Should atheist parents lie to their children about death?

Should atheist parents lie to their children about death? December 10, 2019

A Wall Street Journal op-ed I read today offered probably one of the most toxic pieces of parental advice I’ve ever seen: When atheist parents talk to your kids about death, they should … “Lie.”

lying christian children indoctrination atheism
“Coming home,” a painting by Sudanese artist Seif Leota could be a depiction of the Christian “Rapture” where the righteous, living and dead, arise in the sky to meet Jesus. In fact, the painting depicts relatives returning home for a feast day. (Rick Snedeker, personal collection)

The writer of the opinion piece, Erica Komisar, a psychoanalyst and author so presumably a generally intelligent person, still wrote this:

I am often asked by parents, ‘How do I talk to my child about death if I don’t believe in God or heaven?’ My answer is always the same: ‘Lie.’ The idea that you simply die and turn to dust may work for some adults, but it doesn’t help children. Belief in heaven helps them grapple with this tremendous and incomprehensible loss. In an age of broken families, distracted parents, school violence and nightmarish global-warming predictions, imagination plays a big part in children’s ability to cope.”

The reasoning of this quotation is fatally flawed on so many levels, it’s hard to know where to start.

First, what’s wrong with the truth? Telling your kids that granny went bodily to blissful heaven is a lie that will soon enough become apparent to them — unless their religious indoctrination as children leaves them slavishly dependent on faith fantasies their whole lives.

Second, just reading a few stories of people who deconverted from faith starkly illustrates how painful a process this can be, as apostates are attacked and shunned by family and lifelong friends (especially in their churches), and as they struggle to reorient their basic understanding of a real world that is suddenly concrete, not wishful. Why saddle your children with such a potentially awful legacy?

No one credibly argues that kids brought up in church communities don’t enjoy stable, emotionally healthy environments in their most vulnerable years. Community is generally always good. But there’s no evidence whatsoever that kids raised without a church tradition are more prone to anxiety, depression, loneliness or angst than their churched peers.

Maybe the kids of atheists get together often in a warm community of family and friends who model humanist virtues of inclusivity, kindness, reason and love.

Komisar only points to research published last year in the American Journal of Epidemiology (AJE) indicating that children who go to church at least once weekly “scored higher on psychological well-being measurements and had lower risks of mental illness. … [and] higher rates of volunteering, a sense of mission, forgiveness, and lower probabilities of drug use and early sexual initiation.”

This begs the question, “Lower than whom?”

The AJE research studied 5,000 children, but, according to the study report, “60% of the participants attended religious services at least weekly, and 36 percent reported prayer or meditation at least once per day.”

Those percentages seem to skew the sample heavily toward religious kids, which might say something about how religion affects them but far less about how lack of it might affect kids from secular homes.

I would be very interested to see a study where just nonreligious kids were surveyed, or an equal proportion of churched and unchurched youths. I suspect the unchurched kids — providing they come from warm, loving homes — would be thriving as well as the faithful ones.

Previous studies of adults have shown that participation in religion “is associated with better health and well-being,” and the new AEJ study indicates that religion “may have even more profound health effects at younger ages. … protect against certain behaviors and promote positive practices.”

But what does this say about kids raised by secular parents and without religious training?

Komisar laments that Gallup polling shows a 20 percent decrease in U.S. church attendance in the past 20 years and that “nearly half of adults under 30 do not identify with any religion.”

But the underlying trope is a well-known and wholly unsubstantiated bias that only religion can embed good moral values in children and prepare them for ethical lives.

It’s not a confirmed truth; it’s just what religious people generally believe without evidence.

Komisar also threw in another unsubstantiated trope, that humanism and atheism are ideologies of “nihilism.”

“Nihilism is fertilizer for anxiety and depression, and being ‘realistic’ is overrated,” Komisar writes. “The belief in God—in a protective and guiding figure to rely on when times are tough—is one of the best kinds of support for kids in an increasingly pessimistic world. That’s only one reason, from a purely mental-health perspective, to pass down a faith tradition.”

Of course, faith is not the only positive tradition parents might pass down to their children. Indeed, reality-based humanism is arguably even superior to fantasy-based religious dogma.

Note that the term “nihilism” means a wholesale rejection of traditional values as unfounded, and embodies a deep sense that existence is useless and absurd. Humanism is anything but that. Yes, humanism rejects supernatural explanations of existence, preferring evidence-based proofs, and it glorifies life for its own sake and finds human existence overflowing with meaning and purpose.

The problem is that very many people who cling to religion to comfort them and the divine to solve their personal problems and challenges seem uttlerly incapable of seeing that there are many other equally joyous and comforting ways to lead good lives without God or gods.

“Today the U.S. is a competitive, scary and stressful place that idealizes perfectionism, materialism, selfishness and virtual rather than real human connection. Religion is the best bulwark against that kind of society,” Komisar writes. “Spiritual belief and practice reinforce collective kindness, empathy, gratitude and real connection. Whether children choose to continue to practice as adults is something parents cannot control. But that spiritual or religious center will benefit them their entire lives.”

One lie in that opinion is revealed by the fact that religious indoctrination of children can indeed leave them as adults who absolutely cannot control whether they believe or not. That is the power of programming children.

The other lie is that religious training in childhood translates to healthy adult lives. In fact, such training often ruins adult lives in the most wrenching, personal ways possible (read some of the stories of deconversion linked to above).

Lying to your children will make such suffering more likely, not less.

Please sign up (top right) to receive new Godzooks posts via email, Facebook or Twitter

Thanks for reading my Godzooks blog. FYI, now and through the Christmas season, my memoir, “3,001 Arabian Days,” will be available on Amazon at a discount — $12 (was $15.95) for the paperback, and $5 (was $6.99) in Kindle format. Enjoy! Access it on my Amazon page: See more info below:

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!