Home > Uncategorized > An Atheist Perspective: Questions From a 4 Year Old or How Children Make Admitting ‘I Don’t Know’ Difficult

An Atheist Perspective: Questions From a 4 Year Old or How Children Make Admitting ‘I Don’t Know’ Difficult

Perhaps the toughest aspect of Atheism is explaining the varying religions, theologies, and beliefs to my four year old daughter. There are questions that I cannot answer that religious people can because they can regurgitate the things that were taught them. Invoking an actual “Deus ex machina” to come in to save the day, think about it, any question that can be answered through the invocation of a deity must now have a detailed explanation or I have to admit that I do now know the answer to the question (I could also lie, but I’m not willing to do that). I never thought that this would be a problem until she started asking questions that I wouldn’t think a four year old would even think to ask. Not to make claims on the superior intelligence of my daughter, but I think that most people who endure the question and answer sessions with their children are often blindsided by a preternatural observation from someone that can carry on a detailed conversation with a fake monkey.

I’m educated enough to be able to answer most of the questions that she asks me and I figured, before she was born, that theological questions could be answered with a shrug of the shoulders along with the honest, “I don’t know.” Right and wrong do not need supernatural grounding, the physical universe has physical answers and the glory of technology is that I can look up whatever I do not know. We read fairy tales and weird stories and if she wants to think they are real then I have no trouble letting her as long as it does no harm or doesn’t scare her too much. I’m not the type of person that would rob a little girl of fairies and sprites if she wants to believe in them. I also know however, that she wouldn’t believe in them if we hadn’t told her either directly or through other mediums that they did exist. We do the major holidays Easter, Halloween, and Christmas because those days are religious only if you choose to make them so. Conservatives are right about one thing: you can do the entire Christmas season and completely avoid the Jesus part very easily. This is the fault of business and commercialization rather than some Atheist plot, so complain to Macy’s and Walmart not to me (although that would break the business first model of Conservative Republicans). If you want some proof for that claim just look at what stores are doing to Hanukkah—a once relatively minor Jewish holiday that is now being given special notice so that stores can sell to Jewish kids.

As an Atheist parent, I can do whatever holiday I want. I’m not a Jehovah’s Witness. I can have one holiday (July 4th), no holidays, or all of them; it simply is up to me and I am not obligated externally. If, as Penn Jillette claims, every day is an atheist holiday then every day is given the same importance. It’s like he detractors of Baruch Spinoza claimed, if you believe that everything is god than you believe that there really isn’t a god (note: I don’t agree with this claim but it’s a popular one delivered against pantheists).

One of the real difficulties with Gwendolyn is that I have to explain why everyone doesn’t share the same belief system. I live across the street from a Synagogue, and within easy walking distance of three others (a new one just opened recently near me). Within walking distance as well are three different Christian churches (Episcopalian, Catholic, and Baptist) of different sects. The café that Gwen and I frequent, is near a funeral home and another Catholic church; if the parking lot is full we have to talk by both the church and the funeral home. Despite what the religious right would like us to believe, religion is everywhere and while I mentioned that a Jewish ministry opened up recently near me—none of the aforementioned congregations have closed. I would have to go out of my way, way out of my way to avoid them if I had any inkling to do so. The religious right may wish to pretend that Christianity is under siege but it’s clearly not, any random person that you might meet on the street is more than likely going to be some form of Jesus worshipper—and this is on the liberal coast too. My Catholic background prepared me for some of the questions that she might ask. No matter what sect of Christianity a person might claim they are all reading from the same book and the stories aren’t that different from translation to translation. I can handle a lot of them, and a person ignorant of the nearly two thousand years of Christian history might even think that everyone is a member of the same religion, that’s how minor most of the differences are.

One afternoon there was a funeral coming out of the church and going to the funeral home (literally across the street); Gwen asked me why people were buried after they died. What am I supposed to say? I ask, because it’s not an easy question to answer without appealing to tradition. I tried to explain that Catholics get buried because the religion mandates this as a correct manner of disposing of a dead body, I started to get into the resurrection part but it still confuses me. Why am I going to need a body if my soul is eternal in heaven? Isn’t this superfluous? Is the body going to come back at the age you died, some other age, or the age the body actually is when the world ends? What if I suffered with a horrible disease for ten years and then died; do I get the body before the disease? I have the same questions she had. I answered the best I knew, that people tend to act the way they were taught by their parents. If their parents believed you needed to be buried then you probably will do the same. If your parents believed in a soul that goes to god but still believe that the body needs to be preserved even though that seems completely unnecessary then you probably are as well. The trouble with kids asking these questions is that you have to be prepared to answer some really strange ones and she wanted to know if everyone thought that.

Me: No, honey they don’t.

Her: So who is right?

Me: No one really knows, and anyone who says they do is wrong. They hope or they believe but they can’t know.

I launched into an explanation about how every culture everywhere does something with the dead. Most have an afterlife, I mean aside from producing some kind of alcohol it’s the closest thing to a universal constant that we have. The Vikings buried their dead with all of the belongings as well as the Egyptians. The Egyptians weighed your soul against a feather, which she kind of liked because the gods all had animal heads and they built the pyramids so that it made it cool as well. The difficulty was in explaining why we don’t do the Egyptian thing anymore, or why everyone doesn’t do the same thing. It would be easier wouldn’t it?

Of course it would be, but that simply isn’t how it is. People have different beliefs because they are taught to believe different things. Those beliefs are part of their identity, and getting a person to change their belief is extremely difficult and in some cases, dangerous. See, it’s not that she is being raised to be anti-religious, a prejudice that theists suspect of non-theists, but that there is no such thing as a question that should not be asked or that because someone has a different view does not mean that they are necessarily wrong (or right) but that in matters of afterlife and the supernatural there’s no real evidence, there is just differing points of view. All I can do with my kid is answer and not pretend that I know things I don’t know. I can only teach her to use her brain and her reason, encourage the questioning; because if there really is a sin it’s shutting down the inquisitiveness of a child.

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