© Glendon Mellow, The Flying Trilobite

Keeping the ‘Hell’ away from my kids

No God and no religion can survive ridicule. Mark Twain
Meet my 9-year-old middleborn, Erin, a.k.a. “the B”:

erin mask

Oh, she’d KILL me. Heh. Lemme try again:

Yep, that’s the same kid — a radiant flower one moment and a complete bassoon the next. She’s a typical middle child, a pleaser and a peacemaker, a moralist and a goofbag. I adore her socks off, not least because I’m a middler (and therefore all those things) myself.

So my stomach sank yesterday when she came home from school with the news that her three best friends all agree she’s going to burn in hell.

Holy horseshit! I thought, mentally springing to the Bat Cave and firing up the Mach 5. Or whatever. I simply can’t bear to see my kids hurt, nor Becca, my wife. I just can’t take it. I have made Becca cry precisely three times in seventeen years, and it unhinges me so thoroughly that I will apologize for my very existence if only she will STOP.

Same with the kids. I’m not talking about fall-down-go-boom tears, now. Those mostly irritate me, since the child usually did something (shall we say) ill-advised just beforehand. But tears of genuine emotional pain — those are something else entirely. You know, like the tears that would result from the unanimous judgment of your three best friends that you are destined for the Lake of Fire.

And though all three kids’ wounded tears slay me, none are harder for me to take than the tears of the B when her heart’s been broken. I swear, the very first boyfriend to break her heart will live just long enough to see his own little cardiac balloon quivering in my outthrust fist.

(Sorry, that was massively heterosexist. Feel free to reread with “girlfriend…her own little cardiac balloon quivering etc.” See, I’m cool.)

So I knelt before the B to get the full story. “Sweetie, what’d they say that for?”

“They were talking about church and stuff, and they asked if I believe in God and go to church. And I said no, I don’t believe in God, and I don’t go to church. And then their eyes got really big and they said, ‘Oooh, you’re gonna burn in Hell.'”

I waited for the first teardrop to appear, flexing my hand in preparation for holding three quivering little hearts at once.

“I’m so sorry they said that, B. How did that make you feel?”

Instead of tears, she shrugged. “It was pretty mean. But also silly.”

I looked at her in amazement. It is silly, of course, a profoundly stupid and childish idea, but how did she come to that so directly? It took me years and years to shift Hell from terrifying to terrifying but unlikely to silly.

And then I remembered. Of course. She’s been inoculated.

If I had hidden the idea of Hell from my daughter all these years, protecting her from the very concept, the sudden invocation of the flames by her friends could have burned a fear into her that would take some serious undoing. But we’ve talked about religious ideas for years. I’ve always made my opinions clear, but I go to great lengths to let her know that other good people think differently. “Dad, did Jesus really come alive after he was dead?” “I don’t think he did, no. I think that’s just a made-up story to make people feel better about death. But talk to Grandma Barbara, I know she thinks it really happened. Then you can make up your own mind, and even change your mind back and forth about it a hundred times if you want.” That’s the usual approach.

But there are exceptions to this evenhanded treatment, and one of them is Hell. Hell gets no hearing from me. I will not allow my children to be terrorized by anyone with the sick fantasy of an afterlife of eternal punishment, especially one meted out for honest doubts. If ever there was a religious idea with human fingerprints all over it, Hell is it. So I’ve always told my children that Hell is not only fiction, it’s also…

That’s right. She was using my exact word. Silly.

Even if there is a God, I’ve told them repeatedly, he’s not going to care if you guess wrong about him. That sounds like a human king, not the all-wise creator of the universe. He might care about how good you are, or even respect your honest doubts more than the dishonest belief of people who are just trying to avoid Hell. But in any case, the idea that any god worth his salt would create a Hell to punish his children is just plain silly.

Just as we inoculate our kids against diseases by putting small amounts of the bad stuff into their arms to build resistance, we have to inoculate them against toxic ideas that can paralyze their abilities to think freely. Specifically invite fearless doubt and they can live without medieval ignorance and fear trailing them through their one and only life. Tell them about Hell, then don’t just ‘disagree’ with it: laugh it to smithereens.



This was written on Friday, 04. May 2007 at 22:36 and was filed under belief and believers, My kids, nonbelief and nonbelievers, Parenting. You can keep up with the comments to this article by using the RSS-Feed.

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Comments »

  1. I love that metaphor of inoculation! I may need to borrow it in the near future.

    I just bought the book (there’s a whole stack of them in my favorite store here in Canada), and I loved the metaphor of “theological vegetarian” that you used in the introduction.

    It’s not idle praise when I say I really love the metaphors you choose — they make things so clear. I can’t wait to read the rest of the book!

