The question was posed to me recently about how one might go about explaining Christianity to an atheist or agnostic child who will be exposed to Christianity in a homeschool co-op or local community.
I assume we have several goals in mind. The first is to keep everyone safe. Another goal is to be respectful. The other is to be truthful. This can be tricky if the Christian community is actively teaching that it is the only path to salvation or other exclusionary language. It can be tricky if the children are really young, and have difficulty dealing with the idea that these friends and teachers are correct about some things but wrong about others. When should they believe them and when shouldn’t they?
Saying “I’m okay with my child being exposed to this; I’ll teach them I don’t believe it” can work to some extent, but sometimes bad ideas sneak inside a child’s head and just sit there. So for safety’s sake, I’d watch if any of the following end up coming up:
- suggestions that anyone is going to hell
- suggestions that outsiders, sinners or non-believers are evil
- pressure to be perfectly loving always
In my mind those are safety issues. You don’t want a child to start believing that their friend’s two mommies are going to hell. You don’t want them to worry because they haven’t accepted Jesus as their lord and savior they are going to go to burn in everlasting torment. You don’t want them to think that being angry (or sexual) means they’re sinful horrible people.
Sometimes even the mild character-development aspects of Christianity can be hard on a young child. If you have a perfectionist child, emphasis on loving one’s neighbor and forgiving one’s enemy can be really hard. Make sure to monitor how the child is responding to the stories and ideas, and that it is okay for them to be human and imperfect.
So, safety first. Make sure that the beliefs you expose your young child to are ones that you could live with them believing, if they start believing them.
Christianity is a big religious group with many different flavors and some denominations and communities are going to be gentler on a child’s growing sense of self and community than others will be. Know what you’re getting into. Talk with the leaders of the group or view their curriculum ahead of time. Sit in on lessons if possible.
We need our children to be polite and loving. We don’t want them marching up to someone else and saying “your God isn’t real” or “Jesus didn’t die on the cross.” This can be a struggle for children. Some people try to instill an acceptance of different religions by saying things like:
- all religions are paths to God.
- all religions teach some variation of the Golden Rule to love one another.
- that “they’re Christian but we aren’t” just like “so-and-so is from Australia, but we’re Canadian.”
- when you’re older you can choose what you believe.
With really young children that can be enough to keep them from worrying about different beliefs, but at some point those can fall apart. Religions are not just about the golden rule. They include a lot more than that. My experience with my very argumentative, very intellectual children is that at some point they aren’t content to say “these people believe X so X is true to them but we believe Y so Y is true to us.” They want reality to be reality, testable and objective. We don’t tell kids they can choose to believe the Earth is flat, so why say they can choose whether or not to believe God stopped the sun in the sky so that a battle could be finished?
So, we need boundaries. We need to teach children when it is safest to exit a conversation than continue it. We need to teach them to consider their audience in who they discuss things with. We need to teach them it is okay to have friends that they will never see eye to eye with on things.
We also have to emphasis that disbelief doesn’t have to mean disrespect. We don’t have to share someone else’s religious beliefs to see the way in which their religious beliefs benefit their lives. Religious beliefs can comfort people in times of trouble. They can inspire people to do great and loving acts. They can can provide a sense of structure and meaning to a person’s life. One way to teach that respect can be to give them an appreciate of the Bible as a work of literature.
So how do we teach our children to appreciate other people’s religious beliefs but also share with them our own non-belief?
For really young children, I would explain Christianity in terms of Jesus. Some people call themselves Christians because they care about a man they call Jesus Christ. He lived and died two thousand years ago, but people thought him so important they said he didn’t die but came back to life. Here you could reference to the last Harry Potter book, or the story of Aslan in Chronicles of Narnia, or like O.B.Wan Kenobi in Star Wars if they are old enough to know those stories.
I’d continue by saying that Jesus taught people to try to love one another and be generous. Some times people made up stories about Jesus that weren’t true but still teach people how to live. Bernstein Bears aren’t really true, but they still teach children about how to live. Even if we’re not Christians, we can still learn a bit about Jesus, but if anything they say about him makes you uncomfortable or unhappy, I want you to tell me.
