“You’re going to hell, kid.” Adventures in Secular Parenting

Shanon Nebo has graciously given me permission to repost (below) a terrific piece she wrote originally for the Be Secular blog and which is now on her new blog, Secular Sunshine.

“You’re going to hell.”

If you are an atheist, then you’ve most certainly heard this uttered in one way or another. And if you are a Christian or a Muslim, then you’ve heard or read this put in terms of consequences for “sinful” actions or thoughts, only one of these being disbelief.

Hell (or Jahannam), as it is described in the Bible and in the Qu’ran is pretty serious. In both versions, your entire life is scrutinized, and upon being less than worthy, you are cast into some pit involving fire. I’ve burned my fingers on hot dishes and I’ve been splattered countless times by hot grease, and I know from experience that hot things can be pretty painful, so I can only assume that the sensation of being burned over your entire body, for a longer period of time than I can fathom, would be indescribably miserable. There are many more descriptions of that, but I am pretty sure that the purpose is to lay out the worst possible situation, create a fear response, and then use that fear to keep the sheep from wandering too far astray.

Many people believe that Hell is real, and when they find out that your thoughts and ideas have you on a fast track to the absolute worst thing ever, some of them want to save you. I have to admire their effort and their good intentions, so when people try to talk to me, I choose not to be rude or blunt, but merely conversational. I used to be a believer, and I know how they feel. I’m an adult, and I can conduct myself responsibly, even when I disagree with the person in front of me.

But what about children?

Let’s think about that one for a minute. Some kids can hack it. Some kids are master negotiators at the age of five, but some of them aren’t. Even the best of them still have yet-developing child brains that tend to soak up everything around them, for better or worse. So, a well-indoctrinated child has very few, if any, doubts that what they have been learning might not be true, or even that it might be oppressive. And these well-indoctrinated children are playing with other kids. Some of them might also be children raised with a religious consideration, but some of them might not. So what do you do when those kids tell yours that they are going to hell?

When my nine-year-old son came home and told me that his friends told him that he was going to hell, he wasn’t upset, so much as concerned and confused. These kids are good and they mean well, but they’ve been brought up in religious households. They have invited my son to church several times, telling him that he gets candy and cookies for reading Bible verses, and he has declined them every time. My son’s nickname is “The Cookie Accountant,” so don’t mistake his motivations. My husband and I even told him that he was free to go, if he wanted to, even if it was just to spend time with his friends and indulge in a few treats. Still, he declined. He said that he just really didn’t want to go, and we told him that was okay.

His friends persisted, and he kept telling them every time they asked (a few times a week), that he didn’t want to go. Eventually, he had to tell them that he didn’t believe in God and that he wasn’t a Christian. They had trouble believing that. How could he not believe in God? Doesn’t everyone believe in God? God is real. Right?

It wasn’t easy for him to come out to his friends, and it was something that he had been agonizing over because he was afraid that they wouldn’t want to play with him anymore if they knew that he didn’t believe as they did. He asked my husband and I for advice, and we told him that he could come out and take his chances, even though we believed that it would be fine, or that he could avoid that line of questioning, or that he could even blame us, if he wanted to, and say that we didn’t want him going to church. We tried to make it his decision, and we didn’t want to force something that should come from him, and not from parental pressure.

Upon coming out to his friends, they accepted it easily enough, but then said, “Well, you are going to become a Christian eventually, right?” This question stuck in my mind when my son told me about the encounter. He asked them why they thought he was going to become a Christian, and that is when they said it. “If you don’t become a Christian, then you are going to…you know,” with index fingers pointing ominously downward. Our son knows what hell is, and he has a basic grasp of the Christian dogma, but this concerned him. I do believe that it would give anyone at least a moment’s pause, if someone they cared about declared that something bad would happen to them.

Of course, when I heard about this, the first thing out of my mouth was, “You’re not going to hell.” But the truth is, I don’t know where we are going. I know what happens to the human body after it dies, which is the same thing that happens to every other thing after it dies. But I don’t know if there is some kind of lingering sentience, or a soul. I know that there is no quantifiable evidence that something like that exists. However, my knowing or not knowing or believing or not believing won’t change the experience.

“But how do you know?,” he asked.

“I don’t know. Nobody can really be sure because everyone who would know is dead. But let’s suppose that God is real for a moment. And he made everything and all of us and he knows everything. Do you really think that God would make some of us, knowing what we would do and how we would think, and then just send us to hell? And not just a few of us, but most of us.”

He thought for a moment, concern still showing on his face and then responded with a soft, dubious, “No.”

“Well, God is supposed to love everyone unconditionally, right?”

“Yeah…”

“And God is supposed to be perfect. He never makes mistakes.”

“Yeah, if he was real. That is what they say.” Internally, I applauded ecstatically at this.

“Well, I am not perfect, and I only have one child. And I love you, no matter what, too. I would love you no matter what you did. I might not be happy about what you did, and I would try to get you to not do it again, but I would never stop loving you, and I certainly wouldn’t send you someplace bad or make you suffer forever for doing something bad. I would never do that, no matter what. And If I can love you no matter what, does it really makes sense that a God that is better than me would send you to hell for any reason?”

“No.”

“You aren’t going to hell. Whatever happens, is going to happen to everyone else. That is just what your friends were taught by their parents and in church, and that is because that is what their parents were taught.”

“Didn’t you and Mark believe in that stuff?”

“Yes, we did. And then we read. And we researched. And we asked questions, and we started thinking for ourselves. And I want you to think for yourself. But I don’t want you to worry about going to hell.”

“I’m not worried about it anymore.”

“Good…now, do your homework.”