    Comment: becky – 06. May 2007 @ 1:01 am

  2. Thank you, Becky! I appreciate that very much.

    Carl Sagan introduced me to the power of metaphors and analogies. The vegetarian analogy hit me like a ton of bricks in the last weeks before the manuscript went to the publisher, so I snuck it into the preface. It really seems to capture the essence for me as well.

    Hey, you’ve given me an idea for a blog entry about metaphors. Thanks!

    Comment: Dale – 06. May 2007 @ 11:56 am

  3. Excellent post! Thanks.

    Comment: OsakaGuy – 06. May 2007 @ 9:24 pm

  4. Hi Dale,

    What if “hell” is a reality? Then it wouldn’t behoove you to laugh about it. And, if you are truly a free-thinker – and want them to be as well – wouldn’t it be wise to let them discover “truths” on their own? It is an ironic twist that you desire them to be free-thinking and yet hold certain items from them that they could come to find as “true” someday, themselves.

    Grace to you,

    Comment: shepherda – 17. June 2007 @ 10:36 pm

  5. Our first troll!

    Whether it is real or not, the idea of hell keeps people from thinking clearly, like a gun to the head. My kids will have plenty of time to consider the merits of that idea once they are older. For now, I’ll keep their minds as free of fear as possible so they can learn to think as well as possible. Don’t worry — they have the rest of their lives to decide whether to join you in worshipping a God so small as that.

    Comment: Dale – 18. June 2007 @ 3:47 pm

  6. Just offering food for thought – not wanting to cause a storm. πŸ™‚

    I wouldn’t say that God is small. Man is not the center of God’s universe. I understand that many in the faith relate to a God that is man-centered. My understanding of Him from the Bible, is that He is not this way – but does things to please Himself foremost (which ironically, is for our good – and the most loving thing He can do).

    Your analogy of the gun to the head is wrong, if you leave out the other part. I would grab your analogy and make another crude one by saying it would be more right if you said, there was a gun to my head and the person holding the gun was making me take 1 billion dollars in cash, or he’ll shoot if I don’t grab it. Hm. Let me think about that. Or, “making” me eat chocolate cake. Or – countless other pleasures you can think of. Loving God is not a “do I have to?” thing – but an “I want to!” thing. It is for my highest good – and joy!

    Comment: shepherda – 18. June 2007 @ 9:52 pm

  7. Funny — one would think the yummy cake would be incentive enough…

    Comment: Dale – 18. June 2007 @ 10:01 pm

  8. One would think. πŸ™‚

    Comment: shepherda – 18. June 2007 @ 10:18 pm

  9. Except it’s NOT really yummy cake or a billion dollars (or a gun, for that matter), is it?

    It’s merely the PROMISE thereof.

    But WHOSE promise to believe… Aye, there’s the rub!

    Comment: Theo – 19. June 2007 @ 2:26 pm

  10. […] The Hell myth is covered in human fingerprints. The idea of supernatural justice is both human and downright silly. […]

    Pingback: Afterlife myths (2) « Perpetual Dissent – 15. November 2008 @ 9:11 am

  11. Hi Dale, I’m really enjoying reading through the blog. Wonderful ideas, giving me a few things I’d like to use with my son.

    As I was raised in England and Canada, I read the descriptions of some of the comments made by some of those who believe, and wonder at them. We, on the whole, just don’t seem to get that here (in either sense). Phew.

    The whole gun to the head thing: my husband was raised Pentecostal in Africa, and told me about one truly stunning experience he had. He was at a youth group (this would be in the mid-80s, when life in South Africa was more dangerous than it is now) at church one evening, when a group of masked men burst in and started threatening the kids and adults with guns. After a few minutes of general terrorising, the adults revealed it was all a test, to see which of the kids would pray, and call on god to save them. I mean, WHAT????? I grew up C&E (christmas and easter) until age 8, then went to presbyterian church and secular catholic school (we do that in Canada), so had a pretty lax introduction to religion (it obviously didn’t take), so things like this are just beyond my ken.

    That’s sort of how I feel about how much of a fuss seems to have been engendered over your books. Now I must read them…

    Comment: xianart – 18. January 2009 @ 12:10 am

  12. I have recently discovered PBB… and from there I discovered the forum and the blog. I am now reading the blog from the beginning and I am starting to get addicted!

    It feels so liberating and free to open a door and find a entire world that sees things the way I do.. or atleast in some small part or another πŸ™‚

    My son is only 20 months old right now, and I can’t wait for the years of questions, learning, and wonder to come… You seem to have done such a great job of raising your kids in an open-minded way. I hope I will be able to do the same!

    Comment: Shelby – 21. October 2009 @ 4:35 pm

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