While I want my children to have freedom of conscience and choose their own belief path, of course I hope that they wind up believing as I do. And in any case, I want them to have a good perspective as well as critical thinking skills when they evaluate the field of possible religious and philosophical beliefs. So while I avoid authoritarian indoctrination, I admit I do guide them towards skepticism and religious literacy (knowing about lots of religions, rather than being taught one religion is just the way it is).
If you’re a parent at all interested in this approach, get yourself over to Dale McGowan’s blog The Meming of Life. After all, he literally wrote the book on Raising Freethinkers, and his work has inspired my approach. I’m not as good as he is about getting the kids out and about, seeing churches and mosques, going to UU religion classes, or anything like that. But that’s more because I’m an anti-social hermit than any flaw I might see in the suggestions.
So, what’s an anti-social hermit to do? Why sit around the house and read, of course! Here’s a sampling of the books we’re reading these days that give some perspective on myth and religion, as well as a smattering of books from my YA days that I feel helped set up my brain for skepticism.
Currently we’re reading Stories from India, from Usborne Books. I really love this book – it has Rama and Ravana (looking suitably creepy), Ganesha destroying a buffet, and a jackal who fell into a vat of dye and became revered as a god, until the monsoon came and washed him off. They’re interesting and fun stories, beautifully illustrated. And they give some insight into how stories about gods and magical creatures go, which is great inoculation for when someone comes to your kid with a Bible and tells them it’s the Truth. The reading level is just a bit of a challenge to my intelligent-but-not-a-smooth-reader 8yo. We take turns reading aloud.
Simlarly, we have the classic D’aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths. I remember reading this in 5th grade, and loving it. It covers the standards: the birth of Aphrodite, Persephone and Demeter, the Labors of Hercules, and so forth. But it also has some gems not so widely known, such as the story of Deucalion and Pyrrha, a couple who survived a flood sent by Zeus to punish mankind for wickedness, and Atalanta, a badass girl who gave the guys a run for their money in hunts and foot races. (If you grew up listening to Free to Be You and Me, you’ve heard a verion of her story.) The stories are often somewhat rambling and they tend to flow into each other, so it can be hard to say, “We’re just going to read about Orpheus tonight,” or to quickly grab the book for reference. But still, this is a winner.
On my list to buy/borrow, I’ve got Trickster and Anansi Does the Impossible, which will take off nicely from the themes of tricky animals and gods in Stories from India. I admit I’m also setting her up to fully appreciate the awesomeness that is Anansi Boys, when she’s old enough to read it.
Another book we have on our shelf, but which is a little bit advanced for Chloe right now is The Number Devil. It’s all about a boy who hates math, and a devil who teaches him all about the cool tricks of math and how amazing it can be. I looked at the start of the book, where he talks about infinity (you can always add one to any number), and it seems very fun and intriguing. I think I’ll have a better appreciation of math when we’ve read it, never mind my kid!
Now, to hearken back to my early teen years. I was a voracious reader, and ironically I loved anything with a supernatural theme. It probably started with John Bellairs/Edward Gorey novels or The Girl with the Silver Eyes. I quickly progressed to The Chronicles of Prydain. My uncle gave me ‘Salem’s Lot when I was 12, and I’ve read almost everything King has written since. I tore through Lois Duncan’s entire catalog in short order (this was long before I Know What You Did Last Summer became a silly movie franchise), and I still remember my utter delight at finishing the Belgariad, only to discover that there were 5 more books about Garion & company. Oh, and A Wrinkle in Time – I’ve actually been meaning to re-read those. They were spellbinding when I was a kid!
Weirdly, I think reading fantasy, science fiction, and horror can contribute to a skeptical mindset. Maybe it gives your brain practice at thinking about magical stuff, while knowing it’s all pretend. Maybe these books use their fantastical settings to explore ideas and themes that question our conventional beliefs. I do know that lots of freethinkers seem to be nerdy types with a common love for these titles, as well as D&D, zombies, Joss Whedon, and video games. Do these interests lead to disbelief, or do those of a skeptical bent gravitate to geek culture? Hell, maybe it’s just the reading that drives the inclination to inquiry. In the end I don’t care – I just want to share these awesome reads with my kids for pure enjoyment, and if it helps give them a skeptical outlook, all the better.