Is God Real?

In 2010, the US-based website Circle of Moms published an anguished question from a woman who begged advice on how to put her 15-year-old – who ‘gave his heart to the Lord when he was four’, but later reclaimed it – back in the arms of Jesus. Over 90 moms responded, suggesting fervent prayer might be the answer. Some ventured that his atheism was probably ‘passing rebellious phase’. The discovery of Circle of Moms coincided with us receiving three articles about youngsters and religion – one by New York mum CASSANDRA NEYENESCH, the second by US university student JASON SWAN and the last  by British writer and comic performer RALPH JONES

Cartoon courtesy The Oatmeal

Cartoon courtesy The Oatmeal

WHEN my son was four, writes CASSANDRA NEYENESCH, he began asking me what is arguably the second-hardest question for an atheist parent to answer, “Is God real?” As many atheist parents do, I waffled, afraid to bruise him with my comfortless reality, saying that I personally didn’t believe in God, but other people did, it was impossible to know for sure, etc.

One friend of mine, frozen in the headlights by this question, told me she answered, “God is love,” a pretty sentiment, but one that possibly just reframes the question for a small child.

This was around the time that my husband’s mother died very unexpectedly in Germany, an event that I was beginning to see had affected the kids more deeply than I’d realized. Even though their grandmother had lived far away, it was very hard for them to understand that they would never see her again. Could they handle a world where their Oma Marion was neither in heaven, nor in Munich, but just gone?

One day, talking to a friend of mine about my feelings of inadequacy at tackling this subject  – it was actually harder for me to talk about than sex – he responded:

Why do you feel the need to tell your child what everyone else believes? Just tell him what you believe. You’re confusing him.

I thought about it a lot and about a year later when my son once again asked me in the car (we had all of our deepest discussions in the car) if there was a God, I screwed up my courage and said

No, I don’t think there is a God.

“That’s what I think!” he cried, the rush of relief from the back seat so palpable that I knew that my friend had been onto something. Other people’s opinions be hanged! My son just wanted to know what I, his mother, thought.

Over the intervening years I’ve had the sense that this discussion bound my little skeptic to me more deeply because I had respected his intelligence. He knew he could talk to me openly about his thoughts and I would tell him the truth as I saw it.

Raising children as an atheist is not necessarily handing them a meaningless universe. This summer we all watched Richard Dawkins’ 1991 BBC Christmas Lectures on evolution, Waking up in the Universe, (which is available on YouTube and I highly recommend watching it with your children when they’re ready). The popular scientist and atheist poster boy puts my feeling about existence best:

The greatest miracle of all is to wake up every day on the planet teeming with life and beauty – a miracle of inconceivably small odds, and whatever each of us has to endure, we have each other and the blue sky over our heads.

(I often think about the children living on a garbage pile in India that Katherine Boo, the award-winning journalist and author known primarily for her accounts about poor and disadvantaged people, wrote about so arrestingly, and ask myself what they have: nothing at all but each other and the blue sky over their heads).

It’s not my job to denigrate the beliefs of others but I now think that it’s alright for me to stand for reason as unapologetically as others stand for faith; it’s alright for gratitude and a clear-eyed rationality to be the values I teach my children, rather than a wishy-washy relativism that isn’t really what I think or believe.

Not all children are the same, though. My daughter, who is six, often says that she believes in God. I don’t disagree with her; my strict atheism stops short of
trying to argue people out of their cherished and, for many, deeply necessary beliefs. But if she asks my opinion, I do tell her what I think.

Of course, I’ve never been sure it’s the right thing to do. One day, I passed by the bathroom and I saw her sitting on the toilet staring disconsolately at the towel rack.

“What’s wrong?” I said.

“I don’t really believe in God,” she said, “I just want to.”

Later that day, as I streamed a cartoon for her, she burst out:

I wish that things that aren’t real were really real, like God and strawberry shortcake!

I felt sad for her and that familiar parental conviction of having screwed things up. “But there are lots of great things that are real,” I offered.

