I’m An Atheist. I’ve Always Told My Children There Is No Afterlife.
These days the culture wars are a part of the American way of life. Cultural conflicts rage over a variety of topics, from pronoun usage to biblical bathrooms. A common tactic used by conservatives is crying out, “What about the children, you liberal monsters?”
Ladies and gentlemen, I am one of those liberal monsters.
You see, I’m an atheist, and I’m raising my children as atheists. From the earliest days, I’ve communicated to them that God is an imaginary friend many adults have. Oh, and by the way, do not tell believers that because they may get upset.
I call this the Prime Directive of atheist parenting. My two kids have, by and large, followed it while they were in elementary and middle school. They’re now in high school, and they are at an age where they discuss significant issues with their friends. And that includes faith. We live in a deep blue state, so they haven’t gotten a large amount of blowback from others.
I want communicate this right now: My kids are, well, normal. They’re not super kids. They’re not misanthropes with God-sized holes in their fictitious souls. My two atheist raised kids are muddling through life, just like their peers. They have strengths and weaknesses. They’re learning how to navigate life, universe, and everything like the rest of us did.
And why am I writing this?
A recent opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal by psychoanalyst Erica Komisar urges parents who do not believe in God or an afterlife to lie to their children. The author states it’s better to tell children there is a deity looking out after them than for an atheist parent to be honest.
Here’s a bit of her sage wisdom:
I am often asked by parents, “How do I talk to my child about death if I don’t believe in God or heaven?” My answer is always the same: “Lie.” The idea that you simply die and turn to dust may work for some adults, but it doesn’t help children. Belief in heaven helps them grapple with this tremendous and incomprehensible loss. In an age of broken families, distracted parents, school violence and nightmarish global-warming predictions, imagination plays a big part in children’s ability to cope.
Professor Jerry Coyne, author of Why Evolution is True and blogs at a site with the same name, wrote about the WSJ article. He’s a well-known atheist and took a look at Komisar’s piece. He points our a few issues with her line of reasoning.
First, Komisar uses a piece of research funded by the Templeton Foundation, a faith-based organization, to support her assertion that a child who grows up in faith — even if that faith turns out to be based in falsehood — is better off than one who does not.
Professor Coyne summarizes the research article:
The authors report that going to church at least once per week was associated with greater volunteering, great forgiveness, less marijuana use, later sexual initiation, and fewer lifetime sexual partners (the last three are clearly considered positive traits). More frequent praying or meditating was associated with greater positive affect, better emotional processing, greater volunteering, a greater sense of mission, more forgiveness, lower drug usage, later sexual initiation, and fewer lifetime sexual partners. However, more frequent prayer or meditation (these weren’t separated) was also associated with more physical health problems. But the authors dismiss that result by arguing that those in poorer health may pray more often. They don’t consider, however, whether more puritanical or virtuous people might have a tendency to want to go to church or pray more often. In other words, the negative result (poor health) is assumed to drive religiosity, while the positive results are assumed to result from religiosity.
What seems to be most problematic with the research, is there were no measures of beneficial effects children gain from engaging in secular activities. In other words, are the positive effects chidren gain from church also gained from engaging in other activities?
Professor Coyne writes:
Further, there’s no control for other social activities that may foster mental health, like being on sports teams or clubs. It’s just religion versus no religion, yet those in nonreligious countries like Sweden probably find well being in other social activities that weren’t assessed in this study.
Perhaps the positive effects of faith are simply a case of children being engaged in a social activity they find meaningful?
Unless you’re a parent who is an atheist it may be difficult to imagine what it’s like talking about big questions like the afterlife. That’s why I’m going to tell you one conversation I had with my kids years ago.
We were having lunch at the kitchen table. For the sake of privacy I’m going to call my youngest child Jane and my oldest John. John was eight years old and Jane five.
If you’ve been around kids that age, you know they love asking questions. It’s what they do. They’ll ask questions about rainbows, why the sky is blue, and how birds fly. In those circumstances a parent can come face to face with their own ignorance. More than once I found myself wishing I paid more attention in class.
The funny thing about explaining phenomena like rainbows is that it not only requires understanding why rainbows are a thing in the first place, but knowing how to relay that information to children in an understandable way.
For example, one day we were walking through the park. Jane asked about rainbows. I said,”Regular everyday light is made up of a lot of colors. They’re all bundled up so you don’t see those colors.” I held my fist out in front of me. “When light goes through rain, the water splits the light apart.” At that point I opened my hand and let my fingers spread far apart. “That’s when you see all the hidden colors.”
And here is a secret they didn’t tell me in church.
Explaining death to children is a lot like talking about rainbows.
Talking About Death
The three of us were happily eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches when Jane asked,”What happens after die?”
“Well, it’s like this. Our bodies return to the earth and help plants like trees grow tall and strong.”
At that moment I felt as if I had just aced an exam. You see, I’d been preparing for big questions. Every parent should whether they’re an atheist or a believer. Children look to parents for answers. If you took time preparing for exams in high school or college, then some preparation for your kids’ questions is only reasonable.
But I wasn’t expecting the followup question.
“What does it feel like?” Jane asked.
“Um, what does what feel like?” I asked.
I took a big bite out of my peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It was a cheap trick to play for time. I churned that question around in my head like a settler may have churned butter in colonial America. And then it came to me.
Back in my 20s I was easing out of being a religious conservative. At the time I was working as a cook in a hospital. (Please don’t hold that against me. I’m not responsible for all the bad hospital food in the cosmos.) My boss and I were talking one day, and for some reason the topic of death came up. I asked him the same question my daughter was asking me. I decided to use his answer.
“You know when you’re sleeping and you’re not dreaming? Death is like that.”
She considered my oh-so-imperfect answer, and said, “OK.”
The story doesn’t stop there.
After lunch the three of us went outside to play. Our yard had a great tree John loved to climb. He scurried up while I pushed Jane around in her toy car.
And then it happened.
Jane noticed her brother climbing up on that tree. In a second our conversation about death, and how we’re all part of the nature’s cycle clicked in her mind.
She screamed out, “John, get down! You’re climbing on some dead guy!”
I laughed. Even the best attempts at explaining complex issues can lead to comedy. And, yes, I explained to Jane every tree isn’t made from a dead guy. Star dust, maybe. Not a dead guy.
That was just one of my family’s stories on how we discussed life and death. We’ve held each other’s hands when our cat died. We cried together when their great-aunt was taken from us by cancer.
There will always be difficult questions and painful situations. It’s better to face them together. The burden is lighter when we’re surrounded by people we love.
And you don’t need God for that.