Loni asks: Dear Possummomma, How do you explain atheism to a child (say 3-5 years old)? I'm having a rough time of it.
This isn't an easy question to answer. It really depends on several variables; how "out" you are as an atheist; how much they know about religion and the idea of a deity; the level of maturity and developmental stage of the child; and, last but not least, the interest level of the child.
You don't give a great deal of detail in your question, so I'll try to cover all of the bases. If your child is asking you, then I think you ask he/she why they're asking. Did they hear atheism referred to in a negative manner? Did they hear you say the word in relation to your family? Did they see it on a book or hear it on television? Or, are they genuinely curious about the philosophy or approach? Each of these scenarios justifies a different answer.
But, in general, I'd say the first thing to do is to clarify what the terms mean. I would explain that atheist is a word to describe a person who has no belief in a god. That may suffice for your child. You don't have to hang judgements or any more information on it; if they're satisfied with that answer, then your work is done (for the time being). Clarify, for them, what a theist is ("someone who believes in a god"). From there, I would explore their sense of fantasy-v-reality. For example: do they believe in purple spotter lizards; is a talking plant real; is their bed real; is their mother real....just gauge their understanding. In kids this age, it can be tough for them to separate fiction from fact. By playing "is it real or not real", you start to build a framework for explaining atheism. Once you think they have grasped the concept of "real/not real", then expand it to concepts and talk about how we check our belief in that concept. Example: Is gravity real? Well,...when we drop a toy, it falls to the floor. When we throw a ball in the air, it comes back down. Example: How do we know that mommy and daddy are real, as opposed to a cartoon character? It may take some time and effort, but I think this is a crucial step. When you think they might have that maturity and readiness, then you can talk about god(s). Explain that some people allow certain things (like gods) to exist without a basis in reality. Talk about what would happen if we believed that everything we read in books was real. Talk about some of the descriptions of the deity and the powers he/she/it allegedly has and get her thinking about ways people could test those things to see if they're real (just like testing gravity or any other theory/concept). I think, at those ages, that's really enough.
If, however, the child has heard atheism referred to as a negative trait, then I would include some discussion about how we can determine the difference between right and wrong and how theists are really no different from atheists regarding how they come by their morals. Show her that, just because you don't believe in god, you do have morals and ethics. KWIM? Talk about how some people will say things, even mean things, without really getting to know someone and that leads to bad judgements.
I hope that helps.