Reading Time: 10 minutes

As noted in an earlier post, I was interviewed for the cover story (“Grandir sans Dieu,” or “Growing Up Without God”) of the November 1 issue of L’Actualité, the largest French-language magazine in Canada with over one million readers. Because the interview was by phone and subsequently translated into French, I’m not in possession of an English transcript of the article itself. But I was asked to prepare a Q&A for their website based on questions by secular parents (below). It is very similar in tone and approach to the main article. Later this week I’ll post a sampling of reader responses.


lactualite

A Brief Guide for Non-Religious Parents

prepared by Dale McGowan, author of
Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids without Religion

“How can I explain death to my child without heaven?” “How can I help my daughter understand why we chose not to baptize her?” Parenting without religious affiliation presents its own unique challenges. Author Dale McGowan answers questions submitted to L’Actualité by secular parents.

Q

How can we help a grieving child who has lost a relative or a pet?

A

It’s important first and foremost to validate the child’s grief—to let the child know that it’s okay to feel sad, and that the sadness shows that the one who is lost was loved very deeply. Reassure the child that the loved one feels no pain or sadness himself, that he continues to live in our memories, and that life continues all around us, even after each person dies. Thinking about the continuity of life and the nature of death can provoke deep reflection and meaningful insights. Our task as parents should not be to completely deny death’s sting but to soften it with genuine understanding while reassuring the child that we are present to help them through their grief.

Q

My child says, “Grandma died. Does it mean Mom is going to die too? What will happen to me, then?” How can I respond?

A

It is often wrongly assumed that religion makes death entirely palatable. A moment’s reflection shows that this is not true. Even religious funerals are marked by intense sadness, and even religious people dread their own death and do their best to avoid it.

Yes—everything that lives eventually dies, in part to make way for more life. Coming to terms with our mortality is a lifelong challenge, and we will always have a natural, adaptive fear of death. But children raised without supernatural beliefs will have a head start in coming to terms with mortality. It will seem more natural and acceptable to them in the long run than to a person who had to overcome an acquired belief in an afterlife.

There are many ways to improve our acceptance of death. One of the best is to imagine one’s self a century before birth, and to realize that our situation in death will be precisely the same. Asking the child if he was scared before he was born is likely to elicit laughter. “Of course not,” he’ll say—“I wasn’t anywhere!” Exactly—and the same is true when someone has died. We simply go back to being as we were. And death has indeed lost some of its sting.

Q

How do I explain that Uncle Joe believes in God and goes to church but Dad doesn’t believe and doesn’t go?

A

The acceptance and celebration of difference is a vital part of freethought parenting. Make it clear that you find such differences not only acceptable but quite lovely. How boring the world would be if we were all the same! This is also a good time to dismiss the grotesque and silly idea that one of them might be damned eternally for an opinion. Point out that if God exists, he is not at all likely to be concerned with honest differences of opinion. He is much more likely to want Dad and Uncle Joe to treat each other with kindness and generosity than to match each others’ abstract philosophies.

Q

My daughter asks, “Yasmina goes to the mosque, Kim goes to the pagoda. How do I know which God is the good one?”

A

The idea that a child must make up her mind about such a complex and abstract question is quite ridiculous—yet this is the position of many religions and many denominations. I once received a card in the mail from a friend. Pictured on the front was her three-year-old daughter Samantha holding a silver heart in her outstretched hands. “Today,” said the card, in beautiful script, “Samantha gave her heart to Jesus.” At the age of three!

Childhood is a time to explore ideas, not to declare allegiances to them. I believe the only honest and rational way to approach the question of religious identification is to keep children open and undeclared until they are old enough to decide on their own—no earlier than age twelve or thirteen. Teach children to think critically and well, then allow all ideas, religious and otherwise, to wash over them.

