© Glendon Mellow, The Flying Trilobite

Where all roads lead (1)

I have 22 posts jostling for attention at the moment, but a Saturday night conversation with my girls has sent all other topics back to the green room for a smoke.
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The three of us were lying on my bed, looking at the ceiling and talking about the day. “Dad, I have to tell you a thing. Promise you won’t get mad,” said Delaney (6), giving me the blinky doe eyes. “Promise?”

“Oh jeez, Laney, so dramatic,” said Erin, pot-to-kettlishly.

“I plan to be furious,” I said. “Out with it.”

“Okay, fine. I…I kind of got into a God fight in the cafeteria yesterday.”

I pictured children barricaded behind overturned cafeteria tables, lobbing Buddha-shaped meatballs, Flying Spaghetti Monsters, and Jesus tortillas at each other. A high-pitched voice off-camera shouts Allahu akbar!

“What’s a ‘God fight’?”

“Well I asked Courtney if she could come over on Sunday, and she said, ‘No, my family will be in church of course.’ And I said oh, what church do you go to? And she said she didn’t know, and she asked what church we go to. And I said we don’t go to church, and she said ‘Don’t you believe in God?’, and I said no, but I’m still thinking about it, and she said ‘But you HAVE to go to church and you HAVE to believe in God,” and I said no you don’t, different people can believe different things.”

Regular readers will recognize this as an almost letter-perfect transcript of a conversation Laney had with another friend last October.

I asked if the two of them were yelling or getting upset with each other. “No,” she said, “we were just talking.”

“Then I wouldn’t call it a fight. You were having a conversation about cool and interesting things.”

Delaney: Then Courtney said, ‘But if there isn’t a God, then how did the whole world and trees and people get made so perfect?’

Dad: Ooo, good question. What’d you say?

Delaney: I said, ‘But why did he make the murderers? And the bees with stingers? And the scorpions?’

Now I don’t know about you, but I doubt my first grade table banter rose to quite this level. Courtney had opened with the argument from design. Delaney countered with the argument from evil.

Delaney: But then I started wondering about how the world did get made. Do the scientists know?

I described Big Bang theory to her, something we had somehow never covered. Erin filled in the gaps with what she remembered from our own talk, that “gravity made the stars start burning,” and “the earth used to be all lava, and it cooled down.”

Laney was nodding, but her eyes were distant. “That’s cool,” she said at last. “But what made the bang happen in the first place?”

Connor had asked that exact question when he was five. I was so thrilled at the time that I wrote it into his fictional counterpart in my novel Calling Bernadette’s Bluff:

“Dad, how did the whole universe get made?”

Okay now. Teachable moment, Jack, don’t screw it up. “Well it’s like this. A long time ago – so long ago you wouldn’t even believe it – there was nothing anywhere but black space. And in the middle of all that nothing, there was all the world and the planets and stars and sun and everything all mashed into a tiny, tiny little ball, smaller than you could even see. And all of a sudden BOOOOOOOM!! The little ball exploded out and made the whole universe and the world and everything. Isn’t that amazing!”

Beat, beat, and…action. “Why did it do that? What made it explode?”

“Well, that’s a good question. Maybe it was just packed in so tight that it had to explode.”

“Maybe?” His forehead wrinkles. “So you mean nobody knows?”

“That’s right. Nobody knows for sure. “

“I don’t like that.”

“Well, you can become a scientist and help figure it out.”

“…”

“…”

“Dad, is God pretend?”

“Well, some people think he’s pretend and other people think he’s real.”

“How ’bout Jesus?”

“Well, he was probably a real guy for sure, one way or the other.”

Pause. “Well, we might never know if God is real, ’cause he’s up in the sky. But we can figure out if Jesus is real, ’cause he lived on the ground.”

“You’re way ahead of most people.”

“Uh huh. Dad?”

“Yeah, Con.”

“Would you still love me if all my boogers were squirtin’ out at you?” Pushes up the tip of his nose for maximum verité.

“No, Con, that’d pretty much tear it. Out you’d go.”

“I bet not.”

“Just try me.”

I told Laney the same thing—that we don’t know what caused the whole thing to start. “But some people think God did it,” I added.

She nodded.

“The only problem with that,” I said, “is that if God made everything, then who…”

“Oh my gosh!” Erin interrupted. “WHO MADE GOD?! I never thought of that!”

“Maybe another God made that God,” Laney offered.

“Maybe so, b…”

“OH WAIT!” she said. “Wait! But then who made THAT God? OMIGOSH!”

They giggled with excitement at their abilities. I can’t begin to describe how these moments move me. At ages six and ten, my girls had heard and rejected the cosmological (“First Cause”) argument within 30 seconds, using the same reasoning Bertrand Russell described in Why I Am Not a Christian:

I for a long time accepted the argument of the First Cause, until one day, at the age of eighteen, I read John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography, and I there found this sentence: “My father taught me that the question ‘Who made me?’ cannot be answered, since it immediately suggests the further question ‘Who made god?’” That very simple sentence showed me, as I still think, the fallacy in the argument of the First Cause. If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause.

…and Russell in turn was describing Mill, as a child, discovering the same thing. I doubt that Mill’s father was less moved than I am by the realization that confident claims of “obviousness,” even when swathed in polysyllables and Latin, often have foundations so rotten that they can be neutered by thoughtful children.

