Monday, December 09, 2019

Lying About God

Or more accurately, I suppose, lying about what you believe about God. This was emailed by a friend, so i may have to jiggle with the link until I can make it work, because it would ordinarily be behind the WSJ paywall. The author is a therapist and passes along the advice she gives parents.
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.
She preceded that with some statistics about the protective features of a religious faith and continues after to illustrate what good qualities her Jewish faith has helped install in her children. 

It's not an issue I have, but I am trying to get my head around this.  I taught Christianity to my children because I believe it to be true. I also believed it would be good for them, yet I can't tell if I believed it would be good for them anyway even if it weren't true. I suppose something like that must have occurred to me in the last forty years, but I don't recall it.  It may be that the question occurred in another form.  I'll work on it.

I have very mixed feelings about the premise of the article. How do you explain it to them later? It seems a terrible idea.  Yet I do get the concept that it will be protective at a critical time. Not all information is appropriate at all ages.  We don't reveal to children that their uncle uses drugs or that Grammy and Grampy have an unhappy marriage until much later. We pretend that things are fine. That is not an exact analogy, however, because we can just say nothing about those.  A belief in God requires some installation.

What if it were now?  What if I ceased to believe?  Would I tell my children?  It is another question that is hard to get my head around at this point.  I don't have much doubt.  I doubt many things that people say or write about God, but I have always done that.  I regard my conversion as a done deal.  I put my money down on Red 26 and the wheel is still spinning. I don't think in terms of saying "No, no, let me overrule that!  Let me put much more money down on some other numbers instead!  It's no longer my first choice."  The wheel is spinning, I have confidence where it will land, I go about my business.  My thinking about it is about the downstream consequences of my decision, not redeciding things.  I may be unusual in that.

I do think that if I ceased to believe I would keep it to myself. Yet that guess is based on the idea that I wouldn't want to harm anyone else's faith, which in turn is predicated on the idea that having a faith is a good thing, because it accords with reality. There may be half-a-dozen angles I'm just not seeing here.


Boxty said...

Do atheists read fairy tales to their children? Do they understand it's fantasy or are knights in armor and dragons real as the tooth fairy and Boogeyman to them?

Donna B. said...

Oh, Boxty... do Christians read fairy tales to their children? And, having once been a child, I can guarantee you the Boogeyman is real. Of course, my father turned on the lights, explained to me that what I saw was just a pile of coats. I was sleeping on the couch so guests could have my bed and we didn't have a coat closet. Dang, those looked like a big boogeyman in the shadows. And it was real, I just childishly misinterpreted what I saw because it didn't fit anything I'd seen before... except possibly a bear. You don't metaphor much do you?

For those of you who have never had to answer a 3 year old's questions about death... he doesn't have any food, how will he eat, are they going to close that lid? How will he breathe? Will it be dark? Will he be afraid? And... finally... does he know I'm here? Believer or non-believer, you're going to lie a little bit to allay those fears.

james said...

Lying is one of those things I despise, and while I have not always explained the whole situation, I can't think of times I've outright lied to the kids. And very rarely to anybody at all. This commitment is being seriously tried when dealing with dementia, though--the rule being to not correct them but join them since they need the company more than the accuracy.

Assuming that there was benefit in lying like the article recommends, we should probably distinguish between short-term and long-term benefit. Telling the child a comforting story might make them happier and kinder, but if the giants are going to win at Ragnarok, maybe the kids would be better off to suck it up and get tough for the battle and at least die honorably.

You could ask "If it is good for the kids, maybe it's good for me too: Is there something in it?" but that cuts two ways if you don't believe in long-term benefits. Accommodating yourself to the fashions of the world makes things comfortable in the short-term.

Maybe atheist parents could try to finesse the question with "I don't know, but lots of people say X"

JohnB said...

Atheist child of atheist parents here. I recommend not lying.

My parents told me that death meant we were gone and our body would just turn to dirt. I told the same to my children when they were small. It wasn't a big issue for me or them at the time, and it doesn't seem to have harmed me or them.

I read fiction to my children and I'm sure they understood it as fiction.

Christopher B said...

I'm reminded of AVI's earlier post on there being at least anecdotal evidence that lying about the existence of Santa Claus might cause people to question their faith later in life.

Also, what are they going to do if the kid actually starts believing?

Texan99 said...

My atheist parents certainly never lied to me about death. I can't understand the recommendation at all.

We had family traditions about Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, but I can't recall being led to believe they were literally true. By the time I was old enough to think through the source of the goodies, it was obvious they were provided by my parents. They were like pleasant fiction. I knew what fiction was.

That doesn't mean, of course, that an atheist parent has to terrorize kids with the horror of death, any more than kids need to be forced to contemplate cancer or any other catastrophe before they're old enough to deal with it. But if a friend or family member or even pet dies, they need to know the people around them aren't mired in lies, surely. I can't imagine how someone could bear to remain an atheist if the only way to tolerate it was to lie. That should be a clue. The need to lie about anything should always be a clue.

Liza said...

This is not an exclusively atheist/non-believing problem. The therapist's advice works for a superficial, general response.

What do you tell small children who have been taught that non-believers die and go to hell to suffer for eternity? Heaven is a great balm if you happen to consider yourself on the "right" side of it.

There is no way to fully alleviate death anxiety. Believers simply move the anxiety in a different direction: "Of course we exist after death. You just want to make sure you are existing in the right spot...preferably one without endless torment and demons."

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I don't hear that taught to small children these days. I think some start to worry about this once they get about school age, and certainly later, and they must have gotten it from somewhere, but for better or worse, we don't teach much about hell and torment these days. I have heard about it secondhand from adults who tell me they were taught such as children.