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In new atheist children’s book, belief is for the dogs

New children's book "Me & Dog" is certainly unusual—but, by comparing belief in God to the relationship between a dog and his owner, is it unfair to believers? Author Gene Weingarten speaks with RNS.

"Me & Dog" by Gene Weingarten and Eric Shansby.

“Me & Dog” by Gene Weingarten and Eric Shansby.

The Kirkus review of Me & Dog, a new children’s book, includes a bit of understatement: “Picture books questioning the very existence of the Almighty are rarities.”

Me & Dog does just that—in an unusual and potentially provocative way.

In the book, created by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Gene Weingarten and illustrator Eric Shansby, a young boy accidentally steps on his dog’s tail—and the dog reacts by thinking he has done something wrong and is being punished. The boy realizes that, to the dog, he is all-powerful. As Weingarten, who is an atheist, explained in the Washington Post:

Depending on how you choose to read it, Me & Dog is either: 1. A sweet little book about a boy who goes on a walk with his dog, and accidentally steps on the dog’s tail, and the dog apologizes because it has an adorable, fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of existence; or 2. An insidious, deviant little parable brainwashing vulnerable innocents into doubting the existence of God. Or, conceivably, it is both of the above, or something in between the two.

Me & Dog is certainly unusual—but, by comparing belief in God to the relationship between a dog and his owner, is it unfair to believers?

I spoke with Weingarten to learn more about what inspired Me & Dog, how he discussed belief with his children when they were younger, and what he would say to those concerned that the book compares belief in God to the relationship between a dog and his owner.

Chris Stedman: What inspired this book?

Gene Weingarten: The inspiration was that, on a walk, I accidentally stepped on my dog Murphy’s foot. And she apologized. The entire storyline and parable flashed before my eyes in just a moment.

In a larger sense, though, I wrote the book because [tweetable]Amazon is filled with books about how to teach religion to children, and nary a one for children about the absence of faith.[/tweetable] Also, Heaven Is For Real is a bestseller, and that revolts me.

CS: Were you concerned about how some theists might interpret this book?

GW: Good question. I actually think the book’s thesis is presented so gently, and ambiguously, that it is possible to read this entirely literally, a narrative about a boy and his dog. [tweetable]So I’d be surprised—though not disappointed—if there is a huge outcry from the religious right.[/tweetable]

The nastiest comment I’ve seen so far is that it is demeaning to believers to have their position portrayed by a naive dog. It’s a fair point, which I answer thus: [tweetable]In the book, Murphy is not representing all religious people.[/tweetable] He is representing religious people who have a certain dogmatic view of religion—a superstitious, primitive, and absolutist view involving cause and effect and the power of prayer. I’m comfortable comparing that type of religious person to a naive dog. I should say this outright: [tweetable]I am not blanketly contemptuous of religion, nor do I disrespect the religious. But there are many ways faith can be practiced, and some I do not like at all.[/tweetable]

CS: How did you discuss the themes of this book with your children when they were younger? How did your parents discuss them with you?

"Me & Dog" author Gene Weingarten. Photo courtesy Weingarten.

“Me & Dog” author Gene Weingarten. Photo courtesy Weingarten.

GW: Both I and my children were brought up without any religious faith, though in a spasm of hypocrisy, my parents gave me a bar mitzvah. They were worried about what friends and neighbors and relatives would think if I never jumped through that hoop.

My kids are grown today. Dan dabbles in Eastern religions; his older sister Molly is a veterinarian, and an agnostic. Interestingly, in college she had a double major: pre-med and religion. She was curious about the latter, and wanted to learn about it. I was thrilled with this. As I said, she wound up a nonbeliever: The dispassionate study of comparative religions tends to foster that.

CS: What is one thing you think some theists may not understand about atheists?

GW: [tweetable]The main thing some theists seem not to get is that it is entirely possible to live a moral and ethical life without having faith in a deity who can reward goodness and punish evil.[/tweetable] I’d argue that our goodness is purer, because it occurs because we think it’s right, not that we fear punishment if we evildo.

CS: A growing number of books explore the challenges some people face in raising their children outside of religion—and more and more atheist communities are developing the Humanist equivalent of a “Sunday School.” Do you have any advice for parents struggling with the idea of raising their children outside of religion?

GW: All of these parents should buy several copies of Me & Dog.

Portions of this interview were minimally edited for length or clarity. Subscribe to this column by entering your email under “Subscribe by Email” in the sidebar. You can also follow Chris on Twitter at @ChrisDStedman and ‘Like’ him on Facebook.