Ask Richard: Atheist Sister Wants to Help Her Younger Brother in India August 26, 2010

Ask Richard: Atheist Sister Wants to Help Her Younger Brother in India

Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.

Dear Richard,

I really enjoy reading your column on Friendly Atheist. I think it is so helpful to have someone advise people from an alternative point of view. That was one of the first blogs that I started reading when I started feeling like an atheist. I’m writing to you today for advice on how to encourage my wonderful 10-year-old brother to be skeptical about his world.

A little bit about me first. My name is Andrea, I’m Indian, a proud atheist and I’m 20. My two younger sisters and brother were raised Catholic by a very young mother. She had me when she was 18 and was not very well educated. But she did her best and raised us to be very good people. She tries to be religious but has recently become skeptical due to some family and personal issues. She has never tried to MAKE us believe in a God and has been very open about my atheism. But she still holds on to some religiosity and that is being passed on to my brother. He is a very smart boy who loves science and loves his mother very much. So he reads the Bible every night and believes in God and Jesus etc. I know he doesn’t understand most of it, and my mother knows it too. She is in two minds about what she wants for him. But she is open to me talking to him about religion and skepticism. So I would like to know how I could go about talking to him about it without it being too confusing. I don’t want him to feel let down by my saying there might be no God, or something along those lines. I want him to question these things for himself and work these things out without too much anxiety.

He has a lot of friends who are raised by very religious parents and say things to him that hurt him. He is a very sensitive boy and tends to take things that people say to heart. He was told by his friends that the music he likes, and the Japanese action cartoons he watches are satanic/anti-christ. He was also told by a friend that God said that the world would end in 2012. It gets to him and even though I try to tell him otherwise, he feels bad. I want to talk to him in an age appropriate way and get through to him. Living in India and being skeptical can be challenging. So I want him to have the right tools for when he grows up. I just don’t know how to equip him with those tools.

I hope this wasn’t too long winded. 😛 And thanks in advance.

With love, all the way from India,

Dear Andrea,

Your brother is a lucky boy. Would that we all had big sisters like you.

I’m glad that your mother is permitting you to speak with him about skepticism and critical thinking. But I understand that you may be walking a narrow line, and you possibly must not go too far too fast. His mom is ambiguous about religion, but she’s still emotionally and perhaps socially obligated to teach it to him, and he’s naturally loyal to her. So a delicate, patient approach is best. Think of yourself as planting seeds. You probably won’t eliminate all of his indoctrination all at once, but you can gradually coax his mind forward out of the shadows of superstition. I have some ideas off the top of my head that might help:

Get a book on simple magic tricks, and have fun practicing two of them with him. Include one that uses sleight of hand, like the “French Drop,” in which a coin seems to disappear from your hand and you can then pull it out of your pocket or someone’s ear. The other should be a trick where the person is amazed at your choosing the right playing card or the right number because they haven’t thought the logic out carefully. That is a very common type of logic-based magic trick. These magic tricks are simple enough for most children ten years old and up; they just require plenty of practice to do them smoothly.

Your brother will have something fun to share with his friends, but more importantly, he’ll begin to understand an important principle for skeptical, critical thinkers: The misdirection of attention or the misdirection of logical thinking can give someone the illusion of having special powers.

Play a thought game with him:
Suppose he and a friend want to find out who can run the fastest. Ask him if any of these ways would be the best way to find out:

  • Would whoever can boast the most about running fast be the fastest? No? Why not?
  • Would whoever had the most friends who believe he’s the fastest be the fastest? No? Why not?
  • Would finding an old book that says one boy is the fastest mean he really is? No? Why not?
  • He’ll immediately suggest that of course a race would be the best way to find out who is the fastest. Ah! putting it to a test! Excellent idea! Then ask him these questions about the race:

  • Should he run downhill while his friend runs uphill? No? Why not?
  • Should he wear galoshes and his friend wear track shoes? No? Why not?
  • In case it’s a close finish, should only his friend’s family members be the “judges” at the finish line? No? Why not?
  • Should only one race be enough, or would it be better to race two or three times on different days? Why?
  • If your little brother is as smart as he sounds from your description, he’ll soon catch on to this way of thinking, and at his own young level he will have explored just about all of the basic principles of a scientific inquiry: claims being tested empirically, eliminating extraneous variables, eliminating bias in observation, and repeating the test to increase the validity of the findings.

    You will have also planted in his mind the idea that someone making a claim with conviction, or many people believing the claim, or the claim being written in a book are not enough to conclude that the claim is correct.

    Maybe your brother could use a hero, and your country has an excellent candidate. Tell him about Sanal Edamaruku, the famous rationalist who recently challenged a guru who claimed he could kill with his magic. He hilariously survived all of the mumbo jumbo on live television. He is president of the Indian Rationalist Association. Perhaps you could write to him for suggestions for encouraging a young clear thinker.

