Inoculating Children Against Supernaturalism

by Kevin Zimmerman

Protecting our children from religion and its symptoms—such as dichotomous thinking, the externalization of blame, and perpetual guilt—may be one of the greatest gifts that we can bestow. Some freethinking parents feel uneasy sharing their skepticism of religion with their children for fear of committing the parental sin of childhood indoctrination. But take heart—we don’t believe in sin, remember?

As Dr. McGowen has helpfully noted on his Parenting Beyond Belief YouTube channel, there is a difference between indoctrination and parental influence. Indoctrination, he says, is the presentation of only one set of ideas, and forbidding your children to question those ideas. Influence, on the other hand, is sharing your ideas with your children, but then saying as often as you can that there are other good people who have differing opinions, and encouraging your children to inquire of those other people themselves.

Although I was raised in a largely secular family, the mere absence of religion at home was not enough to prevent me from coming down with a bad case of religion as a youth. Just as keeping kids away from communicable diseases is not enough to ensure that they will not contract the diseases, we must proactively inoculate our children against supernaturalism. We do this by exposing them to innocuous strands of religion—religion as cultural curiosity rather than as the pernicious precondition of social acceptance and survival. Religious parents have traditionally been much better than secular parents at imparting their worldview to their children. Religionists know they need to “get ‘em while their young,” before their children grow up and are able to think for themselves, diminishing the chances that they’ll buy what religions are trying to sell.

Below are a few of the books, videos, and songs that my boys, ages 8, 6, and 4, have enjoyed and that I have found useful for imparting to them a skepticism for the supernatural, a recognition of some of religions’ peculiarities, and a sense of wonder and appreciation for the natural world. These recommendations are not comprehensive, but they are a place to start.

Books

We’re a reading family. My wife had a sizeable collection of children’s books before we even met, and our home children’s library has continued to grow as our family has grown. But you don’t need to spend lots of money on books to fill your home with them. Any local public library should have in their children’s section a decent collection of books on science and religion, although you’re unlikely to find a book like Madalyn Murray O’Hair’s Atheist Primer: Did You Know All the Gods Came from the Same Place? or other children’s books that are at all skeptical of religion. There are many reasons to read regularly to kids, such as enhancing their vocabulary and helping them to become lifelong learners, but one of the benefits that is less frequently mentioned is that reading books with your children provides rich opportunities to share with them your freethinking thoughts and values.

On freethought. You are walking by a frozen lake with a sign that says, “No trespassing!” You notice that someone is walking on the ice anyway, and has just fallen through into the icy water. There are two competing principles, one that you should obey the sign, and the other that you should save another’s life. What would you do? The message of Dan Barker’s Maybe Right, Maybe Wrong: A Guide for Young Thinkers is clear—human-centered principles are more important than rules or commandments, like “Keep out!” or “No working on Sundays!” My favorite idea from this book is that how we treat others is more important that what we believe. In Just Pretend: A Freethought Book for Children, Barker explains that gods are just pretend, just like Santa Claus. My own boys enjoy seeing the drawings of a woman, a man, a cat, and a satyr all claiming to be God. The Atheist Primer, mentioned earlier, is a classic and can be hard to find, but if you call Todd at American Atheists (908-276-7300), he can hook you up. Each of these books has line-drawing illustrations and can engage kids as young as four. Great without Religion, with color illustrations, focuses on how people in every religion believe that their religion is the most correct.

On religion. Probably one of the best ways to inoculate children against religious indoctrination is to expose them to a wide variety of religious ideas. Tales of Pan, about the goat-hoofed, pipe-playing god of noise and confusion, is a fun introduction to the Greek pantheon. My boys laughed like crazy when Pan is awoken from his nap by a sneezing ant and screams, “CANTYOUSEEIMSLEEPINGKEEPTHENOISEDOWN!” inventing panic. I Once Was a Monkey: Stories Buddha Told includes the story of an anxious hare who, fearing that the world is ending when a ripe mango falls to the ground, sets all the other animals off on a stampede, which serves as a wonderful metaphor for how stories of apocalypse can arise and spread. Brendan Powell Smith’s Brick Bible books are a “faithful” retelling of Bible stories, illustrated entirely with Legos, and include all of the Good Book’s savagery that is so carefully omitted in Sunday school. My eight-year-old has loved reading the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series about Percy’s enthralling adventures with Greek gods and beasts. The stories are fictional, of course, but it never hurts to remind him that not very long ago Greeks actually believed their gods were just as real as many Americans believe their god is today.

