Is It Too Late For Religious Tolerance?

Randa Handler’s Boy Who Spoke To God Book cover

Is ‘religious tolerance’ teachable? I think so. Working at the United Nations and as an international journalist enabled me to experience many cultures and religions. I believe that as humans we start out tolerant but as we get exposed to deep rooted family traditions our beliefs get embedded. I wish for every child to experience exotic cultures and different beliefs, as nothing expands a young mind more. There is a serious need for children’s books that open discussions about religion without taking sides.

How can you teach children to be tolerant of other religions if you don’t discuss any? And, recent research on infants is suggesting that we are born with good social disposition. So, why wouldn’t early education be key to instill tolerance especially when it comes to religion? Children’s books look to be ideal for that. But, tackling religious tolerance is a tall order. And, using it as a premise in a children’s book is very tricky. Many schools don’t allow such books and many parents don’t like them either. Religious children’s books do exist. That’s not what I’m talking about. There is a void in children’s literature when it comes to showing diversity in beliefs. It would be nice to have mainstream children’s books that highlight all the different religions that color our world.

But, let’s have a reality check. Why would a children’s book author go after such a topic? Why would a writer limit a target’s reach? It’s much easier to go after a premise that isn’t taboo. The arena of children’s books is so competitive as it is. Still, I’m hoping that this article sparks an idea with a few readers and fun mainstream children’s books surface.

Don’t hesitate too long. Go for it. As a journalist I was taught to shy away from the topic of religion, but I decided to write an early reader’s children’s book that exposes children to different beliefs without taking sides. I was certain that a mainstream children’s book that dealt with religion would encounter lots of resistance and I was right. I did it anyway and it seems to have been well received in the educational and parenting communities. It popped up on the kindle bestseller list. But, more mainstream books need to be created to make a difference. Neutral enough to be accepted in schools and neutral, fun and mainstream enough to be enjoyed by parents and children alike. So much of today’s unrest seems to be caused by religion. And premises involving tolerance of all beliefs are needed and timely.

Let’s glance at New Year celebrations around the world and we will find religious holidays and festivals for many beliefs throughout the year. Believe it or not, New Year’s isn’t always celebrated on the First of January. Greek Orthodox Christians and the Coptic Christians celebrate their New Year in September as do Ethiopians and some Egyptians. The Chinese follow a totally different calendar with their New Year on the 19th of February. On the other hand, the Mayans celebrate theirs in July.

God or Allah is honored differently throughout the globe and exposing children to all the ‘religious colors’ can only be a positive. Having diverse children’s book characters depicting differences in religious beliefs will make for better social interactions, hence a better world. From the Zulu who honor their ancestors and look to them for guidance, to the Hindus who consider a cow sacred and it is revered. Think about the advantage of having kids discover early on that God or Allah’s image alone is seen differently. Christians have always portrayed God, while Muslims think it’s a sacrilege to portray Mohammad.

Who cares what culture or beliefs are right? None of that mattered when we were kids. I am so thankful to my parents for that. I wish more children’s book writers will tackle religion as a subject matter not to teach a certain belief, nor take sides. It would be awesome to show children the many colors of the rainbow, to open the conversation about differences in beliefs and societies. I am astonished that in certain countries, parents tell their kids to avoid those who are different or have a different religion. Why do that? Why foster hate? I went to a French Catholic parochial school but I had a friend who was Muslim and another one who was Jewish. I remember how intrigued I was by their different traditions.

Even though my childhood friends and I were so different, we were a close, active group and our games were many. We played together and enjoyed learning from each other about our many differences and accepted them as simple facts. No judgments or preconceived notions. Obviously, I now understand their backgrounds more clearly and appreciate these differences.

Is tolerance of diversity teachable? I strongly believe it is. Why did I get into children’s books? Because it’s a great way to reach a young mind before it’s formed! I saw a need for diversity in mainstream children’s books; it is a real gap that few are attempting to fill. I tried to populate my books with fun characters and ideas that are representative of different cultures. I strongly believe that if you instill early on an appreciation of differences, it makes for a better society. A recent #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag went viral and was retweeted by the major media, from The Washington Post, to the New York Times to CNN to NBC to PBS. That proves my point!

Accepting each others differences can only lead to a better world!

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