Teaching Religion to Children

It recently occurred to me that my children suffered from a void of information on religion. We have not been going to church on Sundays (or any other day, for that matter) because I've been unaware of any faith in town that suits me. I am a Buddhist; until recently I might have been the only Buddhist in town, since I had no way of finding anyone else who practiced (but I have now; you can visit my Buddhism page to find out more). But even if I regularly attended some sort of service with others, I really don't believe it's right for me to tell my children what religion they should adopt, and teach them only that one.

We live firmly in the Bible belt, here, and from the moment my children started attending public schools, they were asked what church they went to, and told that if they did not believe in Jesus they would burn in hell for eternity after they died. I would discuss this with my kids, but our short talks didn't really stick with them, or satisfy their questions, somehow. Which is why I decided that they really needed more information -- a lot more information -- about religion and the Big Questions if they were going to be able to cope with the comments of their peers, and choose their own spiritual paths. After careful consideration, I've decided to try a "home school" approach to religion and morality. On this page (and others if it gets too long), I will try to document the course of study as we develop it.

First Moments

Because I think that one of the parts of the brain that gets "stroked" by religion is that part that needs ritual, I felt we should make a little altar. Our altar is just a temporary one; a piece of black velvet set on the end table near the bed. The bed is our church (it's about the only clear space in the house!); the bed is actually made for the occasion (a rare occurrence), with pillows comfortably propped against the wall so we can rest our backs on them, while we focus on a candle set in cracked glass. We also burn a little incense.

I believe that whatever your religion, meditation is an excellent way to bring peace into your life, so we start by turning out the light, lighting the candle and incense, finding a comfortable position, and focusing on the flickering flame, and clearing our minds. For three minutes, we practice counting our breaths, one to ten, then around again. I make sure the kids know that you are bound to find yourself at a much higher number, or forgetting to count and thinking of something else entirely, and that that is fine, just note where your mind wandered to, and go back to trying to only count, and feel your breath, see the flame, hear and feel what's around you. 

The idea is to keep the whole thing relaxed and open.

Next we discuss religion; how it came to be. 

I start by working backwards from the status quo: explaining that Jesus was born about 2000 years ago; he was Jewish. So there was this older religion, Judaism, which is still very popular today. It was one of the first religions to believe in just one god; and one particular Jewish man was born, believed he was the son of that one god, and told people they should practice their religion in a different way than the Jewish way. Since he was called Jesus Christ, the religion is known as Christianity.

A little further back than that, about 500 years before Jesus, the man who came to be known as Buddha was born. Like Jesus, he was born to an older religion, this one the Hindu religion, but he felt there was a better way, and he taught about that way, and his followers kept the idea alive and that's how Buddhism started. 

Back before that, there were many different gods. People believed in a whole pantheon of gods (pantheon just means a whole bunch of gods, so a "pantheon of gods" is like saying "a whole bunch of bunch of gods"). The Romans had a set of gods, so did the Greeks, the Norse, the Chinese, the Africans, the American Indians, the Australians... all over the world, just about every community of people had a whole bunch of gods they believed in.

Going back even further in time, we come to an age when there was no written language. People sometimes drew pictures to try to communicate information. That's where "cave drawings" come from. Further back than that there was probably a time when humans not only couldn't write, they couldn't talk, as we know talk today. Perhaps they just grunted, or expressed themselves in something like the ways we do now -- with laughter, and sighs, and crying. (My daughter at this point suggested "body language" would have been a part, too.)