On science. One of religion’s appeals is its pretention to explain one of the big questions, “Where did we come from?” It is no surprise, then, that an indispensable part of any children’s freethought library conveys a basic understanding of evolution. Our Family Tree: An Evolution Story (ages 4 and up) is a simple, poetic, and accurate introduction to the common origins of all life on earth and features color-saturated illustrations that my boys enjoy looking at. We have several other children’s book on evolution, none of which mention religion, but Dawkins’ The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True is noteworthy because it contrasts answers provided by religious myths with explanations provided by science. Chapters include “When did everything begin?,” “Who were the first man and woman?,” and “What is a rainbow?” According to the Bible, the rainbow is God’s promise that he will never again murder his children, but Dawkins shares the illuminating truth that rainbows are the result of millions of little water droplets that separate each wavelength of sunlight into their magnificent colors. An audio version of the book is available, and I recommend both the printed book for the illustrations and the audio book, narrated by Richard Dawkins and Lala Ward, for their rich, plummy voices. My eight-year-old agreed to listen to the book while following along with the audio book and to tell me what he thought, and the next morning he said, “Don’t you think the book is written for kids who are a little older?” He’s right – the book is intended for children ages 12 and up.

Other books that are not directly about freethought, religion, or science can be used as springboards to share your freethought views. Take, for example, The Blind Men and the Elephant, in which one man mistakes the elephant’s trunk for a snake, another the tail for a rope, the third the leg for a tree, the fourth the side for a wall, the fifth the ear for a fan, and the sixth the tusk for a spear. As I read the book to my boys, I mentioned that some religious people consider the story to be a metaphor that all religions are attempting to describe the same being—God. But, I explained, the blind men are attempting to describe an elephant, which is known to actually exist, whereas there is no evidence for God. Besides, all six blind men are in fact mistaken. The elephant is neither a snake, nor a rope, nor a tree, nor a wall, nor a fan, nor a spear. Their conclusions are not equally correct—they are equally and actually incorrect.

Videos

Providers of video on demand, such as YouTube or Netflix, can be incredible allies in a parent’s pursuit to raise freethinkers. Like Amazon’s recommendation feature, both YouTube and Netflix recommend other videos that are similar to the video you’ve searched for. YouTube also allows you to create a playlist of videos that you would like to group together. Blogs like Atheist Media, Pharyngula, and The Friendly Atheist regularly post the latest video bouncing through the online atheist community. Whenever I see a video that I would like to share with my boys, I save it to my “Freethought” video playlist and we’ll watch a video or two in the morning before they leave for school.

On freethought. On YouTube, The Thinking Atheist is the current king of quality atheist videos, most of which my boys will watch with interest. For an example, check out “The Story of Suzie,” who, when her mother was in a car accident, thanked God that her mom was only horribly injured and not killed immediately, then prayed for her to be healed and paid thousands of dollars to trained medical personnel. NonStampCollector offers up some crudely animated renditions of Noah’s Ark and other Bible stories while pointing out the inconsistent or the incredible with rapid-fire delivery in an Australian accent. My boys thoroughly enjoyed POYKPAC’s “The Origin of Santa” and “The Holy Gospel of the Easter Rabbit,” about Jeshua Cottontail, God’s only begotten pet, who came to save animal kind, curing the blind and the colorblind, and even healing a leopard. The remarkable jazz vocalists Betty Carter and Diane Schuur have sung on Sesame Street that the true source of thoughts and dreams come “From Your Head,” not, as I’ll add to my kids, from some spirit, god, ancestor, ghost, or other supernatural source.

On religion.Sita Sings the Blues,” available on YouTube, is a remarkable animated film, combining the Hindu epic The Ramayana with a parallel modern tale of unrequited love, interspersed with excerpts of Indians disputing the details of the saga and musical interludes by 20s-era singer, Annette Hanshaw. My boys particularly like the song of Sita’s boys in praise of their father, “Rama’s great. Rama’s good. Rama does what Rama should. Rama’s just. Rama’s right. Rama is our guiding light.” Like many children, my boys are fascinated by Egypt and the pyramids. They enjoyed watching on Netflix “Into the Great Pyramid,” which follows an expedition team who explain some of the ancient Egyptian beliefs about the afterlife and discover some human remains.

On science. The Symphony of Science videos, in which poetic utterances of famous scientists are autotuned, are fascinating to watch and listen to. Hear Neil deGrass Tyson sing about how “We’re all connected to each other biologically, to the earth chemically, to the rest of the universe atomically.” In a long-overdue revision of a children’s church song, “Evolution Made Us All” is animated in the style of Victorian-era storybooks. For more detail into the process of evolution, Baba Brinkman’s “Rap Guide to Evolution” videos are brilliantly crafted songs and videos that my boys love, and YouTube user TheWayOfYo has uploaded Carl Sagan’s narrative and animation, taken from his PBS series Cosmos, and is one of my boys’ favorite videos. A video called “Yakko’s Universe Song,” from the television show “Animaniacs,” is animated in a style reminiscent of older Disney cartoons and is about the immensity of the universe. Netflix offers several science shows for children, such as “Beakman’s World” and “Sid the Science Kid.” They also enjoy the “Walking with Monsters,” which portrays through stunning computer animation the evolution of dinosaurs and other animals that ruled the earth 500 million years ago. In fact, Neflix features a long list of science and nature programs for children and available for instant streaming.

