My Pulitzer Prize-winning Post colleague Gene Weingarten is known for exploring morality in both somber and extremely silly ways, including a piece on parents who mistakenly leave their children to die in hot cars and another that asks whether it’s possible to steal a fart.
His new book, out this week, lays out different questions, and for a new audience. It’s a book on atheism for children.
In “Me & Dog,” Weingarten — who is an atheist — and his regular illustrator- collaborator, Eric Shansby, introduce a dog named Murphy and the kid named Sid who he worships and tries to please. The pair stand in for humans and God, and through big, colorful drawings and rhyme pose questions some probably will find insightful and others offensive.
In interviewing Weingarten about the book, I wondered how kids would receive it, which made me, of course, want to hear from kids themselves. That led to a collaboration with our colleagues at Post TV, who brought 13 children from a wide range of faith backgrounds into the Post studios and asked them general, broad questions about the nature of God, transcendence and morality. You can watch the video at wapo.st/kidstalk0920 .
Here’s an excerpt from my conversation with Weingarten:
Q: How did you come to write this book?
A: I stepped on my dog’s foot. That actually happened. The whole book was created in four seconds of insight. My dog — like the one in the book — is named Murphy. I stepped on her foot, she howled and then asked me, clearly: “What have I done wrong? What did I do? I won’t do it again.” The whole idea flashed in my mind: I am her God!
The allegory sprung to mind. That there is a controlling presence. That we can importune him with favors. That all things happen for a reason. We may not understand the reason, but somebody up there does. This is a book that is a sweet little book. It’s not hectoring anyone, but it’s trying to start a conversation with a very young person: What if things happen just because? Is that something to fear? And the book says: No, we have each other, we have love and the world is full of endless possibilities. Why should that be frightening?
Q: What did you tell your children about God when they were growing up (his daughter, Molly, is 33, and his son, Daniel, is 30)?
A: They grew up knowing, understanding we didn’t have a religion. We didn’t go to synagogue or church. My wife was born Catholic and I was born Jewish, but our kids weren’t bar or bat mitzvahed or anything. But we didn’t proselytize [atheism]. It became clear to them over time that faith wasn’t part of our life. And then exactly the right thing happened. My daughter was curious about religion and wound up majoring in pre-med and religion. She wanted to learn. (Molly calls herself agnostic. Daniel says he’s a mix of “Native American spirituality, gnosticism and Eastern philosophies.”)
Q: But how did you discuss the issues that normally come up?
A: I don’t think I used the word “atheism.” Because I don’t believe in proselytizing, even atheism.
It’s an essential problem with religion in that it is, by it’s nature, exclusionary. I’m not anti-religion, it does a lot of good things. But at its basis it is: We’re right, and they’re wrong. I’m sure at various times I told [my kids] my belief is: This is it, and IT is beautiful. The world is filled with hope and opportunity and it’s our job to take care of one another. That’s what this book is saying. This is not a threatening concept.
Q: How were you raised?
A: Pretty much the way I raised my kids. I knew my parents had no religious beliefs except they were hypocrites in that I had a bar mitzvah. It was important to them in their society that they pretended. Yom Kippur we celebrated by drawing the drapes in the dining room so no one could see us eating.
Q: Let’s get back to the book and how it came to be.
A: One of the best-selling books today is Todd Burpo’s “ Heaven is for Real ,” about Burpo’s son who claims he went to heaven. Why are we troweling that kind of crap into the heads of our kids? This book is an alternative to that, it is an antidote to “Heaven is for Real.” . . . I hate the fact that “Heaven is for Real” is a runaway bestseller.
Atheists always get this question: How can you be an ethical, moral person? Which is annoying and insulting. It demonstrates a fundamental disconnect. Do you really need fear of hell to make you do good, moral things? I don’t need to fear the devil to do good. I know that it’s fundamentally right to do good. And that’s what I tried to teach my children. I have ethical and moral children.
Q: You say you “want to start a conversation.” Is this advocacy? Is that you?
A: I’m not that earnest. I wanted to do a really entertaining book that didn’t patronize children and that made a very gentle statement. If there is no deity, and that’s what we have, that’s not a frightening thing. The world is full of beauty and hope and we should treat one another with respect and love, and that’s a pretty great situation.