There was more to come. Both girls sat up and barked excited questions and answers. We somehow ended up on Buddha, then reincarnation, then evolution, and the fact that we are literally related to trees, grass, squirrels, mosses, butterflies and blue whales.

It was an incredible freewheeling conversation I will never, ever forget. It led, as all honest roads eventually do, to the fact that everything that lives also dies. We’d had the conversation before, but this time a new dawning crossed Laney’s face.

“Sweetie, what is it?” I asked.

She began the deep, aching cry that accompanies her saddest realizations, and sobbed:

“I don’t want to die.”

[Go to Part 2]

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This was written on Monday, 18. August 2008 at 13:56 and was filed under belief and believers, critical thinking, death, fear, My kids, nonbelief and nonbelievers, Parenting, schools, wonder. You can keep up with the comments to this article by using the RSS-Feed.

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  1. Your family sounds delightful and I can clearly picture those OMIGOSH moments through your writing. I enjoyed them vicariously. Thanks.

    One of my favorite kiddo light bulbs so far occurred as my son (then 8 ) and I were looking at pictures of artifacts from ancient civilizations. Many were representations of gods and we talked about what they were believed to control. After some thought, he said, “So, before people knew much about science, they invented God to help explain what they couldn’t understand.”

    Comment: anne – 18. August 2008 @ 9:21 pm

  2. This is great. I’m so looking forward to these conversations with my kids. They’re a little young right now (2 and fetus), but I’m laying the groundwork with the 2 year old for a life of questioning and wanting to know how things work. In fact, her favorite question is “How it works?” And if we ever tell her that anything that used to be in the fridge is now gone, she demands “See it. See it.”

    That’s my little skeptic.

    Comment: little_piggy – 18. August 2008 @ 9:39 pm

  3. […] The Meming of Life » Where all roads lead (1) Parenting Beyond Belief on secular parenting and… – […]

    Pingback: O’DonnellWeb - Polluting the homeschool blogosphere since 2001 » Blog Archive » Elsewhere on the Internet (August 18th 15:22) – 19. August 2008 @ 7:05 am

  4. […] 19, 2008 by cubiksrube This right here, this whole conversation, this exact kind of story, this idea of watching a six-year-old coming up […]

    Pingback: They’re not just for dinner any more « Cubik’s Rube – 19. August 2008 @ 7:29 am

  5. […] all roads lead (2) [Back to Part 1] We’d had the conversation before, but this time a new dawning crossed Laney’s […]

    Pingback: The Meming of Life » Where all roads lead (2) Parenting Beyond Belief on secular parenting and other natural wonders – 20. August 2008 @ 10:22 am

  6. […] Where all roads lead (2) August 20, 2008 Posted by Skepdude in The Atheist’s Way. Tags: Atheism, atheists, death, The Atheist’s Way trackback [Back to Part 1] […]

    Pingback: Where all roads lead (2) « Skepfeeds-The Best Skeptic blogs of the day – 20. August 2008 @ 3:39 pm

  7. […] in Non-Religion. Tags: atheism, kids, parenting, Religion trackback I want them to be as smart as Dale McGowan’s kids.  Keep in mind that the girl telling the story is six years […]

    Pingback: If I Ever Have Kids… « Impolite Conversation – 20. August 2008 @ 9:12 pm

  8. A friend directed me to this site. Although I am not an atheist, she knew I’d enjoy your articulate, thought provoking posts. I *love* this line:

    I doubt that Mill’s father was less moved than I am by the realization that confident claims of “obviousness,” even when swathed in polysyllables and Latin, often have foundations so rotten that they can be neutered by thoughtful children.

    Comment: momof3feistykids – 01. September 2008 @ 7:57 am

  9. […] them real, either.  And the “cosmological argument” is so full of bullshit that even a six-year-old can dismantle it.  So, what is it about the teleological argument that has kept it around for so […]

    Pingback: The man in the moon « boblobblog – 02. February 2009 @ 11:02 pm

  10. […] hearing Delaney’s sudden anxiety. My fearless thinker, the one who loves nothing more than a good-spirited tête-à-tête over a plate of theology in the school cafeteria or politics on the playground or current events at the dinner table, who chose freedom of speech as […]

    Pingback: The Meming of Life » The Empire Strikes Back Parenting Beyond Belief on secular parenting and other natural wonders – 17. February 2011 @ 11:57 am

  11. My six-year-old knows all about evolution and the origins of the universe, but he never has blinked at the idea of God. His grandparents are nutty-religious (they mostly keep it down around him, but they pray at dinner and so forth), and his babysitter is (so far as I can tell) the good kind of religious, and so her kids talk about god. But it’s in a matter-of-fact sort of way, rather than a questioning way, as Laney’s friend, and my son just repeats it back as so much fact to me. It’s rather disturbing, honestly, and I’m not quite sure what to think.

    Comment: joley – 17. February 2011 @ 9:19 pm

  12. […] which is fine. As I’ve said before, Connor (16) has no interest at all, while Delaney (9) has done it continuously since she was four. Erin is just beginning to toe-dip and finding out how cool it can […]

    Pingback: The Meming of Life » Just regular Parenting Beyond Belief on secular parenting and other natural wonders – 30. September 2011 @ 8:58 am

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