In those very early days, when humans didn't have much language, but they had enough to say some simple things,  they didn't understand the world around them very well, either. Human brains were just beginning to try to understand how things worked. So perhaps one day a family was out working on a hunt. They were trying to scare a herd into a spot where one could more easily be killed for food. Everything was going well, until a wind came up, and with it clouds, and very soon after, fierce rain, lightning and thunder made it so that the hunters could not see very well, and the herd scattered. The hunt was ruined. Back in the cave, the wet and hungry family tried to figure out what went wrong. The rain and the flashes of light and the noise clearly came from up in the sky, so there had to be someone up there who was angry at something they had done, and decided to punish them by ruining their hunt. This is how the idea of the first gods may have gotten started, just by early humans trying to figure out how the world worked, and what they could do to make things work better. Perhaps they could do a dance for the god of the hunt, before the hunt, and that would make that god happy, and the hunt would be good. Maybe the next day they tried this, and the weather stayed clear, and they thought that worked. And so always in the future, they would do a dance, and as long as it worked, fine. But if it didn't work, maybe they added something else to the dance, hoping that would help, and for a while it would. And when it didn't, they'd add more rituals, building on the old ones, always trying to improve it, and please the god of the hunt.

Just in that way, many different gods were born. There were gods to make happy for a good planting, growing season, and harvest. There were gods to help women have healthy babies and live through the great danger of bringing a baby into the world. There were gods of war to help conquer enemies. All over the world, people had the same need to understand the world they lived in, and so they invented these gods to help explain the way the world worked. People who liked to tell stories, and think about these gods, would think about things and figure out why they might be so, what the gods might think to make them so, and they would tell stories.

These stories about the gods are called "myths" but in the days when these myths were first told, people believed them. They didn't think they were making them up, they thought the gods were telling them the stories, so they could be told to others. But the word "myth" means "something someone made up that people once believed" so it's clear that by calling these stories "myths" we are saying no one believes them anymore. The funny thing about myths, though, is that right now, today, there are people who will tell you that the Hindu gods are myths; yet there are people who still believe in the Hindu gods (lots of people). What people are really saying when they call something "mythical" is that it is not something they believe in. What they believe in, they believe is "true" and everyone else's religion is based on "myths."

There were many religions in the world, and some of them survive today. Hinduism is one of the very old religions; it has several different gods and goddesses. Buddha was born a Hindu, but studied hard and tried to find a better way of life, and when he felt he found it, Buddhism was started. The Jewish people believed there was just one god, and based their religion on worshipping that one god. Then Jesus, who was Jewish, was born, and felt there was a better way, and that's how Christianity started. Because the Jewish religion was expecting a prophet to come to save the world, and Jesus seemed to be the answer to many Jews, you can see that Christianity came from Judaism. The religion of the Muslim people, Islam, started with the same religion that's now Judaism, but the people went a somewhat different way, and their prophet was called Mohamed. All of these religions, mostly very old religions, are still practiced today.

But religion does not stand still. It changes and grows constantly, and new religions are started, usually from old ones. Recently, some people looked at all the popular religions in the world: Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam and more, and decided that none of them were right for them. They studied religions and decided to take some of the old religions that were not practiced much anymore, some of the old Earth religions, and bring them into the modern age; these old religions are called Paganism; one of the new religions that came from the pagan religions is called Wicca. 

Many years ago -- not as long ago as when humans couldn't speak, or write -- but in the days when there were books, and word could travel pretty quickly because people moved around a lot, using horses and boats, the Wiccan religion was quite popular in Europe. This was at about the same time that Christianity was starting to get popular in another part of the world, and it was spreading. When Christianity reached Europe, where the Earth religions were the main religions, the folks who believed in Jesus needed a way to get more people into the Christian church, and turn them away from the Pagan religions. They thought that if they explained that the Pagan's horned god was their religion's devil, known as Satan, that they might get those Pagans to turn away from their religion for fear of burning in hell (which is what Christianity says will happen if you worship Satan). This plan worked out very well, because today, most people who are not practicing Wicca believe that the Wiccans worship Satan, when in truth, Satan has no part in their religion (Satan is part of Christianity, not part of any Pagan religion).  

