Raising children without myth, superstition, and religion is difficult at first.
“Millions of Gods? WHAT? Oh my God!” my son exclaimed, appropriately and with emphasis.
I was only a part of the way through teaching my seven-year-old son and five-year-old daughter about what people think a god is, and why my wife and I don’t like it when they say “Oh My God.”
I was at the part where I explained that there were thousands of religions and millions of gods that people believed in. 330 million-plus gods, to be exact. To be honest, his reaction of “Oh My God” was the most appropriate one I’ve ever heard, much like when people mean it, which is usually never unless they’re in grief or prayer.
This was much easier when I was growing up—before my unbelief took over my reasoning matrix and made me a skeptic and nontheist, back when I was attending church several times a week and getting “saved” every chance I could.
You know, the good old days.
No, your kids aren’t going to Hell—they’re just not
Going religion-free after being raised a very specific type of religionist, the question remained: how would we raise our kids? Both my wife and I had similar upbringings, and now we are decidedly nonreligious and comfortable being so to the point of actively raising our kids without the pressure of personal belief, which is a luxury we never had.
So how do you convey the concept of what a God is to children without telling them to believe in Gods, and at the same time not telling them Gods are all make-believe (even if that’s how you really feel)?
If they know that dad and mom don’t believe in any Gods, and we’re telling them that they can or should, then how fair is that to them?
We’ve waited to tell and teach them about the idea of God because, well, we live Gods-free: my kids know how to be good, where we came from as humans and animals, that monsters aren’t real, and that nobody loves them more than we do.
Myth, superstition, and religion go against all of that!
We’ve already talked about death and feelings and just about everything you can and should talk to children about—they know that you never really die because you live forever in people’s hearts and memories even though you can’t physically be with the person and yes, that makes us sad. And that death is when the brain and heart stop working—and that’s it.
No flowery notions of heaven or angels or rainbow bridges. So far we’ve raised them not to mentally travel to fairy tales when talking about real life things (they do that enough on their own). They both know all about Disney-type magic, myths, and the Force and all the fairy tale kid-things they will grow out of, much like their milk teeth and, for most, religious belief.
They also know about gravity, electricity, physics, and Natural Selection, to a degree.
How can you be afraid of a thing that isn’t there?
But I’m also not afraid of the God talk either. When I was my children’s age I was already “born again” and had years (yes, years!) of Sunday School, Bible study, youth group, and church packed inside my little Id brain.
By five years old I was “saved,” which meant that I had repented of my ugly sins and was a new creature in Christ, and by fourteen I had all the answers I thought I needed, for life. I would go on to evangelize as much as I could to friends, strangers, and all types in-between until, at eighteen, I was on my way to becoming a pastor.
By nineteen I had given up the belief ghost because somewhere along the way, God disappeared; God broke up with me; God stopped coming around to the neighborhood of my heart. There was no God anymore, and so that was what I pursued, and what made sense, and what was most comfortable.
I tried to get Him back—asking, seeking, knocking—a process taking over the next few years, but there was an empty canvas where there used to be a very detailed painting. I realized that I had acted my way through those years of faith, never realizing (until it was too late) that there wasn’t ever anything there except a need to please my family and community, and a sense of a higher reality that promised all the right things.
Why not just be agnostic?
Now that my children are old enough to understand heavier concepts, I talk with them about everything they have questions about, no matter how awkward. But God and religion are specialties for my wife and me, and because our families and country-at-large are so infused with the passion and conviction of personal belief, it’s a topic that will never get old, die, or retire.
Plus my kids are amazingly smart and funny, so our talks go in strange directions.
“God is my imaginary friend, and built Fifi (one of her imaginary sisters) the same way he built Jesus,” my daughter said after my wife and I explained the idea of Christmas after dinner one night. At six years old, she takes her cues from her brother and parents, so sometimes she does believe in God, and sometimes she doesn’t. At this point, it’s just something extra we talk about.
“Dad, what’s the Bible?” my son blurted out in the middle of Thanksgiving dinner, among relatives who have spent good money on Children’s Bibles over the years (which, at times, we’ve read together). This was after he started talking—again—during the prayer, which we had prepped them both for. My answer was a bit sterile, as I was hoping no one heard me or would follow up with criticism or a question.
Everyone heard me, however. We’ll see what kind of new Bibles they get for Christmas.
Make-believe on top of make-believe—just cut out the word already
If you tell a kid there’s a magical, invisible force in the sky and all around us who you can to talk to every day and who has rules that you have to follow, then you have to follow that up with some sort of reality, like why does that magical force ignore us but love us? And why can’t we see that magical force? And then from there you have to literally make up all the answers for the kids, which is just more make-believe.
In daily speech if you’re really thanking God, or calling upon God in prayer (OMG! hear my call!), or calling upon God to damn something, then you’re taking the word seriously, which I try never to do, although culturally it seems like we’ve all be tricked into OMG-ing everything. It’s like the “Under God” phrase in the “Pledge of Allegiance” debate: if God was precious to you, why would you want to make the phrase a thing people are forced to say, making the special nature of the phrase become boring? Or why would you want to put God’s precious name on money?
Using God incorrectly seems as bad as not using it at all, which I just happen to do on a daily basis.
Like I have explained to the kids: when talking, you don’t have to say anything at all when bad or tumultuous or good or surprising things happen, just to show your emotion. “Oh wow” or “ay de mi” or “oy vey” works just fine—or “Oh my Ghoul” as the Monster High girls say.
Words are the most powerful tools we have, so use them wisely.
My unbelief is just as powerful as anyone’s active belief, and just as important
As they grow, my children are going to believe or act the way they truly feel guided to believe or act, and hopefully they won’t do anything in life just because they want to make my wife or me happy. But I won’t ever be dishonest with them about the things that matter most to us, or how we see things that matter most to other people who we love (who might see things differently).
As a writer, teacher, and parent, I know the importance of words in life and culture, especially since little ears are always listening, and ready to ask a follow-up question.
Especially during a family meal, when all the siblings and parents (but still, just those at the table) are listening.
Photo: Nhi Dang/Flickr
Read Jeremy every week on Bergamot Ink.