A question about answering faith questions from kids in atheist families

A reader writes:

So, I live with a family that is vaguely religious. They don’t seem to be Christian and seem to belong to a spiritual community of some kind, but I’ve never heard them say anything about religion, spirituality, etc. They have a couple of small children who often take an interest in me and I’m not bashful about walking around with my sacramentals. So, I was thinking, what do you think I should do if they begin asking questions about sacramentals or God, if things went that way? I’ve been thinking about this also, because my brother is an atheist and has a child that I love dearly. Is it prudent to offer some catechesis or direct their questions to their parents? Thanks!

I think you should answer the questions honestly and let the chips fall where they may.  You aren’t proselytizing or pressuring, just responding to a kid’s honest curiosity.  They have a right to hear the truth.  You have a right to speak it.  It doesn’t have to be presented as a challenge to parental authority.  It can be spoken simply as “Here is my experience.”

  • Dan F.

    Insert trolls here in 3…2…1…

  • Dymphna

    Thank you. Will be dealing with this with my grandson soon.

  • A Philosopher

    Troll here.

    Mark’s answer seems basically right to me. I’d add only that the line between informing and proselytizing is a delicate and uncertain one, and that different people draw it in different directions. Sitting inside a tradition, one is likely to see the line as farther away than it’s perceived as being by those outside the tradition, so a little erring on the side of caution is probably called for. It’s also worth keeping in mind that for young children, the line between informing and coercing to believe is also often hard to spot.

    Speaking from the other side of the fence, I also think there’s a bit of an asymmetry in the situation here. I’d find it inappropriate in most circumstances even to just try to give information on my own views. If a little kid asks me “Will God take care of my puppy when he dies?”, it would surely be wildly out of place for me to start explaining that not everyone believes in God.

    Some of this is because there’s no cultural component of (at least my) atheism comparable to (e.g.) sacramentals, and hence less visible call for explanation. Some of it is because it feels like a positive doxastic+practical arrangement has more call not to be interfered with than a negative one. (To use a mine-riddled analogy, I think it’s much more problematic to tell a child that there is no Santa Claus than to tell a child in a non-Santa-deploying household that there is one.)

    Anyway, my usual practice (on the rare occasions that this comes up) is just to dodge around the question. It’s typically not hard to do this.

    • Pavel Chichikov

      Except that insofar as you’re an atheist you’re wrong. Nice guy and all, I’m sure.

    • Anna

      All true, and worth keeping in mind whatever one’s beliefs. And you’re right that hearing what the kid is really saying (“I’m sad about my puppy” not “May I have a discourse on existence of God and then on the existence/nature of animal souls?”) is important. So if the o.p. gets a question about a rosary, a brief “it’s a rosary which I use to help me pray and think about Jesus’ life” would suffice (unless the kid keeps asking follow-up questions), rather than a lengthy explanation of all the prayers and mysteries, with an explanation of why Catholics pray to Mary anyway thrown in for good measure.
      Anyhow, thanks for the actual good-faith engagement rather than the predicted trolling. :-)

    • ivan_the_mad

      “If a little kid asks me ‘Will God take care of my puppy when he dies?’,
      it would surely be wildly out of place for me to start explaining that
      not everyone believes in God.”

      Agreed. Questions that recommend wide-ranging explanations are certainly difficult enough, even without trying to explain to the child how they’re begging the question and that the premise is not universally held.

      Although it’s highly unpopular in The Age of Google, I’ve always found “I don’t know” to be an acceptable response.

    • Andy, Bad Person

      When did “proselytize” become a dirty word?

      • HornOrSilk

        A long time ago, and the Church recognizes it as such. Evangelism is not the same thing — proselytizing is what Jack Chick does.

  • ivan_the_mad

    Agreed. Frequently heard at my KofC council: “As Catholics, we propose, we do not impose”. Answer questions with joy and concision.

    Surely no one would object to a witness to the “[a]ffection for the proliferating variety of human existence”, better known by its more vapid watchword of diversity.

