Monday, December 31, 2007

How to explain atheism to children.

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.

Hello, Loni!
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.


Nice and Blue said...

Hello PossumMomma,

That was a very insightful, well worded post, and although I don't have children I enjoyed reading your advice.

I don't know if you purged my other comment in your line of 'new comment destruction' lately but I am another longtime anonymous reader who's decided to create a blog. I've enjoyed reading yours for awhile now and was persuaded by it and others to add my own.


Doug Indeap said...

Excellent advice well put.

Thanks also for introducing me to KWIM. (I had to look it up.)

In your post, you assumed that the child in question was "your" child. Would you like to offer thoughts about how to respond to inquiries by someone else's child? Lots of variables in that of course. said...

Very good response. I may have to referrence it in a few years but at 1 and 3 my aughters a blissfully unaware of religion.

Although this Christmas saw their 4 year old cousin thanking god before dinner and mentioning that Christmas is baby Jesus' birthday I had no damage control to do as my 3 year old (who usually asks about everything) simply let it pass. When the time comes I doubt I will be as diplomatic as you. My planned explanation is: "Do you believe in fairies or dragons? -No, well religion is sorta like 90% of the people believing that fairies are real. It's just kind of silly"

Happy New Year.

Milo Johnson said...

I thought that "KWIM" was what Austin Powers was always on the search for...

Anonymous said...

I've used a similar line to Secularearth's, stressing that what people call religion (Christianity, Islam, Judaism, etc) are basically the same as what they call myths (Greek myths, Norse myths): "God" is the same as "Zeus" is the same as "Odin", etc.

Fossick said...

I think this post was a wonderful question. It's an issue I've been working on the past few years (and continue to work on). I’m an atheist and father of three.

When the kids were young, I gave them simple answers to the questions "What is religion/God?". I tried several answers. All resulted in confused looks because we just don't mention God at my house.

Try these answers:
"God is something some people believe in, but I don't."
"Religion is a group of people, kinda like a club, that all have the same beliefs about God."
"It's one of those tough questions you'll understand better as you get older." (Yep, had to use the cop-out answer a couple times on this one.)

Around the age of 7, I started working on deeper answers. I still get confused looks, but they're learning bit by bit.

My advice on this is to focus on teaching critical thinking rather than religion is or is not. I've spent lots of time on "What is/isn't real?" questions, and "How do you know something is real?". Teach the kids the skills to think for themselves and they'll be able to filter out the BS logic that religion uses. These are important concepts for all areas of their life.