Is God Real?

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”.

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.

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.

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.

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 happen …” 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.

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.

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

37 responses to “Is God Real?”

  1. Matt+Westwood says:

    TL;DR … a bit wishy-washy in places, pusillanimous in others.

    “Is god real?” is the question. “NO OF COURSE NOT!” should have been the answer.

  2. Broga says:

    I can’t remember the question ever coming up with my children. I can’t even remember discussing it. They presumably heard the atheist views of my wife and myself and just absorbed them. They have never been other than atheists. We never stopped them listening to lessons on religion at school and if the occasion arose they would attend a church.

    I never read bible stories but they were very keen on the children’s versions of the Greek legends. I can’t see why an atheist parent should be embarrassed about their child asking about God.

  3. JohnMWhite says:

    I still remember being that child, going from a devout believer whose imagination made it very easy to rationalise the inconsistencies in Catholicism, to liberal “God is Love!” Christian, to quasi-spiritual pantheist, to simple atheist. What so many parents, particularly those who are religious, seem to forget is that children do have brains in there and they have egos, and they don’t take kindly to being treated as property. Children aren’t your own little bonsai tree that must be manicured into a miniature version of yourself. If they start to question the existence of god, it is not the parents’ number one priority to make them a True Believer™ again. To try to stuff that genie back in the bottle shows a harsh self-centredness and contempt for what your own child is going through. They are trying to understand the world and their place in it, and for a parent to make them feel like a terrible person for that and forcibly hold them back from learning about themselves is incredibly cruel and is only going to damage families.

    I had to go through the journey on my own, with parents who were less than receptive to my probing questions and my eventual conclusions trying to drag me back along the path. Fortunately they were a lot more accepting than many others, and even my mother has stopped telling me “you’re still a Catholic no matter what you claim!”, but regardless, that’s not a good thing for any family to go through. It strikes me as so sad that parents rush to authority figures like pastors to beg for assistance in trying to avoid supporting their own child and force them into a mold that doesn’t fit them any more.

  4. Graham Martin-Royle says:

    Surely the question should be answered with another question, just which god are you asking about?

  5. […] this collection of three essays (sent to me by reader Norm) the first and third deal with how to break the news to a young child […]

  6. stargraves says:

    The cartoon at the start says it all. Still vaguely worth a quick read though.

  7. Miriam Ager says:

    Eloquently put. Its nice to hear other people trying to bring their children up to have open enquiring minds and the ability to make their own decisions. Unfortunaltly, as religious indoctrination of children underpins all religiuos faith, it will continue as long as religion itself.

  8. @MartinW says:

    I had the “do you believe in god?” question asked to me by my children during a car journey (they were 6 and 8 at the time).

    I answered that lots of people do believe in god, but I personally didn’t, because it seemed like a silly idea to me.

    My 8 year old told me she didn’t think god made sense either, but my 6 year old said that she did believe. I told them that was fine, and it was up to each person to make their mind up for themselves.

    But it does feel awkward, and you never know if you are doing the right thing.

  9. wonderful to readfirst thing in the morning. One of my sons believes in god and angels, my other son is a free thinker. Same family, different choices…

  10. Lee Clark says:

    Very interesting read. I’m an atheist.

    I was born an atheist: We’re *all* born as atheists; the people who love us then drip-feed, indoctrinate and brain wash their religious nonsense into us. As it was done to them too, and their parents before them etc etc

    It is extremely cruel to use the unconditional love of a child against them to push this immoral, bigoted rubbish on them.

  11. Victoria says:

    I liked this article in particular the thoughts about parenting. However, please can you credit The Oatmeal with the cartoon.

  12. Barry Duke says:

    Victoria: Done, apologies for the oversight.

  13. Ellis says:

    Beautiful piece. I especially loved Cassandra Neyenesch’s moment of courage in the car when she said what she really thought, and the way her son’s relief met that courage.