Her face brightened. “Like Helen?” she said, naming a friend who not only has the allure of being two years older, but is a kind of magical nature girl who taught my daughter to love snails and lady bugs and the tiny “treasures,” acorns and cap gun cartridges they find everywhere they go, their faces bent down to the untold richness of the sidewalk.

Helen has always been sweet to my daughter when girls her own age sometimes were not.

I was about as satisfied with this interaction as I suppose I will ever be with something this hard. The existence of a Helen is, indeed, a wonder as great as any god or strawberry shortcake.

Children already have their own imaginary friends: why do they need yours too? – JASON SWAN


I WAS  raised in a quasi-religious household. I went to Sunday school every Sunday and to church intermittently. Yet I am – and always have been – an atheist. I just didn’t know it when I was younger. Allow me to explain – from birth, I was told that the doctrines of Christianity are true. For a few years, I was so young that I accepted anything my mother told me as fact without further consideration – I believed in the tooth fairy, Santa, that if I made an odd facial expression for long enough, my face would “stick that way”… why wouldn’t I believe in God?

Yet Richard Dawkins has never been more correct than when he said “there is no such thing as a religious child; only a child with religious parents,” which he expounds upon in The God Delusion by saying “Children are described as ‘Catholic children’ or ‘Protestant children’ etc from an early age, and certainly far too early for them to have made up their own minds on what they think about religion”.God-delusion2

I considered myself a Lutheran because my mother was a Lutheran. I was indoctrinated in the Lutheran faith, taught Lutheranism as an absolute truth, and even believed it for the first year or so. This is the one and only grievance I have with my mother regarding my upbringing. I very strongly agree with Dawkins. I don’t believe that religious children exist. I, along with Dawkins, go as far as to say that it’s an injustice to the child who is being indoctrinated. I argue that the intellectual sovereignty of the child demands to be respected; that children ought to not be taught religion at all until they are old enough to make their own decisions, until they are old enough to fully comprehend the gravitas of the choice they are making.

I’m not saying “instill your children with anti-theistic values,” or “raise them as atheists.” I would have just as much a problem with that as I do with instilling them with Christian or Hindu or Islamic values – that’s just indoctrination in a different form.

This is what I propose to do should I ever have children: I will avoid the topic of religion as much as possible when they’re younger, but when it becomes necessary, I will be careful to explain multiple religions, and stress that they are all equally valid, that none is better than the other, and that a lack of religion is just as acceptable.

Then, if my child reaches an age when he or she is capable of understanding every facet of the matter and decides that he or she is a Christian, I’ll take them to church. If he or she chooses Islam, I’ll search for the nearest mosque. If Christianity is the first choice but falls through, I’ll happily discuss further options. The point is that I don’t care what the decision is or how often it changes; Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, atheism, Zoroastrianism, whatever – I only care that it’s their decision, not mine.

Many religions require induction or introduction early in life. Some forms of Christianity require baptism as an infant and circumcision of males, for example. Yet I assure you no infant has ever called a pastor and said “I’d like to be baptized! Does this Sunday work for you?” Infant baptism and other religious rituals that happen early in life take place solely at the request of the parents. Many find this acceptable and say it’s the right of the parents to do this.

The late Christopher Hitchens

The late Christopher Hitchens

Why do we allow this? Is it because, as Christopher Hitchens suggests in God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, “If religious instruction were not allowed until the child had attained the age of reason, we would be living in quite a different world”?

I’m an 18-year-old atheist with an agnostic mother – but were she to covert to Hinduism and call me one day, saying “Guess what! You’re coming to meet the Brahmin with me this weekend; I’ve decided you’re a Hindu now!” I can (and would) decide not to convert.

Why am I so anti-indoctrination? The answer is simple. I am because I have lived and seen the harm that come from it. I direct you to Pete Hautman’s brilliant novel Godless, the story of Jason Bock, an agnostic-turned-atheist who, disappointed with his parents’ religion, creates his own spoof religion – Chutengodianism, which centers on the worship of the town water tower.

