How Much God Is Too Much? December 15, 2008

How Much God Is Too Much?

Part 2, I guess, of the previous post.

How much should you tell your children about God?

Adam Wolstenholme says you have to tell them something.

His mom asks him not to go overboard with it — don’t talk about nails and torture and Jesus on the Cross.

A friend at work says he ought to teach his child about religion and goes even further:

My colleague Margaret Watson warned me against filling Zoe’s young head with Godless thoughts.

Margaret’s dad died when she was nine, and her faith was a great comfort for her, because she could believe that he was waiting for her in heaven.

“And, being Catholic,” she said, “It meant that there was still someone I could call Father.”

I can’t argue with that. You’d have to be a brutally militant atheist to tell an orphaned child that we die and that’s it.

That Margaret was nine when she lost her father had a particular resonance for me because nine was the most difficult age of my life. Nothing bad happened. Nobody died. But I did a lot of thinking and came up against the immovable object of mortality.

You have to face thoughts of death at some point.

But if nine years old might be a bit too early, two definitely is.

And so I’ll take the path of pragmatic hypocrisy when Zoe’s old enough to ask, and tell her that yes, when we die, we go to heaven.

I can appreciate that religion is a comfort for children, a romantic fantasy, like Father Christmas.

But while this might be a strong argument in favour of religion for children, it’s also, by implication, an argument against it for adults.

That seems to me like the wrong way of going about it. (I say this having no kids of my own.)

One argument atheist parents make for teaching their children about religion is that they need to understand how/what other people think.

The argument in the article suggests the children need to also believe that same mythology.

You can do without that.

But what do you tell an orphaned child? That’s a tough call. Even saying that the parents left behind wonderful memories is cold comfort for a child who will not be creating new memories with them.

I don’t think that telling the child the lie that the parents are up in Heaven is the right way to handle it.

However, I’m not sure what the best way is, either.

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  • ssns

    It was actually my mom’s death when I was 6 that started my path toward atheism. Adults would tell me that she was in heaven, with god, because god loved her so much that he just couldn’t be without her (and variations on that theme). At the same time, in Sunday School, I was told that god loved me. The two separate gods wouldn’t reconcile in my 6 year old brain. How could god love me if he killed my mom?

    I held on to a small amount of hope that I’d see her in some form after I died. I didn’t hold on to any Christianity, but I was willing to cling to that one last tiny bit of spiritualism for awhile for the minimal comfort it gave me (and I needed all I could get).

    So, knowing about religion hurt me, in that I couldn’t reconcile my thoughts with what adults told me, far more than the tiny comfort of seeing her again helped me. As a child, your imagination will allow you to see that parent in heaven, in the sky, in the wind, everywhere. So removing heaven doesn’t remove the presence of the (imagined) spirit.

    I think you should educate kids about the gods and religions of others. I don’t think they’ll believe it if they’re not raised in an environment that will brainwash them into thinking it’s all true. They willingly drop belief in Santa and fairies and other tales, so I don’t fear that they’d retain god myths when they don’t retain others.

  • My mother died from cancer when my eldest was 11 and my youngest were 8. Naturally they had questions about death and dying and about religion and the afterlife. I’ve always told them that some people believe in heaven, some people believe in reincarnation and some people believe that it is the end of the person when they die. That fact is that nobody really knows what happens to you but it is likely that you aren’t aware of anything, much like being in a very deep sleep that you never wake up from.

    I stressed that what happens after death really isn’t important, different beliefs might give people comfort and help them but that’s all. What is important is what a person does in life and how it touches others. We can choose to remember that when someone dies to honour them and comfort ourselves.

  • Nessa

    When I was young, religion wasn’t something we talked about in my home. I was eight or nine when my friends asked what religion I was, and I had to ask my mom because I had no idea. It turned out my mom is Catholic, and my father is an atheist, and I could pick whatever I wanted to be. They neither filled my head with godly thoughts any more than they filled my head with ungodly thoughts. When my grandfather died, even the words, “He’s in Heaven now.” were cold comfort. As an atheist mother, I don’t fill my children’s heads with ungodly thoughts. We take the same route my parents took with me, and we just don’t talk about god. When they are older I will help them study religion, and learn about what other people believe, and then they are free to decide for themselves how they feel about god. If by some horrible accident they should lose me, or their father, well we will deal with our grief together as a family. We will talk about it, talk about the person we miss, and work things out, without bringing heaven into it. In times like that, there are really no words that can bring ultimate comfort. You just need to work past the pain, and it’s no different for children.