  14. Sue says:

    Thanks Cassandra Neyenesch for another insightful and humorous piece on parenting. I believe in something and call it god for lack of a better word/understanding and do and have struggled with conversations with my preschooler. Regardless of your view on things, this is a complicated topic. Many thanks for sharing your views.

  15. AgentCormac says:

    I for one have never fathered any children, so I have never been confronted by those seemingly ‘awkward’ questions about sex, death and god. However, if the missus and I had decided we wanted kids, and I those kids had asked me about what happens after we die, then I would, with a joyful heart, have told them to listen to the words of Carl Sagan: “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.”

    We are all made of starstuff. And we all go back to being starstuff. How absolutely incredible is that? No hell below us. Above us only sky. We just keep on being part of this incredible, wonderful, spectacular thing called the universe.

    We are made of starstuff.

    We are made of starstuff.

  16. CD Clifford says:

    I loved the piece by Nenyesch – warm funny and human. Wonderful dialogue. More!

  17. CD Clifford says:

    Wonderful piece by Cassandra Neynesch! Funny smart and warm. I loved the dialogue.

  18. Leslie C Wallin says:

    Most people of this Earth live with a wondering of the existence of the world and the universe and a fear of the unknown which, for them, includes death. Whilst one can explain, to these people, the science of all things it is another for those people to be able to adopt the concepts. They have no choice in the matter as for them they fall towards a conceivable and comforting answer to all things and that is the very bridge, to peace of mind, that religion provides. It is not progressive, and serves no cause, to make unkind comments regarding religious belief. Understanding and improving the quality of existence for our fellow humans is the most complex challenge that many of us will face and we will need to move very carefully and above all very thoughtfully if we are to bring about positive outcomes.

  19. barriejohn says:

    It is not progressive, and serves no cause, to make unkind comments regarding religious belief.

    What a load of bollocks. I am infinitely happier and in a much healthier frame of mind now that I have abandoned the crutch of superstitious belief that shielded me from the fear of death and the unknown. How can it possibly be better for people to avoid facing the realities of life and to retreat into a make-believe world that distorts their whole outlook on life and interpretation of the things that they experience? Fuck religion and fuck those who promote this cancer in society.

  20. Daz says:

    Leslie C Wallin, translated into plain English:

    We, the rational people, can handle the truth, but don’t upset the little people, the plebs, the lower orders. They are like unto children, and should not be confronted with harsh, adult-sized reality.

  21. Barry Duke says:

    Leslie, your “let’s be nice to feeble-minded religious bigots” suggestion simply won’t wash on this site. We’re not in the business to tolerate the intolerant.

  22. JohnMWhite says:

    @Leslie C Wallin: I must disagree with the premise that religious believers have no choice in the matter. I made a choice, despite the very persistent efforts of other to rob me of it. And it serves a very progressive purpose to make unkind comments about religious belief (though why you consider “I don’t believe in god” to be unkind I am unsure). That progressive purpose is to stop the religious from using their religion to hurt people who truly do have no choice about whether or not to adopt it: their children and the community around them. Keeping mum and letting the religious say their piece without rebuttal simply leads to theocracy, and theocracy inevitably leads to the suffering of everyone who isn’t a member of the Great Big Club. What positive outcome would there have been for homosexuals if religion’s views hadn’t been met with an unkind word or two? What quality of existence do fellow humans enjoy when they have painful and terminal diseases that they cannot be released from simply because somebody else thinks their particular god will be angry about it?

  23. AgentCormac says:

    @ Leslie C Wallin

    It is not progressive, and serves no cause, to make unkind comments regarding religious belief. Understanding and improving the quality of existence for our fellow humans is the most complex challenge that many of us will face and we will need to move very carefully and above all very thoughtfully if we are to bring about positive outcomes.