If the children were old enough, I would take a different route, laying out the following ideas.
Religion is a human institution. It may have started with questions about why things happen. Why does it rain? What happens when people die? People had a sense of some powerful, magical beings controlling things. If it rains heavily but then gets dry and hot, perhaps the spirit of rain has been killed by the god of heat. If it gets cold and nothing grows, perhaps the goddess of plants is unhappy.
As humans developed complicated political systems – kings and priests – they developed gods with extended families for the gods. Some thought that the gods interacted mainly with the kings. The kings would ask their gods for advice on whether they should go to war or whether the harvest would be good. Often they had advisors who performed specific rituals to try to determine the answers to this. Some people thought the gods interacted with the normal people too, rewarding them for doing good and punishing them for doing bad.
Sometimes people made statues of their gods, just like they made statues of their kings. They honoured those statues and treated the statues as they wanted to treat their gods, to make their gods happy. Sometimes groups shared gods. The Hittite people called themselves the people of a thousand gods because whenever they captured a new city they took those gods and said those gods belonged to them too now. Sometimes people learned about their neighbour’s god, saw that god was similar to theirs, and started to say they were both the same god.
However, it is very important to not end the “religions grew out of mythology” conversation with the idea that the gods were there to explain scientific phenomena that ancient people didn’t understand. To do so misses much of the scope of religion. Religion also helped people wrestle with questions like why does bad things happen to good people, and do we have an obligation to help feed the poor? These are questions that people still wrestle with today and it is part of why science doesn’t totally replace religion.
Myths changed over time, partly in response to the historical events that happened. When people wrote about the events, they didn’t try to record what happened the way a modern historian or newspaper would. Instead they recorded the events as they thought they fit into the big mythology – the beliefs they had about their gods.
The following is my shortest version of the “big picture of the Bible” and how the early proto-Jewish-Christian beliefs changed over time. It misses a ton of subtly and isn’t perfect, but it is a quick start for those with no Biblical knowledge:
One particular group of people came from a place called Canaan, but they thought that they were different than the other Canaanites. They had their own god, called Yahweh and El. While other Canaanites said that El had children and a wife, this group of people believed that their god was alone, without any family. Over time they founded a kingdom which split into two – Judah and Israel, the northern and southern kingdoms. They told stories about the people who they said were their ancestors. They said their ancestors had come from Babylon and then went to Egypt, and that their god had led their ancestors out of slavery in Egypt.
At first the people of Judah and Israel probably believed that there were multiple gods in the world, but that their god would be angry if they worshiped any other god. Over time, they started to claim that there was only one god. They said theirs was the only real god and that he had created the whole world. He went from being a lowercase-g mythological god to a capital-G God.
Sometimes when ancient kingdoms lost wars or faced famines, they explained their suffering by saying that their god was angry with them. It probably felt safer to believe their god was angry with them than to believe that their god didn’t have the power to help. They could believe that if they just made their god happy, their god would protect them again. When Israel and then Judah were taken over by larger kingdoms, they said their god was punishing them.
The people of Judah and Israel were eventually allowed to build a new temple to their god and to have, not a kingdom, but a province. They had to pay tribute to other empires, but they could still be a bit independent. They said they were Jewish, a word that references to that kingdom of Judah and their God Yahweh. They still hoped for a king to come who would restore their kingdom. They called him the Messiah, which means “anointed one” because they anointed their kings with oil. They thought he would come from the “House of David” because David was one of their early kings and all the kings of Judah claimed to be descendants of him.
For a long time the Jewish people believed that there was no afterlife. Only God was immortal, they said. They said that people live on through their children and their children’s children. But eventually there was a really bad war where whole families were destroyed. Around that time some started to believe that their God would someday bring everyone back to life. This would be called the resurrection.
Over time a group of people started to believe that their Messiah had come, but that he wasn’t a king on Earth but one in heaven. When he was crucified by the Roman Empire, people said that he came back to life three days later. Many of his early followers believed he was going to start the resurrection, where everyone comes back to life. Early followers thought this would happen within their lifetime, but over time they shifted their beliefs. They said that the resurrection would come at some later period of time or simply in an afterlife. Those who believed that their Messiah had come became known as Christians. Their beliefs grew and changed over time.