  • Siamang

    I wouldn’t lie to a child. If I felt like I knew exactly what happens to us after we die, I’d tell a kid that.

    But, having never died, I don’t know. I’m pretty sure we’re dead. But I don’t know.

    So rather than tell a child a story of what I’d like to be true, or flatter myself into assuming that I know better than a child knows, just because I’ve thought about the question for longer, I’ll go with the truth as I know it:

    Nobody knows what happens.

    I’m not going to sugar coat it. But at the same time, I’ll make it clear that the question is posed to the child, not the other way around. “What do you think happens?” is an appropriate and honest answer.

    Also, what’s important at that age is something more along the lines of what’s the child’s experience of the missing loved one. Not “what did so-and-so experience as they died?” But “will I see them again?” The answer is no, and that’s the most honest answer you can give a child with the knowledge we have as finite beings.

    Children’s relationship with life itself, and by extension death, is prime. We parents are secondary to that experience. Their own experience will trump anything we plan for them, or try to protect them from. We foolishly believe we can hold back death by hiding it from children, or telling them fairy-stories where death is minimized or eliminated.

    I could tell my daughter such stories all her life, and then tomorrow be struck by a bus. I cannot assert myself as being able to hold back fate, or be always there to interpret and mediate the truths of life for her for her whole lifetime.

    It will take her whole life for her to understand her own relationship with life and death. I cannot explain it better than that, and I would not presume to. To invent a soothing mythology is to rob from her an essentially human experience.

  • Stina

    What is with this idea that children should be protected from the truth? My grandmother, someone I deeply loved, died when I was nine. But what I was thinking was not “I hope she’s still alive in some way” but “I will miss her very much, but at least I got to know her” – because even then I couldn’t believe in an imaginary father who would care if I said something mean to my sister the other day when he’s simultaneously listening to everyone in the world muttering their prayers to him at the same time.

    Intentionally lying to children I find despicable. Life is hard. Life sucks. Get over it.

  • Arnaud

    One argument atheist parents make for teaching their children about religion is that they need to understand how/what other people think.

    Exactly. What’s most important is not to force anything upon them until they ask for information. Once they ask what happens after death, let the child know all the possible views. Start off by saying that no one actually knows what happens after death and then stem off into the multiple beliefs that people hold.

    Eventually, a mention of atheism cold pop up. Saying something like, “Some people think that until we have evidence of what happens after death, it’s silly to say what happens.” would probably get their inquisitive mode ‘activated.’ It’s essential to let the children think for themselves.

    Of course, death is a sad thing and the child may seek refuge in beliefs of an afterlife. However, if they retain the fact that no one actually knows what happens then it may avoid them a trip towards the creepy world of religion.

  • Aj

    If we’re going to start lying, make up something more comforting, and also add in a bit to make them behave the way we want them to, and perhaps something that will persuade them to give us money.

  • I’m sorry, but I think lying to children is almost always a terrible idea. And I am frankly a bit baffled at the idea that someone would do it deliberately, not when there’s an immediate crisis situation that you don’t know how to handle, but just as a matter of general policy. Purely in an attempt, not even to eliminate pain and sadness, but simply to postpone it. (For one thing, when your kids find out you lied to them and told them about Heaven when you didn’t believe it, it’s not going to do wonders for their trust in you.)

    I think Siamang has the right idea. I’d go with something along the lines of, “Nobody knows for sure. Some people believe (X), some people believe (Y). I believe (Z). I can tell you why I believe (Z) if you’re interested. What’s important is that when people we’re close to die, we remember them, and we take the good things we got from them with us all the time.”