It was an emotional conversation for me because I remember feeling those fears and worrying about going to hell. I don’t want my son to grow up with irrational fears, and this is one less hurdle for him. Being a secular parent is difficult because you can teach your kids and counsel your kids, but in the end, they are the ones making the decisions. You can’t be there every time someone offers them some off-the-wall opinion or statement, and it is scary to think that our child has to wage intellectual warfare and have the same kind of struggles that I do, but without the knowledge that I have. He has never believed, and he doesn’t understand what it is like to believe. It is hard for me to explain to him that some people believe that crackers and grape juice literally turn into flesh and blood upon consumption, or that the earth is only a few thousand years old, or that there are evil things lurking among us waiting to take over our bodies or make us do terrible things. How do you tell your son that more people than don’t believe in things that are seemingly more farcical than the bogeyman?

It could be argued that we are indoctrinating our son, too. And I could see how it would look that way to someone on the other side of the argument, but we have science, facts, data, and morality supporting us. So, I take some pride in knowing that my son might make mistakes, but he will be one less man oppressing women simply because religion dictates that they are lesser creatures. And he will be one more human that understands the value of treating others with kindness without the ulterior motive of a plush afterlife. I realize that my son belongs to a small percentage of people that were not indoctrinated by their parents, and I hope to see that percentage increase as our children learn the value of humanism and put all notions of bigotry behind them. Humanity changes one generation at a time, and I believe that my son is definitely one generation better.

- Shanon Nebo

Shanon and Mark Nebo are two of my new favorite people in the world since I met them and spent a few hours with them on Sunday evening. Riffing off the “live strong” bracelet idea, they have created “be secular” bracelets. They also sell t-shirts. They let secular groups use their products as fundraising tools, splitting half of the proceeds with them. Be Secular does not just welcome atheists but is also inclusive of religious people committed to secularism. They have an impressively quickly growing Be Secular Facebook pagewhich you should like. If you have an atheist group, consider becoming Be Secular affiliate.

Your Thoughts?

  • http://www.besecular.com Mark Nebo

    It was nice meeting you Dan and thanks for sharing this. I hope to speak with you again very soon!

  • JP

    I’m one of those Wiccan’s left over from reading that great series of articles on Atheistic Wicca.

    I have to say this idea of early childhood indoctrination and the “going to hell” bit, kind of makes me seethe. I grew up without interference of that kind, but I’ve now seen it happen in some of the communities I live in, and my daughters have come across it in their peers now and then (we try and explain it factually to them).

    Because Wicca is a modern religion, we get to pick and choose the parts that are worth keeping.
    Wiccan’s don’t have a analog to Hell as a place where sinners go (we also don’t have sin the way other religions do) We consider the concept of hell and/or sin as a manipulation tool. That is not to say there are no morals, but those morals and are the responsibility of the persona, the person teachers, and the community they affect. They must all take responsibility for behaviour that harms the people in the community.

    The Wiccan linage I come from also does not think indoctrination of children (or anyone) is a valid means to swelling the ranks. There is a difficulty when Wiccan’s have children because they can not help but be exposed by the very nature of a family, however we would always try to limit the indoctrination of the children and encourage them to learn about other religions (including Atheism) and about the scientific explanations for the world. Our goal is to teach them to think for themselves and make educated choices.
    We would also require that a person be at least the age of majority before they can actually become Wiccan. There are several reasons for that particular rule, but it partly has to do with the idea that a person has the mental facilities by that age to make their own choices.

    Anyway, what is interesting to me is that the way Shanon Nebo handled it is exactly the way we would handle it, although we would likely go into more detail about were it comes from in their community and use less of “god” for an example. We would also make it clear to our children that they can still be friends with that person and that a difference in viewpoint can actually be a good thing, as well as some suggestions on how to handle it in the future.
    Not only is it the way we *would* handle it, but we *have* handled it that way a number of times for various situations.

    • Tyro

      Articles on Atheist Wicca? Where?

  • kagekiri

    A big difference between the ways of being raised is that bit where Shanon told her son to think for himself.

    I never heard that on the question of hell through 18 odd years of hard-core Christianity. I heard lots of “you should be scared” and extra fear-mongering even for those who thought they were saved via the parable of the sheep and goats on judgment day. “You never know if you’re really saved!!!” I also remember helping to shut down discussions of the justice of Hell during youth groups, and even in my own personal musings.

    The emotional message is significantly different too. The Hell story almost always comes with a guilt-trip, even for little kids: “have you ever done anything bad, like lie to your parents or call your sibling a name?” That’s then given as an example of their sin, and the wages of sin is death (that last bit is scripture…and I remember hearing it in a Sunday School class for 1st through 5th graders).

    That method starts with guilt-tripping and an attack on self-worth, not an affirmation of the worth of the child and how they deserve to be loved. It’s “God loves you, but you’re not worthy of it, so if you don’t surrender your life to Jesus, you’re going to Hell.” It appeals to fear, guilt, shame, and self-preservation, right before going on to introduce heaven to appeal to selfishness and a desire for personal pleasure.

    Ugh, going back down memory lane to dredge this stuff up….man does it seem even more anti-humanistic than I remembered it.

    • Shanon

      I had the same kind of realization about my childhood when I really thought about it. I love my parents, and they love me (even now that I have forsaken religion utterly), but I remember feeling so scared when I was a child. I was afraid of going to hell for things that weren’t even my fault. I forgot about those emotions because they just don’t do me any good, but now that my own personal defenses against such thoughts are in place, I can remember in amazement at my own misery. I forgot just how terrible it really was.

  • Lightsleeper

    Q: Who has known the mind of God?
    A: Sanctimonious Christians. Just ask ‘em.

  • JP
  • Noor

    I think hell plays a more significant role in Christianity than Islam.I’m from Muslim background and during my childhood, hell was not something that i heard about a lot. My family is very religious but they never ever threaten us with hell.