Talking to kids about atheism

atheism_kidsWhat if a child you know asks you, ‘Do you believe in God?” What’s the best way to handle that situation?

I think that you first have to ask yourself, what are your goals? What outcome are you hoping for as a result of this conversation?

Presumably you’re not interested in making atheists look scary and weird, and presumably you’re not trying to tell the kid that their friends and family members who are non-atheists are idiots or ignoramuses.

But what are you trying to accomplish? Aside from accurately and eloquently explaining your worldview (or finding a polite way of avoiding it that you can live with), I’d think you’d want to leave the kid with a favorable (or at least not unfavorable) impression of atheists, as well as of freethinking (not in the “euphemism for atheist” sense, but genuinely being open-minded).

The child will be hearing enough nonsense about “dogmatic” or “militant” atheists from the non-atheists — no need to create the appearance of corroboration of such nonsense from an actual atheist.

So even if your own worldview WRT deities tends to be emphatic in its denial of their existence, you might want to make sure to remind the kid that you’re aware that different people have different views, and that there are (some) sensible and rational people to be found with pretty much any worldview.

If someone asks me if I “believe in God,” I’m inclined to say something like, “No, but I try to be open-minded about the possibility,” or “No, but I’ve been known to be wrong.” If I feel like elaborating, I might say, “No, but I once did, and now I don’t, so one thing I do know for sure is that I’m capable of being wrong, since I can’t have been right both times.”

This has the added advantage (or disadvantage, depending on your POV) of letting the kid know that it actually is possible for someone to have a religious belief and then change their mind. I say “possible disadvantage” because not everyone is able to deal with the concept of abandoning religion. I once freaked someone out when I described myself as a “former born-again Christian” — and the person I freaked out was in college at the time. You might want to take the kid’s mental and intellectual state into account when deciding how to answer.

But after you’ve come up with some sort of answer, what do you say then if the kid asks you why you don’t believe in God? Kids have been known, on occasion, to make such annoying inquiries.

If you’re feeling subversive, you can always trot out your best argument, and see if you can get the kid to agree. But that could get you in serious trouble with any theist friends or relatives you may have in common.

Another option is to politely explain to the child that it’s not really very polite to ask people about their religious-type beliefs, and/or say that you think people should try to answer those kinds of questions for themselves.

And, of course, if you really don’t want to get into a great big God talk with a child, and wrestle with all the issues mentioned above, there’s always the good old “flat out lie” option. Hey, if you can lie to kids about believing in Santa Claus, why not God?

(Cartoon via Atheist Closet)

2 responses to this post.

  1. Hey there,

    I loved your post! This is my exact new torment these days! Great tips! fun too.

    I usually approach religious (in fact, quite non-religious) issues in my blog. Pity its in spanish, but if you like, you can browse some of my topics in english. They are not religion related though, but you might find then interesting.
    I will add you to my blog feed to keep myself updated.


  2. I enjoyed the article. Thank you. I just discovered this site, I’m impressed and will visit here often.

    I was raised Southern Baptist in west Texas. I realized I was an atheist in my teens (reading the Bible contributed to that!). Religious indoctrination is out and out child abuse. And it’s simply wrong to lie to children about serious matters.

    Sorry if this is off the subject.


    Cynthia in SIlly Hat State


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