When we arrived in Kuwait, the Bambina had already been around nominally Muslim families in Madagascar, but none of them practised their faith in a visible way. So Kuwait was the first place my kids saw men in dishdashas and women in abayas and headscarves.
Some women even had their faces and hands covered, something neither of our children had ever seen a lot of in Madagascar, Italy, or France. In France, it is against the law for any person to go with her or his face covered in public. And in public schools in France, teachers and students are prohibited from wearing any "ostentatious" religious signs.
Our new cultural and religious environment came as a shock to our kids. I can remember the Bambino - age two - seeing for the first time in his life a woman fully decked from head to toe in a black abaya that also covered her face. We were in the restaurant of the Marina Hotel in Kuwait, serving ourselves at the buffet. The Bambino looked up at this woman with a black sheet over her head, pointed his little index finger at her and said "Fantôme!" (Fantôme is the French word for "ghost"). We were ready to burst out laughing because, yes, she did look like a ghost. A black ghost.
If I had to put a label on the Frenchman and me, I would say that we were secular humanists. We want our children to question all beliefs - their origin, their rationale, and the historical accuracy of any "sacred" book that expounds a belief. When our children are confronted with a rule or moral code, whether found in a religious book or elsewhere, we want them to ask themselves whether that rule or moral code seems fair - whether it makes ethical sense. We want our kids to be skeptics. We want them to be as skeptical about the veracity of any major religion as they would be about the existence of, say, Zeus or Odin, until someone can show them evidence that requires a different conclusion.
On the other hand, we also want our kids to be open-minded to new points of view. And we want them to respect and love people for who they are, not for their beliefs. We want them to be good to people of all beliefs, persuasions, and backgrounds, for the sake of being good.
So how do we do this? First, I try to expose my kids to all kinds of myths, from Greek, Norse, and Egyptian myths, to the stories in the Bible, to the myth of Santa Claus. And I ask them what they think of these stories. Does the story make sense? Do they think the story is true? Do we have any evidence that it's true? When the Bambina asked how the earth and people came to be, I told her about how evolution works but I also told her that some people don't believe evolution is true, despite what scientific findings tell us. They believe that some kind of a god or gods created the world. In addition to finding some information for kids on the internet about evolution, I read to her the Genesis creation myth as well as the creation story in our Greek mythology book.
Just as important as the preceding questions about what evidence we have to back up the story, I encourage them to think about the nature and character of the god in the story. When the Bambina saw a toy Noah's arc, I read the story of Noah's Arc to her ("God drowned everyone? Even the babies?"). During the annual Eid celebrations when the kids see sheep in the backs of trucks everywhere in Kuwait, waiting to be slaughtered, we talk about the story that the Eid celebration is based on - the story of how God asked Abraham to kill his son Isaac. The Bambina also learned very early on about the Christian Easter story - Jesus was killed on a cross as a human sacrifice for sins, and then rose from the dead. Conclusion: the god of the bible apparently thinks human sacrifice is a good thing?
Santa Claus has been of great assistance in creating young skeptical minds. When the Bambina was almost six years old, we had the following conversation:
Bambina: "Mommy, is Santa real?"
Me: "Well, what do you think? Have you ever seen reindeer fly?"
Bambina: "No. And how does he deliver all the presents around the world in one night?"
Me: "That's a good question. Do you think it would be possible for someone to deliver presents to all the children in the world in one night?"
She didn't have an answer for that right away but the longer she thought about it the more skeptical she became. She was already a non-believer in Santa well before the following Christmas. I recently asked the Bambina if she was sorry not to have been able to believe in Santa for at least one or two years more. "No," she said. "I'm glad. I like knowing the truth."
Secondly, I try to encourage our kids be open to listening to new ideas and world views. I'm comfortable doing this because I'm also raising them to be skeptical. I've told the Bambina that she is welcome to explore religious beliefs if she wants. I've offered to take her to a church, a mosque, or any other religious place. So far, she's not interested. One of the Bambina's best friends at school is a member of the Church of Latter Day Saints. I've asked the Bambina if she would like to attend there one Friday (with me accompanying her). She said flat out no - she's not interested in three hours of church on her weekend!
Not all people agree with this approach. My good friend F, who is Muslim, thinks that our children will grow up with no moral compass or any notion of good or evil. She thinks that our children need something or someone to believe in in order to know right from wrong. To me, it is very obvious that our children know the difference between right and wrong. Whether we have a religious rule book or not, we know when our acts can hurt other people. And it doesn't take much reasoning to figure out that we don't want to be hurt, so we shouldn't hurt others, either.
My Christian friends think that our kids will still know what is right from wrong (they believe that god did give them a conscience, after all) but that our kids will lack larger meaning in their lives. I think my kids will define their own meaning.
I love how living in Kuwait exposes our children daily to another major world religion. There is a mosque right next door and we hear the call to prayer (very loudly!) five times a day (yep, at 4:15 AM, too). Most of our children's friends at school come from Muslim families. In the Bambino's Montessori school last year, during the Eid celebrations, the children learned all about the Hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca that all Muslims are obligated to do at least once in their life). The teachers put a big black cube in the yard. The children pretended it was the Kabah and learned about the ritual of circling it seven times during Hajj. They also learned to roll and unroll the prayer mats and to recite the Arabic prayer. (We were okay with the Bambino learning the words to the prayer but told the teachers that we were not okay with the Bambino engaging in the actual prayer ritual of bowing prostrate on the prayer mats and praying).
The Bambino (age 3) came out of his class one day that week and said to me "Mommy, I want to go to Macca and see the Kabah."
I smiled. "Sure! If you want to do that one day when you're grown up, you can!." I didn't tell him that he would have to convert to Islam first. He'll learn about that later, if he wants.
"But why do you want to go to Mecca to see the Kabah?" I prodded further.
"Because then we get to sleep in a tent!", he said.
"We're camping in the desert next week. You'll get to sleep in a tent then."
"Yay! I want to sleep in a tent!"
Phew. There's one request put to rest. Now if I could just getting him to stop calling mosques "castles".