It’s… X-mas time??

It’s almost Christmas, and this is the first year that my now five-year old son is really wondering what it’s all about. Of course, he does hear about god and Jesus elsewhere, and there are lots of activities everywhere. So I told him that what people celebrate at Christmas is that “a long time ago, this rather cool guy called Jesus was born, who did some cool things”. He seems to be OK with that for now.

The big thing I want him to learn is tolerance. For some reason, we started talking the other day about how it’s not OK for someone to tell someone else that they should or shouldn’t believe in god, or what god to believe in, because there are so many different religions.

My son: Hmmm.
Me: It’s as if I told daddy that wearing black pants is not ok, that he should only wear blue pants.
My son: Hhmmm.
My husband: Hey, black pants are ok, it’s you who shouldn’t wear blue pants! Blue pants are horrible! Nobody should ever wear blue pants, everyone has to wear black pants!
My son: Daddy, that’s not fair!!

He got a high-five then.

This post was first published on Nature Network, which has since been discontinued. The post has been moved to SciLogs, where you can also read the comments made at the time.

About steffi suhr

Once upon a time, I was an enthusiastic and hopeful biological oceanographer who did a bunch of work in the Antarctic. I was alternately wearing labcoats or extreme weather clothing and hard hats, but have long since swapped survival suits for dress suits and do science management, currently as the BioMedBridges project manager at the European Bioinformatics Institute. I still like to use my brain. I'm a German serial expat, currently - again - living in the UK.
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31 Responses to It’s… X-mas time??

  1. Kristi Vogel says:

    Your son sounds like a quick study, Steffi.
    How secular (or not) are the holiday decorations in your current city? My neighborhood, which is fairly ethnically diverse, runs the gamut from overtly Christian-themed to nature/winter solstice-y (my yard). Down the street there’s a full nativity scene, and across the boulevard there’s a lighted sign that reads “Jesus is the reason” (the J is a striped candy cane, a bit weird IMHO, but whatever). Lots of Santa stuff, Disney characters, and lighted yard deer all around. The neighbors whom I know to be Buddhist have a nature theme going, like my yard (though they have loads more lights). A Jewish neighbor has stars and lots of blue and white lights.

  2. Richard P. Grant says:

    Tolerance is a funny thing, isn’t it?
    I mean, for example, should I tolerate your belief that homeopathy is better than drugs for treating cancer? Or that the women in your culture are circumcised?
    (_You_ don’t believe those things; it’s rhetorical)
    Jesus, actually, was pretty intolerant in the things he said and did. But what he was, that I think is worth much more than tolerance, was to be accepting, especially of those who had no power or influence. The message of Christmas is not about tolerance, by any stretch of the imagination. It’s about love.

  3. Cath Ennis says:

    I thought it was about hope, at the darkest time of the year.

  4. Richard P. Grant says:

    Cath, that’s Saturnalia. Which I like to celebrate, too (in July, in Australia…).

  5. Cath Ennis says:

    It seems to be a common theme of all winter festivals – light, warmth and hope in the middle of winter.
    Although I am by no means any kind of pagan, the Solstice is such a natural event to mark. I am always so pleased to wake up on the 22nd and know that it’ll be getting lighter every day for the next six months. Similarly, I don’t make New Year’s resolutions, but save my resolutions for the Spring Equinox – a much more natural time of year to be trying to eat better and exercise more. At New Year all I really want to do is a) curl up under a blankie with some cake or b) go skiing, then eat nachos and drink beer. Not conducive to healthy living!

  6. Richard P. Grant says:

    Not conducive to healthy living!
    Sod it. Why not enjoy it?

  7. Cath Ennis says:

    ExACTly. Enjoy being a hibernating slob during the cold dark months, then be healthy in the joyous Spring!

  8. steffi suhr says:

    @ Kristi: outdoor decorations here are a bit of a mix – mostly secular, but definitely some nativity scenes. Not so many decorations on private houses here. Downtown is funny: there are about 15 booths with scenes from Grimm’s fairy tales, told at the press of a button… they’re not conducive to making quick errands in town as a parent when you have your small child with you (they all seem to love it).
    Richard: ok, maybe I have to define tolerance more. Let’s let each other do what we need/want/feel is right to do, as long as it doesn’t interfere with the next person’s right to be/do what they feel is right and let them be. The tolerance message extends. Maybe there’s a different word than tolerance?
    Cath: I feel much the same about New Year’s. It is a weird time of year to try and ‘change’ everything! Hibernation sounds good. Or drinking GlΓΌhwein..

  9. Richard P. Grant says:

    Let’s let each other do what we need/want/feel is right to do, as long as it doesn’t interfere with the next person’s right to be/do what they feel is right and let them be
    which is fine unless what they think is right hurts someone…?

