Wednesday, September 26, 2007

At 9, religion comes knocking once more

Background: In an earlier post, I spoke of a teacher telling my son about God when he was 5, and how he got past that. In the intervening years, his teachers said grace before lunch, but there was little other religion at school. At any rate, we've never been concerned that someone will indoctrinate him; our real concern has been that he will tell some teacher that they're stupid for believing in God.

We checked back with him when he was about 7, and he told us that his friends were very confused that he had no religion. He seemed a bit exasperated at their ignorance, but nothing else. Now, a few years later, and a few grades older, he's had another teacher-encounter.

School Prayer: This episode began with some discipline problems in the school's "upper elementary" grades. The principal reasoned that some kids needed to learn values. Unfortunately, in his mind "good" is something that comes from religion. Not wanting to evangelize his own Catholic faith, he decided that he should encourage children to explore their own religions. The means would be this: grace would not be said by a teacher; in the older classes, children would be expected to say grace. They were expected to ask their families for prayers from their own religions. Everyone was welcome: Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus. Unsurprisingly, he simply did not consider that some people might be atheists.

When our son told us this, we asked if he wanted us to do something about it and he said he didn't. He said he was going to make up some prayers. That had us a bit concerned, and so we had another long chat about religion.

Another chat about religion: By now, he had studied Greek myths. So, I used that as an example of why ancient people came up with the idea of a God of Lighting, and a God of the Sun. I told him about some Indian myths, and we had a good laugh at the idea that the sun was going around the earth because it was on the chariot of some God. That's so funny...and the sun does not even go around the Earth in the first place! Still, it's easy to see how people might have made those types of mistakes. There was more... but, at the end of it, I was satisfied that he wasn't confused at all. He was pretty clear that he was right, but he did not see religion as something adversarial -- so, he looked at his principal's request like he might some other apparently pointless request -- if the boss want it done, ... whatever.

We let it go at that... but then, there was a part-2...

Commandments: The principal decided to create a code of conduct, and came to explain what it was all about. He asked the class to do an exercise. He wanted them to think about the main rules of their religion, and write those rules out as an assignment.

So, little Z's hand shoots up.

"Yes, Z?" the principal asks.

"What if you're an atheist like me", Z asks. "What rules should I write?"

I'd have loved to have seen the principal's face :)

He came back with: "Research the rules of some well-known religion, and write those."

In case anyone is wondering, we've had some discussion about the relationship between values and religion, and the possibility of having values without religion, but at 9, his learning in this sphere comes primarily via emulation, not via abstract ideas. I tried offering to teach my son what some good rules were, and why. He wasn't interested. His assignment was to research some religion, and he insisted that he was going to write out the 10-commandments and present those.

That should make good "chat" material. I suppose I should thank the principal somewhat for triggering it! :)

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Monday, September 24, 2007

A 5 year old encounters religion

Z goes to a school owned by a deeply Catholic family, where the walls are adorned with a few icons, but Christianity is not part of the curriculum. Whilemost of the teachers are Catholic, a majority of the children are not Christian. Apart for some Christian stories around Christmas or Easter, his teachers never attempted any religious indoctrination. We chose the school because it's merits greatly outweighed these (and other) negatives.

Around kindergarten was the first time Z mentioned God. I think he suddenly made some type of matter-of-fact comment that God was listening to us, because He is everywhere. It was not easy for him to understand when I told him this was not true. It was the first time he was being told two different things by a teacher and a parent, and had to decide whom to believe.

For a few weeks, he tested the idea. In different contexts, he would ask again whether God was around, of whether he was seeing, or whether he was listening, or some such question. It was as if he was trying to check if my rejection was limited to some particular context... which would allow him to reconcile it with his teacher's assertions.

Apart from repeating each time, I also repeated it as a generalization, and also explained that there was no reason to think God was doing... whatever. In addition, I tried to make clear that I was not ignorant of his teacher's views. I explained that many people have believed in God for a long time, and many people -- like his teacher -- still do.

At 5, kids might appear to reason, but they really accept almost everything on trust. You can tell a 5-year old that you once lived in a house where coca-cola came out of the faucet, and if he trusts you, and if no other adult contradicts you, he will believe you. It is still important to give a child reasons, so that they understand the pattern in which they should approach thought; but, one should also realize that your reasons are not being "understood" in the adult sense. This is why it's important that your kindergartner trusts you completely.

After a few weeks, Z accepted the idea that his parents were right and his teacher was wrong, and it didn't seem to bother him any more. He was left with one final injunction from us. "You're still too young to fully understand this", we told him. "You think we're right and you're believing us, but some adults like your teacher feel very strongly about this, and you should not challenge her about this in class. When you're a bit older, you can tell your teachers that they are wrong."

That little episode at 5 carried him smoothly through the next 4 years. Now, at 9, we had a second episode... but that's a tale for another post.