The most important thing for children to know is that this question can and should wait, as long as necessary, until they are old enough to decide on their own. Invite your daughter to attend services with Yasmina or Kim, or better still, with both. And let her know that she can change her mind about religious questions a hundred times if she wants. This puts to rest the idea that some divine penalty might await one opinion or another.

Q

My child wants to know what people do in church and why they go. How should I answer this?

A

“Let’s go and find out!” is a very good answer. Take him to a nearby service, or better yet, to services in several different denominations. Shielding a child from exposure to religion can give the impression that you are afraid of it, giving religion the tantalizing aura of forbidden fruit.

Why people go is a far more complex question. Churchgoers often say they go to be close to God or to worship. But I think the most telling answers come from those who no longer attend church when they are asked what they miss. “God” is rarely the answer. Human fellowship is most often cited, as well as the opportunity for quiet reflection and introspection. These are the answers I give my kids when they ask why people attend—then I ask if there are ways we can achieve those same things without going to church.

Q

My daughter (10) said she wants to become a nun, then cried, “I know you won’t let me!” I don’t want this, but how can I discourage her without making her even more determined?

A

The very first problem here is your daughter’s belief that you won’t “let” her. Make it clear that the choice is entirely hers—even if the idea makes you ill. It will indeed be her choice, of course, once she is old enough, and any perceived opposition on your part can make it appear romantic and rebellious, at which point we’ve created forbidden fruit once again.

Your daughter’s desire to take vows is most likely based on a limited understanding of what such a choice entails. There have been anecdotal reports of an increased interest in becoming a nun among girls who have read the children’s book series or seen the movie Madeline. I’m sure The Sound of Music had the same effect in its day!

Such an obsession will most likely pass in time. But if it does continue, contact your local religious convent for a very detailed description of the actual routine and requirements of the life of a nun—which of course has little in common with Mlle. Clavell or Sister Maria. (For an adult-level insight, see Karen Armstrong’s memoirs Through the Narrow Gate: A Memoir of Life In And Out of the Convent and The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness.) Sit your daughter down and walk her through it, just as you would with any profession. The odds are—much to the chagrin of contemporary religious communities—that the negatives will far outweigh any positives. In the (extremely) unlikely event that she maintains her desire throughout her teens, the decision must be hers. The most important thing now is that you let her know that you trust her to make her own decisions in the long run—and mean it.

Q

My son (7) has asked if there will be “an end of times,” and wonders what will happen then. How can I talk to him about such a thing?

A

The answer is “yes,” the world will end—but the best approach to such a topic varies by age. We know that the world will not go on forever, but a child needs to know that it will be here as long as we need it, and well beyond. (No need to add the admitted complications of global warming or errant asteroids!)

Establishing the timescale is crucial. A twelve-year-old might do well enough with “five billion years,” but younger children need to know that the Earth’s end is so far away that they need not worry about it. This is not something that will happen in our lifetime, or in the lifetimes of our grandchildren, or our great-great-great grandchildren. Tell them the sun is in the middle of its life, and that it will continue to warm the Earth and make life possible for as many years in the future as it has in the past.

This has a decided advantage over the idea of the Second Coming and Judgment Day, which many churches excitedly promise will occur within our lifetimes. How terrifying such a prospect must be to the young mind!

Once its remoteness is well enough established, the details of our planet’s actual demise—imagining so permanent a thing as the Earth coming to an end!—can be a source of genuine fascination and wonder for many children.

Q

“All my friends were baptized, why not me?”

A

Whenever a child declares that “all my friends” do something, the first task is to affirm the impression—“It sometimes seems like everyone else, doesn’t it?”—but gently challenge the assumption, which is almost never true. Not everyone else has a pony, not everyone else goes to church, and not everyone else gets baptized.

The second task is to discuss what baptism means, and whether it is appropriate. I see baptism as a mark of ownership placed on the individual by the denomination, the first level of exclusive declaration of a specific belief system—something I believe children should never be required to do. To avoid an intolerant response to friends at school, it is important to add that many good people believe differently.