  10. steffi suhr says:

    Sorry Richard, I don’t get your question.
    What I am trying to say is: believe what you want, but don’t impose your views, philosophy, or reasoning on someone else. Don’t hurt anyone, and don’t force anyone to live the way you think is right. If someone does harm someone else on the grounds of what they believe, I think there’s a duty to step up and speak out and/or protect the person who’s freedom and/or well-being is threatened.
    To me, this is kind of obvious and extends to all kinds of different situations in society, not just religion. And, personally, I think it’s the only viable way to stop some very unproductive bickering.

  11. Clare Dudman says:

    Those booths sound wonderful! How great for a five year old! I’ve been to Germany a couple of times around Christmastime and really enjoyed it. The market idea is being adopted over here in the UK now – but of course not as good as the authentic experience.

  12. steffi suhr says:

    @Clare: the market here is nice, but the best one this year was in Hamburg. This was only on for two days and was a collaboration with some organizations for disabled people.
    On this market, there was a stage with two blind musicians that played cover versions of lots of popular Christmas songs. My son stood there for ages, listening and dancing – his favourite was ‘Rudolph the Rasta reindeer’..

  13. Cath Ennis says:

    Steffi, if I’m understanding correctly, you’re basically saying “your right to swing your fist stops at my nose”. Or, “Don’t approve of abortions? Don’t have one. Don’t believe in gay marriage? Don’t have one. But don’t try to stop other people from doing those things just because they’re against YOUR beliefs”.
    i.e., you’re basically saying the same as I always say πŸ™‚

  14. steffi suhr says:

    Exactly. But I’d rather not have anyone swing something at my nose, to be honest..
    (good examples, by the way..)

  15. Cath Ennis says:

    Can’t claim credit for any of the above examples – they all fall under the “stuff I read on the internet somewhere” category.

  16. steffi suhr says:

    I just assumed they weren’t picked completely at random. Two of my biggest red flags.

  17. Heather Etchevers says:

    I wish I remember where I heard this but what applies to sex education seems to work pretty well for religious education in our household:
    Tell them as much as they want to hear. Not more.
    We’ve been careful to separate the cultural from the spiritual in the sense of “this is how people observe” and “this is what people believe”. Given that we are a bicultural household with three major background religions in our immediate family, it was the only possibility. They know believers and atheists from those three backgrounds, and we try to fill in the blanks for at least two other religions with as much as we know (not so much, but more than the kids).
    I would like them to feel comfortable if they did have a religious illumination in one of their three heritages, but also if they decide to be like their mom, who though atheist not only feels unthreatened but rather interested by the philosophies behind the practices. And there is a pleasant sense of empathy when you share a religious ritual or a holiday song with others who know it as well. This is what I am trying to help my kids not miss out on, but it’s a little hard going.

  18. steffi suhr says:

    Amen on all that, Heather πŸ™‚
    I think I’m more comfortable sharing a holiday song than a religious ritual, though – the latter (to me) is a very intimate thing, and I’d feel like I’m intruding on something. Although a different situation, it would feel kind of like that time I was giving a talk to a large group of boy scouts and their parents in Colorado, and they (naturally) started the thing off with the pledge of allegiance. As a permanent resident with a German passport, that felt really awkward. Not to mention that I stood all the way up front.
    Speaking of making your kids feel comfortable either way, I’ll come out: my father is a Lutheran pastor. So yes, it’s all about feeling comfortable (kids and parents, I’d say) whichever way your kids turn out πŸ˜‰

  19. Kurt L Hanson says:

    Tolerance is a must, for sure. Though, ….
    what’s coming down the pike in the future is the realization for the existence of an actual Creative entity, or God. Future masses of humanity will be confronted with an empirically based, rational inference for the existence of an entity which is responsible for causing the force and energy at the Big Bang, and which directed the course of this energy and force inside the universe over the course of billions of years. A marvelous creation we are. We all are. Yep, it’s all about us.
    What a slap to many the jarring realization, the notion, a glaring notion that we humans were literally created. Most religious types already believe and to an extent understand this idea. Their archaic religion, with its rituals and dogmas though do not accurately define the will and the intentions of this creative entity that will be henceforth defined rationally, empirically. Former atheist and agnostic’s thoughts upon the existence of a Creator will be …? interesting. I don’t want to go here.
    The major religions and denominations of today are going the way of the Incan and Mayan religions. The last of the dinosaurs will finally be seen as old, and will lay down and die, peacefully. Indeed, for the sake of civility tolerance is the key to have it simply lay down and fall asleep never to awaken.
    Wow, what a world that’ll be. Great.
    Prematurely written thoughts these are. May be spam, too! πŸ™‚

  20. Heather Etchevers says:

    It’s a little hard to judge in writing whether your words are to be taken at face value or a step removed, Kurt. Are you talking about a prediction you are basing on your personal faith or on a speculative fiction scenario? I’m leaning toward the latter, but your comment is rather ambiguous.
    Is your message that tolerance of religious observance by non-believers will somehow bring about the demise of religion and the subsequent inheritance of an underlying universal conviction that the universe and we within it were created with intention? It’s how I would read it.