He has a lengthy conversation with his highly religious parents, and comes out as an atheist. His thoughts say it all: “I envy my father, too. I envy his unshakable belief in the Catholic Church – his faith gives him power and contentment. I envy everyone who has a religion they can believe in. Me? I have Chutengodianism – a religion with no church, no money, and only one member. I have a religion, but I have no faith. Maybe one day I’ll find a deity I can believe in. Until then, my god is made of steel and rust”.

Jason was indoctrinated in Catholicism; when he found that he didn’t believe in it, his realization had a definite, negative effect on him. The same can be said of me, but to a much lesser extent. I wasn’t depressed by my rejection of religion – if anything, I felt freed by it. Rather, I was recalcitrant and depressed by the prospect of coming out of the proverbial closet, particularly to my mother.

I was lucky in that my mother is exceptionally open minded and accepting, yet even that didn’t shield me from emotional turmoil at the prospect of “coming out.” Imagine how severely the issue is compounded for those whose parents aren’t as accepting as my mother, whose parents disown them and kick them out of the house. This could so easily be avoided if we discontinued the practice of indoctrinating children. That we continue do so, knowing the possible effects, is heartbreaking.

One of the many harms that religious indoctrination causes is cognitive dissonance. In one of his lectures, Frederick Rudolph defines cognitive dissonance as “an unpleasant psychological tension”.

I was fortunate; I didn’t have this problem. But Kurt Wise did, and it irrevocably changed him – many, including myself, contend it changed him for the worse. Dawkins recounts his tale in The God Delusion.  Wise, a brilliant geologist, trained at the University of Chicago and Harvard, studying under the great Stephen Jay Gold. He had everything going for him and his dream to teach geology. Yet tragedy struck. Not from outside – his own mind turned on him, making it all the more tragic.

Wise didn’t need his degrees from the University of Chicago and Harvard to realize the Bible and science are at odds over the age of the Earth. It has been proven the Earth is 4.54 billion years old; the Bible claims it to be less than 10,000 years old. Wise was afflicted with cognitive dissonance; and like any other person afflicted with such strong cognitive dissonance, he couldn’t take the strain and snapped.

He found a pair of scissors and cut every self-contradictory verse, every scientifically inaccurate passage, from the Bible. When he was done, it was so fragile that he wouldn’t lift it, fearing it would fall apart.

Kurt P Wise

Kurt P Wise

He was faced with a decision; abandon science, or abandon religion. As Wise himself states in his contribution to In Six Days, “It was with there that night that I accepted the Word of God and rejected all that would ever counter it, including evolution. With that, in great sorrow, I tossed into the fire all my dreams and hopes in science”. That is why I am so against indoctrination of children.

Wise was brought up in a fundamentalist household, told that nothing – absolutely nothing – can contradict the Bible and be true. Because of this, he went through unnecessary mental anguish and lost one of the things that he held most dear: science. And make no mistake, the world lost on that day as well. We lost what could have been one of the most brilliant geologists to ever enter the field.

We are all by ourselves – RALPH JONES

THERE was a deafening chorus of scoffing from religious types of all shapes and sizes when the news emerged in June that the Brownies and Girl Guides were “dropping God” from their 103-year-old pledge. Tim Stanley, one of the more tiresomely conservative spokespersons for the religious right in Britain, cried to no avail, “I don’t want to live on this planet anymore”.

What replaced the revolting promise “to love my God” was, as was widely publicised, the promise to “be true to myself and develop my beliefs”. This terrified and continues to terrify those of a religious persuasion because it cedes responsibility from God over to the individual concerned. And one of the defining features of any religion is the compulsion to minimise autonomy, safe in the knowledge that God takes care of everything while we are alive and after we die.


The disposition toward worship can for many people be an intensely complex concoction of factors: upbringing; fear; social inclusion; a love of religious scripture. But impossible to ignore is the role that a need for stability plays: the yearning for there to be a perfect standard against which everything earthly is judged and, inevitably, falls short. The child-like connotations that this need evokes are justified: religion’s greatest strength – one onto which it clings with desperation – lies in the indoctrination of the young.

This indoctrination is most effectively applied at a point at which children are impressionable and instinctively attracted to security and to safety. It is, as we know, no coincidence that the great majority of adult believers adhere to a belief system identical to their parents. Many continue into adult life still needing this consistency, still unable to visualise a world without it, and others learn to recognise that our solidarity can only be with the humans around us.