  • Rebecca Fuentes

    We are coming up on the flip side of this. How do I best answer my children’s questions about relatives who do not go to church or believe as we do? My oldest is six, and she notices that her cousins don’t go to mass with us when they visit. She also knows that it’s really important to go to mass. I’d appreciate suggestions for explaining this.
    She come to me once, about a year ago, very confused. Her cousins had told her that story about Bloody Mary. Being five at the time, the only Mary my daughter could think of was Mother Mary, and she knew Mother Mary wouldn’t do anything like THAT. It turned into quite an argument.

    • Beadgirl

      We are going through something a little similar with my 6-year-old, who wants to know why daddy goes to a different church (my husband is Episcopalian). The explanation we settled on is that daddy’s church is a lot like ours and is mostly right, but it does not have the Real Presence and does not follow the Pope.

      But that’s not the same as someone who doesn’t go to any house of worship at all. Maybe telling your daughter that different families have different rules? That’s something she might understand better at this age than a discourse on how different people believe different things, but the Church is the only 100% right one, but we have to be respectful of other beliefs, etc.

    • James H, London

      It might help to point out that Queen Mary didn’t kill as many people as her father or sister did – and let them draw their own conclusions.

      I’ve had to point that out to my own daughters, learning about Dear ol’ Henry VIII and his six wives.

      • Rebecca Fuentes

        We had a little history lesson on that, right after the lesson about how there are more people named Mary than our Blessed Mother. For a kindergartener, I kept it pretty simple. Now we field questions about attending mass, since she knows that we are commanded to keep holy the Lord’s day, knows that Mass is part of that, knows that not following the commandments is wrong, and has drawn her own conclusions that people who don’t attend mass are doing something wrong. It’s hard for her to understand that not everyone knows, understands, or believes that.

  • Lynn

    I babysat a very verbal little girl for a couple of years, añd she had tons of questions about my very visible faith. As soon as I realized it was going to be an issue, I asked her mom how she would like me to handle it authentically but still respecting their family. Her mom had no trouble with me giving a totally Catholic answer, and I would generally give her a heads up as to the topic, so that she was prepared for further questions.

  • kenofken

    The answer to this scenario is simple: Engage other people’s kids the way you would have them engage yours. If your kids asked an atheist or Muslim or Mormon or Wiccan about their religion, would you have a problem if they simply responded to the kid’s honest curiosity? I think kids always benefit in the long run by straight answers, but boundaries are a very important consideration.

  • rationalobservations?

    The thing is: How would you feel about a Muslim “teaching the real truth” that all non-muslims are sub-human, unworthy of kindness or sympathy and destined for eternal damnation., and that the only true word of god is to be found within the Qu ‘Ran (“Koran”)? That is a sincerely held belief for around one third of the world’s population and every bit as certain for islamics as the beliefs of christians or any other faith group are for them.

    As an ex-christian., and now convinced non-believer in all magic, myth and imaginary gods, I strongly object to any of my children being indoctrinated with any such irrational and unsupported beliefs while being completely sympathetic to those in thrall to any of the human originated, human run, exclusively self serving politico-corporate institutions that are called “religions”.

    Few of us care what anyone else personally believes or what rituals they privately undertake connected with those beliefs. We do care if any attempt is made to impose or inflict those beliefs upon, us or those we love.

    The active participation within the christian faith dwindles at an ever more rapid rate in the free, educated, prosperous and democratic “western world”. Those who are agnostic, atheist, or otherwise indifferent to all imaginary “gods” and “god-men” sold by religions, now form the third largest world demographic. Respect for religion must be equal to the respect of the religious for those of us who put rationality, science, nature and the needs & wellbeing of humanity above and before any and all supernatural superstitions.

    • ivan_the_mad

      What smug and vapid drivel.

    • Kristen inDallas

      The thing about indoctrination… it’s what happens when you only allow a child to hear one possible idea and keep them from fully forming their own ideas by making sure they never expirience any objections.
      And regarding the Muslim hypothosis, no, I would have no problem with a Muslim anwering my child’s question about why he believe what he believes. I have a whole lifetime to explain to my child why I believe what I believe, and if I didn’t believe my faith would win the test of rationality, I wouldn’t believe it in the first place…


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