Reading Time: 6 minutes

Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.

Dear Richard,
I really enjoy reading your column on Friendly Atheist. I think it is so helpful to have someone advise people from an alternative point of view. That was one of the first blogs that I started reading when I started feeling like an atheist. I’m writing to you today for advice on how to encourage my wonderful 10-year-old brother to be skeptical about his world.
A little bit about me first. My name is Andrea, I’m Indian, a proud atheist and I’m 20. My two younger sisters and brother were raised Catholic by a very young mother. She had me when she was 18 and was not very well educated. But she did her best and raised us to be very good people. She tries to be religious but has recently become skeptical due to some family and personal issues. She has never tried to MAKE us believe in a God and has been very open about my atheism. But she still holds on to some religiosity and that is being passed on to my brother. He is a very smart boy who loves science and loves his mother very much. So he reads the Bible every night and believes in God and Jesus etc. I know he doesn’t understand most of it, and my mother knows it too. She is in two minds about what she wants for him. But she is open to me talking to him about religion and skepticism. So I would like to know how I could go about talking to him about it without it being too confusing. I don’t want him to feel let down by my saying there might be no God, or something along those lines. I want him to question these things for himself and work these things out without too much anxiety.
He has a lot of friends who are raised by very religious parents and say things to him that hurt him. He is a very sensitive boy and tends to take things that people say to heart. He was told by his friends that the music he likes, and the Japanese action cartoons he watches are satanic/anti-christ. He was also told by a friend that God said that the world would end in 2012. It gets to him and even though I try to tell him otherwise, he feels bad. I want to talk to him in an age appropriate way and get through to him. Living in India and being skeptical can be challenging. So I want him to have the right tools for when he grows up. I just don’t know how to equip him with those tools.
I hope this wasn’t too long winded. 😛 And thanks in advance.
With love, all the way from India,

Dear Andrea,
Your brother is a lucky boy. Would that we all had big sisters like you.
I’m glad that your mother is permitting you to speak with him about skepticism and critical thinking. But I understand that you may be walking a narrow line, and you possibly must not go too far too fast. His mom is ambiguous about religion, but she’s still emotionally and perhaps socially obligated to teach it to him, and he’s naturally loyal to her. So a delicate, patient approach is best. Think of yourself as planting seeds. You probably won’t eliminate all of his indoctrination all at once, but you can gradually coax his mind forward out of the shadows of superstition. I have some ideas off the top of my head that might help:
Get a book on simple magic tricks, and have fun practicing two of them with him. Include one that uses sleight of hand, like the “French Drop,” in which a coin seems to disappear from your hand and you can then pull it out of your pocket or someone’s ear. The other should be a trick where the person is amazed at your choosing the right playing card or the right number because they haven’t thought the logic out carefully. That is a very common type of logic-based magic trick. These magic tricks are simple enough for most children ten years old and up; they just require plenty of practice to do them smoothly.
Your brother will have something fun to share with his friends, but more importantly, he’ll begin to understand an important principle for skeptical, critical thinkers: The misdirection of attention or the misdirection of logical thinking can give someone the illusion of having special powers.
Play a thought game with him:
Suppose he and a friend want to find out who can run the fastest. Ask him if any of these ways would be the best way to find out:

  • Would whoever can boast the most about running fast be the fastest? No? Why not?
  • Would whoever had the most friends who believe he’s the fastest be the fastest? No? Why not?
  • Would finding an old book that says one boy is the fastest mean he really is? No? Why not?
  • He’ll immediately suggest that of course a race would be the best way to find out who is the fastest. Ah! putting it to a test! Excellent idea! Then ask him these questions about the race:

  • Should he run downhill while his friend runs uphill? No? Why not?
  • Should he wear galoshes and his friend wear track shoes? No? Why not?
  • In case it’s a close finish, should only his friend’s family members be the “judges” at the finish line? No? Why not?
  • Should only one race be enough, or would it be better to race two or three times on different days? Why?
  • If your little brother is as smart as he sounds from your description, he’ll soon catch on to this way of thinking, and at his own young level he will have explored just about all of the basic principles of a scientific inquiry: claims being tested empirically, eliminating extraneous variables, eliminating bias in observation, and repeating the test to increase the validity of the findings.
    You will have also planted in his mind the idea that someone making a claim with conviction, or many people believing the claim, or the claim being written in a book are not enough to conclude that the claim is correct.
    Maybe your brother could use a hero, and your country has an excellent candidate. Tell him about Sanal Edamaruku, the famous rationalist who recently challenged a guru who claimed he could kill with his magic. He hilariously survived all of the mumbo jumbo on live television. He is president of the Indian Rationalist Association. Perhaps you could write to him for suggestions for encouraging a young clear thinker.
    Sadly, the disapproval from his peers about his taste in music and cartoons is a universal problem. He’s surrounded by superstitious kids raised by superstitious parents. Kids in large parts of the U.S. are in a similar predicament. The desire to fit in with the group can be strong in children, and for those whose intelligence and sensitivity make them intrinsically different, life can be challenging. Some of his anguish comes from his simply being a sensitive person, but some may come from his being in a cognitive developmental stage where he’s not entirely able to distinguish credible statements from ridiculous ones, or personal opinions from valid observations. That will most likely improve greatly during the next two years. He’ll be shrugging much more of it off.
    In you, he has a friend who accepts him just as he is, even with one foot in the religious world, and one in the secular. He has a role model who is a good person without having to answer to a god. He has someone who can comfort him when he’s hurting because his peers are highly conditional in their friendship. You can teach him about discretion: who to share his personal likes with, and who to be more careful around; when to speak up and disagree, and when to just let someone say silly things. You can help him look for another kid who is a misfit for having the same positive traits, and you can encourage him to find an ally about his age. One close friend is enormously more than none at all.
    As for the kid telling him about end of the world in 2012, which is apparently a bizarre goulash of ancient Mayan cosmology mixed with a large dollop of Hollywood woo, and now Indian/Christian confusion (??) Tell your brother that you have a friend in the United States named Richard who in his 60 years has personally survived more than 188 doomsdays of all sorts, many of them well publicized. They weren’t just supposed to happen in America, they were supposed to happen to the whole world. They were different in their scenarios, but they all had three things in common:

  • None of them happened. The day came and went like any other.
  • Some people sold a lot of books about the doomsday.
  • The only people who were suddenly gone on the doomsday were those who had made a lot of money selling those books.
  • Tell him that in his ten years, he has survived more than 53 of these doomsdays, and that you and he can laugh and celebrate surviving another in 2012.
    Andrea, I congratulate you on your courage to so openly be a clear thinker amidst so much superstition, irrationality and nonsense. Your simply being there for your brother is a precious gift. How you live your daily life will be as powerful as any particular, focused effort to help him be free of the affliction of supernaturalism. My very best wishes for the continuing prosperity of you and your whole family.
    You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. There is a very large number of letters. I am sorry if I am unable to respond in a timely manner.