This is what many religions do: they try to get people who practice some other religion, to quit and join their religion. This is called "converting" someone to your religion. When you think about what these religious people believe -- for example, Christians, who believe that if you don't believe in Jesus, you will burn in hell forever after you die -- you can understand why trying to "convert" others to Christianity seems like the right thing to do, to them: they feel that, if they do not get you to convert, you are going to be sorry after you die, so they feel it's for your own good that you should become a Christian too. The problem is that some people get so excited about converting others, that they end up doing things that are unfair, like making people believe that if someone is a Pagan who worships older gods, they are really a Devil worshipper, and evil (when really, the Wiccan religion, being an Earth-loving religion, is actually quite a gentle belief system). 

There are very few religions that do not try to get everyone to stop believing in their own religion and start believing in theirs. Buddhism is the only one I know of that will actually let you practice whatever religion you are now, and Buddhism, at the same time. This is because the Buddha taught that his followers should not just accept what others say and believe, letting everything rest on "faith" -- but they should study and consider and try things, and when they find what they believe to be true and right and they can see from watching those who are wise that it is true, and right, then they should follow that path. 

First Conclusion

Having explained to my kids a little about the history of religion (admittedly giving short shrift to the ones I know little about myself), I let them pick which one they'd like to learn about first. Because it's what I claim as my religion, they picked Buddhism for their first subject. I had a few Buddhist story-books on hand, and chose the one I like best as a starting point (Demi's Buddha1), and read them the first chapter, about Buddha's birth and him seeing the Four Signs, which led him to choose the life of a spiritual seeker over that of a ruler (who might otherwise have been the first to rule all of India, if prophecy were true).

My intention is to keep covering Buddhism for a while, and then let the kids choose another religion to study. When we hit the ones I don't know very well, I will buy books on them, both adult books and children's picture books, and we will use these as tools for understanding. I plan on taking the kids to a church service -- one adult service, and then putting them both into Sunday School at least once -- so that they can get some idea of what those who go to church actually do in church. We may explore more than one religion's services, depending on how welcomed we would be (and how brave I am in asking).

References and Resources

Here are the references I'm using to build my "home church" library. Those we've not read have little or no commentary describing them; I'll add more as I go along.

Adult References

The Illustrated World's Religions: A Guide to Our Wisdom Traditions. Smith, Huston. 1994 Harper Collins.
An excellent starting point for a grownup wishing to talk to kids about religion. I am reading each section on a religion before I cover it, that way I will have enough information to answer questions. Religions covered in depth: Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Islam, Judaism, Christianity. Very readable and thorough.
Dharma Family Treasures: Sharing Buddhism with Children. Eastoak, Sandy (Editor). 1994 North Atlantic Books.
Here's a very refreshing change; a book about Buddhism that is written for the lay person, rather than the dedicated monk. A thick book with lots of essays from individuals, each one focusing on some aspect of Buddhism with Children. There are topics about adult practice with children in your life, and on how to incorporate children into your sangha and your practice; on childrearing as practice; and even tales from children who were raised by Buddhist parents. Valuable and broadening.