The Bible is but one group of religious stories. Stories of the gods, records of their interactions with humans, prayers and songs of praise were sometimes written down. Some of the records were lost. Some have been found over the years and translated again.
The writings of the Jewish people were compiled over time. Some of those were put together with Christian writings to become the Bible. Jewish beliefs continued to grow and develop and more Jewish scriptures were written later, which were not included in the Bible but are used by Jewish people. Since religions change and grow over time, the Jewish religion of today is not identical to that of ancient times. Nor is Christianity of today identical to ancient times. The Jewish and Christian stories were reinterpreted again in the 7th century CE to create Islam. The three religions today are sometimes called the Abrahamic religions, after the first person the religions claim was called by their god. They are also called “people of the book.”
Many Christians believe the book was written by God. They say that God revealed his truth to them through the Bible and that it is just as important to them today as it was to the people who originally wrote it. Some believe that no scholarship is necessary to understand the Bible, because God would have written it such that anyone can read and learn from it. Yet because the Bible is a complicated work, there’s still plenty of disagreement about interpretations.
It is possible to read and treasure the Bible as a literary work from ancient times, without seeing it as the revealed word of God. There is beauty and wisdom within it that shines through when it is read within its historic context, that gets lost when one tries to take it as literally true today. The ancient writers did not write what they did because they were stupid. They weren’t stupid. These were carefully crafted pieces of literature making very significant arguments. We can look at a Bible story and see most of them as representing certain viewpoints that made sense within their context.
Putting this all together
Let’s put this altogether. Your child is invited to a summer Bible camp or a Christian homeschool co-op and for whatever reason you want the child to have the experience.
- Check, if possible, what the group will be teaching. Decide if you think it will be safe for the child to learn or not.
- Talk about what to expect. “They will probably talk about a man named Jesus…” (for a younger child) or “it is possible they will ask if you are saved. Do you know how you’ll answer if they do?” (for an older child).
- Encourage the child to tell you what they liked most and what they liked least about the event.
- If your child hears talk about God or starts to talk about God, ask them what God is like and encourage them to consider different possibilities.
- “If there was a God, I think God would want us to care for everyone.”
- “If there was a God, I think God must love beauty because the world is so beautiful.”
- “Do you think God could do that?”
- “Oh wow, the God in that story sounds rather violent! Do you think he sounds more like Zeus or more like Athena?”
- “Some people believe in God. Some don’t. That is okay.”
- Talk about how different people have different beliefs and we have to stay polite when people talk about religion. But, they can also come and tell you if anything others say makes them feel uncomfortable.
- Take the opportunity to learn about Bible stories and show them that there are different ways to understand those stories. There is so much that could be said about every story, but I’ll take one story as an example. The story of Jonah can be told as a story of why people should trust and obey God. (“Jonah almost died because he didn’t obey God, but then he asked God to save him and God did!”) When I was a child in Sunday School I had the impression that Nineveh was going to be destroyed because it didn’t worship God. It was presented that way in curriculum that focused on the importance of worshiping God.
It wasn’t until later that I really understood that Jonah would have a reason to hate Nineveh for it’s violence towards other kingdoms. Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, and Assyria had destroyed countries for refusing to pay tribute. Seeing that aspect of the story I can appreciate it a story that wrestles with the difficulty of forgiveness. Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh because he didn’t want God to spare it. He wanted it punished for what it did to other countries. Seeing the story that way, I can appreciate it as a challenging story about forgiveness and anger. It has meaning, in that context, whether one believes God exists or not. Even if no God exists, there are still times when we are posed with whether we are okay with forgiving those who have harmed us or whether we want them punished. It isn’t a stupid story about a giant fish that can’t really exist; it is a story – that happens to include a giant fish, fast-growing vine and other impossibilities – about the human experience of wanting vengeance.
Do you have experiences with going to Bible camps or Christian co-ops as a nonreligious person that you’d like to share? Feel free to leave your stories, advice or ideas in the comments.