    Sadly, the disapproval from his peers about his taste in music and cartoons is a universal problem. He’s surrounded by superstitious kids raised by superstitious parents. Kids in large parts of the U.S. are in a similar predicament. The desire to fit in with the group can be strong in children, and for those whose intelligence and sensitivity make them intrinsically different, life can be challenging. Some of his anguish comes from his simply being a sensitive person, but some may come from his being in a cognitive developmental stage where he’s not entirely able to distinguish credible statements from ridiculous ones, or personal opinions from valid observations. That will most likely improve greatly during the next two years. He’ll be shrugging much more of it off.

    In you, he has a friend who accepts him just as he is, even with one foot in the religious world, and one in the secular. He has a role model who is a good person without having to answer to a god. He has someone who can comfort him when he’s hurting because his peers are highly conditional in their friendship. You can teach him about discretion: who to share his personal likes with, and who to be more careful around; when to speak up and disagree, and when to just let someone say silly things. You can help him look for another kid who is a misfit for having the same positive traits, and you can encourage him to find an ally about his age. One close friend is enormously more than none at all.

    As for the kid telling him about end of the world in 2012, which is apparently a bizarre goulash of ancient Mayan cosmology mixed with a large dollop of Hollywood woo, and now Indian/Christian confusion (??) Tell your brother that you have a friend in the United States named Richard who in his 60 years has personally survived more than 188 doomsdays of all sorts, many of them well publicized. They weren’t just supposed to happen in America, they were supposed to happen to the whole world. They were different in their scenarios, but they all had three things in common:

  • None of them happened. The day came and went like any other.
  • Some people sold a lot of books about the doomsday.
  • The only people who were suddenly gone on the doomsday were those who had made a lot of money selling those books.
  • Tell him that in his ten years, he has survived more than 53 of these doomsdays, and that you and he can laugh and celebrate surviving another in 2012.

    Andrea, I congratulate you on your courage to so openly be a clear thinker amidst so much superstition, irrationality and nonsense. Your simply being there for your brother is a precious gift. How you live your daily life will be as powerful as any particular, focused effort to help him be free of the affliction of supernaturalism. My very best wishes for the continuing prosperity of you and your whole family.


    You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. There is a very large number of letters. I am sorry if I am unable to respond in a timely manner.

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    • Barbara_K

      This is a good video from David Morrison of NASA regarding 2012.

      Here’s his presentation on 2012 at SkeptiCal earlier this year.

    • Chris

      It is not without irony that I find that your statement about a “friend in the United States named Richard who in his 60 years has personally survived more than 188 doomsdays of all sorts, many of them well publicized“, uses almost EXACTLY the same childish method of reasoning that the “amazing” Randi & Penn Gillette use when they promote the idea that since some claims of the supernatural are bogus scams then all are.

      I agree that an important principle of atheists is the misdirection of attention from logical thought – else, how else could such illogical & irrational ideas like the “guilt by association” method of condemning all belief be followed with such fervor?

      In like vein, it is illogical and irrational for Andrea to think that a failure to understand theological ideas & facts (like in the Bible) implies that they must not be true.

      That makes me wonder how many self-labeled “skeptics” even understand what skepticism is, or what it refers to.

      The habit of scrutinizing & careful examination is not only useful, but practically essential. That said, science is always the tool insisted upon to “verify” the existence of God, or of any of the supernatural.

      This insistence comes from an assumption of naturalism, and leads to an insistence that only scientific evidence for the existence of God is allowable. However, the foundation for this demand is either the misunderstanding that God MUST be a material object (which no Christian claims), or the assumed belief in naturalism, which leads to insist that science, which is solely concerned with the material world, must be able to provide evidence of non-material objects like God.

      That is similar to insisting that a screwdriver must be used to provide any acceptable evidence that a blue whale is heavier than a sea lion or else such a claim is unworthy of belief.

      Don’t get me wrong, I am all for critical thought and human reason – however, I fail to understand the sense of those who prefer worshiping the intellect rather than using it.

      Unlike the typical atheist who has such an “enlightened” revelation of there being no God at the ripe old age of 9-19 (the PRIME “I know everything” years), I tend to ask questions rather than make decisions contrary to reality.


    • Great advice as usual from Richard.

      I would second that the important thing is to let him know that being skeptical about religious beliefs and claims is a legitimate stance and use yourself as an example of someone who is skeptical. Spin skepticism in a positive way. Demonstrate that the joy of discovering the world and growing up includes determining what not to believe. Let him know that people believe all sorts of crazy things all over the world. His friends will have their share of crazy things they believe. Coach him a little on how to deal with people that believe crazy things and how not to be bullied.

      But finally give him space to grow up at his own pace. View your interactions with him as planting the seeds (as Richard said). Don’t expect him to adopt a rational outlook right away. Just plant the seed that it is a legitimate option.

      If discussing the particulars of the religion he is immersed in is problematic, you can always speak in generalities. Although 10-year olds may prefer more concrete examples…

    • coleen carpenter

      Wise words from Richard, wise endorsement and words from Jeff P. All you can do is plant seeds and set an example. Then let your brother be. Anything more forceful becomes as bad as what you are hoping he will turn away from.

    • Can your brother read English? If so, you might look into some of the following titles:

      Best Books for Young Skeptics

      I don’t know how many of these books are available/easily procured where you are, but hopefully some of them will be.

