My ten-year old son, Joey, announced to me a while back that he is atheist. When he said that, it made me a little uncomfortable. For some reason, it feels a little different to me to hear a kid say “I’m atheist” rather than just “I don’t believe in god.” I’m not exactly sure why; maybe it’s the applying a label to oneself.
I really don’t believe that kids this young are old enough, mature enough, or worldly enough to apply any sort of label like that to themselves – mainly because I’m not convinced they really understand what it means.
To be clear, my husband (Jewish by birth and rearing, agnostic by belief) and I (atheist) have never, ever tried to instill in any of our kids our own beliefs with regard to religion, faith, or god. We are open about what we each believe and why, but what we try to instill in them is healthy skepticism and critical thinking. “Question everything,” we tell them. “Don’t take anybody’s word for anything; think for yourself.”
So when Joey recently confessed that talking about god makes him uncomfortable, I was curious. I asked him in what context – at home? At school? He said at school. Often his friends talk about god and church and it makes him uncomfortable. He feels like the odd man out, and suddenly he’s not sure what he believes.
I’m glad he’s questioning things, I really am. But it’s made me realize that it’s possible that he (or any of my kids) might eventually adopt Christianity out of a sense of peer pressure – in order to fit in. Because we live in the Bible Belt of Southern California – it’s a very conservative, predominantly Christian, right wing community. At their tender young ages, a couple of my kids have already been told by their friends that it’s a sin to not believe in god, and that they will go to hell. That pisses me off.
I’ve been asked by some of my own Christian peers if it would bother me if my kids grew up to be Christian. I guess the truth is that yes, it would bother me. To accept such big, profound “truths” that have no evidence to back them up – well, some people call that faith. But the fact is that buying into Christianity requires a departure from rational and critical thinking. In any case, if my kids make up their own minds and Christianity is the conclusion they come to, then of course I’ll have to accept it. But I certainly hope it doesn’t come to pass as a result of peer pressure or wanting to fit in.
It’s very sad to me that kids even think about this sort of thing – god and hell and sin and all of that. It robs them of some innocence, I think. Kids should be able to get through the growing up phase of life with their exuberant curiosity about everything intact – without being burdened with thoughts about some invisible, all-knowing, all-powerful being who demands devotion and doles out favors and punishments at his whim.
I think religion and matters of faith should be matters for adults to contemplate. Most adults wouldn’t think about inculcating their children with particular political party agendas, because we, for the most part, accept that political beliefs are beyond children’s understanding, and it would be ridiculous to pressure a child to identify him or herself as Republican or Democrat. And yet, it’s a completely different story with religion. I’ve never understood how Christian adults rejoice when a child “chooses” god, or “accepts” Jesus Christ. Those children have been spoon-fed those beliefs from the time they were babies; there was never any choice in the matter.
It’s a confusing time for Joey. He’s on the cusp of adolescence, so maybe his beginning to question a lot of things is to be expected. When we had this conversation with him recently, I told him that the things his friends say about god are only things their parents and their churches have told them to believe, and that doesn’t make them true. We told him that he doesn’t have to decide anything right now about god or anything else. We told him that he has his whole life to think about it, and he may never decide, and that’s okay.