon cartoon. There are many other kid-friendly videos on YouTube that foster critical thinking and an appreciation of science that my boys (ages 8, 6, and 4) have enjoyed. It would be nice to have just one site that would aggregate these videos — will “Kids Without God” become this site? I’d suggest that they offer a way for parents to recommend videos to the site. I would offer a number of videos for inclusion. Here’s a start — a YouTube playlist of 101 of my boys’ favorite Freethought videos.

Cold sweat

That’s what I broke into watching parts of this, and nearly fainted.


Kids are born naturalists

Ethan, 1 yr., 9 months old

Tom Rees has summarized a recent study called “Developmental Changes in the Use of Supernatural Explanations for Unusual Events,” which finds that younger children are more likely than older children and adults to offer natural explanations for miraculous stories.  People are more likely to offer a god as an explanation for the improbable only after about age 12.

A counterblast of fact

Apparently some people get their pre-ordered books from Amazon faster than others, but I did get an email this morning notifying me that my copy of Dawkins’ new children’s book, The Magic of Reality: How we know what’s really true has shipped.

Here is Dawkins on BBC Newsnight.

Paxman: Do you really care that there are a lot of stupid people around?

Dawkins: I do, actually, yes. I really do. I care that children are being misled by those ‘stupid people.’ I think that children deserve to know what’s true and what’s wonderful about the world into which they’ve been born. It really is true and it really is wonderful, and it’s such a crying shame if children are denied that by ignorant and stupid adults, as you’ve described them.

An excellent point

In New Jersey a seven-year-old girl was subject of a religious ritual in which she watched a goat get decapitated and was fed a chicken heart. She reported nightmares of the experience to her teacher. The mother is now in prison for cruelty to a child. The author asks,

What if a 7-year-old child told her teacher that she got nightmares after going to church and hearing about Hell? What is the likelihood that the teacher would notify the state Division of Youth and Family Services? I’m thinking it would fall somewhere between less-than-zero to zero. In this country we should not elevate one religious belief/ritual over another religious belief/ritual.

I can’t wait

Neil deGrasse Tyson has agreed to host a revision of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. The 13-hour series originally aired in 1980 and is the most widely watched series on public television. Sagan’s story of the universe was eloquent and awe-inspiring, but more importantly, it was based on the most current science available as opposed to mythology or holy texts. Now Tyson, whom many say is the Sagan of our time, is taking up the baton and re-presenting the wonder of our origins with updated science, improved visual effects, and his trademark warmth and enthusiasm. The updated Cosmos will air on Fox sometime in 2013.

Cosmos was a bit before my time, airing when I was just in kindergarten. I watched it for the first time only a year ago with Ethan, who found it interesting despite its relatively slow pace.  I’ll be glad that an updated version with today’s CGI, high-def video production will be available to my boys and their generation.

Here’s Tyson talking about how parents can encourage scientific exploration and critical thinking in their children.


Letting kids explore religions

National Public Radio’s Michel Martin held a thoughtful interview with two moms who are allowing their children to be exposed to diverse religious traditions.

Asra Nomani, an observant Muslim and professor of journalism at Georgetown University, described her struggle with  raising her son in a faith she does not fully believe herself.

I thought I had made an intentional choice: I’m going to raise him Muslim. A few years later, I went and talked to a class, and they asked me how I’m raising my son, and I said, ‘Oh, I’m raising him Muslim.’ Then I went home that night and I realized, you know what, I spent my adulthood getting out of my system so much of the doctrine that I was given as a child in Islam, why am I going to do that do my son? Why am I going to teach him doctrine that I don’t even fully believe?

And I had this conversation with my mother then when he was four, and she said, ‘Oh Asra, why don’t you want to pass the tradition on? And I told my mom, and maybe this will offend people, but it’s just how I felt, which was, ‘Mom, if I was a crack addict, I wouldn’t want to give my son the addition.’ And to me, a lot of times religion can be just like that. I can’t get it out of my system. I can’t get the hard wiring out.

I want to free my son. I want to free him to express his spirituality and express his sense of faith in whatever form it takes. So we have Nordic god statues at a meditation table. He considers himself the sole practitioner of Greek mythology in the world.

The other guest in the interview, Kara Powell, told of how she realized that by raising her daughter Catholic, she had simultaneously and inadvertently been keeping her ignorant of other faith traditions.

I had her go to Catholic school like I went. But at some point I realized I was passing on the faith just because it’s the only faith I knew. And I ended up putting her in a public school. And I remember going to her winter concert in third grade. And they had a song about dradles, and it was kind of like the Jewish kids would sing about dradles, and I didn’t know anything about being Jewish. And then a young black kid got up and sang a Negro spiritual and it was beautiful and it was something I’d never been exposed to. And I realized I had been passing on to her one thing and cutting her off from all the other interesting religions and ideas and concepts, and I thought it’s time for me to allow those things into her life.

You can listen to the interview here. These moms’ comments are reminiscent of a commentary that a Jewish mother wrote a couple months ago about losing her – and her kids’ – religion. 

Thoughts come from your head

Not from some spirit, god, ancestor, ghost, or other paranormal source. The remarkable jazz vocalists Betty Carter and Diane Schuur have sung on Sesame Street about the true source of thoughts and dreams.

I once spoke to an LDS scientist whose testimony seemed to center in his belief that he could distinguish insights from outsights. I just made up the word outsight, so I might as well define it here. Outsight is a thought that is attributed to a supernatural entity, most commonly a spirit or god. I used to do this myself, giving credit to any wise words or noble thoughts to the Spirit.

There’s other kid-appropriate freethought music like this available on YouTube. I use a free and super-easy YouTube-to-MP3 converter to capture audio that I can then play in the car. Often the messages of such music offer drive-time opportunities to talk to my boys about concepts that are unlikely to come up while listening to the radio. Regarding copyright, much of this audio can’t be purchased anywhere because the songs were created specifically for video, and sometimes specifically for YouTube. See for example Evolution Made Us All, Cambrian Explosion, Godless and Free, It’s Only Natural, Rama’s Praises, and Beware of Dogma to get a sense of what’s available. These and other YouTube finds are in my “Freethought” playlist. Let me know if you have any other kid-appropriate videos to recommend for the playlist!

Help me understand this

The Atlantic reported today that Muslims are the LEAST likely religious group to believe that targeting and killing civilians is sometimes justified, followed by atheists and agnostics. You know who was MOST likely to believe that targeting and killing civilians is sometimes justified? Mormons.

The Gallup poll question was this: “Some people think that for the military to target and kill civilians is sometimes justified, while others think that kind of violence is never justified? Which is your opinion.” A) Never, B) Sometimes, C) Depends.

Here were the results that interested me:

Muslims: 78% Never, 21% Sometimes
Atheists/Agnostics/Nonreligious: 56% Never, 43% Sometimes
Mormons: 33% Never, 64% Sometimes; 3% Depends

Image from:

Protestants, Catholics, and Jews trailed Mormons in thinking it’s sometimes justified to target and kill civilians.

“Am I alone in being horrified by the percentage of Americans who are sometimes okay with efforts to ‘target and kill’ civilians?” asks the article’s Conor Friedersdorf. Obviously I’m with the 56% (only 56%?) of nonreligious folk who say, “Never.”

Regardless of your religious affiliation, if you would have answered that it’s sometimes okay to TARGET AND KILL CIVILIANS (and that should be over half of you) please help me understand. Leave a comment and clue me in.