  • I think when my daughter (and any future kids) is young, if she starts asking about heaven, I will simply ask her “What do YOU think?” and allow them to have their own beliefs for awhile. It may not work–she may press the issue, but I will cross that bridge when I get there. Young children are easily distracted with questions. “What do you think? What do you think it will be like?” etc. This can help lay the framework for teaching them critical thinking skills. I wouldn’t want to rob my kid(s) of a belief they WANT to have any more than I would wish to force a belief upon them that they are too young to even understand. My goal is to teach critical thinking skills and how to decide for oneself what makes sense and what doesn’t. What makes sense to a 3, 9, or even 12 year old doesn’t to a 32 year old. It is a developmental process.

  • JimboB

    This story is a bit of a role-reversal:

    I have good a friend who lost her ‘baby’ in the middle of her pregnancy. She has since become very religious, and she honestly believes she will see her child again some day in heaven.

    I couldn’t (wouldn’t) bring myself to argue with her.

    She found a support group for women in similar situations, and she started an affiliated group here in St. Louis. Although the group is religiously based, I donated some money to help her get the ball rolling. I’m glad to see her empathizing with other people going through similar experiences because I think that in itself will help her much more than an empty promise of seeing her baby again some day.

    She has since (just recently, in fact) given birth to a healthy baby boy. Right now I think that’s all that matters to her, but I wonder how her beliefs will affect her baby when he grows up.

  • This may be controversial…

    That seems to me like the wrong way of going about it. (I say this having no kids of my own.)

    You’re a trained teacher. I say this as both a teacher and a parent: you’re the kid expert. You are more prepared to give good advice on how to deal with kids than a person who has offspring but is making it up as they go along.

    You=trained expert on kids. Most parents=people who are guessing but pretending they have it figured out. Some parents=people who self-trained and therefore know much of what you know as a teacher.

    I tell ya, my kid is thirteen and I will listen to an adult who deals with thirteen-year-olds professionally and has done so for a while before I’ll listen to someone who has far less experience in the field, like only having on thirteener at a time.

  • I have three children. I think telling children there is a god and heaven after you die when you don’t believe it is irresponsible.

    I don’t feel the same way about Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, etc. Although these are on the line too, belief in these fantasies are not rampant among adults in society. It’s important not to push these too far, either.

    Kids are a lot smarter than most adults give them credit for. Secular humanism has just as much if not more to offer in terms of dealing with death and the hardships of life in a healthy way. Show them some positive secular values and methods for dealing with their emotions.

    Don’t enable them to avoid dealing with life by feeding them fantasies.

    Josh Nankivel

  • From early on I was taught that the spirit of the departed would reside in those who still remembered them and their deeds. We make a point of honouring our ancestors and recently departed every Equinox (we have named it Anemos). To get my daughter used to death I purchased a fish tank that held 6 fish but put 15 in the tank knowing there would be a mortality. At four she really loved her fish but she got used to fishing out the dead ones and flushing them down the toilet. When we saw the lambs in Wales, they were referred to as lamb chops. She got used to the idea that we should honour life but when its over, its over! If we sorely miss someone its usually a sign that we know we failed to honour them when they were alive! In answer to those who want to believe in a heaven, we respond that if there is a heaven, we are in it and better learn to take care of it! There is no second chance . . . which the religious seem to need!

  • 5ive

    I have to agree with others here. To outright lie just to provide some false hope of eternal life is bizarre to say the least. Now if he really truly believed it, that would be another story.
    My kids have asked and I have explained my views, asked them theirs, told them of greek and roman views, christian and buddhist views, basically all views we come across. My kids have experienced the death of their great grandmother and, to a lesser extent, pets. We have a ritual for dead pets and we say goodbye and the kids can go and look at their little graves and clean them off. Right now, my 10 year old has a very concrete view of death. Merely that it is the end of life, nothing more, nothing less. My 7 year old, is just now getting what it really means to not be here anymore. It is big concept. The best and most we can(should) do is to let them know as much as we do and encourage research for their own belief system.

  • I think it’s cruel to lie to children about the nature of death. I think it’s insulting, furthermore, to think that children are such delicate flowers that they can’t “handle the truth”. Death is the end. If we think that, we should say that even to children.

    Indeed, it isn’t even cruel. Our society *defines* it as cruel – but death is the end, the person is beyond fear and pain (and most deaths are full of both). I don’t think it would traumatize a child if adults were honest about about it without being melodramatic, if we were gentle with the truth – but still firm in its truthfulness.