Music

In the Mormon church, to which my wife usually takes our boys, the first Sunday of each month is the “fast and testimony” meeting, when members skip breakfast, then stand before the congregation and share how they know the church is true. A seven-year-old boy kicked off the testimonies with a story about the family cat that had gone missing—a common occurrence, as anyone who’s ever owned an outdoor cat can attest. The boy suggested that the family pray for the cat to come back, so the family gathered together, no doubt hopeful to provide the boy with an experience that could build his testimony, and they prayed that the cat would return. Sure enough, soon after the prayer, the cat reappeared in the family’s yard. The boy clearly didn’t understand that cats are territorial animals, and that although they may run off for a couple days to find a mate or to check out the neighboring cats’ food options, unless the cat had been snatched up as a meal or flattened by a car, the probability of the cat’s reappearance was extremely high. Just try to get rid of a cat, and it’ll often find its way back home. What does this story have to do with music? After my boys heard this silly miracle tale in church, I discovered on YouTube a version of “The Cat Came Back,” about old Mr. Johnson who tried and tried to give his cat away, but the cat came back the very next day and just wouldn’t stay away.

I realized that one of the great opportunities to expose my boys to some freethought music was in the car. I had an iPod, but I didn’t have any way to play it in the car, so I replaced my car radio with one that included a USB port. The messages of the music in my freethought playlist offer drive-time opportunities to talk to my boys about concepts that are unlikely to come up while listening to the radio. Regarding copyright, some audio that I have included on my playlist can’t be purchased anywhere because the songs were created specifically for video, and sometimes specifically for YouTube. See for example “Cambrian Explosion,” “Godless and Free,” and “It’s Only Natural,” to get a sense of what’s available. There are several free and super-easy YouTube-to-MP3 converters available to capture audio from YouTube videos that I can then play in the car. First make sure that there isn’t a way to legitimately purchase the song from iTunes, Amazon, or another outlet that pays its artists.

The former religious preacher and children’s songwriter Dan Barker has written many freethought songs that appeal to children. Friendly Neighborhood Atheist is a 2-CD set with 34 songs, including “Nothing Fails Like Prayer.” Here are some lyrics:

The farmers pray for precipitation
and they say, “In God we trust.”

Then along comes a drought and dries their crops
out and turns their crops into dust.

The next time they need some assistance
they should take the advice of Mark Twain

who said “It’s better to check the weather report
before praying for rain.”

My three-year-old loves “Beware of Dogma,” from Barker’s album by the same name, probably because Barker barks in the middle of it. Tie up your dogma, Barker implores. Don’t let that unchained dogma loose or it’ll reproduce. The song is jaunty and fun and provides an opportunity to explain what dogma is.

The soundtrack to The Book of Mormon musical is another of my boys’ favorite (although I had to edit out some words). They particularly “Man Up.” When the song transitions from the pensive strains of piano and violins to drums and electric guitar, a glance in my rearview mirror reveals all three boys playing air guitar and head banging, something they learned to do from their mom.

They Might Be Giants’ Here Comes Science is an incredible children’s science album in which every song has an accompanying music video on DVD. Here are some lyrics from “Science is Real:”

I like those stories about angels, unicorns and elves.
Now I like those stories as much as anybody else.
But when I’m seeking knowledge, either simple or abstract,
The facts are with science, the facts are with science. Science is real.

There are several other artists who figure prominently on my Freethought playlist. One is Michael Newdow, whose “Doesn’t Make It So” is a lovely lullaby from his album “Liberty & Justice for All,” and whose “Merry Solstice” album is good to play around the holidays. Roy Zimmerman’s “Glory Bound Train” was a hit with the boys, partly because he sings the alphabet backwards, something my boys had already learned to do. “Woody Allen Jesus” by Tim Minchin refers to magic, zombies, Superman, and vampires, and was a song my boys requested to hear over and over again for a couple of days. My eight-year-old really likes “Think for Yourself,” “Eleanor Rigby” and “Imagine” by the Beatles. Finally, Baba Brinkman, George Hrab and Shelley Segal have a number of atheist songs worth checking into.

Many nonbelievers claim that we are all born atheists, but recent research by Dr. Justin Barrett of Oxford suggests ideas about gods, spirits, design in the world, and an afterlife are cognitively natural, predictable products of our brains, in contrast with institutionalized doctrines, such as an immaculate conception, transubstantiation, or a reward of 72 libidinous virgins. But just because supernatural ideas may come naturally to children does not abdicate freethinking parents from their duty to help their children understand the world as it really is. Polio, hepatitis, and measles are also natural, but we vaccinate our children against viruses for their physical wellbeing. Likewise, we ought to inoculate our children against supernaturalism for their mental health, and the judicious use of books, videos, and music can enable parents to initiate the conversations that will help children learn to become freethinkers themselves.

If you missed them before in all of the hyperlinks, here again are links to my kid-friendly freethought video playlist on YouTube and music playlist on Spotify (If you don’t have Spotify, it’s easy to download and it’s free.) If you have other videos or music to suggest for inclusion on either of these playlists, feel free to contact me at prozim [at] gmail [dot] com.

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