  21. Mike Fowler says:

    Steffi, please don’t give up the blog because of minor irritations! We’re all adults here, and can choose which comments to focus on, and which to pass by.
    I hope by adding this message here rather than elsewhere it’ll convince you that ignoring ambiguous, rambling messages on your post is more appropriate than bullying the poster, which clearly didn’t work the last time. Unfortunately, most of my blogs are rambling and ambiguous, but that’s another problem.
    Anyway, I’m with you and Cath on the tolerance definition, but now I don’t know how to start my revolution. Lot’s of nagging? Could be good for some

  22. steffi suhr says:

    You’re right of course, Mike. The situation last time just got out of control so quickly, I guess I still feel touchy about that. It’s my still-green-behind-the-ears-blogger nature, that is.
    Tell me more about that revolution, or else I’ll nag.

  23. Mike Fowler says:

    I haven’t settled on a topic to revolute yet, I just like annoying people. I’ll be sure to warn you when I’ve found something suitable.

  24. Heather Etchevers says:

    Heh – I already started nagging yesterday, when I was complaining about how a woman in her child-bearing years is obliged to start undergoing invasive, disagreeable maintenance exams much earlier than men – but that what goes around will come around.
    Steffi, control is all in your mind. In blogging, if everyone ignores someone who is out of hand, you’re all set. If you really hate where the discussion is going, you declare the comment thread is closed, and you don’t look back.

  25. Katherine Haxton says:

    My motto for yesterday was ‘intolerance is also a virtue’. While I agree that tolerance is that which makes us live peacefully (in theory) despite many differing ideals about the world, I would state that intolerance, particularly for the status quo, is what makes us scientists/explorers/artists/discoverers.
    Tolerance is good, but only so far…
    And intolerance of out of hand behavior on a blog is the only way to go.

  26. steffi suhr says:

    Yes, those behavioural issues on this blog were where the fist came too close to the nose, as Cath put it so nicely.
    Not sure about saying we’re ‘intolerant’ towards the status quo – isn’t it just ‘unsatisfied’?

  27. Katherine Haxton says:

    There is a difference between unsatisfied and intolerant, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. I put this down to it being the end of term and my body having quite the intolerance for being awake!
    Perhaps discontent with the status quo would be another way of phrasing it?

  28. Henry Gee says:

    The usual argument put forward by HWMNBN and others is that to bring up a child in a religious faith is wrong, even cruel, and (by implication) might lead to intolerance later. Leaving aside that I might be making a generalization out of a generalization, I’d have to say that ‘it depends’. Gee Minor and Minima were brought up as ‘liberal’ Jews until the ages of about 8 and 6, respectively – they went to the synagogue regularly and even attended Jewish school – until we moved to Cromer, where you can count Jews on the fingers of one thumb.
    In Cromer the church is very important, and many of our friends are church-goers. We socialize with the families of the vicar and the curate and their friends, and nobody has a problem with this. My Christian friends react to Judaism with fascination, and often want to know more about its rites and practices.
    Are my children confused by all this? Not a bit of it. They seem to be secure and confident in their own Jewish heritage (though Gee Minor in particular professes no particular religious faith) and can study other religions with cool analysis.
    They (and we) participate enthusiastically in the school carol concerts and similar seasonal hoopla. Gee Minor is fascinated by a Moslem boy in her class who seems to do almost all his written work in Arabic. At her old school, Gee Minima, being the tallest in her class, played the Shammas Candle in the Hannukah Concert – and in her new school she is the tallest twinkling star, in the middle – precisely homologous roles.
    All this makes me suggest that the hostility expressed by people of different faiths towards one anaother stems from a projected feeling of insecurity, and this is also true for militant atheism: In The God Delusion, HWMNBN starts by saying that the book is meant to be a mood-lifter for atheists who feel embattled, and the same book goes on to disparage faith-based education. QED.

  29. steffi suhr says:

    the hostility expressed by people of different faiths towards one another stems from a projected feeling of insecurity, and this is also true for militant atheism
    Spot on. I think this goes for most kinds of hostility, or is that extrapolating too much? By the way Henry, I hope you don’t mind that I fixed your typo πŸ˜‰
    Katherine: I still think it’s not intolerance, just ‘intense dissatisfaction’. Intolerance of intolerance – that, yes.

  30. Henry Gee says:

    @ Steffi – yes, please fix my typos. No matter what I do, no matter how hard I scrutinize, no matter how much I use the preview function, they seem to just spill out of my comments and posts like an octopus out of a string bag.

  31. steffi suhr says:

    Henry, that must be a good sign. It probably means that you can let go. I do too much copy-editing right now and, as a result, get upset about typos in ads

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