    • Andrea,

      You can also mention that many people will willingly apply skepticism to supernatural claims made outside thier own cultural milieu but will stop short of applying it towards claims made within their own culture.

      It is that last step, though, that is really the most important (but also the hardest).

    • trixr4kids

      It’s never too early to read Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World.

      I don’t know if it’s been translated into your language or not, but while I was trying to find out I stumbled across this site:

    • Andrea,

      We have a quite thriving community of skeptics and free thinkers in India. You can check which is the Indian rationalist forum.

      We also have a parenting forum for discussions on how to raise a kid as a skeptic and give the child his / her space. We would love you to join the forum and share your ideas and questions.

      @Richard: Excellent advice as usual. I especially loved the methods (magic tricks and the race). I’ve been looking at ways to talk to my niece about skepticism. These will be very helpful.

    • Claudia

      Andrea, I think that a young boy with such a loving an attentive older sister and an open-minded mother will do quite well. He’s 10. Lots of my friends believed in a god when they were 10. Almost none do today, so he may grow out of it like any other childish fancy.

      In the meantime I’d like to add a tiny bit to Richard’s excellent advice. You say he loves science. That is great news and I think you should actively cultivate that love. Take him to museums and out into nature. Watch scientific programming with him. Discuss scientific subjects with him. This may require you to do some reading of your own, but if you can steer him towards science as an adult, it will be well worth it. Scientists are amonst the least theist people on the planet, so if you can get him into science you will steer him towards a worldview and a community that will be naturally separate from superstition.

    • andrew

      I love India.

    • muggle

      Anna, thanks for that list! My grandson’s birthday is a little over a month away. He will be getting some of those. I was intrigued by the mystery one especially. He loves Scooby Doo and Ghostbusters and is all about pretending to bust ghosts and solve mysteries and just loves science to boot. So ordering. Along with 2 or 3 of the others. Definitely at least that and the one about common science questions. Thanks.

      Good advice, Richard. Not much to add between it and the comments as usual. Best thing is to encourage him to think for himself. Grandson finally asked the god question the other day and we told him some people think there is one, some (like his mom) say they don’t know and some don’t believe there is. He looked at me and said what do you think, Grammy? I just answered honestly, I don’t think there is one. I think it’s pretty silly to believe such a thing. But as you grow up, listen to what’s said about it and decide for yourself if it makes any sense or not.

      Really is there any better way to fight our children being brainwashed than that?

    • Anna, thanks for that list! My grandson’s birthday is a little over a month away. He will be getting some of those. I was intrigued by the mystery one especially. He loves Scooby Doo and Ghostbusters and is all about pretending to bust ghosts and solve mysteries and just loves science to boot. So ordering. Along with 2 or 3 of the others. Definitely at least that and the one about common science questions. Thanks.

      You’re welcome. Hope he enjoys them! I haven’t read everything on the list, but I have read several of the titles. If your grandson likes solving mysteries, I would definitely recommend Alexander Fox and the Amazing Mind Reader. The main character is a more skeptical version of Encyclopedia Brown, and the book does a great job of debunking psychics.

    • muggle

      Thanks again, Anna. I’ve ordered him that one and “Flat Earth, Round Earth” which looks good for showing how to think critically about how things aren’t always as they appear. He’s only turning 7 so many on the list (including Dan Barker’s, bummer) were above his age level. Will be something for down the road, however. I kind of ran them by him to see if he’d be interested and he was.

      I loved Encylopedia Brown when I was a kid and I think it influenced me to put things together for myself instead of just accepting what anybody told me. Those are probably in his future too.

    • keddaw

      Let’s see if you’re laughing in 2013!

      Or as the Mayan’s call it, the year we decided to stop counting.

      Or as the Cristians call it, the year Jesus returns.

      Or Jews, the year of the Messiah.

      Or as we call it, 2013.

    • Hitch

      If you go to a book store and look just how many books are written on 2012 one gets a really good sense how much superstition sells.

      It’s usually not the prophesies that are scary, but the people who wish for them to be true.

    • muggle

      keddaw, if we are will you come back and eat your words with good grace or shall we just laugh at you behind your back?

    • R. Kit Kittappa

      Richard, your advise is clear, precise and and easy to apply. Please keep in mind to write a book on bringing up children with a questioning and scientific mind.
      I also appreciate Andrea for her love of her brother and her Mom and for her concern that her brother should grow up with an enquiring and scientific mind.
      I started to question religion when I was ten. My Mom had asked me to read out the Mahabharatha daily while she was cooking. When I was about to complete the book, I started to point out the contradictions and the injustices that the main characters had perpetrated. My Mom said she would not question religion and I should talk to my Dad. Luckily my Dad was an agnostic. (He later became anatheist.) The first thing my Dad told me was that I should not discuss this with my friends, teachers and others because they may call me an evil person for questioning religion. Andrea, please note. Your brother will have ample opportunities to discuss with his friends on religion when he is 16 or more. My Dad guided me through books and pamphlets that guided me into becoming an atheist.

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