For Children: Buddhism

1 Buddha. Demi (author and illustrator).  1996 Henry Holt
Beautiful illustrations on each page, done in a style reminiscent of Buddha's times, illuminate tales of Buddha's life. Short chapters include, "The Young Prince" "The Seeker of the Truth"  and "The Buddha" which includes two parables, "The Blind Men and the Elephant" and "The Burning House." Read by chapters to my kids, ages 6 and 9, it holds their attention easily (and the 9-year-old clamors for more).
Downloadable Books
Buddhanet has some ebooks you can download. At present the list includes two books full of traditional Jataka tales, of the sort the Buddha liked to tell as "past lives" stories. Each comes in two PDF file formats, one plain text and the other illustrated, with most illustrations suitable for coloring. The Table of Contents at the front of the book gives a few words as to what each story is about ("The Mouse Merchant [Diligence and Gratitude]" and "The Groom Who Lost His Bride To The Stars [Astrology]") while the end of each talel gives a clear moral ("With energy and ability, great wealth comes from even small beginnings." and "Luck comes from actions, not the stars.")
The Monkey Bridge. Martin, Rafe. Amiri, Fahimeh, illustrator. 1997 Alfred A Knopf's Borzoi Books.
The Wisdom of the Crows and Other Buddhist Tales. Chodzin, Sherab and Kohn, Aleandra. Cameron, Marie, illustrator. 1997 Tricycle Press.
I Once Was A Monkey. Lee, Jeanne M. 1999 Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Lots of woodcut-type illustrations, about half colored and half in black and white. The book is tied together as a series of tales Buddha tells the animals as they shelter from a rainstorm inside an ancient temple. "The Foolish Forest Sprite"  "The Deceitful Heron"  "The Monkey and the Crocodile"  "The Flight of the Beasts"  "The Wise Dove"  "Three Friends in a Forest"  each ending with a little insight from the listeners.
Buddha Stories. Demi. 1997 Henry Holt. 
Gold print on dark blue pages; a very pretty style designed to look like ancient written documents, but difficult to read in less than brilliant light. Jakatas retold: "The Lion King"  "The Turtle and the Geese"  "The Black Bull"  "The Beautiful Parrots"  "The Cunning Wolf"  "The Little Gray Donkey"  "The Clever Crab"  "The Monkey King"  "The Golden Goose"  "The Magic Pig"  "The Magic Elephant" each one to a page with an illustration facing, and ending with a one-line "moral of the story."

For Children: Mythology

The MacMillan Book of Greek Gods and Heroes. Low, Alice. Stewart, Arvis, Illustrator. 1985 Simon & Schuster.
Sections include "Mother Earth and Her Children"  "The Gods and Goddesses of Mount Olympus"  "Zeus and the Creation of Mankind"  "Triumphs of the Gods"  "The Heroes" and "The Constellations."

For Children: Miscellaneous

Sacred Myths: Stories of World Religions. McFarlane, Marilyn. 1996 Sibyl Publications.
Large, but not thick, each page has interesting, impressionistic art, with large blocks of text telling representative stories from a variety of religions (Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Native American, and "Sacred Earth" are included). It says it is recommended for ages 10 and up. I like one early page named "The Golden Rule" which shows that this one guiding principal is found in one form or another in all those religions. Neat. 
All I See Is Part Of Me. Curtis, Chara M. Aldrich, Cynthia, illustrator. 1994 Illumination Arts Publishing.
Prehistory to Egypt. Rius, Maria and Verges, Gloria and Oriol. 1988 Barron's.
As a visual aid to understanding just how primitive life once was, before there was written language. Covers cave drawings as superstition. 
...Six features of religion appear so regularly as to suggest that their seeds are in the human makeup.  One of these is authority.  Religion is as complex as government or medicine, so it stands to reason that talent and attention to its workings will lift some persons above the masses in matters of spirit.  Their advice will be sought, and their counsels treasured.

    A second normal feature of religion is ritual.  Religion arose out of celebration and its opposite, bereavement, both of which cry out for collective expression.  When tragedy strikes or we all but explode with joy, we want not only to be with people; we want to be with them in ways that strengthen our bonds and relieve our isolation, making us more than the sum of our parts.

    Religion may begin in ritual, but explanations are soon called for.  From whence do we come, wither do we go, why are we here? The questions call for answers, and theories soon enter the religious domain.

    A fourth religious constant is tradition.  In human beings it replaces instinct in conserving what past generations have learned and bequeath to the present.

    A fifth feature of religion is grace - the belief and assurance that reality is on our side and can be counted on.

    Finally, religion traffics in mystery.  Being finite, the human mind cannot fathom the Infinite that envelops it.

    Each of these six things contributes to religion while being able to clog its works.

-- Huston Smith, The Illustrated World's Religions, 1994



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Copyright 2000 Linda Blanchard All Rights Reserved Worldwide. Date Added: March 17, 2000. Last Update: March 19, 2008