    While I’m sure you (kind of) mean well, do you not think that making ‘unkind’ comments
    about religion is no more than religion deserves? After all, it is a stinking edifice of lies, corruption, bullying and deceit, the proponents of which will pretty much say and do anything to keep themselves and their vile empire in control of the minds of millions. If you want to talk about ‘positive outcomes’, perhaps you should have a chat with the rcc about its contribution to science, aids-prevention, female emancipation, the rights of gay people, birth control and, of course, child welfare. Or perhaps the muslims abut their approach to peace, understanding and the role of women in the world.

    Unkind comments? FFS get real! For centuries these bastards have used fear, violence, intimidation, subjugation and mind control to keep themselves in positions of power. Wake up!!!!!

  24. Carolina Franco says:

    I love this article, I can completely relate to the writer’s daughter wish to believe in something. Yet even at her young age she just couldn’t. Santa, and the tooth fairy give you something to believe in, but a loving GOD just watching people starve and die… that takes some serious denial.
    Kids do believe their parents and that is more powerful than God. As parents we have the rare opportunity of having some influence, lets try not to perpertuate what was done to us. BTW I was baptized and inductrinated into 5 different religions as a child, in accordance to my caregiver at the time. A waste of time for all of us.

  25. Carolina Franco says:

    I completely relate to the writer’s child wish to believe in God. Santa and Toothfairy give you someting to believe in., but a loving god that watches people starve and die… that requires some serious deployment of denial.

  26. barriejohn says:

    Carolina Franco: I had Christian friends who decided to give up work and become full-time foster parents, as they had a large house. They were the leading lights in the local Gospel Hall (he was chief elder and Sunday School Superintendent), and their sole purpose was to “lead children to Christ”. When I was thinking about career choices at school, older Christians pressurised me to take up teaching, as not only would the short day and long holidays leave me a lot of spare time (I kid you not!) to engage in “the Lord’s work”, but I would, especially as a science teacher, be in a position to influence a great many children “for the Lord”. That’s how they work!

  27. Broga says:

    AgentCormac: This is about as comforting a piece of information that any rational person could want. No fear of hell and no fantasy about heaven. We are each of us here for the merest flicker of time and we really ought to make the best of our time. Guidance from a priest will only produce guilt and anxiety.

    “We are all made of starstuff. And we all go back to being starstuff. “

  28. richard not dawkins says:

    All sides of this issue are… not wrong exactly, but lacking necessary insights. ALL sides. This current rampant ‘atheism’ is a natural and expectable and righteous re-action to the misapplications of … what has been generally called ‘religion’ for a very long time. But: “re-ligion” literally means that impulse innate in the human breast that the author mentions in the middle of the article, the need to know/have an ultimate explanation, a coherent principle, for Everything. “Re-ligion” means that innate desire to “re-connect”, i.e. find that Ultimate answer/explanation/etc. which is behind every child’s inevitable question. The PROBLEM with ‘religion’ AND ‘atheism’ -and so much else – is in the language and the thinking. We are currently suffering under what has been called the “mental-rational” mode, which is a domination by what has come to be identified in brain/mind theory as the “left-hemisphere function”. The great error in this is that we no longer have any access to a grasp of the fact that Reality is not a Concept of Reality. ALL of the above is talking in dualistic >conceptual>in the mind<insideobjectively<, by a conceptualizing mind, that is, by an intellect that thinks that concepts/ thoughts/ ideas/ assertions/ images/ theories, any and all pictures of how we surmise 'things might be' that appear in our ego-consciousness/thinking 'head' … because our thoughts/theories have no place, from which to view Reality, that is outside/objective of that reality. Sorry, all religious AND atheistic folks: this universe, beyond your mental pictures, is still What It Always Was: a Profound and Ultimate Mystery which is not going to yield to scientific or any other brand of analysis (or, of course, any scriptural images). Thinking free is good, but thinking does not penetrate to the Mystery which we humans have always been and will always be compelled to assault. Which is why the best thinking leads, can only lead, to what has been called Mysticism (not at all the same as religion) — the direct apperception and becoming one with… Reality, outside and beyond the conceptualizing mind. Scientist, know thyself! This time/space universe in which we indeed 'find' ourselves is just an "appearance" (ask the philosophers, F.H.Bradley, …the deep scientists, Mr. Einstein, for example….. ).