One of the very valid predictions of commentators like Stanley is that, in removing God from their pledge, young Brownies and Guides are less likely to grow up with a reverential attitude toward an existent or non-existent deity.

The point of course is that those of us with a secular outlook would consider this a very positive development; if they believe none exists, why on earth should children be forced to be told to love a God? It is difficult to think of an injunction that is more obviously divisive. We are, to the best of our knowledge, unsupervised on this planet and the only responsibilities we have are to ourselves and to the people around us. Even assuming the improbable existence of a deity, the duty to “love my God” seems totally vapid and meaningless anyway, in contrast to a faith in one’s convictions, which is a clear and admirable aim – and, crucially, one that can be adopted even if the child grows up to be a believer.

The servile impulse latent and indeed readily observable in religious dogma provides a valuable insight into those to whom the concept is appealing. It is a great deal easier, after all, to consistently assume the presence of a supreme judge, an ultimate referee, to whom no human system can hope to compare, because it makes redundant the attempts to grapple honestly with the difficult issues at stake.

What the religious simply assume is that asserting that, for example, morality must be grounded by some Ultimate Being, is sufficient in establishing this Ultimate Being’s existence. This line of argument has unfortunate implications for contentious issues like abortion because over and above the well-being and autonomy of the mother is prioritised the supposedly unchallengeable dogma that to take any life, no matter how primitive, or no matter what other factors are involved, is to incur the wrath of God.

Things are not in fact this simple in practice and it is morally correct to put at the forefront of one’s consideration the predicament of the humans directly affected.

If, for example, a woman has been raped, it is patently sadistic and absurd to force her to carry the unwanted child through to birth. But these are the contortions into which one gets oneself if one invokes an absolute and immovable moral yardstick; there remains no room for subtlety or nuance and, in the case of abortion, one is left not respecting but gruesomely disrespecting human life.

This notion of nuance gets right to heart of the difference in mindset between the religious and the non-religious: the need for and belief in fixed absolutes on the one hand, and the embracing of shifting complexity on the other. The point I would like to make is not that absolute truths do not exist – this is a separate argument – but, rather, that simply inventing then appealing to a God does not constitute a good enough argument to prove this contention: and thus that in practice all we can do is live in a relativist universe because even if a consistent morality exists it is forever judged and interpreted inconsistently by humans.

A great deal more problems arise than are solved as a result of the invocation of a God; the need to outsource our problems to a supposedly perfect deity highlights a laziness to which we ought not succumb as mature adults. As I stated previously, it is a childish urge, and one that has proven surprisingly immune to critical scrutiny; it is a socially acceptable version of the “Because I say so” parental riposte.

Children grow up believing that their parents have all the answers and are unchallengeable in their authority; it would be very satisfying to see more adults coming to terms with the sober realisation that our problems cannot be referred upward to entities endowed with the properties we would ourselves like to possess. The universe looks very much like one in which we are unsupervised; we therefore have every duty to act as if this is the case, until given evidence to the contrary.

I know that religion will eventually come up in conversation with small children who have not yet reached the age of reason. Perhaps it will be when a beloved pet dies, and they ask what happened to him or her. I doubt that even the best (or should I say worst?) of politicians could dance around that one without bringing up religion. I’m not asking that you say “You’re not old enough for this talk” then ignore them (that excuse barely works for one talk, you’re not going to fool anyone if you push the threshold to two).

I’m asking that you say something like “Well, there are many schools of thought, none of which is more correct or more incorrect than the other. Christians believe this, while according to Islam, this happens. Judaism says that this happens….” I don’t ask that you abandon your religion; I ask that you allow your children to find theirs. I ask that we, as a society, acknowledge the harms done by indoctrinating children with religion. This emotional and psychological harm could easily be avoided, if we accept that children are not ours to mold as we please; that they are independent individuals who deserve the right to make their own decisions, whether we agree with those decisions or not.

• These three articles appeared in the August 2013 issue of the Freethinker.