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Being Pandora by Dale McGowan

Since I have no kids, I don’t have much to contribute to our discussion of The Ghost on Saturday Night or finding good nonreligious and skeptical books for kids. Instead of flouting my ignorance, I decided to invite Dale McGowan, editor and co-author of Parenting Beyond Belief to weigh in with his thoughts. So without further ado…

Being Pandora
by Dale McGowan

Consider Pandora.  To understand why religion and science are incompatible, look no further than that myth of curiosity punished.  Eve will also do, as would Lot’s poor nameless wife.  Each of these religious stories has the same moral—curiosity kills.  Science, then, is fueled by the very thing religion has traditionally feared—the opening of forbidden boxes, the picking of forbidden fruit.  And what scientist would not have looked over her shoulder as brimstone rained down on two cities?

I consider lack of curiosity the ultimate secular sin.  So when I choose books for my kids, I try to include those that raise at least as many questions as they answer— books that surprise and challenge and broaden and intrigue and entertain.

I’m especially fond of books with curious, intelligent characters.  Harry Potter, Lyra Belacqua, and Alexander Fox spring to mind, along with the Magic Treehouse kids.  And we read the myths of Pandora and Eve precisely because they offer a chance to comment on the characters’ curious courage and to wonder at the dullards who wrote the tales to damn them. 

If you want to get your kids thinking about religion in the broadest possible way, there’s no better vehicle than mythology.  I adored myths when I was a kid, and they helped me toward my earliest wonderings about what was so very different about the more current versions.

There’s a way to make this comparison pop out vividly. Get a good volume of classical myths for kids and a volume of bible stories for kids. Read the story of Danae and Perseus, in which a god impregnates a woman, who gives birth to a great hero — then read the divine insemination of Mary and birth of Christ. Then there’s the story of the infant boy who is abandoned in the wilderness to spare him from death, only to be found by a servant of the king who brings him to the palace to be raised as the child of the king and queen. It’s the story of Moses — and the story of Oedipus.  No denigration of the Judeo-Christian stories is necessary; kids simply figure out that both traditions are wonderfully rich and equally mythic.

If I had to choose just one story as a model of curious courage, it’s hard to beat the power and message of The Emperor’s New Clothes.  In a few short pages, the story satirizes vanity, power, conformity, self-doubt, and human gullibility while praising evidence, courage, and honest dissent.  If you can find a tale that more neatly captures the values of freethought, I’ll eat my miter.

Final thought:  make sure you read aloud to your kids, even well after they can read on their own.  Not only does it offer opportunities for discussion; oral language also serves as the foundation of all literacy.  As Lucy Calkins notes in Raising Lifelong Learners, reading aloud and engaging in other conversation in the home is the best possible catalyst for the development of a literate, engaged, and articulate mind.

Dale McGowan, Ph.D. is editor and co-author of Parenting Beyond Belief and the forthcoming Raising Freethinkers.  He was recently named Harvard Humanist of the Year for 2008.  He lives in Atlanta with his wife and three kids.


Donna Druchunas is a freelance technical writer and editor and a knitwear designer. When she's not working, she blogs, studies Lithuanian, reads science and sci-fi books, mouths off on atheist forums, and checks her email every three minutes. (She does that when she's working, too.) Although she loves to chat, she can't keep an IM program open or she'd never get anything else done.

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  1. Pandora and Eve also tell interesting stories about deities and temptation. They make us with certain traits, tell us those traits are bad, then test our ability to squelch our deity-given desires by tempting us. When we fail, we’re punished.

  2. The Magic Treehouse series is pretty famously good for kids in terms of teaching them to read, being something I can read to them without going crazy bored, and giving them initial exposure to a VAST array of world/historic topics.

    Apart from that, I try to read to them from books that are a bit outside their vocabulary range as well as making sure they have all the ‘classics’ of kids literature under their belts for content.

    Out take on the religion thing would not be to avoid or ban literature based on it. We separate it out. Read whatever you want whenever you want to read it.

    We have a specific day and time set aside where I am teaching them world religions. I don’t particularly even care if they become ‘religious’ or not, but I do care that they understand the vast spectrum that is out there.

  3. Hmm. McGowan lives in Atlanta? I wonder if he could make an appearance at the Pub some time…

    Thanks again, Writerdd, for another good substantive post.

  4. You know, one day after inhaling some all-natural herbal stress relief medicine, I was watching cartoons, as is my wont, and the cartoon happened to be an adaptation of “the emperor’s new clothes” and it occurred to me… the common people were too stupid and sheep-like to see the clothes, only the emperor could, and in his infinite wisdom, went along with the crowd. He was wise enough to know that the bulk of humanity is stupid, and his job was to sheperd them without seeming to condescend to them. So the real moral is, the crowd is fickle and stupid, and we need men descended from the line of God Almighty to rule over us and keep us safe from ourselves.

  5. People often forget the odd endings and morals that H.C. Andersen tacked onto his stories, often subverting, or at least subtly skewing, the “obvious” moral. Think of the Ugly Duckling. Most people, if asked, will say that the moral is something like “Looks aren’t important” or “You can be happy when you find out where you really belong” or somesuch platitudinous wisdom. Except that what Andersen actually writes is (paraphrased) “It doesn’t matter where you’re born. What really matters is your ancestry” !!

  6. Thanks for this post. I will definitely be picking up McGowan’s new book, as I am starting on that journey of raising a Freethinking child in a largely Christian and somewhat evangelical community. We’re figuring out how to dialogue with a daycare provider about prayer in class at the moment… I’m learning more about communication skills than my child is about religious thought at the moment, but I’m so eager to get my hands on anything to do with the topic right now…

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