“How did you explain people’s different religions to your kids?” a fellow dad asked me recently. Short answer: I didn’t.
But my children and I learned together by reading Mary Pope Osborne’s One World, Many Religions: The Ways We Worship. You and your little ones may already be familiar with her work because Osborne is the author of the Magic Tree House series.
One World, Many Religions is written for grades 4 and up, and it introduces the seven major religions of the world: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism. Throughout the book, Osborne’s tone is gentle, neutral, and inviting. She begins: “How did the world begin? What is the purpose of life? What happens after we die? Since the beginning of time, people have asked these questions. In their search for answers, they have often felt the presence of a sacred power, or powers.”
Osborne helps you explain religion by keeping things simple. This also helps children understand the history and geography of religions. For example, she explains: “Judaism began between three and four thousand years ago. Christianity eventually grew out of Judaism. Then the religion of Islam grew out of Judaism and Christianity. … At the same time that Jewish teachings were being written down in the Middle East, priests in India were recording the teachings of Hinduism. About 2,500 years ago, the writings of Buddhism grew out of Hinduism. Around the same time, scholars in China began writing down the teachings of Confucianism and Taoism.”
Granted, Osborne’s summaries omit many more complex aspects. That, however, leaves room for parents to provide context as they see fit. More importantly, she notes the purpose of all religions, They “seek to bring comfort to their followers. They all offer thanks for the world’s great beauty and goodness,” she writes. “They all express awe and humility before the mysteries of the universe. In this sense, they are all wise and enduring.”
In the opening chapter on Judaism, the theme of respect for God (and different religions in general) is established and continues throughout the book. For example, “Orthodox Jewish men always wear a head covering called a yarmulke as a sign of respect to God.” Such a detail is important to her audience, since children often comment on unfamiliar appearances. The book also includes photographs of children from all seven religions in active worship, further familiarizing the topic for young readers.
On the other hand, Osborne is not afraid to mention that religions are not immune from being disrespectful sometimes. But she broaches issues like religious persecution, sexism, and discrimination with restraint and an age-appropriate tone.
A comparative religion class boiled down to essentials
Osborne draws helpful parallels among the different religions’ holy founders, sacred writings and symbols, places of worship, and rites of passage. Fittingly, the book contains no conclusion about religion. In the chapter on Confucianism, however, she notes: “Confucius said that all people should be courteous and kind to one another. One of his best-known sayings is: ‘Never do to others what you would not like them to do to you.’ Most major religions teach a version of this saying, which is sometimes called the golden rule.”
One World, Many Religions is not a perfect book. For example, it does not address families who may be non-religious or atheist. (Such families might consult Dale McGowan’s Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion for resources.) But Osborne’s book includes a glossary of religious terms, a world map of “People Practicing the Seven Major Religions” with a color-coded key, and a “Timeline of the Seven Major Religions.” These all help children visualize world religions.
Beyond Osborne’s book, many others address parenting along with trying to explain religions or a specific faith. Parents should decide if one of these fits their family’s values best. But books like Osborne’s seem especially needed in our current climate of religious strife, uncivil discourse, and a general deficit of empathy. Whenever you find such a book whether it explains religions or sex or whatever, remember to save it for a younger parent to use when hiking a tough part of the trail of parenthood you’ve already traveled.