When myths become stories

Comparing the two editions

In 1996 Sacred Myths: Stories of World Religions was published to mostly positive reviews.  None of the professional reviews that I was able to find seemed to take issue with the inclusion of Judeo-Christian stories next to those associated with Paganism, Native Traditions, or other religions.  A couple of reviews mentioned the reteller’s introduction in which she defines the way she is using the word “myth” but none seemed upset by its use.

Fast forward to the present.  Sacred Myths has been out of print for a few years, and people have been debating the use of the word “myth” to refer to religious stories thanks to Richard Dawkins’ The Magic of Reality.  So I guess it makes sense that when a new publisher decided to bring McFarlane’s book back in print, they didn’t just update the design.  They changed the title to Sacred Stories: Wisdom from World Religions.

The message of tolerance and understanding between faiths remains the same, and the introductory remarks contain the same wording regarding myths vs. stories.

“To say a story is a myth does not mean it is a lie.  It may not be literal fact, but it tells a story that is deeper than fact because it holds an important truth about life.  We put the truth into story form because humans use stories and pictures to understand what cannot be seen and touched.”

No matter what one believes about their historicity, these stories have value.  For children, they can be a way of talking about big topics that can be hard to bring up, or they can be a lesson on other cultures–there is a  teaching guide, after all.  Story–true and false–is more than escape.  It can provide meaning, cultivate empathy, and encourage creativity.  I have yet to read more than the excerpt available on the author’s web site, but The Storytelling Animal looks to be a fascinating examination of the ways that stories shape our lives. He writes:

“Tens of thousands of years ago, when the human mind was young and our numbers were few, we were telling one another stories. And now, tens of thousands of years later, when our species teems across the globe, most of us still hew strongly to myths about the origins of things, and we still thrill to an astonishing multitude of fictions on pages, on stages, and on screens—murder stories, sex stories, war stories, conspiracy stories, true stories and false. We are, as a species, addicted to story.”

Here are those words in animated form:

I obviously value stories of all sorts, and I hope to encourage my daughter to do the same.  We’ll save Sacred Stories for when she’s older, but we’ll keep  Bible stories, folk tales, and fairy tales in picture book form for all that they have to offer.

For more about religions and science, see my Secular Thursday page.

Disclosure: Amazon.com links are affiliate links.   A portion of purchases made via these links earns a commission for this blog.  Thanks for your support!  Books reviewed from library copies.

Exploring Religion from a Secular Perspective

Jan Devor writes in Raising Freethinkers,

“By being a nonreligious parent in the United States, you have chosen the road less traveled. With this position comes the responsibility to educate your children about both religion and your nonreligious stance. It is never enough to tell our children ‘We don’t believe,’ and leave it at that.”

No matter what we believe, we want to empower our children to make a truly informed decision about their own beliefs, which means they must have access to information about religion along with whatever secular viewpoints we, as parents, may have. For me, this means finding children’s books that are informational and accurate without promoting one religious view over another and adding them to our home libraries.

My favorite overview of religion for young kids is The Story of Religion by Betsy and Giulio Maestro. This, rather lengthy, picture book begins with why religion began (“People began to create stories about the events that mystified them.”) and follows as various religions (Confucianism, Hinduism, Judaism, Chistianity, Islam) developed. It provides plenty of information about the beliefs of each of these religions, but the primary focus seems to be putting religion into historical context. I especially like that it is carefully phrased so as to not present any one religion as true. Every disputable reference to beliefs is softened–e.g. “His followers believe that on the third day after his execution, Jesus was resurrected, or rose from the dead.”

For similar coverage, in a different format, try One World, Many Religions by Mary Pope Osborne. This book is for the same age group (grades K-4) but is broken up into chapters and illustrated with photographs in a way more typical to nonfiction. Both books are good overviews that present a positive, if distant, view of religion for nonreligious families.

Perhaps my favorite book for exploring religion is a new title from DK. What Do You Believe?, which came out earlier this year, is a great book for comparing and contrasting worldviews with the goal of opening a discussion as to what young people themselves believe.  I found it to be balanced in its coverage of world religions, and I was pleased that it included atheism as an option.  It brings up some controversial topics (religion & science, ethical dilemmas, etc) without providing one definite answer. Instead it outlines the opinions of various people–Richard Dawkins, for example, is quoted regarding evolution–are included to illustrate the possibilities.  Kids are invited to make their own decisions about what they believe.  This book is a great opportunity to explore big questions with upper elementary and middle school students that is designed to get kids thinking critically about their own beliefs.

This chart in What Do You Believe? will be particularly useful to kids who want to compare various religions.

This is just the beginning. If you are familiar with the books Parenting Beyond Belief and Raising Freethinkers, you know that there is a lot to consider when raising children without religion in a religious world. Giving your kids a context of the beliefs and history with these books is just one of many steps involved (probably not even the first step) in empowering them to become freethinkers in their own right.


More book recommendations on the For Secular Families page.