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My twin boys are nine-years-old and we were returning from a football match today, bringing one of their friends back as well. Their friend is a Christian, for what that might mean to a nine-year-old, with a committed Catholic mother (even if the father is non-religious). They were play-fighting in the back seat and my boys were playing off each other and demanding of their friend to admit as to which of them was his best friend. He said, cunningly evading the tough decision, “God is my best friend!”

I found this pretty interesting, and of course I did not say anything. My approach has always been to tell my children, if they ask, what I believe, but that they should not just copy me. They need to grow up and learn to make decisions for themselves based on the best available evidence that they can gather, and using the full suite of quality rationality that I will have hopefully imparted. In other words, it’s not about the conclusion as much as the mechanisms that one uses to get there. And I hope that if I get the mechanisms and processes right with them, then the conclusion should follow.

This is especially pertinent because my Oscar has several times told me, “But I want to believe what you believe.” I find this absolutely crucial to understanding the importance of elders and persons of authority in young people’s lives in their belief-formation. It is why the map for religious belief looks like this:

Whereas the map for scientific beliefs looks like more this:

(As produced in John Loftus’s great book The Outsider Test for Faith).

So, for me, it is not right that my children should say “I don’t believe in God”; rather, they should say, “I don’t know yet. Get back to me in 7 years or so.”

So this other kid said his best friend was God, and though this might have been said in a light-hearted, playful manner, it was clearly something he had considered and actually believed. To be so young and so committed to think that the values of true friendship were embodied in an ethereal, imagined mind is bizarre and obviously naive. There would be absolutely nothing that one gets in an actual friend that this child would get from God apart from, arguably, the ability to listen, at least from their point of view. There would be nothing tangible given back other than attribution of causality to God when things are going right (and not blaming God when they go wrong…).

I mean, it is certainly a form of brainwashing from church, Sunday School or family. There is something about this that makes me feel pretty uncomfortable, where the religious person would think “Oh, that’s really sweet”. I would feel pretty similar if my boys said, “My best friend certainly isn’t God because he doesn’t exist” because this would show an equal desire to repeat a given conclusion about which they are not yet in a position to understand.

And yes, I probably overthink these things.


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A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...

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