This is a guest post written by David G. McAfee. He is author, most recently, of The Belief Book.
Suppose you’re a non-believer and someone tells your child that he will go to Hell for not believing a certain thing or because he’s not baptized. What do you do?
Whether it’s at school, or with friends, or at a religious event of some kind, if you know children who aren’t being raised (some may say indoctrinated) with a particular religion, this situation is bound to arise.
That’s partly because the idea of Hell is associated with many religions, so no matter where you live or who your kids associate with, it’s likely they will meet somebody who believes in it. In Christianity, it’s called Hell. In Islam, it’s called “Jahannam.” But it’s all the same in practice.
The second reason this issue is common is that kids will be kids. If they are taught that Hell is real and that non-believers will be sent there, there’s a chance they will bring it up to their classmates and friends who they think fit those descriptions. And children who are threatened with Hell will be kids, too. That is to say that, because they often don’t know any better, they may be scared that this place is real and that they should do anything they can to avoid it.
That’s where you come in.
What you should do:
- Educate them about Hell: You should teach your child about the subject up to his or her level of understanding. A seven-year-old might not be able to understand the intricacies of the world’s major religions, but he may get that “some people believe in a bad place and others don’t.” It may be helpful to teach them about a wide variety of beliefs and why people believe the things they do. This is what I tried to do in The Belief Book, my children’s book on the origins (and importance) of beliefs and religions.
- Encourage freethought: Help promote critical thinking by asking important questions. This could be anything as simple as, “Do you believe Hell is real?” or as specific as, “Do you think a real loving god would burn his creations?” These questions, when asked politely and without judgment, will help children think for themselves and follow ideas to their logical conclusions.
- Explain faith and evidence: Anyone being threatened with an unknowable afterlife, whether it’s a child or an adult, should understand that there are other people who don’t believe the threat is a real one. They should be shown that all afterlife-concepts are based on guesses (and wishes) made by people, and that there isn’t any scientific evidence pointing to a posthumous lake of fire. This discussion is important because it effectively eliminates the threat. For those who don’t believe in eternal damnation, warnings of it don’t have the same effect as they do on believers. In that sense, telling non-believers they’ll go to “Hell” is like threatening to feed unicorn meat to a vegetarian — and realizing that can put one’s mind at ease.
What you shouldn’t do:
- Forbid exposure: Educating children always works better than limiting them. If you tell them not to read Holy Books and not to ask questions about religion, you are suppressing knowledge about those topics. You are keeping a small person, who wants to know more, ignorant so that you can remain comfortable. Although William Lane Craig and other religious apologists sometimes remind members of their flock to “Quit reading and watching the infidel material,” I would never try to keep someone from exploring religions and learning all they can. I would never encourage an atheist to avoid the Bible, for example, out of fear that its strong arguments might compel that person to believe.
- Recommend ridicule: You should not tell any child to make fun of his or her friend or classmate for believing in Hell or other religious concepts. If you tell your kid to feel sorry for the “dumb people who believe in fairy tales,” you’re not only teaching them to be insensitive, you’re being factually incorrect. Many believers, including very young ones, are very intelligent. They may believe what they do because they have been taught to do so — in many cases to the exclusion of other worldviews.
- Tell them that there is no God: I think it’s perfectly fine to tell a child that the inherently torturous realm of “Hell” doesn’t exist, especially as it is represented by many believers today, but it’s not a good idea to dictate beliefs when it’s unnecessary. Teaching children how to think and come up with good answers will always be better than simply telling them what to believe and what to reject — and this applies to every topic.
I think most non-believers would say that teaching children that they will suffer for an eternity based on their beliefs is a form of child abuse, and it’s important to note that many believers would themselves agree. But for some people who believe in Hell, they think they are just reporting what they know to be true when they teach their kids about its fiery depths. A quick Google search of “things to tell your children about hell” reveals, for example, that the top Christian parenting result recommends eight things “kids should know about Hell.” These things include “The Bible speaks of hell in many places,” “Hell is a place of annihilation or never-ending punishment,” and “No passage in the Bible says that there will be a second chance after death to turn to Jesus…”
So, whether we like it or not, belief in heavens and hells and other afterlives is commonplace in many cultures and will likely continue to be so for the foreseeable future. These concepts are created because people fear death and wish for ongoing life, as well as because of our inner quest for “justice,” and we don’t need to stop them entirely. We should, however, be able to understand and explain these beliefs in the proper context and eliminate whatever power they hold over us and our children.
(Image via Shutterstock)
David G. McAfee is a Religious Studies graduate, journalist, and author of The Belief Book, a children’s book explaining the origins of beliefs and religion, and Mom, Dad, I’m an Atheist: The Guide to Coming Out as a Non-believer. He is also an editor for Ockham Publishing and a contributor to American Atheist Magazine. McAfee attended University of California, Santa Barbara, and graduated with bachelor’s degrees in English and Religious Studies with an emphasis on Christianity and Mediterranean religions.