Invite the child to express his own opinion. I tell my kids it’s okay to change their minds back and forth about religion a hundred times if they want, an invitation that puts them at ease. Baptism, confirmation, and the rest of the doctrinal rituals gradually withdraw whatever permission there is to change one’s mind. Ask your child if he is ready to stop thinking for himself about religion. If you’ve done a good job of instilling the spirit of restless, unbounded questioning, the very idea will repel him, and baptism will lose its appeal.

Q

My son was not baptized but wants to participate in First Communion with his peers. How should I respond?

A

Despite the fact that the Catholic Church calls the eighth year the “age of reason,” a seven- or eight-year-old child is much too young to make a reasoned commitment to a specific religion. A case can be made that this ritual is simply an attempt by the Church to claim ownership of the individual.

Explain to the child that First Communion is a statement of what you believe about the sacrament itself. Ask if he thinks the communion wafer and wine turn into the actual body and blood of Jesus in his mouth. When he says no (as he generally will, with a look of shocked disgust), gently gain his agreement that it would be dishonest to go through the ritual—then compliment him for valuing honesty.

If the ritual is still attractive to him, why not design a brief ritual of your own that celebrates his demonstrated commitment to honesty? Make it a party, with a brief ceremony, food, music, and friends and family in attendance.

Q

Should a secular family participate in the Santa Claus myth?

A

I think there is no harm and even a potential benefit. Our culture has constructed this silly temporary myth in parallel to our silly permanent one. Both involve a magical being who knows our thoughts, rewards good behavior and punishes bad behavior. The process of thinking one’s own way out of Santa belief can serve as an important “trial run” for thinking one’s way out of religious belief.

Have fun with the fantasy when the child is young. Then, when the child’s skeptical questions begin to emerge (“How does Santa go to all those houses in one night?”), answer in a way that encourages continued thought and allows for mixed opinion (“Some people say…”). And when at last the child looks you in the eye and asks point-blank if Santa is real, answer honestly and praise her for figuring it out!

Q

“Why are there religious wars? I thought religion was all about love.”

A

First, praise the child for such a thoughtful question. Your answer should note that religious teachings include messages of love and of hate, peace and war, tolerance and bigotry. When two religions each believe that God has promised them the same piece of land, for example, the dark side quickly shows itself. War is not only inevitable but often unending, because to compromise is to show a “lack of faith in God’s promise.”

Explain that people have done great and noble things in the name of religious faith, as well as monstrous and evil things, by choosing among the conflicting ideas in their scriptures. The most troubling feature of most religions is the failure to acknowledge and control those life-destroying messages that exist alongside the life-affirming ones.

Q

“Why does Fatouma have to wear a hijab? And why is Auntie Daisie so angry about it?”

A

A very complex topic! Explain that Fatouma belongs to a culture with different ideas about a woman’s body and how to show it to others. Note that many people think the hijab teaches women to feel ashamed or “owned” by their husbands, while others (including many Islamic women) consider it a proud display of cultural identity and a sign of personal control. Don’t hesitate to offer your own opinion as well.

Auntie Daisie may be angry if she is a conservative Christian who dislikes the public display of another religion or culture, or she may be a feminist who feels the women are being oppressed. Have your daughter ask Auntie Daisie for her reasons, then invite your daughter to talk to Fatouma to see how she feels about wearing it. Children are wonderfully uninhibited about discussing such things—an openness we quickly and sadly lose as we grow older.

Q

“Was Jesus a real person?”

A

Recent work by some biblical scholars (including the Canadian Earl Doherty) has cast some doubt on the existence of Jesus even as a historical personage. This research is fascinating and may be of interest to children in their teens. For younger kids, it is sufficient to say that most people think that Jesus was a real person, but we really can’t be sure. You might add that if he did exist—aside from a little cruelty to pigs and figs—he seems to have been a very decent man and an insightful teacher who would be appalled at much of what has been done in his name.

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.