  • I think telling a child a lie to make them feel better will do nothing but cause more grief later on. It’s better for a child to learn to deal with death and grief early, instead of lying and delaying the inevitable. It will only result in the child losing trust in their parents and adults, and having to deal with the loss anyways. I don’t think refusing to lie to a child and cause more pain later on is horrible and militant atheism.

    What’s the best solution? Honesty, I think. “I don’t know” is probably the best answer, and letting the child know that this is how life works but that their parent WILL continue to live on in certain ways: if I were a parent trying to explain this, I would tell them that the dead parent has become a part of everything within the world, from the air to the trees to the ground, and that they continue to live on in this way, and be with us, even if we can’t see them. This would probably instill respect for the world and all things while comforting them and allowing them to deal with death realistically (as it’s not a lie, as scientifically we do all recycle, though frankly idiotic burial traditions slow this process down).

  • I do believe in an afterlife including heaven and hell, but I think even if I didn’t I would not think of death as the end. While it may be an end of the combination of features and traits defined as the self, it is only a transition for the matter and energy that make us up. As the previous commentor said, we become part of other organisms as well as the earth and the atmosphere. Even after the earth is gone, our matter and energy could become part of the stars. One does have to be careful not to mislead children into believing in reincarnation, but one can show children that death is not a complete end to everything within us.

  • TheDeadEye

    I’d be wary of letting kids think that recycling/decomposing (worm food) equals eternal consciousness. Dead people are dead. No thoughts. No life. End of line.

  • SarahH

    I’m with the “don’t lie to your kids” camp on this one. That doesn’t mean that you have to go all Jack Handy on them though. I would be honest but broad – I would tell them that I don’t know about what happens after we die for sure, and that lots of people believe different things. If pressed, I would explain that I think the important thing is that we remember the lessons we learned from the people who die, pass on their stories and keep the happy memories.

  • I’m planning on taking the same approach as SarahH with my kids. One of them is 18 months old and the other is due in February, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about.

  • Froynlaven

    I have a new idea about the subject.
    I’ve heard cases where children brought up with no religion might become fundamentalists later on in life, kinda like how overprotected children will party too hard when they first get to college.
    I’d like to try bringing my kids up as true Pastafarians. Give them the Flying Spaghetti Monster version of heaven so they can believe in it, just like Santa. This way you can teach them about Christianity and other religions but say that “our religion is the FSM”. They get awesome stories about midgets and pirates and get to believe in a heaven.
    Then When they’re older you can reveal that, much like Santa or Jesus, it’s just something fun for kids to believe in.

  • ThatOtherGuy

    I’d probably just tell my kids that nobody knows what happens after you die, because nobody’s come back to tell us :p

    It’s certainly not lying!

  • There are so many myths tangled up in this. One is that religion cures the fear of death. Another is that there are no consolations in the naturalistic view. Both wrong.

    During a recent conversation, my six-year-old daughter expressed a sobbing, anguished fear of dying. If the only way around her anguish was a lie, I’d lie like a rug. Instead I first empathized with the fear, then offered the greatest consolation of all time: the Lucretian symmetry argument.

    “Where were you a hundred years ago? Before you were born?”

    “What do you mean, where was I? I wasn’t anywhere!”

    “And were you afraid?”

    “Of course not! How could I be afraid when I wasn’t…” Her eyes got wide. “OMIGOSH, IT’S EXACTLY THE SAME!”

    She laughed. At the age of six, she laughed at death. Beat that, Jehovah.

    (Complete conversation here.)

  • AnonyMouse

    Hmm… I suppose I’ll have to worry about this once I’ve adopted my future atheist minions. If they had already been taught that their parents were in Heaven, I think I’d let them hang onto that idea as long as it made them happy, but I certainly wouldn’t reinforce it by encouraging them to be religious. On the other hand, if they hadn’t been taught about an afterlife, I’d probably tell the kid that his/her parents were safe. Maybe hedge my bets a little and say that they were happy together and that we would all end up together one day.

    Hey, if being happy is the absence of misery, death must be ecstasy. 😉

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