  29. barriejohn says:

    Richard: English not your first language then?

  30. JohnMWhite says:

    Brace yourselves, an empty semantic argument from the well-worn keyboard of the only human on the planet to figure out that everybody else is wrong is coming!

  31. JohnMWhite says:

    Also I note with disappointment that Leslie C Wallin has not yet found time to continue the conversation. These drive-by spoutings are not progressive and serve no cause.

  32. Trish says:

    This question comes up in very concrete ways for me. I’m a divorced mother of two daughters. I am an atheist. My ex-husband, however,takes our daughters to church camp every summer.

    I was raised Catholic and completely destroyed my mother when I refused to be confirmed in the Catholic church. I was already inundated with too much hypocrisy.

    My ex was raised Methodist and became a full time heroine addict by the time he was 20, recovered by the time he was 33.

    As an adult, I think I yearn for a spiritual narrative that is greater than my narcissistic and individual endeavors on this planet. I cannot make organized religion that choice for me, don’t want to make it for my daughters, and find very little to admire in the institution of church.

    My daughters know that I don’t believe in church or in God, but I cringe at how it further divides their parents. When I ask them about church camp and the bible classes they go too, my oldest who is 9 says, ‘I just don’t listen. I just like camp.’

  33. JohnMWhite says:

    @Trish – may I ask what age you were when you refused to be confirmed? Where I grew up, confirmation happened at 11 or 12, when the church used to consider a child capable of making up their own mind. This was recently, in Scotland at least, reduced to 7 or 8. I wonder if they got too many precocious youngsters like yourself who dared to use their brains and go “hang on, I don’t want to”. It seems a bit of a farce, training children to confirm the choices already made for them. I was, strangely, confirmed on the very day I was born. I’m not sure how a newborn can give informed consent but that didn’t seem nearly as important when the threat of going to hell or limbo if I died was hanging over me.

    Seems like your oldest may be a chip off the old block. A lot of earnest adults don’t seem to realise that children are at times smart enough to just play along.

  34. AgentCormac says:


    Apologies for such a delayed response. I have to say that I find Sagan’s insights and the lyrics which John Lennon penned for ‘Imagine’ to be pretty much all I need in life in terms of comfort and succour. What could be more liberating than realising we go on, endlessly, being part of this amazing universe? And what could be more inspirational than thinking that human beings might one day cast off the millstones of religion, nationality and greed to actually come together in love, trust and understanding? All it needs is for people to realise that it’s okay, that it is good and healthy to think for themselves, and the dam will come crashing down. (Which is, of course, precisely why those who control religions do everything they can to control every last thought we all have. Bastards.)

  35. Dianne Leonard says:

    I fought against being confirmed, but was forced into it by my mom. She even went to the point of having a friend of hers spy on me to find out if I was attending confirmation classes. Ultimately I said to the bishop, “You’re not doing this to me.” I remember his words:”Yes I am. Shut the fuck up, kid.” I had been an atheist since age 9, though I didn’t hear the word til I was in my early 30s. I’ve been trying to get off the rolls of the catholic church for 30 years now, but have not been successful. As far as they are concerned, once a catholic, always a catholic. That’s one reason we should not believe the church’s claim of the number of people that are catholic. I remember reading that 10% of U.S. people are ex-catholics, and that the numbers of catholics would be much lower except for hispanic immigration. Turns out, my mom’s best efforts to raise catholic children failed. All 6 of us are some form of atheist/agnostic/freethinker. I was the eldest and led the others out.

  36. georgina says:

    @Graham Martin-Royle: “just which god are you asking about?”
    Lovely answer – would just like to add “or godess”, after all there are 3000+ to choose from.